Spirituality Matters 2017: May 18th - May 24th

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(May 18, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 15:7-21     Ps 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 10     Jn 15:9-11

“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete…”

This debate outlined in the today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles puts us in touch with Francis de Sales’ perspective on two gifts of the Holy Spirit: knowledge and understanding.

The Gift of Knowledge

“This divine gift, however, has little to do with mere human learning. The Spirit’s gift of knowledge is essential if we are to make good and effective use of the previous two gifts, if we are to know how to behave towards the God we mean to fear and love. It is about being capable of discerning evil to be avoided and the good to be sought. As the prophet says, offend no more; rather, do what is good. And be at rest always.”

Mere human knowledge only enables us to know the difference between good and evil. Just hearing God’s word doesn’t guarantee the ability to follow it! The Spirit’s gift of knowledge, by contrast, actually enables us to turn away from what is evil and to put our hands to doing what is good.

Francis concludes with this observation.

“There have been saints, to be sure, who were wonderfully wise for all of their ignorance. There have been others, equally as certain, who have been wonderfully ignorant for all of their knowledge.”

Many practicing Jews – considered knowledgeable of the Law and Prophets – rejected Jesus. Many Gentiles – considered by these same Jews – to be ignorant of the Law and Prophets – accepted Jesus! Tough pill for some to swallow.

The Gift of Understanding

“Understanding is a special enlightenment that enables us to see and penetrate the beauty and perfection of the mysteries of faith. We may listen to sermons, we may read widely; yet we can remain ignorant of these divine mysteries if we lack the gift of understanding. A simple soul, open in prayer, may gain some insight into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity – not to explain it, but to draw from it some secret aspect that can save – because the Holy Spirit has bestowed the gift of understanding. I always maintain that if anyone loses his soul, it is for want of following such mysteries of the faith, for example: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs; blessed are the patient, they shall inherit the land. Who is awake to the beauty of these principles, however, except those whom the Holy Spirit enlightens?”

There is no substitute for the knowledge that helps us to grow in our understanding of the ways of the Lord. However, we must be careful not to allow knowledge to take the place of understanding - ultimately, this became the Achilles’ heel of many of the Jews of Jesus’ day. While Francis de Sales recognizes the need to know the difference between good and evil (and, by extension, to actually do good and to actually avoid evil), such knowledge only comes to full flowering when we demonstrate our understanding of God’s ways through our practice of the Beatitude,; that is, by being sources of blessing, happiness and joy in the lives of others!

Today, how will Jesus make our joy complete? By helping us to be sources – perhaps even signs and wonders - of joy in the lives of one another!

(Based upon a sermon preached by St. Francis de Sales on the feast of Pentecost, date unknown. Translation from Pulpit and Pew: A Study in Salesian Preaching. Vincent Kerns, MSFS.)

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(May 19, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 15:22-31     Ps 57:8-9, 10 and 12     Jn 15:12-17

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden...”

“Living Jesus” is not always easy. “Living Jesus” brings with it its share of difficulties and challenges. “Living Jesus” will certainly stretch us and challenge us to be more of the people that God calls us to be.

But one thing that “Living Jesus” is not supposed to be is burdensome.

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

“True devotion does us no harm whatsoever, but instead perfects all things. It not only doers no injury to one’s vocation or occupation, but on the contrary adorns and beautifies it. All kinds of precious stones take on greater luster when dipped into honey, each according to its color. In the same way every vocation becomes more agreeable when united with devotion. Care of one’s family is rendered more peaceable, love of husband and wife more sincere, service to one’s prince more faithful and every type of employment more pleasant and agreeable.” (IDL, Part I, Chapter 3, p. 44)

If your practice of devotion is weighing you down, you must be doing something wrong. If your attempts at “Living Jesus” make your everyday life more complicated, something’s not right. Perhaps you’re trying too hard. Or, worse yet, maybe you’re trying to “Live Jesus” all by yourself.

