Monday, September 30, 2013

Jerome and Therese: the Vocation to Holiness

I'm a big fan of fall. The trees change color, the weather gets cooler and crisper, and football season returns, albeit with sometimes unhappy results. (Am I right, Hog fans?)

In the liturgical year, I find that fall also brings the feast days of many of my favorite saints, including St. Francis of Assisi (October 4), the North American Martyrs (October 19), St. Albert the Great (November 15), and St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30). Two of the most interesting saints of this season have their feast days back to back: St. Jerome on September 30 and St. Therese of the Child Jesus on October 1. I always find it fascinating that these two saints are found next to each other on the calendar, because you probably could not find two saints who were more different.

 Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing (c. 1605)

St. Jerome was a 4th century scholar and priest, known principally to the wider world for his masterful translation of the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament into Latin, which we call the Vulgate. He's the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars and students. Disillusioned by the opulence and temptations of Rome, he became a hermit and lived in a cave in Bethlehem near where Christ was born. He was also a bit of a curmudgeon, know for his brusque temperament and famous arguments with leading contemporaries of his day, including other saints. His wrote extensively, commenting on the Scriptures and warning of the dangers of the modern world (i.e. in the 4th century), and is honored as both a Church Father and a Doctor of the Church.

St. Therese, in contrast, was a young woman from rural France who lived, to eyes of the world, a fairly unremarkable life. At 15, she entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux and served her community in various capacities. At 24, she died of tuberculosis. However, the plainness of Therese's external life concealed the amazing richness of a deep interior spirituality. Her desire to love profoundly, especially through sacrifice and simplicity of life, gave rise to "the little way" of holiness, which has inspired millions. She is arguably the most popular saint of the last two centuries, and in 1997, was named only the 33rd Doctor of the Church.

Photograph of Therese in the summer of 1896

What can we learn from these two great saints? They were very different in nearly every way, except one: they chose to prefer the love of Christ to everything else. The proximity of the feast days of Jerome and Therese on the Church's calendar reminds us that there is not just one way to holiness. Whether scholarly or simplistic, passionate or mystical, curmudgeonly or compassionate, all of us without exception are called to holiness. This necessarily entails suffering, because through suffering, we are able to be purified of what keeps us far from God, and so grow closer to him. Jerome and Therese both suffered greatly in their lives, in very different ways; but rather shirk from these sufferings, they saw them as the primary way they were being prepared for heaven.

The vastly different lives of Jerome and Therese remind us that the Body of Christ has room for every kind of background, personality, and talent, if we use them for a singular purpose: to glorify God and love our fellow man. I have had the fortune to visit both the small town in France where Therese is interred and the cave in Bethlehem where Jerome wrote. I continue to draw great inspiration from both of them, and I ask them for their intercession to help me to live a life of holiness. We are all called to holiness: something that is never outdated, never impossible, and -- true enough -- never easy. But it is what our Lord calls us to, and it is very much worth it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Greatness of the Cross

The Cross as the Tree of Life (detail of the Apse of the Basilica of Saint Clement, Rome)

Many people who do not share our faith in Jesus marvel at how Christians honor the cross. Why, they think, would we honor such a terrible reminder of our history? The cross is a symbol of that horrific means of execution used for both Jesus and countless others. Some modern comedians have even made jokes to this effect: Surely Jesus is not pleased that his followers honor him with the very thing used to put him to death?

St. Andrew of Crete provides us with the answer to these kinds of questions in a sermon used in today's Office of Readings. On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, as he explains, we remember that Jesus knowingly and willingly accepted the cross not just as his means of death but as our way to eternal life. With him, and with Christians throughout history, let us say, "Hail to the Cross, our only hope ... grant increase of grace to believers, and remove the sins of the guilty."

