In Acts 16:1-10, Paul and Timothy tried to proclaim the gospel throughout what we would now call Asia Minor. But they were stopped, according to the text, by the Holy Spirit, and after Paul had a vision, they decided to cross over into what we now call Europe. In other words, the initial intentions of the missionaries to work in Asia Minor were altered as a result of various prayer experiences, and they went to Europe instead.
Those of us who believe that it is possible to be guided by the Holy Spirit might do well to reflect further on this passage, especially if we believe that the Holy Spirit is much better at guiding things than we are. Were Paul and Timothy doing something special to make themselves attentive to the motions of the spirit? Are there some aspects of their behavior that we can imitate so that it will be easier for ourselves to receive guidance from God?
Perhaps there is one thing to note in this regard. As the text says: “they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the Apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). In other words, they allowed the core of their message to shaped by Church leadership. Is this not the same reason St. Ignatius includes a chapter in his Spiritual Exercises called: “Rules for thinking with the Church?” Proper spiritual discernment takes place only in a context of promoting Church teaching.
Jesus said that “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you” (John 15:16). This means that when we compare our own actions to God’s actions, our deeds pale in comparison, like a candle beside the sun. What God is doing is of far greater impact than anything that we might choose to do. This teaching should not make us neglectful of our own actions, but rather see them in their proper context.
The first aspect of that context is gratitude. Since our discipleship is due more to the grace of God than to our own decisions, we feel a sense of gratitude for the gift that was freely given to us. The second aspect of that context is trust. If God has chosen to reach out to us, despite our unworthiness, and bring us into his friendship, then we can trust Him to act generously and mercifully with us in the future.
To live out of those feelings of gratitude and trust: that is the Christian vocation. Grateful for what we have been given, and trusting God and His Church to guide us, we will easily fulfill the second part of the verse quoted at the beginning of this reflection: “go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16).
Jesus said “remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:9-10). The fact that Jesus used the word “if” (ἐὰν in Greek) must not be under-appreciated. It is part of Christianity’s inheritance from Judaism that the spiritual life cannot be divorced from the observation of divine laws. The love of God is inextricably united to obedience to God’s commandments. If we keep the commandments that Jesus taught us, we will remain in his love. If we don’t keep them, there is a problem that must be addressed.
Confronting the reality of what Jesus is saying should not lead us to see Jesus as a selfish child. A selfish child says: “you can be my friend, as long as you do whatever I tell you.” To perceive the difference, read the entirety of the verses that this reflection began with: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Jesus is a gateway to the Father (unlike any other human being). He gives us commandments to help us remain not only in His love, but ultimately in the Father’s love. In doing this, he is far more than a helpful friend.
Jesus told his audience that “by this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). He had been using the analogy of the vine. The vinedresser is God the Father, the vine is Jesus Christ, and the branches are human souls. The branches that bear no fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire, while the branches that do bear fruit are pruned.
An expert gardener enjoys a certain glory when she sees her garden blooming, and an expert farmer also enjoys something similar when he sees his crops growing up healthy. Parents enjoy a certain glory when they see their children succeed. You might call it a vicarious glory, but it truly is a positive feeling of accomplishment. Children, too, feel good to see that they have pleased their parents. At the adolescent level, there exists a need for affirmation from one’s parents, but this need can mature to the point that the adult child takes delight in seeing the happiness of a beloved parent.
This is why it is good not only to bring our sins into our prayer life, but also, on other occasions, to bring our good deeds before God in prayer. He is glorified by the good fruit that we bear. The purpose of this reflection is to challenge you to see that glory in Him.
“They appointed presbyters for them in each Church and, with entertainments and succulent meals, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith” (Acts 14:23). It should be immediately obvious that the preceding quotation has been doctored. The real verse reads this way: “They appointed presbyters for them in each Church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” The verse is describing what the apostles Paul and Barnabas did as they travelled about on their missionary journeys, establishing ecclesiastical hierarchies in their wake.
Those of us who have roles in ecclesiastical hierarchies today, whether as volunteers or as professionals, might need some encouragement to keep up these ancient Christian practices of prayer and fasting, especially when surrounded by the ocean of entertainments and succulent foodstuffs provided by 21st-Century Western culture. According to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, it is a mark of consolation to have a desire for prayer and fasting, and a mark of desolation to have the opposite desire. Consider carefully, then, the state of your soul: are you in consolation or desolation?
After working a healing miracle in the presence of some pagans, Sts. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes, because the pagans had begun to worship them as if they were gods. This was tantamount to blasphemy in their ears, and they responded in the traditional Jewish custom of the time. There are many instances of people tearing apart their own garments in both the New and the Old Testaments, but this practice seems to have died away in the early centuries of Christianity. One reason for this loss is the precept of Joel 2:13: “rend your hearts and not your garments.” It does no good to make an outer show that does not reflect an inner reality.
