September 18, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 20, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"Whoever receives one child such as this in my
 name, receiver me; and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me."


(Click here for today’s readings)

In the writings of the classic spiritual teachers, growth in the spiritual life passes through certain stages or “ways.” The “Purgative Way” is that period during which we try, with the help of divine grace, to break away from sin and be purified of past faults. Then comes the “Illuminative Way,” during which we learn as much as we can about God’s working in our lives, about his word, and the sacraments, and seek to discern his will so that we may obey it. Finally there is the “Unitive Way,” characterized by a deep, constant, and effortless experience of our life-giving faith relationship with God.

As you can imagine, this does not happen overnight. It’s hard work. There are many setbacks and obstacles along the way, and one never reaches the point of saying, “There! That’s done,” as though there were, so to speak, no more worlds to conquer.

Precisely because it’s so hard, there is always the temptation to cut corners. One of the most attractive temptations is to eliminate altogether the process of the “Three Ways” and replace it with a much simpler Fourth Way, the “Comparative Way.” This consists in convincing ourselves that all is as it should be, on the grounds that we are better than someone else.

Even apart from the spiritual life this works. I don’t have to be the best at what I do, as long as I can do it better than someone else. Whether it’s academics, or sports, or the arts, or any other field of endeavor, I can always look around and see others getting it all wrong. Conclusion: I’m better than that. With any luck, following the example of the “wicked” in the first reading, we can hope for the downfall of those whose behavior is “obnoxious to us” because it shows up our own faults.

Alternatively, we can demean others’ talents and accomplishments, impugn their integrity, doubt their sincerity. By bringing them down, we lift ourselves up.

The Apostles fell into this trap when they argued about which of them was the greatest, and they were too embarrassed to speak when they realized that Jesus had caught them in the act. Jesus turned it into what is known as a teachable moment. Instead of berating them, he taught them the principle of what is today commonly called “Servant Leadership.” You want to be first? Then put yourself last. This is what James calls the “wisdom from above.” Very counterintuitive.

The “Comparative Way” can’t bring us closer to God. All it can do is distance us from others. In God’s sight there is ultimately little difference between the noblest saint and the vilest sinner—and no true saint would think of any sinner as vile.

So it’s back to the hard work, to being “pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

I wonder, is it really so hard?

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