Spirituality Matters 2017: December 28th - January 3rd
(December 28, 2017: Holy Innocents)
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“A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation…”
In his book This Saint’s for You, Thomas Craughwell writes:
“Even in the Christmas story, there is a touch of tragedy: the massacre of the infant boys in Bethlehem. St. Matthew’s Gospel records that when the Magi stopped in Jerusalem to ask the whereabouts of the King of the Jews, Herod, the king of Judea, sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to return once they had found the Christ Child so that he, too, could pay homage. Warned by an angel that Herod was up to no good, the Magi returned home via a route that bypassed the city and its conniving king.”
“Once Herod realized the Magi were on to him, he sent troops to Bethlehem with orders to kill every boy aged two and younger. But the same angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. By the time Herod’s troops charged into the village, the Holy Family was long gone. No one knows how many babies were massacred that day.” (This Saint’s for You, pp. 134-135)
It is sometimes said that there is no such thing as a “secret” sin. By its very nature sin is a social animal. Every sin – however public or private – impacts not only the person who commits it but also other people – often times, innocent people – as well. The Holy Innocents suffered because of one man’s sin. These children - collateral damage - died because of Herod’s personal envy, professional greed and narcissistic paranoia. As the poet Prudentius wrote:
All hail, ye infant martyr flowers
Cut off in life’s first dawning hours:
As rosebuds snapped in tempest strife,
When Herod sought your Savior’s life.
Today, what about us? Who are the “innocents” in our lives who are impacted by the personal or “private” sins we commit?
(December 29, 2017: Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr)
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“And you yourself a sword will pierce…”
In his book This Saint’s for You, Thomas Craughwell writes:
“Nothing in Thomas Becket’s early life suggested that he would become a defender of the liberty of the Church, to say nothing of becoming a martyr. He was a shrewd administrator with a special talent for making money. He proved to be the ideal royal servant: whatever King Henry II wanted done, Becket accomplished. When the old archbishop died, Henry took it upon himself to name the new archbishop rather than wait for the pope to do so: thinking he would be the perfect choice, Henry chose Becket. With one of his closest friends as archbishop of Canterbury, Henry believed that he could extend his royal authority over the Church in England.”
“Turned out, Henry was wrong.”
“Once Thomas was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury he became a changed man. He did penance to make up for years of careless living. The man who had once refused to clothe one freezing beggar now gave lavishly to the poor. We don’t know if Henry noticed the change that had come over his friend, but when the king made his first move against the Church it became clear that Becket would not be the puppet archbishop for which Henry had hoped. In their first disagreement, Henry argued that priests who committed crimes were treated too leniently by Church courts and they should submit to the civil courts of England. Becket replied that laymen did not have jurisdiction over clergymen. Stung by Becket’s opposition, Henry brought a host of false charges against his one-time friend. He had Becket indicted for squandering royal funds and even accused the archbishop of treason. Death threats from the king’s men followed, prompting Becket to flee to France for fear of losing his life.”
“For the next six years Henry and Becket jockeyed for position, each trying to win the pope’s support. In the end a truce was worked out, allowing Becket to return home to Canterbury, although the central issue of the Church’s liberty remained unresolved. When Becket subsequently excommunicated bishops who had both supported Henry and also infringed on the prerogatives of the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry threw one of his infamous tantrums, ending by crying aloud, ‘Will no one relieve me of this troublesome priest?’ Four of the king’s knights – bitter enemies of Becket – set out at once for Canterbury where they confronted Becket in his own cathedral. When Becket refused to give in to all of Henry’s demands, the knights hacked the archbishop to death at the foot of the altar.”
“The shock of Becket’s murder reverberated across Europe. Henry submitted to public penance, letting the monks of Canterbury flog him as he knelt before his former-friend’s tomb. St. Thomas Becket quarreled with his king over the liberty of the Church, but throughout the entire ordeal it was the rights of the diocesan clergy that had hung in the balance…and for which Becket gave his life.” (This Saint’s for You, pp. 134-135)
Just as in the case of Jesus, Thomas stood his ground when confronted by the face of injustice. Just as in the case of Jesus, Thomas ultimately gave his life to protect – and promote – the freedom and liberty of others. Just as Jesus was pierced by a lance, so Thomas was pierced by a sword.
How far would we go in standing up to the face of injustice…just today?
(December 30, 2017: Sixth Day within the Octave of the Nativity)
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“Do not love the world or the things of the world…”
In his preface to the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world, or have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete retirement. My purpose is to instruct those who live in towns, within families or at court who by their state of life are obligated to live an ordinary life, at least as judged by outside appearances…A strong, resolute soul can live in the world without being infected by its moods, can find sweet springs of piety amid its salty waves and can fly through the flames of earthly lusts without burning the wings of its holy desires for a devout life. True, this is a difficult task – therefore, I wish that many souls would strive to accomplish it with greater ardor than has hitherto been shown…” IDL, Preface, pp. 33 – 34.)
