Penance and the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodOn this last day of July, the month of the Precious Blood, let us turn from our meditations on the Eucharist to consider Confession, the sacrament of Penance.

Each of the sacraments has multiple names. These names are not interchangeable, but each reveal a different aspect of the sacrament. The sacrament we are considering now is called Reconciliation, because that is its end, what it brings about. It is also called Confession, because that is its means, the thing we do. But a third name for it is the Sacrament of Penance, because that is its inner nature: what Confession consecrates, and what brings about Reconciliation.


The word penance is a rich inheritance from our Latin Catholic tradition. The Greek in which the New Testament was written uses the word metanoia, which means essentially a change of mind, or conversion. “Conversion” literally means “turning around,” and that is another important name for the sacrament of Penance. It is about changing our direction.

The Latin tradition expresses a key insight into conversion with the word poenitentia, penance, or repentance. The root word is poena, which is pain, or punishment.

That sounds ugly at first, but the point is that conversion really does involve change. Conversion would be painless if we were not set in a certain direction. Some of the shallowest modern philosophy (with roots, really, in a certain kind of Protestantism) pretends that each moment is completely unconnected with the moment before, so that we can painlessly make a complete about-face.

But that is not what it’s like to be a human person. We are more steady than that. We set our heart on things. (That’s what the whole business about “kidneys” refers to.) To give up on one way of life and begin another is painful.


Put it this way: there is no such person as Ebenezer Scrooge. One night, Scrooge changes his mind, and wakes up in the morning a radically different person.

But that’s not what it’s like for us. If you have had your heart set on riches – or on anything else – it hurts to turn away from that. In fact, this is something profoundly healthy about us: we do have hearts which get set on things. We do get attached. And we are supposed to get attached: that’s what our passions are for.

But that’s also why change hurts. You may know that Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The difference, though, is that in the Catholic view, which is so much more human, it’s hard to change: that’s what Purgatory is all about. In fact, it’s what the Inferno is all about.

(Of course, Scrooge does suffer in the night – but our suffering is more than that.)


Or put it another way: it wouldn’t be a real change if our hearts weren’t really set on something. Painless metanoia is not really any change at all.


Jesus enters into the pain of our conversion.

Luke portrays this vividly with the story of the good thief. “Do you not fear God,” he says to the other thief, “seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41).

The good thief joins Jesus in Paradise because he accepts the pain of conversion. He recognizes the evil of his sin, and he literally feels the pain of conversion.

Punishment, you see, is not meant for the glee of the punisher. It is meant to give us an opportunity to acknowledge the evil of our turning away from God, and experience what it is like to turn back.

Jesus joins us in that penance. It is not so much that Simon the Cyrenean helps Jesus carry the cross. Rather “on him they laid the cross, so that he might carry it after Jesus” (Lk 23:26): Jesus walks the way of penance with us. It is he who gives us the strength to carry the cross.


In Confession, the priest has the power not only to “loose” us from our sins, but to “bind” us, by giving some penance, some cross of conversion, bound to Christ, that will help us walk the way of real personal change.

“They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). The path to true conversion is by bathing in the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Are there crosses of conversion you are unwilling to carry? Bathe them in the blood of the Lamb!

Click here for the entire series on the Precious Blood.

Aparecida on Christian Holiness

brazil-popeThe central second part of the Aparecida document is on “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” Its practical goal is really its last chapter, on “the formative itinerary”: how do we form ourselves, and those entrusted to us, to be real Christians?

But we cannot rightly understand that formation, cannot approach our Christian life correctly, without understanding what it is we are trying to do. Thus there are three chapters leading up to that “formative itinerary.”

The first, as we saw last week, is on joy and the good news. We need to see that Jesus is the bringer of joy – a truth that points in two directions: both that our natural desires are meant to be fulfilled, and that the only way they can truly be fulfilled is in Jesus.

