Spirituality Matters 2018: September 13th - September 20th

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(September 13, 2018: John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church)
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“The measure you measure will be given back to you.”

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

“Be just and equitable in all your actions. Always put yourself in your neighbor’s place and place your neighbor in yours, then you will judge rightly. Imagine yourself the seller when you buy and imagine yourself the buyer when you sell – then you will sell and buy justly. A person loses nothing by living generously, nobly, courteously and with a royal, just and reasonable heart…This is the touchstone of true reason.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 36, p. 217)

Francis tells us we lose nothing by measuring generously when it comes to how we deal with our brothers and sisters. Jesus goes one step further – generosity toward others offers us the promise of eternal life for ourselves…and then some!

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(September 14, 2018: Exultation of the Holy Cross)
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“He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

In a sermon preached on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Francis de Sales remarked:

“St. Paul, the outstanding master and teacher of the newborn Church, discovered in the crucified Christ the blissful wellspring of his love, the theme of his sermons, the source of his boasting, the goal of all his ambitions in this world and the anchor of all his hopes for the world to come. I had no thought, he says, of bringing you any other knowledge than that of Jesus Christ, and of him crucified. God forbid that I should make a display of anything, except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Pulpit and Pew: A Study in Salesian Preaching)

The cross of Christ is the core of our lives. The cross of Christ is the central image of our faith. The cross of Christ is the path to our salvation.

Still, no less than five times in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus makes it very clear - if we wish to be his disciples, we must be willing to pick up not his cross, but pick up our own cross. We are not called to carry his cross, but ours. Put another way, we imitate the power and the promise of the cross of Christ precisely by being willing to embrace the crosses — the challenges, the burdens, the setbacks — that are part and parcel of our lives.

In short, the cross that we carry is the need to be ourselves — not somebody else — and to take all that comes with that effort.

Many of the crosses we carry are specific to the state and stage of life in which we find ourselves. Francis de Sales offers the following examples of the kinds of crosses that we might be asked to carry.

“To the pastors of the Church I offer a cross of care and labor, a shepherd’s toil to protect, to feed, to correct and perfect the flock. This was the cross first carried by our Lord who called himself the Good Shepherd: witness his journeys, his fatigue by Jacob’s well, his loving care for those who treated him badly.” (Ibid)

“To religious I offer the cross of solitude, celibacy and unworldliness. It is a cross that has touched the True Cross; it is a cross that was carried by Our Lady, the holiest, most innocent and completely crucified of all who ever loved the cross for Christ.” (Ibid)

“To those serving in government, I present the cross of learning, fairness and the sincerity of truth: a cross worthy of those who, St. Paul says, are in God’s service. Such a cross is ideal for crucifying merely secular values, for repressing self-interest: it encourages peace and quiet in the realm.” (Ibid)

“To workers, I offer the cross of humility and labor, a cross sanctified by our Lord himself in the carpenter’s shop. The cross of daily work is often a sure way to salvation; it may also be the best means of avoiding sin, for the devil finds work for idle hands.” (Ibid)

“For teenagers I have chosen the cross of obedience, purity and self-discipline. It will crucify the young blood of passion that is just coming to a boil: the boldness of youth still awaiting the guiding hand of prudence. It will teach them to bear the easy yoke of Christ in whatever calling in life God may place them.” (Ibid)

“For old people there is the cross of patience, gentleness and a helpful attitude towards the young. This cross demands a brave heart. They have learned that swift as a breath our lives pass away…” (Ibid)

“There is no shortage of crosses for married folk, but perhaps I could single out the cross of mutual support and faithfulness, and the cross of bringing up a family…” (Ibid)

There is but one cross of Jesus Christ. For us, however, our crosses come in many shapes, sizes and situations.

Today, what cross is Christ asking us to carry today?

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(September 15, 2018: Our Lady of Sorrows)
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“You yourself a sword will pierce…” (Luke)

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

“Various sacred lovers were present at the death of the Savior. Among them, those having the greatest love had the greatest sorrow, for love was then deeply plunged into sorrow and sorrow into love. All those who were filled with loving passion for their Savior were in love with his passion and sorrow. But his sweet Mother, who loved him more than all others, was more than all others pierced through and through by the sword of sorrow. Her Son’s sorrow at that time was a piercing sword that passed through the Mother’s heart, for that Mother’s heart was fastened, joined and united to her Son in so perfect a union that nothing could wound the one without inflicting the keenest pain upon the other…” (TLG, Book VII, Chapter 13, pp. 50-51)

Nobody in their right mind should love sorrow. But, as we know from our own experience, sorrow is part-and-parcel of life. If you’ve never experienced sorrow, chances are you’ve probably never experienced life, either.

