Sunday, October 27, 2019

BEFORE THE LORD, I CAN REST, BE AT EASE, AND SIMPLY BE WHO I AM (Reflections for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:9-14)

The problem with the Pharisee in today’s gospel was not that he wasn’t all those things he said. He really was a good person. He wasn’t greedy, or dishonest or adulterous. He was obedient to God’s Laws and really did his best to be righteous. But he had two big problems. First he kept comparing himself to others. “I’m not like the rest of humanity”, he said. And second, he probably felt that he had to be “on” all the time. He had to constantly prove himself before God.

What an awful way to live! Comparing oneself with others makes us either too puffed up with pride at being better than everyone else. Or it makes us disappointed and upset because we might not be as good as them.

A person who constantly compares himself with others will never be rid of the anxiety, tension and stress of feeling that he has to prove himself all the time: to himself, to others, and even to God.

On the other hand, the tax collector wasn’t looking down on himself. Those words he uttered really mean what they say. When he says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”—he was simply acknowledging the fact that he was indeed one. Sometimes, when we read this passage, we read it with the thought that the line made him somehow “holy”. Far from it. It simply made him real, and most of all, humble.

Humility, says St. John Vianney, is recognizing who we are before God – no more and no less. Humble people are very realistic ones.

Humility simply means accepting that life has its good days and bad days, and sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re not. And God knows and accepts that. We don’t need to put on a show for him or wear masks to make us look good.

The biggest problem with the Pharisee was that he couldn’t be honest: not with God, not even with himself. That was a sign of a true lack of humility.

Now “humility”, says St. Augustine, “is the foundation of all the other virtues and thus, in a soul in which humility does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” 

This weekend, I revisited two books I read many years ago in
seminary. The first is called “The Psychology of the Saints, by Henry Jolly. The other, entitled, “Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint” was written by William Meissner. Both authors are priests and psychologists. Joly and Meissner put forward similar ideas, the most important of which is perhaps the fact that God seems to specifically choose men and women with particular backgrounds, temperaments, and psychological make-ups for specific tasks. But what’s even more astounding is that, these men and women, to a very great extent, are defined by theircharacter and psychological make-up for the rest of their saintly lives.

Consider these following men and women, for instance. Francis of Assisi, joy-filled, exuberant, and care-free man that he was, at certain moments of his life, was quite careless. Thomas Aquinas was reserved, thoughtful, and detailed, even nit-picky. Augustine was deeply passionate, though at times he seems a tad fanatical about certain things. Ignatius of Loyola was committed and thorough, though he also exhibited signs of obsessive compulsiveness. John of the Cross was undeniably a romantic, though reading his works, one couldn’t help but wonder if he had a melancholic temperament. St. Peter was certainly child-like, but he was also brash and impulsive. Paul had very strong opinions but was quite stubborn. John XXIII was cheerfully optimistic, some say a tad too much. Mother Teresa was very strong-willed, though some say that at times she was stubborn and inflexible. And John Paul who lost his mom at a very tender age had an almost legendary devotion to the mother of God.

One thing’s for sure, holiness didn’t blot out the personalities, characters, and temperaments of these men and women. Rather their commitment to God, allowed them to transcend these and offer them as worthy instruments that God used.

What is true of the saints, is true of each one of us. I learned that from my spiritual director when I was a seminarian. You see, I was a stubborn, aggressive, skeptical, analytic, cynical, and deconstructionist seminarian. Rules suffocated me. But I also marveled at the devotion of some of my brother-seminarians.

One of them in particular, still stands out in my mind. Whenever I was in chapel, ripping to shreds, in my mind, whatever penalty my dean of men imposed on me for breaking a rule, I always felt bad when I thought of him who was the most rule-abiding of my friends. On several occasions, I asked my spiritual director, “Why do faith and devotion seem to come so easily to him?” “Is there something wrong with me?” “Maybe I’m not meant for the priesthood”. 

My spiritual director said to me: “That’s not what God made you to be. That’s not how you’re made up psychologically, temperamentally, and intellectually. Never wish to be anything other than what God made you. That wouldn’t be grateful. Learn to accept and offer to God who and what you are; ask Him to transform you and do with you as He pleases.

Who we are, and what we are: our character, temperament,
psychological, emotional, and intellectual make-up, our background and upbringing – no matter how good or not – these we must bring to Christ and ask him to transform and use them.

The saints were ordinary people – just like you and me, but what made them special and remarkable, and what would make each one of us become like them –instruments in the hands of God - is our willingness to stand before him and to say with all sincerity and humility of heart:

“Lord, this is who I am. This is all of me: my strengths, my weaknesses, my fears, my worries, my anxieties, my talents, and skills. I hide nothing from you; I keep nothing from you; I hold nothing back. I stand before you, just as I am, with no masks, no pretensions, no made-up ideal image of myself. Just me. And I am truly grateful. Use me if you will. Change and transform me. I place my life completely in your hands.” 

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