Can I Get Some Simplicity for God’s Sake! (Part 2 of 2)

buachaille_etive_morWhile Part 1 of these tandem posts focused on simplicity of life, it ended with a whisper of something more. Without this ‘something more,’ this practical simplicity of life is incomplete, akin to dry ritualism, “drudgery for the sake of it and an insult to all men of good will” (A Christmas Carol.)

We don’t empty ourselves as an act meaningful in and of itself. It is in service of a deeper kind of simplicity. Let us boldly assert what is, in truth, a rather queer fact: we empty ourselves to be filled! Our situation matches what we find in reality: we are in need of filling and (alleluia!) there is something that waits to fill us.

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But with what do we need to be filled?

In 1995, a year after writing his prophetic, profound and highly praised book, The Catholic Church at The End of An Age: What is the Spirit Saying?, Ralph Martin traveled with Sr. Ann Shields to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II. At their meeting, Ralph presented to him his new book. The Holy Father rhapsodically whisked the book out of Ralph’s hand, blindly reached back to hand it to his secretary, and said, “Ralph, I have already read your book!” Placing his outstretched hands on Ralph’s shoulders, his face grew fiery, his eyes locked and his voice lowered as he said, “Tell me, Ralph – what is the Spirit saying…?” Sr. Ann Shields recounts how, as both men looked into each other’s eyes, Ralph simply answered, “Jesus.” And the two men – two disciples, two children of God, two pilgrims longing for home – repeated back and forth to each other, “Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…” as their voices tailed off.

When we simplify our lives and empty ourselves of the clutter, we open ourselves to being filled more with the Holy Spirit – “The Lord, the Giver of Life”: God Himself. And when the Spirit fills our hearts, like a silent bolt of lightning suddenly illuminating the darkened sky, it points and bears witness to one, simple thing: Jesus.

WhoAmIOh how badly we need (and desire!) this deeper kind of simplicity. We run around and chase so many causes (pro-life/pro-choice), philosophies (expanded/limited government), worldviews (“just love people, dude”) and lifestyles (“P90X and a gluten-free diet changed my life!”), when all we need is more of Him. Please don’t misunderstand – causes, philosophies, worldviews and lifestyles are all legitimate parts of life. But, they are secondary. Jesus is primary. We must come to grips with this, because we are forever in discord until we put first things first and second things second (as pointed out with customary brilliance by Lewis in God in the Dock).

To be human means to look for meaning and purpose in your life as a whole and in your everyday activities. We are all on this search. And as we journey, we accumulate so many things that serve as our guiding lights, giving us meaning and purpose. But are they not all doomed to disappoint us, these dressed-up finitudes to which our hearts aren’t built to belong? We are called to a radical simplicity, to a singleness of purpose.

This simplicity, this singleness of purpose always breeds excellence (see Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly), whether be in secular tasks or on the spiritual journey.

We see clear-cut evidence of this in Pope John Paul II. He was a man of tremendous gifts – a philosopher, mystic, sportsman, intellectual, dramatist, statesman and leader, but who can best be understood in a “simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity” as a “radical, Christian…disciple” (Witness to Hope, George Weigel). Though life is complicated and our participation “in the world” produces myriad currents of interest, involvement and activity in our lives, at the bottom of that ocean – at the bedrock foundation that lies on the “far side” of all that complexity – what sits on the throne of our heart? Does Jesus sit there? Do we live for a singular purpose?

peter_preachingConsider the Apostles:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2)

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Phil 3:7-8)

At the end of the day, after being filled with the Spirit, they had this deep simplicity. Their meaning and purpose didn’t come from their jobs, their bank accounts, their houses, their projects, their vacations, their ‘experiences’ or even their web of relationships. Life was about one thing and one thing only: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

This kind of simplicity is radical and deeply counter-cultural. Our (now, global) culture is a culture of stuff. You have an itch (boredom)? The culture has a thing for that (TV, Netflix or another form of entertainment). Now a different itch (nope, boredom again)? Well, it has something else for that, too (big ‘experiences’). We take a little bit from here and little bit from there, accumulating these void remedies until eventually we end up bloated on a bunch of solutions that just create more problems, less peace and don’t satisfy anything. We resolve ourselves to living these fragmented lives when “only one thing is needful.” Why?!