Take Jesus at his word! Go to him when you find life burdensome. Let him refresh you. Take up his yolk and learn from him, for he is meek and humble of heart. And you’ll find rest for your soul, for his yolk is easy, and his burden light.

And if you let him, Jesus might even put a spring in your step - today!

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(May 20, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 16:1-10     Ps 100:1b-2, 3, 5         Jn 15:18-21

"No slave is greater than the master…”

Jesus seems to be saying, in effect, “Don’t even think about trying to be greater than I am.” Put another way, it certainly feels that Jesus is at least reminding us of our place, if not putting us in our place. But as Francis de Sales reminds us in his Treatise on the Love of God, the “place” that Jesus has in mind for us is anything but a put-down.

“You see how God by progressive stages filled with unutterable sweetness leads the soul forward and enables it to leave the Egypt of sin. God leads us from love to love, as from dwelling to dwelling, until He has made us enter into the Promised Land. By this I mean that He brings us into a most holy charity, which to state it succinctly, is a form of friendship and disinterested love, since by charity we love God for his own sake because of his most supremely pleasing goodness. Such friendship is true friendship, since it is reciprocal, for God has eternally loved all those who have loved him, now love him or will love him in time to come. It is manifested and recognized mutually: God cannot be ignorant of the love we have for Him since He himself has given it to us, while we cannot be ignorant of his love for us since He has made it so widely known and we on our part acknowledge that whatever good we possess is the true effect of his good will. In fine, we are in continual communication with Him and He never ceases to speak to our hearts by his inspirations, allurements and sacred movements. He never ceases to do us good or to give us every kind of proof as to his most holy affection. God has openly revealed all his secrets to us as to his closet friends.” (TLG, Book II, Chapter 22, pp. 160 – 161)

The bottom line is that we are already friends of God! Why would we need to be anything greater than that?

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(May 21, 2017: Sixth Sunday of Easter)
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Acts 8:5-8, 14-17     Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20     1 Pt 2:4-9     Jn 14:15-21

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises to ask the Father to send an Advocate (sometimes translated as Paraclete) to accompany his disciples.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language defines advocate as: (1) “One who argues for a cause: a supporter or defender; (2) One that pleads in another’s behalf: an intercessor; (3) a lawyer.”

In addition, the dictionary notes that the word advocate comes from the Latin advocatus, past participle of advocare, to summon for counsel. Important derivatives include: vocal, voice, vowel, equivocal, vocation, vouch, advocate, avocation, evoke, invoke, provoke, revoke and epic.

The one derivative that catches my eye is vouch. In this context, this Advocate, this Paraclete, this Holy Spirit will vouch for those who follow Jesus. Put another way, this Advocate is someone who stands up for us.

But hold on, there’s even more! How many of us fail to notice that Jesus promises his disciples “another” Advocate? Unless I’m missing something here, “another” presumes that this is not the first Advocate; rather, this is a subsequent Advocate which, of course, begs the question: Well, who was the previous Advocate?

The answer - Jesus himself! Jesus stood up for us by becoming one of us, by becoming one with us and by becoming one for us. Jesus stood up for us by living with us, by laboring for us, by loving us and dying for us that we might one day stand up forever through the power and by the promise of the resurrection.

But wait. It seems that we still have one more Advocate to acknowledge - God, Yahweh, the Father.

God stood up for us by creating something out of nothing. God stood up for us by bringing form out of chaos. God stood up for us through Creation by giving us a share in God’s own divine image and likeness. God stood up for us through the Incarnation by taking on our human image and likeness.

In a word, it seems that God, our Eternal Advocate, is, among other things, a “stand up guy.”

As children of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, as temples of the Holy Spirit we, too, are called to be Advocates. We are called to stand up for what is just; we are called to stand up for what is right; we are called to stand up for what is peaceable; we are called to stand up for what is fair. And especially as members of the Salesian tradition, we are called to stand up for all that is of God in ways that are both courteous and considerate.

