Living in the Spirit, Following the Spirit

Brothers and sisters:
If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I warned you before,
that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.
—Galatians 5:18-25

Do you ever catch yourself reading a Scripture verse and thinking, “Okay that seems obvious”? Or maybe a better way to phrase the phenomenon is glazing over a verse here or there because it just seems too…straightforward? Easy to digest? Unremarkable?\

Sure, you do. We all do, we all know the feeling. It’s happens all the time when our minds wander, and sometimes even when you’re pretty well focused. That happened to me with today’s first reading.

Luckily, I caught myself this time. Do I really think St. Paul was redundant? Should I really write him off as an over-communicator? Of course not.

So I went back to the last verse of the reading: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Straightforward, no? Yet what happens if we break this verse down grammatically? If I believe and profess that the Bible is the written Word of God, then every sentence, and possibly every word, should get this treatment. There are so many “levels” on which you can read Scripture, and God can speak to you through all of them! Read a chapter for the story, or meditate on a single sentence or passage a la lectio divina; the Spirit speaks either way.

So. Back to today’s verse: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Why wouldn’t somebody be doing both? Why does it need to be stated?

As Catholics, what does it look like to live in the Spirit? The most obvious response is being a regular participant/recipient of the Sacraments. Jesus instituted the Sacraments as vehicles of grace, aka the gifts of the Spirit. Regular Mass-goers, you can check this one off: you, in a technical sense, could be considered to be living in the Spirit (if you go to Confession, and if you are not in a state of sin; big ifs)

If we’re living in the Spirit, it does not mean that we are necessarily following the Spirit. Participating and receiving do not mean that we are listening. If we are to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, do we need to receive the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. Is that enough by itself? Not at all.

“Following the Spirit” can have two related meanings: discerning God’s will in your life (i.e. following as a guide) and acting in accordance with His law (i.e. following as a rule). How often do we participate, but do not seek time in prayer for the Spirit to speak on a personal life decision? How often do we pray before a difficult conversation? A meeting at work?

These two elements, living in the Spirit and following the Spirit, are symbiotic and necessary. The grace of the Sacraments will flow into and inform our prayer and actions, and our prayer and actions inspire a greater desire for the Sacraments.

In addition to seeking out ways you can more deeply live in and follow the Spirit in your life, I ask that you say a special prayer for those who attend Mass regularly, but God does not have a central place in their lives otherwise. Pray that the Spirit would enkindle in them a new fire of love for Christ.

 

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
—Matthew 16:16–18

Considering the fact that they often disagreed in life, it’s funny that Peter and Paul now share a feast day. However, despite their differing personalities, their stories have much in common. Both Peter and Paul were beacons of the early Church, instrumental in evangelization and leadership. Both gave their lives as martyrs, sowing the seed of the Church. And both underwent radical conversions after personal encounters with Christ.

Peter’s story in the Gospels is one of constantly trying, failing, and persevering. He is somewhat of a hapless apostle, trying to please Jesus but constantly making mistakes in the process. His sincere love for Jesus is fully apparent, alongside his flawed humanity, and through this combination he models for us how to fall upon the great mercy of God. If someone like Peter can not only be forgiven for his denial and betrayal of Jesus but also be named the first pope—well, then there’s hope for all of us, isn’t there?

Roman_School,_circa_1620_Saints_Peter_and_PaulPaul has perhaps the most famous conversion story of all time, the dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus. He too is a prime example of a flawed saint; before Jesus dramatically intervened, Paul was literally murdering Christians. Not a typical path to holiness. But Jesus took even that unlikely path and redirected it toward sainthood. Paul always recognized that it was only through God’s grace that he was able to carry out his good works; he had no illusions of his own inherent goodness.

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith…
The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
—2 Timothy 4:6–7, 17

St._Paul_Visiting_St._Peter_in_PrisonPaul poured himself out until he was empty, an open vessel in which Christ could dwell. It was then that God’s grace worked in him most fully, supplying him with a transcendent strength to persevere in his mission. The words Jesus once spoke to Peter apply to Paul, too: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Peter and Paul both found their strength in weakness, by being receptive to divine revelation, allowing God to take control. Peter was particularly changed after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—before that moment, he was cowering in the upper room, but upon receiving those graces, he immediately stepped out in courage.

