Growing in God


The Parable of the Seed’s Growth. The farmer sleeps and rises, night and day, and his plants grow. He knows not how. [Spanish]

Even if this particular farmer had a doctorate in cellular biology, or botany, or meteorology—he still could not claim really to know how his plants manage to grow. To produce blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear. The sun has power, and the rain, and Mother Earth, and the genius of the little seed: all have power which the farmer does not fully understand.

If he’s a contemplative sort of person, the farmer sleeps and rises, night and day. He watches this power unfold itself before his eyes. He gives God the glory.

Which brings us to the fact that the Lord Jesus presented this image as a parable of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we could synthesize the parable’s meaning with one sentence. Life means growing in divine love.

Now, do we care what life means? Or do we just want pleasure, or wealth, or power, whenever and wherever we can find it? Without bothering to try to understand why we exist?

Well, I think we care. We want to understand why we exist. And try to do it right. We know that no matter what doctorates or other forms of education or expertise we might have, we need God to teach us the meaning of life. No one else can.

Bill ClintonDivine love. God loves. The infinite and all-powerful God loves infinitely and all-powerfully. We exist because He loves.

He was fine. He was happy. He longed for absolutely nothing, because He had everything. But: Because He loves so generously, He made the heavens and the earth, the angels, and us.

He loves us. The meaning of life involves loving Him back. The human race failed to love our Creator, and made a huge mess of sin, but He didn’t give up on us. To the contrary, He came to the earth, and spread out His arms on the cross, to show us an open Heart, and to open our hearts by the power of His love. That’s Jesus Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit and the work of the Church, the life of the sacraments.

Therefore, life means: living in Christ’s Church, loving God back for the love with which He has loved us. And it grows. By the grace of the sacraments, divine love grows in a Christian heart. We know not how.

Time passes. Some of us could say that the Bill-Clinton presidency seems like just yesterday. Or even the Reagan presidency, or the Carter presidency.

The world turns. We meet people. We try to treat them right. We try to live in the truth. We pray. We try to obey God. We try to do well the work God has given us to do. Meanwhile, through all this, decades pass, and we grow in divine love.

Setbacks come, to be sure. We amaze ourselves with our own moral weaknesses. But we don’t give up. Life means loving the God Who loves me, Who loves us. Let me learn. Let me understand better. Let me master myself. Let me forget myself. Let me grow.

earthsunAnd it happens, we know not how. Now, not knowing how—that goes against the grain for us little human geniuses, who pride ourselves on our knowhow.

But: God is God. What do we really know about Him? Loving God is like loving a country which we have never even visited. The pictures we have seen—they’re accurate, yes. Jesus Christ and His saints, they are the pictures of eternal heaven. And they are absolutely accurate pictures. We can’t doubt the glory and beauty of the God we love. But we have never been to that country, not yet. We don’t know. We do not know God.

The contemplative farmer stares at the sky, and the rain clouds forming in the west, and his fields with the little cornstalks in their rows—doing their thing, getting bigger in tiny, daily increments. He gazes at all this, and he thinks to himself:

‘This is something. This is life living. I’m the farmer, and I cultivated this ground and sowed these rows of seed—so I have to credit myself with making some contribution here. But I can only consider myself a docile, uninformed custodian. It requires an intelligence a million times bigger than my own, and a power a million times bigger than mine, to make one single ear of corn. To God Almighty be the glory!’

I think that may be what the Lord intends to teach us with this parable. We grow in God’s love, night and day, sleeping and waking, precisely by: humbling ourselves before Him. Like that farmer humbling himself before the power of earth and sky and Mother Nature.

Growing in divine love involves not knowing everything and controlling everything. Like I said, that goes against the grain for us sons and daughters of this technocratic age of unbridled human cleverness. But: trying to know and control everything stifles our growth in divine love. Growth in divine love requires one thing: Faith.

When we believe in Christ, the love that dwells in His Heart can and does dwell in our hearts, too, by the power of the Church’s sacraments. Then, we just patiently do our duty. And our hearts grow in God.


The Duty of Religion, Freely Offered

Marlon Brando Godfather
Does God break kneecaps?