God has stood up for us by creating us, by redeeming us and by inspiring us. What better way in there to express our gratitude than through our willingness to stand up for one another?


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(May 22, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 16:11-15     Ps 149:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b     Jn 15:26—16:4a

“I have told you this so that you may not fall away…”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a “heads up”. Notwithstanding the imminent arrival of the Paraclete, whom Jesus will send from the Father, there will still be tough – and trying – times ahead for them. Jesus wants them to be prepared so that when the tough – and trying – times come, they won’t fall away, that is, so that they will not give up.

In a letter to a “nun” (dated August 20, 1607) Francis de Sales wrote:

“To be a servant of God means to be charitable towards one’s neighbors, have an unshakeable determination in the superior part of one’s soul to obey the will of God, trusting in God with a very humble humility and simplicity, and to lift oneself up as often as one falls, endure oneself with all one’s abjections and quietly put up with others in their imperfections.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 140)

Francis de Sales’ advice to a “nun” over four hundred years ago is just as relevant today as it was then. Following Jesus – being a servant of God and a temple of the Holy Spirit – will always bring its share of challenges, trials and tribulations. We sometimes fall – we sometimes fail – in the face of these same challenges, trials and tribulations. However, falling down is not the same as falling away, unless, of course, you choose to stay down after falling down.

If you fall – if you fail – in your attempts to “Live + Jesus” just this day, will you stay down or will you get back up?

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(May 23, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 16:22-34     Ps 138:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8     Jn 16:5-11

"Where are you going…?”

Where are you going?
Where are you going?
Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold
And needs warmth.
Where are you going?

- “By My Side” (Godspell, 1971)

For some time now Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will be leaving them in order that the Advocate (a.k.a. the Paraclete) can come to them. As we see in today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to convince them that it will be better for them if he goes. By all accounts, the disciples are having a hard time believing - or accepting – his reassurances.

Put yourself in their position. As Jesus keeps talking about going back to the Father, they are surely tempted to ask the question: “Where are you going?”. But if you dig a little bit deeper, the question that they’d really like to ask is: “Why can’t you stay?”. Either way, they are struggling with the fear of losing Jesus. They are struggling with the prospect of being left alone to fend for themselves.

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

“After Jesus had shown himself for a little while to the disciples, he ascended up to heaven, and at length a cloud surrounded him, took him and hid him from their eyes. Jesus Christ, then, is hidden in heaven in God. Jesus Christ is our love, and our love is the life of the soul. Therefore our ‘life is hidden in God with Christ Jesus, and when Christ who is’ our love and therefore our spiritual life ‘shall reappear’ in the Day of Judgment, we shall also appear ‘with him in glory.’” (TLG, Book VII, Chapter 6, p. 32)

For our purposes, let’s hear the question “Where are you going?” in a slightly different way. Just suppose that now, it is Jesus who is asking the question of us! Jesus asks us “Where are you going” today? Where will your steps, conversations and interactions take you today? At the end of the day, how will we have drawn closer to the “Day of Judgment” when we shall “appear with him in glory”?

Whether we actually see him or not, Jesus assures us that he is always with us through the outpouring – and indwelling – of the Holy Spirit.

Do you believe?

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(May 24, 2017: Easter Weekday)
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Acts 17:15, 22—18:1     Ps 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14     Jn 16:12-15

“The Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth…”

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

“Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest. Be on 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 never to tell a deliberate lie whether to excuse yourself or for some other purpose, remembering always that God is the ‘God of truth.’ If you happen to tell a lie inadvertently, correct it immediately by an explanation or making amends. An honest explanation has more grace and force to excuse us than a lie has…As the Sacred Word tells us, the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a deceitful or tricky soul.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 30, p. 206)

Jesus promises that the “Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth.” How do we know, then, that the Spirit dwells in us? How do other people know that the Spirit dwells in us? We do - when we do our level best to tell the truth, when we do our level best to speak the truth, and when we do our level best to be truthful, truth-filled people.