Conversion, holiness and the search for true beauty

Matthew 28-32 (26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Le rire (The laugh) by Eugène Bataille, 1883, source
We spend a lot of time and money looking good on the outside. Globally, “beauty” is a $160 billion-a-year industry, encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, health clubs, cosmetic surgery and diet pills. According to the Economist, Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do an education. Canadians spend $5 billion-a-year on cosmetics alone. Taken in moderation, there is nothing wrong with caring for how we look physically. Unfortunately, we often invest far more time, money and effort on improving our bodies - which eventually get old, die and decay - in comparison to the attention we give on developing our spiritual or inner beauty, a beauty we will carry with us for all eternity. Jesus calls each of us to develop this true beauty by growing in holiness and becoming saints. In the parable of the two sons and the vineyard, we are presented with two very different responses to this invitation.   

At times we give mere lip service to Jesus’ call to grow in holiness and become saints. When this happens, we are like the second son who who said he would go to the vineyard but never went. Jesus identifies this son with religious authorities who claim to be great religious leaders, refuse to follow Jesus. We can fall into the same trap. When I was living in Rome I used to visit an elderly couple. In their house I saw so many pictures saints, including Padre Pio - this is Italy after-all.  As the saying goes, “not everyone in Italy believes in God, but everyone believes in Padre Pio!” I said to them once that they must be fervent Catholics.  They said of course, they were 100% Catholic! Then the old lady came close to me, pointed her finger in my face, and said,“listen we are more Catholic than you!”. So I asked what Church they went to.  Their response was “oh, we haven't been to mass in 20 years”.  Just identifying ourselves as Catholic, whether it for cultural or other reasons, isn’t enough. When we simply try to do the bare minimum in our spiritual life and not take any steps to grow in holiness, we give lip service to Jesus’ call.

Like the first son in the parable, we are to have an attitude of conversion. He initially said no to serving, but then had a change of heart and went to do his father’s will.  Jesus explains that the tax collectors and prostitutes fit into this category. Their actions were a sign they had said no to living as God commanded. Unlike the religious leaders, however, when they met Jesus they experienced a conversion and chose to follow Him. We should follow their example. Sometimes conversion involves a change from a bad life to a good one. For example, I once met a middle-aged man who has a shaved head and arms covered in tattoos. Some years ago he had a dramatic conversion that caused him to leave a life of crime and sin. He now spends most of his time serving the poor. Another type of conversion - also extremely important but unfortunately not enough emphasized - is from living a good life to living a better life. We find a famous example in the life of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer. As a teenager she chose to follow Jesus and was already living a good life. At the same time, however, she had certain weaknesses such as an immoderate interest in popular fiction about knights and chivalry, as well as an excessive care for her physical appearance. These things held her back from following Christ. One day, she had a conversion, choosing to follow Jesus more closely and live a better life, breaking some of her bad habits and spending more time in prayer.

As followers of Jesus, our lives should be marked by an attitude of ongoing conversion. Ongoing conversion is nothing other than a desire to grow in inner beauty. We should always desire to change, transforming ourselves to become more and more like Jesus. In short, we should want to become saints!   If this desire is lacking, something is amiss in our spiritual lives. Love is always dynamic, it is always growing. When we follow Jesus, there is no level ground, we are either moving up or moving down. We can consider three degrees of moral conversion.
  1. First degree: conversion from mortal sin. Mortal sin is a freely chosen rejection of God. For example, murder, adultery, hatred, blasphemy, and grave injustice. If one continues in this rejection, it ends in freely chosen eternal disaster. This conversion is a dramatic 180 degree change from a life that leads away from God to one where we desire to be in relationship with Him and follow His commandments.
  2. Second degree: conversion from willed venial sins. Though venial sins do not destroy our relationship or love with God and neighbor, they do wound it. Examples include gossip, overeating, rudeness and impatience. In this conversion, we recognize our faults, desire to change and make steps to do so.
  3. Third degree: living as the saints did, loving God and neighbour without limit. This involves giving oneself beyond the call of duty and going all the way for God. The spiritual writer, Fr. Thomas Dubay explains that at “this stage of growth these individuals are not simply rather better than ordinary good folk - they are vastly superior in sheer goodness”.
Though each of us is weak and our lives very much a “work in progress”, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are all called to this third degree of conversion.