Today at Holy Mass we read the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

The vineyard owner sets up a productive, eminently workable farm. Then he leases it to some fortunate tenants, who produce a bountiful harvest with very little trouble. At the proper time, the owner of the establishment sends his emissaries to “obtain some of the produce of the vineyard.” (Mark 12:2)

Now, one way to interpret this: Our Creator has given us life and a fruitful earth, many blessings, and countless opportunities to make good. All He asks is that we offer a return to Him—by practicing religion.

That is: We must acknowledge that we owe God everything. But if we pray every day, obey His commandments, and give Him an hour a week in church, along with some honest financial offering–that satisfies our duty. We get to keep “the rest,” so to speak.

Palermo Pantocrator Christ priestWe can apply the entire parable, using this interpretation. How does our Creator insist on us human beings doing our religious duty? Does He use force or threats? After all, don’t a lot of people skip religion these days?

The owner in the parable “insists” on receiving His due portion by: sending his defenseless son. The Son of God came not to break kneecaps, but to show us perfect religion. He never laid a violent hand on anyone. In fact, He never exactly demanded anything. He simply showed that true faithfulness to the Father brings peace to the soul, and genuine joy—joy beyond what the world can give.

Christ invoked no authority, other than the authority of the truth. Our Creator does not force anyone to practice religion. Precisely because religion must involve love and gratitude, freely offered.

Doesn’t mean that God will endure mockery forever. A reckoning will come. Jesus came once in gentleness; He will come again with terrifying judgment. We do need to teach our children to fear hell if they skip Mass. Gentle Jesus Himself said that the owner would put to death the tenants who refused to practice religion.

But the way the owner went about “collecting” his portion—not by force, but by kindness aimed at reconciliation—that method must guide us always. It cost the son his life. But that’s the parable’s message: A Christian willingly dies for the sake of religion, but would never kill for it.

Mental Prayer and PB & J’s

Soil that receives the seed, allows it to grow, and then brings forth fruit thirty-, sixty-, a hundredfold. As the Lord explained, that fertile soil represents “those who hear the word and accept it.”

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableThe Word: Jesus Christ, the Person. Those who hear Him. Those who hear the gospels, and think about them regularly. Those, in other words, who live under the “roof” of the Church, venerating the Son of God, rejoicing in the salvation He won for us, and striving always to participate in His unfathomable love.

The Lord gave me the gift of mental prayer at a young age. I know I had it by age twelve, since I have a vivid memory of writing a poem about the Lord Jesus for a seventh-grade English assignment.

But Christian mental prayer is no extraordinary, esoteric gift—at least not for people raised in the Church. It was just the simple fact that my parents made sure I was where I was supposed to be every Sunday morning. So I heard the gospel readings, and I found them interesting. I found Him interesting—Jesus Christ. More interesting than anything else, even including basketball. My middle-school existence consisted, therefore, of Christian mental prayer at chance moments, and endless shoot-arounds, lay-up drills, and three-on-threes.

Seriously, though, let’s listen to St. Francis de Sales. They laid the Gentle Doctor to rest 395 years ago today, so January 24 makes an especially good day to listen to him. That said, a lot of people make their way toward heaven by studying the teaching of St. Francis de Sales every day. …Anyway, he wrote:

Children learn to speak by hearing their mother talk, and stammering forth their childish sounds in imitation; and so if we cleave to the Savior in meditation, listening to His words, watching His actions and intentions, we shall learn in time, through His Grace, to speak, act, and will like Himself.

Christian mental prayer—which is the highway to heaven—involves absolutely nothing that the average bear doesn’t already have in his or her life. The opposite. Christian mental prayer is like sandwiches, folding laundry—like making sure there’s milk in the fridge—it’s the homiest, most day-to-day thing, for a practicing Catholic. When we are where we’re supposed to be every Sunday morning, the gospels become part of the way we think, feel, react, and speak.

Once we reach adulthood, however, we do become susceptible to Word-choking distractions in life. So we must set aside time for the Lord every day, time for meditation on the gospels–at least a few minutes.

May the good Lord help us to do that. So that He can bear His fruit in us.

