Spirituality Matters 2019: June 27th - July 3rd

(June 27, 2019: Thursday, Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time)

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven…”

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote: “You must be ready to suffer many great afflictions for our Lord, even martyrdom itself. However, as long as divine Providence does not send you great, piercing afflictions…bear patiently the slight inconveniences, the little inconveniences and the inconsequential losses that daily come to you…All such little trials when accepted and embraced with love are highly pleasing to God’s mercy.” (IDL, Part II, Chapter 35, pp. 213-214)

When it comes to entering the Kingdom of God, talk is cheap. As we see clearly in the example of Abram, Sarai, and so many others in the selections from the Book of Genesis that we have been hearing this week, there’s a lot less lips service involved with following God’s will and a great deal more hearing – to say nothing of doing it!

How far are we willing to go this day in attempting to follow the will of God – by doing it?

(June 28, 2019: Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus)

“The love of God has been poured into our hearts…”

In a letter (undated) to the Sisters of the Visitation, Jane de Chantal wrote:

“You are, I hope, always striving more earnestly to rid yourself of all that is displeasing to your sovereign spouse and to acquire those virtues which please him. Oh, my dearest sisters, how deeply is this wish engraved in my heart! Show a childlike trust and gentleness toward one another…So courage, dear ones. May all of you together – and each one in particular – work at this and never grow slack. May you all live in harmony with one heart and mind in God…If you imitate Him in all your little trials and make His divine will rule in you, He will fill it with every blessing…I urge you to this once again, for the love of our Savior and by his Precious blood, and with the deep affection of my heart which is all yours in Jesus." (Wright, Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition, p. 95)

God gives us the courage to accept St. Jane’s exhortation and make it our own! God gives us the grace we need to live in harmony with one heart and mind! God gives us the patience to acquire the virtues that please God and serve others.

Today, may God fill us with every blessing - and help us to be a blessing to each other – as He did so clearly through the Sacred Heart of his Son! Just as the love of God has been poured into our hearts through Christ, so may we be willing to share that same love with the hearts of one another.

(June 29, 2019: Solemnity of Peter and Paul, Apostles)

“I have completed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – Apostles.

Of Saint Peter, Francis de Sales wrote: “St. Peter was chosen to be the chief of the Apostles, although he was subject to so many imperfections that he even committed some after he had received the Holy Spirit, because, notwithstanding these defects, he was always full of courage, never allowing himself to be dismayed by his shortcomings.” (Conferences, Number IV, Page 63)

Francis expounds upon this duality of Peter’s nature in his Treatise on the Love of God. “Who would not marvel at the heart of St. Peter, so bold among armed soldiers that out of all of his master’s company he alone takes his sword in hand and strikes out with it? Yet a little afterwards among ordinary 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, p, 167)

Now let us turn our attention to some of what Francis de Sales said about St. Paul. “He fights for all people, he pours forth prayers for all people, he is passionately jealous in behalf of all people, and he is on fire for all people. Yes, he even dared more than this for ‘those according to the flesh,’ so that, if I dare to say so, he desires by charity that they may be put in his place with Jesus Christ. O perfection of courage and unbelievable spirit!” (, Book X, Chapter 16, pp. 188 – 189)

Of course, as in the case of Peter, Paul, too, has his shortcomings. In a letter of encouragement to a sister of the Visitation, Francis wrote: “Do not be ashamed…any more than St. Paul who confessed that there were two men in him, one rebellious to God and the other obedient to God.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, page 224.)

“I competed well; I have finished the race.” Paul wrote these words, but they could also be said of Peter. But note well – they both finished well. By contrast, look at their earlier track records. Peter was called “Satan” by Jesus and Peter denied Him three times. While Paul, he began his public life by persecuting the early Church as Saul. Neither man’s resumes were particularly impressive!

When it comes to being an apostle, a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ, perhaps this is the most important thing to remember – as imperfect as we are, where we’ve been isn’t nearly as important as where we are going with the grace of God and the support of one another.

All’s well that ends well!

(June 30, 2019: Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“You have been called to live in freedom...out of love, to place yourselves at the service of one another.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines freedom as “the condition of being free of restraints, the liberty of the person from slavery, detention or oppression - the capacity to exercise choice: free will.”

God created us with free will. God created us to live in freedom.

