Spirituality Matters 2018: April 19th - April 25th

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(April 19, 2018: Thursday, Third Week of Easter )
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“Do you understand what you are reading?”

This question raised 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. 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.”

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. 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 Beatitudes.

Do you understand what you are hearing? If you do, then why not do it!

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(April 20, 2018: Friday, Third Week of Easter )
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“He recovered his strength…”

In a letter to Madame de la Flechere, Francis de Sales observed:

“I entreat you by the love of him whom we both love, of Jesus Christ, to live consoled and peaceful in your infirmities. I glory in my infirmities, says our great St. Paul, so that the power of my Savior may dwell in me. Yes, indeed! Our misery is a as throne to make manifest the sovereign goodness of Our Lord.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 203)

Two men loom large in today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles: Saul (a.k.a. Paul) and Ananias. Each has his share of imperfections. Saul was blind. Initially, he was blinded spiritually by his rage against and persecution of the followers of Jesus. Saul was subsequently blinded physically after his encounter with the voice of Jesus along the road to Damascus. For his part, Ananias was reluctant – perhaps, even resentful – at the prospect of welcoming and healing a great persecutor of any man or woman who belonged to the Way.

And yet – as imperfect as they were - each played a role in God’s plan of salvation.

In a sermon on the “Failings of the Saints,” Francis de Sales preached:

“With the exception of our Blessed lady, all other creatures contain some imperfections. The man who denies that he has any imperfections is just as much a liar as the man who says that he has no perfections at all. Every man, however holy, has some imperfections; every man, however wicked, has some good points. Made in God’s image, each man reflects something of God’s goodness; made from nothing, each man always carries with him some imperfection.” (Pulpit and Pew, P. 258)

All of us are imperfect people. However, as we see in the cases of Saul (Paul) and Ananias, God asks imperfect people to be instruments of his light, life and love.

Today, how might God desire to make his “sovereign goodness” shine through our imperfection - by asking us to be instruments of God’s healing, redeeming and life-changing strength?

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(April 21, 2018: Saturday, Third Week of Easter )
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“How shall I make a return to the Lord?”

In the first part of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales raises the same question in the context of the “First Meditation: On Our Creation.” After considering all of God’s benefits to us, Francis asks: “What can I ever do to bless your holy name in a worthy manner and to render thanks to your immense mercy?” (IDL, Part I, Chapter 9, p. 54)

Needless to say, Francis de Sales offers some suggestions as to how we might “make a return to the Lord.” These include:

  • “Give thanks to the Lord. ‘Bless your God, O my soul, and let all my being praise his holy name,’ for his goodness has drawn me out of nothing and his mercy has created me.”

  • “Offer. O my God, with all my heart I offer you the being you have given me. I dedicate and consecrate it to you.”.”

  • “Pray. O God, strengthen me in these affections and resolutions.”
How can I make a return to the Lord? The answer - by being the person that God has created me to be, and by encouraging others to do the same!

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(April 22, 2018: Fourth Sunday of Easter)
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“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Have you ever heard the expression “to know is to love”? When we’re talking in a general way, it is certainly true that we can hardly be expected to fall in love with someone we don’t know. But the statement “to know is to love” is not completely true when it is a question of human relationships. In these relationships, it is more accurate to say “to love is to know”, i.e., that once we have decided to love others, to commit ourselves to other people, we open ourselves to them and they, in turn, reciprocate by committing and opening themselves to us.

Jesus expresses this truth when he says: "Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him."(Jn. 14:21) Francis de Sales echoes this truth by telling us, "Knowledge of the good can give us the beginning of love but not its measure." (Treatise, Book 6, chap. 4)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a surprising and startlingly revelation about his relationship with us. “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father.” He is saying that he knows us as intimately and as personally as his heavenly Father knows him. And we, in turn, know him the way he knows the Father. The kind of knowledge that Christ our Good Shepherd has for each one of us is only acquired by a very close and intimate contact with us. It is a result of his love for us, of his willingness to commit himself totally and completely to us just as a shepherd totally and completely commits himself, even his life for his sheep.

If we reflect on the relationship of a shepherd to his sheep, we see that his whole life is centered on the lives of his sheep. The shepherd is with them all day long, and many times throughout the night he watches over them. It’s no surprise then that he gets to know all of the peculiarities, all of the individual traits of each of his sheep and gives them each a name. To others his sheep may all look the same, but to their shepherd, each is different and distinct. So he has no trouble whatsoever picking his own out from among hundreds in the sheep pen.

