Spirituality Matters 2019: October 3rd - October 9th
“He sent them ahead of him in pairs…”
Just two chapters into the Book of Genesis (2:18), we read, “It is not good for (the) man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him…”
Each and every one of us a unique expression and manifestation of the God in whose image and likeness we have been created. We are responsible for being ourselves – no one else can do it for us. We cannot ‘outsource” it to others. But even the God who created us, while One, is Three: Father, Son and Spirit. Within the Godhead there is something of both individuality and community at work at the same time.
While Francis de Sales challenges each one of us to “be who you are and to be that (perfectly) well,” we should not – we cannot – do that in a vacuum. We need community; we need one another. As John Donne so wisely observed, “No man is an island.” There are aspects and dimensions of our individuality that can only be recognized, claimed and developed within the context of being our individual selves in the context of relationships with others.
In today’s Gospel Jesus bemoans the fact that while the “harvest is abundant, the laborers are few.” From a cost-benefit analysis, Jesus could have covered a lot more ground by sending each member of his advance party out individually and alone. However, he deliberately chose to send them out in pairs. Jesus seems to be suggesting that companionship – kinship – is not a luxury associated with continuing to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ to others. It is essential.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, (III, 8, 146-147) Francis wrote: “We must march on as a band of brothers (and sisters), companions united in meekness, peace and love.”
What’s the bottom line? If you are serious about “Living Jesus” – if you are serious about being who you are and being that (perfectly) well – don’t even think of doing it alone.
Today we celebrate the life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi. In his book entitled This Saint’s for You, Thomas J. Craughwell wrote:
“It is the rare Christian who does not get all syrupy about St. Francis of Assisi’s love or animals. Blame it on all those garden statues of Francis with a bunny curled up at his feet and little birds chirping on his shoulder. In real life, Francis’ view of animals was theological rather than sentimental. Animals form part of God’s creation, and, as the Book of Genesis tells us, everything in creation is good. No doubt Francis loved bunnies and birds, but he also loved spiders and snakes – and that is the challenge. Francis saw the world as an immense God-ordered system in which everything plays the role assigned to it by the Creator, and therefore every creature, whether it’s cute and cuddly or not, has value.” (This Saint’s for You, p. 31)
“One story in particular spotlights Francis’ belief in restoring the balance between man and beast. The town of Gubbio was plagued by a ferocious wolf that had carried off lambs, calve and other livestock – it had even killed small children. Afraid that the wolf would attack them, the people refused to travel outside the city walls. Declaring he was not afraid, Francis went outside the town in search of the wolf and hadn’t gone very far when he found the creature. ‘Brother Wolf,’ said Francis, ‘you have been stealing livestock that does not belong to you and frightening your neighbors. In the name of the Lord of Heaven, I command you to stop.’ The wolf drooped its head and lay on the ground at Francis’ feet. The Saint then turned to the townspeople, saying, ‘Brother Wolf will not trouble you or your animals, but in return you must feed him every day.’ The people of Gubbio agreed, and every day the wolf came to town for a meal. He became the town’s unofficial pet, and when he died the heartbroken townspeople had a sculpture of him carved and placed over the door of one of the town’s churches, where it remains to this day.” (This Saint’s for You, pp. 31-32)
In the case of Francis of Assisi, Jesus sent him out - literally - as a lamb to confront a wolf. As we know from our own day-to-day experiences, there are many things in life with which we must deal - some of them “cute and cuddly,” others potentially life-threatening.
As so we pray - God, help us to follow the example of Francis of Assisi (for whom St. Francis de Sales was named). May we have the confidence to combat things we experience as fearsome or ferocious with patience, gentleness and love.
“Fear not, my people!”
On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his now-famous remark within the context of his first inaugural address as president of the United States of America:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Notwithstanding FDR’s assertion, one could have easily argued that there was indeed more to fear than fear itself. America was in the grip of a catastrophic economic freefall. Unemployment stood at twenty-five percent! Countless numbers of individuals and families lost their life-savings overnight. Struggling farmers had no markets in which to sell their yield. Suicides were common; despondency was rampant; hope seemed vanquished.
And the winds of war that would eventually fan themselves into the Second World War had yet to come!
On the 6th of August 1606, Francis de Sales wrote the following words to St. Jane de Chantal:
“Dear St. Peter, seeing that the storm was raging, was afraid. As soon as he was afraid, he began to sink and to drown, crying our, ‘O Lord, save me.’ Our Lord caught hold of his hand and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Look at this holy apostle; he walks dry foot on the water the waves and winds could not make him sink; but fear of the wind and the waves will make him perish unless his master saves him. Fear is a greater evil than the evil itself.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 125)
During the course of our lives we are sometimes buffeted by winds and waves of all kinds. Some may barely rock the boat; others may threaten our very lives or livelihood! Be it in the face of threats great or small, may God give us the strength to not allow our fear – however appropriate or prudent – to become a greater threat than the threats themselves.
"Stir into flame the gift of God. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control."
“I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me.”*
In the wake of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, these ancient words of the prophet Habakkuk feel as if they were written specifically for us. We have seen the face of evil. We have witnessed wholesale acts of hatred and violence. There is catastrophic debris - human, material, emotional, spiritual - through which we are still sifting twelve years after the event, even as we struggle to find ways to combat terrorism around the world and address the underlying issues that, in part, give birth to terrorism and religious fanaticism.
What are we to do?
