The Punishment of Complete Loss and What It Says to Us

The Burning of Jerusalem, Circle of Juan de la Corte

In the Office of Readings, we are currently reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Sunday’s reading warns of the possibility that moral conditions in the world can get so awful, even among the people of God, that He must take the strongest and most severe of measures.

Ezekiel experienced the coming disaster upon Israel very personally as a last warning to the people.

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, by a sudden blow I am taking away from you the delight of your eyes …. That evening my wife died (Ez 24:15, 17).

Ezekiel wrote in the period just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The loss of his wife was a portent of the coming disaster. God instructed Ezekiel not to mourn, but to turn to the people and say,

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord God: I will now desecrate my sanctuary, the stronghold of your pride, the delight of your eyes, the desire of your soul. The sons and daughters you left behind shall fall by the sword. Ezekiel shall be a sign for you: all that he did you shall do when it happens. … you shall rot away because of your sins and groan one to another.

As for you, son of man (Ezekiel) truly, on the day I take away from them their bulwark, their glorious joy, the delight of their eyes, the desire of their soul, and the pride of their hearts, their sons and daughters …. Thus you shall be a sign to them, and they shall know that I am the Lord (Ezekiel 24, selected verses).

The terrible and tragic moment for Judah came in 587 B.C. The Babylonians utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple was burned and the Ark of the Covenant was lost, never again to be found (until its fulfillment in the Blessed Mother Mary). One could not imagine a more unlikely or complete destruction. Why would God allow His glorious Temple to fall at the hands of an unbelieving nation?

But God is not egocentric. He does not need buildings or holy cities to show His power. His most central work is to fashion a holy people and to draw each of us to holiness.

The terrible state of affairs of ancient Israel and Judah is well documented by the prophets. God’s own people had become depraved in many ways. There was idolatry, injustice, promiscuity, and a tendency to imitate the nations around them. Further they had become incorrigible. God often described them has having necks of iron and foreheads of brass. He called them a rebellious house. On top of all this, they made the presumption that God would never destroy His own temple or allow Jerusalem to fall.

There comes a time when warnings and minor punishments are no longer effective; only the most severe and widespread of losses will purge the evil. Surely this is evident in the smoking ruins of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Those who survived were taken to live in exile.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps (Ps 137:1-2).

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that such a terrible event could only occur in the ancient world. We must consider that our condition can become so debased, so corrupted, that the only solution is the most severe of punishments, one so onerous that we cannot possibly return to our former ways, one that levels the very sources of our pride and sin.

Today, we kill shocking numbers of children in the womb; no amount of preaching or teaching of medical truth seems capable of ending this shedding of innocent blood. Our families are collapsing; we are suffering the ravages of our sexual sins. In our greed we cannot seem to control our spending or ever say no to ourselves. We are saddling future generations with insurmountable debt. No matter the warnings, we cannot or will not stop. There is desperate confusion and silence even in the Church, where one would hope for clarity and words of sanity. Corruptio optimi pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst thing). Believers are silent, weak, and divided, while the wicked and secular are fierce, committed, and focused.

All the while, in our affluence, we cannot imagine that a crushing end might come. Yet God said to the ancient, affluent city of Laodicea,

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see (Revelation 3:17-18).

It becomes hard to see how God might bring us to conversion without the severest of blows.

Nevertheless, do not wish for this. Continue to pray for conversion! The alternative is almost too awful to imagine. Most of us are too comfortable to endure what might come. Saints, sinners, and everyone in between will suffer. Ezekiel was the first to suffer in the collapse of his times, even though he was one who tried to listen and warn.

The message of this week’s meditation in the Office of Readings is clear: Pray, pray, pray. Be sober that God will not hesitate to inflict severe blows if necessary, so that He might at least save some, a remnant.

 

What Is It That Most Distracts Us?

credit: dydcheung, Flickr

We think of distractions as coming mostly from the world around us, but is that really true? Consider the following, drawn from the stories of the early desert Fathers and monastic experience:

Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

The fact is, our greatest distraction is usually our very self. If this surprises us, we should probably chalk it up to pride. Why? Because what God wants us to focus on is outside and above us: in the beauty of creation, in the wonder of others, and in the magnificence of God. These are not distractions; they are often exactly what God is trying to say to us, to reveal to us.

