Category Archives: Spirituality

The Cost of Discipleship

What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?  What must we do to be worthy of the name of Christian?

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Jesus makes a pretty sweeping statement about what it takes to be his disciple.  Let me quote him again:  “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  First of all we need to realize what Jesus is doing here.  He is actually making a new commandment—ONLY GOD CAN DO THAT.  So if you have any ideas that Jesus is just a good teacher and prophet, think again.  There are other commandments of love:  love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Jesus cites both of these commandments, but he doesn’t call them “new.”  That is because Jesus knows full well that both of those commandments that I quoted are mentioned in the Old Testament.  They are not new at all.  This new commandment that Jesus gives is a highly personal one.  Please notice that Jesus is not simply saying to love one another.  He commands us to love one another as he loved.  He puts an extra condition on it.

If I tell you that when you leave this church, you should try to love one another as I (Fr. Basil) love you—what would you necessarily have to know FIRST in order to fulfill that commandment?  YOU WOULD HAVE TO KNOW ME, WOULDN’T YOU?  So think about Jesus’s command again:  Love one another as I have loved you.  You cannot fulfill this command unless you first know the man who is giving the command—Jesus Christ.  So do you know him?  Are you aware of the love with which he loved?  Has the fact that God humbled himself, became a servant of all, and then died on a cross for the sake of his friends—has that really sunk into your heart?  Because that is the kind of love that we are talking about.  That is the kind of love that we are supposed to have for one another:  a love that is not proud, a love that seeks to serve, a love that is not afraid to suffer so that someone else might be saved.

How do you learn to love as Jesus loved?  I will tell you the only way that I have learned how:  meditate on the gospels, share with the Lord in prayer your insights, hardships and joys of the day, and then share what you have learned with others either by word or deed.  That is the only way that I have learned to GET TO KNOW this Jesus who commands that we should love one another like he loved.  It is very simple, but not very easy.  We all know how to get healthy:  eat good food daily and exercise regularly.  And you have to do it pretty much constantly or your body begins to slip.  The soul is not different.  It requires constant effort and maintenance.  So I will ask you a simple question:  do you meditate on scriptures daily, share your life with the Lord in prayer, and then share what you have learned with others?

What else does Jesus say about discipleship?  “Unless you bear your own cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).”  What do you do with a cross?  You carry it, and its heavy.  And in the end you are crucified on it.  YAY, HUH?  And you do it in public for everyone to see, just like Jesus did.  And it has to be YOUR OWN cross—Not anyone else’s and not one that you built for yourself, but the one God built and gave specifically to you.  I knew a man who was constantly in pain over the success or failure of his son.  It’s all he ever talked about.  And certainly a parent will have pain over the hardships of a child—but this man took it to such an extreme that he was trying to carry his son’s cross and basically almost emotionally living his son’s life.  This man had his own struggles that God wanted him to tackle—he has his own cross.  But he wasn’t carrying it.  He was trying to shoulder his son’s cross.  Which cross are we carrying?  Is it ours?  Have we put it down in the dirt and refused to move?  If so, we are not being good disciples.

Jesus also says that whoever does not hate his own life (and pretty much everything else) when we go to Jesus cannot be his disciple.  Jesus is not talking about constantly being down on yourself and everything else.  He is talking about the seriousness of prioritizing things.  Doing God’s will and fulfilling the new commandment of love has to the first priority that orders every other priority.  Think about what is absolutely necessary in your life.  Do you order your life around work, and everything else falls in line behind it?  Do you order your life around exercise, and everything else falls in line behind it and serves that?  Or perhaps the first priority is some hobby or addiction?  For example, I used to know a woman who was such a health nut that pretty much her entire schedule would revolve around exercise and getting frequent healthy meals.  If mass got in the way of a workout, she would rearrange it or not go to mass.  Whether or not she was going to drive her children around depended on when she was working out.  Her husband had to reorganize his schedule around her gym time.  The whole house had to bow down and be subjected to her diet.  ESSENTIALLY, HER ENTIRE LIFE FELL IN LINE BEHIND HER OBSESSION WITH HEALTH.  This kind of activity is a false worship of the health or appearance of the body.  Really, my friends, what takes top priority in your schedule?  Because the answer to that question is the answer to what you worship.  And if your answer is not God, then Jesus is telling you that you cannot be his disciple.  All of us make mistakes with this.  All of us prioritize other things over God from time to time.  But this saying of Jesus that you must even hate your own life should make us ponder whether or not some serious changes need to be made in the priorites of our lives.

What does St. Paul specifically say to the disciples in the first reading today?  It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Paul wasn’t just talking about apostles and prophets.  He was saying this to everybody.  And he didn’t mean just any kind of hardships.  Everybody has hardships.  Atheists have hardships.  Muslims have hardships.  People that never go to church have hardships.  Those are not the hardships that will win you heaven.  It is the hardships that you endure because you tried to be a disciple of Jesus Christ that will win you the kingdom of Heaven.  If you are not giving up SOMETHING because you are a Christian—if your life isn’t somehow different than your neighbor who is NOT a Christian because you serve Jesus Christ, then I would like to suggest that something is not quite right.

I would like to mention one final condition of being a disciple.  Jesus also says “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  I think that most of us are fairly well aware of those first few conditions.  But this one is kindof a secret spiritual killer.  Serving the Lord is work.  This is what Jesus means by putting your hand to the plow.  And the Greek verb that is used for “looking back” implies continues action, so a better paraphrase might be “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and keeps on looking back is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

After we decide to serve Him, Jesus wants us to finish what we started.  He wants us to trust him.  We need to be like explorers who take a journey forward into an unknown ocean, out into the deep, trusting that wind and weather and grace will bring them to a land that where we’ve never been before.  If they turn back, at best they will be ridiculed by all the people who wished them a heroic journey; at worst, they will not even be able to make their way back and will die on the wide ocean.  I don’t know if you remember the story of Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis.  An angel warned Lot and his wife that God was going to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and if they looked back, they would be destroyed.  Lot’s wife DID look back, and she turned into a pillar of salt.  Do we do this in our lives?  Do we look back at a life of evil deeds and wish for that again?  Or are we so full of regret when we look back on our lives that we are not really able to move forward?  Jesus wants us plowing.  He wants us looking forward.  He wants that ship to reach the Everlasting island where he lives.  If we are constantly looking back, then we certainly aren’t paying much attention to where we are going or even where we are NOW.  This “looking back” I think can take two primary forms.

One is our regret over a past that we wish we could change for whatever reason.  Perhaps some deeds we committed, things we never did that we wished would would have done, or the curse of having wasted so much time doing things that were meaningless and even destructive.

The other is looking back, in a way, not over things that happened but at things that WILL NEVER BE.  I am convinced that this is a secret spiritual killer.  How much of us spend precious time fantasizing or obsessing over the person we will never become, the kind of children we will never have, the things we will never have, the job that will never materialize?  The crazy thing about this kind of “looking back” is that IT DOESN’T EVEN EXIST.  When we break our hearts over WHAT WILL NEVER BE, we are living in dreams and wishes that aren’t even real.  But they are real to us, aren’t they?

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Our regret, our resentment, our wishing for fantasies that will never come true MUST BE SURRENDERED in order to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Life is hard enough living in the present to be wasting our energy on a past that we cannot change, or a future that will never be.  It’s high time to let go of such things.  They are only hurting us anyway.  The day of our judgment could be at hand.

