Spirituality Matters 2019: May 2nd - May 8th
“The one who is of earth is earthly and speaks of earthly things…"
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Your language should be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest. Be on guard against equivocation, ambiguity or dissimulation. While it is not always advisable to say everything that is true, it is never permissible to speak against the truth. Therefore, you must become accustomed never to tell a deliberate lie whether to excuse yourself or for some other purpose, remembering always that God is the ‘God of truth’…Although we may sometime discreetly and prudently hide and disguise the truth by an equivocal statement, this must never be done except when the matter is important and God’s glory and service clearly require it. In any other such case such tricks are dangerous. As the sacred word tells us, the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a deceitful or slippery soul. No artifice is as good and desirable as plain dealing. Worldly prudence and earthly artifice belong to the children of this world, but the children of God walk a straight path and their heart is without guile. Lying, double-dealing and dissimilation are always signs of a weak, mean mind.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 30, p. 206)
How can I tell if I am a person “who is of earth” or “who is of heaven”? In the opinion of Francis de Sales, look no further than the kind of words that come out of your mouth.
Of what kind of things – and values – will you speak today?
“Hold fast to the word I preached to you…”
In a letter to Andre Fremyot, Archbishop-elect of Bourges, which dealt with the topic of “Practical Preaching,” St. Francis de Sales wrote the following about the purpose of preaching:
“What end should a person have in view when preaching a sermon? The aim and intention should be to do what our Lord told us when he came into this world to do: ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.’ The preacher’s object, then, is that sinners who are dead through sin may come to life again with a life that looks toward right doing and that the good – who possess spiritual life within them – may have it yet more abundantly, may become more and more perfect…So the preacher should say to himself when he is in the pulpit: “I have come so that these people here may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (Pulpit and Pew: A Study in Salesian Preaching, pp. 37 – 38)
While not all of us are called to preach from a pulpit, all of us are called to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ through our actions. When we preach to others through the lives we attempt to live, do they find themselves a more – or less – abundant life?
“Do not be afraid...”
“Terrible thing, to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won't have to be afraid all the time…” (Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd Redding in The Shawshank Redemption.)
It isn’t all-together clear why the disciples were afraid in the selection from John’s Gospel. Was it the darkness? Was it the strong wind? Was it the appearance of Jesus? Regardless of the answer, they were fearful, but before their fear could get the upper hand, they suddenly discovered that they were safe.
In a letter he wrote to an ‘unnamed gentleman, Francis de Sales made the following observation:
“Mistrust of our strength is not a lack of resolve, but a true recognition of our weakness. It is better to distrust our capacity to resist temptation than to be sure that we are strong enough to do so, so long as we don’t count on from our own strength we don count on from the grace of God. This is how it happens that many persons who very confidently promised to do marvels for God failed when under fire, whereas many who greatly mistrusted their own strength and were afraid they would fail accomplished wonders when the time came, because the great awareness of their own weakness forced them to seek God’s help to watch, pray and be humble, so as not to fall into temptation…God, who does nothing in vain, does not give us either strength or courage when we don’t need them, but only when we do. He never fails us. Consequently, we must always hope that He will help us if we entreat Him to do so…Many are afraid before the skirmish, but the actual danger fills them with courage. We must not be afraid of fear. So much for that!” (LSD, p. 181)
What is there to fear? Great question! Perhaps that is the first step to avoid living in fear: to name what it is that you are tempted to fear. Perhaps the second step to avoid living in fear is to believe that God will give you the strength or courage you need to deal with your fears when you need it.
And not when you don’t!
“When you grow old someone else will lead you where you do not want to go."
Let's face it: we'd like to be in charge of our own lives. We like to do what we want, when we want, where we want and how we want. Given a choice, we would prefer to be the masters of our own destiny. Nowhere is this so obvious than in our teenage years and in our experience as young adults.
This touches every dimension of life: even our spiritual life. St. Francis de Sales wrote the following to St. Jane de Chantal: “Young apprentices in the love of God gird themselves; they take on the mortifications that they think are good; they choose a penance of their liking; they choose resignation and devotion of their own design.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 203)
However, gradually, a funny thing - and, sometimes, a not-so-funny thing - happens. We begin to learn some hard lessons about life. We learn that we don't have absolute control; we learn that we don't always have the first word, let alone get the last one. We learn that some of the best things in life are not of our own making, but are the designs of others.
