Saturday, February 19, 2011

Choose All

Homily, 7th Sunday Ordinary Time A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

One of my favorite stories is from St. Therese of Lisieux from her book, “The Story of a Soul”. She tells a story about her older sister, Leonie, who decided one day that she was too big to play with dolls anymore. So, feeling generous, she decided to let her little sisters, Celine and Therese, choose among her dolls and doll-making things. Placing them all in a basket, she said to them, “Here my little sisters, choose; I’m giving you all this.” Celine stretched out her hand and took a little ball of wool which pleased her. And then St. Therese writes, “After a moments reflection, I stretched out my hand saying: ‘I choose all!’” And she took the basket without further ceremony. Apparently, all present thought her action was kind of cute, and Celine didn’t complain.

But then she writes further, “This little incident of my childhood is a summary of my whole life; later on when perfection and holiness were set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, there were many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God, I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!’”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “be perfected as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, I know that if any of us did an honest examination of conscience, we would find that to be a pretty tall order. Perfection, holiness and sainthood seem to be reserved for only a select few, a heroic few, like St. Therese.

Well, the catechism, based on the entire tradition of the Church, says this, CCC 2013: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And this goes back to the time of Moses, for the Lord said to him, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” You know, our faith teaches us that we are created in God’s image and likeness. Well, I think one way to understand that is to look at it this way: we are created in God’s image, meaning that we have the ability and capacity to love and reach perfection and holiness, but because we are fallen through sin, we spend our whole lives trying to be more and more like God, his likeness, to actually be holy and perfect and love completely.

And that’s why all of us need to advance. The catechism says again, CCC 2014: “Spiritual progress tends towards ever more intimate union with Christ.” Each day, we try to advance on the path of perfection and holiness, so that we will be more like God. And we don’t do this alone, for God himself helps us, as St. Paul says, “Are you not aware that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells within you?” If we are attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives, through prayer, through the sacraments, through our interaction with others, then he will lead us on the path to holiness.

The catechism says again, CCC 2015: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the [ascetics] and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”

And this is the road map that Jesus lays out for us in today’s Gospel. If we are to advance on the path to perfection, he gives us many examples to follow and attitudes to have. Jesus says we must offer no resistance to injury. In the Jesus’ time, to be struck on the right cheek was a grave insult. It meant that someone struck you with the back of their hand in contempt. But Jesus says, “turn and offer him the other”, meaning that we should not respond to insults by seeking revenge or “an eye for an eye”. Jesus says that “if anyone wants to go to law over your shirt, hand him your coat as well.” Don’t be attached to the things of this world. Again, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two miles.” We are not to do the bare minimum, be it in the practice of our faith, or in the practice of charity towards others, as if we can squeak into heaven with a minimum of effort. We are to “give to the man who begs from us” and “not turn our back on the borrower.” We are to give of ourselves entirely, and root out any selfishness, and to do this, sacrifice is required.

If we can follow this map laid out by Jesus, then we will advance on the way of perfection and holiness, with his help. But there is another way, a shortcut almost, and that was St. Therese’s secret. She called it her “little way” of perfection.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, “(Matthew 22:37-39), You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said today, “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Do not tax collectors do as much? And if you greet your brothers only, what is so praiseworthy about that? Do not pagans do as much?” You see, that’s what St. Therese understood: Our love of neighbor and our advance on the way of perfection and holiness will only be as effective as our love of God. And so her “little way” consisted in only this: total trust and absolute surrender to God, with all of her heart, soul, mind and strength. And it was because of this great love for God as a Father, that she was able to suffer much, to seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and to forget herself completely.

It was in this way that she was able to “choose all” and reach sanctity. And if we are attentive to the words spoken to Moses, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” and follow the command of Jesus himself, “be perfected as your heavenly Father is perfect”, then we too will “choose all”, follow her little way and grow more and more into God’s likeness. For as St. Paul said, “all things are yours; and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s”, and one day we will be united with him for all eternity, where we shall see him face to face and sing his praises with all the Saints in glory.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't Even Think About It!

Homily, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, St. Joseph's

It's difficult to talk to my sister on the phone. She has her hands full. As I've told you, she has ten kids, and as we talk, it seems we get interrupted every 30 seconds or so, as she would have to say something to her kids. Often, the conversation pauses and I hear her say to one of her kids, "don't do that." Then a few moments later, it's "don't do that!" Then, it seems to reach an apex when she says, "don’t even think about it!” Well, that's usually the last thing I hear before she has to go. I have great respect for the responsibilities and hard work of mothers.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” And then he begins to teach on the law in this great Sermon on the Mount, which has been called the “greatest sermon ever preached.” And what Jesus is preaching about in this Sermon are the Ten Commandments.

Well, you know, the Ten Commandments are really very simple to understand. The first three deal with our relationship with God - “you shall have no other Gods before me”, “you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain”, and “keep holy the Lord’s day.” The fourth commandment deals with our relationships in the family, “honor you father and mother.” The last six deal with our relationships with our neighbor, and they are divided up into two categories: those that say, “Don’t do it”, and those that say, “Don’t even think about doing it.”

That’s what Jesus does when he teaches on the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount: he takes each commandment and says, “You have heard the commandment, don’t do it; what I say to you is, don’t even think about doing it.”

First, he takes the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill”, and fulfills it with the eighth, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Don’t do it, don’t even think about doing it. Certainly the greatest harm we can do to our neighbors is to kill them, but we can also harm our neighbors by holding them in contempt, lying about them, damaging their reputation, harming their good name, getting angry with them or using abusive language.

