Friday, December 26, 2014

Do I Allow God To Love Me?

The adoration of the shepherds
We are now in the Christmas season in which we celebrate the birth of our Savior.  God is born as a man, like His Creation in every way except sin.  And how did the great Creator choose to come into the world?  He was born in a dirty, vermin-infested manger surrounded by barn animals and greeted by the lowliest members of human society - shepherds, who spent their lives in the fields with their animals apart from everyone else.  These were men with little to no education who rarely even bathed and were shunned by all of "proper" society.  And not only did our Lord choose to announce His coming to these lowliest members of society, He said that He, too, was a shepherd.  Our Lord is the Good Shepherd who will go to any lengths to find His lost sheep and will even lay down His own precious life to save His sheep.

Moses the Shepherd
Anyone who has spent any amount of time studying the Bible and the Life of Christ knows that Our Lord never does anything in a way that we would expect.  As Pope Francis has told us, He is a God of surprises.  In the Old Testament The Lord tests the faith of the father of his people - Abraham - by demanding that Abraham kill his son.  He prepares the patriarch Joseph to save the known civilized world by allowing him to be falsely accused and thrown into prison for several years.  He chooses a slave nation - Israel - to be the ones by which He will make Himself known to the world.  He chooses Moses to lead this slave nation to freedom.  Moses had been driven from society because he had killed a man.  He then become a shepherd (yes, the lowliest member of society) and was prepared by God to lead the nation of Israel by spending 40 years shepherding sheep in the wilderness.  The Lord chose another shepherd - David - to be the great king of Israel.

We can never know the Mind of God. We can never assume that we know what He wants or how He will act among us. Yet, we continue to seek God on our own terms and in our own ways. The result is that we delude ourselves into thinking that we are serving God when in reality we are pushing God away and serving nothing more than our own egos. This was the warning that Pope Francis gave us in his Christmas message. The Holy Father told us that seeking God means that we must be open and allow God to find us. (Read the entire message HERE.)
On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? "But I am searching for the Lord" - we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant's presence is: do I allow God to love me?
This very much echoes a statement made by the Venerable Fulton Sheen:
We always make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us.  God sent the angel to Mary, not to ask her to do something, but to let something be done. Since God is a better artisan than you, the more you abandon yourself to him, the happier he can make you.
In the great classic, "The Spiritual Combat" by Lorenzo Scupoli (a monk who lived from 1530 to 1610), the author begins his book by stating, "If you wish, beloved in Christ, to reach the height of perfection, and by drawing near to your God to become one spirit with Him (and no aim can be imagined or expressed which is greater, or nobler than this), you must before all else gain a true idea of what constitutes spiritual perfection." Dom Scupoli then gives examples of what does not constitute spiritual perfection. It does not consist of "outward mortification, in hair shirts and disciplines, in long watchings and fastings, and in other bodily sufferings and chastisements." Dom Scupoli warns against those "who think they have reached the climax of perfection when they say many prayers, attend many services and offices, and are regularly at Church and at Communion."

Dom Scupoli warns us that those who trust in external actions "are all deceived.  For although these practices are sometimes means of gaining the spirit of perfection, and sometimes are its fruits, yet in no sense can it ever be said that true spiritual perfection consists in these."  Dom Scupoli most certainly does not condemn these actions in and of themselves, for as he writes, these practices "are means most efficacious for obtaining spirituality, when they are properly and discreetly employed" and that "they are also fruits of the Spirit in truly spiritual persons" who follow these external practices "not for the sake of curiosity and devotional feeling, but that they may gain deeper knowledge of their own corruptness and of God's Mercy and Goodness."

This great author tells us that
"to others, however, who found perfection entirely on external practices, such works may bring greater ruin than open sins; not that these works are bad in themselves, for in themselves they are very good, but in consequence of the mistaken use which is made of them they have this sad result: because those who practice them are so wrapt up in what they do, that they leave their hearts a prey to their own evil inclinations and to the devices of Satan."
In other words, our trust in external practices causes us to start trusting in ourselves and our own goodness, and that makes us easy prey for the devil.

