Spirituality Matters 2019: July 18th - July 24th
“Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart...”
In her book entitled Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition, Wendy M. Wright writes:
“The Jesus of gentleness and humility is not a sentimental figure. In the Salesian world of hearts these qualities belong to God’s own kingdom. If one looks carefully, one sees that the passage in Matthew 11 that issues its invitation is located in a scriptural discourse on the mystery of the kingdom of God. That mystery of the kingdom of God the Father, the passage continues, is revealed through the Son. ‘Come to Me,’ he declares, ‘and learn from Me for I am gentle and humble of heart.’ God’s-kingdom-realized is thus seen in this gentle, humble heart that confounds and overturns the values of the accepted order. It is not power over others, self-assertion or wealth that characterize God’s reign, but love of God and neighbor exercised through all the intimate, relational virtues like gentleness and humility…Discipleship is the lifelong opening of the heart to be transformed by and inhabited by Jesus’ own gentle heart…” (Pp. 33-34)
The meekness that Jesus embodies is not weakness; it is strength. The humility that Jesus embodies is not thinking less about oneself; it is thinking about oneself less. This meek Jesus is all about power; this humble Jesus is all about using His power to help others.
This passage in Scripture was Francis de Sales’ favorite. The “meek and humble” Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel transformed Francis’ life and the lives of so many others whose lives he touched. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this “meek and humble” Jesus transformed Francis into a saint.
Jesus wants to do the same for - and with - us; Jesus wants to make us saints. Are we meek and humble enough to accept His invitation?
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In a conference to the Sisters of the Visitation, Francis de Sales observed:
“That saying, so celebrated among the ancients – ‘know thyself’ – even though it may be understood as applying to the knowledge of the greatness and excellence of the soul (so that it might not be debased or profaned by things unworthy of its nobility) it may also be taken as referring to the knowledge of our unworthiness, imperfection and misery. The greater our knowledge of ourselves, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, for between mercy and misery there is so close a connection that the one cannot be exercised without the other. If God had not created man, He would still indeed have been perfect in goodness, but He would not have been actually merciful, since mercy can only be exercised towards the miserable.” (Select Salesian Subjects, 022, pp. 46 - 47)
We see this dynamic at work in today’s Gospel, but not in quite the way that Francis de Sales intended. The Pharisees observe Jesus’ disciples feeding themselves by picking the heads of grain. Blinded their own self-perceived “greatness and excellence,” the Pharisees considered this activity to be work, something strictly forbidden on the sabbath. As we’ve seen in many other places throughout the Gospels, seeing Jesus’ disciples – or Jesus himself, for that matter – being merciful (that is, being generous) to others on the sabbath made the Pharisees miserable. If they had really known themselves - that is, their own unworthiness, imperfection and misery - the Pharisees would have approved and applauded Jesus for doing the right thing, regardless of when, where or with whom he did it. Instead, they seized on every opportunity they could to condemn Jesus for it.
Amazing, isn’t it, how someone doing what is right can bring out the worst in others? As we’ll see in tomorrow’s continuation of Chapter 12 of Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees’ misery rises ultimately to the level where they decide to put Jesus to death.
What about us? Have we ever seen somebody else doing something merciful and generous at a time or in a place or in a way with which we did not agree and attempted to discredit them? Put another way, who would we like others to see and experience in us – the merciful Jesus, or the miserable Pharisee?
“His mercy endures forever…”
Several times this week we have focused on the kindness, mercy and generosity of God. This is who God is. If God is nothing else, he is kind, caring, compassionate, merciful and generous to us. This would be enough, but as Francis de Sales reminds us in his Treatise on the Love of God, there is something particularly unique to the mercy and generosity of God. He wrote:
“‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore, I have drawn you, having pity and mercy on you. And I will build you again and again, O beloved of Israel.’ These are God’s words, and by them he promises that when the Savior comes into the world, he will establish a new kingdom in his Church…” (TLG, Book II, Chapter 9, pp. 123-124)
God’s love is everlasting. God’s mercy endures forever. There are no limits to how far God will go in showering us with his merciful, generous love. Put another way, God will do whatever it takes to convince us of his fidelity to us.
Even if it takes forever!
"You are anxious and worried about many things."
We are all-too familiar with this image from the Gospel according to Luke. All-too familiar because it is all-too-easy to see in this Gospel a putdown of action and activity as compared with prayer and contemplation.
We need to revisit this interpretation. We need to understand how this Gospel speaks about Martha and Mary. More importantly, we need to consider how this Gospel speaks to us.
