Ways to Holiness: Charity, Discipline, Forgiveness
Hardness of Heart
What is the sin that most offends God? Have you ever wondered about that?
If we look at the scriptures, and the gospels in particular, we see that there is one sin that evokes the strongest emotions from Jesus. There’s one sin that gets under his skin more than the others, and that sin is hardness of heart. Whenever Jesus is confronted with hardness of heart, you get one of two extreme reactions from Jesus--tears, or anger.
When Jesus topples the moneychangers’ tables and drives out the merchants selling animals, it’s not because Jesus was an anti-capitalist. It’s because they set up business in the outer precincts of the temple which was supposed to be reserved for the Gentiles to come and worship, and also because the merchants and the priests were in cahoots and were fleecing the pilgrims. So instead of the temple being a place for pilgrims to come and have an experience of God, unscrupulous people had perverted that purpose and were using people’s faith as a means to cheat them. Hardness of heart. The Law of Moses was intended to train the people to live in justice. These people were using the Law as a means to undermine justice.
At the tomb of Lazarus we see Jesus weep, but it’s not why you think. It’s commonly interpreted as Jesus mourning for his friend. Well THAT doesn’t make any sense if he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Others speculate it was because of the pain he saw Martha and Mary in. Is that really it? Or is it because even now, toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, he’s still encountering so many people with so little faith?
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
“Your brother will rise again.”
“I know at the resurrection of the dead.”
“Martha, I am the resurrection and the life.”
But she doesn’t get it.
Then her sister Mary comes up and says the same thing. “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Others were saying, “Couldn’t the guy who gave sight back to that blind man had done something so this man wouldn’t have died?”
THIS is what Jesus is weeping at! He wasn’t weeping for the physically dead. He was weeping for the spiritually dead! And it didn’t end there! After he raises Lazarus from the dead and they throw a big party for Jesus and Lazarus, what are the Pharisee’s saying to one another? “Oh great! Now we not only have to kill Jesus! We have to kill Lazarus too because everyone is believing in Jesus because of him!”
Talk about hardness of heart!
Jesus again weeps over ancient Jerusalem for its lack of faith. Here God has become flesh to deliver this good news of salvation, but his people don’t want to be bothered with it. They’re too wrapped up in their own political agendas to worry about the spirit.
And you know it’s funny, the more things change the more they stay the same. When you read the gospels closely, you see that the exact same political forces with the exact same agendas that existed in Jesus’ day are still alive and well in today’s society.
The Pharisee’s. The Pharisees were the ultra conservatives. Contrary to popular belief the Pharisees were not priests. They were laymen. They were laymen who took it upon themselves to define what it meant to be a “real” Jew. And to their credit, the Pharisees DID save Judaism from extinction during the occupation of the Alexandrian empire which tried to conform all nations in its empire to worshipping the Greek gods. You can read about that in the Bible in the first and second book of Maccabees. The Pharisaic movement was born out of the Maccabean revolt. But by Jesus’ time some 200 years later, when the Romans were the new bad boy on the block, the Pharisees, at least those portrayed in the gospels, had degenerated from righteousness to self righteousness. And in their zeal to preserve orthodox Judaism, they began to put added restrictions and burdens on the people that were not in the Law of Moses. And so they tried to bend Judaism to an ultra-conservative agenda.
Ever meet anyone who has the attitude ‘Unless your going to the Latin Mass, or in the charismatic renewal, or praying all 20 decades of the rosary everyday, or fasting on bread and water twice a week, or involved in the pro-life movement, you’re not a ‘real’ Catholic.’ Now don’t misunderstand me! ALL of these things are highly commendable things to do. I do many of them myself. It’s not the ACTIONS I’m criticizing, it’s the attitude, ‘REAL Catholics’ do what I’M doing. Be careful about that. Because that attitude will turn people away from God. What works for you spiritually might not work for the person sitting next to you. That doesn’t make anyone right or wrong, better or worse. The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek “Catho-holy.” It’s translated as ‘universal’ but it literally means ‘embracing all.’ We are called ‘Catholic’ because we embrace all cultures, and languages, and styles of music, prayer, and worship. So if you stand in front of an abortion mill with a sign praying the rosary, God bless you! That’s a difficult but a necessary ministry. I’ve done it myself, and it’s hard to stand there while people are shouting profanities at you, and you can feel their hatred. Doing that is highly commendable. But the person who’s volunteering their Saturday morning to work in the local soup kitchen, is doing something equally commendable.
So be on guard that your acts of righteousness don’t become acts of self righteousness, because once you adopt the attitude that what you’re doing makes you more Catholic than someone else, you’ve now taken the emphasis off of God and put it on yourself. You’ve become a Pharisee.