Do we really believe that Jesus is all we need; that we need nothing else; that the kind of life He would give us is the life we actually would quit everything to have? Every saint answered ‘yes’ to those questions – and then lived a ‘simple’ life that confessed only one thing: Jesus.

All of us can feel convicted by this. What this really boils down to is a lack of conversion. We simply need to have more deeply converted hearts. Let’s put ourselves in God’s hands, in prayer, and ask Him for that. He’ll answer.

In our complicated, bloated, materially obese culture, we need a greater simplicity of life and a more radical simplicity of heart. And the Good News is that the King is ready and waiting to grow these in us! Let us come before Him so that we may…

Remain simple and innocent, and [we] will be like little children who do not know the evil that destroys man’s life. (CCC 2517)

In this way we will contradict our generation. But, paradoxically, it needs us to do just that.

Forget ‘Fitting In’

chesterton-banner-640x400In the beginning of G.K. Chesterton’s deftly illuminating biography of St. Thomas Aquinas lies this thought:

Christ did not tell his apostles that they were only the excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people; and the text about the salt of the earth is really as sharp and shrewd and tart as the taste of salt… Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

Like most of Chesterton’s writing, that quote comes at us like an unforeseen stiff jab; it’s odd, jolting and strangely awakening. When we try that passage on like a t-shirt we see that at once it scratches and challenges us, but, simultaneously, somehow it fits perfectly.

From adolescence to our twilight hours, we get so anxious about ‘fitting in’ and ‘finding our place’ in the world. We try to find our group – our place of connection and belonging. We have last names that contextualize our lives in a ‘clan’, we buy t-shirts that manifest our being ‘part of something’ and we find people with whom we come alive. And it goes all the way up: we look for this sense of belonging – this sense of home – in our communities, countries and our planet as a whole. (What else do political and environmental concerns – local or global – boil down to but a worry over the state of one’s hearth and nest?)

This is all very natural; it is a deep human need. We should look to belong somewhere. We should desire a home. But, where is our home? Where do we belong?

It simply can’t be here. If it is here, then while we live we make no sense to ourselves and then, ultimately, we are lost forever. Such a perspective offers us this: we go through life with an insatiable, restless Sehnsucht that yearns for something ‘we-know-not-what’, something ‘more’; and, as a culminating capstone, we are ripped from our beds and from our ‘home’ by the death that comes for us all. Life is a meaningless tragedy.

But, no, we are not orphans! We are not stuck out in the cold forever. We do have a home…but it is not of this world. It is the world to come. This is a fact that should change the entirety of our lives. Really.

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Now, the challenge: If this is the truth, do we actually live this way?

This should stop us in our tracks. How often do we try to ‘fit in’ and conform to what is around us? How often do we feel the pressure to live by the creeds and impulses of the clay-footed culture of this passing kingdom? How often do we allow a competing compass set our priorities? How often, amidst the copious options encircling us, do we frantically search for our place of belonging – thinking that changing ‘this’ or ‘that’ will finally be the answer?

Thankfully, Christ came to free us from that unquenchable and desperate search. When we finally quit the rat race and rest in Jesus, as always, we discover He has the only answer that helps us understand ourselves. He told us we wouldn’t ‘fit in’:

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Look around – there is a distinct tension between the culture ‘out there’ and the Gospel. This presents an enormous temptation to Christians (as human beings with a natural urge to get along with others) to ‘go the way of the world’ because running against the grain is too isolating and just too darn difficult! It’s simply a lot easier to ‘get along.’ But, to do that is to live a lie:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19; emphasis added)

We are not of this world. Thus, our lives should manifest that reality. If we are baptized into Christ, we cannot sacrifice and compromise our identity merely to ‘fit in.’ It may bring us grief and woe, but Jesus can handle that hurt. He begs us not to give in, but to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1), because in Him alone is life and eternally tremendous glory.

We must constantly be asking ourselves, “Where is my home and where does my allegiance lie?” And then, live accordingly.

