The internal battle for our souls

Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject. Aristotle wrote that and it seems to say the obvious, something can’t be light and dark at the same time.

However, in terms of what’s happening inside our souls it seems that contraries can indeed co-exist inside the same subject. At any given moment, inside us, we are a mixture of light and darkness, sincerity and hypocrisy, selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice, grace and sin, saint and sinner. As Henri Nouwen used to say: We want to be great saints, but we also don’t want to miss out on all the sensations that sinners experience. And so our lives aren’t simple.

We live with both light and darkness inside us and for long periods of time, it seems, contraries do co-exist inside us. Our souls are a battleground where selflessness and selfishness, virtue and sin, vie for dominance. But eventually one or the other will begin to dominate and work at weeding out the other. That’s why John of the Cross picks up this philosophical axiom and uses it to teach a key lesson about coming to purity of heart and purity of intention in our lives. Because contraries cannot co-exist inside us, there’s something vital we need to do. What?

    God expects the righteous to be kind

    16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 17 (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43)

    The use of force and violence — despite our denials — is widely admired by many people. Just look at movies and video games, as well as the heroes and idols adored by our culture. Restraint and refusal to resort to force is readily seen as a sign of weakness. And strange as it may seem, there are those who prefer a God who is rather violent and quick to punish evildoers (as long as it is someone else!) in the severest ways. They see God’s wrath lurking behind every natural or human disaster and every personal tragedy.

    The author of wisdom does not deny for a moment that God is sovereign and has the power to do whatever He wants. But God’s true greatness and strength lies in His restraint and reluctance to resort to such responses. This patience and mildness is borne of God’s intense concern and care for all people and the fervent wish that all have a change of mind and heart. This does not mean that God is a pushover or just turns a blind eye to our injustice, unkindness and downright cruelty. We live in a moral universe. We will meet ourselves in our experience — what we deal out to others will return to us in one form or another.

      Spiritual maturity in Jesus

      16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 18 (Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42)

      Having houseguests isn’t always a joy even for close friends and relatives. Inviting strangers to stay over under one’s roof is almost unheard of today. In the ancient Middle East, offering hospitality to travellers and strangers was serious business — in fact, it was a life and death matter. Once hospitality had been extended, the host was responsible not only for the comfort and well-being of his guests but their very lives.

        A view from the Island of Tears

        This summer, I visited Ellis Island, the “Golden Door/Island of Tears” by which 12 million persons sought to enter the United States between 1892 and 1954. Sailing from Italy, Russia, Poland and other countries, many travelled steerage, like sheep. Black-and-white photographic portraits of travellers look out from the walls of the huge building, now a museum, formerly dedicated to sorting and processing the newcomers. One portrait, of a beautiful young Italian with pensive eyes, reminded me of photos of my grandmother, who came to Canada in similar circumstances at age 18, alone, parted forever from her home and family, unable to read or write or speak English.

        Remembrances by some who made the journey are recorded there. “This is my native land now,” said one; “I don’t ever want to see Russia again.” What broke, between this man and his birth country? Did that rupture somehow find healing in the new land he took as his own? Broken relationship and new life: what’s the connection?

        As novelist Ernest Hemingway observed, “Life breaks us all; and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

          There is no limit to God’s Word

          15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 10 (Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 65; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23)

          The Word of the Lord is relentless and unceasing. But this “Word” has little to do with the individual words written on a page — even in the Bible.

          When we hold the lectionary aloft and say “The Word of the Lord” we must take care not to mistake the book for God’s word. This sort of confusion often leads to literal interpretations and superficial, unthinking applications of the text. The beautiful metaphor in Isaiah’s passage is far richer and deeper. The Word of God is a divine utterance — an expression of God’s will and spirit — and it ripples through the entire cosmos. Everything that reflects the nature and will of God is part of this communication. As the recent papal exhortation Verbum Domini points out, God’s Word can be expressed in creation itself, in nature and the cycle of life. It also finds expression in salvation history — the times and places when God’s guiding hand has moved humanity towards redemption.

            The size of our hearts

            It’s common, particularly among religious commentators, to describe the human heart as small, narrow and petty: How small-hearted and petty we are!

            I find this distressing because religious thinkers especially should know better. We are not created by God and put on this Earth with small, narrow and petty hearts. The opposite is true. God puts us into this world with huge hearts, hearts as deep as the Grand Canyon. The human heart in itself, when not closed off by fear, wound and paranoia, is the antithesis of pettiness. The human heart, as Augustine describes it, is not fulfilled by anything less than infinity itself. There’s nothing small about the human heart.