The next two chapters consider “The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness” (our topic for this week) and “The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church.” We could summarize these as love of God and love of neighbor, or union with Christ and with his Church. We will see next week that true union with Christ cannot happen apart from his body the Church.


But first, and most centrally, we must see that our vocation is to holiness, nothing more and nothing less. We cannot be real missionaries, or disciples, without being holy – nor can we be truly holy without thereby becoming missionary disciples. Real mission is entirely about our transformation in Christ.

Aparecida is insistently Christian, and Christo-centric, in its understanding of holiness:

4. The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness

     a. Called to Follow Jesus Christ

     b.  Configured to the Master

     c. Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life

     d. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit

The first section simply underlines that holiness is about Jesus, and Jesus is about holiness. Holiness is not something we do on our own, not some sort of spiritual gymnastics. Holiness is nothing more nor less than union with Christ.

Again, this formulation points in two directions. On the one hand, it undercuts all Pelagianism, all sense that we are the source of our own holiness. Asceticism, for example, has an important place in the Christian life – but unless it is entirely understood in terms of union with Christ, it becomes a path to self-destruction. True asceticism is only about following Christ.

On the other hand, emphasizing that holiness is inseparable from the call to follow Jesus also undercuts a kind of Protestantism, or extrinsicism, that pretends that Jesus saves us without transforming us. The only way to know Jesus is to follow Jesus, to become holy as he is holy. We are called not to let him do it for us, but to follow in his footsteps: through the Cross to the ascent into heaven.


The next section delves deeper by saying we are “Configured to the Master.” The word “master” can convey (especially in the older languages) the idea of Jesus as teacher, as well as the rich Biblical picture of him as our king.

But it is not enough to say Jesus is our master, our teacher, or our king. We don’t understand what these words really mean unless we realize that he transforms us, from the inside out, to become what he is: sons and daughters as he is son, divine as he is divine, holy as he is holy.

“Imitation of Christ” is an important idea – but only if we understand that we are like Christ because Christ himself configures us to himself, transforms us, changes us from the inside out, to be what he is.


We are then “Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life.” The key word, really, is “sent.”

This is, of course, the central theme of the Aparecida document, with its emphasis on mission.

This is the internal core of mission: the idea that we are so configured to Christ, so profoundly follow him, that we do what he does. We live entirely to spread his message, to love what he loves, to be his friends. And we are so enlivened with his holiness that we ourselves speak his word. A disciple who is not active is no disciple at all.


Finally, we are “Enlivened by the Holy Spirit.” There’s an unhealthy tendency to oppose devotion to the Holy Spirit against devotion to Christ. But in real Catholic theology, they are inseparable. Holiness is to to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ, enlivened by his life. This is the real good news: that Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, the giver of true divine life.

Where do you find yourself separating holiness from union with Christ?

Click here for the entire series on the Aparecida document.

The Curé of Ars on the Workweek of the Lukewarm Soul

Here is more from the sermon we looked at last Tuesday: St. Jean Vianney discussing the zeal that ought to characterize our spiritual life.

This week’s reading emphasizes the relation between work and prayer. We hear often that our work can become prayer, and that is an important point. But the Curé of Ars reminds us that work is not automatically prayer. Without really turning our mind to God, really offering our work – and really embracing the Sabbath – our work can quickly become an idol.

vianney2In the morning it is not God who occupies his thoughts, nor the salvation of his poor soul; he is quite taken up with thoughts of work. His mind is so wrapped up in the things of earth that the thought of God has no place in it. He is thinking about what he is going to be doing during the day, where he will be sending his children and his various employees, in what way he will expedite his own work. To say his prayers, he gets down on his knees, undoubtedly, but he does not know what he wants to ask God, nor what he needs, nor even before whom he is kneeling. His careless demeanour shows this very clearly. It is a poor man indeed who, however miserable he is, wants nothing at all and loves his poverty. It is surely a desperately sick person who scorns doctors and remedies and clings to his infirmities.