The Salesian tradition - for that matter, Christianity - makes a distinction between free will and freedom. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales wrote:

“Our free will can stop or obstruct the course of God's inspiration. When the favorable wind of God's grace fills the sails of our soul, it is within our power to refuse consent, thereby impeding the effect of that favoring wind. But when our spirit sails along and makes a prosperous voyage, it is not we who cause the wind of inspiration to come to us. We neither fill our sails with it, nor do we give movement to the ship that is our heart: we consent to its movement. It is God's inspiration, then, which impresses on our free will the gentle, blessed influence whereby it not only causes the will to see the beauty of the good, but also warms it, helps it, reinforces it and moves it so gently that by its agency, the will turns and glides freely toward the good.” (TLG, Book 4, Chapter 6)

We have the power to make choices. We can use our free will to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. By contrast, we can also use our free will to do what is sinful and shameful in the eyes of God. Our free will makes us truly free only when we use it to cooperate with God's grace and inspiration, by placing ourselves at the service of others out of love. When we use our free will to obstruct or turn away from God's grace and inspiration, we are not living in freedom at all. By contrast, we make ourselves (and sometimes, by extension, others) slaves of sin.

What’s the bottom line? Our “free will” isn't freedom at all, unless we use it to pursue a life of truth, a life of righteousness, a life of justice, a life of reconciliation and a life of service. Our “free will,” as it turns out, isn't really free at all; rather, it brings with it an awesome responsibility: to feed, to nourish, to heal, to challenge and to raise up one another in imitation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the model of what it truly means to live in freedom. He always - always - made choices that were consistent with the Father's dream and destiny for him. His free will was truly freeing because Jesus faithfully placed his ability to choose at the disposal of his Father, at the disposal of the Kingdom of God and at the service of his brothers and sisters.

We indeed have free will. Today, consider this question: are we using it - like Jesus - in ways that make us - and others - truly free?

(July 1, 2019: Monday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)

“The Lord is kind and merciful…”

In the wake of Jesus' crucifixion and death, the apostles were locked away together in fear. They were afraid that they might suffer the same fate as their teacher.

Despite their anxious seclusion, Jesus breaks into their lives: not merely into the physical space in which they were taking refuge; Jesus also breaks into the core of their minds and hearts. Jesus attempts to calm their fears; he challenges them to be at peace; he does this in a rather confrontational and mysterious manner: by showing them the wounds in his hands and side.

The experience of resurrection did not remove the scars of Jesus' woundedness, the lasting marks of pain, disappointment, misunderstanding, rejection, humiliation, abandonment, suffering and death. Notwithstanding these wounds, however, Christ's resurrection powerfully demonstrated that pain, sadness, suffering and injustice did not, ultimately, enjoy the last word. While suffering is clearly a part of life, there is much more to life than suffering.

St. Francis de Sales wrote: "We must often recall that our Lord has saved us by his suffering and endurance, and that we must work out our salvation by sufferings and afflictions, enduring with all possible forbearance the injuries, denials and discomforts we meet." (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 3)

All of us bear the wounds of failure, deception, betrayal, disappointment and loss. Our hearts, our minds, our memories - our souls - bear the scars to prove it. Like the Apostles, we, too, are tempted to withdraw from others, to lock ourselves away in some secluded emotional or spiritual corner, living in fear of what other pain or disappointments may come our way. Of course, in withdrawing from life, we figuratively - in some cases, even literally - die.

Jesus clearly demonstrates in his own life that our wounds do not necessarily need to overwhelm or disable us. While these wounds may be permanent, they need not rob us of the power and promise of recovery, of renewal - of resurrection - unless we despair, unless we allow ourselves to be defeated by the nails of negativity.

The wounds of our past continue to leave their mark in our present: they don't necessarily determine the course of our future. Turn to the love of Jesus who knows what it means to be wounded and who shows us how to move through and beyond them. St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Look often on Christ, crucified, naked, blasphemed, slandered, forsaken, and overwhelmed by every kind of weariness, sadness, sorrow and labor.” Jesus triumphed over and through the wounds of his humanity: so, too, with God's help, can we.

To be sure, life can be tough. But as we see in the life of Jesus, however, there is something in life even stronger than ‘tough:” love, and mercy.

What could be more merciful – more generous – than that?

