Spirituality Matters 2019: August 15th - August 21, 2019
“Blessed are you among women ...”
Our Salesian reflection for this Feast Day – the Assumption – comes entirely from Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God, Book 7, Chapter 14.
“I do not deny that the soul of the most Blessed Virgin had two portions, and therefore two appetites, one according to the spirit and superior reason, and the other according to sense and inferior reason, with the result that she could experience the struggle and contradiction of one appetite against the other. This burden was felt even by her Son. I say that in this heavenly Mother all affections were so well arranged and ordered that love of God held empire and dominion most peaceably without being troubled by diversity of wills and appetites or by contradiction of senses. Neither repugnance of natural appetite nor sensual movements ever went as far as sin, not even as far as venial sin. On the contrary, all was used holily and faithfully in the service of the holy love for the exercise of the other virtues which, for the most part, cannot be practiced except amid difficulty, opposition and contradiction…”
“As everyone knows, the magnet naturally draws iron towards itself by some power both secret and very wonderful. However, there are five things that hinder this operation: (1) if there is too great a distance between magnet and iron; (2) if there is a diamond placed between the two; (3) if the iron is greased; (4) if the iron is rubbed with onion; (5) if the iron is too heavy.”
“Our heart is made for God, and God constantly entices it and never ceases to cast before it the allurements of divine love. Yet five things impede the operation of this holy attraction: (1) sin, which removes us from God; (2) affection for riches; (3) sensual pleasures; (4) pride and vanity; (5) self-love, together with the multitude of disordered passions it brings forth, which are like a heavy load wearing it down.”
“None of these hindrances had a place in the heart of the glorious Virgin. She was: (1) forever preserved from all sin; (2) forever most poor in spirit; (3) forever most pure; (4) forever most humble; (5) forever the peaceful mistress of all her passions and completely exempt from the rebellion that self-love wages against love of God. For this reason, just as the iron, if free from all obstacles and even from its own weight, would be powerfully yet gently drawn with steady attraction by the magnet – although in such wise that the attraction would always be more active and stronger according as they came closer together and their motion approached its end – so, too, the most Blessed Mother, since there is nothing in her to impede the operation of her Son’s divine love, was united with him in an incomparable union by gentle ecstasies without trouble or travail.”
“They were ecstasies in which the sensible part did not cease to perform its actions but without in any way disturbing the spiritual union, just as, in turn, perfect application of the spirit did not cause any great distraction to the senses. Hence, the Virgin’s death was the most gentle that can be imagined, for her Son sweetly drew her after the odor of his perfumes and she most lovingly flowed out after their sacred sweetness even to the bosom of her Son’s goodness. Although this holy soul had supreme love for her own most holy, most pure, and most lovable body, yet she forsook it without any pain or resistance…At the foot of the cross love had given to this divine spouse the supreme sorrows of death. Truly, then, it was reasonable that in the end death would give her the supreme delights of love.”
“Give thanks to the Lord…”
“St. Stephen the Great (977-1038), was the son of the Magyar chieftain Geza, Stephen succeeded him as leader in 997. Already raised a Christian, in 996 he wed the daughter of Duke Henry II of Bavaria and devoted much of his reign to the promotion of the Christian faith. He gave his patronage to Church leaders, helped build churches, and was a proponent of the rights of the Holy See. Stephen also blunted the pagan counter reaction to Christianity, forcibly converting the so-called Black Hungarians after their failed rebellion. In recognition of his efforts, Stephen was anointed king of Hungary in 1000, receiving the cross and crown from Pope Sylvester II. The remainder of his reign was taken up with the consolidation of the Christian hold on the region. His crown and regalia became beloved symbols of the Hungarian nation, and Stephen was venerated as the ideal Christian king. Canonized in 1083 by Pope St. Gregory VII, he became the patron saint of Hungary.” (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=409)
In his desire to give thanks to God, St. Stephen forged a nation while defending the faith.
What simple things might we accomplish or achieve this day by following his example of giving thanks to God?
“Put away the strange gods that are among you and turn your hearts to the Lord.”
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Is it not a great pity to see Socrates in Plato’s narrative talk as he lay dying about the gods as if there were many of them, whereas he knew full well that there is but one only? Is it not a deplorable thing for Plato, who understood so clearly the truth concerning divine unity, to ordain that sacrifices should be offered to many gods? Is it not a lamentable thing that Mercurius Trismegistus should so basely lament and grieve over the abolition of idolatry – he who had spoken so worthily of the divinity on so many occasions?.” (TLG, Book I Chapter 17, p. 96)
In our day and age, it seems strange to talk about having “strange” gods or the notion of practicing idolatry. It’s probably safe to assume that we consider ourselves far too learned and sophisticated to worship false gods. However, maybe it isn’t so strange to talk about the need to put away strange gods when you consider the lengths that we sometimes go to protect – even to the point of worshipping - things like:
Our way of doing things
Our way of seeing things
Our way of saying things
Our biases and prejudices
Political talk shows
Our past glories
Our past hurts
When you consider that idolatry is essentially the practice of having anything compete with – or serve as a substitute for – our relationship with God, perhaps idolatry isn’t so rare, old-fashioned or “strange” these days after all!
“Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you; the contrary is true: I have come for division.”
