The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #6: Abandonment

Our elder son calls us almost daily. Of course, he loves us, and we enjoy talking with him. But I suspect he’s also checking up on the “old folks,” just to make sure we’re still capable of answering the phone. Anyway, the other day, when I answered his call, he asked, “How are you handling all this weirdness?”

And he’s right, isn’t he? It has been weird. For a couple of months now, except for walking the dog and making occasional but brief trips to the store and post office, we’ve been cooped up in our home, isolated from others, forced to redefine much of our lives. 

The weirdest part has been the absence of human contact, especially with our friends. And yet some good has come of this. Diane and I have certainly spent more time together and are even learning to compromise on our TV watching. We’ve watched a lot of Jane Austen DVDs together and are now working our way through some strange Amazon Prime series. I’ve also worked on honing my cooking and laundry skills.

Among the more pleasant changes, is my growing relationship with our trash collectors. I now recognize them, and they me. They collect our trash twice weekly, usually in the pre-dawn hours, about the same time I take Maddie for her morning walk. Hungry for human contact, I now stop and greet these young men as they jump on and off their truck picking up our garbage. They have a hard, backbreaking, and smelly job, but they always greet me with a smile and a cheery “Good morning!” In the midst of the “weirdness” I have developed a new respect for these men and their work.

Yes, indeed, things have gotten weird. But weirdness always generates questions, and questions often lead me to Sacred Scripture. After all, God not only has all the answers, He is the answer. And one of the best places to find that answer is the Sermon on the Mount; for it’s there that Jesus both challenges and comforts us. This morning offers a good example. While Diane underwent her physical therapy, I sat in the waiting room of the rehab center, wearing my facemask, and reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6 about the futility of worry. It’s not a long passage, so let’s read it now:

Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?' All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil [Mt 6:25-34].
Of course what Jesus is telling the crowd, and what He is telling us, is that worry over food, clothing, health, or any material need is simply a substitute, and a very poor one at that, for concern about our eternal salvation. He tells us to turn our attention from our worldly needs to eternal needs: “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness…”

So often, instead of being disciples, we are worriers. We spend much of our time planning our futures, calculating profit and loss, assets and debits, being the responsible people the world expects of us to be. This, Jesus tells us, is a waste of the energy and talents God has given us. We are called to do otherwise. We are called to put aside all anxiety and replace it with self-abandonment, to choose a life in which God provides and we receive. This eternal call of Jesus is echoed throughout all of Sacred Scripture. Here is just one example:

“Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch. 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” [Ps 127:1-2].
Our passage from the Sermon on the Mount is, of course, about more than freedom from worry. It’s really about how we should live our lives in times of both trouble and joy. And far too many of us live lives that don’t at all conform to Jesus’ expectations.

For example, some months ago I had a brief encounter with a parishioner who approached me right after Mass. She began by asking a straightforward question about the day’s Gospel reading. It related to prayer. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I gave her a pretty sketchy, off-the-cuff answer, one that seemed to satisfy her. But then she said, “I’d really like to deepen my spiritual life, but I just don’t seem to have the time.”

My first thought was one of self-criticism. (I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with this.) Here this woman had come to me, hoping for some spiritual direction, and yet I was so wrapped up in my own concerns, I really didn’t want to spend even a few minutes with her.

Her desire for a deeper spirituality is not uncommon. Many of us seek a more intimate relationship with God but become frustrated by the busyness of our lives. Work, family life, and other obligations and demands move God to a back burner. 

Although the woman who approached me is retired, I know she’s active in the community, involved in both recreational activities and charitable work. I won’t criticize her, though, especially in light of my own faults, because she obviously recognized this need in her life, or she wouldn’t have asked the question. I could tell it worried her. 

I suppose it all boils down to how we set our life’s priorities. Of course, she was really asking about prayer, wasn’t she? For it’s through our prayer lives that we deepen our relationship with God. And so, maybe this complaint of not having the time for prayer is worth looking into.

Perhaps we should turn first to the experts, the saints. Interestingly, when we examine the lives of the saints, we discover a kind of happy paradox. You see, the more they prayed, the more time they seemed to have for their apostolic work. Indeed, the busiest of saints – people like St. Dominic, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Benedict, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi – all seemed to accomplish enough to fill several long lifetimes. And yet each devoted a considerable amount of time to prayer. 

Let’s return to our Gospel passage where the Lord promised to add “all these things” to those who seek first the kingdom of God. It would seem “all these things” must also include time. In other words, if we give time to God, He will give it back to us with interest.

This probably sounds a bit mysterious, and, like most of God’s doings, I suppose it is. But the importance of time in our spiritual lives becomes clearer if we just look at it from a human perspective, the only perspective you and I can probably understand.

