Jesus the Center

de MontfortThis is a good week to focus on Jesus. Louis de Montfort reminds us that everything in our spiritual life should point back to him.

Jesus, our Saviour, true God and true man must be the ultimate end of all our other devotions otherwise they would be false and misleading. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of everything. “We labour,” says St. Paul, “only to make all men perfect in Jesus Christ.” For in him alone dwells the entire fullness of the divinity and the complete fullness of grace, virtue and perfection. In him alone we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; he is the only teacher from whom we must learn; the only Lord on whom we should depend; the only Head to whom we should be united and the only model that we should imitate. He is the only Physician that can heal us; the only Shepherd that can feed us; the only Way that can lead us; the only Truth that we can believe; the only Life that can animate us. He alone is everything to us and he alone can satisfy all our desires.

We are given no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. God has laid no other foundation for our salvation, perfection and glory than Jesus. Every edifice which is not built on that firm rock, is founded upon shifting sands and will certainly fall sooner or later. Every one of the faithful who is not united to him is like a branch broken from the stem of the vine. It falls and withers and is fit only to be burnt.

If we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we need not fear damnation. Neither angels in heaven nor men on earth, nor devils in hell, no creature whatever can harm us, for no creature can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Through him, with him and in him, we can do all things and render all honour and glory to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit; we can make ourselves perfect and be for our neighbour a fragrance of eternal life.

If then we are establishing sound devotion to our Blessed Lady, it is only in order to establish devotion to our Lord more perfectly, by providing a smooth but certain way of reaching Jesus Christ. If devotion to our Lady distracted us from our Lord, we would have to reject it as an illusion of the devil. But this is far from being the case. As I have already shown and will show again later on, this devotion is necessary, simply and solely because it is a way of reaching Jesus perfectly, loving him tenderly, and serving him faithfully.

-St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary

Verbal Prayer

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At the end of our long series of commentaries on the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and at the beginning of Holy Week, I would like to argue that words take us places inaccessible to pictures. Words are the heart of Christian spirituality.

The modern Church has come to like a sort of hierarchy of prayer, with “vocal prayer” at the bottom, “mental prayer” higher than that, and “contemplation” at the top. The Catechism takes up this threefold division at 2700-2724.

Many Catholics, whether familiar or unfamiliar with these names, have a vague idea that mumbling your prayers is for beginners, but people who “really” pray replace words with pictures, and then ultimately there’s nothing but silence. This division might have some basis in the Ignatian Exercises, I’m not sure. But it isn’t traditional, and I don’t think it’s right.

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Instead, we can read our threefold division in light of the famous chapter 19 of St. Benedict’s Rule, on the Discipline of Praying the Psalms:

“We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the bad in every place (cf Prov 15:3). Let us firmly believe this, especially when we take part in the Work of God [that is, singing the Psalms in the Liturgy]. Let us, therefore, always be mindful of what the Prophet saith, ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear’ (Ps 2:11). And again, ‘Sing ye wisely”’(Ps 46[47]:8). And, ‘I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of the angels’ (Ps 137[138]:1). Therefore, let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”

That our mind may be in harmony with our voice: ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

In a too common reading, the “mind” (of mental prayer) is opposed to the “voice” (of vocal prayer). What Benedict reminds us of is that the mind expresses itself in words, and words are meant to express the voice. Mental prayer, then, is not prayer without words. Mental prayer is prayer where we pay attention to the words we are saying. Our mind should be in harmony with our voice.

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This traditional view is less elitist than the ideas we sometimes have about contemplation. Old ladies mumble their rosaries, read holy cards, and go to Mass: all verbal prayers. Children, too, learn to pray with words. But that doesn’t make their prayer immature, just because they don’t know the techniques of “meditation” or absolute silence.

Words are not for the elite. The Our Father and the Hail Mary – the prayers of the Rosary, and of children – are words that are available to everyone. And their depths are unfathomable. We all have them at our fingertips. We just need to practice paying attention to the words we pray.

So too is the Bible available. Now, the Bible is hard reading. But we needn’t understand everything. Indeed, we don’t understand everything precisely because there’s so much good stuff there. The problem with leaving behind words is that we reduce prayer to only what we already understand.

