Spirituality Matters 2019: July 25th - July 31st
“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant…”
Francis de Sales once wrote:
“‘Borrow empty vessels, not a few,’ said Elisha to the poor widow, ‘and pour oil into them.’ (2 Kings 4: 3-4) To receive the grace of God into our hearts they must be emptied of our own pride…” (Living Jesus, p. 149)
It’s all-too-easy to fill our hearts – our precious earthen vessels – with all kinds of earthly treasures, things that – as good as they might be – aren’t really treasures at all - at least, not where God is concerned. The less space occupied in our hearts by things that merely pass for treasure, the more room we make available in our hearts for real, heavenly treasure that is truly precious: the love of God. Recall the words of St. Francis de Sales in a conference (On Cordiality) he gave to the Sisters of the Visitation: “We must remember that love has its seat in the heart, and that we can never love our neighbor too much, nor exceed the limits of reason in this affection, provided that it dwells in the heart.” (Conference IV, p. 56)
The story of Zebedee’s sons illustrates the importance of being very careful about what we store in our hearts. Notwithstanding their intimate relationship with Jesus, they set their hearts on a treasure that was not in Jesus’ power to grant: places of honor in His Kingdom. He responds to this request (made on James and John’s behalf by their mother, no less, who apparently also had her heart set on honor for her sons as well) by challenging them to set their hearts not on the desire for honor but for opportunities to serve the needs of others…and so to have honor beyond their wildest dreams!
Jesus tells Zebedee’s sons that the chalice from which they will drink (the same chalice from which Jesus drank every day) is an invitation to experience the greatness that comes from being a servant. Francis de Sales wrote:
“To be a servant of God means to be charitable towards one’s neighbors, to have an unshakable determination in the superior part of one’s soul to obey the will of God, to trust in God with a very humble humility and simplicity, to lift oneself up as often as one falls, to endure through one’s own imperfections and to put up with the imperfections of others.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 140)
How ready and willing are we to drink from that same chalice today?
“Hear the parable of the sower….”
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Ostriches never fly; hens fly in a clumsy fashion, near the ground, and only once in a while, but eagles, doves and swallows fly aloft, swiftly and frequently. In like manner, sinners in no way fly up towards God, but make their whole course upon the earth and for the earth. Good people who have not as yet attained to devotion fly toward God by their good works but do so infrequently, slowly and awkwardly. Devout souls ascend to him more frequently, promptly and with lofty flights.” (IDL, Part I, Chapter 1, p. 40)
There is something of the ostrich, something of the hen and something of the eagle in all of us. We crawl in God’s paths; we stumble in God’s path; we fall in God’s paths; we walk and sometimes run in God’s paths, and on occasion, we even manage to fly in God’s paths. So, too, there is something of each of the scenarios of the seed in today’s Gospel that apply to us. Sometimes God’s word is stolen from our hearts before it has a chance to grow. Sometimes God’s word springs up quickly in us but withers even more quickly because of our shallowness or hardness of heart. Sometimes God’s word falls to the wayside because we lose heart in the midst of trials and difficulties. Sometimes God’s word is simply overwhelmed by our fears, doubts, anxieties and second-guesses.
But sometimes – just sometimes – God’s word finds a home deep in our hearts – deep in our souls, deep in our lives – and bears a harvest beyond our wildest dreams: thirty, sixty or even a hundredfold. The seed of God’s life certainly took root in the heart of Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anne. In fact, it would appear that not a single seed of God’s life and love failed to take root and to grow thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. One would like to think that Joachim and Anne had a hand in making Mary so open and accepting of the Divine Sower, allowing her to say “yes” to God’s invitation to her to become the mother of the Messiah!
Don’t just hear the parable of the sower, but also – more importantly – live the parable of the sower! Consider the ways in which the seeds of God’s love might have trouble taking root in your life. Focus on the ways in which the seeds of God’s love have made a deep, abiding and fruitful home in your heart.
“Let them grow together until harvest…”
In the garden of our lives all of us can find both wheat and weeds. It’s really tempting to focus our energy and attention on identifying and removing the weeds, but we do this at the risk of unintentionally removing the wheat as well. Jesus suggests that it is far better to be comfortable with the fact that we have both wheat and weeds in our lives and to allow God to sort them out over time.
Francis de Sales clearly grasped the wisdom of Jesus’ advice. In a letter to Madame de la Flechere, he wrote:
“Don’t be examining yourself to see if what you are doing is little or great, good or bad, provided that it is not sinful and that, in all good faith, you are trying to do it for God. As much as possible do well what you have to do, and once it is done, think no more about it but turn your attention to what has to be done next. Walk very simply along the way our Lord shows you and don’t worry. We must hate our faults, but we should do so calmly and peacefully, without fuss or anxiety. We must be patient at the sight of these faults and learn from the humiliation that they bring about. Unless you do this, your imperfections, of which you are acutely conscious, will disturb you even more and thus grow stronger, for nothing is more favorable to the growth of these ‘weeds’ than our anxiety and overeagerness to get rid of them.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, pp. 161-162)
Bottom line? God loves us just the way we are - weeds and all. Who are we to suggest that God will love us more without them?
"I must see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them. I mean to find out."
Today's Scriptures show us that God's judgment is both righteous and compassionate.
The Book of Genesis describes God's outrage over the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. However, before taking any action, God intends to personally determine whether or not the outcry has a basis in fact.
God's judgment is never rash.
