Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Most Important Work of Your Life

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

Jesus’ teaching today reminds us that the most important work of the Christian is an interior work, the effort to purify and bring order to our inner lives with the help of God’s grace.  And he teaches us this lesson because he wants his disciples to find the freedom and happiness that comes from a purified and well-ordered heart.  He knows that when the heart is divided, when it is constantly distracted, when it is ruled by passions that are out of control, then we cannot find peace and joy and happiness.  And not only that, but those we love most, our families and our friends and community often bear the effects of our heart problems.
He reminds us that a pure heart not only gives peace and joy to us, but to everyone else who we encounter in life.

So I think we can logically conclude from our scriptures today that the most important thing that we can be working on, the most loving thing that we can do for those around us, is to work on our interior lives, to work on purifying and ordering our hearts.  If you want to love your husband or wife more, work on your spiritual life.  If you want to love your children more, work on your spiritual life.  If you want to love your friends and neighbors and coworkers and people you run into on the street, work on your spiritual life.  In short, just as the greatest act of love we can undertake for God is the love of others, so too, the greatest act of love we can undertake for others is to work on our love of God.  They are two sides to the same coin.

Wouldn't it be nice if this interior renewal could happen quickly and without a lot of work.  That God would just reach down one day and zap us – like a big Holy Spirit defibrillator: heavenly paddles put to the chest and zzzt… presto saint.  But real cleaning and ordering doesn't often happen like that, even if there are a few zaps along the way.  Instead, the path that most of us are called to follow is a gradual incline of interior renewal or conversion: a daily effort to fight against vice and grow in virtue.  In short, it’s work.  Don’t we all ask ourselves – I certainly do every day – am I really working on this hard enough?  Am I actively seeking open my heart to Christ and his will or is my effort to know and love him often far too halfhearted?  To have a pure and ordered heart: that is what I know I need and what those around me need in me more than anything – certainly as a priest.  But it is the same for all of us.  What are we doing about that – concretely - this evening, tomorrow morning, afternoon?

And so on this labor day weekend it is fitting that we speak a bit about this most important spiritual occupation, working with Christ to build an interior castle, a spiritual life that is fully alive and open to God’s grace.  But where to begin?  What are tools and method of this art of interior renewal, this work of spiritual construction?  Perhaps more clearly than anywhere, we find in the lives of the saints throughout the centuries the inspiration and clear witness as to how to carry out this work of interior conversion.  Today I thought we could just touch on three main elements.

1. First, the saints show us that we must work to know our destination: to know Christ, whose mind and heart were pure and ordered to the truth  and goodness of God’s will.  The more intimately we know Jesus, the more we are capable of seeing the destination that our hearts seek.  How do we come to know Christ intimately?  The fathers of the Church tell us that ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.  So first and foremost, we must work to immerse ourselves in the sacred scriptures, particularly in the Gospels.  But the scriptures do not interpret themselves, being that they are translated from 3 different languages and cultures of 2-3 thousand years ago that were very different from our own.  And so in our reading we have to rely on the guidance of the great doctors of the church, the moral and doctrinal tradition that has been handed on throughout the centuries, and the lived witness of the saints: all of whom help us to encounter the true Jesus Christ, rather than fall into the easy trap of fabricating an image of Jesus that conforms more to our own goals and desires than to the truth about him.  How often do you and I read scripture and scriptural commentaries, documents of the Church, or books on the lives of the saints?  If interior renewal is our goal, then this work of deepening our understanding of Christ is essential and we have to make it a priority.  How many bookmarks on our browser point us to sites that will help us to grow in the knowledge and love of our faith?

2. But it is not only this intellectual knowledge that we need, right?  We not only need to know where or to whom we’re going –
we also need his help getting there.  And this means that we need to listen to Jesus as he speaks directly to us so that the truth of who he is, what he thinks, and what he desires can begin to really change who we are and what we think, and what we desire.
The saints show us that this interior dialogue – heart to heart - happens through the sacraments, through fasting and other penitential practices, and through long hours of prayer.  Through these aspects of our Catholic life, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, leads us along the path to holiness.  The sacraments and our spiritual disciplines gradually instill in us the fortitude to persevere when we encounter our human weakness and failures, and to not settle for mediocrity in the spiritual life.  Over time God’s grace has the power to radically transform us through prayer and sacrament, making us less distracted with the trivial things in life, less prone to be overcome by destructive passions, less vulnerable to bouts of anxiety and fear, and more full of joy and hope and goodwill toward others.  Do we take time for prayer?  Real time – is it scheduled, does our day begin and end in prayer?  What about frequent confession and the regular reception of the Eucharist?  In our world, that pushes us in so many directions, it is easy to neglect these spiritual basics.
But if we are serious about interior renewal, for our sakes and the sake of those around us we need to put spiritual things first, and then let life settle in around that.

3. And finally, even  the most hermetic of hermits recognized that the interior can only be purified and ordered when it is constantly being given to those around us.  Christ teaches us continually throughout the Gospels that generous service to others and a sacrificial outpouring of one’s life to friend and neighbor is essential for an interior conversion of life.  We might put it this way: God can only purify and order your heart when you give it to him, not when you keep it buried in your chest.  Do the saints have pure hearts because they love, or do they love because they have pure hearts?  It’s kind of a chicken and egg question, but clearly the two go together.  What is clear is that in working to purify and order our hearts we must be concerned with the hearts of others.  When we give our heart to a brother or sister in need, Jesus tells us that we give it to him, and we know that when we give our hearts to Christ he works to purify them and order them and make them holy.
How much do we go out of our way to build community in our parish and in our neighborhood?  How much potential social time is gobbled up by vegging in front of a television of computer?  It’s easier to plop down on the couch, but you can’t love others from the couch.  Interior renewal means seeking out community, seeking opportunities to love others, and seeking Christian friendship so that we can encourage one another in the path to holiness.  This may be the greatest challenge to us today – building Christian community and culture.

As we look to the witness of the saints, to the instruction of  the scriptures and the witness of  our Catholic tradition, the pathway to interior conversion of life in Christ is pretty clearly revealed to us, it is not a great mystery like the Trinity.

But there is one mystery that each of us must sort out with God alone – and that is the path that we will choose each day.  Will we be hearers of the word only, deluding ourselves, St. Paul asks us today, or will we be doers of the word?  Will we be content with a basic knowledge of Christ, a mediocre prayer life, and kindness to those who are easy to be around?  Christ desires more for us because he knows our hearts and he knows that our hearts need more to find true joy and fulfillment.  That our hearts will be restless until they rest in him.  On this labor day weekend, let us recommit ourselves to the most important work of our lives: the work of building an interior castle, a temple for the Holy Spirit, a foundation that is solidly grounded in the joy and peace and truth of Christ’s love.

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