Spirituality Matters 2019: February 14th - February 20th

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(February 14, 2019: Cyril, Monk and Methodius, Bishop)
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"Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's scraps."

We see a test of wills in today’s Gospel. A local woman is determined to wrest a miracle for her daughter from Jesus, but Jesus seems equally determined to deny her request. While Jesus appears committed to saying “no” to this woman’s plea, the woman appears equally determined to refuse to take “no” for an answer. Clearly, this scene has all the makings of a “Syrophoenician stand-off”.

In both cases, Jesus and the woman are persistent. They are both determined to persevere.

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

“Our Savior attaches to the great gift of perseverance the supreme gift of eternal glory, as He has said, ‘The one who shall persevere to the end shall be saved.’ This gift is simply the sum total and sequence by which we continue in God’s love up to the end, just as the education, raising and training of a child are simply the acts of care, help and assistance…Perseverance is the most desirable gift we can hope for in this life. It is in our power to persevere. Of course, I do not mean that our perseverance takes its origin from our power. On the contrary, I know that it springs from God’s mercy, whose most precious gift it is.” (Book 3, Chapter 4, p. 174)

Jesus credits the Syrophoenician woman’s persistence – her perseverance – for granting her request to heal her daughter.

Today, how determined are we in our attempts to bring our needs – and the needs of those we love – to the Lord?

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(February 15, 2019: Friday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“People brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.”

Jesus was only too happy to grant their request to heal a deaf man with a speech impediment. As we see in the Gospel account today, however, Jesus did much more than simply lay his hand on him. He took him apart from the crowd. Jesus placed his finger in the man’s ears and then spitting, Jesus placed his finger on the man’s tongue.

Jesus healed people in a variety of ways. Sometimes he simply said a word. Sometimes he gave a direct command. Sometimes he followed someone to their home. Sometimes he healed from far away. Sometimes he healed in public. And sometimes – as seen in today’s account from Mark’s Gospel – Jesus’ healing is private: intimately up-close and personal.

Ask yourself this question: how might you need Jesus to heal you today? Then, ask yourself another question: how might Jesus need you to heal someone else today?

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(February 16, 2019: Saturday, Fifth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“My heart is moved with pity…”

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

“Compassion, sympathy, commiseration or pity is simply an affection that makes us share the sufferings and sorrows of ones we love and draws the misery that they endure into our own hearts…” (Book V, Chapter 4, p. 243)

As we see clearly in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ compassion is more than an affection. It is more than a feeling. While he clearly makes the neediness of others his own, Jesus does more than that - he addresses the neediness. Jesus satisfies the hunger. Jesus heals the pain. Jesus breaks the chains. Jesus confronts the injustice.

Every time Jesus’ compassionate heart is moved, something good happens to others.

Today, will the same be said of our hearts?

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(February 17, 2019: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
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"Blessed are they who trust in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord."

What does it mean to "trust?" The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it thus: "Firm reliance on the integrity, ability or character of a person or thing."

Imagine a world without trust. Imagine a world in which nobody believed in the "integrity, ability or character" of others. Such a place could indeed be described as a living hell. Trust is the mortar that binds us together. Trust is what enables us to form families, friends, community and country. Trust is an integral part of what it means to be human.

In stark contrast with the importance of trusting one another, Jeremiah warns: "Cursed are those who trust in human beings." What are we to make of this? Simply put, trusting one another is not enough to sustain us in life. Why? Because, as we know all too well - and painfully - we humans, despite our best efforts, are not always trustworthy. If our trust is limited to the human plane, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the woes of pain, disappointment, heartache and cynicism.

Our ultimate trust must be found in God, the one who is always trustworthy. Our ultimate trust must be found in God, the ‘faithful friend who never deceives or betrays’. Our fundamental trust allows us to not merely survive this life, but to thrive in it, especially when confronted by our own imperfections and those of others. St. Francis de Sales wrote: "If the whole world turns topsy-turvy, if all around is darkness … shall not all be well with us as long as we place our trust in God?" (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 125)

Cursed are we if we expect others to fulfill all of our deepest wants, our deepest needs, our deepest desires and our deepest dreams without fail. Such expectations lead to bitterness, resentment and despair. Blessed are we if we take confidence and consolation in the God who is always trustworthy, even when human beings - including ourselves - are not. Our trust in God will not shield us from life's inevitable disappointments - those we receive, those we cause - but it will enable us to name them, to work through them and ultimately to move beyond them.

Our trust in God enables us to celebrate the ways we are trustworthy. Likewise, our trust in God enables us to forgive one another when we are not.

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(February 18, 2019: Monday, Sixth Week of Ordinary Time)
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“He sighed from the depth of his spirit...”

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote: “We must recall that Our Lord has saved us by his suffering and endurance and that we must work out our salvation, enduring with all possible meekness the injuries, denials and discomforts we meet.” (Part III, Chapter 3, p. 128)

Jesus had his share of success during his public ministry. He healed the sick. He freed the possessed. He fed the hungry. He satisfied the thirsty. He welcomed the marginalized. He consoled the sorrowing. He found the lost. He raised the dead. Of course, Jesus also had his share of trials and tribulations during his public ministry. He was subjected to criticism. He was subjected to misunderstanding. He was subjected to ridicule. He was subjected to rejection. He was subjected to abandonment, arrest and crucifixion. He was subjected to death.