Scripture tells us not to love the world. Scripture tells us sometimes to even despise the world. Over the centuries, more than a few folks appear to have practiced these admonitions quite literally! However, the “Gentleman Saint” seems to offer us a subtle – and quite substantial – nuance to this notion.
Genesis tells us that when God saw everything that He had made, God declared it to be “good”. The world is not our enemy, but our attachment to it can become one. The riches of this world are not our enemy, but our inordinate desire to cling to them can become one. The beauty of this world is not our enemy, but our temptation to worship it can become one. By almost any measure, living in the world per se isn’t the problem. No, the problem is our tendency to fall in love with the world and the things of this world, while living in the world that becomes the source for some of life’s greatest temerity, trauma and tragedy.
God wants us to live in the world. Why on earth would God place us here if that were not so? That said, we are challenged to refrain from turning the riches and richness of our God-given world into a god itself. God gives us the world as the primary place in which we learn how to live a life of devotion, that is, doing our level best to avoid falling in love with the things of this world and reserving our love solely for what is was intended.
For God! For ourselves! For one another!
(December 31, 2017: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph)
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The child grew and became strong…and the favor of God was upon him.
In his Dedicatory Prayer for his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales wrote that Jesus found “joy in so supreme a measure” living with Mary and Joseph. De Sales wondered at the many times Mary and Joseph bore in their arms “the love of heaven and earth”. He imagined Jesus speaking tenderly into Joseph’s ears, telling him that he was his great friend and beloved father.
What is at the root of the joy and tender love de Sales saw in the Holy Family? Today’s Scripture readings offer us an indication. Like Abraham, their father in faith, Mary and Joseph put their faith and trust in God. Because they believed in God’s loving care for them, they were able to keep their minds and hearts in “great peace and serenity, shown in their constancy amid the unexpected events which befell them”. ( Conference 3) They were confident that God would provide for everything. They could be “calm in the midst of life’s annoyances”.
Being holy – being faithful – as family is a challenge. Relationships constantly provide us with opportunities to practice the “little virtues” - the virtues that contribute to living a more loving life throughout each day. Francis de Sales tells us: “The little, unattractive and hardly noticeable virtues which are required of us in our household, our place of work, among friends, with strangers, any time and all the time, these are the virtues for us.” (Introduction, Part III, Chapter 2).
Of course, the most important practice is that of love, which not only reconciles, but also purifies and, dare we say, even glorifies the best of human relationships. Love is only in relationship with one another that the practice of the little, everyday virtues flowers into love, not only helping to create a better life here on earth, but also providing a foretaste of the eternal life promised to us in heaven.
Spending time in prayer with each member of the Holy Family might offer us insight and grace as we struggle to meet this challenge each day. Spending time with Mary can help us learn how to put our trust in God’s love, which can enable us to say a loving “yes”, as Mary did, to whatever God has planned for us today. Spending time with Joseph can help us to learn how to care for one another humbly and gently, and see our work as joining with our Creator in bettering our world. Spending time with Jesus can help us to learn how to grow, how to become strong and wise and how to trust that the favor of God is with us.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, show us - as imperfect as we are - how to become and remain holy families.
(December 31, 2017: New Year’s Eve)
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An Exhortation by St. Jane de Chantal: The Beginning of a New Year
We are about to bring another year to an end, a year like so many years which have come before it.
Time passes by. The years come and go, and some day we, likewise, will pass and come to an end as well. We must make a strong and absolute resolution that, if Our Lord should gift us with yet another full year, we will make better use of it than those years that have come – and gone – before. Let us walk with a new step in God’s divine service to our neighbor and to our greater perfection. Let us take great courage to labor in earnest.
Please take these words to heart. What is the point of being gifted with a new year if not to recommit ourselves to the task at hand? Otherwise, we should not be astonished to find ourselves in the same place at the conclusion of this year with little or nothing to show for it. I desire that this not happen to you; rather, consider how you can make good use of every day that God is pleased to give you.
Let us embrace the responsibilities and challenges of life in the best way that we can; let us employ the time that God gives us with great care. While we hope in God’s divine goodness, may we also remember to aspire to actually do what is good.
So, then, let us live this New Year in the name of our Lord. Let us redouble our efforts at serving God and one another faithfully, especially in small and simple ways. God only expects what we can do, but God clearly expects us to do what we can do. Therefore, let us be diligent in giving our best to God, leaving the rest in the hands of God’s infinite generosity.
(Based upon St. Jane de Chantal’s Exhortation for the last Saturday of 1629, On the Shortness of Life. Found in Conferences of St. Jane de Chantal. Newman Bookshop: Westminster, Maryland. 1947. Pages 106 – 107)
(January 1, 2018: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God)
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“Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.”