A final, crucial point: the answer is not to grit our teeth, build a bunker and bear out our countercultural lifestyle in lonely isolation. Such a condition is hardly conducive to the Gospel message or human flourishing. The answer is solidarity. The common gathering and shared life of the brothers and sisters, supporting one another in our walk toward the Lord. Any talk of not conforming to the ‘ways of the world’ is insufficient without affirming the proper solution: a rich communal life of missionary disciples. And, paradoxically, it is in living this way of ‘contradicting’ the world (as Chesterton aptly illuminated) that each and every generation can be brought to Jesus.

In conclusion: do you want to be a saint? Do you want to be missionary? Do you want to be a disciple? Then forget about ‘fitting in.’ Give your allegiance to the one true King.

 

(Check out further application of this discussion here and here.)

Grow Up: Become a Child

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“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2)

How often does the wisdom of God prove to be radically different from the wisdom of mankind?

A good illustration of this is in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. At first, Jesus’ disciples approach him because they are hungry. And, seeing their hunger, Jesus deliberately intensifies it by speaking of the “the true bread from heaven… which comes down and gives life to world.” This bread is better than the manna that fed their ancestors for years in the desert. This is the only bread one ever needs to eat. Naturally, His disciples are sold and salivating – resolutely declaring, “Lord, give us this bread always!”

And, after rising to a crescendo, with the next few lines Jesus loses more disciples than any other time of his earthly life. He says, “I am the bread of life… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.”

What the disciples expected to get was not what Jesus was prepared to give. He was prepared to give something much greater. Likewise, throughout the whole Bible, what God tells His people to do often baffles them just as much as it baffles us nowadays. What our natural gut-instinct tells us will be effective is often the opposite of the solution the Lord gives. And doesn’t this shock us every time?

Just look at the very life of Jesus. Mother Teresa has great words that are pertinent here:

“You know, [we] don’t understand. Jesus came into the world with the most important message [and task] of all time and he had only thirty-three short years to communicate [and accomplish] it. And he spent thirty years doing nothing!” (I Loved Jesus in The Night, pg. 72)

Combine that thought with the fact that the climax of this “redemption” – this “Good News” – was to come through the brutal death of the protagonist and we throw up our hands in puzzlement. This plan for saving the world from all of its problems and redeeming creation itself is just simply not how we, as human beings, would go about things. We would come in with power, wealth, talent and a huge conglomerate wad of “the best the world has to offer.” God (in this world at least) reveals His glory in more magnificent ways.

Lloyd Greenhaw, a confident, jovial, shoot-from-the-hip, Texas rancher-type who leads international missions for Renewal Ministries all over the world, puts it like this: “We live in an upside-down world.” If you want to save your life, lose it. If you want life, you must die. If you want to be rich, become poor. If you want to be filled, be emptied. The list goes on. Just one look at the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) reveals how God’s idea of blessedness is a 180-degree spin from ours.

So, now the question: what does this mean for us as disciples?

Surely, we want to be great disciples. We want to produce fruit. We have (or we should have) a fountain of magnanimous aspirations boiling over within our hearts. Pope John Paul II recognized this when, in addressing young adults throughout the world, he said,

“It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives… the refusal to allow yourself to be grounded down by mediocrity.” (Prayer Vigil at World Youth Day 2000)

We want to be great and we should want to be great. But, how do we achieve greatness?

Jesus answered this for us. “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). And our hearts are pierced with bewilderment and wonder once again. How can this be possible? Because the ways of God are not the ways of man.

The disciple is not one who has just given some measly intellectual assent to a set of ideas, but one who has received the “spirit of sonship” so that now…

“When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:15-17)

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God. Through God we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters and, therefore, heirs to everything He has to give us (Gal. 4:6). This means two things.

First, once again, that we are born to be great. We should hunger for greatness, for glory and for producing magnificent fruit. Notice that when the disciples asked Jesus about how to achieve greatness (Matt. 18:1), He didn’t rebuke them – He answered their question. To not long for glory and for greatness is to not recognize the reality of who we are: namely, children of God.