Dom Scupoli says those who vainly trust in outward practices
"may easily be gathered from their lives and conversation. For in everything, whether it be great or small, they seek their own advantage, and like to be preferred before others; they are self-willed and opinionated, blind to their own faults, sharp-sighted for the faults of others, and severely condemn the sayings and doings of other men. But if you touch only with your finger a certain vain reputation in which they hold themselves and are pleased to be held by others; if you bid them discontinue any of their regular and formal devotions, they are at once angry and exceedingly disturbed."
Dom Scupoli writes:
It is therefore quite evident that all such persons are in great danger. For since the inward eye is darkened, by which they see themselves and their outward actions which are good, they attribute to themselves a high degree of perfection, and so, becoming more and more puffed up, they readily pass judgment upon others; yet they themselves need a special miracle of grace to convert them, for nothing short of that would have effect. It is more easy to convert and bring back an open sinner to the path of truth, than the man whose sin is hidden and mantled with the semblance of virtue.
This, sadly, is what I find almost universally in the Catholic blogosphere, most especially among those who call themselves "traditionalists."  These bloggers hold themselves out as the models of Christian perfection, and forcefully condemn anyone who disagrees with them.  No one is excluded from this condemnation, from lay persons up to and including, and sometimes most especially, the Pope.

Dom Scupoli tells us what constitutes true spirituality:
You clearly and distinctly see, then, from what I have said, that the essence of the spiritual life does not lie in any of those things to which I have alluded. It consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the Divine Goodness and Greatness, of our own nothingness, and proneness to all evil; in the love of God and the hatred of self; in entire subjection not only to God Himself, but for the love of Him, to all creatures; in giving up our own will, and in completely resigning ourselves to the Divine Pleasure; moreover, in willing and doing all this with no other wish or aim than the glory and honor of God, the fulfillment of His Will because it is His Will, and because He deserves to be served and loved.
Pope Francis succinctly summarized this when he said, "Do I allow God to love me?"  Whenever we start trusting in ourselves and in our own actions, we are cutting ourselves off from the love of God. That is the danger of fundamentalism.  And that is the danger of both the liberal and traditional Catholic movements.  While liberal and traditional Catholics may seem like opposites, in reality they are two sides of the same coin because they are both trusting in themselves and their own righteousness.

And between the liberal and ultra-conservative traditionalists, the latter is actually far more spiritually dangerous. It is easy to point out the sin of the liberal because they are so obviously in contradiction to Church teaching. But those who call themselves "traditionalists" are involved in a much more insidious sin. They look very good and spiritual on the outside. But as Dom Scupoli writes, "It is more easy to convert and bring back an open sinner to the path of truth, than the man whose sin is hidden and mantled with the semblance of virtue."

As I have pointed out before, our ultimate role model is Mary, our Blessed Mother. Satan fears her above all other creatures. What is it that made her so dangerous to Satan? It was her complete abandonment of self, and her total and unquestioning reliance on God. "My soul does magnify the Lord, my spirit does rejoice in God my Savior." Mary accepted God's will into her life. She never resisted Him in any way. Therein lies spiritual perfection. How do we get there?

Dom Scupoli tells us this:
Now you see wherein the real perfection of a Christian lies, and that to obtain it you must enter upon a constant and sharp warfare against self.
Our greatest enemy is our own self will, our opinions, our "goodness."  That will cut us off from God faster and more completely than anything or anyone outside of us.  Yes, we are in a spiritual warfare, and the one we must fight more than any other is ourselves.

Dom Scupoli gives us the weapons we must use:
You must provide yourself with four very safe and highly necessary weapons, that you may win the palm, and be finally a conqueror in this spiritual conflict -- these are:
  • Distrust in Self
  • Trust in God
  • Spiritual Exercises
  • Prayer
Jesus Christ - the great Creator of the Universe - came to us as a small, defenseless infant.  He became the Sacrifice for our sins by dying as a condemned criminal on the Cross, again helpless and defenseless.  If we are to be like Christ, we too must become "helpless and defenseless."

In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis said the following:
When the angels announced the birth of the Redeemer to the shepherds, they did so with these words: "This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12).
The "sign" is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.
This statement of Pope Francis echoes that of Our Blessed Mother in her great Magnificat:
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
Truly, one of the most profound and penetrating questions we can ask ourselves is that posed by our Holy Father, "Do I Allow God To Love Me?"


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