The second group of people that Jesus clashed with were the Sadducees. Unlike the Pharisee’s, the Sadducees WERE the clergy, and they were the ultra liberals. The Sadducees who are portrayed in the gospels seem far more concerned with making themselves comfortable than with the spiritual advancement of the people. (And I’m sure glad we don’t have THAT problem anymore!) This portrayal of the Sadducees in the gospels seems to be verified by what we know from Biblical archeology. Biblical archeologists, having excavated many sites in the holy land, have ascertained that the Sadducees lived rather decadent lifestyles. In fact, around the time of Christ, a group of Sadducees living in Jerusalem became SO scandalized by HOW decadent the priests were living, they decided to separate themselves and go to the desert, where they would live more prayerful lives. They became known as the Essenes.
What makes this interesting is that there is strong speculation among scholars that John the Baptist was a member of this desert community. The time and location are just about right. But that means John the Baptist would have to have been a Sadducee. That’s conceivable. It’s completely conceivable that John the Baptist was a priest because remember, his father, Zechariah, was a priest. So John came from a priestly family which means he met the qualifications.
But there’s an incident with Jesus and the Sadducees when they pose him a problem about a woman who married seven brothers. Each one died, leaving her no children. So whose wife would she be at the resurrection of the body? Why are they asking the question? Because the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection of the body. Huh?? Has that ever struck you as odd? These guys are the priests! These guys are the ones who are supposed to be concerned with spiritual matters! Wouldn’t one think they would be the strongest proponents of the resurrection of the dead? They should have been, but they weren’t. Why?
Because they were living a lifestyle of eat, drink and be merry. Get in all your pleasure now because when you die, poof! Lights out! Game over! That’s an odd position for priests to have, don’t you think? But if there’s a resurrection of the body, then I can’t live that lifestyle, because there may be eternal consequences to indulging the flesh now.
And, brothers and sisters, that is what all ultra-liberalism basically boils down to--giving free license to the flesh. This is apparent in our culture with everything from pornography to abortion to gay marriage. Our children have the attention span of fruit flies because they’ve been so bombarded with over stimulus from the TV and internet. Over indulge the flesh and all discipline goes by the wayside.
And finally the third group Jesus clashed with were the Herodians. Who were the Herodians? The Herodians were Jews who had submitted to the rule of King Herod, a puppet dictator set up by the Roman Empire. Their philosophy was, ‘Hey, these pagans are doing pretty good for themselves. Let’s follow their lead, submit to their leadership, and get in on the gravy.’ The Herodians felt that the Church should acquiesce to the desires of the state.
Again, glad we don’t have any more Herodians around! Today we would call them secularists, or secular progressives. And they have been successful in getting God out of government, and God out of school. The government set up charter schools which are basically tax funded private schools specifically to put the parochial school system out of business. Make no mistake brothers and sisters, that was the reason for the charter schools. And for the most part they have been successful in putting us out of business. And a powerful secular progressive lobby has kept credit vouchers from being approved which would level the playing field, because the secular progressives want a monopoly over what our children are taught. And many Catholics blindly support them,not realizing the ramifications. Herodians, alive and well.
This is the danger,my brothers and sisters,of politicizing our faith. And we’ve let the political world do this to us! We let them put labels on us like ‘conservative Catholic,’ ‘liberal Catholic,’ ‘traditionalist,’ ‘progressive.’ Now we label ourselves and one another these things! But these are political designations! They have no place at all in the Church! Using them will make us hard hearted. We should be nothing but Catholic, Catho-holy, embracing all, period.
The truth is never all conservative, and it is never all liberal. It’s both. If we were to divide all the Church’s teachings into two piles, a liberal pile and a conservative pile, you’d find the piles are pretty much dead even. All of the conservative teachings would focus on three things; medical ethics, sexual ethics, and the liturgy, and that’s basically it. Because all three of these categories concern human life and the body, and they are sacred. There’s no getting around that. If your wondering how the liturgy fits in there, it’s because the liturgy concerns the mystical BODY of Christ. The sacredness of the body encompasses everything from procreation, health care and fitness, to the Eucharist.
The liberal teachings of the Church would encompass most everything else, from social justice for the poor, to the rights and dignity of workers, to the treatment of foreigners and immigrants, the equality of men and women, pollution; being good stewards of creation.
If we try to bend the teachings of the Church to an all conservative or all liberal agenda, even if that’s just ignoring the teachings we don’t like, we will become hard hearted. It’s inevitable that this will happen, and we will ultimately fall into the sin of idolatry.
Idolatry is when we cease being spiritually re-created in the image and likeness of God, and start recreating God in our image and likeness. So we stop worshipping Jesus, the second person of the Divine Trinity, and start worshipping Jesus, my imaginary friend.
And this is why it is imperative, my friends, that we not only be reading scripture, but also, we should be reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Because ALL the teachings are in there, and the explanation of why we teach them. I know it seems ominous, but even if you read only a page a day, do it. Your spiritual life will grow by leaps and bounds. Discipline. I commend the Confraternity of Penitents for having its novices read the entire Catechism during their three years of Novice formation.
Interesting, when Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernum, Jesus’ opponents deliberately place a man with a withered hand up in front to see if Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath. Their intention was to have something they could accuse him with. But the gospel tells us that Jesus knew their intention and said to them, “Give me your opinion. It is permissible to do good on the Sabbath or evil? To save life, or to destroy it?” They stay silent.
