The first half of the week has been dedicated to praying over scenes not found in the gospels. A major focus of these prayers has been allowing us to take a good look at ourselves. Such an activity is not always thought of when one things of the Christian life (or the virtuous life in general.) In “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis observes that most people in the modern world would even consider unselfishness to be the highest of all virtues. So why all this focus on the self this week?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that unselfishness can ultimately be nothing more than a means, rather than an end, if it is to be any sort of virtue. If we decide “I will not focus on myself anymore” and do not then turn our focus elsewhere, what exactly is gained? When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses, it is only a means, rather than an end. The rest of the sentence is “…and follow me.” St. Ignatius recognizes this, and so our selfishness is combated in the Exercises not by telling us to neglect ourselves entirely, but by giving us prayers that are never truly about us, even when our dispositions and attitudes are being examined. Our unselfishness is cultivated not with the lie that we are nothing, but with the truth that we are not everything. Knowing this, unselfishness is transformed from something sought for its own sake to something that allows us to respond generously to the Jesus’ call.
Moreover, we have these prayers because God’s call is not generic, but personal. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus does not simply beckon His sheep with an indiscriminate whistle, but that “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn. 10:3). So our prayer is not only about Jesus, but our response to Jesus: where we are, how we can best respond, and what holds us back. Going back to the prayers from this week, look at yourself in the light of Christ, and see how you may respond to God’s call with full generosity.
Grace: To sense more deeply the possibility of renewal and reform in my life and the desire in God’s heart for that renewal in me.
Text for prayer: Lk. 18:18-27
Reflection: Sometimes the most important thing in a passage is what Jesus doesn’t say. Such is the case in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters a rich young man who has lived a pretty good life and is now seeking for that certain something that still seems to elude him. He wants not just to be moral or happy; he wants God. And so he comes to Jesus. Jesus asks him if he has followed several of the Ten Commandments, and the young man says that he has followed each of them from his youth.
But when Jesus lists some of the commandments, he leaves off the first commandment: “You shall have no other god before me.” The rich young man realizes this omission in Jesus’s list of the commandments (and in his own attempts to live them out) and walks away sad, for he is possessed by many things. These possessions might be his high social standing, his wealth, his relationship to his family, or (perhaps most painfully) even his sense of his own righteousness. Whatever the case may be, the rich young man is attached to many things in his current life and is therefore unable to follow after Jesus who is humble, poor, and despised by all.
Grace: For an intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord who chose to be like us in every way except sin.
Text for Prayer: Mt. 3:11-17 Place yourself in the scene.
In a restless world that competes for riches, honors, and pride, a world of cage fighters trying to knock out their opponents while others cheer on, we can find rest and refreshment by the Jordan River.
People line up seeking the cool waters of baptism of John the Baptist, renouncing their sins and resolving to direct all their strivings toward something more than pleasure, success, and good fortune. There is a thirst that only a humble submission to the Divine through sincere repentance can quench.
Jesus arrives on the scene and His exchange with John is refreshingly counter-cultural. There seems to be a competition, but here humility is the game and God’s will is the prize. John has many followers, but without any hesitation, he steps aside for a mightier One’s arrival. Jesus is the Son of God, free from sin, yet He receives the baptism of a sinner for sinners. John’s humility makes him resemble the Son of God, and Christ’s humility unites Him fully with humanity. It’s no surprise that these men are cousins! As John submits to Jesus’ request, Jesus submits to the Father’s request, and He is well pleased (with both of His sons).
Jesus commences His public ministry with a profound act of humility, showing us that no talent, no career, no effort, no fight, and no accomplishment is greater than choosing what God has chosen for us.
“Do not deny your talents or your successes. Rather, thank God that he uses you to do his work, just as an artist uses simple brushes to create a work of art.” –Servant of God, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
Grace: I ask that I may be free enough to choose whatever God’s grace may indicate as his particular call to me.
Reading: John 21:15-19
Reflection: Jesus asked Peter if he loved him three times. Each time, I imagine, Peter became more and more uncomfortable:
“Jesus, of course I love you. We’ve been through so much together.”
“Uh, yes . . . yes, I love you. Jesus.”
“(gulp) You keep asking me, Jesus, and I am afraid that all I can say is ‘yes. I do love you.’”
Experiencing the love of Christ propels us to live as Christ. Jesus commanded Peter to “feed my sheep.” Now as most of us today are not shepherds, St. Ignatius offers us another paradigm by which to grow in the love that comes from the life of Christ: the three degrees of humility. Humility serves as a marker of one who has chosen to model his or her life on the example, teaching, and mission of Jesus. It is a virtue which all of us, no matter in what state of life we may be, should seek to develop. Each of the following three “degrees” of humility are meant not so much to be awards of accomplishment in humility as callings to an ever-deepening sense of humility and alignment with Jesus.
Grace: To choose what is more for the glory of God and the salvation of my soul.
Text: SpEx #149-157
Reflection: The Exercises are fundamentally geared toward helping us make good decisions, to bring us to that point at which we are properly disposed and can choose the same thing that God himself has already chosen for us. This especially applies to the question about our “state of life,” or in more common language our vocation. What is the Lord asking of me? How am I to serve to him in my own life?
