Spirituality Matters 2017: July 6th - July 12th

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(July 6, 2017: Thursday, Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Gn 22:1b-19     Ps 115:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9     Mt 9:1-8

“Why do you harbor such evil thoughts in your hearts?

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales claimed that impugning the motives of others is a primary source of much of the sin and iniquity with which our world is plagued.

We witness slander when someone falsely imputes crimes and sins toward another person. We see slander when someone reveals another’s secret faults or exaggerates faults that are already obvious to everyone. We hear slander when someone ascribes evil motives to the good deeds that another does or attempts to minimize - or deny them - all together.

In today’s Gospel we see such slander in action. Perhaps slander in thought only, but slander nonetheless.

After forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man, Jesus is palpably aware of what was going through the minds of the scribes – they secretly assumed that such action made Jesus guilty of blasphemy, that is, of usurping the power and authority of God. They were determined to turn any good that Jesus did into something bad. Jesus response is swift and twofold – he calls them out for their secret, distorted thinking and then powerfully proves by what power and authority he forgives sins by healing the same man of his physical paralysis.

Would that Jesus could have healed the attitudinal paralysis of the scribes so easily, a paralysis stemming from the slanderous manner with which they viewed Jesus, because when they weren’t falsely accusing him of assorted crimes and sins, they attempted to minimize – or discredit entirely – the good that he accomplished and the healings that he performed.

What is the moral is this Gospel? There are far worse ways of being incurably paralyzed other than being unable to walk.

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(July 7, 2017: Friday, Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Gn 23:1-4, 19; 24:1-8, 62-67     Ps 106:1b-2, 3-4a, 4b-5     Mt 9:9-13

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In today’s Gospel, we are considering two related – but remarkably different – notions of what it means to be God-like. We are considering two related – but remarkably different – models for growing in holiness.

The tension between mercy and sacrifice is not something invented by Jesus, but it is as old as the Hebrew community itself. Actually, it is as old as the human family itself (Cain and Abel – Abraham and Isaac). But Jesus does make this issue front and center in his ongoing struggle with the Scribes and Pharisees.

Under the paradigm of SACRIFICE, holiness is all about proving my fidelity to God. It is all about showing God that I love God enough to go without food for a day, to slaughter a bull, to walk so many miles in my bare feet or to donate $5 million to my church’s capital campaign. Mind you, none of these things are wrong per se, but when holiness is understood almost exclusively as sacrifice, the danger is that it may ultimately lead to loving God to the exclusion of loving my neighbor.

The ancient Israelite prophets frequently criticized their people for somehow attempting to pit the love of God against the love of neighbor. In the prophet Isaiah, we hear:

“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough burnt offerings, or rams and the fat of fattened animals. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” (1: 11 – 17)

By contrast, the MERCY paradigm of holiness emphasizes the need to integrate the two components of Jesus’ Great Commandment exemplified in the words of 1 John 4:12:

“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and love is made complete in us.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but loving God and loving neighbor can never be separated. They are indeed two indispensable sides of the very same coin. The goal of holiness that we pursue in praying, fasting, singing songs of praise, donating blood making meals for the homeless and every other act of piety and mercy is not to prove anything to God but to give God complete influence over our hearts.

Sacrifice can be extremely beneficial when it is a means for submitting ourselves more completely to God’s mercy and not a substitute for it. For example, fasting can teach us to be aware of our own hungers and our need for God to feed us as a remedy for the pride of self-sufficiency. However, if God indeed desires mercy over sacrifice, the commands that God gives us are not intended to be tests of our loyalty to God but rather a pathway for allowing His reign of mercy to reign in our hearts - a reign expressed through our exercise of mercy toward one another.

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(July 8, 2017: Saturday, Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Gn 27:1-5, 15-29     Ps 135:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6     Mt 9:14-17

"No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth…People do not put new wine into old wineskins."

In his reflection on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, William Barclay wrote:

“Jesus was perfectly conscious that he came to men with new ideas and with a new conception of the truth, and he was well aware how difficult it is to get new ideas into men’s minds…The Jews were passionately attached to things as they were. The Law was to them God’s last and final word; to add one word to it or to subtract one word from it was a deadly sin…To them a new idea was not so much a mistake as a sin.”

