Third Sunday of Lent

 

Icon of the Fig Tree
The Fig Tree icon

 

 

Cycle C: Luke 13: 1-9


The parable of the fig tree exhorts us not to live a fruitless life.


 

In 1970, during a protest at Kent State University, national guardsmen shot and killed several students. Shortly afterwards, psychologists interviewed parents of college-age children. Among other questions, they asked whether the students who had been killed were campus radicals or innocent bystanders. Overwhelmingly, the parents believed that the slain students were campus radicals. Applying to their findings Attribution Theory, which tries to explain how and why people make sense of their world, the psychologists concluded that the majority of parents held that the slain students were radicals because it was too frightening for them to believe otherwise. If they believed that the slain students were innocents bystanders, then they would have to admit that in a similar situation their own children were vulnerable. Whenever disaster strikes, we tend to attribute it to a cause that will protect us from a similar disaster.

This is what the people in today’s gospel were trying to do. They had to believe that those killed by Pilate or the falling Tower of Siloam were sinners. This belief protected them from living in an unpredictable world. They were reasoning thus: “All we need to do in order to be safe is to keep the Law, for bad things don’t happen to good people.” Jesus challenges their thinking by telling them the Parable of the Fig Tree, which teaches that to avert spiritual disaster it is not enough to keep the Law. Our lives must bear fruit.

The Greek word translated “wasting (katargeo) the soil,” means unused, idle, inactive, or useless. From a spiritual perspective, our life is useless and barren, if, like the fig tree, we provide shade only for our selves and offer no nourishment to others.

The parable is consoling, for it proclaims a season of grace, a second chance, a stay of execution. Each day when we wake up, we are given another opportunity to truly live life by loving our neighbor. But the parable is also sobering, for it warns us that our opportunities are not endless. Thoreau wrote that he wanted to live deliberately in order to avoid the ultimate disaster of life, that at the moment of death he would “discover that [he] had not lived” (86). This is what we must fear.

~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.

 

 

The Lord’s Abundant Crop

Lord you’re doing
So much in our lives
To bring a deeper growth
A time of pruning
The withered branches
So healthier ones can grow

Though it is painful
And hard to endure,
It is needful in our lives —
For without it we’d be
An unhealthy tree
And may wither away and die

To keep on producing
The fruit of the Lord,
We need to have sin cut out
Then new branches will come
And we’ll flourish again
As the new shoots begin to sprout

Then we will produce
From the seeds God planted
Fruit that will never rot
Ripened by God
And picked in its season,
Is the Lord’s abundant crop!


A poem by Michelle Lowndes
© By M.S.Lowndes

Second Sunday of Lent

 

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The Transfiguration, art by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c. 1520-1525-1578) The Fitzwilliam Museum

 

 

Cycle C: Luke 9: 28-36


Jesus is transfigured on Mount Hermon and resolves completely to accept his impending death.


 

Luke tells us that Jesus was transfigured while he was praying. We do not know for certain what he was praying about, but his conversation with Moses and Elijah provides a clue. “They appeared in glory and spoke to him of his departure (Greek exodus) which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” The exodus or departure referred to here is Jesus’ death. In Luke’s gospel, this is the first time that Jesus had contemplated his death.

On Mount Hermon Jesus made a choice: he resolved to embrace his death fully. At his baptism Jesus accepted his mission as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, but only now does he confront its stark and gruesome reality. It is one thing to say “yes” to suffering that lies in the far future. Imminent suffering presents a completely different reality. Jesus was changed at the transfiguration because he came to a resolution regarding his own death.

We have all experienced the great release of energy that results when, after years of irresolution, we make an important life decision. We do not realize how much energy living in a perpetual state of avoidance, vacillation, or procrastination consumes until we experience the incredible relief that follows such a decision.

The choice Jesus made at the transfiguration also protected him against any inner vacillation. When Jesus came down the mountain, “He set his face (Greek sterrizo) to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Sterrizo means to make fast, or to fix with an unalterable purpose. Saint Teresa encouraged her sisters to embrace the cross with a “determined determination.” In doing so, she wrote, “that person struggles more courageously. He knows that come what may he will not turn back” (“The Way of Perfection” 127).

A definitive choice protects us from inner vacillation. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrays this symbolically. At the council of Elrond, a decision has to be made. Someone has to take the One Ring of Power into the evil land of Mordor and cast it into the fire of Mt. Doom. Frodo, who had lived comfortably all of his life, makes a fully conscious choice to be the Ring Bearer. At this point in the story, his uncle Bilbo Baggins gives Frodo a mithril coat.

