David A. Cregan, O.S.A.
Augustinian Novitiate Community Racine, Wisconsin
Ps 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16
1 Cor 15:54-58
What must it have been like to be in the physical presence of Jesus? What we know for certain is that there was something very attractive about his insight and about his presence that drew large numbers of people towards him. Of course, he was also a great healer. His ability to cut right to the heart of an individual’s experience, empathize with their fragility and see their fear was the first step in bringing about their healing. His Divine Wisdom cut through the conventional teaching of the law in order to reveal a deeply human common sense. This mercy-filled common sense expelled demons, healed diseases of the skin, opened the eyes of the blind and even awakened the dead.
People must surely have experienced his freedom as so remarkably unique that it had the ability to loosen them from whatever it was that held them bound in body, mind or spirit so that they could become whole again. Through our intimate experience with Jesus we also know quite a bit about being in his presence and finding healing through grace.
I imagine that to the human eye Jesus exuded a kind of light-filled healthfulness and inspired freedom that allowed others to experience the light of God shine in their particular darkness. They must have wanted to become like him, just as we do today.
But, of course, for every story in the scripture of his charismatic healing and his humble interpersonal connections there are many stories of how others were offended and repelled by his healthy reverent freedom; to such a degree that they murdered him. How could any human being have an aversion to the real presence of God? And yet, of course, at times people do.
I often reflect personally on how my greatest obstacle to seeing God in all things or fromfully surrendering to God’s will is my stubborn self. I believe this is an important realization on the spiritual journey. How so? Well, for instance, we often bend God to accommodate what we want or prefer to believe, to what we want or need from God, or what we think we deserve for our faith and love. We want God to do what we want. In our interior life God is often confined to our immature childhood notions and our adult preference for having things go the way we want them to go. We like to feel like we are in control.
Today’s readings rigorously confront our inherent desire to control and our very human self-absorption; thus inviting us to abandon ourselves so that God can be God and we can more accurately understand our humble place in the universe.
On this the final Sunday of Ordinary Time before the grace-filled season of Lent, the scripture offers us a foundation on which to build and plan our seasonal spiritual practices.
The book of Sirach frames how Lent can potentially unsettle our habits and expose our need for transformation: When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks. Our prayers are, in fact, the shaking of the sieve of our lives. When we open our lives to God through prayer we invite the presence and action of God’s Spirit into the inner sanctuary of our being; we offer ourselves to God’s will, consciously or unconsciously. In this practice we have the opportunity to open ourselves to change in such a way that we might empty ourselves in order to replace our voracity with releasing into what God’s plan for us is. God’s plan for us might not be our first choice! We all struggle with thisacceptance.
There are many obstacles to this self-emptying. For most, change is scary. Even though we would love the immediate conversion of St. Paul, more often we advance slowly and stubbornly.
Usually, real conversion only begins with a failure, an accident, a challenging diagnosis or a substantial loss. Sirach describes this experience thus: As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just. The tribulations that follow every human being in life are the furnace of trials that test our faith. When we experience loss we are left feeling alone. While standing in that lonely place with the eyes of faith, we find ourselves purified by loss and suddenly we are able to see God in a new way. For us, suffering is most often the “narrow gate” of surrender so that we can move more freely toward allowing God to be God; less obstructed by our own preferences. Our Catholic spiritual mothers and fathers all tell us that what in human terms seems like a disaster or an ending is, in fact, a new beginning. When we persevere in faith and hope through the acknowledgment of our sinfulness and limitations, the “fire” of that challenge frees us into deeper dependence on the true grace ofGod.
Lent is a penitential season that invites us to focus on an examination of conscious in the hope that we will be freed from our self-absorption and its concurrent pain in order to live freely and healthily in God. Luke’s gospel today clues us in to the hard work the season offers as a healing remedy: Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,” when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite!
The Augustinian spiritual imperative of self-knowledge is a helpful, if challenging, tool guiding us towards an honest and humble acceptance of ourselves, warts and all! To admit what is wrong is not to punish ourselves but to invite God’s transformative purifications into our lives. To lean deeply into God’s love and mercy. Frankly, this means being courageously honest about the shadowy parts of our stubbornness, prejudice, anger, and resentment. We know we hold on to and even nurture these darker parts of our lives when we are stuck in a rut of envy, blaming other people for our lives, cultivating judgmental attitudes, and nurturing unforgiveness. These inner attitudes are poisonous and infect our interior lives, creating rigidity and free-flowing judgmentalism. We know we are off track when our emphasis is disproportionately on sin and judgment rather than freedom and grace. It has been said that for some of us our preoccupation with sin and judgment is a stronger conviction than our faith in the grace and the wideness of God’s mercy. We need to pay attention to this unhealthy imbalance if we are to call ourselves Christian.
These, oftentimes blind, sins are also subconsciously giving ourselves permission not to change by noticing everything else that is wrong with everyone else, while rarely owning our own stuff. “It’s his fault, or their fault!” In the reading from both Sirach and Luke the tree functions as a metaphor for our inner life, and our externalization and hardening of heart through chronic blaming and judging is the noxious fruit that can, unintentionally, be the harvest our lives produce. Thus Lent is inviting us to be healthier and free inside, just as Jesus was when he walked amongst us. But why would one subject themselves to such a rigorous pursuit of self-knowledge?
Admitting we are wrong is not a value in our culture. It’s humiliating, right?!? And yet, honest humility - as opposed to neurotic humility - is the fruit of healthy repentance and heartfelt contrition, and is the beginning of spiritual renewal. When this difficult interior work is understood as a profound grace from God, humility illuminates the depth of our own need for the transforming power of God, and raises our awareness of the generous compassion of God’s love. When we know ourselves as the recipients of God’s love, forgiveness, generosity and mercy we will bear greater fruit in healing, not just for ourselves but for the world!
Luke continues, supporting the fact that healthy introspection gives us the skill to help others who are as lost as ourselves: Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s (or sister’s) eye. This grace to help others by facing ourselves delivers us to the grace-filled imitation of Jesus that has brought about the transformation of the world. His capacity for boundless healing becomes the source of our capacity for the same.
This is the very vocation that we are invited to participate in through our baptism. God’s work in healing us allows us to do the work of healing others through patience, respect and compassion. Wow! What a difference people like us, followers in the freedom and the health of Jesus, can make in this world of division and destruction. Of course this is contingent on our willingness to do the hard work of surrendering ourselves to this most challenging and reconciling examine! This is our highest call.
As we encourage one another and dedicate ourselves once again to a Lent that dispels the lethargic status quo of a same-old-same old Lent, I leave you with the inspiring words that St. Paul offers us today from the First Letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.