Love one another as Jesus has loved you.  Take up your own cross daily and follow him.  Make serving him the priority that orders all other priorities.  Stop living in regret for the past, and fantasies that will never be.  Though difficult, the man or woman who succeeds in doing this is actually the most free, most joyful person that we could ever meet.  Surrender.  Let go.  Jesus is waiting ahead of you on that uncharted ocean whispering in the wind, “Behold, I make all things new.”  He can make your life new as well, if you let him.

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HOW TO KEEP A DISCERNMENT JOURNAL!!

Long post, people — in response to the requests to provide notes from my last talk on Ignatian discernment…

 

The Journal Itself

What you are doing in the journal is recording what the strongest affective movements of your heart are.  You are not recording specific faults so much as those memories, events, words and emotions that most moved you in mind, heart, and spirit.  Think about it – how can you discern God’s will in your life unless you know where to start?  How can you make a journey with God if you do not have a path?  Recording the strongest affective movements of your heart provides both a place to start and a path to walk on.  This journal is VERY SIMPLE.  But do not be fooled by its simplicity.  Once you get into the rhythm of praying it every day, it is extremely powerful.  You only record three things (at most):

 

  1. THE GREATEST CONSOLATION OF THE DAY
  2. THE GREATEST DESOLATION OF THE DAY
  3. THE MOST SIGNIFICANT OR MEANINGFUL EVENT OF THE DAY

 

That’s it.  It’s that simple.  Now I will explain exactly what these things mean, and why they are important.  Do not assume that you know exactly what these terms mean.  Even great saints like Theresa of Avila say that the secret spiritual weakness of even those who are very serious about their faith is pride.  Don’t let your pride get the best of you.  Keep reading so that you will have a solid idea of what the Church (and her greatest saints) think is most important for your discernment.

 


Consolation and Desolation

Consolations and desolations are, as mentioned above, the greatest affective movements of your heart in any given day.  Do not confuse consolation with pleasure or happiness and do not confuse desolation with pain or sadness.  There might be a similarity between them, but it isn’t that simple.  Keep reading.  This will become clearer as I offer examples.  First, we will review consolations and desolations and then treat of the most significant event last.    

 

Consolation is anything that makes your heart come alive – anything that makes it feel like it is blossoming.  Here are some key words for identifying a consolation:  UNSELFISH, PURE, HOLY, LOVING, HOPEFUL, FORGIVING, REMORSEFUL over sin.  It is a feeling that brings you into closer RELATIONSHIP with God, making you able to hold your head high with INTEGRITY.  Consolation fills you with an inner JOY and ENCOURAGEMENT despite any suffering that might be present.  Consolation summons us into a greater DEPTH and CREATIVITY.  It is the voice of the new dawn, the smile of the sky, the laughter of water rushing in a silver stream.  It is the voice of peace – the voice that tells you that you are good enough and that everything will be o.k.

 

Here’s the catch – there may be great sadness and pain involved in a consolation.  Think about the way we use the word, “consolation.”  We usually mean that we were sad or in pain, and then someone helped to ease that pain.  I will provide examples shortly, after explaining desolation.

 

 

Desolation is precisely the opposite.  It is SELFISH, POISONED, UNFORGIVING, SELF-RIGHTEOUS, SELF-SERVING and DESPAIRING.  It fills us with ANXIETY and OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS.  It causes us to retreat further into ourselves AWAY FROM RELATIONSHIP.  It fills us with DARKNESS, CONFUSION, and DISCOURAGEMENT.  It is ultimately SHALLOW and SUPERFICIAL, ruining true creativity.  It is the voice of the world.  It is the voice of the wilting flower and of everlasting loneliness.  One of the greatest causes for desolation is sloth – the failure to use your God-given talents and energy to be who you are supposed to be.[1]

 

Desolation makes us want to quit, while consolation inspires us to move forward.

Consolation ultimately leads us to peace, despite sorrow and pain.

 

 

SOME EXAMPLES.  You see a little girl smile at you in the grocery store.  For some reason, this warms your heart.  You rejoice in her innocence, her beauty, and her boldness at just beaming at you.  The world has not yet taught her to hide her feelings.  Check the list of key words.  It was something unselfish, pure, holy, encouraging, etc.  You record it as the greatest consolation of your day.  Yes, it sounds small – even trivial.  It is very important not to psyche yourself out by recording what you think should be the greatest consolation or desolation of the day.  It is what it is.  Brutal honesty is absolutely vital when it comes to this journal.  I will repeat this several times because it is one of the most important points.

 

This can get a little trickier.  For example, say that my greatest consolation is seeing a little girl smile at me at the grocery store.  Fine.  But what if I am not in the state of grace and not seeking God’s will?  The same smile can actually torment me and become a desolation because, for example, she reminds me that I am lonely and cannot have a girl like her as my own daughter.  But if I am doing God’s will, then I am content with who I am and able to smile right back at her, pleased that God can make a child so innocent and beautiful. 

 

I mentioned above that consolation cannot be confused with happiness.  Let me offer an example.  Some years ago, I was presented with the picture of the engagement announcement of an ex-girlfriend.  She was standing with her fiancé’, smiling happily.  I felt a lance of pain in my heart and a small swell of jealousy.  Then I paused and prayed about it for a moment.  In a few minutes, I felt my heart begin to bloom.  The jealousy took flight, and I was able to experience letting her go.  I truly wished happiness to her and her soon-to-be husband.  I recorded this as the greatest consolation of the day.  Check the inventory list.  It was unselfish, hopeful, pure, holy, and fostered a closer relationship between myself and God.  Describing this as a happy feeling doesn’t really do it justice.  As a matter of fact, the consolation came with a great amount of pain.  But it was consoling nonetheless.

 

But say that I was not able to experience the feeling of letting her go.  I remained in my jealousy or perhaps it just reminded me how lonely and discontented I am.  That would be a desolation.   

 

As mentioned above, don’t be afraid to write down things that you consider petty or vicious.  For example, something bad happens to your sister and you are actually quite happy about it – you don’t like your sister very much.  You should record that as a desolation.  Though it made you happy (for a moment), it was selfish, uncreative, and harmful to relationship.

 

Consolation does not mean happy feelings, but could be accompanied by them.

 

Desolation does not mean sad feelings, but could be accompanied by them.

 

Both consolations and desolations can be events, emotions, words someone said, or some other sign from God.  The greatest affective movement of your heart, whatever it is, should be what is recorded.

 

The Most Meaningful or Significant Event.  Explaining the third question of the journal should help clarify what consolation and desolation mean as well.  Say, for example, that a group of family and friends throws you a surprise birthday party.  You are overwhelmed with gratitude over their kindness.  But for some reason, the smile of that little girl that I wrote about above somehow affected you more deeply that day.  You saw God more in her then in the event of the birthday.  Don’t feel guilty that you record the girl’s smile as your consolation rather than the party.  It is what it is.  Don’t argue with the movements of your heart.  Just write them down.  But you do record the birthday party as the most significant event of the day.

 

Or say you went to the doctor and he tells you that your cholesterol is dangerously high.  Of course it upset you, but you are actually more desolate over someone in the office who didn’t respond when you said “hello” to them.  Going to the doctor might be your most significant event, but you should record your co-worker’s silent treatment as your desolation (keep in mind that the visit to the doctor’s office might be your desolation for the day.  I’m just giving you examples of how to navigate these questions).[2]

 

Finally, for those who are just beginning this journal, I often recommend that what they should record as the most meaningful event of the day is either their consolation or desolation.  In other words, which one of them “won out” in your heart that day?  Which one was more powerful?  Keep in mind that the answer to this question is often a choice between either your consolation or desolation.  Don’t feel bad about this.  You’re not doing anything wrong if this is the case.

