We are in the pre-Lenten time of the year. Already the altar and priest are clad in purple; already we forgo the alleluia. Ash Wednesday is only ten days away. Please make your Lenten resolutions now, write them down, and prepare to enter Lent running. We must run toward Easter, toward Heaven, with all we have.
An Angel of Satan to beat me
St. Paul had reason to boast, and he had reason to complain. He labored, and he suffered for the Gospel to an extraordinary degree: scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever equaled St. Paul in spreading the Gospel. His greatest experience was mystical—an out-of-body experience of the third heaven, hearing “verba arcana,” unutterable words. Because of the “abundance of revelations,” that he might not extol himself, a “thorn in the flesh” was given him. He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a passing toothache, but a chronic and painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a weakness in his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But the Lord did not heal him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. He said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. But St. Paul tells us, from personal experience, that God’s grace, not medication or psychotherapy, makes suffering bearable, even joyful. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take Advil, or undergo surgery, or see a counselor, when we need to. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we miss life’s deepest joys. Many beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control.
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our damning illusions of self-reliance. We learn to trust God, in our flesh, when we suffer. With St. Paul, we say “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” It is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult peacefully, to smile on even the worst days. But we can rejoice in our sufferings, if we know that … God’s grace is enough. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to load on even extra sacrifices, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for him. We cannot contain our own pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness. She was a nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men who drove the political machinery around her. She gave herself up to God, heedless of the shame, and found herself in Him. She found that He can be trusted. Let us pray to Holy Mary to help us sacrifice everything for the surpassing joy of knowing God, our Savior.
Extraordinary Form Homily September 30, 2012
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus crossed the lake to his home town of Capernaum. Just as he is getting out of the boat, some men hurry up to the dock to lay down their paralyzed friend, right in front of Jesus. And Our Lord goes to the root of the problem: he cures the man’s sins. Only after healing his sins does he heal his paralysis.
We take two lessons from today’s Gospel.
A Bold Move
Our First Lesson: the paralyzed man’s friends make a bold move by plopping him down right in front Our Lord. They don’t give Jesus any choice but to face their friend, and they don’t give their friend any choice but to face Jesus. St. Thomas writes: “the paralytic symbolizes the sinner lying in his sin; just as the paralytic can’t move, so the sinner cannot help himself.” Those who bring the paralytic to Jesus lead the sinner to God. Most of the time we bring a friend to God by praying to God for his soul. Sometimes more direct action is indicated. A good friend will take a buddy to an AA meeting if circumstances warrant an intervention. A good friend will insist that his brother get to confession if he needs it.
And this brings us to our Second Lesson: the Sacrament of Penance. This sacrament releases paralyzed limbs and hearts. Imagine paralysis in the ancient world, before motorized wheelchairs, handicapped ramps, and automatic doors. A paralyzed man had to lay on his back for the rest of his life, staring blankly up at the sky. So this paralytic lies in front of Jesus, helpless. Does Jesus cure his paralysis? Yes, but only after he forgives his sins. Our Lord points out that mortal sin is worse than paralysis. Indeed, it is sin that paralyzes. It puts us flat on our backs. The first thing in any distress—physical, emotional, or spiritual—is to go to confession. Jesus heals the man’s paralysis with a word, not only indicating his divinity, but showing how external paralysis only manifests the root problem: the internal paralysis of mortal sin. The first thing in any sickness is to get to confession, because the soul is infinitely more important than anything else. If our souls are all right, the rest of us will be perfectly all right. Even it pleases God to permit a persistent bodily infirmity, we will be all right.
A Pure Heart, a Strong Spirit
St. Maximilian Kolbe was sick from the age of 17. Tuberculosis struck him while in the seminary and left him with only 25% lung capacity the rest of his life. But see how this infirm man founded and oversaw the largest friary in the world, Neopokolanow near Warsaw, with 700 men. At the time of his arrest in 1941, he managed the largest printing business in Poland. He survived three months in Auschwitz while giving his food to others, and in the end freely offered his life for another man in the starvation bunker. Where did he get his extraordinary strength? Not from his weak body, which God never cured in his life. Fr. Kolbe’s remarkable strength came from a pure soul, a heart cleansed of sin.
If we are sick in spirit, and even sick in body, let us look first to our souls. If our nation is sick, let it look above all to its soul. Our Lord wishes to cleanse, heal, and strengthen us, but we must get on our knees before him. We must confess our personal sins, and repent of our national sins. Nothing else matters if the soul is diseased. Our souls must be our first concern.
Let us pray to the Blessed Mother, that she also bring our sick and suffering souls to her Divine Son, that we may share her purity, and the glory God has bestowed upon her, and all the saints.
Homily: God's Grace is Enough
We all complain from time to time. Some people are professional moaners, and others keep life’s disappointments largely to themselves, but we all gripe and wine. Gripenheimers and Winebuckets, all of us. Even St. Paul complained, as he does in today’s second reading. “Three times” he begged the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but the Lord did not remove it. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his limitations, in the name of Christ.
Thorn in the Flesh
Let’s look more closely at Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a toothache, but a chronic, painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a problem with his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But what did Paul do when God didn’t heal him? He took a deep breath, pulled himself up straight, and said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
A great error of our time is to imagine that we can somehow, with enough technology or psychology, eliminate all suffering from life. So if you have a physical problem, just keep trying new meds until the pain is covered over. The pharmaceutical companies will love you! If you have an emotional problem, just jump from one relationship to another until something works. And see a therapist while you’re at it! And if all else fails, there’s always whisky.
But St. Paul tells us today, flat out: God’s grace is enough for us. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. I don’t mean we shouldn’t take Advil, or get surgery when we need it. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we simply can’t accept the experience of suffering in our lives, then we miss life’s deeper meanings. Because some beautiful things only come through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control. Pain is necessary for growth. “Growing pains.” In our fallen state, since we suffer from the disorder of Original Sin, we only learn perfection through the school of hard knocks. “But what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger….”
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our illusions of self-reliance. We learn to really trust God when we suffer. Suffering melts our icy hearts and opens them to others who suffer: it develops humility and compassion. “Compassion” in Latin means to “suffer with,” and we cannot know another person in their pain unless we too have suffered with them. A woman philosopher (Alice von Hildebrand) once told an auditorium full of priests: “You men labor under the distinct disadvantage of never having had a baby. When a child is pushing a woman’s body apart, trying to get out, she knows beyond doubt that she is not in control of her life. She gives herself over to Providence.” So we shouldn’t waste our energy obsessing over our sufferings and weaknesses. It is better to say, with St. Paul, that “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” Yes, dear brothers and sisters: it is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult with a peaceful demeanor. But we must know that … God’s grace is enough. It is enough!
Mother Teresa would often say, “I am nobody, and I have nothing.” This is really the state of things. We are nobody outside of God’s grace, and nothing we have is ours. It all belongs to Him.
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness and poverty. She was nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men and the political machinery around her. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior, because he has looked upon the lowliness of his servant.” She gave herself up to God, and found herself in Him. Let us pray to her to do the same.