Of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the hardest one I think — the least pleasant one, certainly — is to admonish the sinner. Maybe it’s better to leave that one to other, holier, people.
And yet, if we are to become the people of mercy Pope Francis asks us to be, if we really want to be “the face of the Father’s mercy,” then we have to enact all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. So get used to the idea of admonishing the sinner, and get cracking. (Echoing a certain presidential candidate, “consider yourself admonished!”)
Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 7:36-49) provides us with two examples of our Lord exercising his divine mercy. The mercy he shows the unnamed woman — not to mention the gratitude and affection he shows her — speaks for itself. But he also shows mercy to Simon the Pharisee. He tactfully and lovingly admonishes him. From this Gospel, and a few other scriptural passages, I’ve deduced how to admonish sinners in four easy steps.
STEP ONE. Admonish yourself first. As our Lord so famously teaches, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:5.)
- Examine your conscience. Go to confession if need be. Before you talk the talk, make sure you walk the walk!
STEP TWO. Only admonish close friends and relatives. Simon had invited Jesus to his house. Our Lord admonishes him in the context of an established relationship. A respectful and maybe even affectionate relationship.
- Don’t make it your business to admonish acquaintances and frenemies. It is love which will give your admonishment authority, so make sure anyone you admonish knows you love them. Consider building up some capital: 9 words of gratitude or encouragement, for every word of admonishment or correction.
STEP THREE. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Our Lord mentions Simon’s neglect of details and mild inhospitality, but only to illustrate a much more important point: do not permit prejudice and self-satisfaction to blind you.
- The minor defects of others can foster gratitude, rather than complaint. To quote St Josemaría Escrivá:
Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’
Admonition is only called for in the case of substantial sins and defects, which are causing real harm.
STEP FOUR. Pray on it. The Gospels give us only small glimpses into our Lord’s prayer life. It’s apparent he would often withdraw from crowds, and even his own disciples, to spend time alone with God. If we propose to imitate the Lord’s public actions (and as disciples we should!), we must also imitate his habit of prayer.
- Spend time alone, or before the Tabernacle, examining your motivation. Why do you propose to admonish this person? Is it borne of charity, or envy? Charity, or vengeance? Charity, or pettiness? If the answer is anything other than charity, ABORT MISSION!!
STEP FIVE. This one’s important! Admonish a person in private. Have you noticed how our Lord prefaces his words to Simon? “Simon, I have something to say to you.” (Lk 7:40) The Gospel doesn’t specify details, but I like to imagine that the conversation that follows is private, and we only know about it because Simon, in his humility, later made public the Lord’s parable and his correction.
- Fraternal correction is always humbling, but it should never be humiliating. Don’t admonish others via Facebook, blog or Twitter! Speak to them one on one.
Here concludes my five easy steps to admonishing sinners. Maybe calling them easy is a bit of a stretch. But anyway, there’s five of them.
Anyone who received the Lenten ashes today will know the supreme irony of that action.
In today’s Gospel, which is the Gospel on every Ash Wednesday, our Lord counsels the very opposite:
When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
Moments later, we dutifully queue up to receive the ashes on our heads. Here we are, beginning a forty day fast not in secret, but with a loud declaration.
I take two lessons from this. The first evokes a great scene at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus is not a predictable teacher whom the disciple can easily pin down. Any Christian who thinks they have figured the Lord out, that they can serve him and please him without much effort, is mistaken.
We won’t find all the answers to life’s questions there in black and white, not even in the Bible. And we can’t reduce the truth and wisdom of our Christian faith to creeds and formulae. To be a faithful disciple, we have to pray. We have to speak to the Lord and constantly learn from him. He has to become an intimate friend. And like all friends, Jesus will often surprise you.
I think wearing ashes on our heads, in direct contradiction to the instructions the Lord has just give us, is a good reminder that Christian discipleship is a constant struggle. We will never follow him perfectly. We’ll never figure him out completely. Aslan is not a tame lion.
The second lesson follows from the first. We’re all hypocrites. We might appear to follow Christ externally, but sometimes internally we’re not following him at all. On Ash Wednesday we invert that. We appear to contradict the Lord’s advice, while interiorly we resolve to worship him and fast and do penance privately. Secretly. Cheerfully.
On Ash Wednesday we assume the appearance of hypocrites. Jesus himself calls us out. And it’s not just appearance. It’s all true. You’re a hypocrite!
