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.
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