In short, Jesus took the bad with the good in his attempt to preach – and practice – the Good News. While Jesus didn’t go looking for trouble, he wouldn’t it trouble either, especially when it came to promoting the justice and peace of the Kingdom of God. Given the amount of resistance that he faced from some quarters, it’s amazing that the Gospels don’t provide many more examples of how Jesus “sighed from the depths of his spirit” more often!

In our day-to-day attempts at living a devout life we can relate to Jesus’ frustration. We’ve all faced resistance in ways that make us sigh from the depths of our spirits, too. While we shouldn’t go looking for trouble, we shouldn’t be all that surprised when trouble finds us. Like Jesus, when trouble comes our way, let’s do our level best to not allow it to dissuade us from doing good – and being good – in the lives of other people.

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(February 19, 2019: Tuesday, Sixth Week of Ordinary Time
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“When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain – before the rain.”

- (Robert Redford, playing the role of Nathan

Muir in the film Spy Game, 2001.)

The Book of Genesis describes a kind of divine boiling point - God has reached the end of his patience in the face of human wickedness and has decided to start over, but not before making allowance for a remnant of both man and beast alike that will survive the flood. God chooses Noah to build an ark that will preserve this remnant and – eventually – repopulate the earth. Noah, of course, is mocked by most of his contemporaries, right up until the day that the flood came.

Francis de Sales placed a great premium on living in the present moment. He exhorted his contemporaries to live each day, each hour and each moment as it came. He counseled people against brooding over the past; he warned people about fretting over the future.

Living in the present, however, is not the same as flying blind or living by the seat of your pants. There is great value in doing a little pre-planning in the spiritual life. In fact, Francis de Sales recommended that people begin each and every day with what we now call the “Preparation of the Day”. Francis wrote:

“Anticipate any tasks, transactions and occasions that you may meet this day. Prepare yourself to make the best use of the means that may come to you. Carefully prepare to avoid, resist and overcome whatever may be encountered that is opposed to your salvation.”

Figuratively speaking, there are many arks in our lives that we plan to build that never get finished. There are other arks in our lives that we believe we need that never get used. There are still other arks that we clearly should have built – but never did – because we didn’t recognize the need until after the fact. All that said, there’s no harm in preparing for the future – be it short or long term – provided that it does not disable our ability to live in the only place in which we can possible plan for tomorrow.


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(February 20, 2019: Wednesday, Sixth Week in Ordinary Time)
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“Summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease."

In the Fourth Book of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Chapter 13, St. Francis de Sales begins with the following observation: “God keeps this wonderful world in existence amidst constant change. Thus, day passes into night, spring into summer, summer into autumn, autumn into winter and winter into spring. One day never exactly resembles another: some days are cloudy, some rainy, some dry, some windy. Variety gives great beauty to the universe.”

“It is the same with us,” Francis continues. “We are never in the same state. Our lives flow on earth like the water that surges and swirls in a perpetual diversity of movements. Sometimes we are lifted up by hope, sometimes cast down by fear; sometimes bent to the right by joys, sometimes to the left by sorrow. Not one day nor one hour is exactly the same.”

Indeed, how diverse, how fluid and how varied are the seasons of the human heart, of the human mind and of the human soul. In so many ways, Heraclitus (Greek philosopher, 500 B.C.) was right when he said that “the only constant is change.”

These seasons of the soul challenge us in two ways: (1) We need to accept, embrace and learn from all of the seasons of our lives, and (2) we nevertheless need to find some source of constancy in order to effectively deal with the changing tides of the ocean within us which are our thoughts, feelings and attitudes.

St. Francis offered advice regarding the former in a letter to St. Jane de Chantal (Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 148) written in 1608: “You would like it to be always spring or summer; but no, you have to experience interior as well as exterior changes. Only in heaven will everything be springtime as to beauty, autumn as to enjoyment and summer as to love. There will be no winter there; but here below we need winter so that we may practice self-denial and the countless small but beautiful virtues that can be practiced during a barren season.”

Just as every season of the year plays a part in our particular role in God’s plan for our world, so, too, all the seasons of the heart have their place to play in God’s plan of salvation for us. Joy, sadness, success, setback, faith, fear, anxiety, confidence...all can teach us something more of who we are and who God calls us to be.

Who wouldn’t always like to be happy and fulfilled? Who wouldn’t like to avoid sadness and emptiness? Nevertheless, every season of the soul has its own voice that needs to be heard.

Where can we hope to find the stability to deal with the seasons of the soul? Francis de Sales wrote: “We must try to keep a constant and unchanging mind...Though everything turns and changes about us ( and within us) we must always remain firm, our eyes fixed on God, seeking God and moving towards God...Whether we are in sadness or joy, in consolation or bitterness, in peace or in trouble, in light or in darkness, in temptation or tranquility, in liking or disgust, in dryness or warmth, scorched by the sun or refreshed by the dew, yet the highest point of our heart (like the compass of a ship) should always be turned to God, our Creator and Our Savior, our unique and sovereign good.”

Our spiritual path may be filled with uncertainty. God’s plan for us may be full of surprises: some consoling and some maddening. Our minds, our hearts—our lives—may not be as calm or predictable as we might like.

The challenge for us is to believe that in all—and every—season of the soul, it is the same loving God who creates us, redeems us and inspires us to take confidence in God’s constant, unchanging and eternal love...for us.