 

Hopefully you understand the nature of how to answer these questions.  I will now offer some more practical advice of how to go about this new activity in your spiritual life.

 


Some Practical Warnings and Suggestions

There are some things to remember about the discernment journal.  I have outlined the most important ones as follows: 

 

  1. WRITE A SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY.  Everything mentioned in this paper can be enhanced by the practice of first writing a spiritual autobiography.  This has been done by saints such as St. Augustine, Sister Faustina, Theresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Ignatius of Loyola.  And no, you don’t have to write a book.  Take an uninterrupted block of several hours where you record the major events of your life – the consolations & desolations, the triumphs & tragedies, and those events or conversations that meant the most in your spiritual life.  This isn’t an exercise in recording your achievements or whining.  It’s an exercise of how you have become who you are today, and especially what role God and other people have played in that struggle.  Shoot for about ten pages.  What this does is put your life in some perspective, thus enabling you to more accurately identify your consolations and desolations, and how they relate to your past.  If you don’t remember your past, then how will your future make any sense?

 

  1. DON’T REVIEW YOUR JOURNAL EVERY DAY.  When you are dieting, it is usually counter-productive to weight yourself every day.  Similarly, do not look at your discernment journal every day attempting to find the master-patterns that define your soul.  This is especially true for those who tend towards obsessive or compulsive behaviors.  On the other hand, do not fail to look for those patterns.  This is especially true for those who are so easy-going (or lazy) that they often neglect to do what is good for themselves.  It is also counter-productive to engage in a fitness program without some way to track your progress.  The discernment journal does exactly that.

 

  1. DO REVIEW YOUR JOURNAL EVERY SUNDAY AND ON RETREATS.  I would suggest that Sunday is a wonderful day to sit and pray with the journal entries for the week with a view toward asking God what story the journal has to tell; indeed, what story God is trying to tell.  An annual or quarterly retreat is the perfect time to sit and pray with your journal, attempting to find those patterns that God is trying to reveal to you.  Ask yourself questions like, “Are there any patterns to my desolations or consolations?  Do they all have to do with similar events, feelings or persons?  Was there a point where my journal took a definite turn, i.e. changed in a significant way?  Why?  Are there certain passages that upset or comfort me more than others?  Why?  If I could pick what the greatest consolation or desolation of the week or month was, what would it be?

 

  1. SHARE YOUR JOURNAL WITH A “SPIRITUAL FRIEND” OR DIRECTOR.  There is a saying among priests and seminarians – “He who consults only himself has a fool for a director.”  St. Dorotheos, a 6th century monk, wrote, “There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself.  That is why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel.”[3]  There is also a saying that is very common in addiction recovery – “More light comes through two windows than one.”  The point should be self-evident.  Choose someone who is notable for their discretion, insight and honesty.  They should be encouraging.  But you should also give them permission to kick your spiritual butt when you need it.  No, this isn’t pleasant.  But do you want real insights or just superficial ones?  Even if your director or friend is wrong, it will give you the opportunity to wrestle with their insights.  Moreover, our faith tells us that if you asking them spiritual questions in good faith, then God should give them an inspiration to tell you what you need to hear.

 


What Can Completely Screw This Up

  1. DISHONESTY = If you are not brutally honest with your answers to these simple questions, you will not experience the fruits of your efforts.  Period.  I cannot stress this enough.  The discernment journal is not the place to justify or explain yourselfDon’t do the following:

 

    1. MINIMIZING
    2. EXAGGERATING
    3. RATIONALIZING
    4. TRIVALIZING

 

Don’t be embarrassed to record the same desolation or consolation for a whole week or two.  Say that you are angry with an unkind word that someone said at work.  You just can’t get it out of your mind for a whole week.  Be honest and record that as your greatest desolation for the whole week.  It is o.k. to write two desolations or consolations if you want, but I would limit it to that.  In short, don’t write down what you think you should, but only God’s truth.  Honesty dispels our fantasies and excuses – two of the greatest blocks to spiritual advancement.

 

  1. COMPLEXITY = Don’t include your other reflections in the discernment journal.  Its simplicity is its strength.  Use an entirely different journal for deeper reflections.  Keep them shortened to a few sentences on a single page – even one sentence per question is quite acceptable.  Don’t doodle in it, don’t write class notes in it, and don’t write prayers or poems in it.  That only confuses the pure and simple, powerful words that God was trying to speak to you on that day.

 

  1. SINFULNESS = If you are not in the state of grace, your ability to be honest will be crippled, your inspirations will be confused, and you may make mistakes about discerning which events God considers important.  All of us sin, but if we have sinned grievously or have been away from prayer and the sacraments for a long time, the fruits of the journal will be sickly ones.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the darkening of the intellect.  Sounds bad, right?  That’s because it is.  St. Ignatius makes it clear that if we are not truly seeking God’s will then we will confuse our consolations with our desolations.  Remember the example about the little girl?  Seeing her smile can be the occasion for a consolation or a desolation, depending upon the state of your soul.  Make no mistake about it:  If you are not truly seeking God’s will and attempting to live a life of virtue, this journal will not work.

 

  1. STUBBORNESS = If God has been asking you to do something for quite some time and you are failing to do it, you may begin to experience a certain kind of desolation that makes it difficult for you to accurately record where God is revealing his presence in your life.  He has already told you where he is present – it’s in that nagging whisper (or shout) that he’s been hounding you with for a long time.  God may have been trying to direct your steps for awhile and bring you to a new spiritual level, but you are not accepting the direction.  Your journal might not work very well unless you simply surrender and obey.

 

  1. INCONSISTENCY = With nearly everything we do, human activities are clumsy until they achieve a certain naturalness and rhythm.  Going to a health club sporadically bears little fruit.  The stops and starts of exercise confuse body.  It doesn’t have a chance to adjust itself to your new regimen by producing more vitamins and muscle cells.  Similarly, if you are inconsistent with the journal, your inspirations will also be confused.  So don’t do that.

 

 


Why You Should Write This Journal

For the most part, we simply will not take part in an activity without good reasons to do so.  Therefore, I will offer some thoughts on why working in this journal can be so fruitful for your spiritual life.

 

In the Gospel of John, the Beloved Disciple, there is a passage that has often haunted me:  “During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover many believed in is name when they saw the signs that he gave, but Jesus knew them all and did not trust himself to them; he never needed any evidence about any man; he could tell what a man had in him.”[4]  The journal is about recording those signs that Jesus is giving us, and what has most moved our hearts.  I think that the reason why Jesus “did not trust himself to them” is because we believe in the signs without actually giving our hearts to the One who is giving the signs.  The journal is a way that we can open our hearts to the One Who Gave His Life for Us.  If we give ourselves completely to God, then He will give Himself completely to us.  What better reason is there to engage in this struggle?

 

It is certainly good to have a record of what are the best, worst and most meaningful events of your spiritual life.  That is one way to look at the journal – but it is not the best way.  Consider this:  perhaps the journal is not so much about you telling God what these significant events are as much as he is telling you where he was present in your day?  God is our Eternal Lover.  As our Lover, he wants to be present with us in the most meaningful and intimate way possible.  The journal is not our monologue to God about what matters most to us, it is God’s dialogue with us concerning what matters most in our relationship with Him.