We are celebrating the feast of the cross which drove away darkness and brought in the light. As we keep this feast, we are lifted up with the crucified Christ, leaving behind us earth and sin so that we may gain the things above. So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that he who wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.
Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross,life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, There would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.
Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable. It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation - very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory. The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world.
The cross is called Christ’s glory; it is saluted as his his triumph. We recognize it as the cup he longed to drink and the climax of the sufferings he endured for our sake. As to the cross being Christ’s glory, listen to his words: Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified, and God will glorify him at once. And again: Father, glorify me with the glory I had with you before the world came to be. And once more: “Father, glorify your name”. Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it and will glorify it again”. Here he speaks of the glory that would accrue to him through the cross. And if you would understand that the cross is Christ’s triumph, hear what he himself also said: When I am lifted up, then I will draw all men to myself. Now you can see that the cross is Christ’s glory and triumph.
- St. Andrew of Crete (Oratio 10 in Exaltatione sanctae crucis: PG 97, 1018-1019, 1022-23)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day Messages

Trussing Hay (1850), Jean-François Millet

There are few things in our lives as Catholics that are not colored by our faith in Christ. Indeed, one could argue that the whole idea of faith, as a theological virtue, is that it helps us see everything in a different way than the person without faith.

One example of this that we sometimes overlook is the value of human work. On this Labor Day, when much of our country is just glad to get some time off, the Church also encourages us to reflect upon what significance and meaning our work has. Yes, work can at times be burdensome or boring, but the very act of work itself reflects our dignity as creatures of God. Those who are out of work, or who could use more work, know how vital work is for our self-fulfillment as individuals. By giving us the ability to work, God enables us to continue the perfection of his work, creation. Through our labors, we can work for peace and justice and strive to build the kingdom of God for the world as a whole and for every individual. This is especially true when we consider our work as broader than simply a job or means of employment but as all of the things we spend our time doing.

As disciples of Christ, our work can also have a salvific quality. By accepting our labors as a participation in the labors (and, at times, sufferings) of Christ, and living them out in prophetic witness to the Good News we have received, work can be a way to greater holiness. Work becomes not just what we do, but part of who we are, part of the mission God has given to each of us. St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei and 20th century saint, wrote often about this idea. For your reflection on this Labor Day, here are some passages from his book Furrow which might be helpful for you. Happy Labor Day, everyone!

For those who think their work is too humble and not prestigious enough:  
"Before God, no occupation is in itself great or small. Everything gains the value of the Love with which it is done" (Furrow, 487).
For those working in the home: 
"You are writing to me in the kitchen, by the stove. . . . By your side, your younger sister--the last one to discover the divine folly of living her Christian vocation to the full--is peeling potatoes. To all appearances--you think--her work is the same as before. And yet, what a difference there is! It is true: before she only peeled potatoes, now, she is sanctifying herself peeling potatoes" (498; original italics). 
For those who need a push:  
"Obstacles? Sometimes they may be present, but at times you just invent them out of cowardice or love of comfort. How cleverly the devil makes those excuses for not working look plausible! He knows full well that sloth is the mother of all vices" (505). 
"You are put off by difficulties, and you shrink back. Do you know what characterizes your behavior? Nothing but comfort, comfort, and more comfort. You had said that you were ready to wear yourself out, unstintingly, yet you still seem to be at the level of an apprentice to heroism. It is time to act with more maturity" (521). 
For those of us taking time off this weekend:  
"Rest means recuperation: to gain strength, form ideals, and make plans. In other words it means a change of occupation, so that you can come back later with a new impetus to your daily job" (514, in part). 
For students: 
"It is easier to bustle about than to study, but it is also less effective" (524). 
"If you know that study is apostolate, but limit yourself to studying just enough to get by, it is clear that your interior life is going badly" (525). 
"One has to study--to gain the world and conquer it for God. Then we can raise the level of our efforts: we can try to turn the work we do into an encounter with the Lord and the foundation to support those who will follow our way in the future. In this way, study will become prayer" (526, in part).