Holiness, which is true, eternal beauty, is something worth spending time and effort to develop. Let us not be like the second brother in the parable who did not take this call to conversion seriously. Today lets spend some effort on looking good on the inside. Try to identify one area in your life you want to work on. Perhaps it is one bad habit you want to root out or one virtue you want to develop. Let us make ongoing conversion a way of life and becoming saints our greatest dream. For, as the french novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

Why gratitude is the cure for jealousy.

Matthew 20:1-16 (25th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

In the movie Toy Story, we are introduced to Woody, the favorite toy of a young boy named Andy. Everything changes for Woody when Andy receives a new toy for his birthday, Buzz Lightyear. Buzz soon becomes Andy’s favorite toy, filling Woody with an overpowering jealousy that changes him from being very warm and friendly into an angry and sad toy. Much of the movie follows the personal growth of Woody as he struggles to overcome this strong jealousy. Jealousy is something we all struggle with in our life. St. Thomas Aquinas says that jealousy is the “irrational anger at the success of another”. Jealousy poisons our attitude towards life and our relationship with God. Jesus’s parable about the labourers and the landowner in the gospel offers us some important insights about jealousy and how we can overcome it.

Jealousy makes us bitter and joyless people because it causes us to lose sight of the good we have in our life. Imagine that you are driving around and you see a Lamborghini on the road. Suddenly you wish you had that car; your own seems like rubbish in comparison. In that moment, however, you have forgotten that your own car is a gift in your life. It helps you and your family get around. In fact, many people in the world would be happy to have the car you do. Or consider this historical example. Andrew Carnegie, the multimillionaire who died in 1919, left $1 million for one of his relatives. When this relative discovered that Carnegie had left $350 million to public charities, he cursed Carnegie thoroughly because he had cut him off with just one “measly” million. For many of the labourers in the parable, the only thing they focus on is that some workers got paid the same for working a shorter amount of time. In their jealousy, they forget about all the good that happened that day: the fact that they got paid an honest wage. If they had focused on this good, they would have been satisfied and happy with the efforts of their day. Instead, their jealousy poisoned their hearts. They became angry with the landowner and the other workers. Likewise in our lives, jealousy blinds us to the good we have in our life and therefore robs us of happiness.

Jealousy is linked to ingratitude, another poison of the spiritual life. The parable of the labourers presents two different attitudes to our relationship with God, represented by the landowner in the parable.
  1. Boss/worker relationship: sometimes we can fall into the temptation to think that all the prayers we say and good works we do are ways to earn God’s favour. Gratitude for God and love of Him are not our motivations. God becomes an impersonal boss. Prayer becomes work, going to Mass on Sunday becomes a duty and doing works of charity become down payments on some favour we hope to receive in the future. Jesus warns against this attitude in the parable. The labourers have lost sight of the great generosity of the landowner who made the first move, reaching out to to all of them in love.
  2. Father/child relationship: Jesus encourages us to base our relationship with God on gratitude. Everything that we do in our life as followers of Jesus is in response to a God our Father who has first loved us and showered gifts upon us. The reality is that we are all the labourers who were hired at the last hour. When we recognize this, our hearts should fill with gratitude and love for God. Prayer, going to Mass and doing goods works are then done as an overflow of the gratitude and love we experience.

In order to overcome jealousy and ingratitude in our lives, we need to take practical steps to recognize the blessings God has given us. At the end of the day, is it easier to remember all the blessings of that day or the things that went wrong? For me, it is all to easy to focus on the later. God is constantly blessing us each day. It can be something as simple as a conversation with a friend, a compliment someone offered us or some way in which we were able to reach out to others with kindness. In these simple, daily blessings, God shows us His love for each of us in a very personal way. Unfortunately, we so often miss and easily forget these moments of grace. In order to prevent this, it is helpful to take some time at the end of each day to review our day, recognize some blessings and give thanks for them. An easy way to do this is something I like to call the “Toothbrushing Prayer”. Since we all brush our teeth at night, it is something we can all do. While you are brushing your teeth, try to think of two or three blessing that happened during the day and give thanks for them. The more we recognize the ways in which God has blessed us, the more our hearts will be filled with gratitude and love of God and the less we will experience jealousy for the ways we believe God has blessed others.

