We are journeying on this path through Lent that leads to the Cross and the Resurrection, that leads us to that union with God we call holiness. I thought we’d benefit from a recent article of Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles speaking about Ash Wednesday and Lent.
A Crisis of Meaning: Why I am?
«We are living in times when many people have lost their “why.” They no longer know the answer to basic questions. Why do we get up in the morning? What purpose are we living for?
There is a crisis of meaning that has been spreading slowly over many years across our society. It expresses itself in many unlikely ways—from rising suicide rates to epidemics of drug addiction to the growing numbers of people who say they feel alone and isolated.
This is the sad irony that lies at the heart of our secular, technological society. People are thirsting for God even as our “thought leaders”—politicians and judges, scientists, entertainers, artists and educators—all insist that we can build a progressive and prosperous society by living as if God does not exist and as if the human soul does not desire things that transcend material entertainments.
For me, the question of “why” comes down to a question of “who.” We cannot answer why we are here or what we are living for unless we know who we are and what we are made for.
That is the one answer that our science, technology and politics—all those things in our society that substitute for religion—cannot give.
Of course, God is the great “who” and holiness is the great “why.”
We need to recover this awareness that we are created by the holy and living God and that he creates us to be holy as he is holy and to love as he loves.
And this begins with understanding that holiness is the ordinary measure of what it means to follow Jesus.
In the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s conversion story, he tells of how when he decided to become a Catholic he told a friend, “I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.” His friend responded, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
The point is that holiness, to be a saint, is what God created us for.
This simple, beautiful fact, should be at the center of everything in the Church—our preaching, our Catholic schools and religious education, our work for justice, our sharing of the gospel with our neighbors.
This is the good news that we are called to proclaim in our times—that we are made to be saints. That is the same thing as saying we were made for love.
[Venerable Madeleine Delbrêl, a former atheist who served the poor in mid-20th century Paris] described her conversion as falling in love with the living God. “By reading and reflecting, I found God,” she said. “But by praying, I believed that God found me and that he is a living reality, and that we can love him in the same way we love a person.”
Delbrêl discovered that holiness is our mission—a message we deliver without words, that by our personal holiness we bring others to follow Jesus with us.
This is a discovery all of us need to renew, as we continue to follow Jesus, making our ordinary lives “our place of holiness.”
And let us ask God for the grace to make real progress on our path of holiness during these 40 days of Lent.
Holiness is not our work but God’s work in us. So, this Lent, let us allow him to do his work, by opening our hearts to him through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving —asking him to create in us a new heart, and a new desire to want only what he wants.
May our Blessed Mother Mary go with us and help us to follow the living God with living faith and to know that we are called to be saints.» (Angelus News, “Our Place of Holiness,” February 06, 2018).
Fr. John R. Waiss
Lent is a good time to examine our conscience and discern the vices that draw us away from Christ so we can work on being more like him with virtues.
The Seven Deadly Sins (“Martyrdom”)
“There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him” (Proverbs 6:16). The seven deadly sins (or capital vices) are “works of the flesh”—temptations or habits—that directly lead to the kind of behaviors that “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). The deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Here is a short description of each:
Pride or hubris—the sin of Lucifer—exalts ourselves over God severing our soul from him. It fails to acknowledge God as God and ignores his image and likeness in others—the source of human dignity— shaming others, including victims. Pride seeks to supplant and destroy God, “the complete anti-God state of mind,” according to C.S. Lewis.
Greed makes material possessions the goal of our existence, instead of God. It often leads to stealing, fraud, or abuse of authority. Envy is discontent over another’s good fortune with desires to possess it. It keeps us from seeing God’s generosity towards ourselves and may lead us causing others’ misfortune by ruining their reputation. It can even lead to hatred and murder, as Cain did with Abel.
Lust makes sensual pleasure the object of our desires instead of God. It leads to fornication, adultery, pornography, and other carnal acts. Gluttony is the overindulgence of animal needs to the neglect of our spiritual needs and the needs of others. Wrath is uncontrolled rage that uses fear, hatred, and violence to control others for selfish purposes.
Sloth or acedia fails to respond—with our whole heart, mind, strength, and soul—to God’s love, to his total gift of self. Lack of effort leads to neglect of our work, duties, and charity toward others—loving others as ourselves. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for the good to be lazy.
All the capital sins cause unhappiness. We can look upon the corresponding virtue as a real “martyrdom,” a real dying to self.
We fight pride with humility: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14), like “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Luke 18:13). Humility is a real sacrifice that leads us to serve our God we see in others.
We counter greed with detachment and generosity, using our possessions to serve God and others. Generous almsgiving means dying to our own selfishness, granting us true freedom. Gratitude for all the good things God gives us moves us to trust that everything “works for good with those who love” God (Romans 8:28), including what he has given others. This kills off all envy.
