Spirituality Matters 2017: January 26th - February 1st

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(January 26, 2017: Timothy and Titus, Bishops)
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2 Tm 1:1-8 Ps 96:1-3,7-8, 10, 17 Mk 4:21-25

“Stir into flame the gift of God that you have…a spirit of power and love and self-control.”

In his preface to his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales himself observed:

“I foresee that many people will say that is it only members of religious communities and persons dedicated to devotion who should give special direction in piety, that such things require more leisure than a bishop in charge of a diocese as large as mine can have, and that such an undertaking is too distracting for a mind that should be employed in matters of importance. For my part, I tell you that it is primarily the duty of the bishop to lead souls to perfection, since their order is as supreme among men as that of the seraphim among angels. Hence their leisure cannot be better employed than in such work. The ancient bishops and fathers of the Church were at last as careful about their duties as we are, yet, as we see from their letters, they did not refuse to take charge of the particular conduct of souls who turned to them for assistance. In this they imitated the apostles who, while working with special and particular affection to gather all men, picked out certain extraordinary ears of grain. Who does not know that Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Onesimus, Tecla and Appia were the dear children of the great St. Paul…?”

Tempted - as very busy people may be - to perceive other people as obstacles to getting things done, Francis de Sales (no doubt inspired as he was with the example of Paul’s willingness to mentor, support and encourage would-be protégés like Timothy and Titus in the work of proclaiming and living the Gospel) reminds us that the work with which each of us is charged is people – God’s people. There is no work, no ministry and no job so important as to distract us from pursuing what really matters in this life - to lead, encourage and support one another in our quest for perfection. After all, as Francis de Sales reminds us in another section of his Introduction, “This life is only a journey to the happy life to come. We must march on as a band of brothers and sisters, companions united in meekness, peace and love.”

This journey is our work. This journey is our life: to journey together on the paths to perfection, i.e., to bring out the best in ourselves and in one another.

One person – one day – at a time.

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(January 27, 2017: Angela Merici, Foundress/Religious)
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Heb 10:32-39 Ps 37:3-6, 23-24, 39-40 Mk 4:26-34

“Remember the days past when – after you had been enlightened – you endured a great contest of suffering…”

Memories aren’t all bad. In fact, memories can be very good by reminding us of our ability to work through and rise above challenging times in our past. Recall the words from Barry Manilow’s song, “I Made it through the Rain:”

We dreamers have our ways
Of facing rainy days
And somehow we survive

We keep the feelings warm
Protect them from the storm
Until our time arrives

Then one day the sun appears
And we come shining through those lonely years

I made it through the rain
I kept my world protected
I made it through the rain
I kept my point of view
I made it through the rain
And found myself respected
By the others who
Got rained on too
And made it through

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:

“We must often remember that our Lord has saved us by his suffering and endurance and that we must work out our salvation by sufferings and afflictions, enduring with all possible meekness the injuries, denials and discomforts that we meet.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 3, p. 128)

We’ve all been “through the rain”. We’ve all had our share of “injuries, denials and discomforts”. When we look back – when we remember – the tough and challenging moments through the lens of time, we can become either bitter or better.

Today, which will you chose – to be bitter or to be better?

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(January 28, 2017: Thomas Aquinas, Priest/Religious/Doctor of the Church)
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Wis 7:7-10, 15-16 (Ps) Luke 1:69-70, 71-72, 73-75 Mt 23:8-12

In a Conference to the Sisters of the Visitation (“On Private Judgment”), Francis de Sales made reference to Saint Thomas Aquinas whose feast day we celebrate.

