Monday, February 23, 2015

The Role of Temptation

Every First Sunday of Lent we get a gospel passage about the temptations of Jesus.  Right after his baptism in the Jordan--when, though he didn't need purification himself, he identified himself with sinful humanity--the "Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan" (Mark 1: 12-13).  This happened right before Jesus began his public ministry of teaching and healing.  Does it surprise you that Jesus was tempted?  It shouldn't.  Temptations occur not simply because we're sinners.  They happen to those who are good, as Jesus was perfectly good.  We have an enemy who wants to knock us off the right path of doing God's will, just as he tried with Jesus.

Why does God allow temptations?  There must be something in them that is good for us. What is that?

First, humility.  God does not prevent temptation because it serves the purpose of keeping us humble.  St. Paul comes to mind. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul writes about "a thorn in the flesh," "an angel of Satan" that afflicted him.  We are not sure exactly what this was, but it could have been a particular temptation, a moral struggle.  That makes sense given how Paul also wrote about his struggle with sin in Romans 7.  At any rate, he didn't like it at all and thought that he would be a much better apostle and person if he were rid of this "thorn."  He prayed for God to take it away.  The answer he received is a common answer to prayer--"No."  The Lord told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."  It is as though God told Paul that without this "thorn" he would think he was perfect. He would become puffed up and proud, self-sufficient.  This struggle brought Paul to his knees, leading him to pray and depend on God, not himself.

A second reason is that by battling temptations we exercise and grow in virtues.  A struggle with impatience is an opportunity to exercise patience which can then grow.  Virtues don't take away temptations.  They are spiritual muscles that need to be used and exercised.  Temptations give us the opportunity to do just that.  For every temptation there is an opposite virtue which God is giving us an opportunity to develop.

Thirdly, through temptation we grow in compassion, just as Jesus did.  In Hebrews 4  we hear that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin."  In the desert of temptation Jesus grew in the compassion that would later motivate him as he reached out to sinners.  Our temptations can similarly help us to be more compassionate to others in their struggle. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Lastly, temptations can draw us close to Jesus. If we give in to temptation and sin, we move away from Jesus who won't abandon us but will seek us because he is the Good Shepherd who cares about his lost sheep.  But if we struggle and battle temptation, despairing of our own strength and ability and turning to the Lord in our need, shouting, "Lord, save me! I am drowning!" (see Matthew 14: 22-33), he will reach out and grab us and hold us close to himself.  Sharing a struggle brings people closer to one another. Sharing our struggle with Jesus can bring us closer to the one who has also struggled against temptation and won.

Temptation is part of life, part of following Christ.  He shared our life, with all its struggles and temptations, suffering and even death itself.  He's "been there, done that."  While we may feel far from him when we are being tempted, the reality is that we are sharing in something that he himself went through.  He is close to us in temptation and he understands.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Beginning of Lent

I led a day of recollection today for the seminarians at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee. It was a quiet and prayerful day and what follows is a summary of my homily.

In our first reading (Joel 2: 12-18), God tells us to return "with your whole heart" and to "rend your hearts, not your garments."  We are half-hearted.  Our hearts are divided.  We need our hearts to be healed, to be made whole.  We need to open our hearts to God so that the Holy Spirit may pierce and soften these sin-hardened hearts.

What divides our hearts?  What hardens them?  The self-centeredness of sin.

Last week the first readings at Mass were from Genesis, the story of the first temptation and sin.  Our ancestral parents had hearts open to God, but fear and mistrust closed and hardened them. They were tempted to believe the serpent who suggested that God might not be telling them the truth when warning them that the fruit of a certain tree would bring death. They mistrusted God and thought it would be better to be independent, to get control, to be like gods who could determine for themselves what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad.

They ate and the effect was immediate. They felt shame in each other's presence.  They were no longer open to each other but covered themselves. When God came for their daily stroll, they hid.  The man's response shows the self-centeredness that began the hardening of his heart, closing him off from God and the woman. He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.  Me, me, me.  The world now revolved around him.

Then, when God pointed out that this response clearly indicated he'd eaten of the fruit, the man responded, "It was the woman you put here...."  He blamed his partner and God.  Turned in on himself, the man turned against God and his neighbor.

Sin works the same way in our lives.

Those who work in the Church and offer their lives in service of others are not immune from sinful self-centeredness.  It creeps into our relationship with God and into ministry. In the Gospel (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18), Jesus warns against "righteous deeds" which are done to gain others' attention and affirmation.

We need this time of Lent for conversion.  Our divided hearts, which seem to be serving God while all the while serving themselves, need to be made whole and undivided.  We need this time to develop hearts like the Heart of Jesus which he described as "meek and humble."  Humble hearts don't pray and serve in order to receive glory.  They give and serve without seeking a reward because they are motivated by love.

Jesus was so in touch with the infinite love of the Father that he was free to love totally with great freedom, with a whole and undivided heart.  Knowing the love of the Father, he, in the words of our second reading (2 Corinthians 5: 20 - 6: 2) became sin.  Just as he reached into the isolation of the leper in last Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1: 40-45), touched him, and made himself unclean in the process, so Jesus reached into human darkness and took upon himself the sins of the world when he was nailed to a cross.  With his attention focused totally on the God and those whom God sent him to save, Jesus made a total offering of himself.

Now he calls us to renounce the self-centeredness of sin that hardens and closes our hearts. We begin this time of purification and healing by remembering that we are dust. We are not God.  We are not in control.  Nor do we have forever for our hearts to be made more like the Heart of Jesus.  "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Peoria Franciscan Sisters

I am in East Peoria these days, giving a week long retreat to the Sisters of the Third Order of St.
Francis.  On August 21, 1875 a community of 25 Sisters and 4 Postulants left Germany because of the Bismark Laws which restricted religious freedom.  They ended up in Iowa City where a priest whom they had met in Germany helped them get settled.  About a year later six of the Sisters went to Peoria at the request of a local priest who asked them to start a hospital.  The first bishop of Peoria, John Spalding, promised his help to them if they would form a separate congregation. Thus began this particular community of Franciscans with Mother Mary Frances as the first superior.

Mother Mary Frances' last words to her community capture the spirit that is still very much alive among these Sisters: "Dear Sisters, live in meekness and obedience. Nurse the sick with the greatest care and love, then will God's blessing be with you."

Our retreat will end on Wednesday, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the annual World Day of
the Sick.  In his message this year, Pope Francis wrote about "the wisdom of the heart."  What is this wisdom?  "It is a way of seeing things infused by the Holy Spirit in the minds and the hearts of those who are sensitive to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters and who can see in them the image of God."  He went on to say, "Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who 'came not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mt. 20:28)."

It strikes me that the Sisters are living proof of these words.  The gift the Sisters make of themselves in service of the sick gives praise to God and helps them grow in holiness.  I'm praying that more women will hear the call to join them because they are very stretched as they direct the operations of 9 medical centers throughout Illinois and in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Please join me in that prayer.