This coat, as un undergarment made of an extremely strong but light metal, will protect the wearer from many dangers — arrows and the thrusting of spears. Why, asks Jungian analyst Helen Luke, does Bilbo present the mithril coat precisely at the moment that Frodo decides to be the Ring Bearer? What does it symbolize? Luke writes:

It was at this moment of his complete acceptance of exposure to every kind of danger, without thought of success or failure, that he was given the protection of the mithril coat…. It is not difficult to see the relevance of these things to ourselves. It is surely true that in the life of every person there is one major turning point — a moment of choice when one’s basic will (the Frodo in oneself) may say “yes” or “no” to the challenge of one individual way and to the inevitable suffering and danger it involves. It is certain that, if we say “yes” … then in proportion to the single-mindedness of this decision, we too are given protection…. Every day there is the temptation to go back on our choice … but each time we decide to take up a responsibility we have sought to evade … then, in the very moment of our willing self-exposure and conscious acceptance of the task … we can often literally feel a new invulnerability. (75-76)       

Like Jesus, when we decide to embrace the cross with determination, we are transfigured and given courage that protects us against inner vacillation.

~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.

 

 

Christ “was transfigured, not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind man sight.”
St. John Damascene

 

 

Prayer and God’s Mysterious Providence

 

 

Praying art by elvira amrhein
Art by Elvira Amrhein

 

Matthew 7:7-12


“Ask and you will receive.” While God always answers our prayers, he does not always grant our requests.


 

In Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, young Philip Carey, a boy born with a clubfoot, prays that God will heal him. He wakes up the next morning to find that he has not been cured. His faith is shaken, for he has been told that whatever you ask for in prayer will be given. Throughout his life, Philip’s deformity causes him much shame and humiliation, but it also brings about his transformation. At the very end of the novel, Philip comes to the following realization:

And thinking over the long pilgrimage of his past, he accepted it joyfully. He accepted the deformity which had made his life so hard, but now he saw that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and contempt, which had so often been heaped upon him, had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which he felt would never lose their fragrance. Then he saw that the normal was the rarest thing in the world. Everyone had some defect of body or of mind. He had thought of all the people he had known. He saw a long procession, deformed in body and warped in mind. At that moment he could feel a holy compassion for them all. He could pardon Griffiths for his treachery and Mildred for the pain she had caused him. The only reasonable thing was to accept the good of men and be patient with their faults. The words of the dying God crossed his memory: Forgive them, for they know not what they do. (680-81)

God always answers our prayers, but does not always grant our requests. We are promised that we will receive if we ask, but we are not told what will be given to us. The door will be opened to us, but we do not know what God has in store for us on the other side. We are told only that God knows how to give.

The ways of providence are mysterious indeed. Like Philip Carey, we should reflect upon the long pilgrimage of our past in order to apprehend the pattern of God’s loving wisdom in our lives. Like Philip, we may realize what we once considered to have been our greatest curse was the occasion of our greatest blessing. We realize that what we once judged a stumbling block actually is a cornerstone. Conversely, think of how disastrously your life may have turned out had God granted your specific request.

 

~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.

 

 

“Cast yourself often into His arms or into His divine Heart, and abandon yourself to all His designs upon you” II, 673.
~ Saint Margaret Mary 

 

Life’s Only Meaning

 

Jesus the Beloved art by Amy McCutcheon
Art by Amy McCutcheon

 

 

Life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
(John 17:3)

 

Each day of our lives holds within itself the possibility of this knowledge of God, this holy wisdom. How deeply we should long for this revelation of the Father.

Let us seek, let us listen with all our hearts and care for nothing else. Then perhaps we shall be able to exclaim with perfect truth: ‘My heart knows you now, Jesus Christ my Lord, and everything worldly has lost its meaning. ‘

With perfect truth. That is, my life henceforth will reveal the truth that nothing has any meaning to me except Jesus Christ my Lord.

There is no easy way to this, only that the grain of wheat must die; the humble acceptance of our painful human lot; no complaint, no rebellion, no dodging . . .
Becoming identified with the Son of Man, the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world by bearing the full weight and effect of it with no vestige of responding evil — only worship of his Father and infinite compassion for us.

 

~ A Meditation by Ruth Burrows, O.C.D.