There is a lesser known story in which Jesus meets Peter out on the road and redirects his path. Instead of the road to Damascus, it is the road from Rome:

A legend has Peter walking along a road outside of Rome, fleeing arrest and certain death, when he comes to a crossroads: where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina.

There he meets our risen Lord.

“Quo vadis?” Peter asks, to which Jesus replies:

“Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” I am going to Rome to be crucified again….

The end of the story, of course, is the end of Peter. He turns around and heads back towards Vatican Hill. This is the last time he would need to be redirected by Jesus.

Brad Miner

1601-2

Imagine Peter at that crossroads. It would not be the first time he’d found himself in that position—his abiding love for Jesus pinned against his all-encompassing terror of suffering and death. Here was a second chance to choose faith over fear. Perhaps this time, Peter would recall the words he once spoke to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

Just as Peter and Paul persevered despite their flaws and sins and mistakes, may we too find the courage to get up when we fall and keep moving forward. May we recognize that it is far better to stumble along the right road than to speed down the wrong one—for even if the wrong one is smoother and easier, it won’t take us where we need to go, and there is only one Way that leads to everlasting life.


1. Anonymous (Roman school), Saints Peter and Paul / PD-US
2. Filippino Lippi, St. Paul Visits St. Peter in Prison / PD-US
3. Annibale Caracci, Domine, quo vadis? / PD-US

The Word of God Is Not Chained

2 TM 2:8-15

“Beloved:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:
such is my Gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.

But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus,
together with eternal glory.”

Dear fellow pilgrims,

As I read this first reading from St. Paul, the imagery and meaning of “chains” stood out to me. Prison cells just shortly after Jesus’ time could not have been very conducive to writing a major religious work, but these were the conditions under which the Holy Spirit was thriving in prophesying and teaching through St. Paul. Here was a man who had made a living killing Christians who was about to be martyred for that same faith. He saw his conditions, his chains, but he also saw the deeper truth of the unchained Spirit working in and through him. For he had seen the chains of his own heart destroyed by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit in the extreme conversion of heart he experienced; he knew the power of God keenly.

And this is why he distinguishes the power of the Spirit working inwardly from his current outward state: we should never doubt that God works wonders even when it seems all external constraints have taken hold on our lives. “The word of God is not chained!” That is a cry to yell into the evil one’s face when he is making you feel like you’re “nowhere near where you thought you would be in life by this point,” or if you really can’t figure out why God would allow this much suffering in your life…we are all “in chains” that constrain us or even hurt and confine what we want our life should be. We might be “in chains,” but the source of all strength and courage and purifying grace and mercy is never limited to our condition, rather, He liberates us from our conditions to a higher consciousness of prayer and awareness.

Where in life do you feel stuck? Do you feel like God is working there, or do you feel like He has left you?

Speak into these parts of our lives. Claim your chains so you can claim the Spirit’s freedom to work within you given the circumstances. These chains are the environment where God is trying to reach you, and there may be reasons that will ultimately benefit you why you are remaining in such a state.

Pray for clarity, wisdom, and humility, to know our limits of our state of life and vocation, and for a greater outpouring of His Spirit upon our lives.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

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.

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.

Easy vs. Fulfilling

The most recent days’ reflections have done an effective job of shattering any notions we might have that life as a Christian is life free from distress or suffering. If anybody felt any belief in a “prosperity gospel” sneaking up on them, just take a gander through the missalette for the week and that should be snuffed out pretty quickly.

However, while today’s readings lack in promises of earthly smooth-sailing (see: “savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock”), they call us to a deeper reality of spiritual kinship, showing how much more fulfilling a life shared with Christ and the members of His Church can be.

Do you think any of Paul’s followers in Ephesus were miffed by his declaration that hard times were coming? Maybe some, but the book of Acts tells this story:

When he had finished speaking
he knelt down and prayed with them all.
They were all weeping loudly
as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him,
for they were deeply distressed that he had said
that they would never see his face again.
Then they escorted him to the ship.