The traditional discipline of lectio divina is not a technique, not some trick you have to learn. It just means prayerfully reading the Bible. We bathe in its richness, we aren’t surprised that it is deeper than we are, and we get glimpses of riches we never would have imagined.

That’s really the point of verbal prayer: it is a recognition that we have much to learn, and that God has given us his word, in Scripture and in the Word Incarnate, to teach us.

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Holy Week gives us the opportunity for many words, and to discover the richness of those words. When we read the story of the Passion, we realize that pictures can see a man with bread, but only words can tell us this is his Body; pictures can show a man on a Cross, but only words can say, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

If we pray the stations, we will see images of Christ crucified – but use our words to express love, and to know how much he loves us. And we will pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, many times, and discover that this is not just a mourning mother, but the Mother of God, full of grace.

Let us enjoy the words of Holy Week, and let our minds be in harmony with our voice.

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What words can you use to pray? Is your mind in harmony with your voice when you pray them?

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Your King Comes

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

MT 21:1-11; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MT 26:14-27:66

The readings for this Sunday are long. We’ll just pick out some key themes.

This Sunday is called “Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion.” Mass opens, of course, with the procession of the palms, and the Gospel that describes it (this year, from Matthew 21). The Liturgy of the Word culminates with the reading of the Passion (this year, Matthew 26-27). We thus get the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, tied together with the culmination, the Passion, though in the story, as in the week, there are several chapters in between.

At the heart of Jesus’s triumphal entrance are the words from the prophet Zechariah. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Oddly, there are distinctly two animals. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church like to notice the strangeness, the mystery of these readings.)

The story revolves around this welcoming of the king. Jesus sends his disciples into the village to find the animals, telling them to say, “the Lord has need of them.” (The translation this Sunday will say “master,” but the Greek word is Kyrios, Lord.) Just as in the reading of the Passion, they are told to say, “The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’” Jesus is Lord and King over his disciples, and Lord and king over the unknown people who are providing for him.

And the people spread out their garments, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They too welcome him as king.

But in both situations, what kind of a king? Meek, and riding on a beast of burden. A different kind of king.

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The reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines the difference of this kingship. The prophet asks for “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word of comfort,” and “ears that I may hear.”

The reading culminates in him saying, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” It is here, in fact, that we get our deepest scriptural warrant for imagining that Jesus wore a beard: he is the one whose beard is plucked.

To be a follower of this king will not bring power and prestige. He demands a new kind of obedience. An obedience that leads us to speak comfort to the weary. The King of Love demands tribute not of gold, but of mercy, of being poor among the poor, of loving those who have nothing to give in return (including the nasty people we might have to work with). To follow the king who rides on a beast of burden means that we, like him, must be willing to suffer.

But it is not suffering that we seek, but those who suffer. Jesus comes to be with those who are wounded, and calls us to do the same. Our beards will be plucked because the world can’t stand what it cannot own; the world is troubled by a different way of being, a different scale of values. In this world, to love is to suffer.

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But it is also to be cared for. “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” If the suffering Lord calls us to suffer, it is because he also joins us in our suffering. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” If he is for us, who can be against us?

The very dramatic Psalm 22 begins “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But God himself takes up this cry; Jesus joins us in our weakness. And so even the Psalmist continues to praise God. He experiences the apparent abandonment of suffering, but he knows he is never abandoned. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

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And then in the great Christ hymn of Philippians, we hear that Jesus himself emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The hymn emphasizes his obedience, “obedience to the point of death.”

“Every knee should bend . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father,” because he is the kind of king who joins us in our weakness. The kind of king who deserves true obedience and love.

This is the attitude we are to take to the long reading of the Passion, and the events of this holy week.

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How could you know Jesus better as the meek king, the shepherd who suffers for his flock?

Thinking about the Cross

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) was a French monk and then Archbishop of Canterbury, and a very important theologian. His arguments are famously slippery from a purely rational perspective. But he is really writing spiritual exercises, more like meditations than like philosophical arguments.

