Spirituality Matters 2018: November 1st - November 7th

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(November 1, 2018: All Saints)
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“He began to teach them...”

In her book entitled Saint Francis de Sales and the Protestants (in which she examines his missionary activity in the Chablais, one of the most seminal periods in the life of the “Gentleman Saint”), author Ruth Kleinman wrote:

“Saintliness is hard to practice, but it is even more difficult to describe.” A notable exception to this dictum are the words we hear proclaimed today in the Gospel of Matthew on this Solemnity of All Saints.

Jesus describes saintliness simply and succinctly. It is about living a life of Beatitude:

  • Saintly are those who mourn, i.e., those who refuse to harden their hearts when faced with the needs of others.
  • Saintly are those who show mercy, i.e., those who are willing to forgo old hurts and to forgive others from their hearts.
  • Saintly are those who are poor in spirit, i.e., those who experience everything as a gift and who demonstrate their gratitude through their willingness to share what they have (regardless of how ordinary or extraordinary) with others.
  • Saintly are the pure of heart, i.e., those who avoid artificiality and pretense and who have the courage to be their true, authentic selves.
  • Saintly are the meek, i.e., those who know that power isn’t demonstrated by taking from others but about giving to others. It’s not about doing to others but about doing for/with others.
  • Saintly are the peacemakers, i.e., those who bring people together rather than drive them apart.
  • Saintly are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, i.e., those for whom doing good comes with the same frequency and urgency as the need to eat and drink.
  • Saintly are those persecuted for doing what is right, i.e., those who are willing to stand up for what is right regardless of the cost(s) incurred.
And as it turns out, not only is sanctity not hard to describe, but also it isn’t nearly as hard to practice as we might think. In a sermon on Our Lady, Francis de Sales observed:

“There is no need of putting ourselves to the trouble of trying to find out what are the desires of God, for they are all expressed in His commandments and in the counsels of Our Lord Himself gave us in the Sermon on the Mount when He said: ‘How blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the lowly, and the other Beatitudes.’ These are all the desires of God upon which we ought to walk, following these as perfectly as we can.” (Select Salesian Subjects, #0170, p. 37)

Sanctity? To be sure, it is hard work. But with the grace of God – and the support of one another – it is doable!

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(November 2, 2018: Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed)
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“The souls of the just are in the hands of God...”

In one of his pamphlets that was later published in a broader collection entitled The Catholic Controversy, Francis de Sales wrote:

“We maintain that we may pray for the faithful departed, and that the prayers and good works of the living greatly relieve them and are profitable to them for this reason: that all those who die in the grace of God – and consequently, in the number of the elect – do not go to Paradise at the very first moment, but many go to Purgatory…from which our prayers and good works can help and serve to deliver them.”

“We agree the blood of Our Redeemer is the true purgatory of souls, for in it are cleansed all the souls of the world. Tribulations also are a purgatory, by which our souls are rendered pure, as gold refined in the furnace. It is well known that Baptism in which our sins are washed away can be called a purgatory, as everything can be that serves to purge away our offenses. But in this context we take Purgatory for a place in which after this life the souls which leave this world before they have been perfectly cleansed from the stains they have contracted. And if one would know why this place is called simply Purgatory more than are the other means of purgation above-named, the answer will be, that it is because in that place nothing takes place but the purgation of the stains which remain at the time of departure out of this world, whereas in Baptism, Penance, tribulations and the rest, not only is the soul purged from its imperfections, but it is further enriched with many graces and perfections. And agreeing as to the blood of Our Lord, we fully acknowledge the virtue thereof, that we protest by all our prayers that the purgation of souls – whether in this world or in the other – is made solely by its application.” (CC, pp. 353-354)

Notwithstanding the effects of our prayers and good works on behalf of our dearly departed, Francis de Sales reminds us that at the end of the day it is the life and death of Jesus Christ that purifies our souls, whether in this life or in the next. To that end, whether it’s the just or the unjust, whether it’s in this world or the next, we are all in the hands of God.

Here’s hoping that we pray for our faithful departed. Here’s hoping that our faithful departed pray for us.

