Where is the Dwelling of God?

The following old Hasidic story was related by the late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

Indeed, there is only one place in all of creation where God will not go without permission; that place is our own heart. Jesus says,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20).

Yes, God knocks. He does not barge in. He is not rude or overwhelming; He knocks.

God fills all creation with His glory, but our heart has such an influence that if we do not admit Him there, we may well miss His presence elsewhere, including creation. Today there are some who deny God’s glory, which is so clearly manifest in creation. “No,” they say, “it’s all the result of random mutation, blind evolution. There’s nothing to see here, no one to see.”

If God is refused entry to our heart, our minds easily fall into vain reasoning. Of this St. Paul writes,

For what may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], 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 His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and senseless hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19-21).

To those who admit God into their heart, who open the door, His glory is seen everywhere.

The spacious firmament on High
With all the blue, ethereal sky!
And spangled heavens a shining frame;
Their great original proclaim!

Another song says,

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain
.

If we admit God into our heart, suddenly the world lights up with His glory. We become “mystics on the move.” The world is full of God’s glory, and reason alone can conclude the existence of a creator from observing the book of creation, but if we open the door of our heart to God we are struck with wonder and awe, and we see the glory of the Lord as never before and in an ever-deepening way.

Look up to the stars. There is more there than just suns, planets, galaxies, and the vacuum of space. There is a revelation of God’s glory and love, a revelation of God Himself in His handiwork. Consider the stars and planets; learn their proclamation:

Though they in solemn silence all
move round our dark terrestrial ball;
And though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
forever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine!’

Does the Lord dwell in your heart? He will only dwell there to the degree you allow Him.

Let Him in and watch creation light up as never before. Yes, the world is full of God’s glory—do you see it?

Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Why Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

When I was a good bit younger, in college actually, I had to take a few economics and marketing courses. At that time I thought to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” since things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God seemed to insist that we pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult. And while many had reasons they offered as to why prayer was difficult, I still wondered why, if God could just zap prayer and make it delightful, He didn’t just do so. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan!”

But of course God isn’t selling products; He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery involves pain and often lengthy procedures. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and Heaven.

Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body and the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). For our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.

Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. Thus God purifies us in diverse manners in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.

Let’s look at each in turn. The text is my own, but the insights and inspiration are found in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.

I. Spiritual pride – This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He or she may also start to judge others severely who seem to have made less progress.

Those afflicted with spiritual pride often “shop around” for a spiritual director, looking for one who affirms rather than challenges their insights. Further, they tend to minimize the true reality of their sins out of a desire to appear more perfected than they really are.

Soon enough we have a Pharisee of sorts, who regards himself too favorably and others too poorly. There is also the problem of hypocrisy, since spiritual pride would have one play the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when one really is not.

God, therefore, must often humble the soul who has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy, pride, claim all the growth.

II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake is too easily lost or becomes confused and entangled. Or even worse, it becomes contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.

Hence God must often withhold these for the sake of the soul, which must learn the discipline of prayer, with or without consolations, and to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth, which we consider next.

III. Spiritual sloth – This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One allows endless distractions, makes excuses, shortens prayer and other spiritual exercises, or does them in a perfunctory manner.

Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. Perhaps this sort of purification will take place through secondary causes, wherein the Lord acts though a spiritual director to insist on prayer, no matter how difficult. Perhaps, too, certain seasons such as Lent and Advent, or other “ember days” and the like will be used by God to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down with spiritual sloth.

Clearly, God must correct this spiritual sloth and help us to accept God and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.

Yes, there are many purifications necessary for us, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would itself be free from excesses or defects or at least would be a sign of great progress. But often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,

In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Is 64:5-6).

This song says, “Fix me, Jesus; Fix me.”

A Gentle Presence in a Threatening World

Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, the mother superior of the Visitation sisters’ community at Georgetown Visitation.

In a time when America can seem divided, sometimes beyond foreseeable repair, a beautiful sanctuary of unity and love can be found in the northwest reaches of our nation’s capital. A testament to the awesome power of optimism and devoted faith in Jesus, the Georgetown Visitation Monastery provides an example from which all of us can learn.

Georgetown Visitation’s story begins six months before the federal government of the United States relocated to Washington from Philadelphia. Reverend Leonard Neale (later the 2nd Archbishop of Baltimore) brought Alice Lalor, a devout Irish immigrant, to Georgetown, Maryland. Influenced by the writings of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal of France, and motivated by Lalor’s determination to open a young girls school, they established the first house of the Visitation Order of Holy Mary in America.

The Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary has its roots in early seventeenth-century France. In a time when religious life was physically taxing, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal saw the opportunity for the creation of a religious order that would be welcoming to women seeking a deep relationship with God, but who could not abide the physical rigors of traditional religious life. This order would focus on the virtues of patience, humility, gentleness, joyful optimism, graciousness, and thoughtful concern for others. This perspective, somewhat radical in its time, culminated with de Sales and de Chantal founding of the first house of the Visitation Order in 1610. By 1641, eight-five houses had been established.

In important ways, to be a VHM sister today is not much different than it would have been four-hundred years ago. The sisters maintain a gentle approach to life. They lead a meditative existence, and keep to a routine schedule. Distractions are kept to a minimum. This is not to say they are dis-engaged from the outside world – the opposite, in fact. They read The New York Times daily, subscribe to numerous Catholic publications, and generally keep abreast of world events. But their most intense focus is paid to becoming better, more powerful personifications of their charism, “Live Jesus.”

What does “Live Jesus” mean exactly? It means that amidst the adversity and turmoil of the world, the VHM Sisters accept God’s will as it unfolds in their lives. They live in the presence of God, and remain aware of the fact that God is always near. Perhaps most importantly, they practice the “little virtues” of kindness, thoughtful concern for others, optimism, gentleness, and patience. Amidst the many excesses of contemporary popular culture, the VHM Sisters practice balance and moderation in all things, and put a premium on cherishing the future while savoring the good from the past.

A lesser known aspect of the Visitation Sisters, but one that is equally as important as “Live Jesus,” is the contemplation of the Sacred Heart. Both religious and secular persons will likely recognize this image: a burning red heart encircled by a crown of thorns, pierced by two arrows, with the cross floating atop the fiery heart. It is a symbol which signifies the message that Jesus’s heart burns with a deep love for His people, and it was a VHM Sister, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was influential in promulgating the spread of worldwide devotion to the Sacred Heart. Though private devotion to the Sacred Heart did not begin with Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitation Order was the first religious group to publicly consecrate themselves to it. For her miraculous visions of Jesus, Sister Margaret Mary was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

Today, when one enters the grounds of Georgetown Visitation, they are overwhelmed by the spirit of generosity and love that emanates from the sisters. More than anything, though, one feels wholly, satisfyingly at peace among these humble and powerful women.

For further information regarding Georgetown Visitation, visit their website: http://www.gvmonastery.org/
& the website of the Georgetown Preparatory School: https://www.visi.org/

A Healing Word for the Scrupulous and Fearful

Anyone who has the care of souls, be it a priest, parent, spiritual director, or teacher, realizes that there are many things that can hinder spiritual growth and progress. A pastor can look out on his flock on any given Sunday and see a wide spectrum. At the one end of the spectrum are those who have little sense of sin or of the need to repent; they have trivialized God to some extent and reduced His holiness to a kind of saccharine kindness. At the other end are those who are scrupulous and anxious, who feel unworthy and fear God as a harsh judge they will meet.

While those with a diminished sense of sin and of God’s holiness are usually more numerous today, the number of scrupulous and fearful is not trivial. Finding a balance in the homily and the liturgy at Mass is difficult, but as always, the balance is found at the cross.

There at the cross are plainly displayed both the awful reality of sin and the abiding love of God. God’s holiness and justice is shown there, for He will not minimize sin and its effects, nor will He pretend that some lesser remedy is sufficient. The cross is a place of honesty and truth. If we let it have its effects, it should lead us to weep for our sins. To the prideful who think little of their sin, the Lord says, “Never make light of what I have to do to save you, of the price I have paid.”

Yet the cross is also place where we should weep for joy and relief, that our Lord meets us there and demonstrates His abiding love for us, sinners though we are. Seeing the cost of our redemption, the Lord Jesus paid the price in full. In every wound is our healing. In His chest, heaved open by the spear, we see the very heart of God.

Yes, the cross is ugly and horrible, and yet beautiful and moving. We must spend substantial time there and, as an old hymn says, “survey the wondrous cross.” It is a remedy. Here the Lord speaks to the scrupulous saying, “Never doubt my love.”

A recent selection in the Office of Readings featured the following meditation, in which St. Peter Chrysologus allowed the Lord to speak to us through him:

In me, says the Lord, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human? You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds (from a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop. [Sermo 108: PL 52, 499-500]).

A healing word from one of God’s saints to the scrupulous and fearful.

Of the English hymns that have been published, this one is widely considered among the best ever written:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
(Isaac Watts, 1707).

