New York, March 03, 2019. Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Sirach 27,4-7; 1Corinthians 15,54-58; Saint Luke 6,39-45
- The accusing gaze. When I was at the university, I met a brilliant scholar with a real passion for research, she radiated enthusiasm and she was quite charming most of the time. The only thing that made life embarrassing around her is that she was eager to talk about her experiences and brag about her successes. At every turn, she challenged her colleagues and gave unsolicited advice. In no way she would have the slightest interest about anyone else’s life or opinion, let alone rewarding any higher achievement.
One day she surprised me with a furious blast of how much her colleagues are competitive and selfish, they do not pay attention to each other and always want to seem smarter than the others. I was looking at her with wide open eyes. I would have liked to ask her if she was talking about herself, but then I bit my tongue.
She is not alone. One of our ways to protect our ego from harsh self-criticism is to project our own un-accepted characteristic to others. Every one of us has some blind spot: we do not acknowledge that we were envious, lustful, hostile or selfish. We can see the splinter in another’s eye but cannot see even the beam in our own.
Perhaps we can answer Jesus’ question, why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? by saying that we do not see the beam in our own eye because it is the accusing beam we see with.
Our accusing gaze is one of the most damaging examples of what Jesus describes as the rotten fruits of a heart which is not in dialogue with God: It is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean. We become victims, and we make victims amongst our neighbors when we accept being prisoners of the mechanisms, the instincts which are always there and which were created to meet very different goals. Consider, for example, our Instinct for Happiness: Taking satisfaction doing a good job is not the same thing as ridiculing or demeaning others to feel I am superior and powerful.
- The measure of the good and the bad. I would like to share with you a real-life case, the story of a young and arrogant seminarian told by himself. It might help us to bear in mind that we cannot be teachers or spiritual guides if we do not empty ourselves of the vanity and superficiality of this world. Only from the fullness of the heart the mouth can speak.
When I was a young, healthy seminarian, I started working in a Catholic School as the Dean of Discipline.
On the very last day of the school year. Sam, a twelve-year-old, had successfully completed his first year at the School. While he was waiting for his ride home, I sat with him and we talked. A few minutes into our conversation, Henry walked in. He was a man in his late fifties, he was a janitor and I never really had a chance to introduce myself to him. He was a simple and humble man who never made his presence known.
While I was talking to Sam, Henry went about his business sweeping the floor and keeping a safe distance from us. At that, I seized the moment and began to lecture the young mind sitting next to me about success and failure. I told him: You see that man? What a waste of a life. He had the opportunity to study and he did not take advantage of it. He probably messed up in High School by getting drunk at too many parties and spending way too much time with his friends. He most likely never read a book in his life. God knows what he spends all his time doing now. I could see that Sam got the message. This kid had a lot of respect for me. After all, I was the religious and moral figure at the School.
As we were getting up to leave, Henry looked up and came towards Sam and me. He smiled and said: Hello Father! I smiled and said: Oh Henry, I’m not a priest yet. I’m still a seminarian. I thought to myself: This guy doesn’t even know that I am not a priest yet. Thinking about it later on, I realized that he did not know because I never took the time to speak to him. Henry continued: Sorry Father, I did not know that. I was just hoping that maybe you could bless my family if you ever had a free moment. Have I ever shown you a picture of my kids? I replied: No. Never. He began to fumble through his wallet, looking for a picture. Finally, he found a picture. He handed it over to me and I was shocked at what I saw. Henry and his wife were white. His children were not. One little boy was African American; a little girl was Asian. And another child, Native American, was physically challenged. I could not believe what I was looking at. I asked Henry: Are these your children? He said: Yes, Father, aren’t they beautiful? My wife and I adopted all three of them. We are so blessed.
All I could respond was: I didn’t know. At that moment, I felt a lump in my throat and I thought: What an idiot I am. Who are you to judge others? He looked at me and smiled, Well, maybe next year we can sit and talk once in a while. I would love to tell you my story. He walked away and continued sweeping the floor. He should have swept me up too!