Likewise, today’s gospel recounts one of my favorite of Jesus’ prayers (it was the Gospel reading for our wedding), where he assures the listeners that while they have endured hatred in His name, the disciples have been “consecrated in truth” and they [will] “share [His] joy completely.”

These examples from Scripture speak to a greater truth that I have been grappling with lately: looking to earthly gratification and relaxation, and not valuing the depth of relationship and call to give of myself enough.

I pray that we may all use the words from today’s readings as inspiration to embrace our giving, knowing that growing in unity with the Father and the Church are the greater, more fulfilling goals.

Due Process

*Note: A disclaimer about today’s writings – I spend some time reflecting on the ways and ceremonies by which some denominations practice their faith. I am very poorly-versed in this arena. I don’t know which jargon is fair game and which is horribly offensive. My musings are my own, as are any possible (probable) heresies. I will answer for them, I’m sure. I just hope what I’m saying even makes sense at this time of day and I’m sending this out in faith that the Holy Spirit found His way in there somewhere. -ab

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.
They were sent on their journey by the Church,
and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria
telling of the conversion of the Gentiles,
and brought great joy to all the brethren.
When they arrived in Jerusalem,
they were welcomed by the Church,
as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters,
and they reported what God had done with them.
But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers
stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them
and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
The Apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.
—Acts 15:1-6

The book of Acts is a gold mine.

The Bible is full of unspeakable depths of beauty and wisdom, and God is His goodness not only teaches us about himself through Scripture, but He also gives us invaluable examples of what it means to be living as a Church in the A.D. world.

Today’s reading makes me proud to be a Catholic. I know our Mother Church doesn’t have the only claim to a “due process” of sorts in theological matters, but in no other church is today’s first reading so faithfully and literally lived out.

I recently had the opportunity to attend one of the largest churches in my hometown of Brainerd. It is a non-denominational church with multiple services on multiple campuses every weekend. The music was wonderful, the sermon was scriptural and sound, and then they began communion. I was confused. Why does a church like this celebrate communion? Every part of the service was so carefully crafted to be accessible, attractive, and modern, and this ritual performance seemed jarringly out of place. Now, I’m Catholic (surprise!), so I have no question about why somebody would want to celebrate the Eucharist! The closeness with Christ and your fellow partakers is unmistakable. But why would a church that was working so hard to establish an identity based on “spiritual, not religious” (one of the songs even had a lyric about God breaking down their ‘religion’) maintain this practice that is historically rooted in Catholicism? A cynical explanation: they want something that feels familiar to all of the ex-Lutherans, ex-Presbyterians, and ex-Catholic in attendance. A more hopeful explanation: even with all of its lack, this celebration with bread and grape juice speaks to the congregation in a deep, yearning that invites them to be truly one with Christ one day in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Now the whole point of this anecdote is not necessarily to examine the theology behind their monthly practice of celebrating communion (which really is fascinating!), but to examine the process by which they crafted their weekly services. When you’re planting your own church and eschewing “stale tradition”, you’re writing your own ‘liturgy’. Who makes the calls? A group of elders behind closed doors? A public vote once a year? The one pastor who founded it all? Who decided to keep this part of tradition when “tradition” and “ritual” are so anathema to your target audience?

No matter how much you might try to avoid having any stances on any issues (a huge part of the “spiritual, not religious” moment), any church that claims a shared identity will eventually have to take some. There will be disagreement, and there needs to be a way to arrive at a consensus. That’s how science, effective democracy, and a healthy church work. Now how do we get there?

See the above reading.

One last, unrelated note that struck me:

“They were sent by the Church…” and “they were welcomed by the Church…”

Paul and Barnabas are fundamental examples of heroic pastoral ministry. Today’s readings, along with many others in Acts and the epistles, show that these saints were servants in every sense of the word. They were cloven to Christ, the true vine, and servants and pruners of His Church, the branches. They were practical, logical, and yet wildly, radically faithful. They were attentive to their flock, saw their needs, and moved quickly to respond to them. They sought the one Truth, hence their need to come to a consensus.

Let us pray to receive Jesus’s Truth in our hearts and trust in the process He and his disciples established.