Does God love some people more than others? In one sense, no, He doesn’t. After all, God is love. When we love each other we are actually participating in God’s love. Because of this we can choose to participate in that love more or less or even not at all. But God is infinite and God is love. Saying God loves one person more than another makes no sense because His love is already infinite. Infinity plus one is still infinity.
On the other hand, God seems to make more of His infinite love available to some people. There are some people who feel a near constant awareness of God’s love for them and many who don’t. Saint Therese made an analogy to explain this. Even though she was talking about the different glories that await each of us in Heaven, I (hopefully with the Little Flower’s blessing) want to paraphrase her here. Imagine a large cup and next to it is a thimble. They’re both filled to the brim with water. They hold different amounts but it would be impossible to add anything to either container. Our capacity to experience God’s love is like that. Some of us have big cups, some have thimbles. Some have oceans, some have eye droppers. But all are full. So what is the secret that the big cuppers hold?
I don’t think the secret is trying to get God to love you more. That’s impossible. Our list of accomplishments, merits, awards, talents, important jobs, good grades, the number of friends we have, big paychecks, good deeds—none of it can increase God’s love for us, which is already infinite. Jesus gives us the secret to having a greater capacity to be loved by Him with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In the parable Jesus tells us about two men praying in the temple: a self-righteous Pharisee who thanks God for making him better than everyone else and a humble tax collector who asks God for mercy. The Pharisee falls short not just because he is judgmental and dismissive of the tax collector. If we get caught up on the “judge not” message alone we will miss something hugely important. Yes, the Pharisee is wrong to judge, but he misses the mark even further by thinking he has earned God’s love by his tithing, fasting and self-righteousness. He is completely blind to his unworthiness and closed off to mercy. We can often be like the Pharisee in this second sense. True, we tend not to judge the “tax collectors” in our lives because we are good and decent people. But we can fall into the trap of believing that everything is ok. That we don’t need Jesus’ mercy every hour of every day. That crying out to God is for other people, people with problems. Not us. We too can be closed off to mercy.
The tax collector, aware of his brokenness, is open to receive mercy. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” is the motto of the big cuppers. The saints (just a fancy word for big cuppers) all had in common a profound awareness of their own sin and brokenness. From the outside this can look like hand-wringing guilt, but nothing could be further from the truth. Declarations like “Lord I need You!” and “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” are the secret to experiencing the fullness of God’s love and the freedom from anxiety, abundant joy and peace that only Christ can give.
When I was a kid I thought Jesus healed leopards. They called them leopards because their skin was covered in spots. Obviously. And a leopard can’t change his spots (that saying actually comes from Jeremiah 13:23) so Jesus preformed the miracle of changing their spots for them. I really did believe this until I learned what leprosy really was (and still is). It’s generally accepted that the ancient disease was caused by the same bacteria as the modern one, mycobacterium leprae. It is still around in many parts of the world but unlike in Jesus time, it is extremely treatable. Leprosy was so feared that people suffering from it were exiled from their community and forced to warn others when they approached. Many other skin conditions were lumped in with leprosy too. It makes me think twice before I complain about my psoriasis. After all, I don’t have to live in a leper colony (although living in a leopard colony would be kinda cool).
There is a biblical connection between leprosy and sin. In the Old Testament leprosy is seen as a punishment for sin. The gospels point to leprosy not as an effect of sin, but as an analogy for it. Like sin it is ugly, it disfigures, it can spread and it separates us—separates us from each other and from God. And just as Jesus, in his mercy, desired to free the ten lepers of their physical disease, he also desires to free us from our spiritual disease. If only we have the courage to echo the words of the lepers, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Christ wants to set us free, wants to heal us. But he waits for our permission to act.
Saint Francis of Assisi, whose memorial we observed this week, was absolutely repulsed by leprosy and sufferers of leprosy. Early in his radical conversion he met a leper on the road and knew what he had to do. He gave the man money, embraced him and kissed his sores. In that moment he realized that he was embracing and kissing Jesus. In an instant Saint Francis’ sin of indifference and aversion to suffering was healed. We have access to the same sanctifying grace and healing in the sacraments. We only need to ask.