Henry will probably never know the impact he has had in the life of that seminarian and in the lives of all the kids that pray for him. This is a fine example of the fulfillment of today’s Second Reading: My beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
What is certain is that Jesus says today: Every tree is known by its own fruit. He is not just teaching us “how to judge rightly”; instead, He is reminding us that our neighbor’s tree is not probably being irrigated so as to bear abundant fruit. What experience left the biggest mark in his/her life? Who were the persons who loved him/her? Or, what is the main regret of this person? Jesus had the power to raise the dead and heal the sick. He also had the power to activate the gifts and the best hidden virtues of Peter or Paul. If we are His disciples, we are expected to patiently irrigate, to prune, to dig and to fertilize the soil of our fellowmen. Yes, as the First Reading says today, the fruit of a tree shows the care it has had.
The Holy Spirit is always at work…beyond appearances, and beyond our limitations:
In one of the coaches of a train, a woman was desperately trying to quite a baby that would not stop crying. The baby was annoying several passengers, and finally one person could take it no longer and said, Can’t you keep that baby quiet? The woman said gently, I am doing my best. The child is not mine. The man screamed, Where is the child’s mother? The woman answered, In her coffin sir, in the baggage car in front us. The steely eyes of the fellow welled with tears. He got up, took the baby in his arms and kissed it, and walked up and down the aisle to comfort the child.
On the other hand, we have to be able to discern and identify our own blind spots, our vulnerabilities, mainly the Dominant Defect, and our lack of sensitivity, not merely to judge them, but to help our rector (and to the Holy Spirit himself!) to guide us as the good teachers we always need.
All great spiritual teachers advise to use all possible means to progress in our spiritual path: By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest (Confucius).
Our spiritual growth is not measured by how much we learn or what we feel. These intellectualist or sentimentalist approaches are far from the struggle of a true disciple.
Saint Teresa of Avila had many spiritual emotions and feelings and she clearly learnt great and useful things in prayer, in the imitation of Christ and her experiences of life, but she said with exceptional clarity: We should look at the flowers, the virtues, and see how they are doing. After all, the water is for the flowers; devotion is not the goal of a good prayer life. It is a means to the growth of the virtues. If the virtues are alive and flourishing in us, even in the absence of devotion and consolation, then our prayer life is healthy despite the dryness.
It is especially attractive the “compact mode” our Founder uses to express this truth in one of his Transfigurations: Love is a treatise of virtues, never of reasons.
Our thoughts and our words are the first indicator and the first fruit of our spiritual life. This is the teaching of today’s First Reading: As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in his conversation is the test of a man. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does a man’s speech disclose the bent of his mind. Praise no man before he speaks, for it is then that men are tested. When our words are arrogant, sarcastic or superficial, it is hard to believe that we are living in recollection and peace.
And, regarding the faults and mistakes of our neighbor, we should remember what the classic maxim advises: we cannot judge the sinner, but we can, and should, judge the sin. Herein lies the problem with the wildly popular “tolerance”: when we stop judging the words and actions to be good or bad, we also stop bothering with the actual meaning of good or bad. Contrary to what people believe about tolerance, it has not brought people together, nor enlightened them, nor even created any kind of peace. Rather, as current news can attest, tolerance has encouraged division and isolation, fostered ignorance, and has fomented unrest and instability on all levels.
A second indicator of the health of our spiritual life are the concrete actions, the little and always new gestures of generosity and forgiveness, motivated out of our union with God: without preference or differentiation of persons, in any circumstances and in an unconditional manner. The works of mercy are a sample of the concrete actions that should be visible in our everyday behavior. Many of us do good things for mixed reasons, perhaps to demonstrate others and to prove ourselves that we are compassionate, but only a love which springs from our desire to glorify Him, will speak of His presence and mercy.
If we are able to live out this state continuous of prayer and mercy, especially when we are slandered, unjustly accused, misunderstood or persecuted, we will be able to guide and bring others to Christ. This explains why Jesus concludes his list of Beatitudes with this supreme sign of faithfulness to his spirit: Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The life of saints and our own experience offers a third and accurate indicator of our faithfulness: When we try to fully meet our mission, whatever it might be, a new and probably more difficult task is entrusted to us. This is something beyond our purely ascetical life. This is a divine act of confidence which tells us who He is and who we are.
Yes; only when we face the storms of life, particularly when we are disappointed, betrayed or when people who we love turn against us, we have the opportunity of giving a unique testimony of trust in God and to consistently say with the Psalmist: Lord, it is good to give thanks to you. Nothing will happen to us without His knowledge and providential wisdom.