Spirituality Matters 2019: April 11th - April 17th
“I am making you the father of a host of nations…”
In a conference (on “Hope”) he gave to the Sisters of the Visitation, St. Francis de Sales remarked:
“Among the praises which the saints give to Abraham, St. Paul places this above all the others: that Abraham believed in hope even against hope. God had promised him that his seed should be multiplied as the stars of the heaven and the sand on the seashore, and at the same time he received the command to slay his son Isaac. Abraham in his distress did not, however, lose hope, but hoped, even against hope, that if he obeyed the command and slew his son, God would not fail to keep His word. Truly, great was his hope, for he saw no possible foundation for it, except the promise which God had given him. Ah, how true and solid a foundation is the word of God, for it is infallible!” (Conference VI, pp. 88 – 89)
What does it really mean when we hope for something? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines hope as “to wish for something with the expectation of fulfillment.” It defines the theological virtue of hope as “the desire and search for a future good, difficult, but not impossible, to attain with God’s help.” From a theological point of view, there is much more to hope than mere wishful thinking.
In the opinion of St. Francis de Sales, we cannot fully understand the virtue of hope without also understanding the practice of aspiration. In Book Two of his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales distinguishes one from the other: “We hope for those things that we expect to gain through the aid of another, whereas we aspire to those things that we expect to gain through our own resources and our own efforts.” Of the relationship between these two practices, Francis wrote: “Just as those who would try to hope without aspiring are cowardly and irresponsible, so too, those who try to aspire without hoping are rash, insolent and presumptuous.” (Chapter 17)
As people of faith, we hope when we realize that the good things for which we wish ultimately depend on the grace of God. As people of faith, we aspire when we recognize that the good things for which we wish also depend on our own efforts.
Hope against hope, Abraham believed in God. But Abraham also put his belief – and his hope – into action.
Today can the same be said of us?
“I hear the whisperings of many…”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to one of the most common kind of all whisperings.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales wrote:
“Rash judgment begets uneasiness, contempt of neighbor, pride, self-satisfaction and many other extremely bad effects. Slander, the true plague of society, holds first place among them. I wish that I had a burning coal taken from the holy altar to purify men’s lips so that their iniquities might be removed and their sins washed away, as did the seraphim who purified Isaiah’s mouth. The man who could free the world of slander would free it if a large share of its sins and iniquity.”
“Slander is a form of murder. We have three kinds of life: spiritual, which consists in God’s grace; corporeal, which depends on the body and soul, and; social, which consists in our good name. Sin deprives us of the first kind of life, death takes away the second and slander takes away the third. By the single stroke of his tongue the slanderer usually commits three murders. He kills his own soul and the soul of anyone who hears him by an act of spiritual homicide and takes away the social life of the person he slanders.”
“I earnestly exhort you, never to slander anyone either directly or indirectly. Beware of falsely imputing crime and sins to your neighbor, revealing his secret sins, exaggerating those that are obvious, putting an evil interpretation on his good works, denying the good that you know belongs to someone, maliciously concealing it or lessening it by words. You would offend God in all these ways but most of all by false accusations and denying the truth to your neighbor’s harm. It is a double sin to lie and harm your neighbor at the same time.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 29, pp. 201-202)
What else need be said? Or, more to the point – what should no longer be said?
"I will be their God, and they will be my people."
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:
“‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore, I have drawn you, having pity and mercy on you. And I will build you again, and you shall be built, O Israel.’ These are God’s words, and by them he promises that when the Savior comes into the world, he will establish a new kingdom in his Church, which will be his virgin spouse and true spiritual Israelite woman. As you see ‘it was not by’ any merit of ‘works that we did ourselves, but according to his mercy that he saved us.’ It was by that ancient – rather, that eternal – charity which moved his divine providence to draw us to himself. If the Father had not drawn us, we would never have come to the Son, our Savior, nor consequently to salvation.” (TLG, Book II, Chapter 9, pp. 123-124)
God’s eternal charity – that is, God’s eternal love – makes us his people. We have done nothing to merit such an honor. It is an absolutely unearned gift. And despite our individual – and collective – sins, failings and infidelities, God demonstrates that – unlike us – he is never fickle and always faithful. God always has been, is and will be our God, and we always have been, are and will be God’s people.
