“Stand firm in the Lord...”
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:
“All the martyrs died for divine love. When we say that many of them died for the faith, we must not imply that it was for a ‘dead faith’ but rather for a living faith, that is, faith animated by charity. Moreover, our confession of faith is not so much an act of the intellect as an act of the will and love of God. For this reason, on the day of the Passion the great St. Peter preserved his faith in his soul – but lost charity – since he refused in words to admit as Master Him whom in his heart he acknowledged to be such. But there are other martyrs who died expressly for charity alone. Such was the Savior’s great Precursor who suffered martyrdom because he gave fraternal correction…” (TLG, Book VII, Chapter 10, pp. 40-41)
We see in John the Baptist one who stood firm in the Lord. As the herald of Jesus both before and after the latter’s baptism in the Jordan, John respected, honored and loved the Lord, as well as the things, values and standards of the Lord. His willingness to stand firm in the Lord and in the ways of the Lord impelled him to call Herod on his immoral lifestyle (taking his brother’s wife to be his own) in a very public forum. His willingness to stand firm in the Lord and in the ways of Lord ultimately cost John his life.
John didn’t lose his head over some mere intellectual principle: he gave it because of something he believed from – and in – the depth of his heart.
How far are we willing to go for the things, the values and the people that we hold deeply in our hearts, presuming, of course, we possess such deep, heartfelt convictions?
Today on what issues – and for whom – are we willing to stand firm, whatever the cost?
“God did not call us to impurity but to holiness.”
In the book Saints are not Sad (1949,) we read
“Holiness, in Francis de Sales’ conception of it, should be an all-around quality without abruptness or eccentricity. It should not involve the suppression in us of anything that is not in itself bad, for the likeness to God which is its essence must be incomplete in the proportion that it does not extend to the whole of us. So, we must be truthful to ourselves and about ourselves, and we shall lose as much by not seeing the good that really is in us as by fancying that we see good that is not there at all. It is as right and due that we should thank God for the virtue that His grace has established in us as that we should ask His forgiveness for our sinfulness that hinders His grace.” (Select Salesian Subjects, # 0377, p. 85)
God calls us to holiness. God calls us to walk in his ways. Imperfect as we are, we can make great progress in this quest by accepting the grace of God, by putting God’s grace to work in action and by relying on the love, support and encouragement of others. This call to holiness also challenges us to be truthful with ourselves and about ourselves - to recognize what is good in us, as well as anything in us needing to be purified. While we will always be imperfect, there is always a place for more purity in our own lives and in our lives with one another.
How can we live in – and practice – that truth today?
"Mind your own affairs, and work with your own hands…”
In a conference to the Visitation Sisters, Francis de Sales wrote:
“It in indeed for us to labor diligently, but it is for God to crown our labors with success. Let us not be at all eager in our work – for in order to do it well, we must apply ourselves to it carefully indeed – but calmly and peacefully, without trusting in our own labor, but in God and in His grace.” (Conference VII, “Three Spiritual Laws”, p. 112)
Perhaps this is what was lacking in the case of one of the three servants cited in the parable of the talents in today’s Gospel. Two of the servants present their master, who had just come home, with a return on the talents. Whereas the third servant merely returned single talent to his master (after retrieving it from the spot where he had buried it earlier) without having made any attempt of doing something with it.
Why did the one servant fail to make even the slightest attempt to return his master’s talent with some semblance of interest? It turns out he was afraid of his master. Paraphrasing Francis de Sales’ words above, perhaps the reason the servant didn’t trust in his own labor was that – ultimately – he did not trust in his master. By contrast, the other two servants appear to have had every confidence and trust in their master, regardless of how much – or how little – a return that they would ultimately make on their master’s investment.
In an exhortation to the Sisters of the Visitation, Jane de Chantal once remarked:
“Let us redouble our efforts at serving God and one another faithfully, especially in small and simple ways. God expects only that which we can do, but that which we can do God clearly expects. Therefore, let us be diligent in giving our best to God, leaving the rest in the hands of God’s infinite generosity.” (Based upon St. Jane de Chantal’s Exhortation for the last Saturday of 1629, On the Shortness of Life. Found in Conferences of St. Jane de Chantal. Newman Bookshop: Westminster, Maryland. 1947. Pages 106 – 107)
We may not always know how God wants us to make use of all the talents, gifts and blessings that he has given us, but one thing is certain: doing nothing with them is totally unacceptable.
“Conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”
How do we find favor with God by humbling ourselves? For that matter, when we humble ourselves, what are we really doing?
First, humility challenges us to avoid two extremes in life: the temptations to either exalt ourselves or trash ourselves. Francis de Sales offered very concrete examples of how to do this.
"I don't want to play either the fool or the wise man, for if humility forbids me to play the sage, candor and sincerity forbid me to act the fool. Just as I would not parade knowledge even of what I actually know; so, by contrast, I would not pretend to be ignorant of it. Humility conceals and covers the other virtues in order to preserve them, but it also reveals them when charity so requires in order that we might enlarge, increase and perfect them." (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 5)
On a deeper level, humility is about acknowledging both our littleness and God's greatness.
"Let us consider what God has done for us and what we have done against God, and as we reflect upon our sins one by one let us also consider God's graces one by one. There is no need to fear that the knowledge of God's gifts will make us proud if only we remember this truth: none of the good in us comes from ourselves alone." (Ibid)
Finally, having a balanced view of ourselves, acknowledging our littleness and God's greatness, and being grateful for God's fidelity to us, lead us to live lives of generosity.
"Generous minds do not amuse themselves with the petty toys of rank, honor and titles. They have other things to do. Such things belong only to idle minds. Those who own pearls do not bother about shells, while those who aspire to virtue do not trouble themselves over honors." (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 4)
Humbling ourselves is not about putting ourselves down. No, humbling ourselves is about taking our rightful place in life - beneficiaries of God's love for us and instruments of God's love in the lives of other people.
Humility is ultimately about coming to know our place in God’s plan of salvation and having the courage to take and embrace it. This true humility, in turn, should lead us to gently and respectfully encourage others in their quest to likewise know their place in God’s plan of salvation and to have the courage to take it.
What better way of finding favor with God than by pursuing this quest together!
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”
The selection from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that is cited in today’s Gospel lists signs associated with the coming of the Messiah – liberty to captives, sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed.
That requires a great deal of work!
Labor Day offers us a great opportunity to reflect upon the great work to which each of us is called – to continue the creating, healing and inspiring action of Jesus Christ in the lives of others in ways that fit the state and stage of life in which we find ourselves. Eucharistic Prayer IV puts it this way:
“Father, we acknowledge your greatness: all your actions show your wisdom and love. You formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world to serve you, his creator, and to rule over all creatures…To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom, and to those in sorrow, joy…And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as his first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth…”
On this Labor Day how might we do something to help complete Christ’s work on earth in our relationships with one another?
“Encourage one another and build one another up…”
In the beginning of Part III of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“Some virtues have almost general use and must not only produce their own acts but also communicate their qualities to the acts of all the other virtues. Occasions do not often present themselves for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity and great generosity, but meekness, temperance, integrity and humility are virtues that must mark all our actions in life. We must always have on hand a good supply of these general virtues since we can use them almost constantly.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 1)
Using St. Paul’s words, there are lots of ways to encourage and build up other people. Gregory the Great did it by practicing the virtue of hospitality. Francis de Sales noted:
“Following Abraham’s example, St. Gregory the Great liked to entertain pilgrims and like Abraham he received the King of Glory in the form of a pilgrim.” (Ibid, page. 123)
Today what virtues might we employ in our attempts to encourage and build up others?
“Just as in the whole world the Good News is bearing fruit and growing, so also among you…"
Near the beginning of Part I of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“When he created things God commanded plants to bring forth their fruits, each one according to its kind. In like manner God commands Christians – the living plants of the Church – to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each according to one’s position and vocation. Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the laborer, the servant, the prince, the young girl and the married woman. Not only is this true but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strengths, activities and duties of each particular person.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 1)
We are the living plants of the Church. That being so, what kind of fruits can we produce in the lives of others in our attempts help grow the Good News of Jesus Christ in our own little corners of the world today?