In this Gospel passage there is seemingly a huge disjuncture between the 1st and 2nd half of the Gospel, but dig deeper and you will find a gem.
In the first half of the Gospel, we see that Jesus says:
“If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”
The keywords here are “who belong to Christ”.
What does it mean to BELONG TO CHRIST? It means that our whole life is about Jesus: every thought word and deed draws others to Jesus and allows Jesus to shine!
So what does all this have to do with cutting off your hands and being salt of the earth, as seen in the second half of the Gospel?
The answer lies in these two ideas:
1. Turning away from sin
2. Rooting our identity in Christ
Everything that stops us from belonging to Christ must be removed. If we are the obstacle, then we are better off dead (being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around you pretty much equates to death). If we are living a life of sin that causes scandal, or living a wayward life that draws us and others away from God, we need to STOP.
Jesus appears harsh by telling us to cut off the body part that causes us to sin. Let’s look deeper.
Are we willing to cut off whatever draws us away from Christ?
We ARE the salt of the earth. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless. If we lose our identity in Christ, it renders us useless.
NEWSFLASH: We didn’t need to exist! We were created for a reason and purpose — we are created by God for God, in His image and likeness.
Fulfilling the will of God will help us to live a life of peace. It will never be a peace that the world can give. Nay, they will persecute and condemn, claiming us to be holy.
God’s peace is offered to us daily. We can only do that by being the salt of the earth, by belonging to God, and by doing God’s will.
This morning I listened to the always enlightening Bishop Barron talk about Frassati. First of all, Bishop Barron is a national treasure and I 10 out of 10 recommend the Word on Fire Show. Secondly, let’s take a minute to talk about our boy, Frassati.
Frassati’s life is an example of how grace and faith can grow in the most surprising places. Frassati wasn’t raised in a faith-filled home like so many of the Saints. His father was a prominent Italian politician and his mother a well-known painter. His father was agnostic, and his mother was *vaguely* Catholic. Frassati wasn’t given a spiritual upbringing but found one for himself instead.
Even from a young age and without any humanly prompting he was captivated by the Eucharist and the liturgy. He would disappear for hours at a time and visit the chapels for Eucharistic adoration causing his parents to frantically search for him. (Now where have I heard that story before? *cough cough* finding at the temple *Cough cough*)
Similar to his surprising devotion to the faith, he also had a devotion to the poor. He gave all his money and all his time to the poor. He was truly a man of the poor. He was both their caretaker and their advocate. His love of the poor was so brilliant that when he died of polio at the age of 24 his funeral was a HUGE event. It wasn’t his prominent parents’ friends who overwhelmed the event, but the poor. His funeral was a massively-attended event because of the massive amount of people he attended to and cared for while he was living.
When we hear about mountain-climbing Frassati’s “Verso L’alto” we are reminded of his acceptance of grace and his determination to climb closer to Christ. Frassati was a man of action. First, he accepted grace into his life and then boldly ACTED. May he be an example to us all. To the heights!!! Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about Divorce.
Growing up I never thought much about the sacredness of married life. My family was pretty much dysfunctional (this MIGHT be an understatement) and I never thought much about the importance of family — in fact I detested it.
I (shamefully) remember asking my mom one birthday — it was my 7th — for her to divorce my dad as my birthday gift. I did not think it would be a problem — after all, when someone is aggressive to you daily, you leave him… right?
To that she gave a response I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: “This is a cross I must carry.”
Honestly, I thought she was mad for wanting to endure this hardship.
On hindsight, that was her living out her vows of marriage and that planted in me a seed of perseverance and faithfulness to God. It was the wisest thing anyone ever said to me.
The Pharisees quoted the mosaic law and questioned why Moses allowed for divorce. But Jesus explained that God’s intention for our state in life — whether married or single — was to be saints.
Being a saint entails that we rely on the power of God to overcome hardship before we rely on the power of man.
Moses had only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.
Male and female are indissolubly united in one flesh in marriage — a sacred and binding union — until death.
Marriage vows are so sacred, and such exemplars of what it means to love truly — you vow to love unconditionally every single moment of every single day, you vow to give yourself totally for the good of the other person. THAT is true love.
