Spirituality Matters 2018: July 5th - July 11th

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(July 5, 2018: Elizabeth of Portugal)
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“Why do you entertain such evil thoughts in your hearts?

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales claimed that impugning the motives of others is a primary source of much of the sin and iniquity with which our world is plagued.

We witness slander when someone falsely imputes crimes and sins toward another person. We witness slander when someone reveals others’ secret faults, or exaggerates faults that are already obvious to everyone. We witness slander when someone ascribes evil motives to the good deeds that another does or attempts to minimize - or deny them - all together.

In today’s Gospel, we witness such slander in action. Perhaps slander in thought only, but slander nonetheless.

After forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man, Jesus is palpably aware of what was going through the minds of the scribes – they secretly assumed that such action made Jesus guilty of blasphemy, that is, of usurping the power and authority of God. They were determined to turn any good that Jesus did into something bad. Well, Jesus response is swift and twofold – he calls them out for their secret, distorted thinking and then powerfully proves by what power and authority he forgives sins by healing the same man of his physical paralysis.

Would that Jesus could have healed the attitudinal paralysis of the scribes so easily, a paralysis stemming from the slanderous manner with which they viewed Jesus, because when they weren’t falsely accusing him of assorted crimes and sins, they attempted to minimize – or discredit entirely – the good that he accomplished and the healings that he performed.

What is the moral is this Gospel?

The answer - there are far worse ways of being incurably paralyzed other than being unable to walk.

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(July 6, 2018: Maria Goretti)
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“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In today’s Gospel, we are considering two related – but remarkably different – notions of what it means to be God-like. We are considering two related – but remarkably different – models for growing in holiness.

The tension between mercy and sacrifice is not something invented by Jesus, but it is as old as the Hebrew community itself. Actually, it is as old as the human family itself (Cain and Abel – Abraham and Isaac). But Jesus does make this issue front and center in his ongoing struggle with the Scribes and Pharisees.

Under the paradigm of SACRIFICE, holiness is all about proving my fidelity to God. It is all about showing God that I love God enough to go without food for a day, to slaughter a bull, to walk so many miles in my bare feet or to donate $5 million to my church’s capital campaign. Mind you, none of these things are wrong per se, but when holiness is understood almost exclusively as sacrifice, the danger is that it may ultimately lead to loving God to the exclusion of loving my neighbor.

The ancient Israelite prophets frequently criticized their people for somehow attempting to pit the love of God against the love of neighbor. In the prophet Isaiah, we hear:

“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough burnt offerings, or rams and the fat of fattened animals. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” (1: 11 – 17)

By contrast, the MERCY paradigm of holiness emphasizes the need to integrate the two components of Jesus’ Great Commandment exemplified in the words of 1 John 4:12:

“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and love is made complete in us.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but loving God and loving neighbor can never be separated. They are indeed two indispensable sides of the very same coin. The goal of holiness that we pursue in praying, fasting, singing songs of praise, donating blood making meals for the homeless and every other act of piety and mercy is not to prove anything to God but to give God complete influence over our hearts.

Sacrifice can be extremely beneficial when it is a means for submitting ourselves more completely to God’s mercy and not a substitute for it. For example, fasting can teach us to be aware of our own hungers and our need for God to feed us as a remedy for the pride of self-sufficiency. However, if God indeed desires mercy over sacrifice, the commands that God gives us are not intended to be tests of our loyalty to God but rather a pathway for allowing His reign of mercy to reign in our hearts - a reign expressed through our exercise of mercy toward one another.

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(July 7, 2018: Saturday, Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?”

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

“If you can stand fasting, you will do well to fast on certain days in addition to those prescribed by the Church. Besides the usual effects of fasting, namely, elevating our spirits, keeping the body in submission, practicing virtue and gaining greater reward in heaven, it is valuable for restraining gluttony and keeping our sensual appetites and body subject to the law of the spirit.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 23, p. 185)

From a Salesian perspective, there is a place for fasting in the spiritual life. However, fasting is not the only method for “elevating our spirits, keeping the body in submission, practicing virtue and gaining greater reward in heaven.” So is work!

Francis continued:

“Both fasting and labor mortify and subdue the flesh. If your work is necessary for you to contribute to God’s glory, I prefer that you endure the pains of work rather than that of fasting. Such is the mind of the Church…One man finds it difficult to fast, while another is called to care for the sick, visit prisoners, hear confessions, preach, comfort the afflicted, pray and perform similar tasks. These latter disciplines are of greater value than the first: besides subduing the body, they produce much more desirable fruits.” (Ibid, pp. 185 – 186)

Why didn’t Jesus’ disciples fast? It seems they were too busy contributing to God’s glory by serving the needs of others.

There are two ways of contributing to God’s glory: fasting (doing without) and laboring (doing).

Today, which way will you pursue today?

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(July 8, 2018: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”

The account in today’s Gospel is but one of many episodes in which Jesus experienced rejection. People “took offense” at him because of his dedication and devotion to doing God’s Will in his own life. So strong was this resistance and rejection in his native place that “he was not able to perform any mighty deed” there.

The temptation that Jesus faced – the temptation we all face – is to be more concerned about being accepted by others than to stick to our convictions, when confronted by rejection. We are tempted to dilute the truth, to lower our standards and to avoid anything that “rocks the boat”. We are tempted to win friends at all costs, but unfortunately we lose ourselves in the process.