St. Augustine described our essential problem as this: Homo incurvatus in se (man turned in on himself). In turning inward, a host of distracting questions assail us:

  I’m bored.
  I’m tired.
  What will I do next?
  What do people think of me?
  Do I fit in?
  Am I handsome/pretty enough?
  Have I made it?
  What does this have to do with me?
  What have you done for me lately?
  When will it be my turn?
  What about me?
  Why are people upsetting me? What gives them the right?

Yes, a thousand variations of these swim through our mind, most of them rooted in pride and its ugly stepsister, vanity.

As the story above teaches, however, it is the absence of self that brings truer serenity. Indeed, of this I am a witness, for my freest, most joyful, and most focused moments come when I am most forgetful of myself:

  When I am watching a movie that grips my attention and draws me outside of myself into the plot and the moments in the lives of others, even if fictional
  When I am powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they say.
  When I am in the company of close friends, an atmosphere in which I am less concerned with seeking approval, and can just relax in the moment, enjoying whatever is happening.
  In those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world, when I walk through a field and am captured by “the color purple” and am deeply moved by the beauty of God’s creation.
  In moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forget about myself and am drawn deeply into the experience of Him.

In moments like these, God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward. The myriad distractions that come from self-preoccupation hush for a time. In this state of “self-forgetfulness”, we are almost wholly present to others, to creation, and to God. The noisy din of anxious self-concern quiets, and our world opens up and out.

The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g., Ps 18:19, 31:8, 119:45, inter al). You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing more cramped than being turned in on ourselves.

Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. The worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather the noises within us, noises that come from being too self-preoccupied. The silence that we most crave is not found in the absence of sound, but in the absence of self-preoccupation.

Saint or Ain’t? A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year

We live in difficult times for the Church; from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic on this blog to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

The Gospel this Sunday, however, featuring the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts call for it as well. But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

Let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.

I.  WAKE UP. Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly share plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children are doing: what they watch, what they listen to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, debating about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.

We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. We who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.

It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.

Blaming one side of the Church or the other, faulting this kind of liturgy or that, is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.

Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.

II.  WISE UP. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

Part of the sobriety we have to regain is the understanding that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates us. He hates our children. He hates the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we do need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. Once we can recognize him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.

Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics, but it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly ways. The Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not typically mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle against pride, love to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.

To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. The Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some reformers propose to be. It is fine to be appropriately zealous for reform and to want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).

Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.

III.  WAIT UP. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest …”

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, ne’er-do-well, and bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for a severe clampdown by bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does, too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet these texts need to be balanced by texts such as today’s Gospel. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity but it must be conducted with patience and love.

The Lord is patient. In today’s Gospel, He directs us to be prepared to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions. Leave it be; wait. Place this in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.

We have had many discussions here on the blog about whether and how bishops should discipline Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible voting patterns, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through their support of abortion and euthanasia.

While I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined, it remains a judgment for the bishop to make as to who, how, and when.

There are Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord Himself speaks to different situations in different ways.

In today’s Gospel the Lord says that we should wait. Generally, this is good advice to follow. After all, how do we know that we don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2; Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming? (Mal 3:2)

Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.

IV.  WASH UP. Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

So you see there is a harvest. Those who have sinned or led others to sin, and have not repented, are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me; everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Step four in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wash up,” to get ready.

So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Here is a great exposition on this Gospel by Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

One of God’s stranger affections is the special love He had for Jacob of the Old Testament. We are reading through this story in daily Mass this week.

According to some, the name Jacob means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even while still in his mother Rebekah’s womb, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother, Esau. Although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel, hence his name.

Although he was a “mama’s boy,” Jacob was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Rebekah favored Jacob and schemed with him to steal the birthright from Esau by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretenses.

