Healing put to the test, Part III

Taken from wrs.vcu.edu

[excuse this amalgam of thought-scraps I pasted together for this last post. Ran out of time. Tempus fugit!]

Healed by and for love

I have to end this train of posts. But how? There are so many ways to approach the topic of faith-healing. What best to say? I thought long and prayerfully on this while flying from Denver to Dallas and it came to me that, in keeping with my proclivity toward hyperbole, I should simply share a thought about a the “more excellent [hyperbolēn] way” (1 Cor 13:6). If I may, I’d like to exaggerate for the sake of emphasis and say that if I were forced to choose, as a Catholic theologian, one “sola” in our faith to retain, it would be sola caritas, “charity alone.” We are saved, sanctified, redeemed and healed in love, for love, through love, with love and by love so that we might be able to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ dying on the cross. Hence, theologian Hans Urs von Balthsar says, “Martyrdom is the normative form of Christian existence.”

Four hundred years after St. John wrote his letter to Nicholas Doria about the charismatic nun, another Discalced Carmelite nun in France, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would write:

I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.  To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.

St. Thérèse considered herself a disciple of John of the Cross. She said,

Ah! how many lights have I not derived from the works of our holy Father St. John of the Cross! At the ages of seventeen and eighteen I had no other spiritual nourishment. He is the saint of love par excellence.

She fully embraced his mysticism of la fe desnuda y amor a Dios, “naked faith and loving God.” For her, love of God and neighbor alone, lived in the darkness of faith in intimate union with the Passion of Jesus, is the heart of her “little way” of perfection. She said,

Our love for Jesus is truly great when we do not feel its sweetness. It then becomes a martyrdom … When, on the contrary, we begin to seek ourselves, true love dies away. Unfortunately, many serve Jesus when he consoles them, but few are willing to keep him company when he is asleep … I do not desire sensible affection, a love that I feel, but only a love that is felt by Jesus. Oh! to love Him and cause Him to be loved! … Love alone saves.

Healing by Healing Others’ Wounds

I was speaking recently with a priest about my thoughts on faith-healing, seeking his critical feedback. He made a remarkable comment at the end of our conversation:

Look, if people want some good faith healing, I tell them — pray with the prophet Isaiah for a while in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and then spend a few days with the Missionaries of Charity cleaning up puke, clipping nails and washing feet. They’ll show you charity’s the best healer there is.

I imagine he was referring specifically to Isaiah 58:6-9:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen —
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your wound will be quickly healed;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I recall in the months I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C., I met one day with Sr. Manorama to share my frustrations with a patient named Robert. She said, after I finished my venting:

I understand it’s hard sometimes. And I am glad you share these things with me. But Tom, it’s not about you. It’s about Robert. It’s about Jesus. You are here to love Jesus in these people. And inasmuch as it’s about Robert, it’s about Jesus. If you can accept that, you’ll make progress.

At first I was furious. Then I went to the chapel to calm down and I sobbed. Robert had pulled me out of myself. Taught me love. I made progress. Conversion. Healing. In fact, those next several months were among the most transformative of my life up to that point. They set a trajectory.

St. John:

Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw forth love.

Final fragments

As I end this meandering reflection, let me say that I believe the Charismatic Renewal, when its practitioners are well grounded in a thoroughly Catholic approach, can offer some very wonderful benefits. I have received many gifts over the years from those healthy elements of the movement that continue to flourish today. It is a very complex movement, with nearly numberless iterations, and it cannot easily be described or defined. John Allen, in his book Future Church, locates the Renewal’s origins and influence in the early 20th century Protestant Pentecostal movement which, today, represents a powerful and vigorous global phenomenon. Allen says,

When future histories of Christianity are written, the late twentieth century will probably be known as the era of the ‘Pentecostal Explosion.’ From less than 6 percent in the mid-1970s, Pentecostals finished the century representing almost 20 percent of world Christianity.

