02 October 2018

Cynicism and Pride

Guardian Angels
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must “turn and become like children.” Jesus says so. So, are we to smear our faces with candy and apple juice, run through the halls in diapers, drop to the floor in random and inexplicable tantrums, and just otherwise behave like inebriated dwarves? If so, then this business of getting into the Kingdom sounds messy and loud. Of course, this isn't what Jesus is telling us we must do. He is telling us that entry into the Kingdom depends on acquiring a child-like innocence and humility, a wide-eyed, trusting sense of wonder at the gift we have received in eternal life. As adults – long suffering in a fallen world – we are less likely to be innocent and humble and more likely to be cynical and prideful. Cynicism and pride are time-tested defenses against the assaults of the Devil. Or so we might believe. The truth is: cynicism and pride are weapons of the Devil, and one of his triumphs is convincing us that world-weariness and arrogance protect us from disappointment and despair. Jesus counters, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”
Humility is the good habit of living constantly in the knowledge that we are totally dependent on God for all things, including our very existence. Aquinas teaches us that humility provides two benefits: “. . .[first], to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately. . .and [second] to strengthen the mind against despair, [urging] it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason” (ST II-II.161.1). That's a Dominican's way of saying that humility teaches us the limits of our gifts and at the same time exhorts us reach the heights of those limits prudently. If humility restrains and strengthens the mind against immoderate pursuits, then pride shoves us toward foolish ambition and jealousy, encouraging us to reach for gifts we have not been given and grasp at great things we are never meant to have. By asking “who is the greatest among us?” the disciples are laying the ground for ambition – “I can become the greatest!” And for jealousy – “Why is he greater than me?” The foolish part of ambition comes when jealousy tempts us to call Evil Good, and we choose to do Evil so that Good may be done. “If I am shrewd and network just right I can become a bishop and clean up this mess of a diocese.” “If I maneuver myself into becoming a formator, I can make sure MY advisees know the REAL Catholic faith!” “If I play the game wisely and become pastor, I can reshape this parish to MY liking.” The folly of ambition is the tragic misuse of one's gifts to puff up one's ego. Accordingly, it's a ticket to Hell.

To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must “turn and become like children.” We must turn away from pride, cynicism, and foolish ambition. Away from the lie that My Way is The Way and if only others would recognize my worthy genius we would all be better off. Innocence and humility lead to holiness through service. Therefore, the innocent and humble priest leads others to holiness through his service to those who need him most. Who is the greatest among us here at NDS? He is the one who least needs to be known as such.

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30 September 2018

We are not here to get along

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If given the choice between amputating a limb and losing your immortal soul, ask for a bone saw and get busy! Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed than to go into the unquenchable fire of Gehenna with two hands.” Is he being literal, or is he exaggerating? The idea is literal. It is better to go through life without a limb than it is to choose hell for your after-life. But he is also exaggerating; that is, he is not urging us to actually chop off body parts. The point here is that there is nothing worse than living in the here and now without God. . .except, of course, living after death without Him. Since sin is voluntary, the consequences of sin are deliberately chosen. For example, lead a member of God's family into sin and the millstone you will wear to the bottom of the sea is your choice. Does this sound cruel? Unusual? Maybe even a little vindictive? Think about it: by choosing to sin and leading another into sin, you are willfully putting your immortal soul and the soul of another in danger of experiencing first-hand the unquenchable fires of Gehenna. It is far better that Jesus sound somewhat cruel and vindictive than it is for him to soft-pedal the consequences of choosing to live w/o God.

The Good News here is that sin is a choice. Going to Gehenna is a choice. Holiness is a choice. So is the Beatific Vision. Christ on the Cross fulfilled our obligations under the Covenant. And we are free! We are free to receive God's graces. We are free to petition God directly for all that we need. We are free to do good works in His name and for His glory. We are free to find perfection in Christ and – come the end of our days – we are free to enter into His presence and see Him face-to-face. There is nothing stopping you from doing exactly everything you have already vowed to do – except you. When it comes to growing in holiness I am my own worst enemy. And I bet you are yours. We would like to blame our failures on the Devil and the fallen angels. We blame our family members, friends, co-workers, even strangers. But the hard, unyielding truth is this: my sin is my choice. Your sin is your choice. By sinning we are deliberately choosing to deny ourselves the benefits of God's grace and choose instead to “have it our way.” In other words, we are saying to God, “Thanks but no thanks. I've got this. I'll let you know when I need a little help.” And since God loves us and the freedom He won for us through Christ, He honors our choice. He honors our choices even if those choices land us among the burning trash heaps of Gehenna.

James tells us that there is a corrosion in each one of us and among us that will devour our flesh like a fire. He says that this “corrosion will be a testimony against [us].” What is this corrosion? Well, it is many things. It's the love of money and power. Pride crowding out humility. Lust suffocating love. Foolish ambition stepping on humble service. It's jealousy and wrath and deceit. It's everything that Christ is not, everything vile and devious that leads us away from the perfection that God wills for us all. James is specifically castigating the rich who have become rich by cheating the poor. But his admonition to them applies to us as well. When we sin against God's little ones – our brothers and sisters in Christ – we often do so to get an advantage over them, a leg up on them – some way of cheating them out of what is justly theirs. We could think of money or property here. But remember that we can be cheated out of our good name, our reputation. Gossip, detraction, rumor-mongering are all forms of theft and work to corrode the Body of Christ. No earthly treasure gained by lying, cheating, or stealing is worth an eternity w/o God. Better to grow in perfection by witnessing to the truth.

And that's how the Church will survive this century – by witnessing to the truth. We already see the rotten fruit of trying to appease the world, trying to accommodate the Gospel to the spirit of the age. We toned down our talk of sin. We softened our opposition on this or that social issue. We loosened sacramental discipline; blurred doctrines; set “pastoral practice” over against “dogmatic truth.” All in an effort to maintain the fiction that we belong to this world: Look at us! We're just like you! No, we're not. We are not here to get along. We're here to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. And though we are always in this world, we are never of it. We are heirs to the Kingdom of the Father and our end is His banquet table in heaven. While we are here, we bear witness to the truth, choose to grow in holiness, work toward our perfection in Christ, and never tire of giving testimony to His boundless mercy. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church – the Church that bears witness to the truth.

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