 

We have all read the little parable about the “Footprints in the Sand.”  The story can be a bit trite and overused, but the point is a good one.  What I am suggesting is similar to that parable.  The footprints in the journal are not so much our footprints of where we’ve been, but the footprints of Jesus Christ in our lives indicating where he is taking us.  All of us want to know that God is living and active in our daily lives.  Keeping the journal helps us to see the very path of God traced on our hearts.

 

Moreover, this journal gives you a directed opportunity to have a very important conversation with Jesus Christ.  Many of us sit in silence, desperately desiring to talk to the Lord but at a loss regarding what to say.  The three questions asked by the journal give you a starting point to talk to God.  “Lord, what was my greatest consolation of the day?  Why is it this one rather than that other one?”  Not a bad place to begin.

 

Last but not least, when you have kept this journal for several months or years, you have literally created a map of your soul – the peaks and valleys, the rivers you crossed, the wars you’ve fought and the gardens you played in.  There is no better tool to review on a retreat or day of recollection.  There are few tools better to assist you on the road to self-knowledge.  St. Theresa of Avila greatly stressed the need for self-knowledge.  The lack of self-knowledge is one of the greatest spiritual problems that I have experienced on a daily basis as a spiritual director and priest.  Jesus said, “Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”[5]  But here’s the question:  How can you lose your life for Christ’s sake if you don’t even know who you are?  You can’t give yourself away as a gift unless you know what you are giving. 

 

But don’t let me tell you why this is a good idea.  By all means, talk to the Lord, and come up with your own reasons.  Those are always better.  That concludes my advice on the discernment journal.  The remaining reflections will concern other discernment suggestions, as well as some other creative and helpful ways to pray.

 


What God’s Voice Sounds Like

 

It is often difficult to discern the different “voices” in your heart.  Here are some suggestions about discerning which voice is from God.  St. Paul wrote, “Discern the spirits to see if they are from God.”  Here are the different spirits that can suggest themselves to you:

 

  1. God’s spirit
  2. Your own spirit (along with the various different “voices” in your spirit)
  3. A demonic spirit
  4. The spirit of the world

 

Please don’t be fooled.  Even great saints have been misled (for a time) by the voices of evil spirits or the desires of their own hearts drowning out the whispers of God.  Take discernment seriously, and always ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 

  1. GOD’S VOICE IS CONSOLING AND ACTIVE.  Everything I said above about consolation should be consulted when you are trying to discern God’s voice.  God’s voice is consoling while other voices often lead to desolation.  Remember that God inspires us to keep going (hope).  He encourages creativity, unselfish sacrifice (love) and relationship (faith).  Those actions and thoughts that lead to this are likely from God.

 

  1. IS THE VOICE CONSISTENT?  Think about this:  Satan is completely evil.  Therefore he has no virtue.  Patience is a virtue.  Therefore Satan has no patience.  So what does this mean?  It means that if Satan is whispering for you to feel something, do something or think about something, he can’t do it for too long.  His voice will be burned away in the radiance of God’s Word.  So NEVER, NEVER act impulsively when discerning God’s Word.  It might be a momentary geyser of demonic suggestion.  Wait it out.[6]

 

  1. IS THE VOICE SIMPLE?  God doesn’t need many words to speak.  Often, he speaks wordlessly through images or feelings.  God does not require offering us a series of complicated directives to get his point across.  Many saints have built their entire lives on a single phrase that they have heard from God.  Think of Saint Francis – Jesus asked him, “Build my church.”  He spent his whole life building his spiritual life on that phrase.  If you are hearing a spiral of obsessive thoughts and complexities, chances are it isn’t God.  Listen for the voice that is simple, direct and powerful.  Don’t be fooled by thinking something like, “That’s too simple.  That can’t be the answer.  It still leaves me with many questions.”  Guess what?  That’s probably God’s voice. 

 

  1. DOES IT INSPIRE CONVERSION?  Consider what you are trying to do – the fork in the road on your pilgrimage to God at this point in your life.  Which path do you think honestly brings you closer to God?  Which inspires you to convert your life closer to him?  Which one invites you into a greater gift of yourself to God and others?  At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclined against the Lord’s chest and asked him who his betrayer would be.  Which road makes you feel more like John, and which one more like the Lord’s betrayer?

 

  1. LOOK FOR CONFIRMATIONS.  Our God is not a God who speaks in the dark.  When he gives us a word, he tries to make sure that we’ve heard it.  If it is true that he speaks to us that we might know his will, it follows that he will speak again in order to confirm His will.  In the Old Testament, prophet after prophet was sent to Israel to turn her back to the Lord.  God will do the same for us.  Think of confirmations as little prophets sent to you by God.  For example, many people asked me to write this discernment guide.  When I was discerning whether or not to follow through with it (because it takes time and energy from my other duties), the same day a priest-friend of mine asked me some advice on how to teach his parishioners about discernment!  He knew nothing about what I was considering.  I took that as a confirmation from God to follow this inspiration.  Confirmations may be hard, especially if we’re being told to do something we don’t want to do, but they should ultimately bring peace rather than anxiety.  But here is a warning – God tends to send kindly prophets at first to inform us of our marching orders, but then sometimes can get progressively more “insistent” and even painful.  Listen to the kindly prophets while you have the time.  Obey your confirmations.

 

  1. JUST MOVE.  As the athletic company, Nike, says:  “Just do it.”  I call this “the lost rule of discernment.”  Think about it this way:  is it easier for God to move a stone that is already rolling or one that is at a stand-still?  This is simple physics.  There is such a thing as spiritual physics as well.  If a stone is already rolling, then all he has to do is give it a good shove to get it to roll where he wants.  SO MOVE.  Remember that Holy Scripture records that even Jesus at the beginning of his ministry appeared not to be quite ready to begin it.  At the wedding at Cana, it required a bit of coaxing by his mother to make him reveal his power.
    1.  No one is called to a life of discernment.  We are called into discernment precisely because God’s wants it to end with action, thereby ceasing the discernment.  As a very wise nun once told me, “Discernment is not a vocation.”  So get off your butt and move.
    2. God honors actions done in good faith.  Say a good father wants his child to do certain things.  The child misinterprets what the father wants and performs the wrong activities.  But the father sees that the child is really trying to do what the father wants.  Does he get angry?  No.  He corrects the child lovingly, and redirects his steps.  God will do the same for us.

 

  1.  DO WHAT ONLY YOU CAN DO.  When you are discerning God’s will, it is certainly legitimate to follow your desires.  God works through our desires to work out His desires for us.  But another “lost rule of discernment” is agere quod agis – “Do what you can do.”  But I would add a word – do what only you can do.  What I mean is that when you are discerning whether or not to engage in a particular activity, do that activity that it seems no one else around you can do as well as you can.  For example, I think I am a pretty good teacher.  Say I am at a retreat.  There are many things that need to be taught.  I would like to fill this need, but there is a problem – I’m the only priest there and the only one who can hear confessions.  There are other educated people around who can teach.  Guess what God is probably asking me to do?  Many people have many different talents.  Try to fit yourself into the life of the church by discerning the “gaps” around you that no one else seems to be able to fill . . . but you.  Even if you don’t want to do it at first, there is often a great blessing there when you rise to the occasion. 


[1] There are some fathers of the church who do not think that pride is the greatest sin, but sloth.  The greatest evil is often committed because we simply fail to act.