            But then why do we find ourselves relating to the world, to each other and to God with hearts that are small, narrow and petty?

              Live in the Spirit and you will be transformed

              14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 3 (Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30)

              What is strange about this picture? The victorious king enters the city on a donkey — the equivalent of a president or prime minister driving an ordinary low-end car. One might expect more flash and panache from a messianic king. But there is something else out of the ordinary.  This king is not bent on conquest or empire but establishing peace. In fact, he will deliberately thwart the efforts of all those dedicated to war and conquest.

              All of this confirms that this personage is from God and not a product of human beings. The visitation of God never baptizes the status quo, nor will it give comfort to opinionated, fanatical or controlling people. God will shock most and outrage not a few for God’s ways are definitely not human ways.

              It would be wonderful to have a divine figure who would establish peace and justice but this is not going to happen. God will give us the tools — the spiritual principles and guidance — to make this happen. But God will not force this on us, for God respects our free will. Far better for us to follow the example and teachings of the one who rides humbly into the city on a donkey than to just ‘let God do it’ or even worse to pervert the Lord’s teaching into instruments of violence or injustice.  

                Consider the human heart’s complexity

                In a book on preaching, entitled, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner challenges all preachers and spiritual writers to speak with “awful honesty” about the human struggle, even inside the context of faith. Don’t put an easy sugar-coating on things, he warns:

                “Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depth of this absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and in such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job ... and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it the catch of the breath, the beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”

                Reading this, I was reminded of some of the preaching in my own parish when I was a young boy. I grew up in a small, sheltered, farming, immigrant community in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Our parish priests, wonderfully sincere men, tended however to preach to us as if we were a group of idyllic families in the TV series Little House on the Prairies. They would share with us how pleased they were to be ministering to us, simple farm-folk, living uncomplicated lives, far from the problems of those who were living in the big cities.

                  Search for meaning to find happiness

                  Am I happy? Is my life a happy one? Am I happy inside my marriage? Am I happy with my family? Am I happy in my job? Am I happy with my church? Am I happy inside my own skin?

                  Are these good questions to ask ourselves? No. They’re questions with which to torture ourselves.

                  When we face our lives honestly this kind of question about happiness is more likely to bring tears to our eyes than solace to our souls because, no matter how well things are going, none of us live perfectly fulfilled lives. Always there are unfulfilled dreams. Always there are areas of frustration. Always there are tensions. Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled. And always, as Karl Rahner puts it, we are suffering the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.

                    Finding nourishment through Christ

                    Body and Blood of Christ (Year A) June 26 (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-59)

                    Faith and trust are not all that difficult when all is well and everything is in harmony with our desires. It is easy for people to praise God and pledge devoted service even as they continue to do things their own way. But when everything collapses and the going gets tough it is a different story. Faith — or what passes for it — evaporates as cynicism, fear and doubt take command.

                    God wanted to cure the Israelites of human game-playing and conditional faith. The people were led into an extremely hostile environment — no food or water, and a host of lurking dangers. It was very simple: they had to trust God and rely on Him or die. They could not call the shots or manipulate God, although on a couple of notable occasions they tried. They had to wait faithfully for the life-sustaining manna that would be given daily. Even gathering more than a day’s supply was forbidden — no room at all for self-sufficiency or stubbornness.

                    Life itself and every breath is a gift from God. We really own nothing and have control over very little. Our pretentions, however, far exceed this reality.

                      Through mercy, love, we dwell in God

                      Trinity Sunday (Year A) June 19 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

                      What does God look like? What would it be like to be in God’s presence? The Book of Exodus answers the question in several ways. In some passages, the vision of God is so awesome and terrifying that no one can look upon God and live. Another passage relates that Moses spoke with God face to face as with a friend. In this passage God descends on a cloud, passes before Moses and speaks to him. All of these represent different traditions in ancient Israel that are woven into the narrative of Exodus.

                      God was very real for ancient people, but God does not have human form; God does not walk through the garden in the cool of the evening. We do not speak face to face with God, at least in this life. But the theological truth of these traditions is clear. In the tradition of ancient storytelling these traditions reveal that God is deeply personal and not an abstract concept. This passage also reveals important characteristics of God: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. This is the image of God that the Israelites clung to throughout their long history and from which they drew strength. It is the gift that they gave to Christianity. Not only that, it is an image we share with Islam — at the very beginning of the Quran God is described as the merciful and compassionate. It is an image of God to which we should all return constantly and strive to imitate for when we depart from it the results are grim and painful for everyone.