The Acts of the Apostles, 14: 8-10:
In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out; “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
The Acts of the Apostles, 14: 21-22:
They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 1: 18-20:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
I have been reading the Acts of the Apostles for the last several weeks. I read chapter fifteen this morning. Then, for no pressing reason, I skipped ahead to the first chapter of the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. I found the last couple chapters of Acts a little dry, more historical than instructive, so I wanted to see if the next book of the New Testament would get back to teaching mode.
If you reference the quotes above, you can see that the synergy between what I discovered on my journey and what I have been encountering in Scripture has not ceased. Even when the material feels dry, it seems that every chapter has one or two nuggets that match perfectly with conclusions I have already drawn.
The first quote speaks directly to the gospel passage from chapter five of Mark that I referenced at the end of chapter two. The woman with internal bleeding believed that “if I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Here, Paul looks at a cripple sitting in a synagogue, sees the same measure of belief in his soul, and is able to use that belief to cure the man of his affliction. The importance of faith and belief as a primary component of my journey is thus reinforced.
The second quote speaks directly to the entire discussion on adversity that took place in chapter seven. If the Father allowed the Son to suffer the adversity of the Cross, if the Father turned that greatest of evils into the greatest of Goods, then I should welcome every adversity in my life as an opportunity to draw closer to Christ and understand Him better. Paul is giving his gentile disciples the exact same message. The idea that adversity is central to the plan of God is highlighted once again.
The third quote speaks against the worldliness that I must deny myself if I am going to progress from Penance and Metanoia to Spiritual Poverty. It also speaks to the ongoing presence of God in His Creation. Two of the main themes from my journey are emphasized in these three short verses of Scripture. When I am present to the words I read in both Acts and the Epistles of Paul, it is astonishing how consistent Scriptural messaging is revealed to be.
Each of these sets of verses are reinforcements of the great blessings that grew out of my trip. I can contemplate them in my morning Lectio Divina and take them into my day, repeating and remembering them so they build in me and become part of the core devotion to God that helps me maintain my gratitude, Spiritual Poverty, and desire to adhere to the Will of God. If I absorb them and add them to the internal guideposts I have already erected on the road to eternal encounter, they will contribute greatly to the overall conversion I am seeking.
As I think about bringing this work to its conclusion, I have two last thoughts I wish to express.
The first has to do with practical application.
In the last reflection, I asserted that the first factor in discernment is a sincere desire to do the Will of God. Because I found no short and succinct checklist I could reference as I decide which concrete task to tackle next, the importance of a genuine longing to adhere to His Will is magnified. Making sure my commitment is earnest sounds trite, but it is exceedingly difficult to accomplish. I have to work at developing this good habit continuously.
If I live this habit, then I can safely choose between all the good possibilities in front of me, assured by the words of Fr. Jeremias that “I will not easily offend against the Divine Will.” If I am “such a son as this, the Almighty will not desert me, nor will He suffer me to wander far from His Will.”
I want to invite you to walk alongside me as I actually attempt to live out this premise. In order to transform the theoretical to the practical, I want to find one concrete thing I can change in my life right now in order to help establish and mature this habit I am hoping to instill in myself.
As a first step, I have begun pondering the following prayer. If prior patterns repeat, it will evolve over time and become not something I compose, but something that God gives me, just like other prayers I have shared in previous reflections. It is written in the first person, as if it applies to me, because it does. But it also applies to you. When you read I, think not about me, but about yourself, and apply the thoughts and questions to your life and, in your own desire to develop the habit of wanting to do God’s Will persistently, commit yourself to finding and living out the answer you come up with. Allow the prayer to evolve for you in whatever direction God suggests, so that this prayer will become something uniquely yours, given to you by the Holy Spirit:
Right now, I am holding on to many things in my life that are completely and solely of my will and my will alone. I know change needs to happen, but I have resisted that change because of the sinful habits I have accepted over the long years of my life. Help me identify the one thing You would have me change in my life right now. Instill in me the faith, belief, hope and joy that is required to overcome the worldly comfort and security my sinfulness falsely brings me.
What can I do right now to draw closer to you so that I will know God’s Will for my individual life? What can I do right now to demonstrate my gratitude for the Love and Mercy bestowed on me by God via Your ongoing and saving Presence?
Please, teach me to turn toward God unceasingly, in an attitude of complete Spiritual Poverty, with all my being, today and for all days going forward, by rectifying myself from this sin that is mine and mine alone.