[2] But say that you have had a nagging desire to diet for six months but have failed to do so, and the doctor tells you that now you HAVE to go on a diet now.  You actually feel relieved about this incentive and it makes you want to fast and pray about this new condition in your life.  The doctor’s visit could be a consolation!

[3] I realize that there is a tragic lack of qualified spiritual directors.  What I am attempting to provide is a reliable way to allow God to direct your steps for as long as you lack a good source of advice.  Nothing can replace a reliable and holy spiritual director.

[4] John 2:23-25.

[5] Matthew 10:39.

[6] Keep in mind that we certainly have very consistent bad habits.  But these bad habits are not from Satan, they are from our own spirit.  He might have originally helped us get them started, but once a harmful habit is engrained in the soul, you’ve made it easy for Satan and his cronies.  They don’t have to suggest wicked things to you anymore.  You’re doing them pretty well on your own! 

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Time to Start Praying…

Today, if you were not aware, is World Vocation Day.  This is a day dedicated primarily to prayer for vocations to the priest and religious life.  It was actually originally instituted by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s and corresponded to the 4th Sunday of Easter, which is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” 

Pope Benedict XVI once instructed the American bishops about the discernment of a call to the priesthood in this way:  “The discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

This is a big “assumption.”—Young people, IF THEY KNOW HOW TO PRAY, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.  But one massive question is whether or not the adults who are teaching them know how to pray. For over two decades Our Lady of Medjugorje has been begging the world almost every single day to return to prayer and fasting for themselves and for the world.  That is why I have focused my last several conferences particularly on methods of prayer.  I am trying to teach you how to fish instead of giving you a fish.  I am convinced that lack of prayer is at the foundation of many of the world’s problems, and at the root of this lack of prayer is a lack of faith and a restless desire to distract ourselves with the passing things of this world. 

It is in prayer that we form an intimate contact with a power far greater than ourselves, with the living God himself.  It is what our heart yearns for.  And yet time and time again, we fail to make time and space for this massive priority in our lives. 

It’s really quite simple when we think about it.  Either God is real or he is not.  Either he is who he says he is or he is not.  If he isn’t, then walk out that church door and never come back.  If he is, then make prayer, sacraments, and works of love and kindness your ABSOLUTE PRIORITY. 

Doesn’t scripture say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you besides.”  And yet how will we learn this if there are not men and women who testify to it with their lives?  Why do you think the world ridicules men and women who profess celibacy and spend hours of day in prayer?  The world hates us.  And that is because we stand to represent that this world is dust and it will finally surrender to another world far greater, more glorious and more beautiful.  We are a constant reminder of that to a world gone mad.  Don’t you think that the world would prefer that we were destroyed so that it are not reminded how empty and lost it really is? 

Are you someone who might be hearing such a call to be such an example?  “My sheep hear my voice—they know me, and they follow me.”  Do you know someone who might have this call?  Because it most certainly can be drowned out by distractions, by noise, by sin and by people who fail to encourage this call when they see it—especially parents.  You parents, make no mistake—the failure to make sure that your child knows something about prayer, or the failure to nurture a call to the priesthood and religious life when you see some evidence of it, is called SCANDAL:  it is one of the greatest sins possible, and unless you repent of it, hell will be your eternal destination.  And I mean that most sincerely. 

Today Pope Francis ordained 10 men to the priesthood.  They are ordained to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.  Why?  Because Christ himself established twelve apostles with Peter as their chief shepherd so that God would be with his people through the visible sacrament of the church for all time until he comes again.  Why?  To be a visible sign of God’s love for his people.  To seek out and save what was lost.  To reconcile the whole world to God and destroy sin and death forever.  This is not only the call of a priest, this is your calling as well—the call of all the baptized.  How well are we doing at it?

If you are not sure or if you know that you are not doing well – WHEN I AM NOT DOING WELL, I KNOW THAT IT IS BECAUSE I AM NOT PRAYING.   THIS IS BEYOND MY POWER….

What is my message?  I suppose it’s quite simple—pray.  But what is prayer?  It is talking to God.  But it doesn’t mean just saying, “hey God, help me or so and so,” from time to time or simply saying the our father or hail mary every night.  That is fine, but true prayer takes TIME.  It is the building of a relationship between us and God.  It is asking him what his will is in our life and then begging for the strength to carry it out.  It is breaking out scripture and meditating on it.  It is engaging in the struggle to rout out those things in our life that are ugly to him so that those empty spots can be filled with the Spirit of God.  THAT’S true prayer.  We are like men and women on a first date when we pray sometimes, I think, especially when we do not pray very often.  We find that we are awkward and that we do not know this person whom we are trying to talk to, and because it is awkward, we do not continue dating.  But the good stuff is ahead!  Falling in love is AHEAD of you!   But in this case, we are talking about falling in love with the living God….

Today is world vocation today.  I just want all of us to remember these two things.  It is everyone’s vocation to PRAY, and everyone’s vocation to ultimately go to HEAVEN and to take as many people with us as we possibly can. 

The passage that we hear in the second reading is a part of St. John’s vision of heaven.  I would like to repeat it:

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;

they have washed their robes

and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne

and worship him day and night in his temple.

The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.

They will not hunger or thirst anymore,

nor will the sun or any heat strike them.

For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne

will shepherd them

and lead them to springs of life-giving water,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

You know, there are many devotions in the Catholic church—divine mercy, the sacred heart, the immaculate heart, the miraculous medal, thousands of saints….

But here is a devotion that we may have forgotten.  THE DEVOTION TO HEAVEN.  What would it do to our lives if we could wake up every morning saying to ourselves, “I need to get to heaven today.  With that in mind, Lord, what must I do?”  This is the long view that can help many of our petty struggles and even our heavy crosses not seem so heavy after all.  This is the vision that can make prayer not only necessary, but even sweet and consoling.  So today let us dedicate ourselves again to getting to heaven, and commit ourselves to pray for the men and women who dedicate their lives to helping us find our way back HOME. 

 

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Why Good Friday? Offer it Up….

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St. Padre Pio once said something that I find beautiful to the point of tears:  “The angels are jealous of us for one reason only; they are not able to suffer for God. Only through suffering can a soul say with certainty; ‘My God, You see I do love you!’”

The first reading prophesies about Jesus that “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”  He is called “a man of suffering, accustomed to sickness.”  It continues that “we thought of him as afflicted by God and smitten.”  Jesus Christ never married.  Never had children.  That made him strange within his culture already.  He was doomed to be misunderstood and even abandoned by his friends, not to mentioned rejected, falsely accused, mocked and crucified by the very people to whom he was sent—the people that he loved the most.  The prologue to the Gospel of John eloquently brings out this tragic point:  “He came to his own, and his own did not accept him.”

 

I could go on and on, but there is no need.  Let me ask you a simple question:  Does this sound to you like a man who is blessed by God?  Does the picture I just painted sound like the favorite and only son of the Most High God, who is a tender Father?  Mocked, lonely, accustomed to infirmity, afflicted, ridiculed, and finally killed?

And yet Jesus IS the one who is most blessed and most loved.  But he appears to us today as one who is cursed and abandoned by God.  I have to admit that this bothers me a little.  Because at least on the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.  It doesn’t compute.  And yet this is our faith.  This is what happened.  We open our Sacred Scriptures and find that this is, in fact, the case.  We can either accept it or reject it.  But is there some knowledge, some inspiration, that might make it easier to accept?

Do we not accuse God sometimes of not giving us more gifts or “blessing” us more when we truly try to pray and sacrifice for him?  Maybe YOU don’t.  Let’s talk about me.  I do. 