You can see that this lukewarm soul has no difficulty, on the slightest pretext, in talking during the course of his prayers. For no reason at all he will abandon them, partly at least, thinking that he will finish them in another moment. Does he want to offer his day to God, to say his Grace? He does all that, but often without thinking of the one who is addressed. He will not even stop working. If the possessor of the lukewarm soul is a man, he will turn his cap or his hat around in his hands as if to see whether it is good or bad, as though he had some idea of selling it. If it is a woman, she will say her prayers while slicing bread into her soup, or putting wood on the fire, or calling out to her children or maid. If you like, such distractions during prayer are not exactly deliberate. People would rather not have them, but because it is necessary to go to so much trouble and expend so much energy to get rid of them, they let them alone and allow them to come as they will.

The lukewarm Christian may not perhaps work on Sunday at tasks which seem to be forbidden to anyone who has even the slightest shred of religion, but doing some sewing, arranging something in the house, driving sheep to the fields during the times for Masses, on the pretext that there is not enough food to give them — all these things will be done without the slightest scruple, and such people will prefer to allow their souls and the souls of their employees to perish rather than endanger their animals. A man will busy himself getting out his tools and his carts and harrows and so on, for the next day; he will fill in a hole or fence a gap; he will cut various lengths of cords and ropes; he will carry out the churns and set them in order. What do you think about all this, my brethren? Is it not, alas, the simple truth?

Happiness in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm proclaims, “Your goodness is before my eyes.” This goodness is the key to everything else.

It is what we must above all keep before our eyes. Thus the longer line is, “Examine me, Lord, and test me; explore my kidneys and my heart, for your goodness is before my eyes.” What we are ultimately “tested” on is our correspondence to God’s goodness.


God is, of course, good, supremely good. To say that he is the source of all that is good is true, but falls short, because every other good shares only an infinitely tiny share in his goodness. Whatever it is that makes those things good, he possesses infinitely more.

This truth points two directions. On the one hand, it means God is far better. There is some truth in thinking of our life as a kind of competition between God and other goods, a constant temptation to let other goods replace his supreme goodness.

But on the other hand, by itself, that formulation misses what it means to call God the ultimate good; it does not keep his goodness before our eyes. God’s goodness doesn’t conquer other goodnesses, doesn’t take them away, or make us hate them. God’s goodness fulfills all of those other goods, and so ultimately affirms them. God’s goodness is before our eyes precisely in the goodness of everything else we experience.

To say God is good is to say that he fulfills our real desires.


This is the framework for thinking about happiness. God is our happiness. All other happiness finds its fulfillment in God.

That sounds a little frivolous; there are some Christian authors who vigorously oppose talk about happiness, because it sounds too light. There is truth in what they say. The happiness that God gives us – you can call it “joy,” if it makes you feel better – is so infinitely deeper than all other happiness that it seems frivolous to compare them.

And to attain that happiness, indeed, requires setting aside lesser happinesses. To say that God is happiness doesn’t mean you can just watch cartoons all morning. To the contrary, it means God is so good that he’s worth dying on the cross for.

Nonetheless, to give up on the idea of God making us happy would mean giving up, too, on God’s goodness. To say he is good doesn’t mean that he replaces the good. It means he fulfills it. It means that whatever it is that makes cartoons (or steaks, or beautiful summer days, or friendship) so wonderful is precisely what he gives us.

We must keep this goodness before our eyes. We must recognize that all those goodnesses are precisely what God is – but he is infinitely more.


I heard a kind of riddle recently. A devout man said, “God made T-bone steaks for Christians. To enjoy them truly is to enjoy them the way a Christian enjoys them.”

To say he made them for Christians does not mean we can set our faith aside in enjoying them. It means – somehow: this is a kind of riddle! – we can only truly enjoy them by seeing how our love of God illuminates that enjoyment.


The happiness that God brings is the ultimate backdrop against which we must understand everything else in the Psalms.

