Spirituality Matters 2018: February 8th - February 14th

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(February 8, 2018: Thursday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time)
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"Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's scraps."

We see a test of wills in today’s Gospel. A local woman is determined to wrest a miracle for her daughter from Jesus, but Jesus seems equally determined to deny her request. While Jesus appears committed to saying “no” to this woman’s plea, the woman appears equally determined to refuse to take “no” for an answer. Clearly, this scene has all the makings of a “Syrophoenician stand-off”.

In both cases, Jesus and the woman are persistent. They are both determined to persevere.

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

“Our Savior attaches to the great gift of perseverance the supreme gift of eternal glory, as He has said, ‘The one who shall persevere to the end shall be saved.’ This gift is simply the sum total and sequence by which we continue in God’s love up to the end, just as the education, raising and training of a child are simply the acts of care, help and assistance…Perseverance is the most desirable gift we can hope for in this life. It is in our power to persevere. Of course, I do not mean that our perseverance takes its origin from our power. On the contrary, I know that it springs from God’s mercy, whose most precious gift it is.” (Book 3, Chapter 4, p. 174)

Jesus credits the Syrophoenician woman’s persistence – her perseverance – for granting her request to heal her daughter.

Today, how determined are we in our attempts to bring our needs – and the needs of those we love – to the Lord?

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(February 9, 2018: Friday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“People brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.”

Jesus was only too happy to grant their request to heal a deaf man with a speech impediment. As we see in the Gospel account today, however, Jesus did much more than simply lay his hand on him. He took him apart from the crowd. Jesus placed his finger in the man’s ears. Spitting, Jesus placed his finger on the man’s tongue.

Jesus healed people in a variety of ways. Sometimes he simply said a word. Sometimes he gave a direct command. Sometimes he followed someone to their home. Sometimes he healed from far away. Sometimes he healed in public. And sometimes – as seen in today’s account from Mark’s Gospel – Jesus’ healing is private: intimately up-close and personal.

Ask yourself this question: how might you need Jesus to heal you today? Then, ask yourself another question: how might Jesus need you to heal someone else today?

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(February 10, 2018: Saturday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“My heart is moved with pity…”

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

“Compassion, sympathy, commiseration or pity is simply an affection that makes us share the sufferings and sorrows of ones we love and draws the misery that they endure into our own hearts…” (Book V, Chapter 4, p. 243)

As we see clearly in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ compassion is more than affection; it is more than a feeling. While he clearly makes the neediness of others his own, Jesus does more than that - he does something about the neediness. Jesus satisfies the hunger. Jesus heals the pain. Jesus breaks the chains. Jesus confronts the injustice.

Every time Jesus’ compassionate heart is moved, something good happens to others.

Today, will the same be said for our hearts? Is our compassion more than just a feeling? Does our compassion lead to action?

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(February 11, 2018: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“They shall declare themselves unclean. They shall dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp.”

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “Be cured.”

St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life: “There is scarcely anyone without some imperfections.” (Part 3, Chapter 22)

We have a good handle on the imperfections, vices, idiosyncrasies and even the sins of those with whom we work, we play, we neighbor and we live each day.

Most days we overlook them. Some days we put up with them. Other days, we might even make excuses for them. Occasionally, we dwell on – maybe even magnify – them.

However, sometimes it is necessary to draw attention to things in other people that blemish their potential for happiness, health, and holiness. Maybe, we need to take the risk to name the sins, the faults and the wounds in others that prevent them from being more of the person God calls them to be. And maybe, we need to reflect on those social, spiritual, psychological or relational sores of others that rob them of their full citizenship as sons and daughters of the living, loving and saving God.

The Scriptures contrast two very different methods for doing this process. One approach draws attention to others’ sins in order to isolate them, ostracize them or distance them from the community. The other approach – Jesus’ approach – is to draw them even more closely into the life of the community, to create a space in which the ‘unclean’ can experience healing, strength, and a new lease on life.

Ask yourself the question: When you do draw attention to the imperfections, the warts, the blemishes of others, why do you do it? To distance yourself from them? To embarrass them? To humiliate them? Or are you reaching out and/or reaching into the heart of others? Is your goal to create a space of truth in which they can experience healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and strength?

While it may sometimes be necessary to pay attention to the imperfections, the sins or the blemishes of others, it is always necessary for us to be honest about our own sin and weakness. We need to be clear and unambiguous about our own need for healing and forgiveness. We need to be clear about our own need for friends who will not only tell us what we want to hear about ourselves, but who will also consistently have the courage to tell us what we need to know about ourselves.

Today, let us give thanks to God for those friends who do us this wonderful service!

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(February 12, 2018: Monday, Sixth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“Ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly…”

This week we begin another season of Lent.