You Forgot! A Reflection on a Central Spiritual Struggle

Don't Forget

Don't ForgetOne of the more basic human problems in our relationship with God is that we forget. Over and over again in the Scriptures comes an almost exasperated accusation from God: “You forgot!” Consider just a few of hundreds of such texts:

  1. You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth (Deuteronomy 32:8).
  2. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hosea 13:6).
  3. and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deuteronomy 8:13-14).
  4. They forgot His deeds and His miracles that He had shown them (Psalm 78:11).
  5. But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel. … They forgot God their Savior, Who had done great things in Egypt (Psalm 106:13, 21).
  6. But they forgot the LORD their God; so he sold them into the hand of Sisera, the commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and the king of Moab, who fought against them. They cried out to the LORD and said, “We have sinned; we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths. But now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve you”‘ (1 Sam 12:9-10).

Another form of this comes in the refrain of God as the Law is announced in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “I am the Lord.” For example,

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him …. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God. You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:31-32).

The ancient rabbis explained this expression in a humorous way. They taught that when God says “I am the Lord,” he means, “Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me.” In other words, “Don’t forget that who it is that is talking to you. I am the one who loves you and has rescued you, the one who provides for you and sustains you. Pay attention. Never forget that I speak to you for your good, not to burden you.”

But as it is, we so easily forget. God’s lament is as true as ever: “You forgot!” We discount the vast and almost unimaginable blessings of each day from the hand of God and grumble at the smallest problem, setback, or slight.

What God is most concerned with is not that we forget small details of the law, but that we so easily forget the wonderful things He has done for us. For indeed, He rescued them from slavery, parted the Red Sea for them, fed them with manna, and gave them water in the desert. He led them forth and settled them in the promised land. But how easily and quickly they forgot His saving deeds!

God’s lament is not about His ego needs to be thanked or repaid for his goodness. God is not vain like man. It is essential that we remember. To remember is to have a healing knowledge.

What does it mean to remember? To remember is to have deeply present in our mind and heart what God has done for us such that we are grateful and different. Grateful people are more hopeful, confident, trusting, and serene. They are more generous, forgiving, and joyful. They are this way because they have not forgotten; they remember how good God has been to them.

One essential solution to our tendency to forget is the Liturgy itself. First, because we read every day from God’s word and remember His saving acts and the teachings of the past. Further, at every Eucharist Jesus repeats His command that we “do this in memory of [Him].” In other words, we are not to live unreflective lives. We are to remember what He has done for us. We are to have present in our mind and heart what He has done for us so that we are grateful and different.

The word amnesia (rooted in Greek) means forgetfulness. A key element in the Eucharistic prayer takes place after Jesus’ command that we do this in memory of Him. It is called the anamnesis, which means remembering, the opposite of forgetting. In the Roman Canon the anamnesis begins after the consecration with the words, “Unde et memores (Wherefore and remembering). The second Eucharistic prayer says, Memores igitur mortis et resurrectionis (therefore in memory of the death and resurrection of Christ).

Yes, remembering is at heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy. And we need it! We so easily forget all the good things God does to sustain and prosper us. Every fiber of our being is created and sustained by God. Everything on which we depend is also created, sustained, and given by God. Every single day, trillions of things go right and trillions of gifts are ours. Yet if one thing goes wrong, we are easily downcast, angry, and despondent. What a disproportionate response! It is primarily because we forget and discount His blessings.

Don’t forget! At best, forgetting makes us grouchy. At worst, it makes us anxious and fretful, even mentally ill.

Remember! Remember the innumerable things God has done for you. If you do, you’ll be more grateful and different.

The Problem of Pretending in the Spiritual Life

hypocrisyThe Gospel for today’s Mass (Friday of the 28th Week) opens up some important insights on the problem of “pretending” in the Christian life. One of the difficulties in arriving at these insights is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, it seems to have lost its subtler distinctions and nuances. To most of us, hypocrisy refers to our deeds not matching our truest beliefs, to saying one thing and doing another. While this is part of hypocrisy, it is not the whole story. I have written more on that here: Hypocrisy is more than we think.

Today’s Gospel speaks to the subtleties of hypocrisy. Here is the full text:

At that time:
So many people were crowding together
that they were trampling one another underfoot.
Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.

There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows”
(Luke 12:1-7).

The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”

Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

It is certainly fine for an actor to “pretend,” for a time, to be someone he is not. But in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.

With all this in mind, consider that the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy. In effect, He is warning us not to pretend, to engage in fantasy, or to live in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow in this Gospel.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn us that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, nothing that is secret that will not be made known. He warns that what we have said in the darkness is heard in the light and that everything we say or do is known to him (cf. Mk 4:22ff).