(July 2, 2019: Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time)

"Why are you terrified?”

Given the fact that the disciples were caught out in open water in a violent storm would be plenty of reason to be terrified, regardless of whether Jesus was with them or not. In the event, the disciples’ terror quickly subsided, when they witnessed the calming power of Jesus.

In a letter to Madame Gasparde de Ballon, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Regarding your fears, they are the work of the enemy who sees that you are quite determined to live in Our Lord without any reserves and exceptions. The evil one will make every sort of effort to upset you and make the way of holy devotion seem hard for you. What you must do to counteract this is to open your heart and often repeat your protestation never to give in, always to keep faith, to love the challenges of God’s service more than the sweetness of the world’s service and to say that you will never leave God’s side. Be very careful not to give up on prayer, for that would be playing into the hand of your adversary. Instead, continue to go steadfastly with this holy exercise and wait for Our Lord to speak to you, for one day he will say words of peace and consolation to you. Then you will know that your trouble will have been well spent and your patience and trust useful…Say often: May Jesus reign!”” (Selected Letters, Stopp, pp. 225 - 226)

We all have things in life that should concern, scare - and even - terrify us. Jesus isn’t asking us to never be fearful or even terrified; rather, Jesus asks us to trust him precisely in times of timidity and terror.

No matter how daunting the storms of life may be, don’t allow them to shake your faith in God’s love for you and fidelity to you. Regardless of how your boat may get rocked during the course of your life, Jesus will never – never – abandon you. He will either calm the storms for you or ride them out with you.

(July 3, 2019: Thomas, Apostle)

"Unless I see the mark of the nails…I will not believe.”

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

“Do not say that so-and-so is a drunkard even though you have seen him intoxicated, or that so-and-so is an adulterer even if you saw him in his sin, or that so-and-so is incestuous because he has been guilty of a certain depraved deed. A single act is not enough to justify the name of vice...To deserve the name of a vice or a virtue, there must be some advance in an act and it must be habitual. Hence it is untrue to say that so-and-so is bad-tempered or a thief simply because we once saw him in a fit of anger or guilty of theft…We must not draw conclusions from yesterday to today, nor from today to yesterday, and still less to tomorrow.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 29, p. 202)

So why is it, then, that we continue to refer to the Apostle whose life and legacy we celebrate today as “Doubting Thomas”? Nearly two thousand years have passed, since he declared to his peers what it would take for him to believe that Jesus was risen. Why should we vilify Thomas for being honest? Why should we beat up on Thomas for speaking from his heart?

Jesus certainly didn’t!

Jesus didn’t scold Thomas for his declaration. Jesus didn’t refuse Thomas’ request. Quite the contrary! Jesus showed him his hands and his side, saying, in effect: “Do you want to see my wounds? Here they are! Do you want to touch my hands and side? Please do! If that’s what it’s going to take to convince you that I’m real, Thomas, then by all means please do it!” It was then that Thomas believed that the person, who was standing in front of him, was the same Jesus with whom he walked for three years. It was the same Jesus who had spent his ministry meeting people, where they were, who now offered the same courtesy to Thomas.

In the closing scene from the film Red Dragon, Dr. Hannibal Lector’s character opined: “Our scars have the power to remind us that the past was real.” Perhaps, Thomas intuited that only the scars left by Jesus’ humiliation, passion and death could convince him that Jesus had conquered death! Perhaps, this is what prompted Thomas’ request. Perhaps, that’s why Thomas had the courage to speak his truth despite the giddy euphoria of the other Apostles who had previously seen Jesus. Can you really blame Thomas for not taking their word for it?

Come to think of it, it is remarkable that the experience of resurrection did not remove the wounds of Jesus: the lasting marks of pain, disappointment, misunderstanding, rejection, humiliation, abandonment, suffering and death. Notwithstanding these wounds, however, Christ's resurrection powerfully demonstrated that pain, sadness, suffering and injustice -- as real as they were -- did not, ultimately, wield the last word. While suffering was clearly a part of Jesus’ life, there was so much more to his life than suffering.

Maybe it’s time for us to retire the moniker “Doubting Thomas” and replace it with “Honest Thomas” from this day forward! Maybe it’s also time for us to simply accept the fact that there are some things about Jesus that we can know only through our own wounds and the wounds of others.