By the end of Toy Story, Woody is able to overcome his jealousy by focusing on the blessings in his life. One blessing he is able to recognize is that Buzz is not competition but someone in his life who can become his great friend. With this sense of gratitude, Woody regains his joyful disposition. We need to take steps to prevent jealousy and ingratitude robbing  us of the joy of following Jesus, who loves us and blesses us each.  Give the Toothbrushing Prayer a try for one week and discover the difference gratitude makes. As the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart wonderfully said: If the only prayer you said in your life was “I thank you”, that would be enough.

More than a fashion statement - what the cross teaches us about true power

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, year A

Imagine that you were transported in time several hundred years in the future. Of all the new and strange things that you see, one stands out. Many people are wearing a gold chain around their neck. Hanging from  this chain is the image of an electric chair. Attached to the walls in people’s homes and public places you also see the symbol of the electric chair. This futuristic people even has a special feast they celebrate each year called the Exaltation of the Electric Chair. Sounds very strange doesn't it, like something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone? We need to remind ourselves that if early Christians were transported in time to the year 2014, they would have a similar reaction to the way that we display and view the image of the cross and the crucifix.

For people at the time of Jesus, the cross was a terrible, violent and hateful symbol. It was a tortuous form of public execution used by the Roman Empire to control and subjugate. When people were crucified, they were stripped of their clothes and nailed or lashed to a cross which was placed in a very public area. Over the next two or three days the individual would die a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation, all in front of a mocking crowd. For the first three hundred years of Christianity, the cross or the crucifix was never depicted in art. It was by no means the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity that it is today. There is a simple reason for this. Crucifixion was only stopped in the Roman Empire during the middle of the fourth century. Early Christians were very much aware of what a horrendous instrument of torture and death the cross was. They would never dream of wearing a cross around their neck or displaying it on a wall. In fact, one of the oldest artistic depictions of Jesus on the cross was meant as a mockery of Christ and His followers. It is a piece of graffiti engraved on the wall of an army barracks dating from the year 200. It shows a man with the head of a donkey nailed to a cross. Beneath the cross is a man in a gesture of adoration before the cross. The inscription below the image reads “Alexamenos worships his God”. Alexamenos was undoubtedly a Christian who was being mocked by his fellow soldiers.  We need to avoid the temptation to domestic the cross and become desensitized to the terrible reality of what it used to represent.

"Alexamenos worships his God", c. 200, (more info here)
Today we can celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross because Jesus transformed the meaning and significance of the Cross completely and with it the entire world. To better understand this, we can think of a virus that is downloaded on a computer. When this happens, the virus slowly takes over the computer and changes it over time. The virus makes the computer do and become something different. Jesus dying on the cross was like a virus implanted on the computer that is sin, death and evil, mortally wounding them and destroying them from within. The cross we exult today is the cross on which Jesus hung. It is the cross that was sanctified by His sacrifice and is forever the fruit and testimony of His immense love which brought about a remarkable transformation. With His death on the cross, Jesus transformed not just what the cross symbolizes, but our entire reality:
Death was transformed into life.
A symbol of oppression was transformed into a symbol freedom.
A curse was changed into a blessing.
A sign of violence and terror was transformed into a symbol of ultimate self giving love.

In transforming the cross and the world, Jesus shows us the true meaning of power. A good definition of power is, “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the course of events”. What, however, gives one the ability to change events? Each year, Forbes magazine releases its list of the 100 Most Powerful People in the world. This year, the top five were: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis and Angela Merkel.  Forbes would argue that power comes by having more: more money, more position and prestige and more military strength. The Cross of Christ reveals that real power, one that brings lasting change is something very different. For Jesus, power is not getting more for yourself; rather, true power is giving of yourself more. Genuine power comes from kenosis, the Greek word for self-emptying or self-gift. The self-emptying of Jesus is expressed beautifully in the second reading. “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped”. Jesus emptied and sacrificed Himself for us out of love. He who is God became a man, and a poor man at that. He who created all that is became the servant of all. The author of life suffered a terrible death on the cross. With these actions, however, Jesus brought about lasting change: He destroyed death and restored life. He showed the meaning of true power.

Many of us wear a cross or crucifix around our neck. Perhaps we have become too comfortable and familiar with this image. Let us remind ourselves that wearing a cross should truly be a fashion statement. It should say something to others and ourselves about how we have chosen to live. It is, in fact, an act of rebellion against a way of thinking that says power is found in money, status and physical might. Displaying a cross rebels against this view and shows another way. It says no to the idea that violence can be conquered by violence. It goes against the idea that a hurt or wrong is best dealt with by vengeance rather than forgiveness. Wearing a cross sends the message that true power involves lovingly giving ourselves to others through service and sacrifice. Let us make this fashion statement both with what we wear around our neck and in how we act.