 

 

Happy The One Who Loves God

How happy the heart that by love is elated,
in which only God all its thought has embraced,
renouncing for him every thing that’s created,
and finding its glory and joy by him graced.
Thus living with all thought of self so negated,
because in God all its intention is placed,
and so in great happiness and joyfully
it travels the waves of this turbulent sea.

 

~ A poem by Saint Teresa of Ávila, O.C.D.

 

 

 

 

 

First Sunday of Lent

 

Sandro_Botticelli_-_Three_Temptations_of_Christ_(detail)_-
The Three Temptations of Christ, art by Sandro Botticelli

 
Cycle C: Luke 4: 1-13


Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread and to worship the forces of evil in order to acquire an earthly kingdom.


 

At the beginning of Macbeth, as Macbeth and Banquo are riding home from war in the flush of victory, three witches greet Macbeth with three titles. The first is his own title, “Thane of Glamis.” However the other two, “Thane of Cawdor” and “King hereafter,” belong to other men. Then the witches vanish into thin air. As Macbeth and Banquo continue their journey, a messenger from the King meets them upon the road and bestows upon Macbeth the title “Thane of Cawdor” as reward for his valor in war. Macbeth is confused; he knows that the Thane of Cawdor lives. But when he learns that the King intends to execute the Thane of Cawdor shortly for treason, Macbeth begins to tremble.

Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?
(1.3.147-49)

Why does Macbeth’s murderous ambition to become king awaken? Since the witches’ first prediction has come true, he sees the second as a real possibility. Possibility is the form of all temptation. We are not tempted in our weaknesses but in our strengths and talents. The charming are tempted to seduce others by their wiles because they know that they are likely to succeed; the knowledgeable are tempted to make an impressive show of their knowledge; bullies or those with strong personalities are tempted to intimidate others. Those who know how to manipulate another’s guilt are tempted to make people do their bidding….

None of us has ever been tempted to turn stones into bread because we don’t have the power to do so. It is not a possibility; therefore, it is not a temptation. The particular forms of Jesus’ temptations are not our own, but what he was tempted with is the same — the abuse of power.

In one sense, all temptations are temptations of power, for power provides us with what we want, be it wealth, pleasure, possessions, prestige or revenge. Nothing entices us more than the possibility of getting our own way. But nothing corrupts us more than its pursuit. For the insatiable lust of getting what we want will not be satisfied until it devours our mind, heart, and will.

 

~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.

 

The Appropriateness of our Behavior

 

Christ and his disciples art by Odilon Redon
Christ and the disciples, art by Odilon Redon

 

 

Matthew 9: 14-16


John the Baptist’s disciples approach Jesus with the objection, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds that it is not appropriate for his disciples to fast while he is still among them.


 

Today’s gospel seems to focus on fasting, but it concerns itself more with two other issues. First, why do we engage in any particular behavior? Second, is the behavior appropriate? Let us take each issue in turn.

Why do we engage in any particular behavior?
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not fast?” This is not a question but a criticism that smolders with anger. Ask yourself this question. Why would you be angry with people who do not practice a form of asceticism that you do, since their choice has no negative consequences in your life? It neither imposes upon you nor deprives you of anything. So why be angry?

One possible answer is that when we feel forced to do something that we really don’t want to do, we envy others who are not burdened by the false sense of obligation that weighs us down. This is akin to workaholics who resent people who are not driven. In their hearts, they condemn the less-driven as lazy and irresponsible. But in truth, workaholics are envious. They cannot relax without feeling guilty or feeling afraid of having their image as indefatigable workers tarnished. Likewise, some people engage in spiritual devotions simply because someone else has recommended them highly. They do not want to lose the esteem of these people, so they bind themselves to devotions that do not fit the unique contours of their souls.

All of us are unique and must follow our own path. When Saint Thérèse was novice mistress, she described working with her novices in this fashion: “It is absolutely necessary to forget one’s likings, one’s personal conceptions, and to guide souls along the road which Jesus has traced out for them without trying to make them walk my own path…. There are really more differences among souls than there are among faces” (238-40).

In the same vein, Abbé de Tourville wrote, “Thomas Aquinas says that the angels differ as much from one another as if they belonged to different species. This is equally true of each one of us…. One of the hardest but one of the most absolutely necessary things is to follow our own particular line of development, side by side with souls who have a different one; often one opposed to our own… We must be ourselves and not try to get inside someone else’s skin. David could have done nothing in the armor of Saul; he refuse it and ran to fetch his sling…. We must follow our own light as though we were alone in the world … we must never be deflected from our own path” (26-28).