Jesus was giving them an opportunity to repent, as he always gives us opportunities to repent. But when they stay silent, when they refuse to repent, the passage says, Jesus looked at them…with what? Anger! Again, whenever Jesus is confronted with hardness of heart he responds either with anger or tears.
Why is this an example of their hardness of heart? Because they’re using this man’s handicap as a means to trap Jesus. They’re using someone’s suffering to trap Jesus in an act of charity! They’re no greater distortion of the Law of Moses than that! And when Jesus confronts them with their sin, they’re completely unrepentant. So Jesus heals the man with the withered hand. Are they impressed? No.
What happens next? The gospels tell us that…who? The Pharisee’s, the Sadducees, and the Herodians immediately left the synagogue and began to conspire together on how they might kill Jesus. Interesting, because the Pharisee’s the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated one another. Politics makes strange bed fellows. Jesus clashed with all of them because Jesus refused to be manipulated to anyone’s political agenda.
And if we don’t want to become hard hearted, we need to leave our agenda’s behind. That doesn’t mean you can’t work for your favorite cause. That doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in your favorite style of prayer, with your favorite style of spiritual music, in your favorite language. But always with the acknowledgement that God and the Church are much larger than my personal preferences, and I should not favor my personal preferences to the exclusion of someone else’s, (provided their preferences have also been approved by the Church.)
Our first goal in the spiritual life is to become Catholic, Catho-holy, embracing all. That’s the first step toward holiness.
OK, so how do we do that? How do we keep ourselves from becoming hard hearted?
There are actually three things we must do, and here’s the trick, we HAVE to do ALL three of them. We can’t do just one or two because it won’t work. And if you were listening closely you may realize I already gave you the answers throughout this talk.
The first thing we have to do to avoid hardness of heart is develop self discipline. Sloth, spiritual laziness, is a sure fire way to hardness of heart. Think about it. So often God provides in the physical world around us, signs of spiritual truths. What happens if we get physically lazy? What happens if we lay on the couch all day, eat and watch TV? Well, first we get fat, then we get obese, then our metabolism shuts down, and finally we get what is called hardening of the arteries. So much plaque builds up in our blood vessels that the heart isn’t strong enough to pump blood through them anymore, and if this goes untreated, we die.
That’s exactly what happens when we get spiritually lazy. When we stop honest self evaluation, when we stop challenging ourselves spiritually, first we become complacent with our bad habits. Then we become complacent with our sins. Finally we become complacent with other people’s sins. That’s spiritual hardening of the arteries or as Jesus called it, hardness of heart.
So when we go to the doctor and he sees that we’re getting hardening of the arteries, what’s the first thing the doctor tells us to do? Get some exercise. Self discipline is our spiritual exercise, and we do that through prayer and fasting.
The second way we avoid hardness of heart is practicing charity. Acts of charity are spiritual exercise because acts of charity are acts of love.
And the third way we avoid hardness of heart is through forgiveness.
And I am going to talk about all of these things in our subsequent talks, but what I want you to meditate on first are the Pharisees the Sadducees and the Herodians and ask yourself, “Have I been acting like one of these groups?” And if you have, offer a prayer of contrition to the Lord and submit yourself to his will. Invite him to mold you into the person he wants you to be.
DISCIPLINE & FORGIVENESS
Discipline. So in this world that seems to be so anti-discipline, in our society that is rapidly devolving into one, big, moral, free-for-all, how do we develop discipline in our lives? Glad you asked. Discipline must begin with self awareness. Self awareness is an acknowledgement of what I am, and even more important, what I am not.
And the first thing I must acknowledge I am not, is God. One would think this would go without saying, but you will be amazed, my brothers and sisters, of how many people, and I’m talking about good, Church-going Christians, think they are God to some small degree or another. How? They think they actually have some kind of control over their lives.
Oh, no, no, no. I assure you, my brothers and sisters, you have no control over your lives, or the circumstances surrounding your lives. Any number of things can happen to you over the course of a day that can completely turn your life inside out. And you can’t do a thing about it. You’re not in control, so stop trying to be. Surrender that illusion.
God is in control, and he has a plan, and you have a place in that plan. Rejoice. The good things that happen in your day are his blessings to you, and the not so good things are him trying to teach you some lesson or help you grow in some virtue, by living through the consequences of a situation you created by trying to be in control. So stop getting so worked up when things aren’t going your way. Instead, pray, “OK God, I’m listening. What is it you want me to learn here?”
And I’m preaching to myself here, because I’m bad for this. I have a short temper, but, ironically, not with people. I’m very patient with people. But then I take out my frustrations on inanimate objects who have no feelings for me to hurt--my car, my computer, my parent’s lawnmower. THOSE things I have no patience with! And that’s no excuse. Everyday God tries to teach me a lesson in discipline in some form or another, and most everyday, in some way, I fall short of the mark.