Conscience and the Commandments

Rembrandt Moses Ten Commandments

The Parable of the Vigilant Servants, according to St. Mark. Here the Lord singles out the gatekeeper from among the servants. Does the watchful gatekeeper represent anyone in particular in the Church? Who among us must keep watch through the night, so to speak, for the benefit of the rest of the household? [Spanish.]

Maybe we could say: The monks and nuns? Or the Pope? Or the bishops? Or all us priests? Indeed, we all have our particular duties in the service of God, and we shepherds must concern ourselves not just with the dangers that could affect our own souls, but with all the souls in the whole flock.

That said, the fact is that every Christian must see him or herself as the gatekeeper in this parable. Because we all have to keep watch over ourselves. We have to pray insistently with the prophet Isaiah: Lord, when You come, may you find us doing good, and not evil!

Now, where do we live? I mean, at this point in our pilgrims’ progress? And I don’t mean Rocky Mount or Martinsville. I mean: “the world.” Right now we live under temporary circumstances, in a place that is not really “home.” A place where things change all the time, and it’s often difficult to get to the heart of the matter, and it’s easy to get confused. We live in a place where doing good doesn’t always come easily. And avoiding evil can involve enormous struggles. We walk as pilgrims in “the world”–a beautiful but dangerous land.

So we must keep watch over our actions and our omissions. We must examine ourselves interiorly, like the night watchman examines the dim horizon. And when we do that; when we live a reflective, careful, sober life–we find within ourselves a helper, a source of insight into the truth, a kind of “moral pacemaker,” so to speak: the voice of conscience.

Charlton Heston Ten Commandments MosesThe invisible and transcendent God, Who has a plan to get us all to heaven–He speaks to me, deep within my heart and mind, to guide me along my pilgrim way.

God never fails to guide us. But I can and do fail to heed His guidance. And every time I ignore the voice of my conscience–every time I sin–I effectively turn down the volume on the interior speaker, if I might put it that way. Every sin makes the voice of conscience weaker. The more I sin, the deafer I become.

Lord, that You might meet us doing good! Because doing good gives us real peace. Doing good makes us genuinely happy. Sin might offer short-term pleasure–none of us would ever sin if it didn’t. But sinning always becomes a dog in the long run; sin always turns from short-term pleasure to long-term slavery. So we pray insistently with the prophet: Lord, rend the heavens and come down! Shake us out of our moral mediocrity! Make us good, by guiding us in the truth!

The Lord replies: Children. I already did that. I already opened up the heavens to help you morally. Ever hear of Moses and Mount Sinai? Remember when I gave you the eight commandments? (Trick question.)

When God gave Moses the tablets spelling out the fundamentals of doing good and avoiding evil, He did our consciences the greatest favor ever. Our consciences cannot work right without the Ten Commandments guiding them. When we stay close to God, the Commandments sit at bottom of the hull of our souls, so to speak, like a keel that keeps the boat from capsizing.

If I find myself starting to think things like, “Maybe one of these ten commandments really isn’t necessary,” then I know that I have strayed. I have turned the volume on the interior speaker of conscience down to zero by settling into one sin or another. I have become a stranger to the truth.

But if the Ten Commandments sing to me like a ten-stringed guitar; if I can hold them like a musical instrument in my hands, to give glory to God by living in obedience to His plan, then I can be sure that the volume knob on my conscience is turned up to the right level, and I can stride forward in life with confidence.

So, the $10,000 question. Do we know all the Commandments by heart? What greater Christmas present could I give myself than making sure that I do? My spiritual project for Advent maybe ought to involve re-memorizing the ten guiding lights of my conscience.

1? No other gods. 2? Don’t take His name in vain. 3? Keep the sabbath. 4? Honor father and mother. 5? Don’t kill anyone, either their body or their good name. 6? No adultery. 7? No stealing. 8? No lying. 9? No lusting. 10? And don’t get materialistic; live for God alone.

We want interior harmony. Harmony between our little wills and God’s great, all-encompassing, purely loving will. He showed us on the cross that He wills only our good, our salvation, our eternal life.

