God Will Fight For Us

When it ends, and when you have a good habit to work with, do not forget the moments of the battle when you were wounded and disarmed and helpless. Do not forget that, for all your efforts, you only won because of God, Who did the fighting in you.” (Thomas Merton – New Seeds of Contemplation)

With Pharaoh hot on the trail of the Israelites, they cried out to God and let Moses have it: “You brought us to die in the desert, were there no burial places in Egypt?” But Moses, ignoring their sarcasm, encouraged them: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today…The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13)

When armies were bearing down on Jehoshophat, he gathered the people to pray. In that prayer meeting, prophets in attendance delivered this word from God: “You will not have to fight in this battle. Take your places, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord; he will be with you…Do not fear or be dismayed.” (2 Chronicles 20:17)

Here we encounter two episodes where the Israelites were facing down their enemies and instructed by God to stay still and let God do the fighting. Don’t take things into your hands against these enemies, you’ll never win alone. Be still, I have your back.

It’s tempting to think that we can eliminate sin and cultivate virtue in our lives by our own strength. I can conquer this if I just try hard enough, or am disciplined enough, or if I formulate enough strategies to overcome weakness. Discipline and strategies are good, but if we could eliminate sin by our own power alone, we would have no need for the sacraments. It is God who washes away our sin, and we are empowered by His Spirit to lead a life of virtue.

By God’s grace, we have been given the ability to take those first steps toward holiness, and if we cooperate He will lead us through every desert temptation and give us the strength to overcome our battle with sin.

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Pray Anyway

Have you had those times when you wake up on a Sunday morning and you’d rather stay home and enjoy a quiet morning without having to get dressed up or talk to anyone else? Or when you know that you need to say your daily prayers, but just can’t get motivated? Or when you do pray, it is dry and dull and seems to offer no spiritual benefit?

Or those times in your life when world or life events make you feel like there is little hope? Where you get fed up with humanity or even other Christians? Or maybe you’ve struggled with doubt or what feels like a lifeless faith – you’re just going through the motions or have considered stopping the motions altogether.

It can be easy to get out of the habits of faith. It’s perhaps for some just as easy to run from it and surrender to cynicism and unbelief. I’ve known many to do both. Indeed, how easy would it be for me or any other person working for the Church to get out of the habit if we weren’t spending most of our days here? To be sure, people who work in and for the Church, lay and clergy alike, suffer dry spells and periods of doubt.

But take heart, the prayers that please God the most are prayers prayed through those dry points of the journey, especially when we don’t want to pray. God is particularly delighted when we keep the faith amidst doubt and pain. And when we do that, we are certain to frustrate the devil.

“It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best….Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

Unmasked

“To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

How often have you heard or said the phrase “just be yourself”? It’s generally pretty good advice. When sending my sons to college I told them not to stress about fitting in “just be yourself.” The message was that I have faith in who they are and they should too. We all want people to be confident in themselves. We get in trouble when we try to be something that we’re not – it’s usually awkward and obvious.

I find Merton’s quote an intriguing way to talk about Original Sin. We are not born ourselves, he says. We are born with a mask, a false self that is inclined to selfishness. The true self is masked and becomes non-existent when we give over to sin.

This helps us see this ancient doctrine in a new light. What seems at first to be a negative statement about humanity is in actuality an affirmation of our beauty. We were created beautiful and to love perfectly. That is our true self. Would that the world around see the call to repentance as less a judgment but rather a call to unmask and reveal the beauty of humanity. God is calling us to truly be ourselves.

During Lent when we examine our conscience with greater focus and practice self-denial, we are in fact opening room for our beauty to be exposed; unmasking so the goodness of God’s creation is illumined and not hidden in a cellar.

Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and no part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.” (Luke 11.35-36)

 

Extravagantly Returned

“When comfort is withdrawn, do not be cast down, but humbly and patiently await the visitation of God, for He is able and powerful to give you more grace and more spiritual comfort than you first had. Such alteration of grace is no new thing and no strange thing to those who have had experience in the way of God. “– Thomas Á Kempis in The Imitation of Christ

Someone once said to me with apparent joy on their face, “I just love Lent!”  I understood what they meant, but also found it an odd thing to say.  No doubt Lent is a thematically rich season with great symbolism. The imagery of Ash Wednesday captivates Catholics, non-Catholics and even non-Christians. Churches are full and the phone rings here frequently with calls from persons trying to find a way to get ashes because they weren’t able to make it to Mass.