I remember when I was in seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and our moral theology teacher, Father Dan Mindling, a ranciscan Capuchin, came into class and announced, “Today we’re beginning our unit on sin. This should be a relatively easy chapter for most of you, since you’ve been doing the lab work in this subject for years.” I graduated Mount Saint Mary’s with an overall cum of 3.2, which is a solid B. That means I can’t get you into heaven, but I can get you a great seat in purgatory.
So as discipline in school begins with submitting our will to a teacher, spiritual discipline begins with self awareness, which is a submitting to the divine teacher. So spiritual discipline first consists of constant self examination. What did I do today? What could I have done better? What are the good things I did, and is there any room for improvement there? What virtues am I strong in? What virtues am I lacking in? What areas of my life am I not submitting to God? This is where I find the Confraternity of Penitents such a useful organization, because it’s a program steeped in rigorous spiritual discipline. And discipline is what we need right now. Also it should be noted that with the admission “I am not God” also goes the admission “I cannot change the world.” Through the Grace of God I can change me, and if I change me I can change the world insofar that people will see the Grace of God shining through me.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta focused on changing herself, and as she changed herself, that led her to try to improve the lives of others, and that drew many people to her. When you were in the presence of Mother Theresa of Calcutta you KNEW you were in the presence of holiness. I know. I was in her presence.
My first year at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg Maryland, my apostolate was working at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC as a tour guide and altar server. They had this huge, bronze, twenty pound processional cross and I was one of the few guys that could carry that thing down that looooong processional aisle. So when Mother Theresa came to visit Washington to witness the final profession of some of her sisters there, I had an in to serve the Mass, along with hundreds of other seminarians. During the recessional, Mother Theresa decided she was not going to follow the procession all around the basilica but decided instead to take a short cut across the sanctuary to the sacristy and the two of us intersected. There I was, practically ran over this little bit of a woman who only came up to my stomach. And I was so stunned all I could sputter out was, “Mother Theresa, please pray for me!” And she reached up, and cupped my face in her hands and with this beaming smile said, “I vill pray for youuuu!” Holiness just radiated from the woman!
Pope John Paul II focused on changing his life as a young man, and that led him to try to improve the lives of others, and that drew other people to him. And when you in the presence of JPII you KNEW you were in the presence of holiness. I know. I was in his presence too!
When I was first ordained a deacon, and Father Dean Perri had just entered seminary, the two of us decided to celebrate by taking a pilgrimage to Rome. BOTH Bishop Gelineau and Bishop Mulvee had written us letters of presentation to get us into the Pope’s private Mass. Now that didn’t mean we were a shoe in. There’s only about fifty to seventy five people permitted into one of these Masses. Getting a letter from the Bishop is the first step. Then there’s a sort of pecking order that’s observed. Cardinals, Bishops, visiting dignitaries, well known theologians, etc. --they’re picked first. Well, as you can imagine, a deacon and a seminarian are pretty close to the bottom of the food chain. To keep up the jungle analogy, if the Cardinals are tigers, and the Bishops are bears, visiting dignitaries are wolves, and theologians are coyotes, a deacon and seminarian would be right around a raccoon and a rabbit. A priest would be at least a fox, I would think.
Anyway, every night we would have to check at the desk of the hotel we were staying at to see if we had been invited. Well wouldn’t you know, the evening before our last full day the invitation came! We had to be at the bronze gate at 6am the next morning. I don’t think either of us slept. We were up at 4:30am getting ready. We were at the bronze gate a half hour early.
We went through security, and we were in the waiting area when the Pope’s MC saw me in the cassock. He asked me, “Are you a priest?”
“No Monsignor, I’m a deacon. I’ll be ordained a priest next year.”
“Oh, well, would you like to deacon the Pope’s Mass?”
“So you speak Latin?”
“Well then I’m sorry but the Holy Father says the Mass in Latin. The readings will be in English, however. Would you like to lector the Mass?”
So he took me to the sacristy. I asked if I could look at the lectionary beforehand. After all, when you’re lecturing for the Pope’s Mass you want to make sure you’ve got everything down cold.
Now the weekday lectionary is on a two year cycle, year one and year two. I THOUGHT we were in year two, but I said, more thinking out loud than anything else, “What year are we in?”
The Pope’s MC turned to me and said, “We are in year two.”
And then, still more or less thinking out loud I said, “Are you sure?”
ARE YOU SURE! I said “Are you sure?” to the POPE’S MC!!!!
He looked at me very crossly and said, “I am VERY sure! We are in year TWO!”
“Yes monsignor,” I said as meekly as I could muster. (And I wonder why I’m still an assistant pastor!)
Anyway, the Mass begins, and it’s time for me to read. I get up on the pulpit and Pope John Paul II is on a kneeler LITERALLY five feet away from me! I could have leaned over, reached out and touched him! (I didn’t! I could have! I was tempted to! But I didn’t!) I began, “A reading from the second letter of Peter.” And the Pope let out a long low groan. I stopped and looked at him and my blood ran cold. I thought to myself, ‘O my God, it IS the wrong reading!! Well, got to go with it now.’ As I continued, the Pope let out several more groans and I’m starting to sweat! I’m thinking, ‘O man! I am going to be known as the ONLY deacon who did the WRONG reading at the Pope’s Mass!’