He then further warns us not to be worried by those who only have the ability to kill the body. Rather, He tells us that we should have greater fear of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in outright fantasy. They deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), for what they’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22); that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people,” unlike others around them. They had “checked off the God box.” They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the day of judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.

Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may, by their own sinfulness, disqualify themselves. Perhaps they have been fortunate enough to avoid the shameful sexual sins of our day but have loved the poor and been merciful and forgiving. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness while discounting others. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many brush aside the notion that they will one day have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. Nobody is really going to Hell.” The common attitude today is that Hell is but a remote possibility and only for the worst of the worst; judgment is a mere formality and nothing to be too anxious about. Never mind that this attitude is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, some hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)

The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. Regarding Heaven, none but the pure in heart can just walk up there. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the purity of heart to simply walk into Heaven. God is very holy, and Heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality; it is not “pretend.” But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness as a role to be played, a light matter in which a few lines are memorized. And the Lord warns against it.

When the Lord warns against hypocrisy, He is not merely speaking to the severe and pretentious religious leaders of the past; He is speaking to you and me. He is telling us to stop pretending, to stop play acting, and to accept that what He really wants is for us to change our lives. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to prepare for, not just a brief “play” to be performed before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us; He is not interested in the game of “Let’s Pretend.”

How Can a Demon, Driven Out, Return with Seven More? A Meditation on a Puzzling Parable

houseThe Gospel for Friday of this week (27th Week of the Year) features the puzzling parable about the cast-out demon who returns with seven others. What is most puzzling, is that finding the house (soul) “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think that a house that is swept and clean would be a good thing!

For reference, here is the parable:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through waterless places in search of rest; and finding none, he says, “I will return to my house which I left.” And when he has come to it, he finds the place swept and clean. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse that the first (Lk 11:24-25).

How can we understand this parable? As is often the case, recourse to both the subtleties of the Greek text and the context can help us.

1. The Greek Text

A puzzling aspect of examining the Greek text is that what some Greek texts describe with three adjectives, almost every English translation renders with only two. Why is this? Because some of the Greek manuscripts lack the third word, which translates as “empty.”

While I can read the Greek text of the New Testament with relative ease, I am not an expert in ancient Greek or in the relative value of differing Greek manuscripts. The translation as either “swept and clean” or “swept and ordered” is almost universal among English renderings of this text. (See HERE for an example.)

I happen to believe that the inclusion of the word “empty” is essential, because otherwise something very important is left out. Let’s look at the description of the “house” (soul) to which the demon returns:

καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα, σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον.
Kai elthon heuriskei scholazonta, sesarōmenon kai kekosmēmenon.
And having come, it finds (it) empty, swept, and put in order (ornate).

The fact that the house (soul) is empty is the chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, then evil things do. This seems to be at the heart of the Lord’s warning.

A second issue is the translation of the word “kekosmēmenon.” Does “ordered,” or “put in order” really capture what the word is trying to convey? Most of us hear the word “order” and think of either systematic or moral order.

However, the Greek lexicon defines the root of kekosmēmenon, kosméō, as “to beautify, having the right arrangement (sequence) by ordering; to adorn, make compellingly attractivevery appealing (invitingawesomely gorgeous).” Kosméō is also the root of the English word “cosmetics,” which are things that adorn or “order” the face.

Thus, the “order” described in this passage is more an order related to beauty. Hence the translation “ornate” may better capture what is meant by this word than either “clean” or “orderly.” So as we read this parable, we should consider that the description of the house as “swept and clean” may lack the subtlety of the Greek words. And while we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosméō = cosmetic = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not be wholly forgotten!

With these in mind, let’s consider the richer possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul) in three ways:

  1. Empty

This is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit. And yet it is the main problem. An empty house is a vulnerable house. An empty house, devoid of human presence, can no longer repel threats or repair damage that make it vulnerable. But more significantly from the standpoint of grace, an empty house, devoid of the presence of God, is a vacuum ready to be filled with demons and with every form of human sin, pride, and confusion.

Empty buildings are vulnerable, open to attack by termites, extreme weather, mold, and rodents. Just as an uncultivated field goes to weed, so an unattended house slides into decline and decay. So, too, goes the empty human soul, a soul devoid of the presence of God, of gratitude to Him, and of openness to His satisfying presence.

Yes, here is the spiritual lesson: let the Lord and the good things of the Kingdom of God fill every void, every empty space! Emptiness is too easily filled with evil things.

Consider a man who gives up alcohol for Lent. He does well by ending a lawful pleasure and making greater room for God. But what if God, or something of God, does not fill the space? Usually something of the devil, or something of the flesh, will fill it. Perhaps he will think, “I am approved because I, by my own power, have given this up.” But sadly, pride fills the empty space rather than God. The man’s new state is worse than before he gave up the lawful pleasure!