But do people really like penitence that much? The confessional seems awfully empty to think that.

If we take Lent deeper than the symbolism we will find that it’s a far more uncomfortable season than maybe we have yet experienced. Lent is about the darkest side of humanity, something in all of us. During Lent we contemplate the cross – the brutal execution of ‘God with us’. We do not simply listen to the story and think what an awful thing they did to Jesus; we consider our own culpability in the crucifixion for we do not know what part we would have played in the narrative. Which part of the crowd would we find ourselves? We cannot presume to know.

So we take Lent and look deep into our mind, heart, and soul and try to discover the blind spots – the part of us where we would be more apt to crucify God than have him shake up our comfortable lives. We give up something to create what is in reality a mild discomfort. We try to pray more, confess more, love more… and we do all of this so that we might have the ears to hear and the heart to receive the risen Christ in all his resplendence – a peace beyond understanding, a comfort extravagantly returned.

Go Deep

Every Sunday after the homily, we stand together and say “I believe” followed by a recitation of historical and doctrinal claims about our faith. When we think of the phrase “I believe” we often think of it as mentally assenting to some truth or fact. I believe Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead just like I believe that George Washington was our first president. But if we treat belief this way, then faith can become static or lost.

When I taught my boys how to swim, I put them in shallow water and showed them the mechanics. I held them on the surface and had them perform the necessary motions and then I let them go. They swam joyfully across one shallow end to another proud of their ability. I believed in their skills, they did too.

And then we discussed going into the deep end…

Suddenly their confidence and conviction were tested. They knew they should do it, but they were understandably frightened. So they remained content showing off their aquatic chops in the kiddie pool. I promised them I would not let them drown, I was right there to pull them up. But they continued to resist, so I patiently nudged and waited until they were ready. We did this back and forth together for quite awhile until one day it just kind of clicked with them (bribing them with a trip to Dairy Queen might have had something to do with it, but that actually doesn’t help my point here).

It wasn’t until they jumped in over their heads that they really believed they could swim. All that time in the shallow end, confident in their proficiency, was just talk. In the deep end, they put their faith to the test.

Are we remaining in the shallow end while we say “I believe” at Mass? God doesn’t just want our assent, he wants our life. God wants us to go deep into our baptismal waters and surrender all to Him. Being a Christian is not merely making statements of faith – it’s a full-bodied leap of faith. And as I was there for my children in the pool, God is ready to pull us up when we start to sink.

 

Be Like The Dead

A brother once came to the abbot Macarius and said to him, “Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved.” St. Macarius answered him, “Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults.” The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless, he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done. Macarius asked him, “Did the dead notice what you did?” And he replied, “They did not notice me.”

“Go, then, again,” said Macarius, “and this time praise them.” The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, “I have praised the dead.”

Macarius asked him, “Did they reply to you?” And he said, “They did not reply to me.” Then said Macarius, “You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus, you may be saved.”

This is a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, some of the earliest monks in the history of the Church.  These sayings are collected in a variety of volumes available online and in bookstores. Many of them are quite colorful like the one above and pertain to the way of salvation:  How do we live in a way that truly frees us to walk the path that Jesus walked?

It is likely that St. Macarius knew the temptations of this inquisitive brother and believed that he would most benefit from having such a disposition. Maybe he was too sensitive to insults and criticism? Maybe he enjoyed the praise of others a bit too much?

But such instruction is good for all of us. It is a great temptation to allow the opinions of others affect and direct us too much. Not getting caught up in praise or insult frees us to be truly open to God’s direction.

 

More and Gladly

One of the hardest things is to let it go when someone wrongs you or someone you love. Our first impulse is not often the healthiest. Anger and hurt can make us want to fight back and even wish ill will on the offender. But life is full of hurts and wrongs inflicted, and intentionally or unintentionally, we will be disappointed and frustrated by the behavior of others toward us. So how do we live our lives not being brought down by our pain or resentments?

Thomas Á Kempis, in his classic text The Imitation of Christ, offers a challenging instruction: “The patient man who suffers injuries and wrong from others, yet sorrows more for their malice than for the wrong done to himself, has a wholesome and blessed purgatory in this world, and so have they who can gladly pray for their enemies and for those who oppose them, and those, too, who in their heart can forgive those who offend them, and those who do not wait long to ask forgiveness.”