There is a lot of death in this culture, so much so that Pope John Paul called it the “culture of death”: murder, abortion, euthanasia, crime and drug use, terrorism, war, genocide. All of these things are happening every day around us, but all of these things arise from within, from anger, from lack of forgiveness, from selfishness, from falsehoods. If we listened to Jesus’ admonition, “Go first to be reconciled with your brother”, if we changed our hearts first, then perhaps we would impact this culture of death around us and make it a culture of life.

Next Jesus goes onto the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery”, and he fulfills it with the ninth, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Don’t do it, don’t even think about doing it. And Jesus is pretty clear about this one, something which I believe is often forgotten in our modern culture, “anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” I hear too often things like, “Oh, it’s OK to look, just don’t touch”, “What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”
Well Jesus gives some interesting advice, “If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! If your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away!” We live in a culture saturated with lust, and even worse, it is all aimed at young people, especially our teens. Watching television nowadays is an occasion of sin, and parents are responsible for what their children watch. If the television causes you, or your children, to sin, then cut it off and throw it away. Modesty and virginity and chastity and purity are not four-letter words, but instead they flow from the teachings of Jesus himself, and he should be the one teaching our children, not MTV.

Finally, though he doesn’t teach about the seventh and tenth commandments directly in this part of the sermon, the same principle applies. “You shall not steal… You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.” Don’t do it, don’t even think about doing it. Later on in the Sermon, he teaches us what to do instead: that we are to give alms, instead of taking from others, that we are to give from what we ourselves have. And then he gives the reason why it is so important that we not misuse our gifts, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” If we place our desire for wealth and possessions over our desire for God and the obligation to serve others, then we are not fulfilling the commandments.

Now, in today’s culture, we don’t like to be told what not to do. We don’t want to put up with anything that impinges on our perceived freedoms. But remember what the book of Sirach said, “before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The commandments of God are not a list of “thou shalt nots” designed to keep us from having fun or experiencing pleasure. But instead, behind each commandment is a basic human good that is worth protecting. And if we understand that, then the Commandments are a source of life, freedom, and joy.

The fifth and eighth commandments protect the good of life, in both its spiritual and physical dimensions. The sixth and ninth commandments protect the goodness of chastity and marriage. And the seventh and tenth commandments protect the goodness of God’s creation and help us to keep everything always ordered towards him.

Sircah says “If you choose you can keep the commandments”, and Jesus says, “Whoever fulfills and teaches these commands shall be great in the kingdom of God.” And will it be worth I, keeping the commandments? Do we want to reach that kingdom? Well, St. Paul describes that kingdom, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.” And who is it that loves him? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Goal of a Virtuous Life

Homily, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

I once heard an interview of a composer who was talking about playing piano, and one thing he said struck me: he said that for a good piano player with lots of practice, the fingers themselves, as it were, seem to learn the motions for complex patterns, so that the piano player can do them without thinking, almost habitually. And in this way, a piano player can move on to more advanced pieces of music, because he doesn’t need to practice the basics.

Well, it’s the same way with the soul. God gives us certain gifts and talents, that he wants us to use in the Christian life so that we may attain our goal of eternal salvation, and these gifts are called the virtues. The new Catechism says this, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” (CCC 1803)

And according to the tradition of the Church, there are four Cardinal virtues, on which all the other human virtues are hinged.

The first is the virtue of Prudence, (CCC 1806) which helps us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”

The second is Justice, (CCC 1807) which is “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” As the psalm says, “Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.”

The third is Fortitude, (CCC 1808) which “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” and “strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.” It helps us to “conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.” As the psalm says, “His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.”

The final Cardinal virtue is Temperance, (CCC 1809) which “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.”

And just as a piano player has to practice his or her talents in order to be a master, so too we as Christians must exercise the virtues in order to attain our goal of the ultimate good, to become like God and to live with him for all eternity. (CCC 1810-1811) Though we are wounded by sin, Jesus offers us grace to persevere in the pursuit of virtues. We exercise the virtues by continually educating ourselves, by repeatedly acting on what we know is good, and by persevering in our pursuit even when we fall short. To grow in prudence, we constantly educate ourselves, seeking God’s wisdom to guide our lives. To grow in justice, we constantly seek to know God’s will and to act on what is right. To grown in fortitude, we constantly draw strength from the Lord. And to grow in temperance, we moderate our desires through frequent penance and fasting, so that our desires are controlled by our reason and not vice versa.

And over time, God will help us to grow in these virtues by purifying our efforts and lifting us up. Practically, God helps us grow in virtue when we ask him in prayer for light and strength, when we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our souls, when we act on his call to love what is good and avoid what is evil, when we have recourse to the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist. And with effort, like the good piano player, these virtues will become habitual, so that we can move onto more advanced works, becoming more like God each day of our lives.

Now those are what are called the human virtues, but there are three other virtues which come entirely as a gift from God, which help us to live moral lives as his children. These are the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Through the virtue of faith, “we believe in God and in all that he has said and revealed to us” (CCC 1814). Through the virtue of hope, “we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life” (CCC 1817) always keeping our final goal and supreme good before us. And through the virtue of love, “we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (CCC 1822)

Though we cannot increase these virtues through repeated good acts like the Cardinal virtues – faith, hope, and love are entirely gifts from God – we can grow in these virtues by being responsive to God’s grace in our lives, turning to him in faith, keeping him always as our goal in all that we do, and acting on our love for him. And if we ask him in prayer to increase our faith, hope, and love, then he will respond with more than we could imagine.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world… you must let your light shine before men so that they may see the goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father.” Well, the virtues are what help us to know the good, to pursue the good, to do the good, and to persevere in the good. And if we practice these virtues, exercising them with dedication and commitment like a good piano player, then we will attain that which we hope for, that which we believe in, the object of all our love, eternal life with our Savior, Jesus Christ.