By F. Luis Casasus, General Superior of idente missionaries
Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 17-11-2019. Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Book of Malachi 3: 19-20; Thessalonians 3: 7-12; Saint Luke 21: 5-19)
Sowing in spite of all human logic.
- We must accept that our life is a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil, between faith and our experiences of life.
How should we understand today’s words of Jesus: They will put some of you to death (…) By your perseverance you will secure your lives?
Only when we comprehend that the real battle and victory is the Lord’s.
So when it comes to facing life’s struggles, we can get back up when we get hit because in Christ, our victory is already won.
This is the paradoxical impression we share in our Mystical Examination when we tell our experiences with the first four Beatitudes: when we feel the quiet godliness of the poor in spirit, the strength of the meek, the spiritual bliss of those who mourn and the filling of those who hunger and thirst.
In the First Reading, we see the same message, but in the dramatic language of the Old Testament. Announcing disasters and catastrophes the prophets wanted to emphasize the passion of God for his people who are suffering. The people, living in a society where robbery, harassment, and violence against the weak are unabated, had no need of reproves, but words of consolation and hope: The sun of justice will shine bringing health in its rays.
This is particularly relevant in our days, where we are aware of many social evils plaguing society including the consumption of drugs; the culture of death; modern ideologies that reject the concept of the family based on marriage; the widening gap between rich and poor; violations of human rights; and the problems of migration.
If we add to this the materialism, individualism and moral degradation of the third millennium, sometimes even we ask ourselves if there is a future for humanity.
We have no reason to believe that things will get better and better or that Christ’s kingdom will progress without hindrance.
The fire that will destroy “all evil” is the Spirit that he sent us, and his Word, his Gospel that has already started to renew the face of the earth.
The new world is the kingdom of God among us, even if we have to wait until the end to see the full triumph of good in the heart of every person.
When Jesus says: Not a hair of your head will perish, He does not promise to protect his disciples from any misfortune and danger. The Christians will lose their properties, work, reputation and perhaps even life because of the Gospel. However, despite contrary appearances, the kingdom of God will continue to advance. “The hairs of our head” are the seemingly insignificant daily actions we do in His name: none of them will be lost, the Holy Spirit will make good use of them.
Those who have sacrificed themselves for Christ, may not reap the fruits of the good they have sown, but must cultivate the joyful certainty that the fruits will be abundant. In this world the value of their sacrifice will not always be recognized. They will be forgotten, perhaps cursed, but God will give them the reward in the resurrection of the righteous. Due to our lack of patience, very much like the first disciples, we ask God or ourselves: When will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?
But we forget that the central task of the Holy Spirit takes place in our heart, strengthening our patience in adversity.
In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Ivan endures all the horrors of a Soviet prison camp. One day he is praying with his eyes closed when a fellow prisoner notices him and says with ridicule: Prayers won’t help you get out of here any faster. Opening his eyes, Ivan answers: I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God. The last times are not the ones coming in millions of years, but those in which we are living, the of the progressive, permanent arrival of the kingdom of God.
- What is patience? It is very easy and frequent to say to a person who is sick or is going through hard times: you have to be patient. But our human patience has a limit and we have to integrate our good willpower and God’s help, our ascetical effort and the grace we receive: I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict.
From the viewpoint of ascetical life, of our effort, we see that patience has two complementary dimensions, like the two faces of the same coin: perseverance of effort and consistency of effort.
Perseverance of effort refers to the ability to work hard even in the face of setbacks while consistency of effort means sticking to a specific goal, for years, throughout life, without changing to a new goal that might seem more attainable.
Lifelong change is not occurred instantly, but from repeated positive choices. Something soft, like water, can completely reface continents. Our hearts can sometimes be like stone: hard, stubborn, immovable, numb. But if we start with simple choices and make a conscious effort to walk forward every day, our hearts can be penetrated by something as soft as love and grace, tender mercy or forgiveness.