Secondly, if we want to be great (and if we want to be great disciples), we must come, as children with empty hands, to our loving Father, being nourished by Him and Him alone. We must be made humble. We must become small. We must realize that the only way to have a “big impact” is to be totally present to the little and insignificant things we have to do at each moment. That in the very smallest things (like this moment right now), we meet the very greatest (the infinity of God’s presence).

In this way, we live as children – constantly and forever living in the presence of our Father, allowing His will to guide every inch of our lives. It is an eternal paradox of that “upside-down world” that if we want to be great, we must be small. It is in our smallness that we can rest more firmly in the embrace and power of our Father who loves us. How else could a woman that looks like this change so many hearts?

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This is our privilege and our call – that you and I are each a child of God.

Brothers and sisters, let us live in that truth. Let us abandon ourselves totally to Him, allowing Him to purify us, in His Love, into the pure gold we are created to be. Let us trust our Father. Let us hope in Him. Let us love Him by a complete gift of ourselves. There is no other path for the disciple to take.

Scriptural postscript: pray with Sirach 3:17-24; Psalm 50:15-17; Micah 2-4; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

No Room at the Inn

 

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by David Macari

As I reflect on the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem, they would be nearing the city now. Joseph would be silently relieved that his wife would not undergo the danger of delivering a baby on the road−at the same time telling Mary, “See, I knew we could do it. Here we are, just a few more miles to a bed and a hot meal.” Mary is in active labor at this point. She would be feeling a mix of body wracking contractions and a very real, very human fear that delivering a child would include in the best of the circumstances of her day, let alone in a foreign land with no assistance of an elder woman to guide her through it. They’d would both be aching all over from their journey, Mary bruised extensively from riding the donkey, (she probably didn’t have a comfy padded leather saddle) and Joseph wincing with every step as his tough soles have been split by the 80 miles of walking over four days.

Then they arrive at Bethlehem, the City of David, the City of the King. It is the day of the invasion of Heaven unto Earth. It is God’s version of D-Day to break the power of evil.

No one will help them. As Joseph humbly negotiates and begs for a place for Mary to lie down, imagine the simple refusals that progress from annoyance, to anger, then to scorn; anything to get this pitiful pair away from their door. The head of the Holy Family is laughed to scorn in his time of need, a foreshadowing of what his Son would experience. I wonder how many places they went before they went to the outskirts of the city where poverty, crime and danger were likely to exist. This is where God softened the heart of a man to open a hovel to the Holy Family. Here they will take refuge in this germ infested, smelly, uncomfortable, not-idyllic-in-any-way, animal cave; rejected by the City of David.

God chose to have His Son born in filth. I strongly believe that He chose this, so that we would know that He wants to be born in our hearts−just as they ARE. My heart is still filthy. Compared to a glorified human heart, what our hearts will be in heaven, our hearts are nasty hovels. God has been looking for a landing zone for his Invasion. HERE, Lord! Be born in me! Make my hovel of a heart the dwelling place of the King of Kings. I am not ashamed to let You in. I boast of my weakness to You, Lord (2 Corinthians 12:9). Make my heart humble enough to receive Your Son.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for they, like the most humble cave in the world, will receive the Kingdom of Heaven.

No Roots, No Fruits

By Their Fruit You Shall Judge Them, by Mark Ambrose

Hard words, Lord Christ! For what good fruits bear I?

For all your care and tending, what my yield?


You gave me to a garden well concealed


and watered me from fountains set on high;

you fertilized me with a wondrous food

and sent a Wind to strengthen and make straight.

How patiently you prune and pollinate

with an expert arborist’s solicitude.

And still my good works fall to earth unfinished,

my produce often stunted, bruised, or dented,

the rot upon my nature’s root augmented

by blights I brought and beauties I diminished.

God grant when I know others by their fruits,

I also recollect how weak their roots.

Fruits stem from roots.  Mission stems from conversion. Conversion begins with an encounter with Jesus, who is alive, through the Holy Spirit, who is power! But, it does not end there – it is a never-ending, lifelong process. The roots must entrench deeper and deeper. May we let God bury our roots beyond our sight into the only good soil: Himself. Then – and only then – will we, without doubt, bear fruit for the Kingdom.