Spirituality Matters 2019: May 9th - May 15th
Do you understand what you are reading?”
This question raised in the today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles puts us in touch with Francis de Sales’ perspective on two gifts of the Holy Spirit: knowledge and understanding.
The Gift of Knowledge“This divine gift, however, has little to do with mere human learning. The Spirit’s gift of knowledge is essential if we are to make good and effective use of the previous two gifts, if we are to know how to behave towards the God we mean to fear and love. It is about being capable of discerning evil to be avoided and the good to be sought. As the prophet says, offend no more; rather, do what is good. And be at rest always.”
Mere human knowledge only enables us to know the difference between good and evil. The Spirit’s gift of knowledge, by contrast, actually enables us to turn away from what is evil and to put our hands to doing what is good.
Francis concludes with this observation: “There have been saints, to be sure, who were wonderfully wise for all of their ignorance. There have been others, equally as certain, who have been wonderfully ignorant for all of their knowledge.”
The Gift of Understanding“Understanding is a special enlightenment that enables us to see and penetrate the beauty and perfection of the mysteries of faith. We may listen to sermons, we may read widely; yet we can remain ignorant of these divine mysteries if we lack the gift of understanding. A simple soul, open in prayer, may gain some insight into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity – not to explain it, but to draw from it some secret aspect that can save – because the Holy Spirit has bestowed the gift of understanding. I always maintain that if anyone loses his soul, it is for want of following such mysteries of the faith, for example: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs; blessed are the patient, they shall inherit the land. Who is awake to the beauty of these principles, however, except those whom the Holy Spirit enlightens?”
There is no substitute for the knowledge that helps us to grow in our understanding of the ways of the Lord. However, we must be careful not to allow knowledge to take the place of understanding. While Francis de Sales recognizes the need to know the difference between good and evil (and, by extension, to actually do good and to actually avoid evil), such knowledge only comes to full flowering when we demonstrate our understanding of God’s ways through our practice of the Beatitudes.
Do you understand what you are hearing?
“He recovered his strength…”
In a letter to Madame de la Flechere, Francis de Sales observed:
“I entreat you by the love of him whom we both love, of Jesus Christ, to live consoled and peaceful in your infirmities. I glory in my infirmities, says our great St. Paul, so that the power of my Savior may dwell in me. Yes, indeed! Our misery is a as throne to make manifest the sovereign goodness of Our Lord.” (Stopp, Selected Letters, p. 203)
Two men loom large in today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles: Saul (a.k.a. Paul) and Ananias. Each has his share of imperfections. Saul was blind. Initially he was blinded spiritually by his rage against and persecution of the followers of Jesus. Saul was subsequently blinded physically after his encounter with the voice of Jesus along the road to Damascus. For his part, Ananias was reluctant – perhaps, even resentful – at the prospect of welcoming and healing a great persecutor of any men or women who belonged to the Way.
And yet – as imperfect as they were - each played a role in God’s plan of salvation.
In a sermon on the “Failings of the Saints,” Francis de Sales preached:
“With the exception of our Blessed lady, all other creatures contain some imperfections. The man who denies that he has any imperfections is just as much a liar as the man who says that he has no perfections at all. Every man, however holy, has some imperfections; every man, however wicked, has some good points. Made in God’s image, each man reflects something of God’s goodness; made from nothing, each man always carries with him some imperfection.” (Pulpit and Pew, P. 258)
All of us are imperfect people. However, as we see in the cases of Saul (Paul) and Ananias, God asks imperfect people to be instruments of his light, life and love.
How might God like to make his “sovereign goodness” shine through our imperfection today by asking us to be instruments of God’s healing, redeeming and life-changing strength?
“How shall I make a return to the Lord?”
In the first part of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales raises the same question on the context of the “First Meditation: On Our Creation.” After considering all of God’s benefits to us, Francis asks: “What can I ever do to bless your holy name in a worthy manner and to render thanks to your immense mercy?” (IDL, Part I, Chapter 9, p. 54)
Needless to say, Francis de Sales offers some suggestions as to how we might “make a return to the Lord.” These include:
• “Give thanks to the Lord. ‘Bless your God, O my soul, and let all my being praise his holy name,’ for his goodness has drawn me out of nothing and his mercy has created me.”
• “Offer. O my God, with all my heart I offer you the being you have given me. I dedicate and consecrate it to you.”.”
• “Pray. O God, strengthen me in these affections and resolutions.”
How can I make a return to the Lord - by being the person that God has created me to be, and by encouraging others to do the same!
Remain faithful to the grace of God.”
Paul and Barnabas’ advice to the Church in Antioch to “remain faithful to the grace of God” was sound advice for new believers living in the midst of religious ferment. But what did that pious exhortation practically mean for those who heard it and what does it mean for us today who seek to keep these words of scripture “real” in our lives?
It is a call to Salesian humility and gentleness.