After the Mass the Pope’s MC approached me again. “I couldn’t help but notice you looked very nervous during the reading.”
“Well I thought I was doing the wrong readings because I heard the Pope grunting at me!”
Then he laughed and said, “Oh no. You did the right readings. The Pope gets into such a spirit of prayer during the Mass he groans. It’s just that you were the only one close enough to hear it.”
Mother Theresa of Calcutta and John Paul II changed the world by allowing the Grace of God to change them first. And that’s key!
We must have the discipline through self examination to let the Lord change us FIRST, because if we don’t, instead of people finding the Lord through us, we end up trying to bring others into our personal agendas. Then we start getting into “me” worship. Or we start punctuating the faults and failings of others so I don’t have to look at me. It’s a form of escapism cloaked in a veil of righteousness. And so we get outraged over sins like ABORTION! HOMOSEXUALITY! DRUGS!! And look at the ways these kids are dressing today!! We manage to muster all kinds of angst over sins we’re never really tempted to commit, but we give ourselves a pass on the sins we commit all the time. Saint Augustine said it best, “Having failed to convert ourselves, we become intensely interested in the faults of others.” (It’s true isn’t it?) And people eventually see through that.
Look at the life of the Blessed Mother and you will see a woman who constantly examined herself. And she was SINLESS! I wonder if she realized it? I wonder if the Blessed Mother KNEW she was sinless. I wonder if maybe she thought of herself that she was a terrible sinner, because you see that in the lives of many saints. Many of them thought they were wretched sinners.
Remember the movie “Therese” about the life of Theresa of Liseaux? And there’s this one scene where Theresa is crying because she thinks she’s such a big sinner and her father asks her why, and she says, “Well, I took the biggest piece of cake at dessert.” And I can remember thinking at that, ‘I am sooooo going to hell.’ But it is one of the questions I am busting to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary when I meet her. “When you were alive on earth did you know you were sinless?” But how often do the scriptures say this, “And Mary pondered these things in her heart,” or “Mary pondered what these words meant,”? What is that? The discipline of self examination!
OK, so we’re doing our self examination. Is that all? By no means. There are three things that will help develop our self discipline; prayer, fasting, and the sacraments. Let’s start with prayer.
Prayer can take a variety of forms, structured, unstructured, meditative, verbal, etc But ALL good prayer should be centered on three core themes.
Core theme number one; “Who are you, God?” Prayer is a discovery of who God is. It’s not a mindless parroting of words. Now there’s nothing wrong with structured prayers like the rosary and novenas, as long as we’re not just saying words, while our hearts are a million miles away. We have to be more disciplined with those prayers because the temptation is to run on auto-pilot. A good way to stay focused during the rosary is to offer up each decade or even each bead for a different intention. But all our prayer should in some way be guiding us toward a contemplation of who God is. What questions do you have about God? Take those into prayer and it becomes a meditation. Just like that question I just asked, “Did Mary know she was sinless while she was alive on earth?” That’s a great question to take to the joyful mysteries.
The second core theme of our prayer should be the question, “Who am I, God?” Prayer is a voyage of discovery about who God is, but it’s also a voyage of self discovery. Often many people stop their prayer progress before they get to this point because they’re afraid of what they’re going to find. When I gave this day of reflection last year I talked about self loathing, and the destructiveness of self loathing. Here’s where prayer can really help. All of us have been created with beauty. We have physical, spiritual, emotional beauty. Every human being is God’s attempt at a self portrait. Let me say that again. Every human being is God’s attempt at a self-portrait. So as we’re discovering who God is in our prayer, we should also be looking for God in me. Don’t misunderstand. I am NOT saying that we’re gods. But if I am made in God’s image and likeness, that means that I must possess some godly characteristics. If we are children of God, children resemble their parents. Our prayer should help us seek out those resemblances.
Self loathing is such a powerful tool of the devil because it’s a perversion of the genuine virtue of humility. People often mistake self loathing for humility. Who is one of our primary models of humility? Once again, the Blessed Virgin Mary. And yet, when Mary visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth cries out to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Mary, of course, responds with the Magnificat. If Mary is our model of humility how do we reconcile that with these words of the Blessed Mother, “from henceforth all generations will call me blessed,”? HUH? Well THAT doesn’t sound very humble does it? What if any one of us were to walk around saying, “Hey you know, from now on all generations are going to call me blessed?” We’d be like, “well who the heck do you think YOU are? GOD or something?” But Mary can say that, first and foremost because it’s true. All generations have called her blessed. Secondly, note what she follows with, “for the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.” Mary takes the praise Elizabeth gives her and gives it right back to God. So humility acknowledges the truth. It acknowledges our strength and virtues as well as our faults and failings. But it also acknowledges that our strengths and virtues come from God, and our faults and failings are when we’ve turned away from God.