Chastity—purity of love—means dying to sensual attraction of the flesh so as to be able to love with our whole body and soul. Temperance helps us control our desire for food and drink, giving us the freedom to care for our spiritual needs and those of others. Patience enables us to die to ourselves (killing our wrath) by enduring difficulties and hardships so as to seek the good of our love.
Industriousness is the fruit of love, overcoming our tendency toward comfort and laziness in order that good may abound in the world and that the Kingdom of God may prosper.
So, let’s seek to die to ourselves by practicing the virtues, witnessing to Christ with a true martyrdom of love.
Fr. John R. Waiss
This year St. Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Some ask: How can we reconcile the two? One is about beginning forty days of self-denial, fasting, and almsgiving in order to prepare for Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross; the other exalts human love and relationships . Yet the two are linked, as both are about true human love.
Christ’s Passion and Death is about true human love: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his live for his friends,” Jesus said at the Last Supper. Human love entails sacrifice, laying down our lives for the one we love. Ash Wednesday prepares us for that. Accepting the ashes—Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return—reminds us that the only thing that remains at the end of our lives is love… not riches, fame, comfort, popularity, Facebook likes, etc. True human love should move us to go beyond ourselves and to sacrifice ourselves for others out of love; we need to be able to say No to ourselves so as to say Yes to love. Jesus Christ teaches this best.
St. Valentine himself gives us a wonderful example of saying No to himself and Yes to love. This Roman priest opposed the edict of the Emperor Claudias II that prohibited marriages of young people. Claudias thought that young, unmarried men were more daring (or more reckless) in battle and thus made better soldiers, as they were less concerned about dying and leaving behind a wife and family. The Emperor was okay that a young man had multiple partners, but not one exclusive person for whom he could really live or with whom he could form a family… that was bad for the military.
The Christian ideal of an exclusive, lifelong marriage was as novel then as it is today. It even attracted non-Christians to the Faith, as many young people wanted something that would give true meaning to their lives through the Christian ideal of marriage. So—contrary to its intent—Claudias’ edict drove many young couples to marriage even if it meant they had to become Christian. St. Valentine would secretly marry couples within the Church, consecrating their relationship before God. This was a direct violation of the Emperor’s edict, which the Church considered intrinsically unjust and evil.
Eventually, St. Valentine was caught and imprisoned—much like St. John the Baptist for declaring unlawful Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. St. Valentine was held in prison by a guard named Asterius. His blind daughter befriended the Roman priest. At Asterius’ request, St. Valentine prayed for his daughter’s healing and she miraculously regained her sight. Asterius and his family too became Christians.
When St. Valentine was brought before the Emperor Claudias, the priest tried to win over the Emperor and to convert him to Christianity. But in the end, although the Emperor came to admire St. Valentine for his integrity and moral courage, it was just too hard for him to change his ways. Claudias ordered St. Valentine to be beheaded for his witness to the holiness of the vocation of human love—he became a martyr of human love.
Doesn’t this resonate with Ash Wednesday, which prepares us for Christ’s own witness to human love? It should! Because human love and marriage requires suffering, it requires being able to lay down one’s own comforts, preferences, and plans in order to seek the good of a common life-project in marriage and family. That is the kind of love so many people—especially young people—long for. And Ash Wednesday is telling us how to find it!
Let’s use these forty days of sacrifice and prayer, of learning to say No to ourselves, in order to become better lovers… better witnesses to human love… just as St. Valentine did by imitating Christ’s “laying down his life for his friends.”