One of his most famous books, Cur Deus Homo, or “why God became man,” discusses the Cross. It can help us think about Holy Week.

On a rational level, Cur Deus Homo is famously slippery. The argument is, basically, that sin is an infinite offense, which requires an infinite repayment. Man needs to make the repayment, but only God can do it. Therefore God must become man and die.

Most people, even theologians, are turned off by many elements of this argument. God is not a miser, demanding repayment. Nor does he will death as a fitting repayment of sin. Nonetheless, we can learn much from this text by reading it spiritually.

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Anselm’s first insight is the horror of sin. To understand this insight, though, we have to turn it around, from “offense against God” to overwhelming sadness for our stupidity.

He guides us through a meditation on the sin of Adam and Eve. They had everything. More than everything, they had God, who is so overwhelmingly, superabundantly good that he is worth losing everything for. If God is the Creator of all good things, then not only can he give us all those things, but, far deeper, he is better than all those things, infinitely better.

Anselm asks us to consider, then, just how dramatically irrational sin is. The point is not the rule we are breaking, nor the “anger” we arouse in God. The point is that sin, by definition, means choosing a radically inferior thing even when it means losing everything. We can’t hurt God. Sin does not hurt God. But it hurts us, because it is the choice not to have God. Dramatic stupidity, radical tragedy.

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This is important, for example, if we follow St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s famous meditations on the Stations of the Cross (which many parishes use on Fridays during Lent). “My Jesus, I am sorry for having offended you,” he has us pray. Well now, that’s a little imprecise – blame it on the translation, or maybe the change in cultural context. Sin doesn’t “offend” Jesus. Jesus isn’t touchy or over-sensitive! To the contrary, Jesus was so willing to put up with our sin that he even died on the Cross.

But St. Alphonsus’s point is that sin is a rejection of Jesus. As if he, the God of all goodness, and the man of all sweetness, stands before us, offers us everything, and we say, “nah.” The problem with sin is not that Jesus takes offense. The problem is that, like Esau in the Book of Genesis, we are “trading our birthright for a pot of lentils.” Jesus is so very good, and we choose things that are so much less good.

This goes for our relationships, too. The deeper problem is not the rules we break. It’s that, for example, when we are snippy with someone, we are willing to lose the massive good of that relationship so that we can hold onto . . . what? Our high opinion of ourselves? Our “right” to get annoyed? This is a stupid trade. Sin is always about giving up what is really wonderful in exchange for something that just isn’t worth it.

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This is the situation of fallen man: our scale of values is upside down. We have set our hearts on really worthless things when we could have God himself.

The death of Christ is, first, a witness to the re-scaling of values. It is not that God wants us to die – he raises Jesus from the dead! It is not that he wants us to suffer: he offers us heaven. But he does want us to reconsider.

The Cross is key because it shows what it means to re-scale our values. Now that we are so caught up in sin – however original sin technically works, it’s just a fact that we very frequently choose snippiness over charity, our own way over seeking God – we need to rethink.

Christ on the Cross has everything, because he has the Father, and because he loves his own “to the end.” Why are we unwilling to follow?

But even more powerfully, Christ who is God pours out from the Cross his grace, his sacraments, his Holy Spirit, so that we can be transformed into his likeness. He offers us help, so that we can choose the way of God and the way of love, and scoff at the cost.

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What crosses are you called to carry? Why don’t you carry them?

The Spirit of Jesus

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritHaving now finished our long series on “names for the spiritual life,” including how the sacraments can serve as models for the spiritual life, today we begin a series on another approach to spiritual theology, the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

A first way of posing the question could be in terms of the Imitation of Christ. Christ came into the world to show us the way to the Father, and to conform us to himself as he walks that way. To be a Christian is in some way to come to the Father through conformity with Christ. But what does that conformity look like?

Obviously it does not mean exact physical imitation of Christ. One needn’t grow a beard (if indeed he had a beard) or use the same beard oil as Jesus. One needn’t live in Palestine in the first century. Nor need one literally be nailed to a cross. How then are we to be “like” Christ?

