Ora et labora

Today is the Feast of St. Benedict, whose 73-chapter Rule formed the foundation for monastic life as we know it. His principles were often boiled down to a much more succinct maxim: Ora et labora, pray and work.

To Benedict, prayer and action are partners: your prayer life inspires and ignites your passion for action, and your action provides experiences for later reflection and the opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in the world. In our lives, we are to do God’s Work, the Opus Dei. To truly accomplish this feat, we must know God through prayer and we must know work.

It’s no coincidence that these are often the two areas that challenge us most in life: dedicating the time and attention to prayer that we need and working in a way that unites our purpose to Jesus.

Today, in honor of St. Benedict and in lieu of a longer reflection, I want to issue a simple call/challenge: Spend the 10-15 minutes you might have dedicated to reading a reflection to silent prayer for the loved ones in your life. Pray deeply and truthfully for your family, for your friends. Ask the Lord to reveal what needs prayer in their life. Intercede, intercede, intercede.

Finally, ask the Lord for something you can do for any 1 person you prayed for. Be specific.

Lord, show me how to be your hands and feet in their life right here, right now.

Pray, and then act.

The Law, Mercy, and Freedom

…Standing by the column, the king made a covenant before the LORD
that they would follow him
and observe his ordinances, statutes and decrees
with their whole hearts and souls,
thus reviving the terms of the covenant
which were written in this book.
And all the people stood as participants in the covenant.
-2 Kings 23:3

Today’s first reading tells a beautiful and moving story: The LORD’s chosen people, Judah, find the Word that had been lost. Not just any word, but the book of the law. The conditions of God’s covenant with His children.

The high priests dust it off and wade, unknowing, into its contents. What the read grips their heart like nothing they’ve heard before. The Word has sought them out, coming to them, falling into their lap like so much serendipity, though we know it was the work of the Spirit that brought His people to His Word.

I am reminded of all of the scenes in Tolkien-esque fantasy where a beaten-down group of upstarts against insurmountable odds find their ancient weapon/artifact/ally, and its very presences renews their spirit and faith. Something about this new discovery speaks to their heritage, their patrimony, their identity, reviving their hearts and minds to a powerful and terrific purpose. (Or for a less nerdy version, maybe take the famous “Band of Brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V)

If we can imagine such an inspiring moment in fictional battles, how much more might God’s own sons and daughters have been invigorated by the living Word!

Yet the moment in today’s story from 2 Kings that most impacted me was the section quoted above. The king swore a renewed commitment to their long-lost covenant, and by the mercy of an all-powerful God, this was not just a symbolic or nostalgic gesture! What does it say instead?

“they would follow him
and observe his ordinances, statutes and decrees
with their whole hearts and souls,
thus reviving the terms of the covenant

The LORD’s covenant was always valid! His mercy was waiting for them! This the heart of the Good Father running out to meet their prodigal son, 600 years before the parable was even told!

As Erin mentioned on Monday, the treasures in heaven only grow brighter the closer we come to our Father. The LORD has good gifts for us; today’s readings tell us how His law leads us to freedom.

Return to the LORD! He longs for communion with you, His daughter. He longs for communion with you, His son. He wants to talk to you, tell you he loves you, and give you the strength to do what most fulfills your purpose.

When giving is being filled

And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
– Matthew 6:18

Today’s Gospel is likely a familiar one. It’s a strong teaching about how praying, fasting, or giving alms, while good acts, are hollow when you’re looking for attention. Pride is the root of all sin, so it’s not surprising that it can finds its way into even the most virtuous acts. Remember when Jesus said a demon was so strong that it could only come out through prayer and fasting?

To paraphrase my wife paraphrasing a recent sermon she had heard (I wish I knew which source to cite): Sometimes if the Devil can’t make you sin, he is content to make you ineffective.

I’ve recently been in a season of life that has required a lot of giving. I’m working longer hours than I have, and my duties at home grow in parallel with my toddling son. I wish I could say that my added efforts were perfectly and graciously offered to Jesus, that I was being a regular St. Joseph and that I am the image of St. Paul’s “cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

But they weren’t, I haven’t, and I’m not.

The change has been hard. And I am human (why, Lord?!). And I have gotten resentful more than I have liked.

When I go unnaturally out of my way and egg my wife on to tell me how great I am and how hard I’m working, I have received my award. When I am resentful and require a ‘reward’ (acknowledgment, affirmation, candy, etc.), that very well may be all I get for it.