This, too, applies to every dimension of our lives, including the spiritual: “The older masters of the trade allow themselves to be bound and girt by others, submitting to the yoke given to them by others, and finding themselves following the kinds of roads that they would not choose by their own inclinations. They stretch forth their hands: they willingly allow themselves to be governed by a will other than their own...this is how to give glory to God.” (Ibid)
Francis de Sales offers touching insight into his own struggle with this truth in a letter to Sr. Marie Ammie: “I am a poor, frightened little creature, the baby of the family, timid and shy by nature and completely lacking in self-confidence. That is why I should like people to let me live unnoticed and all on my own according to my own inclination." He continued: "When I was young and still had very little understanding I already lived like this; but although according to my temperament I am shy, nervous and timid as a mole, I want to make a good try at overcoming my natural preferences and, little by little, learn to do everything...that God has laid upon me.” (Selected Letters, page 242)
One might say that he secret to happy, healthy and holy living is to embrace the wisdom of age with the passion of our youth: to follow God's will for us rather than to stubbornly cling to our own, but to do this as passionately and persistently as if it were naturally or clearly our own preferences that we were pursuing.
This is not weakness: no, this is real strength. Christ's willingness to follow the will of his Father for him - difficult as it frequently was - unleashed in Jesus incredible power for life and love, justice and peace, healing and reconciliation. The promise of Easter is that the same power is available to us, provided that it is God's plan, not ours, which we follow.
“Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord...”
In today’s Gospel the question is asked of Jesus, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” The answer is found in the antiphon to today’s Responsorial Psalm: “Follow the law of the Lord.”
What does it look like when we follow the law of the Lord? In the mind of St. Francis de Sales, the answer is: “Living a life of devotion.”
“Devotion is simply that spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us or by the aid of which we work quickly and lovingly. Just as the function of charity is to enable us to observe all of God’s commandments (the law of the Lord) in general and without exception, so it is the part of devotion to enable us to observe them more quickly and diligently.” (IDL, Part I, Chapter 1, p. 40)
Devotion enables us to follow the law of the Lord. Devotion enables us “to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible, both those commanded and those merely counseled or inspired.”(Ibid) Such devotion enables us to experience the blessings of life for ourselves; this same devotion enables us to be a blessing in the lives of others.
How might we follow the law of the Lord today?
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”
Jesus was constantly bombarded with requests for signs. People were constantly looking for reasons to put their faith in Jesus, but they wanted him to perform wonders and miracles in order to be convinced. In the event, Jesus gave people more than enough signs for believing in him. Unfortunately, those signs fell on the deaf ears, blind eyes and hard hearts of people who were basically saying to Jesus: “Sure, but what have you done for me lately?”
Aren’t we sometimes guilty of asking God for a favor, a sign or a wonder in order that we might really, really believe in him? Notwithstanding God’s proven track record of mercy and generosity in our regard, aren’t we sometimes guilty of saying to God, in effect: “Sure, but what have you done for me lately?”
What remedy can we apply to the temptation of constantly asking God for signs in order that we might believe in him? How about asking the question, “What signs can we do in order that others may see and believe in him?” How can we live our lives in ways that help others to believe in God? Rather than asking for signs, we should be asking to be signs in other people’s lives!
What have we done for God – or others – lately
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger or thirst…”
In a letter to the Duc de Bellegarde (dated August 24, 1613), Francis de Sales wrote:
“As your heart continues receiving its Savior more often (in Communion) it would also continue being more perfectly converted to him. During the twenty-five years that I have been serving souls, experience has given me an insight into the all-powerful virtue of the Divine Sacrament for confirming hearts in the way of goodness, preserving them from evil, consoling them, and in a word, making them god-like in this world, provided that they are moved by a right faith, by purity and devotion.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, Chapter 29, pp. 215)
Jesus is the bread of life. Whoever comes to him – whoever receives him – will never hunger. Whoever believes in him – whoever receives him – will never thirst: with, perhaps, one exception.
The hunger and thirst to follow Jesus’ example in doing what is good!
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