What more need be said?

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(September 16, 2018: Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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“Get thee behind me, Satan.”

The saints are heroes of our faith tradition. They are people to whom we look for guidance and inspiration. They are people we admire. They remind us God can accomplish in us the kinds of things God accomplished in them. But the stories of the saints are more than a consideration of the promise of human strength, courage, fidelity and tenacity. Their stories are also powerful reminders of the reality of human frailty, weakness and infidelity. In a sermon he preached on Palm Sunday, March 1622, Francis de Sales observed:

“All creatures, you see, are a mixture of perfection and imperfection. For this reason, they can be used as symbols of either. Every person, no matter how holy, has some imperfections. Made in God’s image, each person reflects something of God’s goodness while, at the same time, that same person carries some imperfections.” (Pulpit and Pew)

Consider the example of St. Peter in today’s Gospel. When the apostles were asked the question by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?” Peter is the first to proclaim: “You are the Messiah!” A mere few verses following this great public demonstration of faith, Peter takes issue with Jesus’ prediction of his ultimate rejection, death and resurrection, and is subjected to a great pubic humiliation when Jesus turns on him and proclaims: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”

In the case of St. Peter, this display would not be the last of both his perfections and imperfections. In the Treatise on the Love of God, Francis commented:

“Who would not marvel at the heart of St. Peter, so bold among armed soldiers that he alone takes his sword in hand and strikes out with it? Yet, just a short time later, among unarmed people, he is so cowardly that at the mere word of a servant girl he denies and detests his master.” ( TLG, Book X, Chapter 9)

Francis de Sales believed that we have as much to learn from the setbacks of the saints as we do from their successes.

“It is a good thing to see the defects in the lives of the saints. It not only shows God’s goodness in forgiving them, but it also teaches us to imitate the saints in their efforts to overcome their failings and to do penance for them. We study the virtues of the saints in order to imitate them; we study the failings of the saints in order to avoid them.” (Ibid)

This way of looking at the saints can be most helpful in our everyday attempts to “Live Jesus”. Seeing the defects of the saints can serve as a strong vaccine against any dismay or discouragement we may experience when faced with our own sins, failings and imperfections. Likewise, seeing the virtues of the saints can dissuade us from becoming smug or satisfied with our shortcomings.

What is the bottom line? The saints are our companions for the journey. They have much to teach us about how to pursue a life of devotion: overcoming our sins and failings and strengthening our practice of virtue. Francis de Sales (himself a saint) challenges us to see the saints as real people, and to realize that we can learn as much from their setbacks as we can from their successes.

Beginning today!

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(September 17, 2018: Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church )
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“May all who seek you exult and be glad in you…”

“A contemporary of St. Francis de Sales, St. Robert Bellarmine was the third of ten children. He entered the newly formed Society of Jesus in 1560 and after his ordination went on to teach at Louvain (1570-1576) where he became famous for his Latin sermons. In 1576, he was appointed to the chair of controversial theology at the Roman College, becoming Rector in 1592. He went on to become Provincial of Naples in 1594 and Cardinal in 1598.”

“This outstanding scholar and devoted servant of God defended the Apostolic See against the anti-clericals in Venice and against the political tenets of James I of England. He composed an exhaustive apologetic work against the prevailing heretics of his day. In the field of church-state relations, he took a position based on principles now regarded as fundamentally democratic: authority originates with God, but is vested in the people, who entrust it to fit rulers.”

“This saint was the spiritual father of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, helped St. Francis de Sales obtain formal approval of the Visitation Order, and in his prudence opposed severe action in the case of Galileo. He has left us a host of important writings, including works of devotion and instruction, as well as controversy. He died in 1621.” ( http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=101 )

Robert Bellarmine’s support of Francis de Sales was not limited to the formal approval of the Visitation Order. In fact, Bellarmine had been helpful to Francis de Sales nearly sixteen years earlier while the latter – then a newly-ordained priest – was engaged as a missionary in the Chablais. In a letter (February 1609) addressed to Pierre de Villars, Archbishop of Vienne, Francis wrote:

