St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.

Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)

Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.

Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?

In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???

Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.

This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.

I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.

conversion-of-pauThat brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.

Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that  gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.

Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.

The Muse shows up

It happened again.

Write, write, write. Edit, edit, edit. Think, think, think.

Whenever a post goes like this, I know it won’t make it past my office. So, ready to head out to Mass this morning, out of the blue I get a headache. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe I should. Can’t win that argument. Instead, I pop a Tylenol, grab the gloves and keys, and drive the 1 ¾ miles to church. I’m hoping that the Spirit will show up as Muse.

I’m rewarded with some of my favorite Scriptures assigned for this Sunday. (I find myself saying that rather frequently.) The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 8 )

A land of gloom. Well, there has been a paucity of sunshine this past week. (Literally and figuratively.)

Then my favorite (again) Psalm 27: One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life . . . Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord.

Next, one of those “God moments” where St. Paul says just the right thing for us today: It has been reported to me that there are rivalries among you. (1 Corinthians)

Gloom and rivalries, as the church of Corinth is splitting off in an un-Christian display of childish divisiveness: “My leader’s better than your leader!”

Well might Jesus have prayed the night before his execution: I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:21) For the hallmark of Christianity is Unity.

Coincidentally, our national motto is virtually the same: One out of many (E pluribus unum).

Not conformity, but unity. Not necessarily agreement, but love, patience, and hope, reflecting the command of Christ not to return evil with evil; not to return violence with violence.

calling-the-fishermenThen the Gospel where Jesus invites his first followers to join him in his sacred mission. (Matthew 4) After the arrest of John the Baptist, Christ is spurred into the urgent need to teach the lessons of the Kingdom. He calls the first members of his cadre, two sets of brothers who, also immediately, respond to the call. (Choose me! I say to myself. I want to be on this team!)

The only way out of gloom is through the brilliantly lit passage of Hope and Love, which is Christ. I think of a song we frequently sing in church: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

When I can do what I say, I’ll know I’m a disciple.

Obedience 101

Ages ago as a teen, I used to read one of those advice columns that every newspaper has. I think I ended the practice when I read a letter from a teen and its response. They went something like this:

Teen:
Dear Smart Adult: I’m so tired of having to jump to every order my parents give me: clean your room; do your homework; pick up your clothes; go to bed! I can’t wait until I’m 21 and married so I’ll be the one giving orders to my kids and making them obey ME!!! (Signed) Sick and tired

Smart Adult:
Dear Sick and tired: I’m really sorry for your troubles, but what makes you think that just turning 21 will forever release you from the need to obey? Here are some of the examples where you’ll find that strict obedience will always be required: your boss at work (providing you haven’t yet been fired for not following the rules); the local, state and federal tax collectors (unless you’ve ended up in jail for non-payment); your spouse who may have the audacity to expect you to get out of bed and to work on time so you can support your disobedient children . . . and so forth.

This was the kiss of death. I would never be in charge of anything or anybody! Now you know why I never forgot this incident from my youth. What Ms. Know-it-all said was that Obedience is an ever-present reality. The only change is in who’s giving the orders. I’d soon find out that I’m not in charge of anything, much less anybody. (More about that, God willing, in another post.)

I also remember my teachers, members of a religious order, telling us that the vow of obedience was the most difficult of the three they were required to make. Obedience required leaving their ego behind and adhering strictly to the judgment of another person. Moreover, the superior might be lacking in the personal qualities that make obedience easy, such as being (a) older/wiser; (b) better educated/smarter; (c) gentle and tactful.

St. Benedict makes obedience the very foundation of his Rule as he writes in the Prologue:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

In these few words he tells us not only to obey (“listen”), but to go more deeply into the heart level. But whom do we lay Oblates, living outside of a monastic community, obey?

10-commandmentsObviously we must first start with The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of the Church. Most of us feel we’re quite all right in that department until we’re told by Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-22), to go beyond the letter of the law:

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Jesus did not stop even there. He gave us his own person to imitate as he saved the most important commandment for the last. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that their first duty as a disciple is to serve others. Perhaps because Jesus knew he didn’t have enough time to unravel the mysteries regarding the question of law and obedience, he created one single new commandment, one which is the clearest and the most difficult of all: Love one another as I have loved you.

How did Christ love us? He served, consoled, healed and forgave. He repeatedly referred to how he obeyed the Father. He could hear the Father through his intense prayer and his constant willingness to obey. Whatever the Father revealed to him in prayer, Jesus heard and understood. What he learned, he taught and also modeled. In his final act of obedience to the divine mission, he laid down his life for us.

