Spirituality Matters 2018: July 19th - July 25th

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(July 19, 2018: Thursday, Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time )
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“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

St. Francis de Sales clearly learned from this self-described Jesus. The “Gentleman Saint” is recognized by the universal Church for the great strides that he made in imitating in his own life and in the lives of others the meek, humble Sacred Heart of Christ. In his daily attempts to shepherd the people of his diocese – and many others beyond the confines of Savoy – there is no doubt that he followed and modeled the “meek and humble” Jesus.

In her book St. Francis de Sales and the Protestants, author Ruth Kleinman remarked:

“The special qualities of Francis de Sales’ method of conversion were his gentleness and his humanity. God gave Francis de Sales the incomparable meekness absolutely necessary to soften the bitterness of heresy and to conquer the spirit by touching the heart, making him the master of spiritual persuasion.”

She then adds:

“But his gentleness did not mean softness.”

Francis de Sales was tender toward heretics, while tough on heresy. He was yielding with people seeking spiritual growth, while unrelenting with corrupt clergy or recalcitrant cloisters. He was meek when dealing with sinners, while militant when dealing with sin. Fr. Alexander Sandy Pocetto, OSFS, suggests that in imitating the Sacred Heart of Jesus Francis de Sales learned the importance of being not only a lamb, but also a lion.

Look at the “meek and humble” Jesus himself. He healed the sick; he welcomed the lost; he freed the imprisoned; he forgave sinners; he promoted justice; he called “great” all those who did the will of his Father. But he also drove out demons; he confronted injustice; he called out the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes; he turned over the tables of the moneychangers; he even once referred to Peter as “Satan”.

While the meek and humble Jesus didn’t look for a fight, he wouldn’t duck one, either, not when it came to promoting the Kingdom of God, the things of God, the values of God and the love of God.

Today, let us ask God to help us to continue to learn from his Son. When it comes to our daily attempts to be people who strive to be both firmly gentle and gently firm, may Jesus teach us how and when to be lambs – and lions – of God.

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(July 20, 2018: Apollinarius )
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“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In a conference to the Sisters of the Visitation, Francis de Sales observed:

“That saying, so celebrated among the ancients – ‘know thyself’ – even though it may be understood as applying to the knowledge of the greatness and excellence of the soul (so that it might not be debased or profaned by things unworthy of its nobility) it may also be taken as referring to the knowledge of our unworthiness, imperfection and misery. The greater our knowledge of ourselves, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, for between mercy and misery there is so close a connection that the one cannot be exercised without the other. If God had not created man He would still indeed have been perfect in goodness, but He would not have been actually merciful, since mercy can only be exercised towards the miserable.” (Select Salesian Subjects, 022, pp. 46 - 47)

We see this dynamic at work in today’s Gospel, but not in quite the way that Francis de Sales intended. The Pharisees observe Jesus’ disciples feeding themselves by picking the heads of grain. Blinded by their own self-perceived “greatness and excellence,” the Pharisees considered this activity to be work, something strictly forbidden on the sabbath. As we’ve seen in many other places throughout the Gospels, seeing Jesus’ disciples – or Jesus himself, for that matter – being merciful (that is, being generous) to others on the sabbath made the Pharisees miserable. If they had really known themselves - that is, their own unworthiness, imperfection and misery - the Pharisees would have approved and applauded Jesus for doing the right thing, regardless of when, where or with whom he did it. Instead, they seized on every opportunity they could to condemn Jesus for it.

Isn’t it amazing, how someone doing what is right can bring out the worst in others? As we’ll see in tomorrow’s continuation of Chapter 12 of Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees’ misery rises ultimately to the level where they decide to put Jesus to death.

Well, what about us? Have we ever seen somebody else doing something merciful and generous at a time or in a place or in a way with which we did not agree and attempted to discredit them?

Put another way, who would we like others to see and experience in us – the merciful Jesus or the miserable Pharisee?

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(July 21, 2018: Lawrence of Brindisi, Priest )
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“Woe to those who plan iniquity, and work out evil on their couches…”

Oh, come on! Who actually plans iniquity? Who actually sits around and plans on doing evil?