You see, the saints considered time a gift from God, a gift through which they could work out their salvation. But to use this gift well demands some degree of conscious planning, but with special regard to the life of the soul. As any good time-management consultant would tell you, making better use of your time is often just a matter of changing habits. When it comes to your prayer life, you need only develop the habit of prayer. By this I mean turning the most commonplace activities into opportunities for prayer. Let me offer a few examples:
Try saying the Rosary while taking a walk or while waiting in the doctor’s or dentist’s office. After all, what’s more profitable for your soul, reading some two-year-old magazine or meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary?
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up each morning? Why not say, “hello”, to God? Pray some form of the morning offering in which you dedicate your entire day to doing His will in your life. It takes only a minute, and yet it sets the tone, a prayerful tone, for your entire day
Set aside a specific time each day to read from Sacred Scripture – just a few verses from both Old and New Testaments. The Psalms and Gospels might be a good place to start. Read and then meditate on what you have read. How does the Word of God apply to your life this day?
Before going to bed each evening, take a few moments to reflect on your day. Conduct a brief examination of conscience, reviewing your thoughts, words, and deeds, and asking God to help you in obedience to His commandment to love God and neighbor.
Such simple, prayerful acts provide wonderful ways to fix our minds on God as well as making intercession for those around us, especially those who don’t know God’s love. Just think of all the opportunities God gives us for prayer each day. It gives new meaning to what St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit” [1 Thes 5:16-19].
Rejoice always, pray always, give thanks always, and don’t quench the Spirit. Is this the way you and I live our lives?

As Christians we are called not just to make time for prayer, for rejoicing, and for giving thanks. We’re called to do so always, in all circumstances – to do so deliberately and perseveringly, even in the face of great difficulties. This is what our faith really means. To live our faith, we must rejoice always. We must pray without ceasing. We must give thanks in all circumstances. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very difficult, so difficult that I fail daily as I struggle to live my faith. Eventually we must come to terms with our own weakness and realize we can’t do any of this on our own. God wants to lead us on the path to this ideal, this perfection to which He calls us. The first step, then, is how we use His gift of time. 

Remember, to those who love God, everything is a gift, something for which we should give thanks. If we are to give thanks in all circumstances, we must even thank God for this pandemic that has so confused our lives and taken the lives of so many. None of us can speak for others, but we can speak for ourselves. Consider the good that has come to you during this challenging time, the good you have embraced, that which you have ignored, and that which you have yet to experience. Thank God for it all.

If we have been given one thing during the past few months, it is time – time to change those old habits, time to deepen our prayer life, time to allow God to strengthen our relationship with Him. How much of that gift have you wasted on the frivolous and how much have you devoted to worry? 
Dear friends, God’s generosity can never be exceeded. He rewards faithfulness not only with progress in prayer, but also by providing more time to devote to it. You need only ask.

You see, it’s always best to take the Lord at His word. After all, He said, “Ask and it shall be given to you,” so why not simply ask God to lead you in your prayer life, to provide the time you need?

Like all spiritual gifts time must come from God according to His will and not be snatched against His will; therefore, we should not neglect the responsibilities that come with our state in life for the sake of prayer. Prayer is the means by which we allow God to move in our lives. It is not an end in itself. 

What else did St. Paul say? Oh yes, “Do not quench the Spirit!” How often, so wrapped up in our own plans and ways, do we turn away from the Holy Spirit? The soul should trust the Holy Spirit to take care of its sanctification, for He will find wondrous ways to unite the soul more closely to Himself. 

Don’t question the Spirit’s movement, for it is almost always surprising, showing us the power of God by calling us through our weakness. The Spirit works in us and through us even amid life’s confusion and turmoil and an apparent lack of time. 

Remember, too, that God has placed you in this time and place for a reason, to fulfill His will in your life and the lives of those He loves. Trust that He will bring about whatever must happen in your life to lead you and those others to a closer union with Him. 

God calls each of us to be faithful. We need only turn our lives over to Him and allow Him to work within us. By deepening your prayer life, by bringing your life into communion with God’s Will, you can expect Him to work major changes in your life. 

God is a demanding lover, but He will never force Himself on us. Because He respects our freedom, the choice is always up to you and me. But like the perfect lover, He calls constantly, patiently awaiting our response. Only then, only when we have opened ourselves to His love, will He go to work in our lives. Realize, too, that as your relationship with Him deepens, His demands on you will increase. 

I hope this rather disorganized reflection may lead you to a deeper understanding of the need to use God’s gift of time as a means to deepen your relationship with Him. For the faithful, worry achieves nothing because we trust that God will provide all that we need.

Let me conclude with a prayer written by Blessed Charles de Foucauld who was beatified in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI. Blessed Charles was a soldier, explorer, geographer, Trappist monk, linguist, hermit, and priest. He spent his last years living in North Africa, the only Christian living alone among the Tuaregs, a rather fierce tribe of Muslim desert nomads who ultimately took his life. To our knowledge he converted no one during his lifetime, and yet today his life has become a model for so many, a model of abandonment to God’s Will, regardless of the personal cost. Here is his prayer…

Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do,
I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

What more can we give our God than this?

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