What can we do – just this day – to say “thank you” to God for his fidelity to – and love for – us?
“The passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ…”
The Passion of Jesus is certainly an account of the end of his earthly life. But the Passion of Jesus is also something that was demonstrated every day of his earthly life.
A passion for human justice.
A passion for divine justice.
A passion for doing what is right and good.
A passion for challenging others to promote the same.
In his Treatise on the Love of God (Book 10, Chapter 16), St. Francis de Sales identifies three levels of such passion:
First, we can have a passion for correcting, censuring and reprimanding others. This is perhaps the easiest because it does not necessarily require those who are passionate about righteousness to actually perform acts of justice themselves. This form of zeal, obviously, can be very attractive because the focus is on what others are not doing. On the other hand, it can become a classic case of "do as I say, not as I do," because it does not require us to live in a just manner ourselves.
Second, we can be passionate "by doing acts of great virtue in order to give good examples by suggesting remedies for evil, encouraging others to apply them, and doing the good opposed to the evil that we wish to eradicate.” “This holds for all of us," remarks de Sales, "but few of us are anxious to do so." Sure, it requires work and integrity on our part. We can't simply talk the talk; we must also walk the walk."Finally, the most excellent exercise of passion consists in suffering and enduring many things in order to prevent or avert evil. Almost no one wants to exercise this passion." This passion is willing to risk everything for what is righteous and just, even life itself. "Our Lord's passion appeared principally in his death on the cross to destroy death and the sins of humanity," wrote St. Francis de Sales. To imitate Jesus' zeal for justice is "a perfection of courage and unbelievable fervor of spirit."
Jesus certainly challenged the injustice of others. Jesus was willing to promote justice through his own good example. Most important, Jesus was willing to go the distance in his passion for justice, even at the cost of his own life.
Passion Sunday - for that matter, every day - begs the question: How far are we willing to go in our passion for justice, that is, for what is right and good?
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my Spirit…”
Obviously, Jesus is the servant whom God upholds. Obviously, Jesus is God’s servant. Obviously, Jesus is one upon whom God has put his Spirit.
Not so obvious? You, too, are the servant that God upholds. You, too, are God’s chosen one. You, too, are one upon whom God has put his Spirit.
How might you be pleasing – not only to God, but also to other people – today?
"The Lord called me from birth; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name...”
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Consider that a certain number of years ago you were not yet in the world and that your present being was truly nothing. My soul, where were you at that time? The world had already existed for a long time, but of us there was yet nothing. God has drawn you out of that nothingness to make you what you now are and he has done so solely out of his own goodness and without need of you. Consider the nature God has given you. It is the highest in this visible world. It is capable of eternal life and of being perfectly united to his Divine Majesty.” (Part I, Chapter 9, p. 53)
From all eternity God chose to create us out of nothing and to make us something…to make us someone. What return can we make other than to stand in awe of God’s generosity towards us?
And to live accordingly!
“The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary…”
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“‘If a man does not offend in word, he is a perfect man,’ says St. James. Be careful never to let an indecent word leave your lips, for even if you do not speak with an evil intention those who hear it may take it a different way. An evil word falling into a weak heart grows and spreads like a drop of oil on a piece of linen cloth. Sometimes it seizes the heart in such a way as to fill it with a thousand unclean thoughts and temptations. Just as bodily poison enters through the moth, so what poisons the heart gets in through the ear and the tongue that utters it is a murderer. Perhaps the poison the mouth casts forth does not always produce its effect because it finds its hearers’ hearts guarded by some protective remedy. Still it was not for want of malice that it did not bring about their death. No man can tell me that he speaks without thinking.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 26, pp. 194-195)
People who are weary – people who are tired – people who are worn down – are especially vulnerable to the words that others speak to them.
How will we speak to the weary today?