Try this exercise. Take some time and look in a mirror. And when I say take some time make it a good few minutes, and notice details about yourself. And then start to thank God for the gift he’s made in you. Thank him for all your good aspects, and strengths, and try not to have any negative thoughts about yourself during this time. And then ask him to help you see more and more of him working in you every day. If you can’t do this, it’s a good chance you have self loathing issues. The first thing you need to do is take that to confession. Then you have to keep doing that mirror exercise until you can do it.
The third core theme of prayer is “What do you want me to do, God?” But we’ll deal with that in the next talk.
So that’s prayer, and prayer disciplines the mind. Next is fasting, because fasting disciplines the flesh. We often associate fasting with food, and that is the traditional discipline. But you can fast from any temporal good or activity that is NOT sinful. Someone with an eating disorder like anorexia cannot fast from food, because there’s no sacrifice involved. Depending on the circumstances, it may be more of a sacrifice for such a person to force themselves to eat a little more. You can fast from the TV, internet, some activity you enjoy with your friends. Everyone is called to do a little fasting on Friday. Contrary to popular myth, the Church never did away with the Friday fast. The Church simply did away with the obligatory abstinence from meat. But we are all supposed to sacrifice a little something every Friday. I think we really need to get back to that, especially in our society that’s given such free reign to the flesh. We need to start mortifying our flesh in reparation for the many sins of the flesh our culture has given itself over to.
Fasting can even help our prayer, because, in time, fasting will help us focus. Many times when people come to the confessional struggling with a sin of the flesh they may be addicted to, I recommend they fast from one thing a day they enjoy. Disciplining the flesh in one area can spiritually strengthen the flesh in others.
Finally the sacraments. The sacraments are imperative to growing in discipline because in the sacraments we have the presence of God himself. We can’t get where we need to be on our own. Why? Because we’re not God. But through the sacraments God can enter us physically to lift us up where we need to be. If you can get to daily Mass, GO! “Oh but my priest is boring!” Doesn’t matter! That’s not why you’re there. You are in Mass to save the world! That’s why you go to Mass! Every time a Mass is said a nuclear bomb of Grace is detonated. The more people attend Mass, the farther that Grace extends. Every time you participate in a Mass, you are quite literally helping to save the world! You don’t have to like the priest. You don’t have to enjoy the sermon. You just have to attend the Mass and pray the Mass. Offer your Mass for a good intention. And you will help save the world. Then why is the world getting so bad? Because there are so few priests to say Mass, and there are so few Catholics attending.
OK, so all of that was discipline. Now let me say a few words about forgiveness.
Forgiveness. It is a central theme of the Christian religions and THE central theme of Jesus’ mission. Unforgiveness will harden our hearts. God has forgiven us, and so to be unforgiving is a denial of a gift we have been freely given.
Forgiveness is imperative to ANY fruitful relationship with God. Period. End of discussion. Can’t I just hold a grudge against one person? NO! Because that person is a child of God, too, and if through our prayer we are discovering who God is, and we are discovering how I am a reflection of God, than we naturally also begin to see God in other people.
My re-version back to real faith happened after college in 1988 when I had taken a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Before then I was a young man full of unforgiveness toward many people in my life for many things, some justified, others not; some big things and lots small things. I’m Italian, and no one knows how to hold a grudge like an Italian. So I went to Medjugorie and had this massive conversion experience, and I committed myself to begin a life of prayer, and saying the rosary. Believe it or not I had never prayed the rosary before that trip. At 22 years old, I didn’t even know what the rosary was.
But for two years AFTER that conversion experience, my life didn’t change all that much because I still insisted on holding onto the unforgiveness. It’s amazing that, when you hold a grudge long enough, it almost becomes part of you. You can’t imagine your life without it. The only thing that had changed in my life was that I prayed daily. But my life was work, graduate studies, church and that’s it. No social life. VERY few friends. And lots of loneliness.
One slow night while I was working the graveyard shift at the Charleston Beach Way, every word I was getting in scripture was “forgive” “forgive” “forgive”. And I finally said to God, “Alright already!!” And I started to forgive. I went back in my memory and started forgiving people as far back as I could remember, no matter how small the offense was because I figured if I remembered it, it must have hurt me somehow. It took me three hours. I remember I was finishing right around dawn. I was standing on the beach near my booth, watching the sun rise over the cottages of Galilee. But when I was done, my life instantly began to change.
THAT same day, I was called by the man who ran that pilgrimage two years earlier who told me the people from the trip had formed a prayer group and they wanted me to come.
THAT same day, I was called by Father Ray Suriani, who said, “You know, Mike, I notice that you and Dean Perri are always at daily Mass. I’m forming a youth group and I was wondering if you guys would be my youth ministers.” Working that youth group was my first taste of ministry. It’s where Father Perri and I discovered our vocations to the priesthood together. And it’s where the two of us became best of friends going on twenty years now.
That prayer group from the folks I went on pilgrimage with, gave me my first sense of community, and the source of so many friendships I have trouble keeping up with everyone now.
