Spirituality Matters 2019: January 10th - January 16th

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(January 10, 2019: Leonie Aviate, OSFS, Founder and Religious)
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“Anyone who welcomes one such child for my sake welcomes me...”

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of St. Leonie Aviat, OSFS: religious, founder.

In the middle of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, there was a rapid expansion of the textile industry in the town of Troyes, France. The Industrial Revolution created opportunities for women to work outside the home and/or the farm. Droves of young country girls came to the town in search of employment and adventure. They had no money, nowhere to live and were thus exposed to many potential hazards. With a remarkable intuition for overcoming obstacles, Father Louis Brisson took these girls into his care. He acquired a building, offering board and lodging and even work on the premises to a number of young female workers. He trained a group of volunteers to oversee the boarding house, but no matter how devoted they were, the undertaking lacked stability. It was not only necessary to provide room and board for the girls and young women, but also to educate them in their faith and guard them against moral danger. Fr. Brisson eventually determined that this new undertaking would be better served by a community of religious women who could devote themselves to this growing ministry.

Enter Leonie Aviat. Together with Fr. Brisson, she founded the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales who, during the course of her lifetime, saw many a child – and young adult, for that matter – welcomed for the sake of the Lord.

Children not only come in many shapes and sizes, but as it turns out, children also come in a variety of ages. In the broadest sense, the “children” to whom Jesus alludes in today’s Gospel are: anyone who is vulnerable, anyone who needs welcome, anyone who needs comfort and anyone who needs a safe place.

Today, who might be the children in our lives whom Jesus challenges us to welcome for his sake?

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Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, there frequently appears to be an uneasy relationship between prayer and work, between being and doing, and/or between resting in God and doing for/with God. St. Francis de Sales offered a remedy for the temptation to dichotomize prayer and work. The “Gentleman Saint” identified – in broad strokes – three types of prayer.

First, there is vocal prayer. Examples of this type of prayer on which most – if not all – of us first cut our gums include: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, Grace-before-Meals, etc,, etc. It is a form of prayer of which we can make good use even into old age.

Second, there is mental prayer, or “prayer of the heart”. Some people experience this type of prayer as meditation; for other people, it is known as contemplation. This type of prayer relies a great deal less on words and makes greater use of thoughts, considerations, affections, images and silence. Unlike vocal prayer, it tends to be much less public and much more private. Mental prayer seems to come easily for some folks, while it appears to be more elusive or challenging for others.

Finally, there is what Francis de Sales referred to as the prayer of good life. It is the prayer that comes with doing good – with practicing virtue – in a very mindful, heart-filled, intentional and deliberate way at each and every moment – specifically - through the practice of the Direction of Intention!

Leonie Aviat, OSFS clearly saw the Direction of Intention as the bridge linking prayer and work. Years after founding the Oblate Sisters, she would later remark:

“I still remember the words the Good Mother said to us one day on the subject. ‘The faithful practice of the Direction of Intention is the first rung on the ladder that will make us attain sanctity.’ She had been so faithful to this article that she knew its reward.” (Heart Speaks to Heart, p. 150)

Professor Wendy Wright notes that in the Salesian tradition the interior prayer of the Direction of Intention - be it with or without words - provides the foundation for both the life of the cloistered Visitandine and the very active life lived by an Oblate Sister. She again quotes Leonie Aviat:

“My children (wrote the Good Mother) you are not called to say the office for the moment. Your principal occupation is work. Give yourself to it as graciously as possible. Go to your work when the clock chimes. Set out joyfully according to our Rule, as if you were going to say the office and make meditation, because for you, work is a continual meditation.” ( Ibid)

Whether we do our work prayerfully – or put our prayer to work – prayer and work are the inseparable sides of the same coin: the love of God, neighbor and self.

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(January 11, 2019: Christmas Weekday)
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“You have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God…”

In his book The Spirit of Love, C.F. Kelley wrote:

“If the divine humanism of St. Francis de Sales did not specialize in theology, to what, then, did it give attention? Indeed, if it must be said to have specialized in anything at all, then sure it was the praising of all the divine aspects of human nature. He taught that the abuse of human instincts is the only thing about which we need to be ashamed: we should not be ashamed of our humanity. Rather than speculate about God he preferred to glorify the divinity of man. Instead of thinking about original sin, he thought about redemption. Instead of thinking about punishment, he thought about eternal life. Instead of thinking about grace for the elect, he thought about grace for all. Instead of thinking about God in the head, he thought about God in the heart. Nevertheless, his divine humanism had its opponents: not only Calvinists and Lutherans, Naturalists, Idealists and philosophical skeptics, but others less extreme who emphasized the misery of fallen nature, or others who were afraid of holding man in high esteem for fear of inviting him to somehow dispense with God. Francis de Sales was devoid of this kind of fear. After all, how can someone fear something about which he is not thinking or at which he is not looking? Those who are in love with God and the things of God have raised themselves to where they no longer think or look. They simply love.” (Select Salesian Subjects, p. 115, 0496.)