The parable of the Good Shepherd is not so far removed from us as we might first be inclined to believe. The parable touches the very well-springs of our being - our need to be known and loved for the person we are, no matter what. We might sometimes think, feel or act in ways that are as smelly and dirty as most sheep. We might get into all kinds of trouble by straying from our shepherd, like the sheep who gets caught in bramble bushes, fall into rocky crags or have a hundred and one missteps. Nevertheless, our Good Shepherd is there to bind up our wounds. He knows and loves us to the extent that he puts his life on the line for us.

Like the Good Shepherd, do we put ourselves on the line for one another?

Today and every day!

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(April 23, 2018: Monday, Fourth Week of Ester )
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“Whoever does not enter through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber…”

Jesus wants us to “have life, and to have it to the full” (John 10:10) and he tells us there is a right way and a wrong way to have that “full life”. The gateway to that life is through him and through him alone - no workaround or short cut will suffice.

In the first few pages of his book Night, Ellie Wiesel reflects upon the image of heaven offered to him by his mentor Moishe the Beadle:

“‘There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.’ Thus began my initiation. Together we would read, over and over again, not to learn it by heart but to discover within the very essence of divinity. And in the course of those evenings, I became convinced that Moishe the Beadle would help me enter eternity, into that time when question and answer would become ONE.”

From a Salesian perspective, this image of heaven makes absolute sense. Many people make the mistake of thinking that in order to “have life, and to have life to the full” they must become someone they’re not. Many people make the mistake of believing they must become someone else, while many people make the mistake of trying try to enter “through a gate other than” their own. What would Francis de Sales’ advise? “Be who you are, and be that perfectly well.”

In the big scheme of things, Jesus is the one and only gateway to life. Still, Jesus is big enough to accommodate the fact that no two people enter through him in exactly the same way; no two people experience that fullness of life by walking in the exact same footsteps.

Do you want to experience fullness of life on earth? Do you want to experience fullness of life in heaven? Then don’t live someone else’s life.

Today, like Jesus, try to live your own life as best you can.

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(April 24, 2018: Tuesday, Fourth Week of Easter)
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"He rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart...”

Firmness - or strength - of heart is an invaluable asset in the pursuit of devotion, especially as we deal with the ups and downs of daily life. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales observed:

“We must try to keep our heart steadily, unshakably equal during the great variety and inequality of daily events. Even though everything turns and changes around us, our hearts must remain unchanging and ever looking, striving and aspiring toward God.” (IDL, Book IV, Chapter 13, p. 256)

A little further along in this chapter, Francis de Sales makes a distinction between tenderness of heart and firmness of heart. He continues:

“Some men think about God’s goodness and our Savior’s passion, feel great tenderness of heart, and are thus aroused to utter sighs, tears and prayers, and acts of thanksgiving so ardently that we say that their hearts have been filled with intense devotion. But when a test comes, we see how different things can get. Just as in the hot summer passing showers send down drops that fall on the earth but do not sink into it and serve only to produce mushrooms, so also these tender tears may fall on a vicious heart but do not penetrate and are therefore completely useless to it.” (IDL, Book IV, Chapter 13, pp. 257-258)

Tenderness of heart and firmness of heart- each have their place in the pursuit of holiness. Tenderness of heart can help us to enjoy the good times, while firmness of heart can help us get through the difficult times.

What kind of heart might you need to have today?

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(April 25, 2018: Mark, Evangelist)
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“Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God…”

Humility is one of the great hallmarks of the Salesian tradition. It is one of two qualities that Jesus used to describe himself. Obviously, then, our attempts to practice humility help us in our efforts to imitate Christ, to “Live + Jesus”.

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

“Many men neither wish nor dare to think over and reflect on the particular graces God has shown them because they are afraid that this might arouse vainglory and self-complacence. In so doing they deceive themselves. Since the true means to attain to love of God is consideration of God’s benefits, the more we know about them the more we shall love them. Nothing can so effectively humble us before God’s mercy as the multitude of his benefits and nothing can so deeply humble us before his justice as our countless offenses against him. Let us consider what he has done for us and what we have done against him, and as we reflect on our sins one by one let us also consider his graces one by one. There is no need to fear that knowledge of his gifts will make us proud if only we remember this truth: none of the good in us comes from ourselves. A lively consideration of graces received makes us humble because knowledge of them begets gratitude for them.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 5, pp. 134-135)

To humble ourselves does include acknowledging our sins, weaknesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, many of us stop there. True humility challenges us to name not only our sins but also to name God’s graces. True humility challenges us to count not only our weaknesses, but also to count God’s blessings. True humility challenges us to acknowledge not only our littleness, but also to acknowledge our greatness.

In the end, the Salesian practice of humility has far less to do with putting ourselves down and a great deal more to do with remembering how God continues to raise us up.

The Almighty has done great things for us; holy is his name and humble is our name!