The Ten Commandments don’t solve every dilemma. Sometimes we need more help–prayer, advice, etc. But most of the time we can keep ourselves ready for the advent of the Lord by simply keeping the Ten Commandments in mind. And taking care not to break them.

The Wise Virgins Parable

William Blake, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The wise virgins waited faithfully for the bridegroom to arrive. Everyone knew the groom would come; they just didn’t know when. In those days, even well-meaning bridegrooms could get delayed. The camel might go lame. Or a sudden rain might wash out a road entirely. Or enemy troops might take a whole swath of territory, making it impassable to you, so you had to go way around. [Click HERE for Spanish.]

So the virgins, not to mention all the other wedding guests, had to wait. But they didn’t mind, because the groom’s arrival would mean so much joy. The bridegroom was coming to consummate something wonderfully beautiful–to open a new chapter of life for the family, to give a new future to the bride. The wedding feast brought immense happiness to everyone, because it showed God’s faithfulness and power. A wedding meant that time itself is pregnant with a future, not sterile and dying.

And there’s more–more cause for joy at a wedding. We know that God Himself, having taken flesh, has become the devoted Bridegroom of the human race. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council listed the images of human salvation. Here’s the final image on the list:

The Church is the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb… Christ loved His Church and delivered Himself up for Her. He unites the Church to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, subjecting Her to Himself in love and fidelity. The life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until we appear in glory with the Bridegroom.

So the wise virgins waited patiently for the tall, dark, and handsome gentleman. The bridegroom in the parable represents the divine Bridegroom, Jesus Himself. He is our champion and our beloved, our hero Who, by His humble obedience to the will of the Father, has conquered death and every evil. He will come again in glory, and He will judge all things, setting all things to rights. Then He will reign forever over a kingdom of unimaginable, peaceful, splendid blessedness.

He will come. We just don’t know when. The virgins in the parable had to wait longer than expected, because, as we read: “The bridegroom was long delayed.”

Long delayed. Maybe 2,000 years? People might think: If Christ really intended to return in glory, wouldn’t He have done it by now? He must have been a crazy lunatic, rather than the real Messiah! 2,000 years is too long to wait.

torahscrollBut we don’t know from ‘long,’ really. Two thousand years may seem long to us, but not to God. As St. Peter put it, “To the Lord a thousand years are like a passing day.” Our perspective on the enormity of time is patethically limited. Two little millennia? Compared to the Pleistocene Age? The Ice Age lasted over 2.5 million years. Christ could wait another 200,000 years, or 200,000,000 years to come back, and it wouldn’t make Him any more or less omniscient and omnipotent than He is.

The whole point of the parable is: it’s not our job to know when the Lord will come again; it’s our job to be ready when He does come.

Which brings us back to the wise virgins. They were ready when the bridegrooom came, as opposed to the foolish ones. The foolish virgins had foolishly run off to go shopping at midnight. But the wise virgins were waiting patiently, so they stood ready when the unexpected hour arrived.

What distinguished the wise virgins from the foolish? The wise ones had flasks of oil with them. So the $10,000 question is: What do these flasks of oil in the parable represent?

There were five flasks. Five wise virgins, five flasks. So maybe the flasks represent the books of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Torah–which means… Law. Or teaching, guidance, fatherly instruction. Or: Divine Wisdom.

These virgins did not have wisdom in the worldly sense. They happily waited deep into the night, even though they had no idea when the bridegroom would arrive. Worldly virgins would long since have gone off to play field hockey, or watch Dancing with the Stars, or get their hair done. But the wise virgins of the parable chose to spend their long evening waiting patiently by the door.

They possessed a non-worldly kind of wisdom, a supernatural wisdom. They grasped the ultimate goal of history; they had a share in the mind of God Himself. They held fast in faith to the certainty that the bridegroom would come. They did not doubt. They never wavered in their eagerness to meet Him. They persevered in their attentive vigil, even deep into the darkness of night.

They had the wisdom of true Christian faith. While they waited, they could not see the feast that had been prepared for the wedding guests. But they held on to the promise of good things yet to come. The gift of divine wisdom gave them a little taste of the delights that await us in heaven. They awaited the surpassing glory of God being all in all.

