Spirituality Matters 2017: July 20th - July 26th

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(July 20, 2017: Thursday, Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Ex 3:13-20     Ps 105:1 and 5, 8-9, 24-25, 26-27     Mt 11:28-30

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

St. Francis de Sales clearly learned from this sentiment in which Jesus described himself. The “Gentleman Saint” is recognized by the universal Church for the great strides that he made in imitating in his own life and in the lives of others the meek, humble Sacred Heart of Christ. In his daily attempts to shepherd the people of his diocese – and many others beyond the confines of Savoy – there is no doubt that he followed and modeled the “meek and humble” Jesus.

In her book St. Francis de Sales and the Protestants, author Ruth Kleinman remarked:

“The special qualities of Francis de Sales’ method of conversion were his gentleness and his humanity. God gave Francis de Sales the incomparable meekness absolutely necessary to soften the bitterness of heresy and to conquer the spirit by touching the heart, making him the master of spiritual persuasion.”

She then adds:

“But his gentleness did not mean softness.”

Francis de Sales was tender toward heretics, while tough on heresy. He was yielding with people seeking spiritual growth, while unrelenting with corrupt clergy or recalcitrant cloisters. He was meek when dealing with sinners, while militant when dealing with sin. Fr. Alexander Sandy Pocetto, OSFS, suggests that in imitating the Sacred Heart of Jesus Francis de Sales learned the importance of being not only a lamb, but also a lion.

Look at the “meek and humble” Jesus himself. He healed the sick; he welcomed the lost; he freed the imprisoned; he forgave sinners; he promoted justice; he called “great” all those who did the will of his Father. But he also drove out demons; he confronted injustice; he called out the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes; he turned over the tables of the moneychangers; he once referred to Peter as ‘Satan’.

While the meek and humble Jesus didn’t look for a fight, he wouldn’t duck one, either, not when it came to promoting the Kingdom of God, the things of God, the values of God and the love of God.

Today, let us ask God to help us to continue to learn from his Son. When it comes to our daily attempts to be people who strive to be both firmly gentle and gently firm, may Jesus teach us how and when to be lambs – and lions – of God.

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(July 21, 2017: Friday, Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Ex 11:10—12:14     Ps 116:12-13, 15 and 16bc, 17-18     Mt 12:1-8

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In a conference to the Sisters of the Visitation, Francis de Sales observed:

“That saying, so celebrated among the ancients – ‘know thyself’ – even though it may be understood as applying to the knowledge of the greatness and excellence of the soul (so that it might not be debased or profaned by things unworthy of its nobility) it may also be taken as referring to the knowledge of our unworthiness, imperfection and misery. The greater our knowledge of ourselves, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, for between mercy and misery there is so close a connection that the one cannot be exercised without the other. If God had not created man He would still indeed have been perfect in goodness, but He would not have been actually merciful, since mercy can only be exercised towards the miserable.” (Select Salesian Subjects, 022, pp. 46 - 47)

We see this dynamic at work in today’s Gospel, but not in quite the way that Francis de Sales intended. The Pharisees observe Jesus’ disciples feeding themselves by picking the heads of grain. Blinded their own self-perceived “greatness and excellence,” the Pharisees considered this activity to be work, something strictly forbidden on the sabbath. As we’ve seen in many other places throughout the Gospels, seeing Jesus’ disciples – or Jesus himself, for that matter – being merciful (that is, being generous) to others on the sabbath made the Pharisees miserable. If they had really known themselves - that is, their own unworthiness, imperfection and misery - the Pharisees would have approved and applauded Jesus for doing the right thing, regardless of when, where or with whom he did it. Instead, they seized on every opportunity they could to condemn Jesus for it.

Amazing, isn’t it, how someone doing what is right can bring out the worst in others? As we’ll see in tomorrow’s continuation of Chapter 12 of Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees’ misery rises ultimately to the level where they decide to put Jesus to death.

Well, what about us? Have we ever seen somebody else doing something merciful and generous at a time or in a place or in a way with which we did not agree and attempted to discredit them? Put another way, who would we like others to see and experience in us – the merciful Jesus or the miserable Pharisee?

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(July 22, 2017: Mary Magdalene)
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Sgs 3:1-4b     Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9     Jn 20:1-2, 11-18

“She saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus.”

In a letter to Marie Bourgeois Brulart, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Mary Magdalene is looking for Our Lord and it is he whom she holds. She is asking him, and it is he whom she asks. She could not see him as she had hoped to see him. This is why she did not recognize him as he actually was and continues to see him in another guise. She wanted to see him in his robes of glory and not in the lowly clothes of a gardener. But in the end she recognized him when he spoke to her by name: ‘Mary’.”

“You see, Our Lord meets you every day dressed as a gardener in any number of places and situations…Be of good cheer, and let nothing dismay you.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 136)

On any given day God may be, as it were, hidden in plain sight. However, it isn’t a case of God trying to hide from us! Rather, it is our desire to see God in ways that match our preferences, and that prevent us from seeing God as He really is, especially when it comes to recognizing how God is present in us and in one another!