Pentecostal Christianity emphasizes direct personal (highly individual) experience of God through the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit,’ which often is believed to produce spiritual gifts such as healings, visions, and speaking in tongues. The “Pentecostalizing” of Catholicism is a phenomenon that is here to stay for a long while, especially in the global south. But, as Allen notes, though this cross-fertilization bears many benefits for renewal in Catholicism, it also bears the need for very careful discernment. Many of these Catholic faith-healing movements, in my experience, bear deep imprints from Pentecostalism, and I believe Mario’s posts point out some of the more important issues that require careful judgment.

Here also I would like to recommend some books. If you want some more on St. John, there’s a more general audience book I really like, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of The Cross by Iain Matthew; and another, bit more technical book, St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night by Colin P. Thompson, that has a robust summary of John’s spiritual doctrine. On the Renewal, I like a book called Sober Intoxication of the Spirit: Filled With the Fullness of God, by the Pope’s household preacher, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa O.F.M. Cap.

—-

Those who attempt to unite, in a programmatic fashion, God’s healing power, psychological science, the extra-ordinary means of grace, charismatic gifts and preternatural powers must engage in a rigorous and ongoing discernment that never ever tires of a re-audit. Mario’s reflections, and those of the Fathers of Mercy, offer much for reflection. This is always a welcome thing in the Household of God.

Healing put to the test, Part II

Taken from meetville.com

As a follow up to yesterday’s introduction to Mario Sacasa’s blog posts on various faith-based healing ministries, I wanted to share some (hopefully) relevant personal experiences with evaluating some of the claims associated with these healing ministries — claims to private revelation, mystical graces or out-of-the-ordinary charismatic experiences. There’s so much to say, so many issues at stake! But I will limit myself to whatever comes to mind as I sit here in the Denver airport waiting for a delayed plane. I will take my inspiration from a woman across from me who just said to her child after he knocked over a drink: “Wise up and learn from your mistakes!”

I broke my thoughts into 2 parts. I will post the other part tomorrow. They are really unorganized thoughts which I do not have time to tidy up, but hopefully they will offer some light.

A personal story

Beginning in 1987, I became involved with prayer groups that identified themselves with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. My early experiences were overall positive, mostly associated with humble parish-based prayer groups that would meet weekly for praise, worship, intercessory prayer and fellowship. Back then, I would have echoed St. John Paul II comment on the Renewal:

How many people have rediscovered their faith, a desire for prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, which is expressed in generous service for the mission of the Church! How many lives were deeply changed! For all of this I wish to praise and thank the Holy Spirit with you today.

But over ensuing years, I also have gotten involved with elements of the Renewal that are not so balanced, and some of them did me (and others I know) harm. In particular, those people who claimed to have gifts of prophetic knowledge and clairvoyant insight simultaneously asserted a certain divine authority to command unearned trust and wield unaccountable power. While there are certainly some saintly people out there who legitimately bear God’s power and authority for good, these people were not that. As a result of these troubling experiences, somewhere back around 1989, I received my first “wake up call” to the need for learning and practicing disciplined discernment in the face of such bold claims. By God’s grace, I had at the same time just begun gong to a first-rate spiritual director. 

After I shared with him what had happened, he asked me to immerse myself in St. John of the Cross’ two classic treatises on the spiritual life, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night (which are really one book in four parts). He said to me, “John offers you a safe path, Tom. If you embrace him he’ll teach you the secure and simple way of faith, hope, charity and the royal way of the cross.” That was a defining moment for me. Over the next several years, he walked me through St. John and taught me how to apply it. 25 years later, John’s vision has come to dominate my approach to matters of faith and discernment. Indeed, my journey into John’s works eventually led me to write a PhD dissertation on the Ascent-Night. As I have said before, I  see my theological vocation to be translating John’s spiritual vision for all walks of life. But I have so far to go! My thinking continues to evolve daily under St. John’s tutelage, and I will, hopefully, remain under his sway the rest of my life.

Testing

As a direct response to my bad experience, the first thing my director gave me to read was St. John’s letter to Nicholas Doria, who was at the time to superior of the Discalced Carmelite Friars. The letter draws on the doctrine John articulates in detail in the Ascent-Night regarding how one should discern the origin and meaning of extraordinary spiritual experiences, i.e. visions, locutions, special “prophetic” knowledge and so on. The letter was written after John had, in response to a request from Doria, completed an investigation of a Discalced Carmelite nun claiming to be the recipient of extraordinary spiritual experiences.