Holy Spirit, pray with me. Perfect my prayer. Help me to desire only that which you know I should rightly desire and to identify this one thing I need to change right now. Sustain me as I seek to return God’s Love to Him properly and perfectly, for I cannot do so on my own. Only with your assistance can I pray as deeply and fully as I need and wish to pray.
Not my will, Lord, but yours be done!
The goal is not to completely overhaul and reform my life overnight. St. Augustine could not do this, nor could St. Francis. God knows this is impossible and, so long as my desire to perform His Will is maintained, He will accept my human frailty and my need to work at conversion over time.
To provide context to my efforts, here again is Article Seven from the OFS Rule to act as one final reminder about the nature of my human frailty and my need to approach Jesus from a position of humility daily:
United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance,” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion”. Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
I can be confident that God’s Will at this moment is that I change one thing, probably one relatively small thing, as a first step. The answer to the question in the prayer might be so small that it seems meaningless at first, and it might be a positive change (do this) instead of a negative change (don’t do that). It might be as easy as filling or emptying the dishwasher every day instead of leaving it for my wife to do. Or it might mean adding fifteen minutes of spiritual reading to my daily routine ahead of turning on the TV at night.
I should remind myself often that nothing done in pursuit of the Will of God is meaningless. No matter how easy this first shift might seem, if I do it faithfully, it will provide a beginning toward more substantial conversion. I just need to make sure that it is not the last adjustment to occur. If I begin to experience some success, I need to go back to the prayer and discern what the next step of conversion will be.
When that next step is complete, I can do it again. There are plenty of indications in these reflections about the circular nature of God’s Creation. This is another one. It is meant to be repeated over and over again, from this day forward until the day when God decides to transition me from this life to whatever is waiting next.
This is the work of self-denial from chapter five. This is the work that has the potential to create treasure in heaven. As my commitment to transformation increases, I can already begin to see how God might lead me to include references to Love within this prayer. Perhaps the Spirit will lead me to add something like this:
How can I enact God’s Will today by perfectly fulfilling my role in His Plan for Creation?
What can I do today that is certain to increase the amount of Love present in the Cosmos?
As my seeking progresses, the scope of my conversion will evolve accordingly. My developing sense of Spiritual Poverty will move my focus from the internal to the external. There will still be things about myself that need work, but the focus will begin to tend towards charity and the betterment of the world around me. Inner conversion will be linked to good works. Interior evolution will continue, but my efforts will display the new me and I will hopefully become a mirror that reflects Jesus into the world. I will learn to actively participate in the acts of Love that are catalogued in the various quotes of the Rule listed in the reflection on Spiritual Poverty in chapter six.
As I evolve, I must be on guard to not become one of those who Jesus never knew despite the miraculous deeds they did in His Name (the opening quote from chapter eight.) The conversion I undergo, the blessings associated with it, and the good that comes forth remains a gift from God. I should not take pride in the transformation, but humbly acknowledge that I will still inevitably stray towards sinfulness. I must seek to maintain the meekness of St. Francis at all times while welcoming adversity when it inevitably comes as correction, all the while joyful for the proximity to Jesus enabled by that adversity.
I should always be praying for interior conversion and always seeking the next step away from sin as I embrace a more complete turn toward God. I should always seek the next cycle of practical improvement and always do so from a position of minority, gratitude and thanksgiving for the Love that God continually sends me in the form of His Son and the Holy Spirit.
To hearken back to chapter three and the Exhortation of St. Francis to Thanksgiving:
Wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of day, every day and continually, let all of us truly and humbly believe, hold in our heart and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the Most High and Supreme Eternal God, Trinity and Unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all, Savior of all Who believe and hope in Him, and love Him, Who without beginning and end, is unchangeable, invisible, indescribable, ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, blessed, praiseworthy, glorious, exalted, sublime, most high, gentle, lovable, delightful, and totally desirable above all else, forever.
In has been three weeks since I finished the draft of the section before this one. Life intervened (my nephew and two nieces were placed in my home by the Department of Child Services), and I found myself distracted from the ability to finish this chapter. I was able to continue my morning prayer routine during this time, I just did not have the luxury to write these last few words.
This morning, I was reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians.
In chapter five, I presented verses five through eight from chapter two of this letter. The context was Jesus’ own self-denial. He left all the glory and trappings of heaven behind in order to become a servant, obedient to His Father’s Will, obedient even to death on a cross.
Just before the quote from chapter five were these words, verses one to four:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
The word “Love” could be emphasized here. Or I could talk one last time about “being united with Christ,” or denying “selfish ambition,” or embracing “humility,” or valuing “others above myself.” All of these themes are consistent with what I have written in the preceding reflections.
