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What is the difference between religion and spiritual life?

By 13 May, 2017January 2nd, 2023No Comments
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By F. Luis Casasús, General Superior of Idente missionaries
Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 7-5-2017, Fourth Sunday of Easter (Acts of the Apostles 2:14.36-41; First Letter of Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)

A very simple one. Religion at its best is spirituality in community. So it is not surprising that in our times of individualism, many people say: I am not religious, but I am a spiritual person. The translation of this sentence is: “There is nothing I could learn from other people.” They are either highly individualistic people or, even worse, they have been wounded by the members of a church; they are victims of a scandal (sometimes the scandal of our mediocrity). Moreover, even some Catholics claim that they confess their sins directly to God: they don’t need a human mediator.

Today, we are celebrating the Good Shepherd Sunday, which is also World Vocation Sunday. This is also an image that teaches us that we belong to one flock and that we are called to learn to live as a community. Sometimes, we tend to replace relationship with work to find our security, material or personal; whether in terms of comfort or finding our meaning for our existence. For instance, parents work hard to bring money for the family and children, but they have no relationship with them. Similarly, some religious persons regard celibacy simply as an opportunity to have more time to work, instead of looking at it as a grace to love everyone equally.

So today, let us recover our sense of community but most of all, our relationship with the divine persons. Without this conscious relationship we will find life empty, misled by the world instead of being led by the divine wisdom. Let us recover our priorities and the true things that we should seek in our day-by-day life.

Pride doesn’t like the sheep metaphor: I’m a sheep? Does that mean I can’t go it on my own? But Christ sees sheep as being an apt metaphor to describe human beings. Yes sheep, you need a shepherd. In stark contrast with this shelf-centered view of our spiritual and religious nature, Jesus makes it clear that He is the Gate to eternal life. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Sheep wander aimlessly when left to themselves, need pasture but have to be led to it, and are in danger from predators and need protection.

Last week we celebrated the Feast of our Heavenly Father and we recalled how our Father Founder taught us to listen to the three voices of the divine persons. The Father leaves in us the imprint of his confidence, making us His heirs and co-heirs with Christ. Now, what is the voice of the Jesus, the self-proclaimed shepherd? In a nutshell, He is saying: Look at the way I respond to the voice of the Spirit. As a true man, He is our model.

Jesus allowed the Father to affirm His identity. Before Jesus faced the devil in the wilderness and before He ever performed one miracle, He was affirmed by His Father: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. A person exhibits authentic humanhood when he allows the Word of God and the Spirit of God to affirm his identity as a son, as a daughter. By doing this, He received the necessary light and strength: From the Garden of Gethsemane until the moment He gave up the ghost, Jesus did not focus on His own agony. Instead, He focused on what would be accomplished if He followed through with the Father’s plan.

We have the same experience, but perhaps a bad spiritual memory. We forget that God never extinguished the flame of our faith; rather, we are here today because the Holy Spirit carefully responds to our small efforts done in faith with something unexpected. The unexpected happens when consciously, repeatedly and perseveringly, we seek to copy Jesus’ lifestyle. These unexpected gifts are new and vigorous forms of our limited faith, hope and charity. In our weekly Examination we call it Transfigurative Union, a renewed bond between God and me, a good reason to be grateful.

Just three examples:

I. Some days ago we celebrated the feast of St Stephen; he imitated Jesus so closely that he shared in His passion and death perfectly. Even the manner in which Stephen died was similar to that of Jesus, for Jesus was recorded to have said something similar to what Stephen claimed when he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ”I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Finally, like Jesus, Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies.

Through the way he lived and died, Paul, who was a witness to the death of Stephen, changed radically as he continued to reflect on the image of Stephen’s death: The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. That prepared the way for his conversion when the Lord appeared to him in Damascus. A remarkable surprise for Stephen, for Paul and for all.

II. In his first homily as a Pope, Benedict XVI said:

Peter’s call to be a shepherd…comes after the account of a miraculous catch of fish… There too, the disciples had caught nothing the entire night; there too, Jesus had invited Simon once more to put out into the deep. And Simon, who was not yet called Peter, gave the wonderful reply: “Master, at your word I will let down the nets.” And then came the conferral of his mission: “Do not be afraid. Henceforth you will be catching men.”

Put out into the deep, another beautiful sentence to illustrate what ecstasy is.

III. Saint Martin of Tours. One day, in the midst of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many perished with cold, as Martin was marching with other soldiers, he met a poor man, almost naked, trembling and shaking with cold, and begging alms of those that passed by. Martin, seeing those that went before him take no notice of this miserable object, thought he was reserved for himself. By his charities to others he had nothing left but his arms and clothes upon his back; when, drawing his sword, he cut his cloak in two pieces, gave one to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other half. Some of the bystanders laughed at the figure he made in that dress, whilst others were ashamed not to have relieved the poor man.

In the following night St. Martin saw in his sleep Jesus Christ dressed in that half of the garment which he had given away, and was bid to look at it well and asked whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say, Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment. This vision inspired the saint with fresh ardor, and determined him speedily to receive baptism, which he did in the eighteenth year of his age.

In our dialogue with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, dreams, simple events, encounters with different people, emotions and the deepest desires of our heart find their place.

Just a word about being a Shepherd.

In Palestine the shepherd brought the sheep into the sheepfold every night. It was a circular stone wall with an opening or door where the sheep entered. Once the sheep were inside for the night the shepherd slept in that opening or door all night. The sheep could not get out without stepping over the shepherd’s body which meant they would not get out at all during the night. Jesus is the gate, anyone who enters through him will be safe, and will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture. Others steal and kill and destroy but Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

The shepherd picture is in direct contrast to the traditional image of the secular ruler, and especially the selfish ruler. The ruler lived in a palace; the shepherd slept across the door of the sheep-pen. The ruler was sheltered from hardship and poverty; the shepherd had to endure the elements and wild. The ruler was protected from day to day contact with his people; the shepherd had the job of leading his wayward animals at every moment. A shepherd in those days didn’t walk behind the flock beating them with a stick to keep them moving. He walked in front of them, seeking out a safe path to food and water and shelter. The sheep followed him, because they recognized his voice, and they trusted him. Jesus tells us that kind of Good Shepherd he is. He leads, and we follow.

Are we ready to give this guidance to the souls entrusted to us by Christ?

The gospel of Christ gives us the principles of managing our lives but it does not provide detail directions in every situation. Consequently, everything we do or say, we need to consult and seek Jesus’ counsel in our decision-making. Therefore, it is important that we continue to reflect and discern how to apply the gospel to the challenges of every new day.

The Jews on said to Peter and the apostles: What are we to do, my brothers? And Peter responded: You must repent and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He found a response in the person, the life and the teaching of Christ. He did not stop considering Him as his Shepherd.

So the question is: Are we hearing Him clearly enough? Are we sufficiently intimate with Jesus to recognize His voice amidst our activities?

Let us not be disheartened; we are disciples and we continue to learn every day. Recollection and Quietude are our primary and immediate battlefields.