After all, from a Theology of the Body (TOB) lens, our entire faith is based on the idea of God wanting to marry us! He — in the person of Jesus Christ — is the groom and we the Church are His bride; the cross the “nuptial bed”. Just like how Jesus was humble to death on the cross, couples must learn to adjust in humility for the marriage to grow and experience success. Many failures in marriages are due to:
– lack of humility
– lack of prayer life
Back to my mom: she may not be educated in theology or the doctrines of the Church. But she is (sure as sure can be) in possession of the Truth and I believe that she is the epitome of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
Prayers for all my married friends, that you realize that God has called you to be saints in your vocation as married people, and may God grant you the graces to be faithful to the end.
My high school batch at St. Paul College of Pasig, a Catholic school for girls here in the Philippines run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, just celebrated its homecoming. We prepared for it for a year, a year that was spent reminiscing about high school memories and organizing a grand celebration dinner.
Among the fond memories of our high school days, a favorite is that of the Intramurals. The Intramural athletic competitions were, and still are, a big thing in our school. Rivalry between batches in volleyball, softball, track-and-field, swimming, and chess events was intense, although everyone played fair and clean most of the time. Even members of the non-athletic majority, such as I, were expected to take the Intramurals seriously as we formed part of their batches’ pep squads in the cheering competitions. The cheering competitions were the biggest events in the Intramurals. We practiced hard for hours amidst the demands of high school homework, and each batch tried to outdo each other in coming up with the most sophisticated and most artistic pep squad and cheer dance routines.
From the conversations and social media interactions among my batch mates, it is clear that the spirit of the Intramurals is still alive among us – especially since we could never forget that we were the champions of the cheering competition during our junior year.
It seems that sports competitions were a big thing, too, to our school’s patron saint. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he used athletics as an example to illustrate the determination and sacrifice it takes for a Christian to reach the highest goal in life, which is union with God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 10:7).
In other words, St. Paul was cheering on the Christian community in Corinth, “Go! Fight! Win!”
I like the way St. Paul viewed the struggle for sanctity as a sport.
Often, we balk at the suggestion that we should aim to be saints. We tend to think that sanctity is reserved for an elite few, and that the rest of us are doomed to either spiritual mediocrity or damnation. We want to be good but we find it hard.
St. Paul himself knew how hard it is to aim to be a saint. His writings reflect his awareness of his sinful past, and even post-conversion he wrote about “the thorn of the flesh” and having had to be delivered from his “body of death”.
Perhaps it is because he knew how discouraging the struggle against oneself can be, that he wrote about it in terms of sports to encourage his readers. Sports are tough and demanding. They involve pain and hard training. But they are fun, too. They are all about a sense of accomplishment when one wins, hope for another second chance of victory when one loses, and camaraderie with one’s teammates in any case.
It is depressing to examine one’s conscience every night and discover that one has committed the same faults and sins as the day before. But it is less discouraging to see one’s repeated falls as the reps that an athlete must do to master a technique. The struggle for sanctity is not about loathing oneself for being a sinner and beating up oneself to become what one is not. The struggle to be a saint is a spiritual sport. One can win with training (developing virtue), proper nutrition and hydration (the Eucharist and the other sacraments), proper treatment of injuries (the sacrament of confession), following the advice of one’s coach (spiritual direction and the teachings of the Church), the right mental attitude (the theological and cardinal virtues), and teamwork (the support we get from each other as members of the Mystical Body of Christ). Like any other sport, it is enjoyable; one fruit of training in this spiritual sport is joy.
St. Paul’s reference to a “perishable wreath” refers to the fact that during his time, victorious athletes got nothing more than crowns of leaves for all their efforts. Today’s athletes receive more durable prizes – metal or plastic trophies, or medals of gold, silver, or bronze – but just the same, these prizes serve no further purpose than to be displayed. Nevertheless, athletes invest a lot just to win these prizes. The prize for winning the spiritual sport of pursuing sanctity is priceless, and surely worth all the effort involved in attaining it.
When we are defeated in the struggle to be good, we can either give in to discouragement, or we can, like a true athlete, train for the next match and try again as many times as needed to win. One day, we will be able to say, like Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith “ (2 Timothy 4:7)
Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:
“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”
I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.
She goes on to say:
“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.
Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:
“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.
Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.
They are impossible.
Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.
Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.
Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
“Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Or to pick another example:
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.
Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.
Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
I returned last month from a pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless times: “How was it?” I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that whatever could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience, in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary.
But in hindsight, no amount of careful pre-planning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure — life must go on.
So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.
Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaids’ ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.