Why do we do battle? Truly, for nothing but happiness. The good king is not a tyrant, who makes us do what is good for him but not good for us. The good king rules us for our own good. He calls us to battle to achieve not his happiness, but ours.

God is supremely happy. Nothing can hurt him. But much can hurt us. That’s why we have to struggle: to achieve the true good, to reach that which alone can satisfy the high dignity of the human person.


Happiness is the reason we care about justice. Justice is no more nor less than seeing the goodness of things as God made them: neither undervaluing nor overvaluing the things of this world, but keeping God’s goodness before our eyes in all things.

Justice is a realism that takes us out of ourselves and into the world that God gives us. It is simply treating things right.

But the reason for justice is to discover God’s goodness behind the goodness of this world.


And our happiness in God’s goodness is what makes our kidneys (and heart) important: because ultimately, all that matters is to have our whole being focused on his goodness, to find our happiness in him.

Think of a couple areas in your life in which you fail to see God as good.

Click here for the rest of the series on praying with the Psalms.

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Conformed to the Image

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS 3:5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; ROM 8:28-30; MT 13:44-52

“Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Our Psalm for this Sunday takes us deeper into the power of faith. God calls us not just to vaguely like him, but to listen to him, and learn. His word enlightens our path.


The first reading is Solomon’s prayer. “I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. . . . Who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”

Solomon recognizes that the task to which God calls him exceeds human intelligence. This is vivid for Solomon, who has to rule a “vast people.” But it is true for us, too: what does it mean to instantiate God’s love, in the myriad complexities of my life? With work responsibilities, and a house, and a culture that is really hard to figure out how to engage, and a family, and complicated people . . . who is up to this task?

But Solomon does not throw up his hands. Nor does he say, “I’ll just try hard, and trust you to take care of it.” No, God calls him deeper, to a share in his providence. God does not call Solomon to let God be king. God calls Solomon himself to be king, to share in God’s care for his creation – and so to enter into God’s own wisdom.

So Solomon’s prayer is, although “I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act,” “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” Understanding. Distinguishing.

And God grants him light. He lets him see the path he should walk on. “Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”


The Gospel reading concludes Matthew’s sermon of parables. We have the treasure buried in a field, and the pearl of great price. We all know that part of the meaning of these parables is that God is a treasure worth selling everything else to acquire.

But these parables go deeper, also into the intellectual component of Christian faith.

With the treasure buried in a field, Jesus says, “a person finds and hides again” and then goes to buy the field. This person is tricky, clever.

With the pearl, the character is “a merchant.” He’s not just acquiring something great. He’s clever, a wise businessman.

Next comes the “net thrown into the sea” (not as popular a parable), and “what is bad they throw away.” Like Solomon, those who use a net must “distinguish right from wrong.” They have to be clever.

And finally comes, “the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Whatever else this parable is about, this householder, again, is wise, able to distinguish, clever enough to meet his situation.


Earlier in this discourse, Jesus said, “blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, for they hear.” “Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Jesus asks us not just to love him, but to be clever. Indeed, true love has to be clever. True love wants to figure out how to love, concretely. True love must be wise.

And so God gives us wisdom. Not just the command to love him, but the light to know how to love him.


Our reading from Romans gives us the punchline. “We know that all things work for good for those who love God . . . .” Yes, the heart of the matter is love. Love is all that matters.

But love is concrete. The sentence continues, “. . . who are called according to his purpose.” He calls us in a particular way, to instantiate his wisdom, to be part of his plan. Not just vaguely to love, but to share in his purpose.

We are called “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” To be as Jesus is. Which is not vague, but incarnate, and wise. “So that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” To be as Jesus is, to share in his way of seeing, to share in his good counsel, to live out his purposes and his plan.

“Lord, I love your commands. . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Can you think of places in your life where true love requires divine wisdom? Give thanks to God that he gives us that wisdom, in his Word and in his Spirit, dwelling within us.