For John, the bottom line is that extraordinary experiences in the spiritual life are an inherently ambiguous affair, both in terms of origin (where they come from) and reception (what they mean, what one is to do with them). As Denys Turner memorably words it, for John most mystical phenomena are at best “experiential feedback” from the encounter of the soul with God, and are not God himself. They are like “distant echoes of the Word” that require decoding, and are not worth much fuss. John argues that even when these experiences are genuinely “of God,” answers to how one is to understand them, why they are given, or what one is to do with them once they happen are simply not self-evident. Mystical phenomena are easily distorted, misunderstood, misapplied or misused by credulous recipients who lack proper discretion and judgment; or by those who are still too fragile and immature to resist placing them in the service of their un-redeemed and needy ego. For example, he says in the Night 2.3.2:

This is the stage in which the devil induces many into believing vain visions and false prophecies. He strives to make them presume that God and the saints speak with them, and frequently they believe their fantasy. It is here that the devil customarily fills them with presumption and pride. Drawn by vanity and arrogance, they allow themselves to be seen in exterior acts of apparent holiness, such as raptures and other exhibitions. They become audacious with God and lose holy fear, which is the key to and guardian of all the virtues.

While it is of course true, John says, that God does grant extraordinary graces to his servants, it is also true that the same God commands us to put those gifts to the test — placing them in service to unseeing faith (cf. John 20:29) and subordinating them to the “still more excellent way” of love of neighbor (1 Cor. 12:31).

Diagnosis and Prescription

In the letter, John reviews his investigation and judges the nuns claim to gifts of a supernatural origin to be false. Among the signs of distortion, he highlighted four in his letter.

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences, and being attached to such experiences is, for John, an wise open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak and convince others of the goodness and truth of her extraordinary experiences. She was also eager for more such experiences which is, he says, a very dangerous thing. Finally, she was very resistant to John’s critical inquest into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of genuine spiritual experiences that have been rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit to being tested by others, anxious to be exposed, by faith and sound reason, to the light of truth.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not, he said, write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. Rather, pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” “And,” he added, “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” He says of the humility he hopes this test will produce in this nun,

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

More tomorrow…

Healing put to the test, Part I

Taken from amazon.com

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. — 1 John 4:1

Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labors are to be presumptuously expected. Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to what is good — Lumen Gentium 12

I wanted to share with you today a series of blog posts written by a friend, Mario Sacasa, LMFT (found here: https://mariosacasa.wordpress.com/). Like the recent letter published by the Fathers of Mercy (here), these posts address important concerns related to certain Catholic faith-based healing ministries. These ministries Mario refers to in his posts variously blend elements of psychology, demonology and mysticism/spirituality into a set of strategies for seeking healing from God. The concerns Mario raises I also share, and I am grateful he has made a serious contribution to a very important conversation.

Over the years, I  have had numerous interactions with Catholic faith-healing movements like the ones Mario describes. I have grown increasingly concerned over the last 20+ years with some of the directions that have been taken in those movements. I am grateful that Mario chose to engage publicly in a respectful and honest conversation, as these movements have public import in the Church as they continue to grow in influence. They require serious and ongoing discernment based on solid considerations drawn from both faith and science. Mario welcomes comments and dialogue on his blog.

I will share a few of my own related reflections tomorrow.

Imagined grace

I went to a symposium last weekend in Denver, Colorado. It was held at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and was sponsored by the Institute for Priestly Formation. The topic was, of course, priestly formation and focused on the relationship between the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly identity and ministry. In my work serving the formation of future priests I sometimes think, “How did they let me in here?” It’s such a privilege, even as it’s also challenging work.