I learned from that personal experience how much unforgiveness can block what the Holy Spirit is trying to do with us. And forgiveness is not about making nice-nice. People can make nice-nice and still bear a grudge. People can make nice-nice by pretending what happened didn’t really happen. That’s denial, not necessarily forgiveness. Forgiveness is this; “Lord, I forgive (insert name here) and I ask you to forgive them too. Remove from me any ill will or bad feelings I may still have for them. And bless them with every good thing and happiness in this life, and eternal happiness in the next.” That’s forgiving. And if we all think hard I’m sure we can think of at least ONE person we haven’t forgiven. Forgive them today. Forgive them now. Forgive them before Mass, because we don’t want anything to keep us from becoming like our God.
Charity Begins with Service
“Whatsoever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The Church celebrates a modern martyr of charity on August 14 when it recognizes the holiness of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan Friar who died at the hand of the Nazi’s in Auschwitz when he preformed the ultimate act of charity. Saint Maximilian volunteered to die in a starvation bunker to spare a Jewish man who had a family.
Saint Maximilian followed the criteria that Jesus uses in this image of the last judgment. Jesus’ whole premise for dividing the sheep and goats, the saints from the sinner is based on what they did for others. Why? Because charity is how we express divine love in a tangible way.
The three characteristics of God, the three things that make God, God, is that’s he’s all knowing, he’s all powerful, and he’s all loving.
We cannot imitate God’s omnipotence. No matter how many degrees we have, no matter how much studying we do, our knowledge will always be incomplete.
We cannot imitate God’s power. We can lift the heaviest weights at the gym, be able to take on the most guys in a fight, accumulate financial power, political power, but it all eventually comes to nothing. Someday we will always meet someone stronger than us we must yield to.
But we can imitate God’s love. That is the one aspect of God we can imitate. We imitate God’s love through charity, because that’s how God showed us his love.
From the beginning of time God is always a giver. He gave us creation. He gave us life. He gave us his covenant. He gave us himself. God himself left his place in heaven, and became one of us in the poorest of circumstances just to show us how to love. He gave us his teaching, his own divine word that we can still read in scripture. He gave us his own flesh and blood in the Eucharist. He gave us his life on the cross, so we might have eternal life. And he gave us his Holy Spirit of love, so we might learn to love like him.
In every way God is a giver, and God gave himself completely and totally to us. That’s why charity carries so much weight with God, so much so that Jesus uses it as the criteria for his model of the last judgment; I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me.
When we give of ourselves for the benefit of someone else, we’re sharing in that divine love, and we’re witnessing that the Holy Spirit works through us. That’s what all this is for; the Church, the sacraments, the Word, prayer. These are all tools to help us grow in charity. These are tools to inspire us to give more and more of ourselves in love, so we can become more and more like God. God is divine love and we are called to imitate that Divine Love.
But we cannot have love without service, and we cannot have service without sacrifice.
In the gospels we meet three siblings, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And really, the three siblings represent the three ways we come to the Lord.
Martha represents service. It’s Martha who initially invites Jesus and the disciples to their home. Without Martha there’s no invitation! It’s Martha who waits on them, making sure everyone has a second helping of food, making sure everyone’s cup is full. She represents service. She represents charity.
Martha’s sister Mary, in the meantime, is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach, which is totally inappropriate for a woman of Jesus’ day to be doing. And to beat all, she’s taken the best seat in the house! Mary represents contemplative prayer. She just sits in the presence of the Lord and soaks it all in.
Lazarus represents redemptive suffering. Remember that it’s Lazarus who dies and is four days in the tomb before Jesus resurrects him. When Lazarus initially get’s sick, Jesus says, “This sickness is not to end in death, but so God may be glorified.” Through Lazarus’ death and rising from the dead, many come to believe in Jesus. So when we suffer for the sake of holiness, people come to believe through us, because strength like that has to come from the Holy Spirit.
These are the three ways we come to the Lord, but because these three individuals are siblings, we have to take them together. Hopefully we come to the Lord in all three of these ways, but we begin with Martha. We must begin with Martha. We must begin with charity.
Again, without Martha there is no invitation. She initiates this encounter and makes it possible. When we commit ourselves to acts of charity, it’s opening the door to Christ. When we commit to acts of charity we open our hearts to invite Christ to reveal himself to us through the needs of other people. Through acts of charity we begin to recognize Christ all around us.
A few years ago I watched on TV the remake of the horror movie, “The House of Wax.” I wanted to watch it for a couple reasons. First, I was a fan of the original black and white movie with Vincent Price. When I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, before the internet, i-pods, and satellite TV, we were limited in our forms of entertainment. But every Saturday afternoon, on channel 56 Boston, they had “Creature Double Feature,” which was basically an afternoon of Vincent Price and Godzilla movies. So my friends and I became quite the Vincent Price fans.