“The great St. Thomas, who had one of the loftiest minds possible, when he formed any opinion supported it with the weightiest arguments that he could bring forward. Nevertheless, if he encountered anyone who did not approve of what he had decided to be right, or had contradicted it, he neither disputed with them nor was offended by their action, but took all in good part. He thereby showed that he had no love for his own opinion, even though he could not abandon it. He left the matter alone to be approved or disapproved by others as they pleased. Having done his duty, he troubled himself no more about the subject.” (Conference XIV, p. 259)

Thomas Aquinas is universally recognized as one of the brightest intellectual lights of his age (AD 1225 – 1274). But perhaps his greatest genius, to which St. Francis de Sales alludes, was his recognition that being bright doesn’t always mean being right. While there is little doubt that he could make an argument for his position on any particular topic, Thomas was grounded enough not to have to win every argument. His brilliance was only matched by his humility in allowing others to draw their own conclusions, only after having done his level best to state his case. As the saying goes, after giving it his best shot, Thomas would allow the chips to fall where they may.

Each of us is entitled to our own opinion; that’s a part of our humanity. However, we are all familiar with another part of our humanity that is the source of much conflict and distress - the need to always be right and the need for others to always agree with us.

Let’s do our level best this day to avoid the temptation to force other people to make our opinions their own. In the Salesian tradition it is better to devote our efforts to trying to win people over rather than trying to knock people down.

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(January 29, 2017: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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Zeph 2:3; 3:12-13 Ps 146: 6-10: 1 Cor 1:126-31 Mt 5:1-12a

“Seek justice, seek humility…do no wrong, speak no lies.”

To live humbly is to live in the truth: the truth about God, the truth about ourselves and the truth of one another. The truth is that God creates us in love, redeems us in Christ and inspires/enlivens us by the Holy Spirit. The truth is that we are called to live in a way that gives witness to our sacred dignity and destiny. The truth is that we are to recognize the sacred dignity and destiny of one another.

To the extent that we live in, for and about this truth, we give God and others their due. In other words, we truly live humbly by pursuing and promoting justice.

There are lots of ways to give God and others what is their due. There are many ways to promote justice. One of the most powerful – and readily available – means for promoting justice is how we use the power of speech…for as we all know, speech is an ability most powerful indeed.

Francis de Sales recognized the power of words. He devoted no fewer than five chapters in Part III of his Introduction of the Devout Life to the topic of conversation and its role in promoting – or subverting - righteousness. Here is a sampling of his thoughts – and feelings – on the subject:

  • “If a man does not offend in word, he is a perfect man, says St. James. Be careful to never let an indecent word leave your lips.”

  • “Just as bodily poison enters through the mouth, so what poisons the heart gets in through the ear, making the tongue that utters it a murderer.”

  • “Nothing is so opposed to charity, and much more to devotion, than to despise and speak ill of one’s neighbor. Theologians consider it one of the worst offenses against one’s neighbor of which a person can be guilty.”

Francis de Sales’ most poignant statement about the connection between humility, justice and speech comes in Chapter thirty of Part III: “Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest. Be on your guard against equivocation, ambiguity or dissimulation. While it is not always advisable to say all that is true, it is never permissible to speak against the truth. Therefore, you must become accustomed to never tell a deliberate lie whether to excuse yourself or for some other purposes, remembering that God is the ‘God of truth.’ If you happen to tell a lie, correct it immediately by explanation and make amends. An honest explanation always has more grace and power to excuse than has a lie.”

Certainly, there are circumstances in which talk is undoubtedly cheap. In the case of living humbly, however, our words are a priceless treasure - a wealth that God expects us to use in ways that promote – and practice – justice and truth.

Why not begin today?

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(January 30, 2017: Monday, Fourth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Heb 11:32-40 Ps 31:20-24 Mk 5:1-20

“The man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with Him, but Jesus would not permit him…”

The story in today’s Gospel is but one of many occasions in which people – after having encountering Jesus – expressed their desire to follow Him, only to have their request denied. Whether in the case of the man possessed by many demons or in the cases of so many other people whose lives were forever changed by an encounter with Jesus, his directive to “go home” must have been a real let-down.

Especially in the case of John the Baptist!