  1. Swept

It is good if a person has, by God’s grace, been able to sweep sin from his life. But praise be to the Lord, not to the man or woman! Otherwise this is an open door for pride. Perhaps the sinner who succeeds in a Lenten observance will say, “Look what I have done! I am approved and am better than others who are less committed!” In this way grace is snatched by Satan. The house (soul), swept and in good order, must also be filled with humble gratitude to God. Thus the Lord warns of a house that is “swept,” but empty of humility and gratitude.

  1. Ornate

While some translate this as “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate would be a better rendering. Hence we are warned to beware of vanity and also of esteeming beauty more than charity. The warning is for those who, though they appreciate beauty, become smug and disdainful of all others who do not share their aesthetic preferences.

Thus a connoisseur of fine wine may scoff at people who enjoy wine sold in a box (“cow”) or who like White Zinfandel. And God forbid that they prefer beer! In this way, an appreciation for the finer things (like wine) becomes pride and leads to the last state of the man being worse than the first.

Beauty and the appreciation of it has its place, but if it cancels charity, the last state of the man is worse than the first.

One may appreciate the beauty of the Latin Mass, but if love for the aesthetic causes one to scorn a priest who forgets to bow at the Gloria Patri or who wears gothic vestments instead of the preferred Roman fiddlebacks, then the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).

2. The Context

It is edifying to consider the contextual setting in which the Lord places this parable: an answer to those who pridefully rebuked His casting out of a demon (attributing it to Beelzebub). Just prior to the parable of the empty house and the seven demons is this event and subsequent rebuke:

Jesus was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb; and when He had cast out the devil, the dumb man spoke. And the crowds marveled. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of devils, He casts out devils.” And others, to test Him, demanded from Him a sign from heaven. But He, seeing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and house will fall upon house. If, then, Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? Because you say that I cast out devils by Beelzebub” (Lk 11:14-16).

These religiously observant people (a good thing) had allowed their lives, all swept and clean but empty, to be filled with doubt, scorn, and pride.

That they followed the Law was a beautiful thing. Their lives were swept clean and ornate, but empty. And the emptiness was filled with pride and cynicism.

All of us who are religiously observant should pay particular attention to this. During Lent, many undertake certain practices and purifications. Beware that these mortifications do not create a space that, though clean, is empty and vulnerable to being filled with pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth … the seven ugly cousins of the sin we were trying to drive out in the first place! Failure to fill the gap with God opens us up to all seven deadly sins.

Watch out! The devil can use even our piety to ensnare us in his seven-fold bondage. Do you engage in some active purifications? If so, you do well. But be sure that the space opened, all swept and ordered, is filled with God, with humility, and with gratitude. Otherwise it will too easily be filled with seven ugly demons and sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

Is this a parable decoded or muddled? You decide. The comment section is open, swept and clean!

Never Give Up: St. Augustine’s Stirring Call to Pastors

augustineToday I would like to present excerpts from a stirring sermon that St. Augustine delivered to the priests and people of Hippo. In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if the recipients of that word revile us, labeling our very proclamation of love “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. This encouraging message is particularly appropriate for clergy and for all might grow discouraged. Augustine’s words are shown in bold print, while my commentary is in plain text.

[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves …. The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].

Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, the difficulty of clergy today is to preside over a flock that on the one hand is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is robbed of strength by dissension from within. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is not and is thus even more painful.

In contentious times such as ours, the poison of the world infects the flock and some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, a priest who strives to disclose the errors of the world will be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. Even some of his own parishioners will resist him and spread talk among the flock that he is not a good priest for the times or for his parish. He will be dismissed by some as out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he speaks about controversial issues that are referred to as political but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. And while the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is even more discouraging.

Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and fall prey to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to being the Church belligerent.

More common, and usually more deadly, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether and no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry, and he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy in order to call to them.

Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he more comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.

The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating, because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics are indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.

Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it a meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.

Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its views, present an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.

Thus the urgent request of St. Augustine on behalf of all clergy: “We ask your prayers.”

Augustine then goes on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”

Yes, with the help of others a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken. Many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and consider me lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.

We do not “disapprove” of sinful behavior so that we can sinners off, but so that we can summon them, restore them to the flock from which they have strayed. Why would one search for what is not lost? It is what is lost that is sought. Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.

Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity in sinful behaviors and interpret our searching for them as an offense, rather than as an act of loving concern.

St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he sets an answer that summons us to perseverance:

So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach till the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.

And even should you lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. And if our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!

Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.

Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost!

Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them!