The seminary chapel was lovely, and having a Mass celebrated by 50+ priests is always an extraordinary experience. After Mass on the second day of the symposium, I walked around toward the narthex of the chapel and was overtaken by this beautiful bronze statue of Christ in the throes of his Passion. I stood in prayer before him and couldn’t help but think of St. Teresa of Avila’s experience,

By this time my soul was growing weary, and, though it desired to rest the miserable habits which now enslaved it would not allow it to do so. It happened that, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image which had been procured for a certain festival that was observed in the house and had been taken there to be kept for that purpose. It represented Christ sorely wounded; and so conducive was it to devotion that when I looked at it I was deeply moved to see Him thus, so well did it picture what He suffered for us. So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart were breaking, and I threw myself down beside Him, shedding floods of tears and begging Him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend Him.

I had a great devotion to the glorious Magdalen and often thought of her conversion, especially when I received Communion for, knowing that the Lord was certainly within me then, I would place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be rejected. I did not know what I was saying; but in allowing me to shed those tears He was very gracious to me, since I so soon forgot my grief; and I used to commend myself to that glorious Saint so that she might obtain pardon for me.

But on this last occasion when I saw that image of which I am speaking, I think I must have made greater progress, because I had quite lost trust in myself and was placing all my confidence in God. I believe I told Him then that I would not rise from that spot until He had granted me what I was beseeching of Him. And I feel sure that this did me good, for from that time onward I began to improve.

That made me think of how very important sacred images are in the spiritual life, and how God can use them to sanctify our senses and stir both contrition and virtues to life within. Especially in a culture so supersaturated with sensual images, we desperately need to allow God to pour his grace into our senses by praying with beautiful and sacred artwork. As Cardinal Ratzinger said it in a 2002 lecture,

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

The Passion of Jesus is the most beautiful form in the whole of creation, as it reveals the self-wasting love of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). As I looked at him, I prayed that I might place all my confidence in God.

ChristStatue

Merciful Ladder

John Climacus is shown at the top of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, with other monks following him, 12th century icon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt). Taken from wikimedia.org

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ one-line summary of his entire ethical teaching, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This saying concludes and sums up his extended commentary on the meaning of the stark command, “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-35), and is the equivalent of Matthew’s, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It’s indisputable in St. Luke’s Gospel that perfection for Jesus means one thing: being merciful. And that mercy, in its most perfect form, means loving one’s enemy.

And who is the enemy? Anyone who intends my harm, delights in my misfortune, schemes for my failure or does what is hateful toward me (or toward those I love). The Greek word exthrós used in “love your enemies” refers specifically to an enemy who is openly hostile, animated by deep-seated hatred, and implies an irreconcilable hostility rooted in a personal hatred bent on inflicting grave harm. For Jesus, love reveals my enemy as the neighbor most in need of my mercy.

Climbing to God

Below I will share a quote on mercy that knocked my socks off when I first happened on it years ago. I’ve quoted it here before, but it bears re-quoting. It’s from 7th century Egyptian monk, St. John Climacus, whose Ladder of Divine Ascent is revered as the epitome of spiritual wisdom in the Eastern Church. On the 9th rung of the 30-rung ladder to Paradise, St. John describes the demand to forgive wrongs by ceasing to harbor any “remembrance of those wrongs.” Remembrance of wrongs, for St. John, does not mean the obliteration of memories, a kind of spiritual amnesia. Rather, it refers to nursing one’s anger, harboring a grudge, clinging to the pain or hate conjured by the injury inflicted. It also implies the full meaning of “love your enemies,” i.e. to will, and eventually desire from the depths of the heart, the temporal and eternal well-being of the one who has harmed you or those you love.

St. John counsels elsewhere that the best remedy for the remembrance of wrongs is to pierce it with “arrow prayers.” In the desert spiritual tradition, this refers to short Scriptural passages (often a line from the psalms) offered to God in ceaseless repetition. One of these arrow prayers that originated in the deserts of Egypt eventually made its way into the Church’s liturgy of the hours:

O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me. — Psalm 69:2

In the selection below, St. John refers to the Jesus prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — which, in the Eastern Church, came to be the “prayer of prayers” among all the arrow prayers. I can personally attest to its astounding power to open the heart to grace. If you are interested, read this spiritual classic.

Quotes

As a reflection on today’s Gospel injunction to exercise mercy by forgiving, let me share two quotes.

First, I will allow St. John to shine Gospel light into our shadows:

Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an un-sleeping wrong, rancor by the hour.