I know that love of money is the root of all evil and that many people can be corrupted and changed for the worse by it. But I believe I can overcome the temptation with Your help. So please let me win the $200 million Powerball in order to prove how great You are. I know I am up to the challenge. Ka-ching. I mean A-men.
I have prayed something similar to this before. I know, it’s a really shallow prayer. After all, money can’t buy happiness. Actually, I would argue that it can buy happiness. The word “happy” has at it’s root “hap” which means luck or fortune. We all agree with this idea of happiness as luck to some degree. Ever notice that when you see someone with a huge smile on their face you immediately assume some external good fortune came upon them. And it’s true. If I get a new pair of shoes, I’m happy. If I step in something messy, I’m unhappy. If I go to Chipotle, I’m happy. If they’re out of guacamole, I’m unhappy. The worst thing about investing so much self in the pursuit of happiness is not just that it is hard to hold on to (it is) or that even when you can grasp it it fails to truly satisfy. Jesus tells us that the pursuit of mammon—which is worldly happiness, or wealth, or pleasure or comfort etc.—ultimately prevents us from pursuing the greatest Good. Himself.
Because we weren’t made for these passing things. We were made for Christ. And He cannot be second place in our lives to anything else. Mammon is really whatever we place ahead of Jesus. And mammon can be anything. It doesn’t have to be money. Saint Augustine gives a little test to discern what mammon is to each of us: imagine God comes to you offering whatever you desire and nothing is out of bounds or off limits and it’s not a trick either (e.g. you ask for a million dollars and end up receiving the life insurance pay out from the death of a loved one). Whatever you request He will grant but there is one catch—once your desire is granted you will never again, in all eternity, see His face. If there is something for which you would take that deal, that’s your mammon.
I know that I say in my words and many of my thoughts that, no, there is nothing worth that deal. But I also know that my actions can tell a different story. I know that sometimes the way I live my life and what I choose to pursue betray the fact that I often put things before Jesus. Sometimes it’s money (that I don’t even have!), sometimes it’s a desire for acceptance and esteem, sometimes it’s a desire to stay in my comfort zone. I flit around from one fixation to another hoping to find something that satisfies. Following Jesus, being His Disciple, has taught me little by little that He is all I need. In Him I live and move and have my very being. In Him I find rest.
“…You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”
This morning I walked into the living room where Caleb was playing in his play pen to give him a kiss goodbye when I had four simultaneous thoughts (well, three observations and a thought):
- What’s that dark mark on his face?
- Smells like someone needs a diaper change!
- Speaking of diapers, where is Caleb’s diaper?
- Oh dear God…
There. Was. Poop. Everywhere. I called out to my wife, “Katie! He’s playing with poop!” I can only imagine what the Amazon Customer Service Representative I was on the phone with at the time thought. And so began a 45 minute adventure. Katie took Caleb and thoroughly cleaned him while I went on a seek and destroy mission for . . . particles.
As Katie and I set about to take care of our duty (really Caleb’s duty) we could only laugh. And we did laugh. I wondered what else besides love could bring about a situation where two fairly normal human beings are scouring someone else’s poo off the ground and various toys with an irrepressible joy causing fits of laughter. It’s not like the poop wasn’t so bad. It smelled like, well, poop. And it really was everywhere. But love changes things. By knowing our Father loves us, and reflecting that love to the world we can see with the eyes of faith what our greatest treasure is. Today my greatest treasure was to spend the better part of an hour sanitizing my living room.
Jesus talks about what it is we should truly treasure in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. He offers us a parable of a man who believes he is set for life. He has enough to never have to work, never be uncomfortable, never have to worry about his next meal and he believes this will give him a life of contentment. And he is a fool. Not because food or drink or comfort or happiness are bad things—they aren’t. But they’re not the ultimate ends for which we were made either. They don’t represent the treasures our hearts were designed to seek. We are images of God who is Love and the greatest expression of that love is Jesus Christ Crucified. Our greatest treasure is to be that kind of selfless love and not just for our own family. Even the wicked know how to love their family (Luke 11:13). The real treasure is a “poo-scrubbing-with-a-smile-on-your-face” type love for everyone—for those who can do nothing for you, for those who dislike you or even hate you.
