Friday, August 1, 2014

A New Birth

The message In this recent homily by Fr. Phil Bloom, pastor at St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church, Monroe, Washington, is that "God allows the flesh to have power so that we will realize our weakness and come to him. The suffering involved in humility is labor pain" and uses the life of Venerable Matt Talbot as an

Life in the Spirit Week 2
(July 13, 2014) 

We are now in the second week of our series on "Life in the Spirit."* Spirit is the aspect of our being that enables us to have a relationship with God and with each other. The Spirit (with a capital "s") refers to the Holy Spirit. As we shall see, even though you and I have a capacity for God (capax Dei), we can realize that potential only in the Holy Spirit.

We saw last week that St. Paul makes a distinction between spirit and flesh. "You are not in the flesh," he says, "you are in the spirit." The flesh refers not just to sensual pleasure, but the whole downward pull of our human nature. For example, one of the ugliest sins of the flesh is envy. Envy doesn't seek sensual pleasure. Envy wants to cut other people down. I will address envy later in this series. For now, please fix in your mind that the flesh is not about partying, but about pulling down other people and one's own self.

Paul makes clear that God did not create us with this downward pull. It resulted from our own free choices. God allows the power of the flesh to continue because he respects our freedom, but also so we can learn humility. Humility is the great virtue. An arrogant man stands apart from God - and from others. A humble person acknowledges his need for God and others. To teach humility God allows us to fall. St. Therese of Lisieux said: "We would like never to fall. What an illusion! What does it matter, my Jesus, if I fall at every moment? I come to recognize by it how weak I am and that is gain for me."

We fall, yes, but God does not want us to stay in the mud. He desires to lift us up. As St. Paul writes today, God wants us to have "the glorious freedom of the children of God." That glorious freedom begins with humility and depends on constant humility - acknowledging my need for God and my need for you.

Humility has a price: suffering. I wish we could buy humility at Home Depot or get it by just thinking about it, but it doesn't work that way. Humility costs pain. St. Paul compares it to a woman in labor. A man once told me about the birth of his first child. He and his wife had taken all the childbirth classes and they felt ready. His wife is a brave woman who seldom complains. But he said that he had no idea women suffer so much. But then what joy when they held their newborn child!

So it is with us. We daily experience the labor pain of a new creation - a new birth.

Jesus describes that new birth with the example of a seed. If a seed could speak, it might say, "Please, leave me alone. I am happy in my little shell." A seed can live in its shell indefinitely. Archaeologists discovered a date palm seed when they excavated Herod's Palace in Judea. The seed goes back to Jesus' time and it theoretically could last until doomsday. A human can likewise stay wrapped up in himself for his entire life - and into eternity. That's the "hell" Jesus warns us against.

But you know what happened to that two-thousand-year-old date palm seed? Scientists planted and watered it - and it germinated. God wants to do something similar for you and me. He wants to rescue us from the isolation and sterility of hell. When the seed is immersed in soil and water, it breaks open, receives nourishment and as Jesus say, "produces fruit a hundred, sixty and thirty fold."

The life of Venerable Matt Talbot shows how humility leads to productivity. I spoke about Matt Talbot on Corpus Christi Sunday. When was twelve he got a job helping a wine merchant. He started "sampling the wares" and within a year became addicted. He lost that job, but got another one at a whiskey store. He spent most or all of his wages in pubs. Running up debts, he pawned his possessions including shirts and boots. One evening in 1884 (when he in his early thirties) he was penniless and out of credit. He waited outside a pub hoping his "friends" would invite him to a drink. None did. Matt went home in disgust and announced to his mother that he was "taking the pledge." He went to a priest to make a three month pledge, then six months, which finally extended to forty years. The first days and weeks were the most difficult. He found strength in Mass (daily if possible), prayer and a program of aiding others. He got a job as a hod carrier and worked so diligently that the foreman put him first in line to set the pace for others. With his earnings, he repaid his debt and made restitution for things he had stolen, then quietly began quietly helping the needy. The greatest help was to show them how to recover from addiction - for example to alcohol or gambling. He helped hundreds to find sobriety and a deep relationship with Jesus.

Venerable Matt Talbot shows what God wants of us - to break out of our isolation, our self-enclosure. That requires humility. It means recognizing our need for Him and for each other - the Church, the Body of Christ. If I knew some easy path, I would tell you - and I would take it myself. But humility involves pain. God allows the flesh to have power so that we will realize our weakness and come to him. The suffering involved in humility is labor pain. As St. Paul says, God wants us to "be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God." Amen.