But when I read these words, I immediately found one last synergy between Scripture and the final thought I wish to express. That thought revolves around the idea of joy, and these words called me instantaneously to the task of finishing my writing.
The last assertion I wish to make is this:
Unity with Christ ought to lead me toward the “complete joy” that Paul speaks of here.
When I define the goal of my journey to be eternal encounter with God, it is an immense desire for this unity that I am expressing. I expect that eternal unity with God in Heaven will leave me in a state of perpetual bliss. To the extent that I can approximate this encounter during my earthly stay by uniting myself to Jesus, I should be filled with a joy that borders on indescribability.
Paul is asking the Philippians to be united, one to another, within an effort to have the same Love as Christ, to be one in Spirit with Him, and to be of one mind with Him. Paul understands the joy that such a state of being brings because he is experiencing it in his own life. He has found companions to share his devotion to Christ with, and he knows the joy that placing others above himself in this context of mutual love brings. As such an attitude becomes pervasive throughout the entire nascent church, Paul’s level of joy is concurrently raised. In order for Paul’s joy to be complete, this state of mutual love in Christ would need to be complete as well. His greatest desire is therefore to share this state of being, this joy he possesses in community with all those that he considers his brothers and sisters in Christ.
This idea that unity with Christ and God should result in joy is found regularly in Scripture. I have already touched upon it in the song of Mary from the first chapter of Luke. When Mary uses the word “magnifies,” she is placing herself in close proximity to God. This proximity results in rejoicing!
“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.”
Peter, in his first address at Pentecost, draws upon Psalm 16 to describe the link between joy and closeness to or eternal encounter with God:
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
John the Baptist, in chapter three of the gospel of John, talks to his own disciples about how his joy has become complete due to the presence of Jesus. John is content to be diminished, to simply move on to the state of complete joy that proximity to Jesus engenders.
They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
In Mark chapter two, Jesus speaks about himself as the bridegroom. He does not specifically mention joy, but the context makes it clear that while Jesus is present, His disciples should not be in a state of fasting or mourning. Instead, they should be joyfully celebrating, as if at a wedding:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
In chapter fifteen of John, Jesus speaks to His disciples about Love, the Will of God, and about how the joy of Jesus can be theirs if they remain steadfast to His commands. If the disciples “remain in His love,” if they remain united to Jesus, they can assure that their own joy will be complete.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And finally, there is the witness of the good thief in chapter twenty-three of Luke.
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Dismas confesses his belief in Jesus and confesses his sins. He places himself entirely in Jesus’ hands. He places himself entirely at the Mercy of God. The reward for his repentance is to join Jesus in paradise.
This is the entire point of this entire work. This is what I am seeking. This is what I want. I want to embrace Penance and Poverty completely and believe in the Mercy of Jesus and God with the confidence and sincerity that Dismas demonstrates here. I want the example of Dismas to define the rest of my life and I want my desire to fulfill the Will of God to be the harbinger that makes my gratitude undeniably present to Christ my Savior despite my sinfulness.
I want to look at Christ and say, “Jesus, remember me as I hope to be fully united with you for as long as God Wills that I remain in this world, and then forever.”
And I want to hear Jesus respond, despite my unworthiness, “Truly, today you will be with me as you travel through the world, and then forever in paradise.”
Try and imagine the joy that Dismas experienced at the response he received from Jesus.
How joyful would I be to hear Jesus speak similar words to me, guaranteeing me an eternal encounter with Him in heaven?
How joyful would you be to hear the same?
I am sure I could continue with other examples. An entire book could be written on the relationship between joy and proximity to Jesus alone. But hopefully, the point is made.
To the extent you are successful in living the themes I have discussed in these reflections, you will inevitably draw closer to Jesus and God.
The intimacy that results should fill you with joy!
In closing, my final request is this:
- Be grateful to God for the Love that He shows you moment by moment through the blessings He bestows on you in the ongoing presence and sacrifice of His Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
- Tend toward God with all your being, continuously, in an attitude of renewal, Penance, and Metanoia.
- Deny your worldly ambitions and embrace a posture of Spiritual Poverty that will help you remain focused on God completely, unconditionally, without reservation or distraction.
- Seek to know Jesus in Scripture and prayer so that you can fulfill your own desire to know and accomplish God’s Will for your life as wholeheartedly and resolutely as possible.
In so doing, we can be united, one to another, within an effort to have the same Love as Christ, to be one in Spirit with Him, and to be of one mind with Him.
Perhaps then we can help each other experience the “complete joy” that Paul speaks about in his Letter to the Philippians.