And isn’t it true that all of us could stand to do with some purgation of one kind or another!

Today, and every day!

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(November 3, 2018: Martin de Porres, Religious)
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“I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two...”

In today’s letter to the Philippians, Paul appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place. He is at one and the same time attracted to continuing to live in this world so as to continue his labor for Christ even as he longs to leave this world so as to experience Christ in his fullness. In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:

“What does it matter to me whether God’s will is offered to me in tribulation or consolation? In each of them I neither desire nor seek anything except the divine will, which is better seen because no other beauty is present there but that of God’s most holy, eternal good pleasure. Heroic, yes, more than heroic, is the indifference of St. Paul the incomparable. ‘I am hard pressed,’ he says to the Philippians, ‘from two sides, desiring to be delivered from this body and to be with Christ – a thing far better – and yet to remain in this life for your sake.’”

“Admirable indifference of the Apostle! He sees paradise open to him; he sees a thousand labors on earth. Choice of one or the other is indifferent to him. Only God’s will can give counterweight to his heart. Paradise is no more worthy of love than the miseries of this world if God’s good pleasure lies equally in them both. For him to toil is paradise if God’s will is found in it, whereas paradise is a trial if God’s will is not found in it…” (TLG, Book IX, Chapter 4, p. 106)

In the end, Paul continued his labors of love for Christ and his children in this world until God’s will clearly indicated that it was time for Paul to rest from his labors in the next world. So, too, with us - until the day comes when God clearly indicates that the time has arrived for us to live forever with him and each other in heaven, let’s devote our time and energy to living as best as we possibly can with him and each other on this earth.

No rock and hard place there!

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(November 4, 2018: Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In today’s reading, a scribe - that is, a Pharisee with a degree in canon law - “steps up”, presumably in an attempt to put Jesus down. Hence, the question: which of the Ten Commandments plus the six hundred and thirteen rules [the Deuteronomic laws] that rabbis believed God orally gave Moses was the most important of all?

Some rabbis thought all were equally important - a kind of early example of “the seamless garment” notion. Most others used to spend a great deal of time disputing which ones were the greatest.

Jesus’ response is an acceptable one, quoting DT: 6:5 (today’s first reading!), stressing that the love of God must involve the total person: heart, soul, and mind. There are no half measures. Then, Jesus goes on to quote LV19:18, which stresses that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus combines these two commandments and declares that they are the foundation of God’s entire revelation. That is, the whole law and the prophets rest on these two pillars. Combining these two may not be unique to Jesus, but it clearly shows his position on his understanding of the Torah.

We have the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When one part fails, the entirety fails. This saying also applies to love, too, in regard to the three-link chain of love: for ourselves, for our neighbor and for our God. Note the order in which the “loves” are named in the Gospel, however: God, neighbor and self. Love of self, perhaps, is the trickiest one of all.

On the one hand, love of self (what Francis de Sales referred to as “self-love”) from a solely earthly perspective can all-too-easily revert to infantile behavior - life is all about me. I have trouble learning that I am not the center of the universe - as a young child believes. If I fail to learn to admit that I am a sinner, then I am in for trouble. While I might admit that I am not perfect, I might have trouble admitting being wrong in any specific instance. Frequently enough, I will do anything to avoid admitting failure. In sum, I have an overblown sense of the person I really am.

On the other hand, some of us may have been love-starved or abused when young in any number of ways. Authority figures or other powerful role models in our early development may have put us down so heavily that our self-image is badly damaged. From a solely earthly perspective, I may have real trouble loving myself. I may see myself as having little or no value. In sum, I sell myself way too short.

The Romans said it well: in medio stat virtus - in the middle (between the extremes) stands virtue. A healthy self-image stands in the middle. I am not the center of the universe, but neither am I a doormat. I need to check for the need for balance on this first step in the progression from what Francis de Sales calls “self-love” to “love of self”. Which begs the question – what is the difference between the two?

Simply put, “self-love” is all about how I see myself from an earthly perspective. “Love of self” is all about how God sees me; that is, with a heavenly perspective.