How about those who gossip? How about those who bad-mouth others or who disparage others in speech? In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales observed:

“To scoff at others is one of the worst states in which a mind can find itself. God detests this vice and in past times inflicted strange punishments on it. Nothing is so opposed to charity – and much more to devotion – than to despise and condemn one’s neighbors. Derision and mockery are always accompanied by scoffing, and it is therefore a very great sin. Theologians consider it one of the worst offenses against one’s neighbor of which a person can be guilty. Other offenses may be committed with some esteem for the person offended, but this treats a person with scorn and contempt.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 27, pp. 195-196)

We all know from our own experience that speaking negatively about others is all too easy. Be it planned or spontaneous, God is very clear: woe to those who engage in evil things, evil things like bad-mouthing others.

Today, what strategies might we employ to avoid woes like these?

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(July 22, 2018: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“Rest a while...”

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Not only might it make Jack dull, but it also might cripple Jack’s attempts at being happy, healthy and even holy!

Make no mistake. Growing in holiness - making real in our own lives the love of the God in whose image and likeness we are created - is serious business. It requires hard work; it requires discipline; it requires self-examination; it requires commitment.

As Francis de Sales would say, it requires devotion.

Salesian spirituality also recognizes the value of relaxation, of taking “time out”, of “catching your breath” and making time for play. In fact, relaxation is not only permissible, but it is also necessary!

Francis de Sales claimed: “It is actually a defect to be so strict, austere and unsociable that one neither permits oneself nor others any recreation time”. His Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) contains ample evidence of the Gentleman Saint's appreciation of the important role that rest and recreation play in the pursuit of a fully human, God-centered life. He said: “From time to time we must recreate in mind and body. Take the air, go for a walk, enjoy a friendly chat, play music, or sing or hunt…are such honest diversions that the only thing needed to utilize them well is simple prudence, which gives to all things their rank, time, place and measure”.

To be balanced, we need to know our limitations. We need to know when it’s time to say “enough”, if only for a little while. St. Jane once wrote in the context of a letter to a member of her community: “I must run, for I have little leisure and my arm and hand are starting to tire and hurt, even though I’ve just begun to write. I’m not able to do as much as I used to”.

In his book Touching the Ordinary, Robert Wicks identifies practices that can help us establish and maintain a balanced life: get enough sleep, eat right, practice leisure and pace yourself. Learn to laugh; focus on values; practice self-appreciation; be involved, but not too involved; have a support group; escape on occasion; be spontaneous; avoid negativity; establish good friendships and practice intimacy.

Our Lord Jesus Christ spent virtually his entire public ministry meeting the needs of others: healing, teaching, feeding, challenging and forgiving - in short, working. But the Gospels that document Christ's work ethic also clearly document those times when he withdrew from his activities to rest, to renew, to enjoy another’s hospitality and to spend time with friends. All these ways were helpful in rededicating himself to doing the Will of God.

There are plenty of ways for us to achieve balance between work and play, livelihood and leisure, pay and play. Consider them in a personal, prayerful manner. Choose those consistent with the state and stage of life in which you find yourself at this time. Realize that as your life changes, so too may your means for achieving this happy, healthy and holy balance.

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(July 23, 2018: Bridget, Religious )
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“You have been told what the Lord requires of you: do the right and love goodness and walk humbly with your God…”

In a letter to “a person of piety”, Francis de Sales wrote:

“The more humility costs you, the more graces it will give you. Continue then to discipline your heart by humility and exalt it by charity…Study this lesson deeply, for it is the one lesson of our sovereign Master: ‘Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart.’ How happy you will be, if you resign yourself fully to the will of Our Lord. Yes, for this holy willing is all good and its execution all good. There is no better path to walk other than under His providence and guidance.” (Living Jesus, p. 145)

Humility is not about having no life; humility is about laying down our lives – giving our lives – in the service of others. Of course, “laying down our lives” can sound overwhelming, especially when we consider the dramatic way in which Jesus laid down his life on the cross of Calvary. As St. Francis de Sales constantly reminds us, however, for most of us this giving of our lives gets played out in little, ordinary ways: like doing what is right and loving what is good.