Of course, we know by experience that perseverance and consistence (and their deterioration!) begin in our thoughts and desires.
I do not need to convince you that spiritual patience is synonymous with continuous prayer. This is why it has been said that perseverance is not a long race, it is many short races, one after the other. We acknowledge it even in our day-to-day matters. Directors of organizations describe it as the core trait they look for when hiring employees. Athletes credit their careers to it, adamant that success often comes to those who persevere rather than the talented.
In 1968, John Stephen Akhwari, a Tanzanian marathon runner was one of the four athletes who was sent to Mexico in pursuit of Tanzania’s first-ever Olympic medal. In the height of the competition, he cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At some point in the race, Akhwari fell badly wounding his knee and dislocating its joint.
Considering the severity of his injuries, Akhwari was repeatedly asked to quit the race but he refused to do so. Although his body was exhausted and he fell several times, his perseverance to finish the race brought him to the finish line. While neither Akhwari nor his fellowmen returned home with a medal, his perseverance, brought home a legacy that would inspire millions to persevere in running the race of life no matter what challenges the world throws at them.
A lasting change of the heart is not a singular, transformational event, but rather something simple, yet consistent, taking place over time, perhaps with highs and lows, achievements and drawbacks. This is why patience is so important and this explains the insistence of Jesus in today’s, Gospel, preparing the apostles to unexpected and shocking events like the destruction of the Temple or painful persecutions. By the way, the meaning of “patience” is to know how to endure suffering.
A change is not a singular decision; it is a chain of decisions. When we make a good choice, it changes us for the better. It also opens our hearts and minds for more good choices and new grace and inspiration.
This allows us to understand why consistence of effort is a component of patience. We all experience the psychological, moral and diabolic temptation to get distracted, to stop and start smelling the flowers along the road. Patience often means putting off your immediate comfort or wishes in favor of long-term success, to do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now.
But there is more. Patience can and should grow. This is what psychologists refer to as the growth mindset, which means that our intelligence and talents are something that can be developed, rather than something that is fixed and stagnant.
Patience is something we can get better at, something we can practice and cultivate. And this leads us to our last point.
- The mystical dimension of patience shows us that it grows through the response of the Holy Spirit and also that it may contaminate and animate others.
It is difficult to find a greater example of patient suffering than Job. He teaches us God has His higher purposes in suffering than the punishing of sin. Even more, as the Beatitudes remind us, the Holy Spirit himself is who makes us not only patient, but joyful in difficulty and danger: Be happy and excited! You will have a great reward in heaven.
A sound reason to be perseverant is that we are enabled to use suffering and persecution as an occasion for witnessing. In spite of the insidious forces at work in the world, there are many people who, like St Paul, dare to go against the mentality of the world and stand up for the gospel, in order to make ourselves an example for you to follow, as he tells us today.
Another reason why patience is important for an apostle is that it has, by its nature, the capability to strengthen the perseverance of our neighbors:
Jim was 15 years old was he was diagnosed with leukemia. The doctors told him that his chances of survival were slim and that he would have to endure three years of chemotherapy. The side effects would be severe. He would go bald and his body would bloat. It was a lot for a 15-year-old to take in and the diagnosis sent Jim into a deep depression. His aunt tried to encourage him by sending flowers to his hospital room. She told the clerk at the flower shop that the flowers were for her nephew who was battling leukemia.
When the flowers arrived at the hospital there was an additional note from the clerk at the flower shop. It said: Jim: I took your order. I work at the flower shop. I had leukemia when I was 7 years old. I’m 22 years old now. Good luck. My heart goes out to you. Sincerely, Laura. Jim was surrounded by last generation hospital equipment and the best doctors in the country, but it was the note of a 22-year-old clerk with a minimum wage that gave him comfort and the will to carry on in midst of his trials.
We know that evil never comes from God, rather it always becomes an occasion so that the works of God may be made manifest in our purification and in the patience He is willing to give us.
There can be no victories without battles; there can be no high mountain peaks without deep valleys.