Earlier this week, God reminded me that he has a sense of humor. It happened as I was beginning to prepare this very homily. I was reading today’s gospel and thinking about what to preach, but nothing immediately came to mind. I began to get impatient. And that’s where the joke comes in. Because the gospel I was getting impatient over is all about Jesus telling us to be patient! When I suddenly realized this, I felt a little bit ashamed, but I couldn’t help but smile at the same time.
Jesus, you see, had been preaching about the kingdom of God. When people heard this, many of them expected that God would soon send down his angels and destroy evil for ever. But when this didn’t happen, they became impatient. Jesus was aware of this, and that’s why he told the parables he did. The kingdom of heaven starts small, he said, kind of like a mustard seed or the yeast in bread. It will grow, but only with time. And as for evil, it will never be totally wiped out in this age. That’s the point of the parable about the weeds and the wheat. In the meantime, we need to be patient.
And Jesus is right, isn’t he? People were impatient in his day, and we are often impatient in ours. We live in a fast-paced, “drive through” society. We don’t want to wait for the things we want. And when we do have to wait, we get really frustrated. That’s why driving on the Beltway can be so darned scary!
We even get impatient in our spiritual lives too. We want God to “zap us” and make us into an instant saint. We want overnight holiness. We look for an experience or a retreat or a homily that will fix us once and for all, getting rid of every temptation and solving every problem. But that doesn’t happen, does it? Instead, we find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over and over again, and we become impatient. Which, ironically, is probably one of those sins that we have to repeatedly confess. Then we wind up being impatient with our impatience!!
The truth is, however, that Christian maturity doesn’t happen overnight. Real growth in Christian discipleship takes time! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are saints. It takes a whole life time. In fact, it usually takes more than a whole life time. Because even though we may be a friend of God, we usually have a lot of growing still to do when we die. That’s the whole point of our Catholic belief in Purgatory. It’s where God’s imperfect friends continue to grow into perfection.
Heaven, you see, is only for the perfect. And the only two perfect people were Jesus and Mary. Even the saints weren’t perfect on earth! They had to go to confession like the rest of us sinners. That’s why the Church’s measuring stick for sainthood is not perfection- because no one would qualify! Instead, the standard is what’s called “heroic virtue.” And that’s very different from perfection.
In our quest to become saints, then, we need to learn patience. As St. Alphonsus Liguori once said: “It’s by patience that we gain heaven!” To learn patience, I would suggest three things. First, don’t be a perfectionist. Second, don’t be a pessimist. But third, do be persistent.
Perfectionism is dangerous because perfectionists think that God will love them only if, well, they’re perfect. Which, as we already know, is impossible! Even worse is that for perfectionists, God comes to be seen, not as a loving friend who wants to help us, but as a heavenly scorekeeper who is quick to condemns us. Not surprisingly, perfectionists find very little joy in their faith, if at all.
Perfectionists also have unrealistic expectations and establish impossible standards for themselves. Unfortunately, this only leaves room for failure. A very new Christian once learned this when she tried to follow Saint Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing.” She tried and tried to pray during every waking moment, but as you might imagine, she quickly tired out. She went to a wise priest with her problem who told her that she had “spiritual indigestion,” because she’d tried to take on too much too soon. Never having really prayed before, the priest explained, she couldn’t all of a sudden start praying eighteen hours a day while doing other things. Because God didn’t expect it of her, he concluded, she shouldn’t expect it of herself.
On the other hand, the priest didn’t tell her to give up and throw in the towel. And that’s important too. We can’t become a pessimist and think that nothing we’ll do will make much of a difference. Pessimists, you see, don’t just think that they’re sinners. They think instead that they’re hopeless sinners. But in God’s eyes there is no such a thing. With God on our side, there’s always hope, which means that we must be persistent in our relationship with him. Even if it seems like we’re making little headway. Even if we think we’re sliding back. We may be slow learners, we may have a lot of baggage and hang-ups, and we may be afraid of change, but God is full of more patience, love, and mercy than we could ever imagine. Today’s first reading from Wisdom told us this. And so did our Psalm.
God, you see, is love. And love is patient. God is patient with us. So we must be patient with ourselves, and take things little by little, bit by bit. We need to measure our progress by the inch, not by the mile; we need to take things one day at a time. As St. Richard of Chichester said in his famous prayer, “O Lord, may I see thee more clearly, follow thee more nearly, and love thee more dearly, day by day.”
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/071711.shtml