The Prayer-Power of the Mass

jesus-precious-bloodYou probably know that every Mass is “offered” for some intention. Although unfortunately sometimes we devolve into the language of “praying especially” for that intention, the “offering-power” of the Mass is greater than that. Our petitions our united to our praise.

There’s an interesting insight in the history of the Eucharistic prayers. At first there were only the central parts of the prayers, directly focused on what we’re doing: the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the Institution Narrative, the “anamnesis,” or “remembering” prayer (“as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven . . .”), and the doxology (“all glory and honor is yours . . . .”)

But gradually over the centuries other prayers were interspersed with these most essential prayers, inserted right in the middle. It’s like bringing the sick to touch Jesus: the central insight is that just putting our prayers near the power of the Eucharist gives them new efficacy.


Another version of this insight is in the Council of Trent’s teaching on the Sacrifice of the Mass (Session 22). One way Trent talks about the power of the Mass is simply to say that it has power even for the dead: “For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. . . . Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ . . . .”

Which is just to say: the power of the Mass is so great that it bears fruit not only for those who directly participate, but also for others.


We can find some models for understanding this power of the Mass in the words used in the old Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer One.

Early on, it says the people offer the Mass,

“for the redemption of their souls,

in hope of health and well-being,

and paying their homage to you . . . .”

Notice the movement: the first line is about our souls, the second about our bodies, the third about God. First see the connection between the first and third lines: to pay homage to God, to offer him perfect praise, is intrinsically tied to the redemption of our souls. Praise is the redemption of our souls: to be redeemed is to offer praise, to be restored to true homage.

But so too this radiates even into our physical life, our “hope of health and well-being.” Our health and well-being are ordered to paying homage to God; they are themselves a way of paying homage.

In other words, the praise of the Mass spills over even into our prayers for physical things, precisely because, and insofar as, those physical things are ordered to our perfect praise of God.


Eucharistic Prayer I says the same thing more concisely a little later on, when it asks that we “may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.” Now, this is ultimately about grace, about God restoring the soul to true love of him. But again, this seeps even into our earthly life, because to be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing includes our family, our home, our work, even our well-ordered leisure.

These things are not ends in themselves. But they are all made for praise, all directed to our heavenly union with God. And so, by bringing our petitions for them to the Mass, we let them, too, be filled with every heavenly blessing.

So too when the Roman Canon prays, “order our days in your peace.” Ah, a rich formula! Again, we don’t say, “buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” But we do say, the peace of God sinks into everything, orders everything, which can include even our temporal welfare.


Finally, we have formulations about the life of the saints. We ask, “graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs,” and then later, “we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.”

That fellowship is a spiritual thing. It is union in praise around the altar of God. But for our lives to be brought into this fellowship includes all the myriad things we may pray for.

In this month of the Precious Blood, let us bathe all our temporal needs in the Blood of Jesus, ask that all of them may rise up in prayer to him who alone gives them meaning.

Do we put too much distance between our praise and petitions, between “hallowed be thy name” and “give us this day”?

Click here for other posts in the “Precious Blood” series.

Aparecida on the Good News of the Gospel

brazil-popeThe central second part of the Aparecida Document explores “the Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” examining holiness, communion, and formation. But before it engages these discussions, its first chapter (chapter three of the document) is on “The Joy of Being Missionary Disciples to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The heart of these chapters is that the Gospel really is good news – the five main sections of the chapter examine different kinds of “good news”:

3. The Joy of Being Missionary Disciples to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ

    a. The Good News of Human Dignity

    b. The Good News of Life

    c. The Good News of the Family

    d. The Good News of Human Activity

        i. Work

        ii. Science and technology

    e. The Good News of the Universal Destiny of Goods and Ecology

    f. The Continent of Hope and Love

We need to discover the joy of the Gospel, a joy that gives life both to us and to those with whom we share the Gospel. Without this joy, without discovering why the Gospel really is good news, we have nothing worth preaching, nor the joy that can sustain us in mission.