St. Francis de Sales says in his Introduction to the Devout Life: "How offensive to God is rash judgment. It is a kind of spiritual jaundice that causes all things to appear evil to the eyes of those infected with it." (IDL, Part 3, Chapter 28)
Rash judgments have far less to do with the behaviors of our neighbor and a great deal more to do with the machinations and moods of our own hearts. Rash judgments are signs of the presence of arrogance, self-satisfaction, fear, bitterness, jealousy, hatred, envy, ambition and condescension within the person whose judgments are rash.
Rash judgments seldom deal with facts. Rash judgments are founded upon appearance, impression, hearsay and gossip. Rash judgments are made in an instant (hence the term "snap" judgments), based not on reason, but on emotion.
Rash judgments do not promote reconciliation and peace; rather, rash judgments produce division and injustice. Francis de Sales wrote: "Rash judgments draw a conclusion from an action in order to condemn the other person." (Ibid)
Finally, rash judgments seldom - if ever - result in compassionate action.
Francis de Sales wrote: "Whoever wants to be cured (of making rash judgments) must apply remedies, not to the eyes or intellect, but to the affections. If your affections are kind, your judgments will be likewise." (Ibid)
To be like God - to live like Jesus - to be instruments of the Holy Spirit - requires that our judgments of one another be righteous:
• based in fact, not fiction
• rooted in sense, not suspicion
• focused on behavior, not bias
Divine judgment is always consumed with truth, committed to justice, and characterized by compassion.
Today consider how do our judgments stack up?
"You are anxious and worried about many things."
We are all-too familiar with this image from the Gospel according to Luke. All-too familiar because it is all-too-easy to see in this Gospel a putdown of action and activity as compared with prayer and contemplation.
We need to revisit this interpretation. We need to understand how this Gospel speaks about Martha and Mary. More importantly, we need to consider how this Gospel speaks to us.
Jesus does not criticize Martha for being busy about the details of hospitality. Rather, Jesus criticizes the fact that Martha is allowing her activity and expectations to make her anxious. Likewise, Mary is not exalted due to her inactivity, but rather because she is not burdened with anxiety. In short, Martha is upset and flustered, while Mary is calm and centered.
Both Martha and Mary bring something to the experience of hospitality. In Martha, we see the importance of tending to details when welcoming people into our homes. In Mary, we see the importance of welcoming people into our lives, into our hearts, into the core of who we are without allowing the details to overwhelm us. Hospitality, then, isn't a matter of choosing between activity and availability. It is a matter of incorporating – and of integrating – both.
Francis de Sales certainly knew this truth when he described the two great faces of love: the love of complacence, and the love of benevolence. Complacence is love that delights in simply being in the presence of the beloved; benevolence is love that delights in expressing this complacence by doing for the beloved.
Doing and being. Being and doing. This is the dance of hospitality. This is the dance of love…a dance that challenges us to be as free as possible from anxious self-absorption, self-preoccupation and self-destruction.
In order to be truly open, to be truly welcoming, to be truly hospitable, there needs to be something of both Martha and Mary in each of us.
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field…”
Last week, ago we touched upon the images of wheat and weeds. There is something of both wheat and weeds inside each and every one of us. Careful examination of the interior gardens of our thoughts, feelings and attitudes reveals things which promote life; likewise, in those same gardens we can identify things that compete with life.
In a letter to Madame de la Flechere, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Don’t be examining yourself to see if what you are doing is little or much, good or bad, provided that it is not sinful and that, in all good faith, you are trying to do it for God. As much as possible, do well that you have to do, and once it is done, think no more about it but turn your attention to what has to be done next. Walk simply along the way our Lord shows you and don’t worry. We must hate our faults, but we should do so calmly and peacefully, without fuss or anxiety. We must be patient at the sight of these faults and learn from the humiliation which they bring about. Unless you do this, your imperfections – of which you are acutely conscious – will disturb you even more and thus grow stronger, for nothing is more favorable to the growth of these ‘weeds’ than our anxiety and over eagerness to rid ourselves of them.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, pp. 161-162)
In each of us we find a mixture of both wheat and weeds. In each of us we find a mixed bag of both good and bad. Essentially, the Salesian tradition challenges us to deal with this reality in three ways. First, detest the weeds within us. Second, don’t dwell on those weeds within us. Third, focus on – and nourish – the wheat within us.
These thoughts should pretty much explain the parable of the weeds – and for that matter, the wheat – don’t you think?
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure; like searching for fine pearls.”
A traditional way of explaining these images in today’s Gospel is to place the emphasis on us. This perspective considers this Gospel as a challenge to the hearer to ‘trade up’, that is, to give up those things we most value in order to obtain that which has the greatest value - the Kingdom of God.
A non-traditional way of explaining these images – and, apparently, the more accurate one – is to place the emphasis on God. It is God who is ‘trading up’ for something better; it is God who is – as it were – cashing in all his chips for something even more valuable. What is that “treasure”? What are those “fine pearls”? We are the treasure that God pursues at any price. We are the pearls that God will leave no stone unturned to possess.
God ‘traded up’ his only Son because He wanted to reclaim us. God ‘cashed in’ his only Son because He wanted to redeem us. God gave away everything He had in order to make us his own. In these acts God clearly displayed that it’s people, not things – like possessions, power or privilege – that God values the most.
Ignatius of Loyola is a great example of what happens when somebody discovers – or uncovers – a pearl of great price and value! Before his conversion to Christianity he was arrogant, vain about his appearance, defensive in matters of honor, and much more interested in attaining worldly glory than in growing in heavenly virtue. But following a long convalescence from a crippling battle wound that almost killed him, Ignatius traded up – he discovered that the Kingdom of God was vastly more important than any passing honor or achievement, and he acted accordingly.
We are God-given treasures! We are pearls bought at the highest of prices! Do we treat ourselves – and one another – accordingly?