So the first reason I wanted to see the movie was to see how it stacked against the original. The second reason was because it starred my buddy, Paris Hilton. Poor Paris. I used to pick on Paris regularly in my homilies because, to me, Paris Hilton just represented everything that was WRONG with America; rich, spoiled, over indulged, opulent, and self absorbed. And I wanted to watch this movie because I wanted to see Paris DIE! And I wanted it to be gory and I wanted it to be gross! So I’m watching this movie. It’s getting late. I’m getting tired. Young people are getting picked off one by one by the psycho killer, but Paris is still alive, and I’m getting annoyed. “Come on! Kill her already so I can go to bed!” And then I got the terrible thought, “Oh no! You know how in these movies there’s always the ONE person that gets away? What if it’s Paris?! Oh man! If she gets away I’m going to be soooo mad!!”
Well, sure enough, the psycho killer starts chasing Paris, and I was thinking, “Oh good! This is it!” And I’m rooting for the psycho killer as he’s chasing Paris. ‘The back seat of the car! She’s hiding in the back seat of the car!’, I’m saying under my breath. And just when you think Paris is going to get away…THWACK! He gets her! I can’t say how Paris dies because it’s not appropriate for the pulpit but suffice to say that Paris dies in the movie from a blunt trauma to the head.
GREAT! Now I can go to sleep!
A couple weeks later I’m having dinner with friends and I’m telling the story. And I’m making jokes and wise cracks through the whole thing. “So the psycho killer is FINALLY chasing Paris and where does she hide? The back seat of a car! What is it with this chick that lying down in the backseat of a car is the ‘one size fits all solution? The movie was all pretty believable up until how he actually kills Paris. (blunt Trauma to the head) I mean, how do you kill what ain’t there? My only regret is that I didn’t video tape it. Not the movie! The movie stunk! I just wanted to tape that thirty seconds so I could watch Paris die over and over again in living color!”
Now throughout this I’m getting laughs and chuckles from my friends, and then one of them said, “Well Father, that’s ONE story you can never tell from the pulpit!”
Oooooh. Conviction number one. Because when that was said, my mind immediately flashed back to my seminary training, when our rector, Monsignor Roelchen, (God rest his soul,) had told us once in a rector’s conference, “Gentlemen, in your conversations with others, in the stories and jokes you tell, here’s a good rule of thumb; if you wouldn’t say it from the pulpit, don’t say it all.”
Conviction number two was more harsh. That came from the Lord himself when I was driving home that evening. Now I don’t want to mislead you. I’m not a prophet, or a visionary, or a locutionist. I don’t get messages for everyone. But at certain key points in my spiritual growth the Lord has spoken to me. And when it’s happened, it’s been unmistakable. I would guestimate that from the time I was discerning priesthood to the present, twenty two years, it’s happened to me about ten times. This was one of those times, but this was the only time I felt the Lord’s anger.
“How dare you, priest of God, talk that way about my beloved daughter, whom I love and who I died for?”
‘Well…yeah…but I was only joking with some frien—‘
“HOW DARE YOU, PRIEST OF GOD, TALK THAT WAY ABOUT MY BELOVED DAUGHTER WHOM I LOVE, AND WHO I DIED FOR?!!”
Twice. And I was shaking! I didn’t waste ANY time getting myself to confession! My penance was to offer a day of prayer for Paris.
I went a step further and offered a private Mass for her. And I made God a promise, that if by the slightest chance I ever met Paris Hilton, I would tell her this story and ask for her forgiveness personally.
You know, my brothers and sisters, in these days of David Letterman and Jay Leno and late night comedians, it becomes very easy for us to de-value others. What we must always remember is that even if someone is loved by no one else, that person is loved by God, and so that person is worthy of our love as well. My sin was that I failed to see Christ in Paris Hilton. I sinned against charity.
When we reach that point when we finally begin to recognize Christ in everyone around us, then we’re ready to graduate to Mary’s level, that of contemplative prayer. We can pray all day long, but we cannot “become’ a contemplative pray-er. We can’t choose to become a contemplative pray-er. All we can do is pray and do works of charity. God decides when we’re ready to become a contemplative pray-er. Contemplative prayer is when God takes over the experience. We suddenly become immersed in his presence.
And finally Lazarus’ level is the highest--redemptive suffering—because on that level we’re actually using our sufferings to share with Jesus on the cross.
So how do we practice charity? Through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
The Corporal Works of Mercy:
feeding the hungry,
giving drink to the thirsty,
clothing the naked,
visiting the imprisoned
helping the oppressed,
sheltering the homeless,
caring for the sick,
and burying the dead.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy:
teaching the ignorant,
counseling the doubtful,
comforting the suffering,
being patient with others,
forgiving those who hurt us,
correcting the ill informed,
praying for the living and the dead.
These are what the penitents practice in the Confraternity of Penitents. They are listed in the Appendix to your Rule and Constitutions. It’s a good practice to list the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and tack them on our refrigerator, or computer, or tuck them in our Bible, somewhere where have to look at them often, and review them, and ask ourselves, how well am I living these? Because through practicing these works we begin to recognize Christ in our midst.
Father Michael Anthony Sisco, Visitor
Confraternity of Penitents