Let’s actually consult Jesus himself concerning what it means to be blessed or happy.  What does he say about it?  Remember the beatitudes?  Blessed are the sorrowful, for they shall one day be comforted.  Blessed are the pure, for they shall see God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….  Jesus gives us a list of things that are incredibly difficult to do:  to be pure, just, persecuted, sorrowful…and calls them HAPPY.  BLESSED.  It seems that Jesus was giving us a “heads up” on what it means to be blessed.  When Jesus first announced to his disciples that he was going to be falsely accused and crucified, Peter pulled him aside and told him that he wasn’t thinking right.  “You are the master, the teacher, the Son of God.  You are the Blessed One.  Of course this will not happen to you.”  And Jesus rebuked him and called him, “Satan.”  And then said, “You are thinking as man thinks, not as God thinks.”  (Matt 16:23)  Who has the right to tell us what it means to be happy and blessed?  Who is the one who created the heavens and earth with a word?  I think we had better bow our necks to God and take his definitions to heart rather than make up our own.  Maybe our definition of someone who is blessed by God needs a bit of a makeover.  Jesus doesn’t look very blessed, does he?  Stop for a moment and think.  Ever felt a fairly great amount of suffering in your own heart, or observed it in another, and made the judgment that God was not blessing or that he did not care 

Look at Jesus on Good Friday and then reconsider if this is true.  The most loved son of the universe is exactly the one who is the most punished and afflicted.  Today is worth us rethinking what happiness means, what blessing means, and what suffering means.

The difference between God’s definition of someone who is blessed and man’s hinges primarily on two things:

1)   God is thinking of the long view.  He is thinking about being happy eternally with him in heaven.  We think of the world and the now, even though in comparison with heaven it is like a drop in a bucket.  The Devil offers us the following deal:  I will give you what you want now and it may make you happy for a few days, weeks or even years, but ultimately it will poison you and drag you down to my kingdom forever.  God offers THIS deal:  I ask you to give me your suffering and your service now, I will console you in your sacrifice, and then I will give you eternal happiness for all eternity after you have suffered a little while

2)   This leads us to the second major difference of how God defines happiness and how human beings do.  God views happiness as helping others.  We often view it as helping ourselves.

God takes the long view—the view that sees heaven, and the true view of love—that view that looks to the good of the other, not myself.  This is a hard view to take.  It is hard because we have to see God’s view with the eyes of the Spirit.  Our flesh nails us to this world and its pleasures.  Our flesh, our instinct, our dreams our desires demand that I get MINE and I get it NOW.  The flesh is powerful—sometimes attacking us with desires that seem like they are more than we can bear.  That’s because they ARE more than we can bear.  That is why we need a God like Jesus to help us bear them.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,

our sufferings that he endured,

while we thought of him as stricken,

as one smitten by God and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our offenses,

crushed for our sins;

upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,

by his stripes we were healed.

We had all gone astray like sheep,

each following his own way;

but the LORD laid upon him

the guilt of us all.

I have two grandmothers.  One of them was French, and the other one was Sicilian.  It was my Sicilian grandmother who almost ruined for me that precious Catholic phrase, “Offer it up.”  Sometimes this attitude can be abused, particularly when we are being sarcastic and basically telling somebody when we say this that life is pain and they should really shuttup about it.  There is a TREMENDOUS difference between the phrase “offer it up” and “Suck it up.”  (AND I WISH MY FATHER WERE HERE BECAUSE I WOULD LIKE HIM TO LEARN THIS PARTICULAR LESSION). 

But offering it up is what Jesus did.  God actually gave him the BLESSING of being able to take the penalty of someone else’s sins and place it on his back—and then he crushed that penalty with his suffering.  Is there anyone in this church who DOESN’T love someone so much—a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend or family member—that we would not make the prayer to God, “God, please do not hurt them.  Let the penalty fall on ME.  Let me stand between them and hell.  Let ME take your wrath.  Please God, even kill me—just don’t harm them.”  Hopefully everyone in church can say they love someone that much.  If we, in our sins, can love that much, does it not make sense that this is exactly what Jesus told God the Father about the whole human race?  And that BECAUSE Jesus did this, God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every other name?  And so that what looked awful, cursed, crushed and afflicted is actually the happiest most blessed event that has ever taken place?

And because we are baptized in Christ’s body and because we receive his body in the Eucharist, WE ARE GIVEN THE SAME POWER THAT HE WAS GIVEN TO BEAR THE PENALTY OF SOMEONE ELSE’S SINS FOR THOSE WE LOVE, AND EVEN THOSE WE HATE. 

Some theologians have called this great power, this great privilege of Christians to bear the sufferings of others for the sake of love by the name of REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING.  It is this suffering—this thing that looks like a curse but is really a blessing—that Saint Paul refers to when he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  (Col 1:24)  This is the real meaning of “offering it up.”  And it is this knowledge that should actually change the way that we look at the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the view of our own suffering as well. 

Could it be possible that our sufferings are not really so bad when we look at it this way?  Could it be possible that my wounds might actually heal another, and that if we wipe away the blood and the bruises we might actually find Heaven underneath?  Have you ever been on a long hike up a mountain that was extremely difficult and been elated by the time you reached the summit?  The reason why we are so elated is because it cost us so much effort to get there.  Had there been no effort, our hearts are no so much impressed by the destination when it is finally reached.  That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Coach Vince Lombardi when he says, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

There is doubt that much of our suffering we create for ourselves.  We sin and then we receive the penalty of our sinfulness in our bodies.  But there is also a great deal of heartbreak that cannot be helped.  There is a difference between the crosses that we build in our own private, selfish workshop and those that the Lord chooses for us.  He helps carry the ones he gives us, and allow us to break under the ones we decide to carry on our own. 

BUT ALL OF IT CAN BE OFFERED.

No tear need be wasted.  No wound need be dealt that you can’t mark your own blood on the forehead of someone you love so that the Destroyer might pass over them.  You need suffer not a single heartbreak that you can’t ask Jesus, “Take my broken heart, please, and be pleased to use the pieces to put someone else’s back together.”  That is a prayer that because of what happened on Good Friday, NEVER goes unheard or unanswered.

May God give us the strength to make that prayer.  For those who make that prayer, everlasting glory awaits.  And that is very, very good news indeed. 

 

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A Penance Service Homily — Welcome, Traitors!

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Based on the following gospel:

READING:  John 13: 1, 21-30; 36-38—John 14:1-4

Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”  The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.  One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.”  So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”  Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.”  So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”  Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.  Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast“; or, that he should give something to the poor.  So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.  Then he said, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going you cannot come.’” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”  Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you nowI will lay down my life for you.”  Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.  Then Jesus continued, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way where I am going.”

 

None of us like to think of ourselves as a betrayer.  But in a way, aren’t we all?

We have Judas, of course.  Likely one of the greatest villians of literature and art for the past 2,000 years.  The one who sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver, and who actually pointed out Jesus to the sword-and-club wielding authorities with a kiss.  Imagine that.  A kiss.  He didn’t even have the guts to simply shout out, “There he is!  That’s Jesus!”  He was two-faced to the very end.

But that is not the only betrayer that we have in the gospel passage today.  Jesus told Peter, “Amen I say to you, the cock will not crow three times before you deny me three times.”  You could stretch it and translate this as “The cock will not crow before you BETRAY me three times.”  He may have not led to the betrayal that broke Jesus’s body, but he sure as anything broke Jesus’s heart. 