We must recognize the threat not only to our nation, but also to peoples of all races, faiths and cultures who pursue peace, justice, freedom and reconciliation. We must take steps to rid our world of those who would promote their own grievances or agendas at the expense of human life.
These events are likewise a wake-up call on an even deeper, more fundamental level. We are challenged to see more clearly the less obvious, subtler face of violence and destruction in our own lives and in the lives of our families, friends, relatives, classmates and colleagues. We must confront resentment, abuse, addiction, hatred, bigotry, gossip and other attitudes/actions that tear at our minds, hearts, attitudes and actions. We must confront all forms of sin and evil that tear at the very fabric; of who we are as sons and daughters of God, who we are as community, who we are as church, who we are as country, and who we are as citizens of the world.
We must identify, confront and conquer anything that would seek to terrorize our God-given dignity and destiny. We need to stir up the flame of righteous indignation in ourselves and in one another. But while this inflaming of our spirit must make us powerful, it must also make us loving and self-disciplined. We cannot allow our methods for confronting violence and hatred to become themselves a continuation of the circle of violence and destruction. We must respond, not react; we must be wise, not rash; we must be prudent, not indiscriminate. Above all, the pain that we - and others - may experience in the fight to confront hatred in all its forms must be motivated by and lead to a deeper, broader and more inclusive vision of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation for ourselves and for all people.
Above all, the spirit that must be ignited and set ablaze inside and among us must not be rooted in fear. Francis de Sales reminds us, now more than ever, that we must “do all through love and nothing through fear”.
And so, we pray – O God, increase and inflame your spirit within us. As we confront the many faces of terrorism (both the obvious and obscure) make us - keep us - powerful, self-disciplined and – above all - loving.
“What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Jesus raises a great question in today’s Gospel. And the person to whom he directs it – a “scholar of the law” – would appreciate the power of the question. Any student of the law – and in particular, anyone who practices law – knows that it isn’t enough just to know the letter of the law, but it’s also important to know how to “read” – that is, to interpret – the law so as to know how best to apply it.
This dilemma brings us to the best – albeit, if not the most concise – answer to that question - the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Talk about a study in contrast! Two so-called experts in the letter of the law – the priest and the Levite - failed miserably because they did not offer any assistance to the man who fell victim to robbers. And the other hand,the Samaritan – a man who may have known very little if any law – followed the law of compassion and common sense by tending to the needs of this unfortunate stranger by being a good neighbor.
Of course, the most important law for those who follow Jesus is the Gospel, that is, the Law of Love, a love so clearly embodied by Jesus as well as by his mother, Mary. It’s important for us to have a working knowledge of that Law; it’s important for us to know how to “read” or interpret that Law. More important, however, than knowing or interpreting it is our willingness to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Law of Love – into practice.
In what ways can we be Good Samaritans - that is, good, just and -compassionate neighbors - today?
“You are anxious and worried about many things…”
In his Introduction to a Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Anxiety is not a simple temptation but a source from which and by which many temptations arise. With the single exception of sin, anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul. Just as sedition and internal disorders bring total ruin on a State and leave it helpless to resist a foreign invader, so also, if our heart is inwardly troubled and disturbed it loses both the strength necessary to maintain the virtues it had acquired and the means to resist the temptations of the enemy. He then uses his utmost efforts to fish, as they say, in troubled waters." (IDL, Part IV, Chapter 11, pp. 251-252)
Martha was obviously overwhelmed by her desire to do right by Jesus when it came to the practice of hospitality. Apparently more obvious to Jesus, however, was the fact that Martha was “anxious and worried about many things.” This issue of wanting to be the perfect host and whining about needing help with the serving seems to have been the tip of the iceberg.
We should want to put our best foot forward when entertaining guests. We should want to give worthwhile things our best effort. We should want to do things well. We should want to get it right the first time.
And when we don’t? Deal with it, learn from it and move beyond it without being all worked up and anxious about it. Anxiety not only ruins good things; anxiety makes bad things even worse.
“Lord, teach us to pray…”
In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. Of course, a more fundamental question might have been, “Teach us why we should pray.”
In a letter written to a young woman who was – you guessed it – experiencing difficulty when praying, Francis de Sales wrote:
“First, we pray to give God the honor and homage we owe Him. This can be done without His speaking to us or we to Him, for this duty is paid by remembering that He is God and we are His creatures and by remaining prostrate in spirit before him, awaiting His commands.
“Second, we pray in order to speak with God and to hear Him speak to us by inspirations and movements in the interior of our soul. Generally this is done with a very delicious pleasure, because it is a great good for us to speak to so great a Lord. When He answers He spreads abroad a thousand precious balms and unguents which give great sweetness to the soul.”
“So, one of these two goods can never fail you in prayer. If we speak to our Lord, let us speak, let us praise Him, beseech Him and listen to Him. If we cannot use our voice, still let us stay in the room and do reverence to Him. He will see us there. He will accept our patience and will favor our silence. At other times we shall be quite amazed to be taken by the hand and he will converse with us, and will make a hundred turns with us in the walks of His garden of prayer. And if He should never do these things, let us be content with our duty of being in His suite and with the great grace and too great honor He does us in accepting our presence…” (Thy Will be Done, pp. 26-27)
So, why should we pray? Well, either (1) to remind ourselves of who God is in our lives, or (2) to remind ourselves who God wants us to be in relationship with Him and each other. Regardless of how many, how few or if any words we may use in the process of praying, may God give us the grace to (1) do what we pray and (2) pray what we do.