The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptized and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life: it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptized. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God. That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Savior once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St. Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, under-girding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.
Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.
That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external — like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.
We may be secretly sympathetic toward the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.
As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine:
“Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”
Rev. Michael Chua is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the parish priest of the Church of Jesus Caritas, Kepong and Administrator of the Chapel of Kristus Aman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, as well as Ecclesiastical Assistant and Chaplain for the Catholic Lawyers Society.
If you’re a woman, I’m willing to bet that you have struggled with trying to be some definition of “perfect” at one point or another. In secular society, it’s easy to see how rampant female perfectionism is. So many of us strive to attain the perfect body, find the perfect job, or be the perfect wife/mother/sister/friend. This thinking can also exist within the Church. As Christian women, there are sometimes subtle expectations placed on us. There is quiet pressure to be perky and helpful at every moment, to never disagree or rock the boat, and to have a burning love for Jane Austen (I’m kidding on that last one…kind of).
Maybe not every lady in the pew feels this way, though. I could very well be seeing this through the lens of my own scarred experience. All I know is that for many years, I felt a bit out of place in the “Catholic Woman Crowd” because of my gregarious personality, offbeat sense of humor, and proclivity to smoke an occasional cigarette.
But I’m slowly learning that there is no “one-size-fits-all” image of Christian femininity. And we will all constantly struggle with sin, faults, and the feeling of never being perfect. In all actuality, it’s one of the most beautiful things about being a Christian. We are not reliant on our own actions to grow us in virtue. Sure, we have to put in the effort. We must take practical steps every day to eradicate our sin and vice. But in the end, we are free of the immense, unshoulderable burden of trying to save ourselves.
The Catechism offers us this reminder:
“All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.” – CCC 827
We see here that Christ has already won the battle of salvation. We just need to keep running to Him again and again when we inevitably succumb to our weaknesses. We can trust that the Farmer knows what He’s doing when He prunes and tills our hearts.
We can also look to the Blessed Virgin, the most beautiful example of pure, holy womanhood in all of history. Mary exuded the most authentic femininity that we as women should try to emulate. Of course, to the perfectionist, Mary might be intimidating. I had a bitter relationship with her for most of my life because I knew I could never measure up to her. She was competition. But over time, I learned to see her as my Mother in heaven who loved me very much and wanted me to attain holiness even more than I did.
In our pursuit of holiness as Catholic women, let’s stop trying to be perfect. Let’s stop trying to fit ourselves into stereotypical molds of what we think Christian womanhood is, because really, they don’t exist. What has been more beneficial to me in my personal and spiritual growth has been to ask myself the question, “Who is the woman that God made me to be?” Most of the time, the answer is not some cookie-cutter trophy woman I wish I was. It’s following the “greatest path of love”, as Bishop Robert Barron coined, using the traits, quirks, strengths, and imperfections that God gave to me to do so.
That’s all He asks of us, really. And that’s good enough.
The other day, after I got out of the shower, I wrapped myself up in my bathrobe, as I often do, and I felt God. I felt God in my bathrobe. In my bathrobe. For whatever reason, that day, God decided to show Himself to me through the cozy embrace of my bathrobe—it felt like the warm and comfortable embrace of a lover. And it got me thinking about two things: 1) God present in the everyday things we often take for granted or overlook, and 2) God as lover.
Seeing God in the everyday items isn’t really that much of a stretch. It’s easy to see Him in the sunshine and the rain, in nature, in the food we eat, in the faces of the people around us. But I’m talking about taking it a step further. Not just seeing God in these things and all things but realizing that He is in them, holding their existence together. I’m talking about feeling God in my bathrobe, recognizing that He holds its existence in place with His very Being. The last Ignatian Spiritual Exercise is the Contemplatio, in which you meditate on God’s existence in absolutely everything and everything’s complete dependence upon God for existence. Whether we see Him in things or not, whether we feel Him or not, whether we believe or not, all the things of this world, and we ourselves, are completely dependent upon God for existence; if He were to withdraw Himself, things would just cease to exist, they just couldn’t be.
In this way, not only could I feel God in the embrace of my bathrobe, but I could rightly conclude that God Himself was embracing me through the physicality of that bathrobe. It’s an interesting thought, understanding that God is giving Himself for me to sit on in the form of this chair, that He covers me through the clothes I am wearing, that my skin that itches, itches precisely because He is making its existence possible.