Parable of the Wedding Feast


Jerusalem_Dominus_flevit Tears of Christ
Apse window in the church of Christ’s Tears, on the Mount of Olives

The king gave a wedding feast for his son. The marriage in question involves the Lord Jesus Christ and my soul, our souls. [Click por español.]

God made me, and He exercises ultimate control over the entire course of my life. Every day—every moment—involves an invitation. The loving, almighty hand of God lavishly arrays everything that I experience. And for one reason: to communicate love. To give life. To open up the infinite horizon of friendship with Him.

When did Jesus weep? He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. But that wasn’t the only time. Once, as He approached Jerusalem as a pilgrim, He paused on the hill overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Temple Mount beyond, and He wept. “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those whom the Lord sends to you. How many times have I longed to gather your children together, like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

Now, what could possibly demand my attention more urgently than my friendship with my Creator? Who has more of a claim on me than He does? Who has more of a right to expect my devoted love?

–But, Father! God… He’s invisible. And so confoundedly silent. He seems aloof. Intentionally mysterious. Is He really, you know—there?

Now, let’s not forget about the banquet in the parable, the “calves and fattened cattle” that the king prepared for his guests. We do not seek friendship with God in an arid wasteland. We don’t have to live like twentieth-century existentialist philosophers. If we had to invent our own way to have a friendship with God, based on our own clever insights—forget it! But that is not the situation. We seek friendship with God at a fully stocked banquet table that He has prepared.

Model trainHe became man. He gave Himself for us on the cross, and then rose again to minister in heaven as our High Priest. He founded a Church and endowed Her with holy writings and sacraments. He has given us a way of life—a religion—which allows our friendship with Him to grow through the whole course of our humble lives on earth.

When we practice the religion Christ gave us, we grow in friendship with Him, even in spite of ourselves. All we have to do is regularly make use of the spiritual help that the Lord gives us in His Church.

My faith doesn’t have to be perfect. My religious knowledge doesn’t have to be perfect. And I don’t necessarily have to grapple with angst and uncertainty, like a philosopher, just to have a relationship with God.

All I have to do is: show up for Mass on Sundays, go to confession at least once a year, stay faithful to my commitments, and slog on into the future.

God has prepared the banquet of divine revelation. The banquet of grace operating through specific sacred ceremonies. He made the great, undefinable “thing” that is Christianity, Catholicism. He made it; I didn’t. It’s not for me to understand it all, just like it’s not for wedding guests to know all the recipes for every item on all the banquet tables. My job—our job—is to show up and partake. With gratitude.

Nothing wrong with trying to understand the rich treasures of our religion. We have to try to understand—but that entails the work of a lifetime.

My point here is simply that if I make my own understanding the measure of my friendship with my Maker, I have no hope of getting close to Him. But if I accept that He has indeed intervened in history, and founded a Church according to His designs—if I accept that the Catholic Church’s fundamental institutions deserve my trust and devotion, because they are the means by which I receive God’s grace—then I can do like my forefathers and foremothers have done before me. That is, partake of the banquet of heaven on a regular basis, even while I live my little life on earth. A little life that might involve things like oil changes, baseball playoffs, and maybe even school boards.

Because the king of the parable is utterly demanding in one way, but perfectly chill in another. He invites us to the wedding banquet of His only Son. Our lives, and the whole history of mankind, are nothing other than the wedding banquet of the Son of God. If we fail to recognize this basic fact, we are utterly lost. Because we have no other hope for finding meaning in life.

But if I do recognize that my first obligation is to show up for this wedding banquet that my God has prepared for me, then the king lets me have all kinds of other things besides. I just have to avoid breaking the Ten Commandments.

God calls a few people to the rigorous existential difficulty of being a monk or nun or philosopher. But for most of us, He allows things like going to movies, or playing golf, or watching cooking shows, or gardening, or collecting model trains–while meanwhile faithfully practicing the religion God gave us.

He demands that we show up at the banquet He Himself has prepared. Then He throws the world wide-open for us. This is a feast worth showing up for.

Not Presumption, Not Despair. Hope.

El Greco St. Paul in St Louis

In our second reading at Sunday Mass, from chapter four of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear St. Paul tell us to “have no anxiety at all.” Philippians 4:6: “Have no anxiety at all.[CLICK por español.]