“I have some material for introducing beginners to the exercise of evangelical preaching which I would like to follow up with a methodical study for the conversion of heretics by holy preaching. In this last book I should like to demolish – by way of practical method – all the most obvious and celebrated arguments of our adversaries, and that not only in a style that will instruct, but also move, so that the book will not only serve for the consolation of Catholics but for the conversion of heretics. I intend to use towards this project some meditations that I composed during my five years in the Chablais where the only books I had to help me in my preaching were the Bible and those of the great Bellarmine.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, pp. 164-165)

There can be no doubt that many people who encountered Robert Bellarmine were better off for having done so. Similarly, there can be no doubt that one of his greatest admirers – Francis de Sales – had a positive impact on a countless number of people himself.

Can the same be said of us? Are other people “glad” for having encountered us?

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(September 18, 2018: Tuesday, Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time
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“Now the body is not a single part, but many.”

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

“The supreme unity of the divine act is opposed to confusion and disorder but not to distinction and variety. On the contrary, it employs these last to bring forth beauty by reducing all difference and diversity to proportion, proportion to order and order to the unity of the world, which comprises all things, both visible and invisible. All these together are called the universe perhaps because all their diversity is reduced to unity, as if one were to say ‘unidiverse,’ that is, unique and diverse, unique along with diversity and diverse along with unity. In sum, God’s supreme unity diversifies all things and his permanent eternity gives change to all things…” (TLG, Book II, Chapter 2, p. 106)

Everything– be it our physical bodies, our families or our churches – is made up a variety of things. Everything – be it our physical bodies, our families or our churches – works best when each and every part does what it is designed and destined to do.

Each and every one of us makes up some part of the Body of Christ. The fact that no two of us are exactly the same actually makes possible the unity toward which Jesus asks us to work. In this challenge we experience a great paradox, perhaps the greatest of all paradoxes. It is only when each of us is fully and authentically our unique selves that unity with others is truly possible. Put another way, unity is not the same as uniformity, i.e., being exactly the same. Where everything or everybody is the same, then there can never be true unity.

Just this day, do you want to do your part to contribute something to the unity of any body – be it family, friends, neighbors, co-workers or church goers – of which you are a part? Then simply try your level best to be your unique self.

And allow – even encourage – others to do the same!

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(September 19, 2018: Januarius, Bishop and Martyr)
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“To what shall I compare the people of this generation?”

You’re dammed if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

The above statement is essentially what Jesus is saying in today’s selection from the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist was criticized for eschewing food and drink, whereas Jesus was criticized for enjoying food and drink. Try as you might to do the right thing – try as you might to be true to yourself - some days you just can’t win!

St. Francis de Sales was certainly no stranger to the dynamic of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, especially when it comes to trying to live a life of devotion. Citing this very selection from today’s Gospel, he observed:

“We can never please the world unless we lose ourselves together with it. It is so demanding that it can’t be satisfied. ‘John came neither eating nor drinking,’ says the Savior, and you say, ‘He has a devil.’ ‘The Son of man came eating and drinking’ and you say that he is ‘a Samaritan’ If we are ready to laugh, play cards or dance with the world in order to please it, it will be scandalized at us, and if we don’t, it will accuse us of hypocrisy or melancholy. If we dress well, it will attribute it to some plan we have, and if neglect our attire, it will accuse us of being cheap and stingy. Good humor will be called frivolity and mortification sullenness. Thus the world looks at us with an evil eye and we can never please it. It exaggerates our imperfections and claims they are sins, turns our venial sins into mortal sins and changes our sins of weakness into sins of malice.”

“The world always thinks evil and when it can’t condemn our acts it will condemn our intentions. Whether the sheep have horns or not and whether they are white or black, the wolf won’t hesitate to eat them if he can. Whatever we do, the world will wage war on us. If we stay a long time in the confessional, it will wonder how we can so much to say; if we stay only a short time, it will say we haven’t told everything…The world holds us to be fools; let us hold it to be mad.” (IDL, Part IV, Chapter 2, pp. 236-237)

These brave missionaries whose lives and sacrifices we remember today made a choice. If they were going to be damned for something, they chose to be damned – in this case, be martyred – for doing the right thing. Of course, as Christians, we believe that being damned in the eyes of others results in their being glorified in the eyes of God.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Well, then, why not be damned for doing what is virtuous, right and good!

How might we follow the example of these brave missionary-martyrs in our willingness to stand up for what we believe in the face of criticism – or even hostility – from others?