There is a careful balancing act here. On one side stands religion: the highest truth is that only God can satisfy our hearts, and only Christ can give us the freedom to know God as Father. We must let nothing stand in the way of our discovering this, the “one thing necessary.” We mustn’t be too like Martha, “anxious and troubled” about things that don’t ultimately matter.

On the other hand, religion is falsified when it does not truly bring liberation to us, in our humanity. The joy of Christ is not a denial of our humanity, but its fulfillment. To know the Father who made us is to find the fulfillment of everything he made. To know the Son who became incarnate is to discover that our humanity really can be a place of meeting the Father. To know the Spirit who sanctifies us is to know that we – what we are, our real humanity – really can be sanctified. There can be no dualism that leaves our humanity behind in our quest for God.


Thus the Gospel of Jesus Christ is also “the good news of human dignity.” To know Christ is to know how precious the human person is. Political “rights” talk can never do justice to the Gospel – rather, the Gospel reveals the inner truth of human rights. The deepest truth is that human life is of infinite dignity, because it is made, in its humanity, to know God. Our real dignity is not the “right” to be left alone, but the right to be cherished as one created and redeemed for eternal union with God.

So too the Gospel is “the good news of human life.” We are pro-life, St. John Paul emphasized in his great encyclical “The Gospel of Life” not only because we think abortion is a crime, but because we think human life is a great good. Everything about life is ordered to meeting Christ: even birthday parties and days on the beach.


Thus next in the document comes “the good news of the family,” marking out one of the key areas of human life. The family is the place where life begins and where life mostly happens, and around which life revolves. It is the place of moral growth and of celebration, and it is the first and primary place that we learn to find joy outside of ourselves. Family is a gift from God, made to lead us to God.

So too “the good news of human activity,” both work and science and technology. This is just another aspect of being human: and this too comes forth from God and is meant to lead us back to God.

Finally, “the good news of the universal destiny of goods and ecology,” which is a concrete way of saying, the good news of political community, of living not just for ourselves, but as part of a greater community. Obviously there is a lot to work out here, in the social doctrine of the Church. But by calling it “good news,” Aparecida emphasizes that the God who made us for himself also made politics as a place of meeting him.


This chapter ends by calling America to be “the continent of hope and love.” Hope and Love are virtues of our relationship with God – but they are also virtues of our relationship with others.

A truly Catholic world is a world of good news, a world of affirming the infinite dignity of human life.

This gives us a lot to think about, about what evangelization means. It is not just about sharing a marginal bit of doctrine. It is about sharing the truth that everything authentically human is a place of meeting with God.

How does your life communicate to those around you the good news of human life?

Click here to read the entire series on the Aparecida document.

The Curé of Ars on “The Dreadful State of the Lukewarm Soul”

We often hear about St. Jean Vianney, the great parish priest of the small town of Ars in nineteenth-century France. But we rarely hear his words.

Here he is on passion in the spiritual life. Notice that he begins with passion in our heart of Scripture. But passion too in the desire to love better, a passionate embrace of the crosses God sends, and passion in facing hostility. Zeal is the heart of the spiritual life.

 vianney2I think, brethren, that you would like to know what is the state of the lukewarm soul. Well, this is it. A lukewarm soul is not yet quite dead in the eyes of God because the faith, the hope, and the charity which are its spiritual life are not altogether extinct. But it is a faith without zeal, a hope without resolution, a charity without ardour….

Nothing touches this soul: it hears the word of God, yes, that is true; but often it just bores it. Its possessor hears it with difficulty, more or less by habit, like someone who thinks that he knows enough about it and does enough of what he should. …

It is like someone who is envious of anyone who is on top of the world but who would not deign to lift a foot to try to get there himself. It would not, however, wish to renounce eternal blessings for those of the world. Yet it does not wish either to leave the world or to go to Heaven, and if it can just manage to pass its time without crosses or difficulties, it would never ask to leave this world at all. If you hear someone with such a soul say that life is long and pretty miserable, that is only when everything is not going in accordance with his desires.