Paul reminds all of us that Christians are called to be faithful. Living in truth about who we are reminds us that we are constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. No one is perfect. We make mistakes and we need to be gentle as we forgive, not excuse, ourselves for them. Perfection allows for no mistakes; faithfulness does not allow us to be conquered by them.
It assumes an ongoing relationship with God in the first place.
How consistent and honest is our prayer life? It’s hard to be faithful to those with whom we never speak.
It demands a new vision.
Remaining faithful to God’s grace calls us to see life, its things and its events, as gifts freely given by a loving, empowering God who is for us and on our side. Our God is a loving Father, a Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep, not an evil hired hand who does not have the flock’s welfare constantly in mind.
It demands flexibility.
Grace, a free gift, cannot be controlled. It can make demands on us and stretch us and lead us to places we never would have gone by ourselves. DeSales once said: “Blessed are those with flexible hearts, for they shall never be broken.” Perhaps we can add: “Blessed too are those of “flexible faithfulness,” for the grace of God will always be there.
Paul and Barnabas’s ministry described in today’s first reading showed flexibility as they turned from their unsuccessful preaching to the Jews towards the more responsive and Spirit-led Gentiles. They looked for and saw the grace of God at work even in the midst of rejection and abuse. On a more humble, but no less important a scale, we are called to that same “flexible faithfulness” as we “preach” the grace of God by the way we live our lives with precision and passion. Paul and Barnabas were filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Our reward can - and will - be no less.
“Whoever does not enter through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber…”
Jesus wants us to “have life, and to have it to the full” (John 10:10) and he tells us there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. The gateway to that life is through him and through him alone - no workaround or short cut will suffice.
In the first few pages of his book Night, Ellie Wiesel reflects upon the image of heaven offered to him by his mentor Moishe the Beadle: “‘There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.’ Thus began my initiation. Together we would read, over and over again, not to learn it by heart but to discover within the very essence of divinity. And in the course of those evenings I became convinced that Moishe the Beadle would help me enter eternity, into that time when question and answer would become ONE.”
From a Salesian perspective, this makes absolute sense. Many people make the mistake of thinking that in order to “have life, and to have life to the full” they must become someone they’re not. Many people make the mistake of believing they must become someone else, while many people make the mistake of trying try to enter “through a gate other than” their own. What would Francis de Sales’ advise? “Be who you are and be that perfectly well.”
In the big scheme of things, Jesus is the one and only gateway to life. Still, Jesus is big enough to accommodate the fact that no two people enter through him in exactly the same way; no two people experience that fullness of life by walking in the exact same footsteps.
Do you want to experience fullness of life on earth? Do you want to experience fullness of life in heaven? Then don’t live someone else’s life.
Today, like Jesus, try to live your own life as best you can.
“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete…”
In a sermon entitled “Dedicated Hearts,” Francis de Sales stated:
“We might possibly reach a saturation point when it comes to our quest for wealth and honors, but when it comes to loving God, how can we ever say, “I have enough”? No limits can ever be set to our hunger and thirst for Him...’” (Pulpit and Pew, p. 223)
In other words, no matter how happy and joyful we might be, our happiness and joy will always be incomplete unless it includes the love of God. And in what will we find complete joy? In the opinion of St. Francis de Sales, it is experienced through our willingness to be what he describes as a “servant of God.” He wrote:
“To be a servant of God means to be charitable towards one’s neighbors, to have an unshakeable determination in the superior part of your soul to obey the will of God, to trust in God with a very humble humility and simplicity, and to lift oneself up as often as one falls, to endure with all your abjections and to quietly put up with others in their imperfections." (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 140)
Jesus embodies the fullness of joy. Jesus shows us what a joyful and joy-filled life looks like.
Today, how can we imitate his example today and share His joy – as well as ours – with others?
“His commandment is eternal life…”
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Many men keep the commandments in the same way that sick men take medicine – more from fear of dying in damnation than for the joy of living according to our Savior’s will. Just as some people dislike taking medicine – now matter how pleasant it may be – simply because it is called medicine, so there are some souls who hold in horror things commanded simply because they are commanded. On the contrary, a loving heart loves the commandments. The more difficult they are the sweeter sand more agreeable it finds them since this more perfectly pleases the beloved and gives him greater honor. It pours forth and sings hymns of joy when God teaches it his commandments. The pilgrim who goes on his way joyously singing adds the labor of singing to that of walking, and yet by this increase of labor he actually lessens his weariness and lightens the hardship of the journey. In like manner the devout lover finds such sweetness in the commandments that nothing in this mortal life comforts and refreshes him so much as the precious burden’s of God’s precepts.” (TLG, Book XIII, Chapter 5, pp. 67-68)
Perhaps in this observation from Francis de Sales we can hear the echo of Jesus’ words from Matthew 11: 29 – 30: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”
Seeing the commandments of God as strong medicine that cures our sickness can surely weigh us down but seeing the commandments of God as that which keep us healthy can surely lift us up.
How will you see – and experience – God’s commandments today - as burden or bounty?