St. Francis de Sales, the gentleman saint, was a man who tried his best to speak and live the truth of the Gospel in a humble, gentle and friendly way. For all his powers of persuasion, though, he, also experienced rejection. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, he writes:

“As soon as people see that you wish to follow a devout life they aim a thousand darts of mockery and detraction at you. The most slanderous of them will slander your devotion as hypocrisy, bigotry and trickery. Your friends will raise a lot of objections which they consider very prudent and charitable: they will tell you that you will become depressed, lose your reputation in the world, become unbearable, grow old before your time, and that your affairs at home will suffer. They will say that you can save your soul without going to such extremes.” (Part IV, Chapter 1)

Ouch! It seems (by some standards, at least) that the Good News is not always so good - or, a least, not very easy - for the folks who try to live it!

To be sure, we sometimes need to look for the kernels of truth that may be contained in criticism and rejection. Are we arrogant? Are we strident? Are we too pushy or stubborn? Is it really God’s Will that we are promoting or is it our own? Still, if our conscience is clear, how do we deal with rejection?

Francis de Sales’ advises: “Be firm in your purposes and unswerving in your resolutions. Perseverance will prove whether you are sincerely sacrificing yourself to God and dedicating yourself to living a devout life.” He concludes: “The world may hold us to be fools.” Like Jesus, rejection is a price – however painful – that we must sometimes be willing to pay.

And so today, if rejection comes our way, how will we deal with it?

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(July 9, 2018: Augustine Zhao Rong, Priest and Companions, Martyrs )
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“Courage! Your faith has saved you…”

How many times does Jesus make this statement (or ones similar to it) in the context of performing a miracle? Some might interpret his words as gratuitous. They might view these words as Jesus’ attempt to make the beneficiaries patronize them into thinking that they contributed – somehow, even in some small way - to the releasing of His life-changing power.

Those who would interpret Jesus’ words as patronizing would be wrong – dead wrong.

When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you”, He is simply speaking the truth. The two miracles in today’s Gospel illustrate this point. In both cases (an official with a dead daughter and a woman with a chronic illness) the story that ends with the daughter being raised from the dead and the woman being cured from her hemorrhage were set into motion because someone had the courage to approach Jesus with a request and/or an intuition: “Come, lay your hand on her, and she will live” and “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured”.

What if the official had been too proud to ask Jesus for help? What if the woman had been too ashamed to reach out to Jesus? Fortunately for them, each of them was (1) humble enough to acknowledge their need, and (2) courageous enough to ask for help.

How about us? Are there any needs that we (or those we love) have that we believe only Jesus has the power to address? Are we humble enough to name those needs for ourselves? Are we courageous enough to bring those needs to Jesus?

Do you believe your faith in Jesus can save you?

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(July 10, 2018: Tuesday, Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time)
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"At the sight of the crowds his heart was moved…”

In commenting upon the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn…” William Barclay wrote: “It is first of all to be noted about this beatitude that the Greek word for to mourn – used here – is the strongest word for mourning in the Greek language. It is the mourning that is used for mourning for the dead, for the passionate lament for one who was loved…it is defined as the kind of grief that takes such a hold on a man that it cannot be hidden. It is not only the sorrow which brings an ache to the heart; it is the sorrow which brings the unrestrained tear to the eyes…” ( The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 93)

In the case of Jesus, it is this sorrow that moves his heart and releases miraculous power!

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales cites one of two virtues associated with mourning or sadness: “Compassion”. ( IDL, Part IV, Chapter 12, p. 253) At the sight of the man with a dead daughter and the woman with a chronic illness in yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved: the woman was cured, and the girl was raised. In today’s Gospel Jesus’ heart was deeply moved as He taught in synagogues, proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom, and cured every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the neediness that He himself was encountering in others, Jesus asked His disciples to pray that God send more laborers for His harvest. In tomorrow’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart will move Him to go a step further with this request: He himself will commission his disciples to be those very laborers.

Whenever Jesus’ heart was moved by the sight of others’ needs, power was released in Him. The people were taught; the sick were healed; the possessed were freed; the lost were found and the dead were raised. These actions are at the heart of compassion, because it’s not enough merely to feel sorry for someone else’s plight. Compassion requires that we do something to address another’s plight. Compassion is more than just feeling; compassion is about doing.

Today, are we willing to take our rightful place as laborers for God’s harvest? At the sight of other people’s needs, will our hearts – like the heart of Jesus himself – be moved to meet their needs? In other words, will we respond with compassion?

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(July 11, 2018: Benedict, Abbot )
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“Sow for yourselves justice, reap the fruit of piety.”

Wikipedia defines piety as “a virtue that can mean religious devotion, spirituality or a combination of both. A common element in most conceptions is humility.” Merriam-Webster defines piety as (1) “the quality of being religious or reverent,” and (2) “the quality of being dutiful.” Synonyms include: “devoutness, godliness, religiousness and devotion.”

In a letter to Madame de Limojon, Francis de Sales wrote: “I have said this to you in person, madam, and now I write it: I don’t want a devotion that is bizarre, confused, neurotic, strained, and sad, but rather, a gentle, attractive, peaceful piety; in a word, a piety that is quite spontaneous and wins the love of God, first of all, and after that, the love of others.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 156)

As Francis de Sales understood it, piety is less a function of how many prayers we say, how many spiritual exercises we perform or how many hours we spend on our knees (although these things do have their place!). No, piety is more about being devout, about being “dutiful,” that is, about honoring what is due to God and honoring what is due to our neighbor.

In other words, piety is about justice; piety is about doing what is right.

In his Treatise on the Love of God, (Book XI, Chapter 3, p. 202) Francis observed: “Of all virtuous actions we ought most carefully practice those of religion and reverence for divine things. Such are the acts of faith, hope and holy fear of God. We must often speak of heavenly things, think of eternity and sigh for it, frequent churches and sacred services, read devout books and observe the ceremonies of the Christian religion…” Provided, of course, that all these nourish “sacred love.”

Today, do you want to reap “the fruit of piety”? Then, sow justice for God and sow justice for others.