Now, far be it from us to question the holy Apostle, when it comes to the consistency of his teachings. But any diligent Bible reader knows what St. Paul wrote, two chapters earlier, in Philippians 2:1. “Work out your salvation with… fear and trembling.”

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12.  Have no anxiety at all. Philippians 4:6.

Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?

Let us try to understand.  Maybe when he said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race–weak sinners that we are.  When he said, “Have no anxiety at all,” he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven.

Okay. Quiz. Haven’t had one in a while. Everyone knows that God helps us get to heaven by infusing three theological virtues into our souls. Right? What is the second theological virtue? Correct! Hope. By hoping in God every day, trusting in His Providence, we become the people He made us to be.

Now, the world throws plenty of stress at us. Fear and trembling come naturally enough.

But that’s not quite what St. Paul means–fearing and trembling about the economy, or Kim Jong Un, or lone-wolf shooters, or any of the other bogeymen of the world. Things can get bad, but one way or another, God will always provide for us in this pilgrim life. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.  So when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing for us truly to fear.


The one genuinely frightening thing is:  H—E—double hockey sticks.  When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we really do tremble.  Not a good prospect.  Not at all.

And hell is a real possibility.  We sin against holy hope if we presume on God’s goodness.  Hope is hope, not certainty.  During this pilgrim life, I cannot know for sure that I am going to heaven. I have to get to purgatory first, to know for sure.  Heaven isn’t automatic for anybody.  So my job is to strive every day to do good and avoid evil. I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy.  Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.

On the other hand, St. Paul also wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.”  Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace of God means no despair and no discouragement. Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence.  If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble.  But it is not all up to us.

The good Lord has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven.  He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now.  No matter what we have done or failed to do, up till now. Until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a plan to save us.  He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him.  He will give us what we need to persevere.

Pope Francis Mass consecrationAll we have to do is ask.  That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray, right after he told them to have no anxiety. Pray with hope, in the peace of Christ.

And the Lord Jesus has given us the perfect way to pray.

We read a rough parable in our gospel reading on Sunday. But at the heart of that rough Parable of the Tenants, we actually find our greatest consolation, our greatest source of holy hope.

The vineyard owner sent his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard. He sent his son, in peace—even though the tenants had already killed the owner’s servants.

Was this father living in some kind of dream world? ‘Oh, they killed my servants, so they must be vicious murderers. But let me send my son, my heir, my one and only. He won’t have any problems.’

No. The owner knew the danger. That’s precisely why he sent his son. He wanted to make peace with these dangerous tenants. He thought that he could make peace by respecting the tenants and believing in them. But he also knew perfectly well that his son went to them as a lamb ready to be sacrificed.

This is our consolation and our hope, in the face of everything that life can throw at us; our consolation and hope in spite of all our own incorrigible weaknesses: The Lamb of God has been sacrificed for us. The Lamb of God came among us, ready to die, to overcome all our evil. His sacrifice for us is the perfect prayer of Christian hope. And that sacrifice is: The Holy Mass.

In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven.  And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some:  He gives us Himself.

If we want to learn how to hope in God and how to pray with hope; if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and avoid despair–all we have to do is ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass. All we have to do is make the prayers of the Mass our own.  To pray the Mass is to hope in Christ.

People Don’t Change, Except When They Do

In the second reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, St. Paul tells us to have the same attitude as Christ. [CLICK por español.]

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Which attitude, exactly? He emptied Himself. He humbled Himself. God Almighty–the Creator, eternal Wisdom–became obedient unto death, in the holy Incarnation. The attitude of humble devotion to the will of the Father.

Now, speaking of attitudes–what’s one rule of thumb that a wise observer of human nature lives by? People don’t change.

The bride who imagines that her obtuse, self-centered, thuggish fiancee will miraculously change into a prince, by virtue of marrying her–that’s a woman living in a dangerous dreamworld.

Or the employer looking to hire someone who thinks: Well, her old boss says she’s lazy, and a complainer, and a gossip–but if she could work here, she could become diligent and creative and motivated! That’s a self-deluded boss asking for misery.