This Sunday, 23 teens and 7 adults from Saint Mary of the Hills depart for Mexico, ME to do a week of Christian service at Beyond Sunday Missions. Please pray that their motivation be a “poo-scrubbing-with-a-smile-on-your-face” type love. Or more simply, and more accurately, a crucifixion type love. Let a crucifixion type love be what leads them to step outside of their comfort zone, to work despite fatigue, frustration, self-doubt or uncertainty, to smile and show kindness even when smiles and kindness haven’t been earned and to bring the lessons learned home to our parish so that we may be inspired to do likewise. This is the lived faith the whole world desperately needs to see.
I prefer to do obvious chores. I’m guilty of doing the most noticeable housework first. Empty the sink, clear out the dishwasher, do the laundry. I even leave folded clothes out on the bed so Katie knows how wonderful I am. (Because what’s the point of putting the clothes away? Then no one will notice you did laundry. Duh.) I don’t sweep unless the floor is crunchy and I don’t vacuum unless the rug is visibly dirty. I certainly don’t dust. Where’s the reward in that? And I find I’m not alone in my need be doing and doing in a visible way.
Every year, when dozens of our teens go on a summer mission trip, they have the opportunity to select the work site they want to be at all week. Without fail people are drawn to the home where the work is more visible (construction or painting) and the family circumstances are most dire. I remember one year where this became almost a competition between work teams (“Today we framed three walls for our host Tony who has diabetes, heart disease, gout, his kids don’t talk to him, he’s super poor, he has terrible halitosis…”). We reinforce this as a society with a great focus on “doing” at all times. Especially in ways that are measurable. Think, in this Year of Mercy, how much attention we pay to the corporal works of mercy and how little attention is given to the spiritual works of mercy. We give awards of recognition, require service hours and do write ups in the Milton Times for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless. I wonder if any high school student has ever turned in a service hours form for 10 hours of “bearing wrongs patiently.”
This brings me to this Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 10:38-42). In it we see Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, and Martha, burdened with much serving. Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong. What she was doing was very good. She was serving her family and her guest, who happened to be her Lord. It’s not that Martha was wrong and Mary was right. What Martha did was good, but what Mary did was better. It was the only thing that needed to be done.
The message for us is to choose the better part like Mary did. What I want is to be doing. I want to do a work that is a visible accomplishment. And not even so I can receive credit or boast—I want to look at what I did and know I did something. But that isn’t the better part. That isn’t what Jesus knows I need. He wants me to come to Him and simply be in His presence. To sit at His feet, under His loving gaze. To pray, to be healed in Reconciliation and receive Him in the Eucharist. There are no awards and there is no sense of accomplishment. There is so much more—there is grace and the unconditional love of God that strengthens all of our efforts; there is mercy and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. I firmly believe that Mary, after spending time at the Master’s feet, went out and was able to do the works of Martha better than Martha ever could.
Recognize this picture? If you’re unfamiliar with the Saint Mary of the Hills upper church, this is the side altar dedicated to the Blessed Mother. She’s currently missing (not to worry, the statue has been taken for repairs). I was standing here with Caleb during the 10:15 Mass this past week and my eye kept being drawn to this empty space. The “Marylessness” of the side altar—it got me thinking about my life as a Catholic before I discovered true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2014. The spiritual “before” and “after” photos would be jaw dropping if you could photograph such a thing. I could talk about her without end, but I won’t. I hope to share a simple and practical rationale and method for starting a devotion to Mary.
Why devotion to Mary? I can think of a number of great reasons:
- Jesus gave His own Blessed Mother as our mother from the cross (John 19:26-27)
- She is the perfect disciple and evangelizer. If our job is to bear Christ into the world then who better to show us the way than the one who did it first.