Barclay continues:

“Within the Church this resentment of the new is chronic and the attempt to pour new things into old molds is almost universal. We attempt to pour the activities of a modern congregation into an ancient church building that was never meant for them. We attempt to pour the truth of new discoveries into creeds that are based on Greek metaphysics. We attempt to pour modern instruction into worn-out language that cannot express it. We read God’s word to twentieth century men and women in Elizabethan English and seek to present the needs of the twentieth century man and woman to God in prayer language that is four hundred years old. It may be that we would do well to remember that when anything stops growing, it starts dying. It may be that we need to pray that God would deliver us from the closed mind.”

Of course, close-mindedness is not limited to churches, temples, synagogues or mosques. Closed minds can be found wherever people are gathered – on Wall Street, on Capitol Hill, on commuter trains, in classrooms, on the Internet and even around the dining room table. The truth of the matter is that we all struggle sometimes with keeping our minds open to new things, new ideas, new places and new people. One is reminded of these words from Albert Einstein: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

About what may God ask us to keep an open mind - just this day?

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(July 9, 2017: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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Zec 9:9-10     Ps 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14     Rom 8:9, 11-13     Mt 11:25-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yolk upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

Being humble and gentle is about trying to embody the words of Jesus found in St. Matthew's Gospel: “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”

Humility might be described as “living in the truth”. The truth is that we are created in God's image and likeness. The truth is that we are good. The truth is that we do not always live up to that goodness. The truth is that we need God’s forgiveness and grace to make that goodness real. The truth is that we need the support and encouragement of one another.

Gentleness might be described as the practice of proportionality. It is about keeping things in perspective. It is about knowing when to stand firm. It is about knowing when to give ground. Most of all, whether in good times, tough times or in all the times in between, gentleness is about relating to ourselves and others with profound respect and reverence and with a graciousness rooted in the recognition that each of us - all of us - are sons and daughters of the living God.

The daily practice of these two virtues fashions a particular kind of heart in those who follow Jesus: a heart that longs and strives for justice. “Be just and equitable in all your actions,” wrote St. Francis de Sales in Part Three, Chapter 36 of The Introduction to the Devout Life. “Always put yourself in your neighbor's place and put your neighbor in yours, and then you will judge rightly.” He continued: “Imagine yourself the seller when you are buying; imagine yourself the buyer when you are selling. In this way you will sell and buy according to justice.”

This act of virtue is not always easy to do. We are frequently tempted to relate to others in ways that are not just or reasonable. We are tempted to promote only our own concerns, to first ask “What's in it for me?” or to always be concerned about taking care of “#1”.

At times like these, “we have two hearts,” says St. Francis de Sales. “One heart is mild, favorable and courteous toward ourselves; the other is hard, severe and rigorous toward our neighbor.” At times like these we have “two balances: the one to weigh out conveniences to our own greatest advantages, and the other to weigh those of our neighbor to their greatest possible disadvantage.”

St. Francis de Sales challenges us: “Do not neglect to frequently examine whether your heart be such with respect to your neighbor as you would desire your neighbor's to be with respect to you, were you in the other's situation.”

Such an ordinary thing. Such an everyday thing. In the Salesian tradition, such a powerful, life-giving thing. In the end, St. Francis de Sales claims, we “lose nothing by living generously, nobly, courteously, and with a royal, just and reasonable heart.”

Not only do we lose nothing, Jesus also promises us that by living humbly and gently we will find everything for which we all long…rest for our souls - not later in heaven, but even right here, right now, on earth.

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(July 10, 2017: Monday, Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Gn 28:10-22a     Ps 91:1-2, 3-4, 14-15ab     Mt 9:18-26

“Courage! Your faith has saved you…”

How many times does Jesus make this statement (or ones similar to it) in the context of performing a miracle? Some might interpret his words as gratuitous. They might view these words as Jesus’ attempt to make the beneficiaries patronize them into thinking that they contributed – somehow, even in some small way - to the releasing of His life-changing power.