Of course, God’s presence in my bathrobe or my chair or whatnot is different from His presence in the Eucharist. He’s not present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in any of these created things like He is in the Eucharist. That’s why the Eucharist is necessary and so incredibly good—because He’s already present in everything but deemed it good to be completely present to us in His full humanity and divinity, and so He gifted us with the Eucharist. What an amazing God that holds our entire existence together with His very being and then gives of Himself totally in another profoundly glorious way. He is such a Lover.
It’s easy, for me at least, to relate to God as Father, God as Brother, and God as Friend. But it’s not so easy for me to relate to Him as Lover. It’s easy to see God’s Providence as He cares for me throughout the circumstances of life, it’s easy to see God’s companionship on the road of life. But it’s more difficult to see Him as totally giving Himself and asking for the same in return, to see Him loving as one who wishes to be fully, completely, irrevocably, profoundly, and eternally united to His beloved. And yet that’s what the Eucharist demonstrates and what Him upholding the existence of the entirety of creation with His being implies.
We hear a lot about God as a jealous lover or a relentless lover, or about all of His qualities as lover (check out Song of Songs!), but what do those things really mean? What does it look like? Well, it looks a lot like the saints and it reeks of holiness. That’s all holiness and sainthood is—being fully, completely, irrevocably, profoundly, and eternally united to the Beloved. It looks a lot like prayer and sacraments, like seeing God in the creation around you, being brought closer to Him through everything we see and hear (maybe even through some secular songs), being thankful for every moment of this life. It looks a lot like feeling God embracing me through my bathrobe.
A while ago, I and a couple others were talking animatedly about the upcoming release of some highly-anticipated superhero movies. I mentioned Captain America (one of my personal favorites, however trite the movies he appears in are becoming).
“Oh, Captain America,” one of the girls said, waving a hand dismissively. “He’s too perfect. I like Spider-Man. He has actual human faults.”
I was a bit miffed. Besides the extremely sensible reason that Captain America should be good because he represents our country (my point of view, anyway), I didn’t concur with my friend’s judgment. I didn’t regard Captain America to be “too perfect”. He did some things which I didn’t agree with and made some decisions that didn’t seem to be ideal. But I think I understood what my friend saw in Captain America because it was something that annoyed me in other characters. To her, Captain America was a goody-goody and compared to the flamboyant Spider-Man, he certainly can be seen that way. But could it be that anyone could be “too perfect”?
“Too perfect”. “Disgustingly virtuous”. “Annoyingly cheerful”. How often have we heard or coined phrases like these? How can it be that the qualities which should be most attractive to people are so off-putting to so many?
First of all, we should draw a distinction between the sincere and the superficial. I have encountered my fair share of intolerably sanctimonious characters—especially of the angelic, dutiful-child type often found in nineteenth-century children’s moral stories. Many of these types of characters were created for the sole purpose of teaching a moral and thus are decidedly one-sided and artificial. They have no further interest once they have taught their lesson to the reader. Another flaw in angelic-type characters is often their own unrealistic behaviors and impacts on others. For example, Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while not as unbearable as some other characters, smacks slightly of this—she is a perfect child, sympathetic and kind to all, and everyone seems to come to her with their problems and their praises. And of course, when we get into those characters such as Tom Sawyer’s half-brother Sid who are well-behaved only because of the superiority it gives them over others, the question is not about surface virtue but about underlying pride.
But normally, are we right to reject characters merely because of their piousness? To shed light on the issue, think for a minute about the saints, whom many people can’t stand. The saints were those people who seemed to have everything figured out, who were always obedient, cheerful, and prayerful. In short, they succeeded where many of us have failed. Thus, many of our problems with “perfect” characters and saints come from an acknowledged or unacknowledged jealousy. Don’t we wish we were the person whom everyone admires and holds up as an example? Often the root of our dislike comes from a particular trait, which we then try to belittle. Those people who seem to be always calm and collected, for example, I tend to decry as being “emotionless”. Those who are always obedient and respectful to those in authority over them, I tend to view as “flatterers”.
You see, we often try to pull down those whom we can look up to. We don’t want anyone to be better than ourselves. Or at least, we want assurance that we are doing “pretty well” compared to everyone else. If we fail, we would like everyone else to fail, like the dog in the fable: the dog who tries to prevent the other barn animals from using hay, just because he is unlucky enough not to be able to enjoy hay himself.