Note that John uses the present tense in addressing us. He tells us that we “have” eternal life. Rather than presuming that eternal life is reserved solely for the next life, John suggests that eternal life is already available to us in this life. How might we access that eternal life here and now already? As Francis de Sales suggests, eternal life has a great deal to do with how we think about this life. Eternal life has a great deal to do with what we think about – what we focus upon – in this life. Eternal life has a great deal to do with love, and little – or nothing - to do with fear.

How can we experience eternal life? By loving God, the things of God and – most importantly – the people of God.

Beginning with yourself!

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(January 12, 2019: Christmas Weekday)
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“Be on your guard against idols...”

“Idolatry is a pejorative term for the worship of an idol, a physical object such as acult image, as a god or practices believed to verge on worship, such as giving undue honor and regard to created forms other than God. In all the Abrahamic religions idolatry is strongly forbidden, although views as to what constitutes idolatry may differ within and between them. In other religions the use of cult images is accepted, although the term “idolatry” is unlikely to be used within the religion, being inherently disapproving. Which images, ideas, and objects constitute idolatry is often a matter of considerable contention, and within all the Abrahamic religions the term may be used in a very wide sense, with no implication that the behavior objected to consists of the religious worship of a physical object. In addition, theologians have extended the concept to include giving undue importance to aspects of religion other than God, or to non-religious aspects of life in general, with no involvement of images specifically. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods, or demons (for example Satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idolatry)

Odds are pretty slim that any of us actually worship craven images in our homes, offices or places of worhsip. However, there are other ways of practicing idolatry. What might we be tempted to worship in this life? Some idols might include our time, our talents, our opinions, our way of doing or seeing things, our appearance, our popularity or our plans.

Today, be on your guard against idols…whatever they may be!

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(January 13, 2019: Baptism of the Lord)
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“Here is my servant…he shall bring forth justice…not crying out, not shouting....”

In a conference to the Sisters of the Visitation (on the “Three Spiritual Laws”), Francis de Sales began:

“I turned my attention to the Gospel of today, which makes mention of the baptism of Our Lord and the glorious appearing of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. Remembering that the Holy Ghost is the love of the Father and of the Son, I thought I ought to give you laws which should be wholly laws of love, and these I have taken from the doves, remembering that the Holy Ghost deigned to take the form of a dove and, moreover, that all souls which are dedicated to the service of the divine Majesty must be like pure and loving doves.” (Conference VIII, p. 105-106)

(The three “Spiritual Laws” that follow have been edited for our contemporary audiences.)

Law One : Do all for God and nothing for yourself

We are made by God, from God and for God. Our glory comes from our God-given dignity. Our glory will be perfectly expressed in our God-given destiny: life on high with Jesus Christ. On any given day it is easy to lose sight of this profound truth and to find our glory in our own personal projects and endeavors. To be sure, there is much work that God wants us to do in the state and stage of life in which we find ourselves. God wants us to work at being sources of Christ’s power and promise in the lives of others…but in the end it is ultimately God’s work in which we share, and not something which we cling to for ourselves. Doing what is right is its own reward. As for the glory, leave that for - and give it to - the One to whom it belongs.

Law Two : Make great use of the little you have

Loosening – letting go – is a part of life. Some of what we need to let go of are things that we choose to give away. Some of what we need to let go of are things that are taken from us.

Sometimes it is only when we lose something that we more deeply appreciate that which we still possess. Throughout the life-long process of letting go, we have a fundamental choice. We can complain about that which is no more, or we – while acknowledging our losses – can continue to dream about and work for that which still might be.

Growth in devotion is not measured by how much we have or possess. In the eyes of God, the quality of our lives is measured by how diligently, readily and frequently we take hold – and let go – of all that God gives us, be it great or especially, when it is little.

Law Three : Be the same in sadness and joy

Life is a mix of setbacks and success. Life has its measure of both agony and ecstasy, and of defeat and delight. A sure sign that we are growing in devotion is our ability to embrace both sadness and joy to the same degree, and to experience the ups and downs of life in a reasonable, balanced and even-tempered way. While we cannot control much of what happens to us, we can certainly choose how to respond to what happens to us.

Some folks are great losers but not very good winners. Some folks are great winners but terrible losers. Neither person is very pleasant to be around for long periods of time. Take the good with the bad. Mourn loss. Celebrate gain. Take as your motto the words of Winston Churchill: “Success is never final; failure is never fatal.” In all things, be grateful for who you are and who God calls you to be.

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Francis de Sales desired that the Sisters of the Visitation be ‘spiritual doves:’ people who would devote their strength to bringing “justice to the nations” without being strident. He challenged them to give God his due – and other people their due – not by crying out or shouting but by quietly living their day-to-day lives as best as they could.