Those who would interpret Jesus’ words as patronizing would be wrong – dead wrong.

When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you”, He is simply speaking the truth. The two miracles in today’s Gospel illustrate this point. In both cases (an official with a dead daughter and a woman with a chronic illness) the story that ends with the woman being cured from her hemorrhage and the daughter being raised from the dead were set into motion because someone had the courage to approach Jesus with a request and/or an intuition: “Come, lay your hand on her, and she will live” and “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured”.

What if the official had been too proud to ask Jesus for help? What if the woman had been too ashamed to reach out to Jesus? Fortunately for them, each of them were (1) humble enough to acknowledge their need, and (2) courageous enough to ask for help.

How about us? Are there any needs that we (or those we love) have that we believe only Jesus has the power to address? Are we humble enough to name those needs for ourselves? Are we courageous enough to bring those needs to Jesus?

Do you believe your faith in Jesus can save you?

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(July 11, 2017: Benedict, Abbot)
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Gn 32:23-33     Ps 17:1b, 2-3, 6-7ab, 8b and 15     Mt 9:32-38

“At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved…”

In commenting upon the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn…” William Barclay wrote: “It is first of all to be noted about this beatitude that the Greek word for to mourn – used here – is the strongest word for mourning in the Greek language. It is the mourning that is used for mourning for the dead, for the passionate lament for one who was loved…it is defined as the kind of grief that takes such a hold on a man that it cannot be hidden. It is not only the sorrow which brings an ache to the heart; it is the sorrow which brings the unrestrained tear to the eyes…” ( The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 93)

And in the case of Jesus, it is the sorrow that also releases miraculous power.

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales cites one of two virtues associated with mourning or sadness: “Compassion”. (IDL, Part IV, Chapter 12, p. 253) At the sight of the man with a dead daughter and the woman with a chronic illness in yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved - the woman was cured and the girl was raised. In today’s Gospel Jesus’ heart was deeply moved as He taught in synagogues, proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom and cured every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the neediness that He himself was encountering in others, Jesus asked His disciples to pray that God send more laborers for His harvest. In tomorrow’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart will move Him to go a step further with this request: He himself will commission his disciples to be those very laborers.

Whenever Jesus’ heart was moved by the sight of others’ needs, power was released in Him: the people were taught, the sick were healed, the possessed were freed, the lost were found, the dead were raised. These actions are the heart of compassion. It’s not enough to feel sorry for someone else’s plight. Compassion requires that we do something to address another’s plight. Compassion is more than just feeling; it is more about doing.

At the sight of other people’s needs, are our hearts moved? And if once our hearts are moved, do we act as Jesus did - with compassion?

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(July 12, 2017: Wednesday, Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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Gn 41:55-57; 42:5-7a, 17-24a     Ps 33:2-3, 10-11, 18-19     Mt 10:1-7

"Let your mercy be on us...”

In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:

“God acts in our works, and we co-operate in God’s action. God leaves for our part all the merit and profit of our services and good works; we leave God all the honor and praise thereof, acknowledging that the growth, the progress, and the end of all the good we do depends on God’s mercy, finishing what God began. O God, how merciful is God’s goodness to us in thus distributing his bounty!” (TLG, Book XI, Chapter 6, Chapter 29, p. 212)

When we pray using the words from today’s responsorial psalm, we are not engaging in wishful thinking. We aren’t asking for something that has not yet occurred. God’s mercy is on us! God’s generosity rains down upon us! God’s love is always with and within us.

Joseph is a great example of how mercy can not only change the lives of those who receive it but also how mercy can transform the life of the one who gives it. Joseph had lots of reasons to be embittered toward his brothers who sold him into slavery – Joseph had lots of reason to exact revenge on those who betrayed him. But – as he tells us himself – it is because he was a God-fearing man that he eventually chose reconciliation over retaliation.

Today, how can we be instruments of that same divine mercy, generosity and love in the lives of others?