Sunday, July 31, 2016

Canto 18: Moving Promptly Toward the Good

This essay originally appeared on a Diocese of Rochester blog dedicated to reading Dante's Divine Comedy in the Year of Mercy.  My contribution for the Purgatorio is entitled: "Canto 18: Moving Promptly Toward the Good" is presented here.

As he continues his journey up the mountain of Purgatory, Dante encounters a large group of the slothful. These souls, who in life were slow to pursue what they knew to be good, are now running as fast as they can toward Heaven, and one of them is encouraging the others with the cry, “Mary ran to the hills!” The reference is to Luke 1:39, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.” Having been informed by the angel that her cousin was in need, Mary wasted no time in doing the good things that she saw needed doing. I often meditate on this when praying the second Joyful mystery of the Rosary. Mary responded immediately when there was something to be done. Why then do I procrastinate!?

But the problem of slothfulness actually goes much deeper than mere procrastination. What we generally call “laziness” falls well short of the concept of sloth (acedia in Latin, about which St. Thomas Aquinas writes most eloquently in his Summa: ST II, II 35). Sloth is more than just “not feeling like” doing something: it is seeing something that is good, realizing that it is good and desirable, and then choosing not to pursue it despite its goodness. This gets right to the heart of the mystery of human sinfulness. Why do we not pursue the things we know are good?

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (not a novel I particularly recommend, but it is illustrative) the character of Peter Keating has an on-again, off-again relationship with his longtime girlfriend Katie. This relationship is more off than on because Peter always puts his career ahead of his relationships. But one day, reflecting on his life and how miserable he often feels even when he succeeds in his job, he realizes he is only happy when he is with Katie. He realizes that he wants to marry her. So, he asks her to tie the knot. But not right away:
“In a year or two,” he said holding her hand tightly, “we’ll be married. Just as soon as I’m on my feet and set with the firm for good.”
“I’ll wait, Peter,” she whispered. “We don’t have to hurry.”
“We won’t tell anyone, Katie…. It’s our secret.”
That year passes, but nothing changes: there was always something to get in the way, always a “but first…” that kept Peter from acting on his desire to marry the only person who made him happy. Eventually, Katie confronts him about it:
“Peter, I want to be married now, tomorrow, as soon as possible.”
“Katie!” he gasped, regaining his voice. “What happened? Why as soon as possible? […] You know I’d marry you tonight if you wanted me to. Only, what happened?”
“Nothing. I’m all right now. I’ll tell you. You’ll think I’m crazy. I just suddenly had the feeling that I’d never marry you.”
“Look, Katie, we’ll get the license tomorrow morning. […] I’ll come for you at ten o’clock tomorrow morning and we’ll go for the license.”
But when that morning rolled around, Peter had second thoughts. He told Katie that his job was particularly stressful at that moment, but that the difficulty would be over soon:
“And I thought…I thought that if we waited…for just a few weeks…I’d be set with the firm […]. But, of course it’s up to you.” He looked at her and his voice was eager. “If you want to do it now, we’ll go at once.”
“But, Peter,” she said calmly, serene and astonished. “But of course. We’ll wait. […] No, it’s much better. You see, to tell you the truth, I thought this morning that it would be better if we waited, but I didn’t want to say anything if you had made up your mind.”
“Well…” he muttered. “Well, all right, Katie. We’ll wait. It’s better, of course. I…I’ll run along then. I’ll be late at the office.” He felt he had to escape her room for the moment, for that day. “I’ll give you a ring. Let’s have dinner together tomorrow.”
“Yes, Peter. That will be nice.”
He went away, relieved; and desolate: cursing himself for the dull, persistent feeling that told him he had missed a chance which would never return.
Things ended up not working out between Peter and Katie. There was always ‘just one more’ delay. This story illustrates why sloth is more than simple laziness, but is in fact something so radically opposed to our happiness that it constitutes “the beginning and root of despair.” (Josef Pieper, On Hope, in Faith, Hope, Love, San Fransisco: Ignatius, 2012, p. 117) Because we often wrongly identify sloth with “laziness” in the sense of inactivity, many people try to overcome the despair born of sloth by making themselves busy. Peter Keeting was always busy with work, but he went away desolate because the despair that comes from sloth “is not destroyed by ‘work’ […] but [by] magnanimity and that joy which is a fruit of the supernatural love of God.” (Pieper 118, 122)

The Church knows that we often have difficulty in making the leap between seeing what is good and actually doing it, and so she prays as follows in the Collect in the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time: “O God, from whom all good things come, grant that we, who call on you in our need, may at your prompting discern what is right, and by your guidance do it.”

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church”.

When St. Paul said that he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ,” what does he mean? Does he mean that the sufferings of Christ were not sufficient to redeem us?

No! That is absolutely not what he means! The perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is of infinite value because it is the willing sacrifice of God Himself.

So, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?

Only “our participation in them.” The only thing that is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is that there are still people who have not fully benefited from them by accepting God’s grace. And St. Paul can say, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” because he knows that the many sufferings that he endured during his missionary journeys were not in vain: Many, many people believed the Gospel message and were baptized because of his preaching.

This missionary attitude is something that all Christians ought to share. We ought, like St. Paul, to feel even that we can REJOICE in our suffering, if this suffering is brought about by our efforts to share the faith with others.

Much of the time, though, we do not have this missionary attitude. Although in this country (at least right now) we don’t expect to suffer martyrdom for witnessing to our faith, as St. Paul did, even when we do have a desire to tell others about Christ we hold back because we’re afraid to suffer the humiliation of being rejected. We’re afraid of appearing foolish if we’re not able to explain ourselves well….

An old man had an enormous apple tree in the middle of his field. He told his two sons to divide the fruit between them. To the older son he gave all the fruit on the left side of the tree. This older son brought a bushel of apples home to his wife and children. They had their fill of apples, they made apple pie, and they canned applesauce for the winter. But so abundant was the fruit of the tree that the ground was strewn with unpicked apples left to fall and rot. The younger son of the old man brought home from the right side of the tree enough apples to satisfy his family, but after they had their fill he returned to the tree. There he loaded a wheelbarrow full of apples and began to transport them to the village. As his old rickety wheelbarrow rolled over the uneven stones of the road, it tipped over and the whole pile of apples rolled away. Those the man could reach he put back, bruised, into the wheelbarrow. Others had rolled so far off the path that he could not retrieve them. But the apples that made it all the way to the village were received by the man’s hungry friends with great joy.

Christ is the Apple Tree. God the Father has given to us all the abundant fruits of the Tree of the Cross, the graces of salvation and sanctification. Many Catholics are like the older son in the parable: we receive grace from Christ, and do our best to pass on the faith to our family, our spouse and children, but we do little to share this abundant fruit with others. Like the rotting apples in the field that could feed so many starving people, Christ’s grace remains unshared with a hungry world. But there are a few Catholics who take after the younger son: These are those who share their faith with all who will listen. Now, this requires sacrifice. A sacrifice of time, for one thing. It’s difficult enough to provide for the religious upbringing of our own children without also making provision for the spiritual well-being of our neighbors and friends. It also requires humility. The man in the parable shared apples that had become bruised, and in just the same way when we share the faith it often gets bruised by the way we hand it on. We bruise the faith by our poor choice of words, by our inability to describe our experience. Or we bruise the faith by our imperfections and sins. But just because we can not pass on the faith perfectly does not mean we should not try to pass it on. A man who is already full may refuse your offer of a bruised apple, but to a man who is starving, your brown and mealy apple just might be the best thing he’s ever tasted.

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