When we are confronted with stories of virtuous people, then, we should ask ourselves exactly why they seem to grate on our nerves. Is it because of some lack of skill of the author or storyteller? Is it because of some false reason to hold this person up as an example? Or is it because this person reveals a facet of our own inadequacy to ourselves in a way we would rather not be reminded?
Because the truth is that we do need heroes. We need people to look up to and admire and imitate. We need to learn to accept the good in others without feeling jealous or—from the other end of the spectrum—overly frustrated about ourselves. And the truth is that, when we take the time to notice, many of the characters we may find annoying are actually delightfully human. Captain America, for instance, has felt pain. He has felt the suffering of losing nearly everything from his life. He gets hungry, thirsty, and tired. He goes through temptations and lapses in his own judgment. He has sympathy for his fellow humans. All these qualities make him relatable as a person; he is definitely not alien.
The same goes for the saints. While the holiest of them did not succumb to temptation as often as most other people, they had human qualities and personality flaws. They suffered. They endured temptation. The Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, suffered in ways we can only imagine but suffered like we do nonetheless. So did her Son, who became man for us. Even He hungered and thirsted in the desert and on the cross. We can look up to others for their holiness or their good qualities while not feeling completely separate from them.
It’s especially important to appreciate our heroes and good role models in this day, when the typical celebrity is into drugs, drinking, and other pursuits which could scarcely be called worthy of emulation. Mainstream characters of the Captain America sort should be well-appreciated–may there be more popular characters like them! For holier role models (and, even better, real ones), we look to the saints, both those canonized and those in our daily lives. For there is no need to be disgusted with virtue when that virtue is true.
“I prefer a family with tired faces from generous giving, to a family with faces full of makeup that know nothing of tenderness and compassion. I prefer a man and a woman, don Aniceto and his wife, with faces that are wrinkled due to the daily struggles over the fifty years of strong married love; and here we have them, and their son has learned the lesson from them and is now twenty-five years married. These are families.”
—Pope Francis’s message to families in Mexico
While the whole world is fascinated by the statements Pope Francis made on the plane ride back from Mexico, it is this quote, directed to the family, that struck me. I am expecting my fifth son in a few weeks/days, to go with four boys (5, 4, 3, and 19 months). Quotes like these, which affirm the joy of family, appeal to a young father like me who still struggles to see the joy in every minute of every day. Yet there is something more to this quote than just my experience or comprehension of it. In this I see the small daily conversion to Christ’s teachings that takes place when someone encounters a holy person (or even someone who strives for holiness). Rather than being repelled by the physical appearances of this elderly couple, Francis is renewed in his mission to speak for the beauty of the family. Where society sees suffering, sacrifice, pain, and waste, Francis sees joy, beauty, goodness, and truth.
Family life is filled with great experiences of games, joy, and laughter. Along with them, there is exhaustion, strain, and exerted patience. The “sacrifice” of the family, however, is not arbitrary or fruitless. The sacrifice is the constant kenosis—the emptying of the self—that imitates Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. What Francis is calling for in his homily is, in many ways, a societal return to true heroism and true selflessness, which is manifested in and through the family. He calls for a society built on selflessness, heroism, and virtue—in other words, a society centered on love. Francis’s description of the ideal family reveals his belief that a virtuous society will arise only from the family.
The Selfless Family
Family is the first and vital cell of society (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11), society’s root (Gaudium et Spes 52). A healthy society, therefore, comes about when families form and create persons who are for others. The family begins from the free and open self-gift between a man and a woman (AA 11). This self-gift naturally leads to the fostering of offspring that will further the future of society. Rather than being prepackaged robots, children come with their own originality and personalities. They need to learn how to eat, sleep, behave, and do many things their parents have taken for granted. With these experiences come joy and accomplishment. They also bring anxiety, sleep deprivation, and frustration. Frankly, they bring out the best and the worst. I can speak of this from experience. With each child, my ability to love has expanded to reach horizons I never thought possible. Yet this expansion has revealed levels of sin I thought were long gone or never knew I had. For example, I am more patient than I have ever been, only because I have seen how impatient I was before. In calling me out of my own sinfulness and my own way of thinking, my children challenge me to become the man God desires. While the wrinkles are forming (as Francis stated), these wrinkles are only part of the kenosis I must undertake to imitate Christ in all things, including suffering. In this selfless giving of life, the parents become examples for the future generation to imitate, showing that life is only truly lived in service to others.