Given that we no longer make such outer shows, are we still capable of that inner reality? When Sts. Paul and Barnabas saw people around them intending to do something evil, they rent their garments. When we see people around us about to do something evil, do we care enough to rend our hearts? Or do we just shrug it off?
No need to become sanctimonious or moralizing or to claim the moral high ground. What there is a need for, if we really care about those around us, is for us to suffer inwardly when those around us despise God’s laws.
Jesus changed our first pope’s name from “Simon” to “Peter.” He would have called him “Petros” in Greek or “Cephas” in Aramaic, both names meaning “stone.” One of the fruits of reflection upon that name is found in the first letter of Peter, chapter 2, verses 4-8. It is a passage that identifies Christ as a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God. And it says that Christians should, like living stones, let ourselves be built into a spiritual house.
One of the better stones for building purposes is limestone. It is used in roads, houses and cathedrals. It has a uniform consistency and it ages beautifully. Most importantly: it is easy to cut. It can be split in any direction, without reference to the direction of its grain. Thus, it can be planed, sawed and carved into almost any shape.
This last aspect of limestone, its ability to be cut by the mason in any direction, is a quality that we might emulate as we open ourselves to God’s designs. The limestone cannot understand the artisan’s intentions, but it allows itself to be shaped and fitted into something much bigger than itself. Even the humblest stone finds a place and makes a contribution to the builder’s plan.
If you have had a good director lead you through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, when you finished them, you probably had a good sense of accomplishment. You probably experienced a healthy sense of pride in yourself, in your director, and in St. Ignatius. When you see a copy of the Spiritual Exercises on someone else’s shelf, or you hear others discussing it, you feel a certain sense of ownership, because you have been there, you have invested, and you have reaped a harvest. This is a healthy sense of pride about the Spiritual Exercises, neither too much nor too little. Too much pride would lead to immoderate boasting or even pelagianism, God forbid! Too little pride would lead to shame, or to putting your light under a bushel basket. But most of us who have made the exercises do, I think, feel a healthy sense of pride about them.
Do we feel the same sense of pride for the work of Jesus Christ? Are we not, perhaps, a little too bashful about what Christ did for us? The words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem might be of assistance: “Let us, therefore, not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ; but though another hide it, do thou openly seal it upon your forehead, that the devils may behold the royal sign and flee trembling far away. Make then this sign at eating and drinking, at sitting, at lying down, at rising up, at speaking, at walking: in a word, at every act.”
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! The verse for today’s responsorial psalm is “Remember the marvels the Lord has done.” Today is a day to remember what the Lord has done for the Irish people, especially by calling and sending St. Patrick, the great missionary bishop, to proclaim the gospel to the pagan Druids of Ireland. Thanks to Saint Patrick’s work, and that of many other missionaries, such as Saint Ciarán of Saighir and Saint Colm Cille, Christianity spread and flourished in Ireland and the Druidic culture waned. The culture war we see in Western civilization today is nothing compared to the culture war in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick.
Perhaps, if we are hoping for as happy an outcome in our times as St. Patrick had in his times, we can learn from the hymn called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.” Whether it was written by him personally or his followers, it remains relevant to us. The popular version of this hymn begins “I arise today,” but there are, in fact, several earlier verses. The very first verse starts “I bind to myself today the strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity,” and the second verse begins with this: “I bind to myself today the virtue of the Incarnation of Christ.” If you agree with me that Saint Patrick, and, in fact, all of Ireland are worth celebrating, then join me in repeating these verses, and have a blessed Saint Patrick’s Day!
“Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings… Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jer 17: 5-10). A human being can only be trusted to a point. Because every one of us comes equipped with a limited intellect and an unstable free will, therefore, we can only be trusted so far. “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it” (Jer 17: 9). Even the steadiest human beings have an aspect of uncertainty and unpredictability about them.
We should not read these messages from the great prophet Jeremiah only in the third person, but in the first person, too. “Cursed is the man who trusts in me.” “More tortuous than all else is my heart.” Thus, if I have an important decision to make, before doing so, I have to take a step back and reflect upon my own history of ignorance and wrongdoing. When I do so I realize something: perhaps I am right now going to make this important decision ignorant of some important facts! Perhaps I am going to decide while under the sway of some sinful tendency! Am I (once again) convincing myself, subtly or even subliminally, that it just happens to turn out that what I wanted all along is best for all parties involved?
If you can sympathize with this predicament, and if you have an important decision to make, then find someone who can direct you in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, because they “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment” (SpEx 21).