If God, in order to force such a soul to detach itself from temporal things, sends it any cross or suffering, it is fretful and grieving and abandons itself to grumbles and complaints and often even to a kind of despair. It seems as if it does not want to see that God has sent it these trials for its good, to detach it from this world and to draw it towards Himself. What has it done to deserve these trials? In this state a person thinks in his own mind that there are many others more blameworthy than himself who have not to submit to such trials.

In prosperous times the lukewarm soul does not go so far as to forget God, but neither does it forget itself. It knows very well how to boast about all the means it has employed to achieve its prosperity. It is quite convinced that many others would not have achieved the same success. It loves to repeat that and to hear it repeated, and every time it hears it, it is with fresh pleasure. The individual with the lukewarm soul assumes a gracious air when associating with those who flatter him. But towards those who have not paid him the respect which he believes he has deserved or who have not been grateful for his kindnesses, he maintains an air of frigid indifference and seems to indicate to them that they are The Curé of Ars on “The Dreadful State of the Lukewarm Soul” who do not deserve to receive the good which he has done them….

The Heart – and Kidneys – of the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 continues, “Probe me, Lord, and test me. Prove my kidneys and my heart.”

We move to a different level of intimacy. So far the Psalm has been talking about justice and innocence, which would seem to be judged by deeds. But the Psalmist pushes deeper – literally: right into our guts! – and asks not just about what is in our actions, but what is in our hearts.

In fact, this gets us to the “heart” of why deeds matter. Ultimately, God does not care about our deeds at all. Our deeds can do absolutely nothing for him – God who made us can do anything we can do. What God cares about is us. It’s not the deed that he wants, but the doer.

But our Psalm’s previous words, “justice” and “innocence” turn out to be richer than we thought. Both these words, and indeed all words about virtue, point in two directions. They point outward, to what we do. You can not be just only in your heart: justice is about what you do.

But they also point inwards, to our hearts. To be just is not only to do the right thing, but to become the kind of person who does the right thing. We can be innocent of this or that, but to be truly innocent, innocent people, is a matter of who we are, what we are – in our heart.


This is the real Catholic response to the old debate about salvation by works. We are not judged by our works! But we are judged by our hearts – or rather, our hearts themselves judge us. There is no substitute for love of God. We either love him – in our hearts – or we do not.

Heaven would be meaningless for someone who did not love God. Indeed, it would be Hell, just as (though infinitely more so) going to Mass is torture for someone who doesn’t love God, or being with the sick or poor is torture for someone who does not love the poor person.

God does not judge our deeds. But heaven does hinge on our hearts; it has no meaning for us apart from our hearts. We ask God to probe our heart because we want our hearts to become heavenly. We want to become lovers, who will enjoy his eternal presence instead of being tortured by it.

That is the heart of justice, innocence, and every other virtue. The outward deed both expresses and shapes the heart of the person. And the heart is everything.


The Psalms use the word “heart” about 135 times; in a literal translation, “kidneys” appears about five times – though even a pretty literal translation like the RSV typically just substitutes “heart.” (The King James Version is wonderful not only because of its splendid English, but also because it is vastly more literal than any of the modern translations. It uses the older English word “reins,” which used to mean, not just something on a horse, but something in your guts.) In fact, we can understand the “heart” better if we dig into this fantastic image of the kidneys.

Think about your body. These days, we associate the “mind” with the brain: just the neck and up. The physical heart is maybe a third of the way down your torso. But your kidneys are in your lower back, just above your hips. They are “all the way down.”

In fact, it seems that people more familiar with butchering thought of the kidneys as the “innermost parts” (another modern translation) of the animal, because as you carve it up, this is the last thing you find. All the way down.

We are meant to love God and our neighbor not just with our heads, from the neck up; not even just a third of the way down our torso; but with our guts, our deepest, innermost parts, all the way down: with our kidneys.