We know what the Lord requires of us: to walk humbly with God, that is, to do what is right and to love what is good in our relationships with others.

And to know true happiness in the process!

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(July 24, 2018: Sharbel Makhluf, Priest)
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“Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, sister and mother…”

In the opinion of William Barclay, this selection from Matthew’s Gospel offers us an expanded notion of the ties that bind - a new way of looking at kinship, family and friendship. He wrote:

“True kinship is not always a matter of flesh and blood relationship. It remains true that blood is a tie that nothing can break and that many people find their delight and their peace in the circle of their families. But it is also true that sometimes a man’s nearest and dearest are the people who understand him least, and that he finds his true fellowship with those who work for a common ideal and who share a common experience. This certainly is true – even if Christians find that those who should be closest to them are those who are most out of sympathy with them, there remains for them the fellowship of Jesus Christ and the friendship of all who love the Lord.”

Barclay says that this expanded notion of family – of home – is founded on three things:

  1. A common ideal. People who are very different can be firm friends, if they have a common ideal for which they work and toward which they press.

  2. A common experience and the memories that come from it. When people have passed together through some great experience – and when they can together to look back on it – real friendship begins.

  3. Obedience. There is no better way of showing the reality of love than the spirit of obedience.
In a conference to the Visitation Sisters, Francis remarked:

“Let us hear and follow the voice of the divine Savior, who like the perfect psalmist, pours forth the last strains of an undying love from the tree of the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ After that has been said, what remains but to breathe forth our last breath and die of love, living no longer for ourselves but Jesus living in us? Then, all the anxieties of our hearts will cease – anxieties proceeding from desires suggested by self-love and by tenderness for ourselves that make us secretly so eager in the pursuit of our own satisfaction…Embarked, then, in the exercises of our own vocation and carried along by the winds of this simple and loving confidence we shall make the greatest progress; we shall draw nearer and nearer to home.” (Living Jesus, p. 430)

As members of Jesus’ family, let us do our level best to be obedient, that is, to listen to the voice of God in our lives and act upon what we hear. May we celebrate the kinship, friendship and love that come with following the will of our heavenly Father and experience the ties that truly and tenaciously bind us together.


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(July 25, 2018: James, Apostle )
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“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant…”

Francis de Sales once wrote:

“‘Borrow empty vessels, not a few,’ said Elisha to the poor widow, ‘and pour oil into them.’ (2 Kings 4: 3-4) To receive the grace of God into our hearts they must be emptied of our own pride…” (Living Jesus, p. 149)

It’s all-too-easy to fill our hearts – our precious earthen vessels – with all kinds of earthly treasures, things that – as good as they might be – aren’t really treasures at all - at least, not where God is concerned. The less space occupied in our hearts by things that merely pass for treasure, the more room we make available in our hearts for the real, heavenly treasure that is truly precious - the love of God. Recall the words of St. Francis de Sales in a conference (On Cordiality) he gave to the Sisters of the Visitation: “We must remember that love has its seat in the heart, and that we can never love our neighbor too much, nor exceed the limits of reason in this affection, provided that it dwells in the heart.” (Conference IV, p. 56)

The story of Zebedee’s sons illustrates the importance of being very careful about what we store in our hearts. Notwithstanding their intimate relationship with Jesus, they set their hearts on a treasure that was not in Jesus’ power to grant: places of honor in His Kingdom. He responds to this request (made on James and John’s behalf by their mother, no less, who apparently also had her heart set on honor for her sons as well) by challenging them to set their hearts not on the desire for honor but on opportunities to serve the needs of others…and so to have honor beyond their wildest dreams!

Jesus tells Zebedee’s sons that the chalice from which they will drink (the same chalice from which Jesus drank every day) is an invitation to experience the greatness that comes from being a servant. Francis de Sales wrote:

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

Today, how ready and willing are we to drink from that same chalice today?