It becomes a question of his internal qualities. These will express themselves outwardly, to be sure, but while outward circumstances differ, the heart of Jesus remains the same. The question “What would Jesus do?” must really become “what would Jesus do in this situation, if he were me,” which really gets to the deeper question of “what does it mean to share the heart of Jesus?”

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At the end of the of the Rosary we pray, “Grant that while meditating upon these mysteries of the most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary we may both imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.” Ah, but what do they contain, and what do they promise?

It is nice in the rosary to notice that they contain both Jesus and Mary. Mary is the first to imitate Jesus, and the rosary shows how she shares his heart while playing a different role. Jesus “makes her heart like unto his own” (as the Litany of the Sacred Heart says), but that doesn’t mean she does exactly what he does. The mystery of the two hearts shows that our conformity with the heart of Jesus will express itself in a unique way in each life.

To pray “grant . . . what they promise” also reminds us that Jesus promises to give us his heart. “Imitation of Christ” is a good term, but imprecise both because we imitate his heart, not his every action, and because we come to be like him more by his gift than by our effort.

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Scripture contains some excellent resources for teaching us what this imitation of Jesus looks like. Perhaps this summer we will look at the Beatitudes. Jesus is poor in spirit, he mourns, he is meek, he hungers and thirsts for justice, is merciful and pure of heart, and makes peace. Mary, in her way, is the same, and so too will we be blessed if we are the same.

But the tradition has found an even more profound insight into the heart of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah tells us:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked
(Is. 11:1-4).

There are two key reasons this passage is a favorite of the Tradition’s. First is because it directly speaks of the heart (or spirit) of Jesus. It tells us what he is like, in his interior.

Second, because it speaks of the Spirit. The New Testament tells us that we have received the “Spirit” of sonship (see esp. Rom. 8). The Holy Spirit is Jesus’s relationship with the Father, and it is that Spirit that he gives to us. We heard in last Sunday’s readings that “whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Here we have described what that spirit looks like.

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In the next weeks we will consider what the Spirit of Jesus – and so our life in the Spirit, or life in Christ – looks like.

Pope Francis on True Religion

pope francisPope Francis warns us that true religion is not about spiritual escape. It’s about transformation. On the one hand, this means moral transformation – which Francis explains means learning true concern for others. On the other hand, it’s a spiritual transformation that discovers the reality of Christ.

As we approach Holy Week, let us think about being transformed by a true spirituality that follows Christ, and Him crucified.

Isolation, which is a version of immanentism, can find expression in a false autonomy which has no place for God. But in the realm of religion it can also take the form of a spiritual consumerism tailored to one’s own unhealthy individualism.

The return to the sacred and the quest for spirituality which mark our own time are ambiguous phenomena. Today, our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others.

Unless these people find in the Church a spirituality which can offer healing and liberation, and fill them with life and peace, while at the same time summoning them to fraternal communion and missionary fruitfulness, they will end up by being taken in by solutions which neither make life truly human nor give glory to God.

Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face. They are capable of fostering relationships and not just enabling escapism. In other parts of our society, we see the growing attraction to various forms of a “spirituality of well-being” divorced from any community life, or to a “theology of prosperity” detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters, or to depersonalized experiences which are nothing more than a form of self-centredness.

–Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Deliver Us From Evil

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 14 in our series on the Our Father.

The last petition of the Our Father is, in a sense, the most practical. “Hallowed be thy Name,” at the beginning, is so lofty as to be hard to pin down. It’s not immediately clear what it means, or what we should do. But “deliver us from evil” nicely expresses how we experience the Christian life most of the time: “Lord, please, just help me keep out of trouble!”

We experience this, first of all, on the physical level. It seems like nothing makes people pray like danger. Friends of ours just had a baby in the hospital, for what, thank God, turned out not to be leukemia. Everyone was praying then!

We can learn a couple lessons from this. First, we learn that there really are, at least on some levels, objective goods and bads. There is such a thing as “evil,” at least in the sense of Really Bad. (Latin and Greek, in fact—and also German, French, and a lot of languages—don’t make a distinction between “evil” and “bad.” It might be helpful to pray sometimes, “deliver me from bad things!”) Leukemia is bad.