And then there were the disciples that fell asleep twice during his agony, knowing that Jesus was distraught and in prayer.  Betrayal. 

And what about the crowds of palm Sunday?  The same group who shouted “Hosanna to the son of David!” was the same crowd that screamed “Crucify Him” less than one week later.  Betrayal.

What does it really mean to betray?  In the Gospel of john, the Greek verb that is used is paradidomai.  It can mean to arrest, to betray, and perhaps more literally, to hand over.   But that is what we do when we betray a friend.  We hand over the friend and trade that friend for something else—whatever that might be.  We hand him or her over for another relationship, a selfish pleasure, an addiction, pride, laziness—choose your poison.  A betrayal is a betrayal.  We sell out a friend for something else, and if a friendship is a true friendship, it deserves to be priceless—never to be sold out, never to be betrayed, never to be handed over. 

But that is what we do to Jesus every time we sin.  We sell him out.  We hand him over so that we can hold onto something else.  The key question for a penance service is, “WHAT DO I HAND JESUS OVER FOR?”  What is that thing?  That idea?  That person?  That behavior?  That resentment?  That fear?  That drug?  What do I sell out the most priceless relationship in the universe for?  This is a very good question.  For confession, it is THE question.

But the good news is that Jesus knows that it is in our nature to betray.  He knew Judas would betray him, and predicted it.  He knew that Peter would betray him, and predicted it.  Do you know that the only essential difference between Judas, the betrayer, and Peter, the first pope of the church, is that in the end Peter came back to Jesus and reconciled with him and Judas sat in his distrust, shame and despair and ultimately killed himself? 

Do you realize that Jesus hung between two thieves—two betrayers—and the only difference is that one mocked Jesus and demanded to be saved and one of them accepted his cross and begged for mercy?  The bad thief did not deny that Jesus was the Savior.  He was just full of rage about his circumstances, and trying to wriggle out of them no matter what.  So you say that you have faith in God and believe that he is the Savior?  My response is, “SO WHAT?”  Satan believes in Jesus and knows full well who He is, and it isn’t helping him very much.  But Satan wants the plan HIS WAY.  He wants the world to be his, without the cross, without the effort, without repentance, without bending the knee.  And this is the attitude that leads to hell.

So what’s the difference?  How can I be saved?  How can I not betray?  Well, I have already indicated part of the answer.  Like Peter, we continually return to the Lord despite our betrayals.  Because we WILL fall. But there is a difference between falling ON the road and wandering OFF the road altogether.  Like the good thief, we accept the crosses of our state in life and whisper no matter how much it hurts, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” 

Even St. John, the beloved disciple, the only apostle who stayed with Jesus at the foot of the cross, fell asleep when Jesus needed him in the agony in the garden.  But here is the difference—HE WAS AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS.  He didn’t understand, he was full of grief, he felt lost, but he knew that Jesus was the Savior and that he promised a kingdom.  And so he held onto that—no matter what, he held onto that and refused to let that go.  He would not betray THAT precious gift.  He would not betray it.

Do you know what I find comforting?

Despite the fact that Jesus KNEW that all his apostles would betray him in different ways, he still tells them at the end of this gospel, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.  I am going to heaven to prepare a place for you anyway.”  Wow.  Some of the most comforting words ever spoken by Jesus—and spoken right in the middle of his best friends betraying him.  What comforting words for us, my fellow traitors.  Because if you weren’t a traitor, you wouldn’t be here this evening.  If that bothers your pride—good.  Maybe your pride needs to be bothered. 

This is a house for traitors, tax collectors, and sinners.  The sick and the lost.  A hospital.  A rehabilitation center.  The healthy do not need a doctor.  The sick do.  And thank God for that.  And that is exactly why we are here.  To thank God for that. 

For though we hand him over time and again, he will take us back.  And even if we fall asleep, he goes to prepare a place for us so that we can be where he is. 

Never tire of picking up your cross and following him.

Never tire of returning to him after every fall.

Because if you do, my friends, a kingdom awaits us where the heart is mended, and there are no tears.

So let’s all help each other there.

 

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What Does it Mean to Be Reconciled to God?

In the second reading from 2 Corinthians 5, there is one word that rises easily as its theme and key concept:  and that word is reconciliation – 5 times as a matter of fact.

 

  1. We are told that God has reconciled us to himself in Christ
  2. That God has given the apostles the ministry of reconciliation
  3. That God reconciled the world to himself in Christ
  4. Again, repeating that the ministry of reconciliation is entrusted to apostles
  5. Finally, Paul begs through Jesus Christ that we be reconciled to God.

 

Just exactly what is going on here?  What are we to make of this?  Why is this word, reconciliation so important?  What might this mean for our spiritual lives?  I think that pursuing the meaning of this word reconciliation might be a meditation worth pursuing.

 

Since the inspired text of this book is Greek, we should make certain of the Greek word that we are talking about here.  The Greek word at issue here is katalasso, which means to change, exchange or reconcile.   Kata means to draw to an exact point and alasso means “to change,” so if you put those two words together it means to take at least two separate things and bring them to the same exact point together.  We have an expression for what this roughly might mean:  “to put things on the same page.”  In ancient Greece katalasso was originally used for the exchange of coins from one kind to another.  So when applied to people, katalasso came to mean the following:  when two persons are reconciled (katalasso) they exchange enmity for friendship.  What was once apart has been brought together to the same part and harmonized. 

 

With this in mind, let us remind ourselves again what St. Paul repeats not twice, but five times:  essentially, that the whole ministry of the apostles is to reconcile (katalasso) God and man, and that the entire point of Jesus Christ’s ministry is to reconcile us and the world to God. 

 

But here is the problem:  If it is true that the whole mission of Christ is to bring together the world and God, and the whole mission of the church is to bring together the world and God, then the following is also true:  if you think that you and God are just fine with each other and you are already together, then you don’t have much of a need for Jesus or for the church, do you?

 

Let me put it a little more simply:  if you think that you and God are already reconciled, then you won’t think that you need Jesus or the church to do it for you, right?  I am reminded of a married couple that I knew not long ago.  They had been married a number of years.  They only rarely declared open warfare against one another.  They mostly lived separate lives in the same house.  They rarely held hands, or talked about deep issues, or those other thousand things that close couples often do together.  Once I suggested that they go see a counselor to RECONCILE them, and they were offended.  Why were they offended?  HOW DARE I SUGGEST THAT THEY WERE A TROUBLED COUPLE?  They seemed to think that they were doing just fine for the simple reason that they weren’t openly attacking one another.  This couple was gravely mistaken.  They were really not on the same page.  They were really NOT reconciled.  But they didn’t even know it.  But it wasn’t entirely their fault.  Why?  Because They didn’t know how close they could be.  They had forgotten what friendship and reconciliation even felt like.

 

And I wonder if this is not a parable for our entire world, our entire church.  We might not be openly fighting with God.  We might not be openly evil or wicked.  But are we really FRIENDS?  Have we forgotten what it feels like to really, truly be close to our God?  Could we be like that couple?

 

My suggestion to this couple was essentially that they had drifted so far apart that they were no capable to fix the situation on their own.  They had lost their way.  How can two people who are lost help each other find the way back home?  Maybe they’ll find it by accident, but not likely.  What they need is someone who knows the way to show them. 

 

Jesus does not only show us the way, he IS the way.  The church exists to reveal the way to entire human race.  But the world seems to be full of people who think that they are just find, and that they do not need help with being reconciled back to God.