People don’t change. Except…

They do. The prophet Ezekiel:

If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall surely live. (Ez 18:27)

Catechism puts it like this:

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God, who makes our hearts turn to Him. God gives us strength to begin anew. When we discover the greatness of God’s love, our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending Him… [paragraph 1432]

Interior repentance is a return to God with all our heart, an end of sin. Conversion entails a desire to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy, and trust in the help of His grace… [paragraph 1431]

The same Holy Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion. [paragraph 1433]

People don’t change. But God does change people. By His holy Incarnation, and the Redemption He won for us, by humbly doing the will of the Father.

We encounter an exquisite irony here. Certainly, beyond a shadow of doubt: God does not change. What He is, which is the all-in-all: it’s eternal. We might think grandpa is stubborn and stuck in His ways. But that’s nothing compared to the immovable-rock-like permanence of the divine Being.

That said, what St. Paul declared did, in fact, happen: God took upon Himself an attitude, the attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. God didn’t change by doing this. He did, however, touch our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace by doing it. He touched our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace in order to overcome our stubbornness and weariness. The Unchanging entered the human race to change us–to change us back from bad to good.

So let’s never kid ourselves. Imagine you were the father in the Parable of the Two Sons (which we will read at Holy Mass on Sunday), and you had a son with such a sullen attitude that he simply spitted out No! whenever you asked him to help you. If you had to contend with such a miscreant son, you would want to tread very lightly when it comes to investing such a brat with any real responsibilities. People don’t change.

But: On that particular day, the day of the parable… On that day, this person did change.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchThe punk made his usual petulant reply. “Help? No.” But then he thought better of it. Some new vision of things entered into his mind. The son saw what he had never been able to see before: His stubborn self-centeredness was wronging his good and kind father. Not to mention the fact that he was condemning himself to shiftless misery by being too arrogant to take a risk.

For the first time, the son perceived: I don’t have to live like this. It would be better; it would be happier; it would even really be easier, for me just to get up and walk out into the fields and see what’s going on. Let me see what contribution I can make. Maybe I could learn how to do something helpful.

So the son strode out into the field…

God’s grace can convert even the hardened sinner. Because the life that Christ embraced in His incarnation–the humble life, dedicated to obeying the heavenly Father–that life alone offers a human being genuine happiness. Whenever, by God’s gift, we catch a glimpse of the Christ-like life, we want to live it. We want that peace–the genuine, unshakable joy of co-operating with God.

Young ladies–give up the idea that you’re gonna change your man by your own magic arts. It won’t happen.

But may none of us ever give up on the idea that Christ can change people. Christ can, and does, turn sinners into saints.

The Gift of Time

alarm clock

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Monks pray. They chant psalms and canticles to give God glory. [Click HERE por Spanish.]

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Nurses in hospitals see to their patients’ medications. Make notes. Change shifts.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Worksite managers drink coffee out of big tumblers and plan, supervise, order equipment and materials. Chew the fat with customers, architects, engineers. Talk football.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Rehab patients and nursing-home residents contend with their aches, their pains, and their loneliness. They await their meals, their p.t. and o.t., their baths and their showers, and their meds. They tune into their tv shows. They hope someone will come visit. Maybe they read their Bibles and pray.

Rembrandt Laborers in the VineyardDawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Students arise, eat cereal or pop-tarts, heft their backpacks, maybe stress-out about the homework they haven’t done. They get on and off the schoolbus, talk to their friends for a few fleeting moments. They get called-on. They get bored. They fall asleep at their desks after lunch. They get home and play video games. But hopefully not for too long, because there’s homework!

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Depressed people suffer, suffer–with every tick-tock minute poking the scalp like sixty little needles, one second after another… Landscape workers sweat in the sun, dirt grinding into the skin of their fingers… At Waffle House, they sling the hash; at Mickey D’s they drop the fries. In malls, salespeople at boutiques with light foot traffic endlessly fold and re-fold the merchandise… Drug addicts desperately hustle on the streets for cash… Young professionals in Nissans and Hyundais make quick stops at drive-thru carwashes and then vacuum their floormats… Truck drivers look through the windshield down the highway and plan their next bathroom/coffee stop… Soccer moms cut oranges, fold laundry, and show up for drop-offs and pick-ups… The unemployed wait in agony for e-mails to come…

How could we get through life without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms? Five minutes can drag on like an eternity of torture, when you’re off your rhythm–or never had a rhythm to begin with. And for some of us–blessed with a good, healthy rhythm of life–1994 seems like yesterday.

