By Fr. Glenn Jones:
Well, now … Lent is halfway over. How we doing with those Lenten (or New Year’s, for that matter) resolutions, hmmm? Now, you know those things take effort and may have a periodic failure of weakness, so don’t give up. And if you have a “whoops”, be like a boxer and get right back up! Sadly, we tend to be like water, seeking the lowest energy level, and become spiritual couch potatoes if we aren’t careful and continually strive to better ourselves. Not just in prayer, but in those active works of service and charity needs that surround us every day.
This came to mind in the Sunday reading from St. Paul to the Ephesians, to whom (and to us) Paul writes: “…we are [God’s\ handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
We might think about those words a bit more closely, especially during a season like Lent. Certainly one aspect of those “good works” is in our being recipients of the gifts of life that we have: life itself, our friends and relatives, sustenance, etc. But also we might think of how God puts opportunities in our path for the increase of charity and holiness—the “good works” of myriad opportunities for us to DO good works. In doing such, do we not in small measure imitate God Himself in His mercy and goodness? God has given us so much; do we, then, not have that obligation to “pay if forward”, as the saying goes? Beholding how Jesus Himself gave up His life for others in a torturous death, are we so smug as to expect that we have received all of the things we’ve been given for our own edification and pleasure alone? Is intelligence, wealth, ability, etc., given to us so that we might simply be mired in pride of being “better” than others?
We have that very unfortunate tendency to want to accumulate ever more … no matter how much we already have. “But … I might need it!” we hear. Well … some people already need it … often desperately. So it becomes incumbent on us to share that which we receive. As has often been said: “We lose what we keep; we have [and multiply] what we give away.” Or, sometimes we might hear the defense: “But it takes money to make money, and I’m trying to make MORE money for the poor!” Well, we hope that remains your intention … especially when coils of vanity and materialism begin to wrap around your pride to tempt you spend huge wads of cash on yourself. Yet, if our concern is truly for the poor, how better to influence others to charity than to live charity ourselves … to enlist others’ efforts for the poor via our own example. Paraphrasing St. Paul, sometimes the worst preventative of leading others to Christ is the behavior of some Christians. Ouch!
In our clergy prayers this last week, we had some beautiful reading from early Christian writers. Tertullian says of prayer, though it is readily applied to charity as well: “We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works.” And from St. Peter Chrysologus: “If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery…Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”
Of course, in these exhortations the authors are echoing Jesus Himself, who expounds on the need for charity in many, many places in the Gospel. Jesus teaches what St. Peter Chrysologus later echoed, that “the measure you give is the measure you get back”, and in the arena of forgiveness: “If you forgive others’ offenses, then your Heavenly Father will forgive your offenses.” If you will not, He may not. Think about THAT when nursing that years-old grudge!
And so … if we’ve had a slow start in the self-improvement category this Lent … let’s get hoppin’! After all, God told the Israelites “Be holy, for I am holy”, which Jesus echoes later: “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Yikes! … a tall order. But … ever moving forward … ever striving … ever desiring sincerely for that holiness is the partial path to goodness in oneself … aided always by the grace of God.
The monk Thomas a’Kempis wrote that if we were to cleanse ourselves of one sin or vice each year, we would soon be perfect. Easier said than done, yes … but certainly within the ability of all. We simply have to tap into the self-discipline that God’s grace instills within us.
I recently read of a Navy SEAL’s “40% Rule”, in which he believes that, when we feel exhausted, we’ve really only used up 40% of our energy reserve, and still have 60% “in the tank” to keep on going; we just have to be determined enough and tap into that hidden reserve. But … in striving for goodness and holiness, we use little more than a drop of our strength available. Through prayer, fasting, charity and determination, we are able to tap into that limitless ocean of God’s grace to keep us moving through thick and thin.
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.