Let the Jesus prayer put it to shame, that prayer which cannot be uttered in the company of malice.

If after great effort you still fail to root out this thorn, go to your enemy and apologize, if only with empty words whose insincerity may shame you. Then as conscience, like a fire, comes to give you pain, you may find that a sincere love of your enemy may come to life.

A true sign of having completely mastered this putrefaction will come not when you pray for the man who offended you, not when you give him presents, not when you invite him to share a meal with you, but only when, on hearing of some catastrophe that has afflicted him in body or soul, you suffer and you lament for him as if for yourself.

Some labor and struggle hard to earn forgiveness, but better than these is the one who forgets the wrongs done to him. Forgive quickly and you will be abundantly forgiven. To forget wrongs is to prove oneself truly repentant, but to brood on them and at the same time to imagine one is practicing repentance is to act like the man who is convinced he is running when in fact he is fast asleep.

Second, let me share with you with a powerful sign that the teaching of this Egyptian monk lives on. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, about ISIS’ beheading of the 21 Coptic Orthodox men:

Q: Not long after the video released, you tweeted about the killings, using the hashtag #FatherForgive. Did you mean that you forgive ISIS?

A: Yes. It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.

Narek, the Marginal Doctor

Taken from horizonweekly.ca

A new Doctor of the Church! I was so excited when I read the news yesterday I wanted to shout for joy (but it was 6:00 a.m. and I thought better)! Narek rocks.

Let me throw together a few thoughts, joining the online chorus that is swelling.

Pope Francis named the 10th century Armenian monk, St. Gregory Narek, the 36th Doctor of the Church. I love the writing of St. Gregory! He’s a poet to the core, and demonstrated amply, like the Hebrew prophets, that beauty is the truest form of divine discourse. Many of his theological and mystical-ascetical works are written as a colloquy — a dialogue with God — as was St. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions. Theological colloquy offers such a deep insight into the nature of theological discourse which must always be, in the first instance, a dialogue with the revealing God himself. God reveals to us not mere data for speculative consideration, but Himself for consummating union. Here’s a sample of Narek’s writing from his famous Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart:

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

Compassionate Lord, breathe in
this offering and look more favorably on it
than upon a more sumptuous sacrifice
offered with rich smoke. Please find
this simple string of words acceptable.
Do not turn in disdain.

May this unsolicited gift reach you,
this sacrifice of words
from the deep mystery-filled chamber
of my feelings, consumed in flames
fueled by whatever grace I may have within me.

As I pray, do not let these
pleas annoy you, Almighty,
like the raised hands of Jacob,
whose irreverence was rebuked
by Isaiah, nor let them seem like the impudence
of Babylon criticized in the 72nd Psalm.

But let these words be acceptable
as were the fragrant offerings
in the tabernacle at Shiloh
raised again by David on his return from captivity
as the resting place for the ark of the covenant,
a symbol for the restoration of my lost soul.

And, true to Pope Francis’ pastoral style, this doctor is chosen from the “margins” of the suffering church [incidentally, in 2012 Pope Benedict named a “marginal” medieval woman as Doctor of the Church, 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen. A genius. Sadly, so little fuss was made subsequently. Some time I will write on her]. The Armenian Apostolic Church (great documentary here), that traces its origins back to the 1st century, has a rich monastic, liturgical and theological tradition, and a rich history of saints and culture. But Armenian Christians also have a long history of oppression, climaxing in the horrors of the “Armenian Holocaust” genocide of 1915, carried out by the Ottoman Turks who slaughtered more than 1 million Armenian Christians.

The Armenian Divine Liturgy is magnificent in its poetry, sense of mystery and theological depth. One of the most cherished hymns of the Liturgy is called Khorhoort Khoreen, “O Mystery Deep.” I heard a lecture on it back around 2005 by an Armenian Orthodox priest and it b-l-e-w m-y m-i-n-d. Here are the words:

O Mystery deep, inscrutable, without beginning. Thou hast decked thy supernatural realm as a chamber unto the light unapproachable and hast adorned with splendid glory the ranks of thy fiery spirits.