The Heroic Family
“The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death” (Pope St. Leo the Great). This simple and yet direct statement from Francis’s predecessor proclaims the mission and focus of discipleship in the family. As seen above, the expansion of the parents’ love for their children brings with it much work, responsibility, and sacrifice. These experiences are God’s way of calling us to closer communion with Him in our imitation of His Son. Christ’s suffering on the Cross for the sake of others is the greatest example of heroism for all humanity to imitate. The sacrifice of one’s life, the giving up of the will for that of the Father, is the call to all Catholics: ordained, religious, or lay. For the layperson, vocation is lived through the family. The family becomes the sacrament of the Church for the world and is the apostolate for the laity. The ideal of heroism shines through the Church, and not simply through the examples of men and women who died, were persecuted, or gave up everything for the faith. The Church shines with equal brilliance through the simple daily living of the “quiet” saints. These holy men and women may not have done deeds to be told from generations to generations, but they do the small things that light a fire that will not be quenched. Helping neighbors move or clean house, shoveling the snow for the elderly, giving up time to assist in a church function like a fish fry, or simply stopping to assist someone in need on the road or sidewalk: these simple, quiet acts produce saints. These hidden saints support the more-known heroes, instilling virtues within them. St. Augustine had his mother Monica to give witness to patience and humility; St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents bore patiently her difficult temperament in childhood and are now canonized saints. Behind the portrait of each saint is someone, be it a parent, family member, or family friend, who inspired and instilled the courage to take on the great task of sainthood. For every great missionary, there is someone in the background who gives the saint inspiration to continue forward regardless of the cost. The family is the environment upon which true heroism is created. The family is the environment to which we need to return.
The Virtuous Society
The heroic family brings about a truly virtuous society. As Gaudium et Spes explicitly states, a just society has the human person as “the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (25). A society naturally does this because it is composed of persons who came from a family that constantly focused on the building-up of persons into other well-centered humans. This family comes with wrinkles; it comes with suffering and with sacrifice. Yet, formed in love, these wrinkles become a wealth of knowledge, not scars of exhaustion. Done in love, suffering becomes redemptive, a victorious sign of our ability to overcome our own selfishness to build something greater. Done in love, our sacrifices allow us to become what we truly desire; they become the source of our freedom and life. The wrinkles, sufferings, and sacrifices show that the person we were before these events carried a yoke that was heavy and a burden that was not light. I’d like to conclude with an example of virtue that was exhibited to me not too long ago. Our son was sent to the hospital, and due to the nature of the visit, we were held up all weekend. We could not bring all four kids with us and needed to give attention to our hospitalized son. Our family came to our aid and took the three other kids over the weekend (with no forewarning). Friends who heard of our situation came to our aid, cleaned our house (which was a mess at the time), and chipped in with some appliances and furniture that needed to be replaced (without us even asking or making any indication that it was needed). They came in during their weekend, missed events they were scheduled to attend (with good speakers, I might add), and donated their financial resources to help us out in a time of need. In these saintly acts I am sure some wrinkles were added, but in doing so new stories of heroism and courage can be told. This was a case of a virtuous community that was formed not out of self-love, but of the selfless assistance to those in need. When I see these families, I see the description of what Francis has been calling for. No, he is not naïve; he sees the real challenges and burdens we face from society and mostly from our own sinfulness. But among these ashes comes the greater joy, the joy of being loved—first by God, then by family, and finally by friends. Always rooted within the family, we are shown God’s love and mercy and come to express this through our love of others. The family is the place where this takes place. It is God’s designated vehicle to make His Son known.
Zechariah writes of a vision in which he saw a man going to measure Jerusalem, her breadth and her length. Another angel came to tell him that Jerusalem would remain unwalled because of the great number of men and cattle that would be in her. The Lord said through the angel, “I will be a wall of fire for her all round her, and I will be her glory in the midst of her.” After the announcement of this indwelling, Zechariah bids Jerusalem, “Sing, rejoice, / Daughter of Zion; / For I am coming / To dwell in the middle of you. / It is the Lord who speaks. / Many nations will join the Lord, / On that day; / They will become his people” (2:5-15).