The Appropriateness of our Behavior
“The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” It is neither appropriate nor proper to fast at a wedding. To do so not only would indicate inordinate attachment to one’s ascetical practice, but would also be rude. Thomas Aquinas asks whether a lack of mirth can be sinful. His response is, “Yes.” Thomas writes that such a person becomes “burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment … they are boorish and rude” (II, II, Q. 168, art. 4).

The appropriateness of our behavior is a matter of charity, as this story from the desert illustrates. “Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose practice it was to eat every other day. But when he saw the brethren, he joyfully invited them to dine with him, saying: ‘Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren’ ” (Merton 77).

The appropriateness of when, where, and how we exercise any ascetical practice or virtue is important in the spiritual life. Francis de Sales wrote, “To insist on performing acts of a particular chosen virtue on every possible occasion is a great defect, as in the case of certain ancient philosophers who wished to be always weeping or always laughing; and still worse, to criticize and blame those who do not do the same. But Saint Paul says, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with the mourners’ ” (85).

 

~ A Meditation by March Foley, O.C.D.

 

 

Ash Wednesday

 

Ash Wednesday art by jaki kaufman
Art by Jaki Kaufman

 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18


Jesus commends us to fast, to pray, and to give alms but cautions us not to perform these actions for the sake of acquiring a reputation for holiness.


 

In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Becket is accosted by a temptation to martyrdom, that is, to win fame and glory by his death. When he realizes the nature of the temptation, he exclaims, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason… A Servant of God has a chance of greater sin and sorrow, than the man who serves a king. For those who serve them” (44-45). Becket’s words go to the heart of today’s gospel. Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, all good deeds, may be done for the wrong reason. Acts meant to serve God may also serve our egos.

Deeds that serve God differ from those that serve our egos because of the motive that underlies them. As John Chrysostom comments upon today’s gospel, “Since even if you should enter into your closet, and having shut the door, should do it for display, the doors will do you no good” (“Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew” 132). We can draw as much attention to ourselves by standing in a corner as by basking in the limelight. In this regard, Jerome warns us, “Don’t seek the fame of avoiding fame. Many who avoid having witnesses of their poverty, their tenderness of heart, their fasting, desire to win approval for the fact that they despise approval” (160-61). The motive out of which our choices arise is all-important because it determines the nature of our actions. If we give alms in order to be known to be generous, then our action is not a deed of generosity but of pride.

It matters little what we pride ourselves in because the lure of pride does not lie in the object of our pursuit but the distinction that it confers upon us. But, ultimately, the distinction that pride bestows betrays those who practice it. For whenever our pretense has evoked the praise of others, we become enslaved to the admiring audience that we have created. The Greek word translated in today’s gospel as hypocrite (hypokrites, meaning actor) is instructive in this regard. Every actor knows that he is only as good as his last performance and stands in dread of a bad review. The more our self-esteem depends upon the opinion of others, the more insecure we become.

Being insecure in self-esteem is the core dynamic of what psychologists call a narcissistic personality disorder. This might strike us as strange because narcissists often project a grandiose persona of self-assurance. But their personas are fragile. Narcissists easily become depressed and full of self-doubt when they receive less than rave reviews for their performances. They are like kites. When the winds of approval and applause are favorable. narcissists fly high; when the winds of acclamation subside, they fall into the doldrums of despondency and despair.

Most of us have a narcissistic wound, for we are insecure in the knowledge that we are loved. So we go through life wearing masks, conning parts, playing roles, giving performances in the hope of winning love or at least curtailing disapproval. In this regard, we are all frightened hypocrites.

There is nothing wrong with receiving praise, but the more we seek it, the more we become addicted to it. Jesus is straightforward in what we must do. We must fast from any behavior that is designed to win the approval of others. Jesus’ counsels to “go to your room and pray in secret … keep your deeds of mercy secret … groom your hair and wash your face when you fast” are but three examples.

Augustine writes that when we fast from our play-acting, we are “cleansing the eye by which God is seen” (“The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount’ 92). We cannot see our Father who dwells in secret if our minds are preoccupied with our performance. Saint Teresa tells us, “All harm comes to us from not keeping our eyes fixed on [God]” (“The Way of Perfection” 97). As we begin Lent, let us direct our gaze inward, to the God who dwells in secret and who loves us.

 

~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.