Wow. If you don’t feel you have stepped onto terrifyingly holy ground when that is chanted, I don’t know if there’s hope you ever will.

I will end with a recited prayer for healing by St. Gregory. Through his intercession, may we all be healed unto the divine charity that is eternal life:

Kyrie eleison

Today I will share with you a loosely strung set of quotes that came to mind as I prayed over this morning’s Gospel…

Taken from classicalchristianity.com

Today’s Mass readings turn our minds to Lenten almsgiving. Etymologically, the word “alms” comes from the Greek word eleos, which means “pity, mercy.” So, to give alms is to give mercy to those who need mercy — and mercy, simply put, is love encountering human misery and overcoming it. Think of the Latin word for mercy, misericordiamiser, “misery,” and cordia, “of the heart.”   Mercy is both a response to human misery and the compassionate empathy of one’s heart toward the suffering of another. As St. Thomas Aquinas would say, mercy, to be fully virtuous, must be affective and effective, moving me with emotive empathy and toward effective action.

We also know what Jesus says in the Beatitudes about mercy-givers:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Today’s Gospel reveals the shocking truth that our salvation, the gift of God’s undeserved mercy, is itself dependent on the quality of our mercy-giving to the deserving and undeserving (cf Luke 6:35).

On the “undeserving” recipients of alms, St. John Chrysostom famously said,

You must not demand an audit of a person’s life – just correct the poverty and supply the need (Homilies on 1 Corinthians 21.5).

Shakespeare says of mercy in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

St. John Bosco captures this saving dynamic when he says,

An effective but often neglected means of gaining Paradise is almsgiving. By almsgiving I mean any work of mercy exercised toward one’s neighbor for the love of God.

Along those same lines Dr. Nathan Eubank, a biblical scholar and colleague of mine at the seminary, once made this comment to me:

If one were to do even a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke], one would get the immediate impression that we are saved by giving alms.

Saving alms. The hands of the needy are the gift-receiving altar of God.

We are not saved by mere faith, but saved by merciful faith that stoops down to the needy and suffering. St. James says it with sharp clarity:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Clearly for James saving works=almsgiving, good Jew that he is. Sounds like a Hebrew prophet or some such:

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. — Isaiah 58:7-8

Or maybe a Hebrew sage:

Give to God as he gives to you with a good eye and a large hand; for he who gives to the poor, lends to God; for who is a repayer if not he? For he is God who repays and he will repay you ten thousand times the thousand.” — Sirach 35:10–11

Again, St. Augustine comments on almsgiving,

Study the money lender’s methods. He wants to give modestly and get back with profit; you do the same. Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give the earth and gain heaven. ‘Whom shall I give it to?’ did you ask? The Lord himself comes forward (in the form of the poor person) to ask you for a loan, he who forbade you to be a usurer. Listen to the Scripture telling you how to make the Lord your debtor: ‘Anyone who gives alms to the poor is lending to the Lord.’

A moral theology professor I had in grad school once said on our Catholic social ethics class,

In Scripture, those are most like God who choose to override the natural slouch of fallen humanity toward self-interest in order to lift up the fallen; or who resist the sloth that prevents us from exiting our comfort zones and attending with mercy to the more unpleasant realities of human suffering and need. God is most at home among the homeless, building them homes; among orphans, adopting them; among widows, taking them into his care. And he’s always looking for laborers to join his cause.

St. John of the Cross says that one who is possessed with divine charity senses the sweet aroma of Christ in the stench of the sick or the poor, while those who are attached to pleasant odors are incapable of allowing the love of God to fully enter and free them to love as God loves, i.e. with a merciful love.

Mercy, which Aquinas argues is God’s greatest attribute, is therefore the supreme manner for human beings to image God. As such, being merciful is the truest use of human freedom and the greatest sign that we are truly free. I think here of the words of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:

There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread… Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

A volunteer at Good News Ministries, an ecumenical outreach to the poor and needy in Tallahassee, once said to me:

I’m always asking God questions about the suffering I encounter every day. But there’s one question you will never find me asking Him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

Amen.

Samuel Aranda‘s winning image of a woman in a niqab comforting an injured man in Yemen. Taken from dvafoto.com