Why do you stand there idle all day? (see Matthew 20:6) The rhythm that makes the passage of time endurable always involves some kind of work. For some people–sick people, incapacitated people–just to get through the day means a job well done. Twenty years ago, when I taught middle-school boys for a living, I had the motto: if everyone’s still alive when it’s over, it was a success. Other, super-productive people–like cooks, and moms, and bus drivers–they accomplish more before noon than most of us do in a month.

Ora et LaboraBut whatever my particular work may be, it does one great thing: it makes time a friend, an ally, a partner. On the other hand: when you’re idle, time becomes a mud patch, an enemy, a dark confusing cloud of frustrated non-possibilities. That’s the greatest torture on earth.

What exactly does the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard teach? Gosh–a lot. But the main thing is: the owner of the vineyard is generous. “I am generous,” he said.

We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. We get to sleep the sound sleep of the just by busting it from dawn to dusk. But did we earn these brows, upon which we sweat? Did we earn these hands we use? Do we receive 24 hours every day to fill with our comings and goings because we pre-paid for their delivery?

No. A huge gift came first. We have what it takes to build up a rhythm of life because God gave us us. The idea that I deserve even to exist: that idea is the gravest enemy my spiritual life can have. Because if I start kidding myself that I, me, gave myself the morning sun, or a roof over my head when I was a baby–if I start tallying all the benefits and perks that all my illustrious efforts deserve, then I run a grave risk. I will find myself standing there with just one pitiful little denarius in my hand at the end of the day. When I frown, the Lord will ask me, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Some people live in run-down, drafty double-wides, and some live in mansions with wall-to-wall carpet and tropical fish tanks. Who really deserves either one? I could fight all my life to win the esteem of men, or to experience vast international travels, or to consume daily gourmet meals, or rack-up professional accomplishments and little performance-review trophies. I will still die as naked as I was born.

God gives. For free. We will all die wretched and miserable deaths unless we spend the rest of our lives trying to grasp this one simple fact. God gives. God gives the dawn. And 9am. And noon. And 3pm. And the evening.

He gives it all, to everyone, freely.

The Mass is the Oil

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew Holy Sepulchre
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew together at the tomb of Christ

In the parable of the ten virgins, five of them had something, and five did not. Having that something made a great difference—all the difference. The five who had it entered the wedding feast. The five who did not found a locked door, and they heard God say to them, “I do not know you.”

Oil. Oil for the lamps. This is a parable. What does the oil represent?

Pope Francis and the bishops have made today the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Holy Father issued a joint statement with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A brief, penetrating, and captivating statement. Come to my Vespers talk on Sunday, and we will study every word of it [4:30pm, St. Joseph’s, Martinsville, Virginia. Parish dinner to follow!]

Right now let’s focus on one sentence. The statement of course exhorts all Christians to pray: to pray that all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ, to thank the Creator and pledge our commitment to care for His handiwork. Then the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew write:

An objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world.

The oil in the parable is: prayer. And not just any prayer, but prayer in the Holy Spirit; prayer in which I, me, myself truly speak and communicate and open my heart, but not unilaterally. Rather: when I pray in the Holy Spirit I am myself only in co-operation with God.

So we can be even more precise: The oil is our regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist. When we participate in Mass, we pray—we ourselves, thanking God, asking Him for help, begging His mercy. But as much as the Mass is our work, much more so is it God’s. After all, in the Holy Mass, the triune Lord continues the Incarnation, and unites us to the mystery of His infinite love bodily. In the Mass, God makes our co-operation with Him as physically intimate as physical intimacy can possibly be. As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation…The Eucharist is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love… The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration. (Laudato Si’ 236)

This is the oil we need.