God is merciful and mysterious, and he knows my heart better than I do, so I trust in him to take my small offerings and multiply them, even when my heart could further be purified. He’ll take care of His part, and today’s Gospel reminded me to take care of mine. Lord, purify my heart.

The Hammer of the Heretics

Elijah appealed to all the people and said,
“How long will you straddle the issue?
If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
– 1 Kings 18:21

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:19

How long will I straddle the issue?

I love it when Scripture speaks so plainly. Reading this, the second verse from today’s readings, stopped me in my tracks. How long have I straddled issues in my life? What doubts, chronic sins, or bad habits have I allowed to take root in me?

So many times I get caught up in the lie of trying to get the best of both worlds (or more accurately in this case, ‘the best of both Heaven and Earth”). I want to be holy, but I want to be admired. I want to be deep, contemplative, and thoughtful, but I want to be recognized for it. I want to preach the Gospel, but I don’t want to come off as “preachy”.

How long will I straddle the issue?

Fitting, then, that today’s strong verbiage is accompanied by a strong saint’s feast day: St. Anthony of Padua, who is apparently also known as the “Hammer of the Heretics” (though the citations for this are dubious… but it’s a great name so let’s stick with it). St. Anthony’s witness was his life of prayer and preaching; he was (quite literally) tossed and turn on the waves of life and ended up following a much different path than expected: instead of risking martyrdom to preach to the Moors in Morocco, Anthony found himself in decidedly Catholic Italy. What could easily have felt like defeat, or at the very least a blow to his ability to live for God’s glory, instead led to the exact path he needed for sainthood.

St. Anthony shares much in common with our patron Pier Giorgio, chiefly a zeal for service and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Wealth, glory, and fame were certainly within both of their respective reaches in life, and yet illnesses sidetracked their earthly plans to bring about even greater glory for God.

These men are an inspiration to me, giving me courage and faith that I could be a champion for God’s kingdom, even here and now in my current, humble state in life. What is needed is zeal and decisive faith. Elijah is calling to me: “If the LORD is God, follow him.”

Stirred into flame

For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
– 2 Timothy 1:6-8

Today’s first reading is the basis for an incredibly formative moment in my faith journey, a college retreat called Fan Into Flame. Saint Paul’s Outreach (SPO), my campus Catholic community, would host this retreat for relatively new members of their ministry. It was intense, charismatic, and went deep quickly. It would be easy to think that the whole retreat might be a bit “heavy” for the college students who were still feeling out their identity and path in life, so why does SPO start with this retreat? The Scripture above gives the “why”: the laying on of hands is a direct reflection and prayer for an imposition of the Holy Spirit upon the students’ lives.

Through the sacraments and intercessory prayer, we have received the Spirit. Through Christ, we are temples of the Spirit. The Spirit is the mobilizing force of God, His Presence and Advocate in our soul. When we pray for a renewed outpouring, perhaps a “baptism in the Spirit“, we give the Holy Spirit permission to move in new ways. We cry out for manifestations of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, not for drama’s sake, but for the good of the Church, to strengthen ministry. We ask the Lord for power, love, and self-control.

When was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit? I encourage you to pray today for an unlocking of the Spirit you have received, that you would be stirred into flame. Even better, pray with someone else, as St. Paul would have done (he knew a thing or two about the Spirit).

Then go forth in confidence, power, love, self-control, and with the strength that comes from God.

The Precious Blood of Christ, the Price for Which We Were Bought

Beloved:
Realize that you were ransomed from your futile conduct,
handed on by your ancestors,
not with perishable things like silver or gold
but with the precious Blood of Christ
as of a spotless unblemished Lamb.
He was known before the foundation of the world
but revealed in the final time for you,
who through him believe in God
who raised him from the dead and gave him glory,
so that your faith and hope are in God.
– 1 Peter 1:18-21

We’ve heard the message before: “You were bought at a price!”

But what does this mean to us? How does this affect our lives? It is an incredible faith exercise to reflect upon what exactly that price was. One of the main reasons gold and silver have been valued through the ages is their constancy/durability. How many things in life change our perspective so deeply that we would see them as perishable? Bananas are perishable, not gold or silver.

Such is the Blood of Christ.

In Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (happy birthday yesterday, GK!), he touches on this theme in a way that has stuck with me for years: we ought to reflect on the constant things in life, because they speak to God’s imperishable love. Atheists, he notes, take the rigid laws of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, as proof that these realities are, in fact, dull and unquestionable. The universe does not behave any other way because it could not behave in any other way, so the laws of thermodynamics and gravity, for example, are not proof of some greater design, but simply normal.