Fr. John R. Waiss
Last week we considered how our calling to freedom confers human dignity and enables us to love, and to do good or evil. Fr. Fernando Ocariz, the Prelate of Opus Dei, recently wrote a wonderful pastoral letter on freedom:
“In calling each of us into existence, God has made us able to choose and to love the good, and to respond with love to his Love. Nevertheless, our limitation as creatures makes it possible for us to separate ourselves from God. “It is a mystery of divine Wisdom that, when creating man in his image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26-29), God wanted to run the sublime ‘risk’ of human freedom.”*
In fact, at the dawn of history this risk led to the rejection of God’s Love through the original sin. Thus… [human freedom] was weakened, and… inclined towards sin. Afterwards, personal sins weaken human freedom even more, and therefore sin always implies, to a greater or lesser degree, a form of slavery (cf. Romans 6:17, 20). Nevertheless, “man always remains free” (Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, n24). While “his freedom is always fragile” (ibid.), it remains an essential good of each human person and must be protected. God is the first to respect and love it, since he “does not want slaves, but children.”*
… Grace gives rise to a new and higher freedom for which “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1)… I often remind you that we need to put Christ at the center of our lives. To discover the deepest meaning of freedom, we have to contemplate him. We are amazed to see the freedom of a God who, out of pure love, decides to abase himself by taking on flesh like ours. We see this freedom unfold throughout his steps on earth towards the sacrifice of the Cross. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). Human history has never witnessed an act as deeply free as our Lord’s self-giving on the Cross. “He gives himself up to death with the full freedom of Love.”*
… Jesus’ words resound with a clear promise: “Veritas liberabit vos, the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). “How great a truth is this,” St. Josemaría writes, “which opens the way to freedom and gives it meaning throughout our lives… It is the knowledge that we have come from the hands of God, that the Blessed Trinity looks upon us with predilection, that we are children of so wonderful a Father. I ask my Lord to help us decide to take this truth to heart, to dwell upon it day by day; only then will we be acting as free men.”*
Our divine filiation enables our freedom to expand with all the strength that God has bestowed on it. It is not by emancipating ourselves from the Father’s house that we become free, but rather by embracing the reality that we are sons or daughters. “Anyone who does not realize that he is a child of God is unaware of the deepest truth about himself.”* Such a person is unaware of who he is and lives in conflict with himself. How liberating it is, then, to know that God loves us. How liberating is God’s pardon that allows us to return to ourselves and to our true home (cf. Luke 15:17-24). And when we pardon others, we also experience this liberation.
Our faith in God’s love for each one of us (cf. 1 John 4:16) leads us to respond with love. We can love because he has loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10). It fills us with security to know that God’s infinite Love is to be found not only at the origin of our existence but also at every moment in our lives. For God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (Cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11)… Giving love to God and to others is the most proper act of freedom. Love fulfills freedom, it redeems it. Love enables freedom to discover its origin and goal in God’s Love…
Our sense of divine filiation leads, then, to great interior freedom, to deep joy, and to the serene optimism of hope: spe gaudentes (Romans 12:12). Realizing we are God’s children also leads us to love the world, which came forth good from the hands of our Father God. It leads us to face life with the clear awareness that it is possible to do good, to conquer sin, and to bring the world to God» (Fr. Fernando Ocáriz, Pastoral Letter, January 9, 2018, n2-n4. * marks quotes from St. Josemaría).
Fr. John R. Waiss
God created man to be free, putting us into the hands of our own counsel (cf. Sirach 15:14), so that we might freely seek our perfection by loving our creator. As the Second Vatican Council explains:
“Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness… God willed that man ‘of his own accord’ seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint” (Gaudium et Spes 17).
We are “called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13) because only those who are free can love, and only love will make us happy. But we cannot use “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13), to do or say anything we feel like (see CCC 1747). Freedom is the ability to love, to seek the good of our beloved and to unite ourselves to him. The more we truly love the freer we become. Disobedience, infidelity, and all evil leads to “the slavery of sin” (see CCC 1733).
Actions can only be good or evil if they are free. We wouldn’t think of punishing an asteroid for slamming into the earth and killing someone. Nor would we punish a man-eating shark, although we may kill it to prevent future attacks. We punish murderers and hold them responsible because they are free human beings.
“The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end…. Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness…. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 72).
An impulse or reflex reaction is not evil unless the impulse or reflex was freely chosen, as when we deliberately give in to a habit that leads to sin. For example, if we know that drinking leads us to surf the Internet and fall into to compulsive pornography then choosing to drink would be the sin. Likewise, if we know that watching football will lead to angry outbursts and violent reactions, then to turn on the football game would be the sin. Having a sinful dream in the middle of our nighttime sleep is not freely willed and therefore is not a sin.
Freedom, Grace, and Law
We are responsible for our acts to the extent that those actions are voluntary (see CCC 1734). Ignorance (of a child, for example), duress and manipulation, fear and other psychological or social factors can reduce or even eliminate our ability to make free decisions (see CCC 1746). Such factors coerce us into doing what we do not want to do (see Romans 7), thus reduce our responsibility. So to cultivate virtues—habitual acts of doing good—and to overcome ignorance, manipulation, and fear increases our freedom to love and our responsibility to pursue the good of the one we love.
God’s grace also increases our freedom because it gives us an ability to love. Grace is God’s love for us—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The grace of knowing that we are loved enables us to love the Father and the Son in return. This is “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Through the grace of the Holy Spirit working in our life through faith in Jesus Christ helps us to grow in our inner freedom, giving us the strength and confidence to endure periods of trial (see CCC 1742).
God’s law is a gift—a grace—that guides the use of our freedom by directing our actions in ways that lead to union with God and the pursuit of the good of our beloved. That is why Pope St. John Paul II tells us: “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom: rather, it protects and promotes that freedom” (Veritatis Splendor).
Embracing a life of grace, law, and freedom will truly free us to love as God so created us.
Fr. John R. Waiss