Esau sought to kill him for this, leading Jacob to flee north to live with Laban, an uncle who was an even greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years Jacob labored for Laban, in the hopes of winning his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In a wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! It would be seven years before Jacob would finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it. He was a schemer and was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. God loves sinners like you and me as well. In the story of Jacob—a hard case to say the least—God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5). His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation:

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He understood that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. Whatever the reason, though, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I.  DISTRESSED manSo the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day (Gen 32:21-24).

Jacob is distressed and has difficulty sleeping. He has, somewhat willingly, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him.

Our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him, to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about the way God works:

1.  God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do. Oh, how we all love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who God is. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone. It’s time for Jacob to think, time for him to pray and look to deeper issues.

2.  God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – Verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man”? The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. Here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, to try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.

3.  God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our human will. Thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night and with the lesson that he must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean. He will never forget this lesson because he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with Him, to wrestle with the issues in his life. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean and to trust.

II.  DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

If “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would ask Jacob to let him go and for Jacob respond, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, drawing from Jacob the required response. So the man says, “Let me go!” God wants Jacob (and us) to come to the point at which he (and we) say, “I will not let you go.”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, in effect, “Don’t go; I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I’m sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place.

This critical moment has brought Jacob to the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends upon God.

III.  DIFFERENT man – The text then says, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. When his blind father Isaac had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth: “My name is Jacob.” In this response is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all that his name implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

Renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way: with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, to cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again. He would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – In the Book of Hebrews, there is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Jacob limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Learn to lean and to delight in depending upon God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

The Stages of Evangelization, According to Pope St. Gregory the Great

Doubting Thomas, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena

In evangelizing souls (including our own), there are usually stages that precede conversion. In the past I have written on these stages and referred to them as “Mad … Sad … Glad.”

1.  Mad – In this stage, one may present as angry, resistant, or averse to the message of the Gospel or to some aspect of the Christian moral vision.

2.  Sad – In this stage, one comes to realize that worldly notions and promises are both false and disappointing—even harmful to one’s life. One is chastened, realizing that rejecting God and His truth was wrong. Although initially experiencing humiliation and a kind of depression, through the prayers of the faithful and the work of the Holy Spirit one can turn this sadness into a humility that is now open to the Gospel.

3.  Glad – In this stage, one is now open, through hope, to the wisdom and promise of the Gospel. One is joyful as the initial effects of the Gospel message bring conversion, transformation, hope, and a new vision.

Thus, conversion is a process, a kind of extended conversation. Notice that the same root, conversio, is in both words. We often want to think of evangelization as a moment, or a point of success in winning a soul for Christ. But rare indeed is the convert who is willing (or even able) to go from zero to a hundred on the disciple scale.

This is true not only with bringing souls to Christ, but also with the deeper conversion of lifelong Catholics. Sadly, as we know, not all Catholics agree with all of the teachings of the Gospel and the Church. Here, too, the stages of conversion typically apply; a longer conversation is usually necessary to conform them to the faith. Though possible, it is rare that one conversation or one sermon will draw a person from dissent to orthodoxy. The longer conversation between the individual, the Church, and God is usually necessary.

St. Gregory the Great reflected on the return of St. Thomas the Apostle (whose feast we celebrated earlier this week). He described, in a very brief sentence, the stages of St. Thomas’ conversion from unbelief to belief:

Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? (St Gregory the Great, Pope Hom. 26, 7-9: PL 76, 1201-1202v)

As Pope St. Gregory described it, St. Thomas went from “absence” (unbelief) to an ever-present faith in four stages:

1. He came and heard. For reasons unspecified, St. Thomas was absent from the first appearance of the risen Lord to the Apostles on that Easter Sunday evening. Although not at that Sunday gathering of the Church, he still knew and had relationships with others who were there. It was they who told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

For a variety of reasons, many people today do not gather with us on Sundays. Sadly, they miss an encounter with the Lord. They do not hear him speak in His Word or offer us His Body and Blood. They do not receive His blessings through the priest. But they do know us. It is from us that they must hear the joyful shout, “We have seen the Lord!” Evangelization typically breaks down right here because most Catholics do not talk like this. They go to Church, come home, and say little or nothing about it. But if we are going to bring back the Thomases we know, this must change. We have to become more aware of how we encounter the Lord in every liturgy and learn to witness to the fact that the Lord is changing our life through this encounter.