Why and how to give fraternal correction

Matthew 18:15-20 (23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Imagine someone is walking in a forest and because of all the trees they cannot see more than a few feet ahead. Now imagine that you are standing on a hill above the trees. From your location you can see the person and where they are walking. What would you do if you the person was walking towards a cliff? Without question, we would call out and warn them of the physical danger. Now, what would you do if you noticed that someone was in moral danger because their sinful actions were hurting themselves and others? Would you warn them through something we call fraternal correction?

The first reading strongly urges us to do just that. We are called to be watchers who warn and correct people when their behavior takes them on the wrong path. Giving fraternal correction is a very difficult, delicate and even terrifying task. If it was something we enjoyed doing, we would probably need to examine our motivations. Being watchers does not mean we become busybodies, looking for every opportunity to scold and correct. The second reading points to the only proper motivation for fraternal correction: love. Because of our love for others we want them to live the best lives possible. In the Gospel, Jesus tackles the question of fraternal correction when giving some very practical advice for dealing with a common situation. What do we do when someone sins against us? If someone says or does something to us which hurts us, how are we to respond? Or, what do we do if someone is involved in some sinful behavior? Jesus gives a four-step plan for how we should respond with love.

Step one: When someone hurts you, go and tell other people about it by gossiping. Just kidding! Significantly, Jesus does not tell us to do this.  When someone sins against us or when we see they are on the wrong path, our natural tendency is to gossip about it. “Can you believe what so-and-so said to me?” “Did you hear that so-and-so is having an affair?” The first thing we are to do is to go in private and speak with that person, explaining in a humble way why we feel their behavior was wrong. In such a conversation our hearts must be open, ready to forgive. Approaching the person directly, unlike gossiping and backbiting, gives the individual the opportunity to change. It is the loving thing to do.

Step two: If the person doesn't listen to you, now go and tell everyone what they have done. Kidding again! Jesus tells us to get one or two others and go correct the person. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it gives us the opportunity to examine our intentions. Has the person who hurt us really done wrong? Perhaps it is just a misunderstanding or a personal vendetta. Secondly, when several people, all motivated by love of the individual, approach them, it can be a very compelling motivation to change.

Step three: If that person still doesn't listen, now is the time to gossip. Now we take to twitter or the local newspaper to rant about the person, right? Nope! Jesus always wants us to act in such a way that the individual is given a chance to change. He tells us at this point to “tell the church”. In a time in which the Church has been plagued by scandal because of the covering-up of sins of its members, I need to be clear that Jesus is not advocating we keep things hidden from the public view. There are serious sins and crimes that must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities. When Jesus instructs us to “tell the church”, He means telling responsible, trusted individuals in authority who could try to convince the person to get on the right path.

Step four: If the person does not listen to the church, treat them as a gentile or tax-collector. This is strong language and Jesus is not kidding. For the Jewish people, gentiles and tax collectors were not part of their community. In serious cases the Church has the power and responsibility to excommunicate someone, cutting them off from the community. This action is not supposed to be a permanent type of shunning. Remember that when it came to sinners and tax collectors, Jesus always acted like the Good Shepherd, actively seeking them out and trying to bring them back into communion. Excommunication is tough love. It is meant to shake the person up and move them to convert.  As well, it show others that continuing obstinately in certain behaviors is not ok. You may have heard in the news about a recent, high profile example. In June, Pope Francis visited southern Italy, the stronghold of organized crime run by the mafia. In this traditionally Catholic area, members of the mafia try to pass themselves off as faithful Catholics in order to retain popular support. On this visit, Pope Francis declared that members of mafia “are not with God, they are excommunicated”. He called on the mafia bosses to repent, warning that “hell … awaits you if you continue down this road”. With this powerful gesture, Pope Francis is showing true love to the members of the mafia by fulfilling his duty of being a watcher.

How do you respond when someone sins against you? What do you do when someone hurts you by what they say or do? For many of us, myself included, it is all too easy to respond with gossiping and backbiting. Today we should remember that the greatest commandment is to love. A way not to show love is not to warn our neighbors when their behavior hurts them or others. Let us be good watchers.