This is hard. What makes it so hard are the words “more” and “gladly.” I can be sorrowful for another person’s malice toward me, but more than my own sorrow for being wronged?  I’ve prayed for my enemies before, but gladly?

Jesus told us to love our enemies (Sermon on the Mount). St. Paul tells us not to brood over injury (1st Corinthians 13).  Why does the spiritual life have to be this tough!

To be sure, we will not instinctively default to this kind of love after being wronged. It takes mindfulness and practice. It takes keeping the Sermon on the Mount, 1st Corinthians 13, and these words of Thomas Á Kempis’ constantly in our hearts and minds. It takes a commitment to earnestly, if not gladly, pray for those who persecute us.

There is good evidence that those who practice such forgiveness are happier and experience less anger and anxiety. That is a wonderful fruit of practicing forgiveness, but we are not prompted by that. We practice forgiveness because we are called to fashion our lives after Jesus Christ, who rather than resent his enemies laid down his life for them and for all.

Follow the Cross

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to John Paul II,” or “I belong to Benedict XVI,” or “I belong to Francis,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Were the popes crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of a pope?

If Paul were writing a letter to the Catholic Church today, it might well begin like this, for this is exactly how he began his first letter to the Corinthians (with my obvious substitutions). 1st Corinthians was written to address divisions in that community since some members were using prominent church leaders to foster rivalries.

If you keep up with Catholic news, you can see some similarities from Paul’s day to ours.  There is a tendency among some Catholics to pit one church leader (not just the popes) against another as if it were Republicans versus Democrats, Burr versus Hamilton, or Saban versus Smart (not getting over that anytime soon).

In Paul’s letter, he is so exasperated by the rivalries in the Corinthian church that he actually writes, “Thank God I didn’t baptize any of you so you can’t say you were baptized in my name!” It’s gotten pretty bad when an Apostle is thankful he didn’t baptize persons for fear they would use it to foster more division.

Divisions and rivalries have always been with us and they typically lead to the worst expressions of humanity – which is why Paul was so concerned. So after he ends his admonishment, he pivots immediately to the cross. His message is clear: We don’t follow human wisdom and eloquence, we follow the cross. Keeping our eyes on the cross unites us in perfect love for one another because it is the exemplar of perfect love for us.

 

Love Every Day

I’ve started a New Years’ resolution that I’d like to recommend along with your usual practice of prayer.  Begin your day by praying this aloud:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

This is the famous 13th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. You’ve heard it at almost every wedding you’ve attended, but it wasn’t written for couples. Paul is instructing the Corinthians in how to be church – how to honor every member of the community. He was showing them “the more excellent way.”

The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was to address divisions in the church. Given the current environment in church and world, this letter is as relevant as ever. And memorizing, internalizing, and practicing this perfect love will have an impact on our relationships that will surely leave no room for division.

Our Best Life Now

It’s very tempting to believe that if I just have the right attitude, the right kind of thinking, the right knowledge, I will be okay. If I stay positive and think good thoughts, I will have a healthy and happy life. This is a philosophy that has permeated our country for quite awhile. From Norman Vincent Peale’s profoundly influential book The Power of Positive Thinking to televangelist Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now, this notion that a certain way of thinking will bring us happiness and salvation is everywhere.  It is a religion of the self and it pervades the American psyche.

This school of thought has a kinship with an ancient philosophy the Church battled in its early days – Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that salvation was achieved through an inner knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge liberated a person from the ignorance and evil of creation. Thus, Gnostics believed that creation, particularly flesh, is evil and we must be freed from the bondage of matter with an enlightened mind.

In his 1992 book, The American Religion, Harold Bloom proposed that religion in America has less in common with historical Christianity than it does Gnosticism. You can see this in expressions of faith where there is a heavy emphasis on the individual and personal experience. Bloom may be overstating it a bit, but variants of Gnosticism remain a persistent threat to Christian teaching.

On Christmas Day, we heard from the first chapter of the Gospel of John that “the Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” This was a theological declaration that challenged Gnosticism. Salvation does not come from any special knowledge, it comes from God becoming one of us.

Certainly we can all benefit from positive thinking, but we are not saved by good attitudes, ideas, or an ‘enlightened mind’. We are saved by the God who loves what He created so much that He chose the most intimate way possible to say “I love you.” He chose to have a mother and be born from her womb – an idea repellent to Gnostics but necessary for salvation. For as St. Gregory of Nazianzen declared: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” And the closer we get to that God, the closer we get to our ‘best life now’.