I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word made Flesh in Holy Communion, and experiencing deep fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cell of anxiety no longer constrains me. The Lord delivered us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

What is your testimony? Thomas was restored to the community by the testimony of others who had seen the Lord. And though he doubted, he heard the call to “Come and see.” To whom have you testified? Whom have you invited?

2. He heard and doubted. St. Thomas heard but doubted—but at least he heard! And he accepted the invitation to come the next Sunday.

In his expressed doubts and his demands to see and touch in the ordinary human way, we see the common human longing to experience God in tangible ways. The extreme form of this is a kind of radical empiricism or scientism that says, in effect, “If God does not tip the scale in my laboratory or light up the retina of my eyes, He is not real.” There is not enough space to debunk that in this post, except to say that as God is not physical, He is not weighed on a scale. There are many metaphysical realities that are very real. For example, justice, love, and mercy are certainly real, but you can’t weigh them on a scale or see them out for a walk. Since they are not physical, they are seen in their effects, though not in themselves. It is the same with God. He is not some other thing in the physical universe; He is existence itself.

Thomas’ insistence to see and touch is more commonly expressed in the desire of most people that faith and the experience of God be tangible, that it be palpably experienced rather than just a bunch of abstractions, generalities, and slogans.

It is not wrong to insist that if the faith we announce were real, it would have real effects on our lives and bring about transformation. This is why our witness cannot simply take the form of reciting slogans or even creeds. While the content of the faith must be clearly and accurately proclaimed, its effects must also be evident in order to evangelize effectively.

Rightly or wrongly, the mere advancement of arguments and ideas isn’t going to move most people today. They are looking for a tangible experience of truth; they want to see how the faith we proclaim has touched us and how they can touch it as well.

In this second stage, we learn that it is important to listen to the doubts people express and their need to touch and see the truth, not just hear it. Good apologists listen carefully and compose respectful answers. As any good apologist knows, though, mere arguments seldom win the day. An apologist must also be a witness to the power of the Gospel to set us free. The Gospel must be tangible: able to be seen, touched, and encountered in us who teach and proclaim it. We cannot simply present answers to questions. We have to be witnesses of the power of these truths to set us free.

3. He doubted and touched. St. Thomas, though excessive in his demand to see and touch in a merely physical way, expressed a common human need. Jesus rebuked Thomas’ demand to see in a purely ordinary and physical way. He praised those who come to faith without seeing in this way. However, this does not mean that there is no legitimate need for evidence. That is why Jesus sent out witnesses.

In an extraordinary way, the Lord met Thomas’ need, so that he might believe. He also cautioned that the ordinary way of encountering the Lord is not going to be through physical seeing and touching. Rather, we will encounter him in the Liturgy, the sacraments, His Word, and prayer and unity with His Body, the Church.

This must still be tangible for people, though. When people do encounter the gathering of the Church on Sunday morning, is Christ’s presence tangible? Are the expected effects of the true presence of Christ on display? Is there joy? Is the transformative power of Christ seen in the lives of the faithful? How?

We ought to pray and work for parish communities that feature transformed Catholics rather than bored believers and tepid troops. The Church is a bride, not a widow; the Mass is a wedding feast, not a funeral. What can a doubter touch and see in our parish? If we are alive, reverent, attentive to the Lord, eager and joyful to be instructed, and grateful for the Eucharist and what the Lord is doing in our lives, then the Thomas who comes into our parish will see the Lord step forward and say, “See and touch …. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”

4. He touched and believed. We have largely done our work in following these stages, perhaps just a few concluding questions. Although Thomas’ need to see and touch is excessive, it is not wholly illegitimate.

How can people see and touch the Lord in our life and the life of our parish? What evidence will unbelievers find in us and in our parishes so that they can touch and believe? Can Christ step forward in our lives and in our parishes and say to unbelievers or to the weak in faith, “See and touch my hands and my side. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”?

These are just some thoughts based on Pope St. Gregory’s stages of evangelization. You should be a witness!