There is so much more to say about the virtue of Obedience, especially as to how it relates to hearing the Lord. I welcome your thoughts, and pray that we can continue this discussion together.

Here I am, Lord: I come to do your will!

The Light Grows

A few weeks have passed since the winter solstice. While our days of light are lengthening, so too do I welcome the growth of Christ in us as the Light of the World. This is especially important as sometimes we feel a post-holiday letdown.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often felt worried and discouraged that in spite of Christ having come and lived among us, in spite of his teaching us about the kingdom of God, I wonder why there is still such misery around and within us. Before you know it, I’m sliding down into the “slough of despondency,” as the Pilgrim’s Progress describes it.

Little by little, as I allow myself to be taught by our divine Teacher (and one or two earthly ones), I’m given the grace to understand that such unhealthy doubts, fears, concerns about salvation or the afterlife, are definitely not from God, but from whatever we call “the evil one.”  With enormous relief, I realize that God does not wish anything for us but joy and peace.

Unfortunately, some of us have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes joy and peace. We think it is something like La La Land, nothing but fun and games. Such a simplistic kind of pleasure indicates that we have not yet learned to digest spiritual “meat,” but are still feeding on the “milk” of spiritual infants (See post of November 28, Advent and Our Life in Christ).
magdalene2Not that we can, by ourselves, counteract fears, doubts, and all the other demons that love to attack us.
There are many accounts of Jesus driving out demons. He is said to have freed Mary Magdalene (my patroness) of seven demons. Totally liberated, how could she not become entirely devoted to him?

By persisting in prayer, God’s joy and peace will enable us to rise above the flood of negativity where we’re helplessly (but not hopelessly) mired. With the Holy Spirit’s strength, we can gradually learn to develop a more constructive viewpoint and more positive habits. I once discovered that many of my negative thoughts started with “D” as in Demon. Here’s my list — many more than Magdalene’s seven:

Demons [D-mons]
Dejection
Depression
Desperation
Disappointment
Discouragement
Dissatisfaction
Dread
Dreariness
Dullness
Drudgery

Yet for every Demon, God has shown me an effective counterweight: God’s Delights. You can probably come up with your own, but here again is my list:

D-lights:
Dedication
Decisiveness
Devotion
Determination
Desire
Delight
Deliverance
Daring
Deliberation
Divinity

Thinking about these gifts helps, but for me the best of all cures is contacting a friend who may need encouragement even more than I do. This reaching out unfailingly provides the life-preserver both of us need: the love of friend for friend. St. John was right:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

May the Light of Christ continue to grow within us.

Resolutions: A Sequel

Yes, I know I just posted something on New Year’s Resolutions. So here it is, just a few days later, and what? Have I added more resolutions? Or have I given up on the three I spoke of, oh so eloquently? I know that if I try hard enough and vow to continue, I’ll make progress toward my goal. Right?

No. The truth is simply that in so short a space of time I’ve been given a new understanding about my “noble” efforts. Those resolutions, useful as they might be, are incomplete because:

Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build. . .

It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.    (Psalm 127: 1a-2)

As hard as we work at it, holiness is not up to us. It is not by our efforts that we become holy, but by grace, the free gift of God. Not that we do nothing. The point made by the Psalmist is that whatever our efforts, it is finally God who achieves the results, and not ourselves. Holiness is God’s territory.

Jesus’ parable in Mark (4:26-29) speaks of the same truth:

He said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit.”

 I know of a few spiritual directors who tell their directees, “Don’t work so hard!!” What ever can they mean by that? Of course, I have to work hard! How else can I reach my goal?

Oh, that bold, stark, over confident, aggressive-looking letter, capital I! It stands all by itself, as I do when I think I‘m accomplishing so much all by myself when all along, it will be God causing the growth. Holiness is, after all, God’s turf.

Our responsibility consists in preparing the soil, accepting the seed, and harvesting the growth. The soil is our spirit, our heart, which we cultivate by prayer and loving deeds, feeding it persistently by habits of study, receptivity and trust. These nourish the seeds of faith. The time of harvest comes when we discover that some good things have grown within us. Then we’re enabled to spring into action, using those God-given gifts to share with others in a ministry especially suited to us. The little that we are capable of, we do, but then leave the rest to God.

I’m going to continue with my resolutions to practice Silence, Mindfulness, and Trust, but with a new perspective. It is God, not little i who guarantees the end results. Deo gratias!