The day of judgment becomes the day of glory when God comes near to his people to tent with them. Deus fit homo, uthomofiatDeus. God became man so that man might become God. Mary pictures best the doctrine of theosis or divinization. As Christ clothed in blue (heaven) puts on red (earth), Mary clothed in red (human) puts on blue (divine). Like the burning bush she blazes but is not consumed. Redemption realizes the purpose of the imago Dei. God conforms us not only to his image but also to his likeness. Through imitation of Christ we join or joys to his, our sorrows to his, our work to his, our prayers to his.
St. Peter writes that God’s divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, that through glory and virtue we may be partakers of the divine nature (2nd Epistle 1:3-4). The redeemed, the elect, the Church Militant shine with the light of regeneration, and their purity testifies to the world of their baptism. Our holiness should attract others to the fold. We drink from the overflowing cup of Trinity’s love. Why would we ever stop drinking? We shall never be filled in this life or the next because of God’s infinity. Only thus do our hearts come to rest in the source of all being, through drinking from the fountain of life.
The calendar pairs the reading from Zechariah with this statement of Jesus in Luke, “The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men” (9:44). The folly of God, his handing himself over to evil men, his granting them free will is the greatest source of joy for mankind. St. Bonaventure said that free will is the second most powerful thing in the universe after God himself. We have this terrible power within us, to choose heaven or hell. If all our life we have said Fiat voluntas tua, Thy will be done, when we approach judgment day, we will hear, “Enter into the joy of your Lord.” If all our lives we have prayed, “My will be done,” we will receive our heart’s desire at judgment day. “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you” applies not only to the saved but to the damned as well. We should be careful to cultivate our desire for heaven. God allows people to make their own hell. If the things of this world satisfy us, we can have them for all eternity, but we will experience misery. If this world leaves us longing, we shall receive a reward. He will give us the desires of our heart.
Free will gives man the power to lock himself in hell or to follow the example of Mary and to say Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, Let it be to me according to your word. W. H. Auden writes of this terrible gift which God gave man, “He told us we were free to choose / But, children as we were, we thought— / ‘Paternal Love will only use / Force in the last resort / On those too bumptious to repent.’ / Accustomed to religious dread, / It never crossed our minds He meant / Exactly what He said” (Friday’s Child). The terror of free will lies not only in its power to rebel but in its power to submit. Whoever saves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.
Recently, I was watching the movie There Be Dragons about St. Josemaria Escriva and the Spanish Civil War, and I began thinking about the call to holiness and modern sainthood. St. Josemaria is perhaps best known as the founder of Opus Dei, and there is some controversy surrounding the man and his organization. Nevertheless, Pope St. John Paul II canonized him. This is because one thing is certain: we are all called to holiness and sainthood, and St. Josemaria Escriva knew this and advocated it. In fact, there is a scene in the movie where Fr. Josemaria is reunited with a (fictional) childhood friend. This friend says to him that he just wasn’t priestly material. Fr. Josemaria responded, “Perhaps not. But you are saint material.”
Admittedly, I do not know much about St. Josemaria or Opus Dei and, therefore, take both the opposition to and staunch defense of them with a grain of salt. I can take this stance because I know that none of us, in our earthly lives, are perfect; we all make mistakes or say things we wish we hadn’t. What I do know of St. Josemaria, which echoes Pope St. John Paul II’s feelings on him when canonizing him, is that he understood this and knew that we can be holy in spite of and because of our failings. My purpose here is not to dissect St. Josemaria Escriva’s life and motivations or Opus Dei, but to illustrate that sometimes we become so caught up in our own failings and weaknesses, or those of others, that we miss opportunities of grace. Sometimes we become so entrenched in the sludge of the day-to-day, or worry that we are too much becoming products of our times, that we forget that it is exactly those things that will sanctify us, if we allow them.
One criticism and one praise that I have read of St. Josemaria Escriva are, respectively, that he was a product of his time and that he lived fully in the present. I think the two go hand in hand. If we truly live fully in the present, with no worry for the future nor contempt or longing for the past, then our current age will be all that informs us, making us products of it. It takes extraordinary hope in heaven and trust in God to live this way.
Christ tells us in Matthew 6:33–34: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” Worry only for today, this very moment. Worry only for how you are living this moment, how you are doing your work and interacting with others. Worry only for how you are responding to the world around you- no matter how small or wide- and to the grace of God in every moment. It is in these things that sanctity can be achieved. The call to holiness is universal, is catholic, precisely because it can be found in every instance, every word and deed, and every thought of every person. Let us all go out and become saints of our time.
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