Jesus does not criticize Martha for being busy about the details of hospitality. Rather, Jesus criticizes the fact that Martha is allowing her activity and expectations to make her anxious. Likewise, Mary is not exalted due to her inactivity, but rather because she is not burdened with anxiety. In short, Martha is upset and flustered, while Mary is calm and centered.
Both Martha and Mary bring something to the experience of hospitality. In Martha, we see the importance of tending to details when welcoming people into our homes. In Mary, we see the importance of welcoming people into our lives, into our hearts, into the core of who we are without allowing the details to overwhelm us.
Hospitality isn't a matter of choosing between activity and availability. It is a matter of incorporating – and of integrating – both.
Francis de Sales certainly knew this fact when he described the two great faces of love: the love of complacence, and the love of benevolence. Complacence is love that delights in simply being in the presence of the beloved; benevolence is love that delights in expressing this complacence by doing for the beloved.
Doing and being. Being and doing. This is the dance of hospitality. This is the dance of love…a dance that challenges us to be as free as possible from anxious self-absorption and self-preoccupation.
In order to be truly open, to be truly welcoming, to be truly hospitable, there needs to be something of Martha and Mary in all of us. We need to be equally at peace with all the details and demands that come with trying to do justice to both.
“She saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus.”
In a letter to Marie Bourgeois Brulart, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Mary Magdalene is looking for Our Lord and it is he whom she holds. She is asking him, and it is he whom she asks. She could not see him as she had hoped to see him. This is why she did not recognize him as he actually was and continues to see him in another guise. She wanted to see him in his robes of glory and not in the lowly clothes of a gardener. But in the end she recognized him when he spoke to her by name: ‘Mary.’”
“You see, Our Lord meets you every day dressed as a gardener in any number of places and situations…Be of good cheer and let nothing dismay you.” (Selected Letters, Stopp, p. 136)
On any given day God may be, as it were, hidden in plain sight. However, it isn’t a case of God trying to hide from us! Rather, it is our desire to see God in ways that match our preferences, and that prevent us from seeing God as He really is, especially when it comes to recognizing how God is present in us and in one another!
“Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, sister and mother…”
In the opinion of William Barclay, this selection from Matthew’s Gospel offers us an expanded notion of the ties that bind - a new way of looking at kinship, family and friendship. He wrote:
“True kinship is not always a matter of flesh and blood relationship. It remains true that blood is a tie that nothing can break and that many people find their delight and their peace in the circle of their families. But it is also true that sometimes a man’s nearest and dearest are the people who understand him least, and that he finds his true fellowship with those who work for a common ideal and who share a common experience. This certainly is true – even if Christians find that those who should be closest to them are those who are most out of sympathy with them, there remains for them the fellowship of Jesus Christ and the friendship of all who love the Lord.”
Barclay says that this expanded notion of family – of home – is founded on three things:
A common ideal. People who are very different can be firm friends, if they have a common ideal for which they work and toward which they press
A common experience and the memories that come from it. When people have passed together through some great experience – and when they can together look back on it – real friendship begins
Obedience. There is no better way of showing the reality of love than the spirit of obedience.
In a conference to the Visitation Sisters, Francis remarked:
“Let us hear and follow the voice of the divine Savior, who like the perfect psalmist, pours forth the last strains of an undying love from the tree of the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ After that has been said, what remains but to breathe forth our last breath and die of love, living no longer for ourselves but Jesus living in us? Then, all the anxieties of our hearts will cease – anxieties proceeding from desires suggested by self-love and by tenderness for ourselves that make us secretly so eager in the pursuit of our own satisfaction…Embarked, then, in the exercises of our own vocation and carried along by the winds of this simple and loving confidence we shall make the greatest progress; we shall draw nearer and nearer to home.” (Living Jesus, p. 430)
As members of Jesus’ family let us do our level best to be obedient, that is, to listen to the voice of God in our lives and act upon what we hear. May we celebrate the kinship, friendship and love that come with following the will of our heavenly Father and experience the ties that truly and tenaciously bind us together.
“Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit…”
In a letter to the Duc de Bellegarde, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Persevere in this great courage and determination which keeps you lifted high above temporal things. Keep your eyes fixed steadfastly on that blissful day of eternity towards which the course of years bears us on. As these pass they themselves pass by us stage after stage until we reach the end of the road. But in the meantime, in each passing moment there lies enclosed as in a tiny kernel the seed of all eternity, and in our humble little works of devotion there lies hidden the prize of everlasting glory…” (TLG, Book XI, Chapter 6, Chapter 29, p. 212)
Regardless of how large or small the yield of the seeds that God has planted deep within you, there is only one place in which you will find those seeds – today.
In each and every present moment!