Second, good does sometimes come from bad. It’s good to be reminded to be thankful for our children, good to pray, good to come together. But leukemia is still just plain bad.

Third, we believe that God is provident, that he can help us. Praying “deliver me from bad things” at least gives us a sense that God does something.

But finally, “bad” can never be the last word. Once cured from sickness (or poverty, or trouble at work, or whatever) we still have a life to live. We are liberated, or “delivered” from evil, but still left to seek the good. Despite our constant experience of struggling to get free from bad, we still need to live life and seek for happiness.

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Now, all of this repeats itself on the moral level. Indeed, when we begin to ask what comes next, once we are free from physical evils, the question next arises how we should live. For many of us, most of the time, Christianity feels like a struggle to stay out of moral evils, a struggle with sin.

Here again, the struggle reminds us that there is such a thing as good and bad. To be struggling against our own sin means we are already decent people – but we recognize that we still have a long way to go. We are still snippy, self-righteous, unfair to the people around us. It is good to struggle against evil in our moral life. It is part of the path of love.

It is even better to pray to God to deliver us. The Our Father does not tell us to pray, “I’ll try harder next time.” It teaches us to ask our Father to deliver us. It encourages us to transform our struggle to be a better person into a deeper reliance on God, a deeper belief that he can actually help. Just as God can heal our physical ills, his grace also heals our spiritual and moral sickness.

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And the Our Father teaches us to think of this in terms of liberation. Christ sets us free. Not free to be evil, but free to be good. Just as sickness prevents us from living our life, so too does sin. To pray “free us,” deliver us from evil, is to learn to see that sin is not a matter of breaking arbitrary laws, but of being caught up in kinds of un-freedom, inability to live a full life of love.

At the end of the Our Father, this is, in some sense, our ordinary experience of the Christian life: the struggle against bad stuff, physical and spiritual, the gradual discovery that sin is slavery, and the even deeper discovery that God is powerful to set us free and deliver us.

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But finally, too, we learn to see that there is more to life than deliverance from evil. Though we spend much of our life fighting little problems, the Our Father calls us to lift our eyes higher. We pray not just to do better this time, but to be healed from temptation; to learn to forgive; and to see God not only as our deliverer from evil, but as our constant nourishment.

And then to lift up our eyes to willing as he wills, working for his kingdom, and hallowing the name of Our Father. This is true liberation, the true meaning of escape from sin.

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Do you struggle as much as you should against little evils? Or do you get caught in the battle against little evils? What would true Christian freedom look like?

Fifth Sunday of Lent: The Spirit of Life

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EZ 37:12-14; PS 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11:1-45

Two weeks before Easter, this Sunday’s readings focus on resurrection. But if we listen carefully, they teach more deeply about the Holy Spirit.

Our short reading from Ezekiel is pretty straightforward: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” But there are a couple details that enrich it.

“I will put my spirit in you that you may live.” Resurrection is a thing of the Spirit. God’s life wells up within us.

“And I will settle you on my land.” The land symbolizes the fullness of life. The life God gives is not crimped or limited, but is a full enlivening of everything human. The gift of the Spirit makes us fully alive.

“Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” The life that comes from the Lord brings us back to the Lord. It is not merely that he does a miracle – “outside” of us – and that convinces us that he is God. It is that he enlivens us from within, so that we can see that our life, our land, the fullness of our humanity is all fulfilled in union with its Creator.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to bring us to the fullness of life, so that we may know God.

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Our short reading from Romans gives us another angle on the same thing. Again there is the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead” and who “will give life to your mortal bodies also.” The promise of our resurrection is directly tied to the resurrection of Jesus: it is his Spirit who enlivens us.

But this life is not just, not primarily, physical. Indeed, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh.” Now, when he says we “are not” in the flesh – and goes on to talk about the resurrection of the body – it’s clear he’s not saying our physical bodies are evil. Rather, the point is how we live. What we live for, to be sure – do we consider the land our ultimate good, or the God who gives it to us? But even deeper, what we live by.

“Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him . . . . The spirit is alive because of righteousness.” The Holy Spirit brings to life not only our bodies, but also our souls. He is the strength for righteousness, for living in union with God. The Holy Spirit, who is the love of God, is the strength to love as God loves. Without Christ’s Spirit dwelling within us, we are even more spiritually dead than our un-resurrected bodies will be physically dead.

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Again for the Gospel we have a long reading from John, this time the raising of Lazarus.

It is helpful to read John alongside our other texts, because John often prefers to speak of the power of Jesus rather than of the Holy Spirit as an “independent” person. This is important to properly understand the Holy Spirit. He is not an alternate path to God. The Trinity is not like three Gods, so that if you don’t want to deal with one, you can go to a different one. Rather the Spirit is, in the words of our reading from Romans, “the Spirit of Christ,” “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus,” and the one who makes our spirit alive. The Holy Spirit is not an alternative to Jesus, he is Jesus working in us, pouring his own love into our hearts.

So here, rather than “the spirit who raises Jesus,” Jesus says, “I am the resurrection . . . whoever believes in me will never die.” The power of life flows out from Jesus. He is the giver of the Spirit. “If you had been here he would not have died.” This is why Thomas is not afraid to “go and die with him.”

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The story of Lazarus focuses on love. “Master, the one you love is ill,” they say, and when Jesus comes and weeps, they say, “See how he loved him.” Further, the little family of Bethany is a communion of love, in which Jesus intimately participates. Jesus “is asking for” Mary, and dialogues patiently with Martha.

But this love draws others to itself. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead because he loves him. But he lets Lazarus die so “that you may believe” – because, “if you believe you will see the glory of God.” The true love, the true power of the Spirit, draws us in to the inner life, the beauty, the goodness, the glory, of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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What would it mean to live as if the Spirit of resurrection brought life to our souls?

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Preferential Option for the Poor

therese-childOur Lenten call to almsgiving is no side issue. All the saints love the poor. Today let’s look at Thérèse of Lisieux, someone we might not think of in this connection. But in her autobiography, we see that active love for the poor is a constant throughout her life, from her upbringing by her beatified parents to her life in Carmel.

I remember the Sunday walks when my dear Mother always accompanied us; and I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces and stately trees; in a word, all nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven.

Often, during these walks, we met poor people. I was always chosen to give them an alms, which made me feel very happy . . . .

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I do not think I have told you that in our daily walks at Lisieux, as in Alençon, I often used to give alms to the beggars. One day we came upon a poor old man who dragged himself painfully along on crutches. I went up to give him a penny. He looked sadly at me for a long time, and then, shaking his head with a sorrowful smile, he refused my alms. I cannot tell you what I felt; I had wished to help and comfort him, and instead of that, I had, perhaps, hurt him and caused him pain. He must have guessed my thought, for I saw him turn round and smile at me when we were some way off.

Just then Papa bought me a cake. I wished very much to run after the old man and give it to him, for I thought: “Well, he did not want money, but I am sure he would like to have a cake.” I do not know what held me back, and I felt so sad I could hardly keep from crying; then I remembered having heard that one obtains all the favours asked for on one’s First Communion Day. This thought consoled me immediately, and though I was only six years old at the time, I said to myself: “I will pray for my poor old man on the day of my First Communion.” Five years later I faithfully kept my resolution. I have always thought that my childish prayer for this suffering member of Christ has been blessed and rewarded.

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Léonie had also a very warm place in my heart. . . . I remember perfectly the day of her First Communion, and I remember also her companion, the poor child whom my Mother dressed, according to the touching custom of the well-to-do families in Alençon. This child did not leave Léonie for an instant on that happy day, and in the evening at the grand dinner she sat in the place of honour.

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During the illness of a poor woman, I interested myself in her two little girls, the elder of whom was not yet six. It was a real pleasure to see how simply they believed all that I told them.