However, I would bet that even among non-believers, most people would be more likely to acknowledge the staggering improbability of it all. Life, the universe, all of it. Instead of a fatalist boredom, to these the vastness of creation inspires an admittedly uninspiring thought: we were just really, really lucky. With trillions of stars, planets, and combinations of the periodic table throughout all existence, there was bound to be a fortunate set of conditions such as ours. We were the 00 on the enormous roulette wheel of the universe, so we might as well cash in.

As believers, our job is to actively believe otherwise. We all have our experiences of the living God in our lives that refute any kind of inevitability or impersonal cosmic fluke of creation as the source of Goodness. Haven’t you? Where does the goodness in your life come from? Do you attribute it to the Living Water? We must protect and proclaim these experiences of Christ’s Blood covering us, keeping them lit as we do the candle above the tabernacle.

There is something more inside.

Take time contemplate the vastness of the universe in the upcoming weeks. Read The Divine Comedy or The Tempest. Listen to Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Watch Planet Earth or Cosmos (and pray for Neil Degrasse Tyson’s ultimate conversion, I know it’s gonna happen!). Go for a walk and the count the homes you pass. God knows them all inside and out. He knows every soul fully. In a city of 8.5 million, that ought to have an effect on you. Bask in the hugeness of creation, and know that Christ was known before any of it was known. He was “known before the foundation” and revealed to us. The Creator burst into our reality, took on our form for Love’s sake, and imprinted Himself on every one of our hearts.

Such is the Blood of Christ.

“O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!” 

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

To an Unknown God

Hey Frassatians, I don’t have a lot of time for a reflection today, so I’m going to send out a draft I had written for two weeks ago, May 9th. Hop in your time machine and I hope you enjoy!

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.

—Acts 17:22-23

In terms of theatrics, today’s first reading is top-notch. St. Paul delivers a Spirit-infused, moving monologue about the Lord’s hidden hand behind all the Athenians hold dear, from creation to power over life and death. How do the Athenians respond? The reaction is…mixed, quite literally. Some scoff, others humorously defer (“Can you just tell us about overcoming death some other time, Paul? Pretty please? We’re really busy right now”), and others immediately follow St. Paul as disciples of Christ.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s always easy to hear a reading like this and say, “Well, there’s their problem right there! They didn’t listen to Paul about Jesus!” Groundbreaking conclusion, that.

Anytime we hear about the crowd’s reaction in Scriptures, though, we’re being called to examine our own hearts. We’re asked to put ourselves in their place. If we had just heard Paul’s rousing proclamation of the Gospel, how would we react?

I first read today’s reading from Acts with a smugness that (at least in my case) comes in no small part from my identity as a cradle Catholic: while friends around me were dropping like flies from the Church and other churches were holding newer, hipper services, I took on the identity of martyr, and not the good kind. I was special. I could see something that others were missing. If only they knew the God that I knew. If only they knew how hard it was to stay Catholic while all of that was happening around me…

But after another read-through, I came to the truth of the matter that God wanted me to hear: That altar “to an Unknown God” is my own.

In a few recent reflections, I’ve touched on a theme pervasive in today’s faith climate: “I’m spiritual, not religious”. St. Paul’s words brought out the parts of me that had tacitly incorporate that mentality into my own faith. In the face of a political and social environment that discourages firm, immovable beliefs, tolerance is a logical outcome. Most people in NYC with whom I discussed my faith (that were not Catholic) had a similar response, sometimes stated and sometimes implied: “That’s great! ….for you.” Translation: “Don’t confront me or make me confront my beliefs, and I will be happy to politely hear about yours.” Sounds a lot like an altar to an Unknown God, huh?

And yet so often I felt this attitude of polite, partial tolerance was actually a reasonable and responsible approach. My own version of the above interaction went something like this: “We can’t possibly grasp the full mystery of God, so I’m going to leave my options open. I don’t want to push them away with firm truths.” I wasn’t questioning my faith, but I wasn’t willing to close the door on other spiritualities, either. I couldn’t bring myself to tell people that I disagree with their openmindedness. I, after having used my Catholic identity for years as evidence that I had a better faith life than so many of my peers, was unwilling to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and actually tell my non-Catholic friends why I believe what I believe and why I think it is the one and only Truth. I claim it with every Creed I pray, so why couldn’t I proclaim it?

When I first read Paul’s words, my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, take that, Athenians!”

Upon further reflection, I realize that Paul was exhorting ME. I humbly thanked God for the lesson.

 

Pray with Scripture. It does things to your heart.