“Look at Mary in all the circumstances of her life. In her room at Nazareth she shows her modesty in that she is afraid, her candor in wanting to be instructed and in asking a question, her submission, her humility in calling herself a handmaid. Look at her in Bethlehem: she lives simply and in poverty, she listens to the shepherds as though they were learned doctors. Look at her in the company of the kings: she does not try to make any long speeches. Look at her at the time of her purification: she goes to the temple in order to conform to church customs. In going to Egypt and in returning she is simply obeying Joseph. She does not consider she is wasting time when she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth as an act of loving courtesy. She looks for Our Lord not only in joy but also in tears. She has compassion on the poverty and confusion of those who invited her to the wedding, meeting their needs. She is at the foot of the cross, full of humility, lowliness, virtue, never drawing any attention to herself in the exercise of these qualities.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, page 159)
When Mary agreed to be the mother of Jesus, she got much more than she bargained for. Her “yes” to God’s invitation to be the mother of the Messiah forever changed the course of her life. But as Francis de Sales observed, she constantly reaffirmed that “yes” as she experienced God’s will for her son, God’s will for her husband and God’s will for her. In good times, bad times and all the times in between, she fully embraced the various circumstances in which she found herself.
We, too, are called to give birth to Jesus. While not a physical birthing, this call is no less challenging or demanding to us as it was for Mary.
As we see in the life of Mary, giving birth to Jesus is not a one time event. No, it is a life-long process. Saying “yes” to giving birth to Jesus is about being faithful to God’s will for us and others - one day, one hour, one moment at a time throughout our lives. Giving birth to Jesus is about fully and deeply embracing the responsibilities, events and circumstances of the state and stage of life in which we find ourselves. It’s about rolling with the punches while remaining convinced of God’s love and care for us.
Mary is a powerful reminder that giving birth to Jesus brings more than its share of inconveniences, headaches and heartaches. However, Mary is likewise a powerful reminder of how one person’s fidelity to God’s will can change the world for the better.
(January 2, 2018: Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church)
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“Remain in him...”
In his book This Saint’s for You, Thomas Craughwell writes:
“In Basil’s day most monks and nuns were hermits living in isolated corners of the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. Arguing that people are ‘sociable beings, and not isolated or savage,’ he urged the hermits to form communities near towns and cities where ordinary Christians could profit from their prayers and, inspired by their example, deepen their own religious life. The monks and nuns could take in orphans and open schools, recruiting a new generation for the religious life. To this day in the Eastern Church, St. Basil’s guidelines for monks and nuns remain the standard.” (This Saint’s for You, p. 359)
In today’s selection from the First Letter of John the word “remain(s)” is used six times. The author challenges us to remain in Jesus in order that Jesus may remain in us. Among other things, “remain” is defined as “to continue in the same state or condition, to continue to be in the same place, stay or stay behind”. At first glance this definition seems to suggest that remaining in Jesus is somehow static. It’s about staying the same. It’s about treading water. It’s about running in place. The word ‘remain’ feels passive. The problem is that Jesus is anything but passive. On the contrary, Jesus is all about action.
However, a second glance at the definition of “remain” provides a different take: “to endure or persist”.
To remain in Jesus requires effort. To remain in Jesus requires energy. To remain in Jesus requires endurance. However, as St. Basil the Great would suggest, to “remain in him” isn’t limited to Jesus. As “sociable beings” we need something else in order to remain – that is, “to endure or persist” – with Jesus.
We need to “endure and persist” as Church. We need to “endure and persist” as community. We need to “endure and persist” with one another. After all, we are the Body of Christ.
(January 3, 2018: Most Holy Name of Jesus)
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“Those who have this hope based on him make themselves pure, as he is pure...”
Have you ever looked closely at the outside of a carton of Breyer’s Ice Cream? Somewhere in the vicinity of the image of the mint leaf you will find the “Pledge of Purity”. This trademarked pledge (inaugurated in 1908 by Henry Breyer, himself) personally guaranteed that each container contained the highest-quality, all natural ingredients available.
This notion of purity might be very helpful in our attempts to understand today’s selection from the First Letter of John. After all, who of us can claim to be “pure”? Who of us can claim to be perfect? Who of us can claim to be without blemish? With the exception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, such “purity” is reserved for God, and for God alone.
So now, where does that leave us?
Well, if being “pure” is about being all-natural, we can strive for that. If being “pure” is about being real, we can strive for that. If being “pure” is about being authentic, we can strive for that. If being ‘pure’ is about being transparent, we can strive for that. If being “pure” is about being guileless, we can strive for that. If being “pure” is about avoiding artificiality in any/all its forms, we can strive for that. If being “pure” is about being unadulterated, we can strive for that. In short, if being “pure” is about being true to whom God wants us to be - no more, no less – we can strive for that.
Look at the life of Jesus himself. He was all-natural. He was real. He was authentic. He was guileless. He was unadulterated. He was transparent. He eschewed anything artificial. In short, he was faithful to whom God wanted him to be - no more, no less.
Today, how can we hope to imitate the purity of Jesus in our relationship with God, in our relationship with ourselves and in our relationships with one another? Help yourself to a heaping and healthy scoop of “Breyer’s” spirituality.
Avoid anything artificial! Keep it natural! Keep it real!