Someone once suggested that Lent is kind of like a Christian version of New Year: an opportunity to make – and follow through with – resolutions for how we might become the best (or at least, better) version of ourselves.

Pursuing of life of devotion (holiness, health, wellness, etc.) is nuanced by each individual person. After all, Francis de Sales reminds us that devotion adapts itself to the strengths, situations and limitations constitutive of each unique individual. That said, what is common to all people who are serious about growing in holiness is a willingness to do two things: to pursue virtue and eschew vice.

This can be a daunting challenge, especially as we grow older. Some virtues seems more difficult than others to master. Some vices seem nearly impossible to shake. The good news (as we hear in today’s first reading) is that whatever it is that we lack – be it the ability to accomplish good and/or the ability to avoid evil – don’t overlook one of the most important strategies for becoming the best (or at least better) version of yourself - ask God for help! James tells us:

“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it.”

As we prepare to begin yet another Lenten journey – an opportunity to increase the good and to eschew anything which diminishes the good – may we have the presence of mind and heart to ask God for anything in which we might be lacking.

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(February 13, 2018: Tuesday, Sixth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above…”

Tomorrow we begin yet another season of Lent, a period of time during which many of us will – among other things – engage in fasting. Of course, fasting is not an end in itself, but rather it is a means to an end. As such, fasting is one of a number of means at our disposal for pursuing in our own unique ways the common vocation to which God calls each and every one of us – to be holy people, to live holy lives. (Francis de Sales calls holiness “devotion”; contemporary spiritual writer Matthew Kelly describes holiness as being “the best possible version of ourselves.”)

Regardless of how you image, define or understand what it means to be holy, Francis de Sales is very clear that if you are going to employ fasting as a means of growing in holiness, you can’t settle for half measures. When it comes to fasting, he says that you have to be “all in”. He observed:

“Your fasting should be entire and universal. That is, you should submit all of the members of your body and the powers of your soul to fasting. Keeping your eyes lowered, keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually that usual, mortifying your hearing and your tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless, keeping your will in check and maintaining your spirit of the crucifix with some holy or humbling thoughts: if you do all this, your fast will be universal, interior and exterior, for you will be disciplining both your body and your spirit.” (Living Jesus, p. 110)

A word of caution may be appropriate here. It is very tempting to see Lent as a season during which we do things (e.g., fasting, giving up and doing without) for God in very deliberate and intentional ways. Perhaps this very attitude should be the primary focus of our fasting – to refrain from thinking that holiness is all about what we do. After all, when you get right down to it (as today’s first reading reminds us), holiness is less about what we are doing for God and far more about what we allow God to do in us:

“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above…”

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(February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday)
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Lent is a time when each of us is challenged to recognize our need for conversion. We are invited to closely examine our relationship with God, ourselves and one another. Simply put, Lent asks us to name those sins, vices, weaknesses -- anything -- that may prevent us from growing in thought, word and deed in our God-given dignity.

A popular way of ritualizing this inner journey is to "give up" something for Lent. Some refrain from tobacco; others eschew alcohol; still others pass up all desserts. Some of us may give up something good during Lent; some of us may give up something bad during Lent, and still others may give up a combination of both.

Using traditional language, Lent is a time for fasting. Fasting, however, is only half of the story. Lent, in its fullest expression, is also a season for feasting!

In their book A Sense of Sexuality, (Doubleday 1989) Drs. Evelyn and James Whitehead remind us that "fasting, at its finest, is neither solely punishment nor denial. We fast not only to avoid evils but to recapture forgotten goods." Put another way, “the 'no' of fasting is fruitful only if we have some deeply valued 'yes' in our life." The arduous discipline of feasting complements our fasting; we need something for which to fast.

That's right. Feasting requires no less discipline than fasting. The discipline of feasting celebrates well and heartily the God-given blessings that we enjoy without engaging in selfishness and excess.

Lent, then, is as much a matter of “doin”’ as it is of "doing without". St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

“Both fasting and working mortify and discipline us. If the work you undertake contributes to the glory of God and to your own welfare, I much prefer that you should endure the discipline of working than that of fasting.”

He continued:

“One person may find it painful to fast, another to serve the sick, to visit prisoners, to hear confessions, to preach, to assist the needy, to pray, and to perform similar exercised. These latter pains have as much value as the former.”

Whether through fasting or feasting, turning away from sin or turning toward virtue, these forty days of Lent are about our “insides”: our heart, mind, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, hopes and fears. It is the journey of the soul and spirit. “As for myself,” says Francis de Sales, “it seems to me that we ought to begin with the interior.”

And so we pray: God give us the grace to make a new beginning with the first of these forty days....and with every day that will follow hereafter.