 

Being reconciled to God is not a one-time thing, it is a constant thing.  Every day I must prostrate myself before the Lord and ask him to cover my sins, speak a good word for me to the Father, please forget my thousands of transgressions.  Every day.  There are a lot of people who seem to think that they have no sin.  Do you love the lord your god with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; do you forgive your enemies?  Do you love your neighbor as yourself, and constantly lay your life down for your friends?  Do you love everyone as Jesus loved them?  Because all of these things are commandments, not suggestions, and I for one fail miserably at them fairly regularly.  And so I need Christ and his church to reconcile me to God.

 

Have you ever read the life of a saint?  One thing that strikes me about many saints is how sinful many of them think they are.  After all, they are saints, but they will often go on and on about how miserable and wicked they are.  I finally figured out the reason for this, and I will explain it in an image. 

 

God is like the sun.  After all, one of the most common images for him is light.  Well, the closer you draw to the light, the more you can see.  I think that these saints are so close to the light that they see every speck of stain and sin on their bodies, and so they think that they are dirty.  And then most of the world, who is far from God, is covered in mud and filth but sitting in the dark—and when you are sitting in the dark, I guess you can look at yourself and say, “I AM CLEAN.”  It can be hard to draw close to God because we begin to see how stained we are.  But he will dress us in white robes if we let him.  He will make us new again.

 

My favorite line in the Parable of the prodigal son is this one:  “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”  WHILE HE WAS STILL A LONG WAY OFF.  How could the father really know that was his son from a long way off unless the Father was basically sitting on the porch WAITING for his son to come home the entire time?  And not only was he waiting, but once the Father saw even a hint of his son he covered miles of distance to run to him and embrace him.  Jesus told us this parable to give us a glimpse of the heart of the Father.  We have a Father desperately waiting for us to be reconciled to him.  Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and the sacraments of the church.  You may not be enemies with God, but are you really friends? 

 

As the parable illustrates, the Father will wait patiently as long as it takes and spring into action to cover the distance that remains between us – but he needs to see us coming home first.

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Suffering and the Will of God, 3rd Sunday Lent Homily

In today’s gospel, Jesus himself makes an incredibly significant statement about the nature of suffering and tragedy.  Hopefully you picked up on it, but I will remind you about it. 

 

At the beginning of the gospel, a group of people come to tell Jesus about a certain group of Galileans “who blood Pilate mixed with some of their sacrifices.”  There seems to be little historical reference to the event that Luke mentions.  But from other historical evidence, this probably refers to a rebellious group of Galileans who refused to pay taxes to Caesar, and so one day when this group went to offer sacrifice in the temple, Pilate had them killed.  So St. Luke says it rather poetically, that “their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices.” 

 

If an event like this happened to us; oh, let’s say something like a tornado, flood, or hurricane – some of us might start thinking that maybe God was angry with us.  Maybe somehow we deserved it, or at least somebody did.  Maybe God planned it that way.  After all, he’s supposed to be in charge of everything, right?  Well yes, but we need to be very careful how we throw those statements around.

 

Jesus says very specifically:  “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

 

Jesus even gives another example.  He refers to a tower that fell on 18 people in Siloam and killed them.  He asks further, do you think that those people were more guilty than everybody else in Jerusalem.  Again, Jesus responds, absolutely not.

 

Here is the Son of God himself telling us that accidents happen.  What happens to you is not necessarily the “will of God.”  God set this world in motion with certain natural laws, and special laws when it comes to free beings like human beings and angels.  If certain beings are free, that means that they are free to mess things up as well.  A mechanic is free to botch up an engine that ends up killing someone.  A politician is free to make bad laws that hurt innocent people so that he can line his pockets.  A parent is free to ignore or abuse his or her own child and wreck his or her entire life.  A person is free to drink too much and run a family of four off the road.  We are free to do these things.  Are these things God’s fault?  Can we say that these things are God’s will?  No, we cannot.  Jesus says exactly this in the gospel today.

 

There are more wills that exist than just God.  God created billions of free wills.  That’s why it’s so important that we try to line our will up with only will that is a perfect will.

 

But what about natural disasters, you might ask?  Nobody can really cause them.  Human mistakes can’t cause them?  So maybe they are God’s will?  Again, we need to remember that Jesus says that accidents happen.  But let me try to make a point about natural disasters.  I want to remind you of something that God said in the very beginning when Adam and Eve messed everything up for the rest of us.

 

“Because you ate of the tree that I told you not to eat, cursed be the ground because of you, and you will toil on it all the days of your life.  It will bear forth thorns and thistles for you…”  (paraphrase)

 

There is an amazing thing going on in this statement.  God is actually telling Adam that because of his sin, it is going to change the very earth.  Before, the earth was perfect.  Now, it’s going to have thorns.  Working it is going to be much harder.  His work is going to make him tired.  Sin has sunk into his very body, making him weaker.  Could it be possible that natural disasters are actually a result of the sins of everybody across the world sinking into the ground and rising to the heavens, messing up the very earth?  It’s worth thinking about.  Y’all, this is far worse than the pollution that environmentalists talk about.  This is real pollution—pollution that can cause tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes and all sorts of other accidents that have no conscience and really don’t care what they damage.  And that is why bad things can happen to good people, and that is not necessarily “God’s will” that many of these bad things happen.  He’s given us a world to take care of and many of us have failed to do so.  And because many of us have dropped the ball, the innocent people that we could have helped suffer. 

 

But let’s get back to the gospel.  Jesus makes a point about suffering that is related directly to what we do and what God’s will is for us:  he says TWICE, “You can be sure that if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.”  In other words, bad things may happen to us and it may or may not be our fault or God’s fault, but we can be absolutely certain that if we do not turn from our evil way back to God, DISASTER WILL OCCUR.  The ultimate disaster, of course, is actually losing our souls.  Jesus is not just making a threat.  He is telling us that we can be CERTAIN that this will happen unless we take repentence seriously.

 

Jesus connects this point directly with the parable about the fig tree.  There is a landowner who goes to the fig tree for three years looking for fruit but finds none, and wants to cut it down.  The gardener begs the landowner to allow him to cultivate it one more year and if the landowner finds no fruit on it, then he can cut it down.  The landowner is the father.  The gardener is Jesus.  How do we know that?  Recall that when Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the garden after the Ressurection, who does she mistake him as?  The gardener.  And Jesus also tells us that he prunes any branches that do not bear fruit.  Who prunes branches.  A gardender.

 

And what fruit must we bear?  Galatians says, “”But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

 

The fruit that we are supposed to do is ultimately anything that we do while connected to the vine, which is Jesus himself.  Christian life can be hard.  It can be full of accidents, suffering, and the difficulty of repentance.  But this is how try to grow our little Eden in a fallen world.  Haven’t you ever tried to garden?  Do you know what happens to a garden when it is left to itself without cultivation?—it turns into a wildnerness or a jungle.  THE NATURAL STATE OF OUR SOULS IS ONE OF CHAOS AND JUNGLE WITHOUT DAILY CULTIVATION OF THE GARDEN OF OUR SOULS.    

 

Who knows what sort of fruit we are supposed to bear?  But how connected to the vine are we?  How are our Lenten observances?  What does our daily prayer life look like?  How do we treat our brothers and sisters?  Do I attend mass at least once a week and go to confession when I need to?  This is to be connected to the vine; and as for the fruit – well, that’s supposed to be a surprise between you and God.  And Aren’t you ready for a surprise?  I know I am…. 

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