We are coming to the point of the retreat when these sorts of questions come into focus. And it would be good to ask yourself: what is the Lord asking me to discern in the context of this retreat? To come to a final “election” (choice) about your state of life, you’ll want to make the full Exercises with an individual director. But in the context of this retreat, you can certainly begin to ask the question in a serious and structured way, reflecting on what the Lord has been saying to you as you have prayed through these Lenten exercises. For those for whom the question of vocation is already settled or seems still on the distant horizon, the Lord may be inviting you to consider how to reform your life. If this seems to be instead what the Lord is asking you to discern, pay attention to that as we continue with the retreat. In either case, there is a decision to be made. (more…)
Grace: To distinguish between the deceitful tactics of the enemy of our human nature and the gentle mastery of Christ our King, and to desire to imitate Christ.
Text for Prayer: Please briefly read Spiritual Exercises 136-147 before reviewing the Reflection below. After reading the Reflection, please review the text from the Exercises, and feel free to repeat this exercise as long as you are drawing fruit from it.
Reflection: What do we mean by the term “standard?” In medieval battle scenes, the two dueling kingdoms would raise their respective standard or banner (flag), representing each kingdom. This was particularly important because in the midst of a heated battle, a soldier would often rely on the positioning of the standard to help gauge if he is amidst his comrades-in-arms or if he has drifted far into the enemy’s camp, with the possibility of having little or no support from his own camp as well as the likelihood of becoming a prisoner of war.
At this point in the Spiritual Exercises, we have consented to desire to know, love and follow Christ more closely. Thus, we are not being called to simply choose Christ’s standard over Satan’s standard, but to remain under Christ’s standard. Everyday we are spiritually in combat. While we seek and desire to follow Christ, we may often drift, as in a canoe or a small boat in the sea, by not recognizing and combating Satan’s current. (more…)
The week began with Christ in a feeding trough. Subsequent meditations defied expectation and presented the life of Christ in an even less glamorous light. Mary is told of the sufferings she will undergo. The Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod. Jesus becomes separated from Mary and Joseph in order to preach in the Temple, bringing them great worry in the process. Jesus grows from a child to a man. These things do not seem particularly glorious or divine. However, they do seem remarkably human.
When we are told to think of God’s presence in the world, most will likely conjure up images of sunsets, children playing, an experience of great art, or something along those lines. But how often do we encounter experiences such as these that blow us away like the man watching a double rainbow? More often, life consists of ordinary tasks that would best be described as “drudgery.” Images of an infant laughing or smiling may delight, but then come the times when the infant cries or has a dirty diaper. In those moments, there is little glamour or glory.
Grace: To grow in an interior knowledge of Christ’s example in Nazareth so as to live my life as he lived his.
Reading: Luke 2:51-52
Reflection: I doubt few Israelites in Jesus’ time were packing the family station wagons and heading up to Nazareth for their annual summer vacation. Most biblical scholars consider Jesus’ Nazareth to have been a boring, unspectacular kind of place. The powerful elite of Jerusalem probably considered it to be, at best, a forgotten roadside town.
Jesus is probably the one and only reason why Nazareth ever made it on the map and in the history books (and that’s a pretty good reason). It was in the quiet little Nazareth town that Jesus began to know his Father face-to-face. In the ordinary days’ routines, day by day, week by week, year by year, he came to a radical relationship with God the Father. Pope Benedict writes about Jesus saying, “He lives before the face of God, not just as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father.” Jesus didn’t become this way in a vacuum, but in the dusty, forgotten village of Nazareth: sleeping under the roof of Mary and Joseph, sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, standing at the lathe carving out a piece of furniture, reading and praying at the local synagogue. And so it was in this little town that Christ the King (like David, Moses and so many of the prophets before him) came from such a humble beginning.
Grace: To have an intimate knowledge of the Lord, to love him more devotedly, and to follow him more whole-heartedly.
Text for Prayer: Lk 2:41-52
Reflection: Today’s passage on the finding of Jesus in the temple might raise some prickly questions for us. When we first read Jesus’s response to his mother’s question of “Son, why have you treated us so?” we might ask whether Jesus is treating his human parents unfairly. How could a mother not worry about a son who is missing for three days? Why couldn’t Jesus have told his parents that he needed to spend time in his Heavenly Father’s house? However, this passage contains some pretty profound insights into Jesus’s identity as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary, and it hopefully helps us to understand our own relationship to God and Mary as well.
The fact that Jesus goes up to the Temple each year for the Feast of Passover shows that he is obedient to the Law of Moses. As a devout Jew, he fulfills the obligations of his religion and subjects himself to its precepts, even though he is the Son of God. The fact that Jesus leaves the temple to go home with his parents shows that he ultimately does subject himself to their discipline. Though God, he humbles himself to be obedient to his human parents and conforms his adolescent life to their will. However, Jesus also says that he “must be in [his] Father’s house.” In this way, Jesus maintains the primacy of his obedience to his Father’s will. While obedient to both Law and mother, Jesus is first and foremost the Son of the Father and the one who will ultimately say, “Thy will be done” on Calvary.
Grace: To have an intimate knowledge of the Lord, to love him more devotedly, and to follow him more whole-heartedly.
Text for Prayer: Mt. 2:13-23
Reflection: Joseph should be the patron saint of all dreamers. He is not only warned in a dream not to abandon his pregnant wife-to-be; he is also warned three different times about the dangers that await him and his family after Jesus’s birth. Joseph is a model for Christians of what it means to discern the movements of the spirit, and his shepherding of his wife and the still infant Christ during this time are a testament to the extent to which God provides for those He loves.
During the nativity we have the examples of the shepherds: the first to arrive at the side of the manger after following the star that they saw rise in the sky. These shepherds—accustomed to watching for changes in the weather and signs in the sky that might foretell coming dangers for their flock—were among the first to greet the newborn Christ, and this fortuitous meeting was surely the great reward of their faithful vigilance.