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thereseI ought to seek the companionship of those Sisters towards whom I feel a natural aversion, and try to be their good Samaritan. A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul. And yet it is not merely in the hope of giving consolation that I try to be kind. If it were, I know that I should soon be discouraged, for well-intentioned words are often totally misunderstood. Consequently, not to lose my time or labour, I try to act solely to please Our Lord, and follow this precept of the Gospel: “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends or thy brethren, lest perhaps they also invite thee again and a recompense be made to thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame, and thou shalt be blessed, because they have naught wherewith to make thee recompense, and thy Father Who seeth in secret will repay thee.”

What feast can I offer my Sisters but a spiritual one of sweet and joyful charity! I know none other, and I wish to imitate St. Paul, who rejoiced with those who rejoiced. It is true that he wept with those who wept, and at my feast, too, the tears must sometimes fall, still I shall always try to change them into smiles, for “God loveth a cheerful giver.”

The Sacramental Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Over the last several weeks we have considered how each of the seven sacraments can serve as a model for our spiritual life. Today in conclusion let us consider how our whole life can be sacramental.

The sacraments are sacred signs. They show Christ’s presence in all the key moments of life: birth, death, coming of age, community leadership, the most basic relationships of family, our daily struggle to love better, and, in the Eucharist, our daily life in communion with the God we worship.

The sacraments confer grace. They penetrate us with the life of Christ. But it would be too little to think that grace comes only “after” we receive them. It is grace that draws us toward them, grace that leads one to ask for Baptism, grace that leads the sinner to repent and go to Confession, grace that makes us long for the Eucharist, divine, sanctifying, transforming grace that leads us to consecrate our lives in marriage or the priesthood.

The sacraments, we could say, confer grace “in both directions.” They “go before us,” drawing us on, pulling ourselves to them, just as the people of his time were drawn by the magnetism of grace to Jesus. Grace does not leave us as we were before; grace makes us want to do something, to come to Jesus. Grace makes us want to express our new life through the sacraments. All of our life, the Holy Spirit is driving us to the sacraments.

In the sacraments we consummate that grace, we live it out in its fullest way. In Confession, we become no longer just sort of penitent, but true, sacramental penitents; no longer just vaguely thinking of Jesus, but uniting our sufferings to his in the Anointing of the Sick, etc. The sacraments show what grace does in us. And when we come to those perfect moments in the life of grace, when we act like graced people by truly participating in the sacraments, the sacramental life of grace is fulfilled and renewed in us, and so the sacraments drive us forward, as well.

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St. Patrick’s fabulous prayer, “the Breast Plate,” sums up the sacramental life admirably. Toward the end, it says

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left

To live the life of the sacraments is always to be running to Christ, and to know that it is Christ himself who has given you the grace to run to him. Christ before me, Christ behind me.

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At the heart of the sacraments is the Eucharist. They all revolve around the Eucharist as around the sun.

We receive Christ in communion. On the one hand, our life is profoundly united to him. He comes to dwell in us, and draws us to dwell in him. Our whole life is consecrated by union with Jesus.

On the other hand, we receive this union as a gift – purchased at a price we did not pay. We know that union with God is not something we can grasp at, but something he freely offers to us. We express this everytime we come running to communion – every time, even in prayer and at a distance, we long to come running to communion.

We offer Christ on the altar. He is the priest, offering perfect thanksgiving to the Father – and we unite ourselves to his perfect prayer. He is the victim, the sign we offer of how precious the Father is to us. He is the altar, upon which we offer ourselves. By joining our worship to his, we not only accept him as the perfect worship, but say that we want to give our life as fully to the Father as he did.

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To live the sacramental life is to be all Eucharistic. It is to love this sign, this culmination and fulfillment, this source and summit of our perfect prayer and perfect self-offering in love. And it is to love that culmination of the life of grace in such a way that it penetrates all of our life. To be all Eucharistic.

The other sacraments show our whole life ordered to the Eucharist. Our new birth is our entrance to the Eucharistic Church, our coming of age is our commission to preach this perfect union. Even our marriages are calls to show the true, interpersonal love that is Jesus, and to order all our lives to helping others to love him better.

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What parts of your life seem the least sacramental, the least Eucharistic? What would it mean to let them be filled with sacramental, Eucharistic grace?