In a letter to St. Jane de Chantal (14 October, 1604), Francis de Sales wrote:

“I have often wondered who is the most mortified of the saints I know, and after some reflection I have come to the conclusion that is was John the Baptist. He knew that our Savior came to earth in a place quite close by, perhaps only one or two days’ journey away. How his heart, touched with love of his Savior from the time he was in his mother’s womb must have longed to enjoy his presence. Yet he spends twenty-five years in the desert without coming to see Our Lord even once; and leaving the desert he stays to catechize without visiting him but waiting until Our Lord comes to seek him out. Then when he has baptized him he does not follow him but remains behind to do his appointed task…The example of this great saint overwhelms me with its grandeur.” (Conference XIV, p. 259)

It is easy to forget that after their encounter in the River Jordan during which John baptized Jesus, John remained behind while Jesus moved on. Yet, who would deny that John was, nevertheless, a follower – a disciple – of the Lord? As it turns out, there is more than one way to follow Jesus. While some announce what the Lord has done for them in unfamiliar or faraway places, others announce what the Lord has done for them right in their own homes and neighborhoods.

Just this day, whether it is in a place half-a-world away or right in your own back yard, how can you “follow” Jesus by giving witness to others for all that the Lord has done for you?

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(January 31, 2017: John Bosco, Priest)
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Heb 12:1-4 Ps 22:26-28, 30-32 Mk 5: 21-43

“Please come and lay your hands on her…If I but touch his clothes I will be cured.”

People continued to approach Jesus on behalf of the sick – and on behalf of themselves – to be healed by Jesus. The account in today’s selection from the Gospel of Mark provides an interesting detail: folks coming to Jesus for help believed that if Jesus merely touched them or if they merely touched Jesus, they would experience healing power.

It would seem that just a little bit of Jesus – even the smallest touch of Jesus – went a very, very long way.

In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote: “Among sacred lovers there are some who so completely devote themselves to exercises of divine love that its holy fire devours and consumes their life…” (Book VII, Chapter 10, p. 41) Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of this love. His love for others was so intense and intentional that even the smallest sampling of it changed forever the lives of those he touched – or, as in the case of the woman burdened with a hemorrhage – those who touched him.

In his pamphlet about the life of St. Francis de Sales entitled A True Nobleman, Philip J. Pascucci, SDB wrote:

“One of Don Bosco’s nine resolutions when he was ordained to the priesthood was: ‘The sweetness and charity of St. Francis de Sales will guide me in everything.’ Francis de Sales was by nature (his biographers tell us) sensitive, somewhat irritable and hot-tempered, but, by dint of patient striving, day after day from his early years, Francis succeeded in mastering his disposition to such an extent that he became known as the gentle, kind and meek saint. Don Bosco knew from his own experience and the experience of others that his followers would need an outstanding model of these virtues in the difficult work which they would have to accomplish among (troubled and troublesome) youth. The model he chose for his followers had to be Francis de Sales.” (Page 32)

How might we serve as the gentle, kind and healing touch of Christ today? For that matter, how might we ourselves be in need of that same gentle, kind and healing touch of Christ at the hands of another?

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(February 1, 2017: Wednesday, Fourth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Heb 12:4-7 Ps 103:1-2, 13-14, 17-18a Mk 6: 1-6

“Strive for peace with everyone…”

In a letter of spiritual direction, Francis de Sales counseled:

“We must in all things and everywhere live peacefully. If trouble – whether inside of us, or around us – comes upon us, we must respond to it peacefully. If success or joy comes, we must receive it peacefully, without a proud or puffed-up heart. When we need to avoid sin or evil, we must do that peacefully, without upsetting ourselves; otherwise, we may fall as we run away and give time to our enemy to kill us. If there is peace that we need to bring about we must do that peacefully; otherwise, we might commit many faults in our hurry to be peacemakers. Even our repentance and contrition must be made peacefully…”

Do you get the point? While we must indeed strive for peace with everyone, we need to include – perhaps, even begin with – ourselves. After all, charity – while not limited to home – begins at home. Put another way, you can’t give what you haven’t got! As Francis de Sales put it, “Haven’t I told you before that we must be patient with everyone, primarily with ourselves?” (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 107)

Let there be peace on earth…and let it begin with me…today!