- Mary makes personal holiness easier. If I stand at the foot of the cross alone it can seem impossible, almost unimaginable, to love as Christ loves. But when I realize Mother Mary is there, holding my hand, it becomes attainable. And I don’t have to reinvent the wheel in becoming a saint. I can simply follow her model of submitting to God’s will and doing whatever Jesus commands. (Luke 1:38 and John 2:5)
You can start easily by praying with Mary to her Son Jesus. There are a number of traditions for this. You could intersperse your day with Marian prayers such as the Hail Mary, the Magnificat, and the Memorare. Of course there is also praying the Rosary daily, which is such a great blessing if you can find time. I’ve found some useful tips to make a daily Rosary possible:
- Do it first thing. I try to begin my prayer before I even have my socks on. Ok, that’s a lie. I sleep with socks on. But placing time in prayer at the beginning of the day makes it less likely that it will get pushed off the day’s to do list.
- Start small. If a full five decades is too much try just one. Use a recording to get you in the habit. There are a number of great ones out there. I like Gretchen Harris’
- Don’t do something else (like driving, housework, working out) while praying, but feel free to pray while doing something else (like driving, housework, working out). Very often my morning Rosary coincides with emptying the dishwasher. I’ve hiked and run with the Rosary. There’s even a DVD series of yoga and (Pontius?) pilates type movements to accompany the Rosary called Soul Core. The key difference is mindset. Am I allowing activity to become a distraction to my prayer vs. am I offering up the activity to God through prayer.
End Marylessness* and make praying the Rosary an important part of your prayer life this summer! I hope that you are blessed by this devotion as much as I have been.
* I’m pretty sure I invented a new theological term here
Depending upon my mood when you ask me, Braveheart is my favorite movie (or Shawshank Redemption or Glory). The movie reaches its climax when the protagonist, Scottish rebel William Wallace, is being tortured in the public square for treason. He indicates to the executioner that he wants to speak and renounce his treasonous actions and ask for mercy. Instead, he cries out one word: “Freedom!” It is a remarkably moving scene. It’s almost enough to make one wish they were a Scotsman (almost). Freedom is a powerful idea that so many have fought and died for. With our Independence Day coming up we will certainly hear a lot about freedom. Whether the wars waged for independence were just wars is up for debate, but the power of freedom to stir many to make the ultimate sacrifice is unquestionable.
So what does freedom mean in the context of our Catholic faith? The dictionary definition of freedom is “the right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” I think Catholics need to reject this definition as false. To have rights without responsibility is license, not freedom, and it is beneath the dignity of a human person. Consider someone who struggles with an addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or pornography. They could be provided with unlimited access to the object of their vice “without hindrance or restraint” but this would hardly qualify as freedom in any true sense. If anything it’s an example of slavery to a disordered will. Or, think of a factory owner who pollutes water with all kinds of toxins without government regulation to restrain them. Are they exercising the sort of freedom that inspires so many people? I tend to think not. But this popular notion of freedom—being allowed to do whatever we want—seems to be the dominant view in our society and we suffer for it.
As fallen humanity we can’t be free by doing whatever we will because our wills are corrupted. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) And we can’t be free by doing the will of other mere human beings because the corruption of the will affects all of us “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That means everyone, even the very best of us. Then how can we be free?
This Sunday’s second reading challenges our idea of what it means to be free and helps us to understand the truth about freedom. Saint Paul tells us that it was “for freedom” that Christ set us free. What is the freedom that Christ brings us to? Service in love to one another. True freedom is life as a disciple of Jesus Christ and only by sitting at His feet can we possibly be free. It might seem counterintuitive that surrendering our will to another person frees us, but Jesus isn’t just any person. He made us and knows the deepest desires of our hearts. He is the Divine Physician who heals our disordered passions and gives us the freedom to which we were called. The only way to truly declare our independence is to declare complete dependence on Jesus Christ.
“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
-Saint John Paul the Great