This is a hard saying that we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel. However, when we stop to consider our own experience of trying to faithfully live the Gospel, we realize that it is not merely a hard saying. It is also a hard truth.
We experience this “division” in two ways.
First, our attempts to follow Jesus may produce division within ourselves. While our attempts to practice a life of devotion – as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews might say, to “lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race which lies ahead” - should be its own reward, it also brings its own share of struggles. Our daily effort to turn away from sin and to pursue a life of virtue is imperfect at best. Who of us cannot relate to St. Peter’s confession of his failures to do what he should do and his apparent inability to refrain from doing things that he should not do? Many of us experience the spiritual life as a form of the game “Chutes and Ladders” wherein our virtues are hard-fought, and our vices come all too easily.
Francis de Sales knew of this experience all too well. He wrote: “It may well turn out that this change in your life will cause you many problems. While you have bid a great, general farewell to the follies and vanities of the world, your decision brings on a feeling of sadness and discouragement.” (Introduction, Part IV, Chapter 2)
Second, our attempts to follow Jesus may produce division within our relationships with others. While doing what is right should be its own reward, we also know that sometimes “no good deed goes unpunished.” Francis de Sales observed: “As soon as worldly people see that you wish to follow a devout life, they aim a thousand darts of mockery and even detraction at you. The most malicious of them will slander your conversion as hypocrisy, bigotry and trickery. They will say that the world has turned against you and, being rebuffed by it, you have turned to God. Your friends may raise a host of objections which they consider very prudent and reasonable. They will tell you that you will become depressed, 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, and a thousand similar trivialities.” (Introduction, Part IV, Chapter 1)
Ironically, it is only in the midst of these experiences of division (both within ourselves and with others) that are sometimes part and parcel of our attempts at pursuing lives of devotion that we can have any hope of finding true peace: the peace that comes from our patient perseverance at being faithful to whom God calls us to be, regardless of how the voices within us and around us may try to dissuade us from our quest. Our experiences of the troubles that come with doing the right thing – living the right way – remind us of yet another hard truth.
Peace has its price.
“If you wish to be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor…”
And the man went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Listen carefully to Jesus’ words. He doesn’t say, “Give it all to the poor.” He does say, “Give to the poor.” This presumes that what – or how much – is given to the poor is left to the individual to decide. In the case of the unnamed young man in today’s Gospel, perhaps his sadness was caused by the fact that he didn’t want to give anything away – not one bit – to the poor. If, in fact, he had many possessions, this makes his reluctance to share even the smallest amount of his good fortune with those less fortunate than he even more saddening.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales counseled:
“We must practice real poverty in the midst of all the goods and riches that God has given us. Frequently give up some of your property by giving it with a generous heart to the poor. To give away what we have is to impoverish ourselves in proportion as we give, and the more we give the poorer we become. It is true that God will repay us not only in the next world but even in this world…Oh, how holy and how rich is the poverty brought on by giving alms!” (IDL, Part II, Chapter 15. p. 165)
Listen carefully to Francis’ words: “Frequently give up some of your property…”
Count your blessings. Name your possessions. Be they material, like money, or non-material, like influence, time or talent, what transforms our riches into wealth is our willingness to share them with the poor, with the impoverished, with the less-fortunate, with those who have fallen on hard times.
Do you want to gain eternal life? How many – or much – of your possessions are you willing to share with anyone poor or needy today?
“It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Riches themselves are not the greatest obstacle to our entering into the Kingdom of God. From a Salesian perspective, it is our desire for riches that poses the problem - the grandeur with which we protect them and the passion with which we pursue them.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales observed:
“Your heart must be open to heaven alone and impervious to riches and all other transitory things. Whatever part of them you may possess, you must keep your heart free from too strong an affection for them. Always keep your heart above riches: even when your heart is surrounded by riches, see to it that your heart remains distinct from them and master over them. Do not allow your heavenly spirit to become captive to earthly things. Let your heart remain always superior to riches and over them – not in them… I willingly grant that you may take care to increase your wealth and resources, provided this is done not only justly but also properly and charitably.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 14, p. 163)
How can we determine if our possessions might be holding us back from the Kingdom of Heaven? Francis wrote:
“If you find your heart very desolated and devastated at the loss of anything you possess then believe me when I tell you that you love it too much. The strongest proof of how deeply we are attached to possessions is the degree of suffering we experience when we lose it.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 14, p. 164)
Are we experiencing any difficulties entering into the Kingdom of Heaven during our journeys here on earth? Perhaps, it is because our possessions have somehow managed to possess us!
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
The parable in today’s Gospel certainly suggests that those who labored the longest surely were envious! They felt cheated, because as we are told, they “grumbled” –when they realized that the landowner had paid them the same amount as those who had barely worked a few hours!
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales counseled:
“We must be most careful not to spend much time wondering why God bestows a grace upon one person rather than another, or why God makes his favors abound on behalf of one rather than another. No, never give in to such musings. Since each of us has a sufficient – rather, an abundant measure of all things required or salvation – who in all the world can rightly complain if it pleases God to bestow his graces more largely on some than on others?” (Living Jesus, 0618, p. 246)
Of course, given how generous God is to us we would never be envious or complain about somebody else having more than we do!
Or would we?