Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lukewarmness, the devil in disguise (Our calling as priests is not to comfort and ease, but to nobility and greatness.)

Many years ago, I remember complaining to my spiritual director in seminary about how I was having a hard time juggling the intensity of my studies with the other demands of formation. After a few moments of silence, he simply said to me: “Jesus didn’t call you to a life that's easy; he calls you to an adventure that is great.”

He then got up, took a book from his shelf and asked me to use it for spiritual reading. He placed a marker on page 291, and suggested I read the contents of that page first.

It was the memoir of the Greek poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, and the pages Father John singled out was from a section entitled “Report to Greco”. Let me share with you briefly what that section said. [I've written it in my journal, together with many other ideas and whatnot that I picked up and learned from my good spiritual director, God rest his soul.]

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you asking me to do? You ask the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouted, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine”, they said. “We’re comfortable here; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered them mercilessly. “Leave the mud, stand up!” “We don’t want to! We can’t”

You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.

The human being is like a centaur; his hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is tormented by the merciless Cry. “Be what you have been made to be”, it calls to him. 

Man replies: “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond me is an abyss”. 

And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

Jesus in the Gospels, speaks of the kind of life those who wish to follow him can expect: “Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head”.

There is an urgency to his invitation, and an earnestness that is expected of one who responds. “Let the dead, bury their dead”, he says to one prospective follower. They are words that show, not a lack of sympathy, but a sense of urgency. And to another he says, “No one who sets his hands to the plow and keeps looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God”.

Jesus didn’t call us to a life that is easy; he calls us to an adventure that is great. “Offer to God,” St. John Vianney says, “only that which is worth offering”.

And is that not the reason we were drawn to the priesthood in the first place; to offer to God, our best, our utmost, our highest? Because nothing else will do.

Why is it then, that after a while, we begin to lose fire, zeal, and enthusiasm? We begin seeking the easy way, the comfortable and convenient way, the way that requires the least amount of effort and energy on our part.

Lukewarmness, a number of masters of the spiritual life tell us, is the devil in disguise. 

Gregory the Great and Thomas tell us it has “six daughters”: (1) a lack of hope, (2) uncontrolled imagination, (3) laziness, (4) a cowardly disposition, (5) an overly-critical spirit that fails to see anything good or worthwhile in others, and (6) an ill-temper.

These are snares, they say, that are placed on the path of one who seeks to follow Jesus who says: “If you wish to be my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”.

And yet, how often do we find ourselves creating strategies and game-plans (for every area of our life in formation) to make things as easy as possible, and to take the path of least resistance. (Mind you, there is nothing inherently wrong with that; we aren’t masochists.) But when seeking the way of ease becomes a habit, especially for one who seeks to one day be an effective minister of the Gospel, we slowly but surely, extinguish the fire of our commitment.

Beware the snares of comfort, ease, and convenience that will be placed on your path towards following Christ.

He didn’t promise us ease; he promises us greatness. He promises an adventure in which we will have to spend our entire life, and every single breath aiming not for the easiest way, but the highest way, the utmost, and the best. Our goal is to reach the summit of life and of faith, and there, encounter the God who says to us: “I am beyond, stand up!”

Lukewarmness, my dear younger brothers, is the devil in disguise.  

When things start getting too easy, and when you start getting far too comfortable, when you start getting lukewarm in any area of your life here in seminary – be wary, it may no longer be Jesus walking by your side.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Tiring the gods" (Reflections on the Prayer of the Persevering Widow, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:1-8)

Children have different ways of getting their parents to give them what they want. When I was a kid, I used to pester my parents with small notes I’d tape all over the place. I’d put them all over the house. And just to make sure I have all the bases covered, I’d also call up my grandparents and get them to put in a good word for me.

I also made sure I behaved myself at home and school and was extra helpful in the house. When I now remember all the things I did as a child to get what I wanted, I feel rather silly. But it always worked! I always did get what I want, usually after my parents got sick and tired of all my reminders.

The pagans of Jesus time had a term for a similar practice. They called it fatigare deos, “tiring the gods”. They believed that their perseverance in telling the gods what they want would pay off, because the gods would eventually get sick and tired of hearing their prayers and would finally grant their requests.

The story of the woman and the judge in today’s gospel reading could perhaps resemble this ancient pagan practice of “tiring the gods”.

And yet it’s very different! The point of Jesus’ story in fact is that we aren’t like this poor ignored woman before God, and that God is not at all like this indifferent judge. God isn’t someone who will hear and respond to us only because we’ve worn him out with our prayers. 

"Consider the birds of the air”, Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Or look at the lilies of the field. They neither sew nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like them”.

"If you know how to give your children good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give you what you need”. 

Trusting in God’s wisdom is the point of Jesus’ story in today’s gospel. He asks us to trust that God knows all our needs even before we say them. “Even the hairs on your head have all been counted”, he tells us, because “God knows each one of us by name”.

We don’t have to ‘tire’ God; we have to trust him. And trusting him means two things.

First, it means trusting that while he may not immediately give us what we ask for, or give us what we want, God always knows what we need, and will always give it to us when we need it.

Abraham was promised a son, and was promised to be the father of many nations. Years later, we hear him saying, “O God, what good is all my wealth if I have no son?” 

In due time, of course, God did give him a son. In fact God gave him not one, but two: Ishmael and Isaac; and Abraham did become the father of many nations.

In due time, God does respond to our prayers. And while the reply may not be in accord with what we want, it will always be in accord with what we need and what is for the best—something that may not be as clear initially, but turns out to be so eventually.

Second, trusting in God’s wisdom also means realizing that we pray, not to tire him into giving what we ask, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. 

To persevere in prayer is to increase our trust in God, because in doing so, we increase our confidence in ourselves. 

The ultimate purpose of prayer isn’t simply to receive what we ask, but to make us strong, confident, and without fear in facing the challenges, difficulties, and hurdles life sometimes puts in our way.

It makes us remember what Scripture says: “Do not fear. I have your name written on the palm of my hand”. 

It is when we realize the profound meaning of trust in God’s all-embracing care that we discover deep within our very selves, a power and a force capable of overcoming tremendous odds—something that is itself a gift of grace.

To borrow the words of the atheist, Albert Camus, “in the midst of winter,” prayer allows us to “find in ourselves, an invincible summer”.

“Persevere in prayer”, Jesus is reminding us in today’s gospel, and trust that with God “nothing is impossible”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)