Sunday, February 19, 2017

Holiness and The Way of Perfection

St. Teresa Avila (1515-1582)
(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 18 & 19, 2017 at Holy Apostles Church in Cranston, R.I.  See Matthew 5:38-48)

Our Lord, in the Gospel this weekend, introduces us to the “way of perfection.”  He challenges us to, “Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  I think we could all agree that what Christ is asking of us here is a bit . . . well . . . daunting!  In the face of opposition, Jesus instructs us to “offer no resistance to one who is evil” and “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well” (Matthew 5:39).  Jesus challenges us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).  Such a radically different way of life for us as Christians, this “way of perfection” is daunting indeed, perhaps even overwhelming.  

We need only think about the anger and frustration that so many people experience today when it comes to politics and the things we see happening on the evening news each day.  We all know people, in or families or among our friends, that find themselves frequently embroiled in confrontations about the latest political controversies.  Similarly, many of us know what it is like to sit behind the wheel and become a very different person, filled with frustration and anger towards those we share (or refuse to share!) the road with; on the highway, perhaps we travel very far from the “way of perfection.”  And how many of us have been harmed by the words or actions of others, and find it difficult to forgive and to let go?  How, then, are we to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the way we sometimes experience the challenges of everyday life?

Some would say that Jesus’ teachings this weekend are simply hyperbole, like when Christ says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).  Obviously, Jesus is not advocating that we literally mutilate our bodies; He is simply emphasizing the essential need for us to break free of sin at any cost so that we can gain eternal life.  While we may wish to consider the call to perfection in a similar vein, the lives of the saints teach us differently.

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, reflecting on this Gospel passage back in the 1940s and 1950s, insists on a literal interpretation applicable to us all:

Your duty is to sanctify yourself. Yes, even you. Who thinks that this task is only for priests and religious?  To everyone, without exception, our Lord said: 'Be ye perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect.'
—St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, #291

At the time, many people even within the Church were critical of such an interpretation of this “way of perfection.”  Surely God could not be calling bankers, lawyers, laborers, doctors, and all the Catholic lay faithful to such a high standard of sanctity?  Yet in 1964, in the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, the Church taught precisely that:

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life: "Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.  The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace.
—Lumen Gentium, #40

We have the ability to live and love in ways heretofore unimaginable, because the Holy Spirit is living in us.  God dwells in us, allowing us to cooperate in the life of Jesus Christ and to live this awesome message of the Gospel.  We respond to the life of grace that God freely gives us, and so we have the power to answer this universal call to holiness.  

But how?  

Practically speaking, how are we to walk in the “way of perfection” and live effectively the holiness that God calls us to?  One of the greatest saints to ever answer that question is the 16th century mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila.  St. Teresa, precocious at times in her teenage years, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of twenty.  Within a few short years, she was already experiencing the beginning of what the spiritual writers describe as mystical union with God.  By God’s grace she had already advanced to a level of spiritual maturity that would take other saints decades to arrive at.  But then she began to fall away.

The cloister (or enclosure from the outside world) that the monastery was supposed to represent was far from the reality.  On a regular basis, ordinary townspeople would visit the convents throughout Spain and be entertained by the nuns there.  No one was more popular than St. Teresa.  Her biographers describe her personality as irresistible.   She became immersed in the worldly concerns of those around her, and found herself further and further away from God.  At one point in her autobiography she recalls the saints who, at one time, had been the greatest of sinners (she names St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene specifically) and notes how their lives were totally changed once they had met the Lord.  Her own experience was not only different, but even painfully discouraging.  She writes:

There was one thing that left me inconsolable, as I have mentioned, and that was that the Lord called them only once, and they did not turn back and fall again; whereas in my case I had turned back so often that I was worn out from it.
—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Book of Her Life, Ch. 9, #7

St. Teresa describes this time in her life as “extremely burdensome,” because she began to recognize, each time she desired to draw closer to God in prayer, the many faults and failures that had separated her from Him.  She would even go so far as to say that simply being in the presence of God took courage, since she felt that she had, in many ways, betrayed Him:

Though I continued to associate with the world, I had the courage to practice prayer.  I say courage, for I do not know what would require greater courage among all the things there are in the world than to betray the king and know that He knows it and yet never leave His presence.

Though we are always in the presence of God, it seems to me the manner is different for those who practice prayer, for they are aware that He is looking at them.  With others, it can happen that several days pass without their recalling that God sees them.

—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Book of Her Life, Ch. 8, #2

This sense, that God is looking at us, seems very negative at first.  But then the most amazing thing began to happen in her life.  She gradually came to understand that, when God was looking at her, day after day in that place, He was not looking at her in condemnation.  He was not looking at Teresa in anger or frustration, as if to say, “I have given you everything and you have squandered it!”  No.   She sensed that, when God looked at her, day in and day out, He was looking at her with great love.  She began to realize that God was gazing at her in love, and this gaze led her into the depths of a relationship that completely changed and transformed her life.  

Eventually, the nuns in the community with St. Teresa asked for her help, that they might love God the way that she did, to possess that same joy and same passionate fervor in prayer.  They had heard all about the autobiography she had written, out of obedience, and how it had been read by kings, bishops and prominent people all throughout Spain.  But they had never even seen it.  They asked her to write a book especially for them, to teach them how to pray and how to love Christ more completely.  She responded to their request, and the book was eventually entitled, The Way of Perfection.  In that book, Teresa focuses on the gift of prayer that had so captivated her, this gaze of love that transforms the soul within:

I am not asking you now that you think about Him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect.  I am not asking you to do anything more than look at Him.  For who can keep you from turning the eyes of your soul toward this Lord, even if you do so just for a moment if you can’t do more?  You can look at very ugly things; won’t you be able to look at the most beautiful thing imaginable?  Well now, daughters, your Spouse never takes His eyes off you.
—St. Teresa of Avila, 
The Way of Perfection, Ch. 26, #3

God is constantly gazing at us in love, St. Teresa teaches.  When He does, then we should return that gaze and look back at Him with love.  This is the heart of prayer for her, that we should spend this intimate time in silence with the one that we know loves us, growing ever more deeply in friendship with Him each day (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2709).

In conclusion, we come here today perhaps frustrated and even angry with so many of the complexities and difficulties of life; maybe we carry in our hearts the heaviness that comes from the words or actions of others who have hurt us, those we find difficult to forgive.  But certainly, we are not here today alone.  Here in this place, Jesus Christ Himself comes to us on this altar, in His body and blood, soul and divinity.  He will be here, gazing at us in love in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He is here, in the tabernacle, like He is every day and every night, looking at us in love.  And whenever we kneel down, in the silence of our own homes, in the early morning or at the end of a long and difficult day, He is there, looking at us and gazing at us in love.

May we take to heart the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila, and simply look back, in love, at Him.  May we answer this universal call to holiness, this awesome invitation to be men and women of prayer; may we gaze back in love at the one that we know loves us, allowing Him to take us by the hand and lead us, each and every day, in the “way of perfection.”