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(July 23, 2017: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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Wis 12:13, 16-19     Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16     Rom 8:26-27     Mt 13:24-43

“Those who are just must be kind.”

The Book of Wisdom is unambiguous when listing the characteristics of divine justice: care, clemency, leniency, repentance and kindness. Far from insinuating that God is somehow “soft,” these (and other) characteristics describe the nature of true strength, authority and power.

This manner of acting is the great paradox of divine love: although sin and evil can provoke divine punishment, they are ultimately more likely to receive divine mercy, leniency and kindness. Francis de Sales observed:

“Far indeed was Adam's sin from overwhelming God's kindness; on the contrary it aroused and called forth God's kindness. As if to realign its forces for victory, God's kindness made grace to abound yet more where iniquity had abounded...Indeed, God's providence has left in us many great marks of divine severity, even amid the very grace of God's mercy; there are, for example, the fact that we must die, disease, toil and sensual rebellion...but God's favor floats as it were over all this and finds joy in turning these miseries to the greater profit of all who love him.” (Treatise on the Love of God, Book II, Chapter 5)

No where do we see more clearly the just power of God exercised with such kindness and forbearance than in the life and legacy of Jesus Christ. St. Francis de Sales wrote:

“In a word, our divine Savior never forgets to show that ‘his mercies are above all his works.’ That his mercy surpasses his justice, that ‘his redemption is copious,’ that his love is infinite and, as the Apostle says, ‘that he is rich in mercy,’ and consequently, that he ‘wishes that all be saved’ and that none should perish.” (Treatise, Book II, Chapter 8)

On the practice of virtue, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Some virtues have almost general use and must not only produce their own results but also spill over into all other virtues. Occasions may not often present themselves for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, and great generosity, but gentleness, temperance, integrity and humility are virtues that must mark all our actions in life.”

The practice of virtue is, in fact, a sharing in and sharing of God’s power and promise. How should we respond to such divine power - power expressed in patience, leniency, clemency and kindness?

First, we must repent. We must acknowledge our need for God's saving, redeeming and reconciling justice. Such power, not only helps us to turn away from iniquity, but it also enables us to do what is right and good.

Second, we must exercise the divine power in which we share (by nature of our creation and redemption) by forgiving one another and by practicing and extending care, clemency, leniency and kindness to our brothers and sisters, especially when they either purposely or thoughtlessly hurt or harm us.

Divine justice is best served by our kindness.

Today, how ready are we to receive - and share - such a powerful, redeeming gift?

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(July 24, 2017: Monday, Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Ex 14:5-18     Ex 15:1bc-2, 3-4, 5-6     Mt 12:38-42

“Fear not! Stand your ground…”

In a letter to St. Jane de Chantal, Francis de Sales wrote:

“The Scriptures tell us that St. Peter, seeing that the storm was raging, grew afraid; and as soon as he was afraid he began to sink and drown, so he cried out: ‘O Lord, save me!’ And our Lord caught hold of his hand and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Look at this holy apostle; he walks dry foot on the water, the waves and the winds could not make him sink, but fear of the wind and the waves will make him perish unless his master saves him. Fear is a greater evil than the evil itself.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, page 125, p. 198)

His advice to Saint Jane de Chantal is also great advice for us. He recommended:

“Do not be afraid. You are walking on the sea, surrounded by wind and water, but you are with Jesus: so what is there to fear? If terror seizes you, cry out loudly: O Lord, save me. He will stretch forth his hand towards you; clasp it tight and go joyfully on your way. In short, don’t philosophize about your trouble; don’t argue with it, just go straight on, quite simply. If the whole world is topsy-turvy – if all around is darkness and smoke and din – God is still with us.” (Ibid)

Moses and the Israelites certainly had a great deal to fear as they were being pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots and charioteers. Frightened as they were, however, they came to a point where they stopped running and stood their ground, confident that the Lord was on their side. Likewise, there are moments in all of our lives in which God asks us to stop running from our fears – to stand our ground and to face our fears, confident that – whatever the outcome – God is on our side.

How might God challenge you to stand your ground in the face of fear - today?

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(July 25, 2017: James, Apostle)
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2 Cor 4:7-15     Ps 126:1bc-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6     Mt 20:20-28

“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 the 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)

Today, how ready and willing are we to drink from that same chalice?

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(July 26, 2017: Joachim and Ann, Parents of the BVM)
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Ex 16:1-5, 9-15     Ps 78:18-19, 23-24, 25-26, 27-28     Mt 13:1-9

“Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit…”

In a letter to the Duc de Bellegarde, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Persevere in this great courage and determination which keeps you lifted high above temporal things. Keep your eyes fixed steadfastly on that blissful day of eternity towards which the course of years bears us on. As these pass they themselves pass by us stage after stage until we reach the end of the road. But in the meantime, in each passing moment there lies enclosed as in a tiny kernel the seed of all eternity, and in our humble little works of devotion there lies hidden the prize of everlasting glory…” (TLG, Book XI, Chapter 6, Chapter 29, p. 212)

Regardless of how large or small the yield of the seeds that God has planted deep within you, there is only one place in which you will find those seeds – in each and every present moment!