Today how might we follow these same “Spiritual Laws” in out attempts to promote justice not only by our words, but also by our deeds? How might we be ‘spiritual doves” in our relationships with others?

For love of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost!

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(January 14, 2019: Monday, First Week in Ordinary Time)
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“They left their nets and followed him...They left their father along with the hired men and followed him.”

The word left (used twice in today’s Gospel) is, of course, a form of the verb leave, defined as “(1) to go out of or away from; (2) to depart from permanently; quit: to leave a job; (3) to let remain or have remaining behind after going, disappearing, ceasing; (4) to allow to remain in the same place, condition, etc; (5) to let stay or be as specified.”

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, encounters with God almost always seem to involve people “leaving” something, somewhere or someone. Adam and Eve left Eden; Abraham and Sarah left their homeland; Noah left dry land and later left his boat; Moses and the Israelites left Egypt; Mary left in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth; the Magi left the East to follow a star; Mary, Joseph and Jesus left Bethlehem ahead of Herod’s rage; Matthew left his tax collecting post. And in today’s Gospel, Simon, Andrew, James and John left their nets, their livelihood, their families and their homes.

Be that as it may, leaving – at least, as far as God is concerned – isn’t only about walking away from something, somewhere or someone. It’s also about drawing closer to something, somewhere or someone else. Specifically, loving God – and the things of God – frequently invites us to leave that which is comfortable and familiar in order that we might experience that which is challenging and new. By most standards that’s what growth, especially human growth, is all about: knowing when it’s time to leave and move on – even when leaving someone, somewhere or something is good – and sometimes, very, very good!

One of our greatest temptations in life is to stop moving; growing; changing; learning and developing. There was a time when psychologists seemed to suggest that human beings stopped growing somewhere in their twenties or thirties. Today, we know that human beings continue to grow right up until the day they die…or, at least, they are invited to do so. Leaving – as it turns out - is a part of living.

Leaving is not about doing with less. Very often, leaving is about making room for more. Today what might God be asking us to leave in order that we might have more life - and more love – tomorrow?

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(January 15, 2019: Tuesday, First Week in Ordinary Time)
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“He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

In today’s Gospel we hear that the people of Capernaum were “astonished” at the teaching of Jesus, for “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. What distinguished the teaching of Jesus from the teaching of the scribes? How did Jesus’ “new teaching” manifest itself? Some of the differences include - but are certainly not limited to – these:

1) Jesus taught important matters of the highest importance and which are necessary for salvation. By contrast the scribes taught trifling matters of rites and ceremonies which were passing away, such as the washing of hands and of cups.

2) What Christ taught in word, he fulfilled in deed. He talked the talk and walked the walk. The scribes, by contrast (as Jesus observed) spoke bold words, but exhibited few deeds.

3) Jesus taught with fervor and zeal, such that the words of Scripture could always be applied to him. The scribes could lay no such claims.

4) Jesus confirmed his teaching by miracles; the scribes could not.

5) The scribes were merely interpreters of the Law, whereas Christ was the embodiment of the Law and Prophets.

6) While the scribes sought their own glory and the praise of others, Jesus taught solely for the glory of God and for the salvation of others.

7) In his words and example – and also by the hidden inspirations of his grace - Jesus illuminated the minds and inflamed the hearts of his hearers. By contrast, the scribes clouded the minds and discouraged the hearts of their hearers. ( http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2012/01/christ-taught-as-one-having-authority.html )

When other people encounter us – especially as it relates to matters of faith, life and love – to whom do we bear a greater resemblance: the scribes, or The Christ?

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(January 16, 2019: Wednesday, First Week in Ordinary Time)
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“He went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons…”

M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist, wrote two books on the subject of “demons” - People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil and Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption . Peck describes in some detail several cases involving his patients. In People of the Lie he provides identifying characteristics of an evil person, whom he classified as having a character disorder. In Glimpses of the Devil Peck goes into significant detail describing how he became interested in exorcism in order to debunk the myth of possession by evil spirits – only to be convinced otherwise after encountering two cases which did not fit into any category known to psychology or psychiatry. Peck came to the conclusion that possession was a rare phenomenon related to evil, and that possessed people are not actually evil; rather, they are doing battle with the forces of evil. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon )

In today’s Gospel – and all throughout the Gospels – we are told that Jesus drove out “demons” as a part of his ministry of proclaiming the power and promise of the Good News. Whether or not you believe in demons – regardless of your thoughts regarding exorcisms – we all struggle with things that plague us, that exasperate us or that appear to ‘possess’ us to the extent that they prevent us from being the people God wants and intends us to be. Despite our best efforts, these “demons” seem impervious to our feeble attempts at conquering, dispelling or exorcizing them. Perhaps therein lies the lesson because the greatest mistake we make in struggling with our own “demons” is to believe that we must do it alone or that we must battle with our “demons” all by ourselves.

Today however large, small, frequent or few they might be, are you willing to bring your “demons” to Jesus?