That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should be led by our groin, that we should just follow our passions. This is the grain of truth in a certain Stoicism in many parts of modern Catholicism, that says it doesn’t matter how you feel. That is very true.

But the Psalms recognize, not only in their use of the word “kidneys,” but in all their gory emotionalism, that true love of God cannot leave our “lower half” behind. The Psalms, and the saints, love God, and his poor, with passion. Anything less is just going through the motions.

Do you work to engage your passions in your prayer?

Click here for the entire series on praying with the Psalms.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Power of the Word

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 12:13, 16-19; PS 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; ROM 8:26-27; MT 13:24-43

Last Sunday’s Gospel emphasized our contribution to conversion. The same Word of God, sowed in different hearts, can bear thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, or else end up snatched away by the evil one, withered by tribulation and persecution, or choked by the deceitfulness of riches. It seems that we make all the difference.

But this week, we hear the three parables that follow, which emphasize the strength of God’s word.


In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the servants fear that the weeds sowed by the enemy will choke out the good seed. But the master says, leave them be; the only thing that can hurt the good seed is your quickness to intervene: “If you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus speaks of those “who cause others to sin and all evildoers.” Yes, evil can “cause others to sin.” But don’t be too worried about the good seed, “the children of the kingdom.” The weeds won’t hurt them. The only thing that can hurt them is your lack of trust in the good seed.


Then come two short parables that confirm the point. The mustard seed looks small, but grows large. The kingdom might look fragile, but it is stronger than it seems.

I’m no expert on Middle Eastern horticulture, but one commentary I read says birds don’t nest in mustard bushes. When Jesus says, “It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches,” he’s talking about birds that peck at the tree. Again: don’t worry. The mustard bush is strong enough to withstand those birds.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You wouldn’t think something so insignificant could accomplish anything. But don’t underestimate the power of God.

We tend to think it all depends on us. Thank God it doesn’t. Like the seeds and the yeast, the Kingdom is vastly stronger than we could imagine.


The other two readings give us two practical consequences of this teaching.

The reading from Romans 8 is, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Note the emphasis on “our weakness.”

True prayer involves a kind of predicament. We pray because we need help from a power greater than our own. But it’s hard to even know what is possible for God. When we’re looking at mustard seeds, yeast, and a field full of weeds, we can’t even imagine the possibilities that God sees. We are inclined to ask for too little.

Romans 8 reminds us that therefore prayer itself is a gift. Divine hope is a gift, parallel to divine faith. Only God himself knows the measure we can ask from God. But his Spirit dwells in us.


We can be tempted to focus on the irrationality of both hope and faith. Sometimes people dwell on the line in our reading that says, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Ah!, we think, the point is that we should pray with unintelligible groans!

But this way of thinking can get it exactly wrong. To the contrary, God tells us, in words, what to hope for. Without the words he speaks to us, we are left to our own hopes, and we hope for infinitely less than what he offers.

Faith and hope are unintelligible in the sense that God’s word leaves us speechless. He claims, for example, that the wheat will survive the weeds, that the tiny seed will grow big and strong, that the yeast can leaven the whole lump, and that his Spirit dwells in us – and our jaws drop.

But to respond by emphasizing just the unintelligibility, however wild it might seem, would leave us with nothing but our too-meager hopes.

The point of the groaning is not a hatred of words, but a longing as great as God’s love. That longing is born from the Word of God.


Where Romans talks about our own prayer life, the reading from the Book of Wisdom helps us apply the power of God’s word to our view of other people.

“Your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all,” says Wisdom. God is merciful not because he leaves things as they are, but because he is powerful enough to change them. Indeed, his “might is the source of justice.”

If God is so powerful that we can survive among the weeds, we have reason to hope that his yeast in us may even leaven the dead souls around us. There is no need to condemn others, but only to hope in the power of the promise.

How could we better let our view of the world be shaped by the promises God has spoken to us?