What better way to live this virtue than how Jesus did it – by meeting others where they are and by meeting ourselves where we are. After all, we can’t love ourselves and others for the person we aren’t – we can only love ourselves and others for the person we are.

As God sees us.

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(November 5, 2018: Monday, Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time )
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“Complete my joy…”

In the movie Sudden Impact (1983), hard-nosed San Francisco detective, Harry Callahan, (played by Clint Eastwood) uttered these now-famous words while challenging a would-be robber to do something stupid (specifically, to pull a gun on him): “Go ahead. Make my day”.

One can hear a parallel in today’s first reading. For all intents and purposes, Paul says the same thing – “Go ahead. Make my day” – while challenging the Philippians to do something good, appealing to “any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, and compassion and mercy.” What will make Paul’s day?

  • Being of the same mind with others
  • Being of the same love with others
  • Being united in heart
  • Doing nothing out of selfishness
  • Putting others first
  • Looking out for others’ interests.
Today, imagine Jesus saying, “Go ahead, make my day” or if you prefer, “Complete my joy”. How can we make Jesus’ day? How can we complete his joy? Try to be of the same mind, heart and love with others. Try to do nothing out of selfishness. Try to put others first by looking out for their interests.

And make your own day – and complete your own joy – in the process!

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(November 6, 2018: Tuesday, Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time)
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“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus…”

What does it mean to have the ‘attitude’ of Christ? In his great ‘hymn’ to the Philippians, Paul notes that Jesus did not cling to his divinity nor to his power. However, Jesus’ self-emptying is not self-deprecation, because Jesus viewed his divine power as something which – by its very nature – is meant to be placed at the service of others. His self-emptying is the ultimate expression of divine – and, for that matter, human – generosity!

This ‘attitude’ of Christ lies at the very heart of the Beatitude that Jesus taught (and lived): “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Blessed – happy – are those who realize that whatever they possess – whoever they are – is designed, deemed and destined, to be shared with others.

Francis de Sales certainly understood the necessity of having the attitude of Christ. “Our possessions are not our own”, he wrote in the Introduction to the Devout Life. “God has given them to us to cultivate and God wants us to make them fruitful and profitable.” How do we make our possessions – our power – “fruitful and profitable?” The Gentleman Saint is quite clear: “Make yourself a servant of the poor.” (IDL, Part Three, Chapter 15, pp. 164-165)

Do you want to have the “attitude” of Christ? Be generous! Put what you have – and who you are – at the service of others.

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(November 7, 2018: Wednesday, Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time)
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“For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work…”

Am I good or am I evil? Your answer to this question is no mere theoretical or abstract discussion. In the Salesian tradition, at least, the question – and its answer – make all the difference between life and death. If you believe that you are good, odds are that you will think, feel, believe and behave in ways that lead to life. By the same token, if you believe that you are evil, well – not surprisingly – you will in all likelihood think, feel, believe and behave in a manner that lead to death.

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

“Consider that a certain number of years ago you were not yet in the world and that your present being was truly nothing. The world had already existed for a long time, but of us there was as yet nothing. God has subsequently drawn you out of nothingness to make you what you are and God has done so solely out of his own goodness. Consider the nature God has given to you. It is the highest in this visible world. It is capable of eternal life and of being perfectly united to his Divine majesty.” (IDL, Part One, Chapter 9, p. 53)

During the 1970’s it was quite popular to say, “God doesn’t make junk”. While not exactly high theology, it does get to the heart of the Salesian understanding of human nature. To paraphrase the words of St. Paul, we humans – all of us – are more than capable of serving God’s goodness. As members of the Salesian family, we likewise know that being good and having good are not the same things as doing good. We all fail to live up to our God-given goodness. We all fail to put our goodness into action. We all fall short when it comes to recognizing and sharing our goodness with others.

In other words, as good as we may be, we sometimes do bad things.

Remind yourself throughout this day that God has made you a good person – after all, you are made in God’s very own image and likeness. In like manner remind yourself throughout the day to ask for the grace you need to be instrument’s of God’s good purpose in the lives of other.