Spirituality Matters 2016/2017: December 29th - January 4th

* * * * *
(December 29, 2016: Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr)
* * * * *

1Jn 2:3-11 Ps 96:1-3, 5-6 Lk 2:22-35

“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, 2016: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph)
* * * * *

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 Ps 128:1-5 Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

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 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. This love 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, 2016: New Year’s Eve)
* * * * *

1 Jn 2:18-21 Ps 1-2, 11-13 Jn 1:1-18

An Exhortation by St. Jane de Chantal on 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 this reflection 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 what we can do God clearly expects. 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, 2017: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God)
* * * * *

Nm 6:22-27 Ps 67:2-3, 5-6, 8 Gal 4:4-7 Lk 2:16-21

“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: 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, 2017: Basil and Gregory – Bishops, Doctors of the Church)
* * * * *

Jn 2:22-28 Ps 98:1-4 Jn 1:19-28

“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; 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, 2017: The Most Holy Name of Jesus)
* * * * *

1 Jn 2:29-3:6 Ps 98: 1, 3c-4, 5-6 Jn 1:29-34

“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, 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!

* * * * *
(January 4, 2017: Elizabeth Ann Seton, Religious)
* * * * *

1 Jn 3:7-10 Ps 98: 1, 7-9 Jn 1:35-42

“The person who acts in righteousness is righteous…”

In his book This Saint’s for You, Thomas Craughwell writes:

“For two hundred years American parochial schools have provided countless children with a solid education while teaching them how to be faithful Catholics and solid citizens. While parish schools aren’t as numerous as they once were – to say nothing of the legions of nuns that used to teach in them – the situation is not nearly as daunting as it was in Elizabeth Ann Seton’s day.”

“Mother Seton’s life coincides with the birth of the United States and the rise of the Catholic Church in America. She was born one year before the battles of Lexington and Concord, during an era when Catholicism was outlawed in every colony except Maryland. In British America, there were no bishops, no nuns, no Catholic schools and no seminaries. Only about twenty priests lived in the colonies, most living incognito and using aliases to avoid hard anti-clerical laws. For her part she grew up the daughter of a prominent, well-to-do Anglican family on Staten Island. During the revolution they walked a fine line between loyalty to the king and support for the rebels. Whatever her family’s true sympathies may have been, they were firmly in the American camp by the time George Washington was elected president: in fact, the then-fifteen year-old Elizabeth danced at the first inaugural ball.”

“At the age on nineteen she married William Seton, a wealthy New York merchant. The couple had five children – three girls and two boys – and enjoyed a life of comfort and privilege. After eight years of marriage, William’s business went bankrupt: shortly thereafter, he contracted tuberculosis. In an attempt to save William’s health, the Setons sailed for Italy, where William had business friends, the Filicchi family. He subsequently succumbed to his chronic illness. Elizabeth and her children remained as guests of the Filicchi’s for some time. Their hosts owned a private chapel that provided Elizabeth with her first exposure to the Catholic faith, about which two things impressed this widowed mother: the Filicchi’s reverence during Mass, and the comfort they appeared to receive from confession. Upon her return to New York, Elizabeth sought out the pastor of a local Catholic Church and asked to convert to Catholicism.”

“With few exceptions, Elizabeth’s Anglican family and friends turned their backs on her following her conversion. She struggled to support herself and her children until Bishop John Carroll invited her to open a Catholic school in the archdiocese of Baltimore. It was during this time that she began to consider joining a religious community. However, the European model of religious life – living a mostly cloistered life with only a few hours per day devoted to teaching girls who boarded at the convent – did not appeal to her. With so much work begging to be done for the Catholic Church in America, Elizabeth wanted to be much more active. With Bishop Carroll’s encouragement, she founded a new community of sisters dedicated to the work of Catholic education: the Sisters of Charity. They opened America’s first parish school in Emmitsburg, Maryland on February 22, 1810.”

“The system established by Mother Seton conveyed the faith from generation to generation; it eased the passage of Catholic immigrants into American society; it served as the seedbed for countless vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Her teaching order offered a new model for religious women – sisters who were ‘in the world, but not of it.’ In the history of the Catholic Church in America, Mother Seton was – and continues to be – an indispensible woman.” (This Saint’s for You, pp. 99-100)

Elizabeth Ann Seton performed a righteous act by founding a community of religious women who dedicated their lives to parochial education: teaching children – many of them immigrants – how to be faithful Catholics and solid citizens.

Today, how might we follow her example in our attempts to practice righteousness?