It’s good for us to acknowledge the fact — not so that we can glory in it, but so that we know ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. The more we do that, the more dependent we become on grace. We will beg God to convert us, not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
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Whatever your view of Gandhi, he was a man of profound thought who influenced millions. He was once asked about his view of Jesus Christ. His reply is rather devastating:
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
That claim is sadly resonant. We’ve probably all encountered a Christian whose behaviour has challenged our faith in Christ and his Church. Even more certainly, our own behaviour has somewhere, some time, scandalised someone.
I don’t mean scandalised like ‘pass-the-smelling-salts I-think-I-might-faint scandal,’ which is a quaint relic of the past. Skandalon is the Greek work for “stumbling block.” It’s easy to imagine one’s bad temper, or lack of charity, or rank hypocrisy, becoming a stumbling block to another person’s faith in the truth and authority of Jesus Christ. As a young lawyer working in South Africa, Gandhi was scandalised by the racism he observed in men and women who called themselves Christians. Hence his devastating observation.
Pope Francis, it seems to me, invokes this tragedy often, when he rails against modern-day scribes and Pharisees in his daily homilies. I think it must underly his zealous emphasis on the mercy of God. He knows — as we all know — that there are millions and perhaps billions of people who seek a peace the world cannot give, but the scandalous witness of some Christians prevents them from approaching Christ. The pope’s solution, I think, is to preach the mercy of God in season and out of season.
In calling the Year of Mercy, he’s conscripting the rest of the Church to join his effort. Just as the behaviour of Christians can be a stumbling block to faith, so the behaviour of Christians can be a bridge to Christ; a channel of grace. The witness of the saints is proof enough of that.
What if every Christian corresponded with the grace pouring down from Heaven during this Year of Mercy, and became another face of the mercy of the Father; another Christ? This, I think, is the Holy Father’s noble vision for this holy jubilee. Hence his exhortation that we become familiar with the works of mercy, and practice them as often as we can.
I have suggested to my parishioners that conscientiously enacting each of the fourteen works of mercy constitutes a good Lenten discipline. To that end, I have distributed the attached document as an aid. Some of the illustrating examples are very good, and others are trite. But that’s good! It might motivate you to discern better applications proper to your context.
Contemplatio translates as contemplation, but really this is one best left in the Latin.
A good definition of contemplatio is “the mind and the soul suspended in God.” It is knowing Jesus in the most sublime fashion; a preview of the Beatific Vision; a taste of the Heavenly Banquet. I think this is often what beginners imagine prayer to be. A tangible closeness with God. An experience. Something we feel, rather than something we do. But we have no agency in contemplatio. It is absolute grace — a gift from God which many souls receive frequently, and other souls receive very rarely. It is never a measure of holiness or progress in the spiritual life.
For example, take Mother Teresa. At the age of 36, when she was a Loreto sister, then-Sister Teresa received extraordinary graces and consolations which ultimately inspired her to leave the Loreto convent and found the Missionaries of Charity. But once that work had begun, the Lord withdrew from her. By all accounts, for the rest of her life — fifty years, except for a three week respite in 1958 — her prayer was desolate. She confided to her spiritual director that she felt no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart, nor in the eucharist.
Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be a God — please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … How painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, … What do I labour for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then Jesus, you also are not true.
Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, p. 193.
You might recall, when these recollections were first published, that it caused sensation in the secular press, and it caused scandal among some of the faithful. Don’t Mother Teresa’s doubts expose a lack of faith and holiness?
The answer is no. The Lord withdrew his consolations, which meant that Mother Teresa never attained the heights of contemplatio. But still she was faithful to her apostolic work with the poor, and she was faithful to her prayer. Every day, without exception, she practiced lectio and meditatio and oratio. Every day. And she insisted her daughters do the same. The daily rule of life for Missionaries of Charity includes an hour of oratio in the morning, and an hour and three quarters of of lectio, meditatio, and Eucharistic adoration in the afternoon.
So that’s contemplatio. Don’t despair if you have never reached this, even after years of effort. Contemplatio is pure gift; it is never earned, and it is not a measure of holiness. Many of the saints were deprived of it.
Oratio transliterates as “prayer”, but obviously our word “prayer” is a catch all. Lectio and Meditatio and Contemplatio are also forms of prayer.
Oratio is more specifically the heart’s reaching out to God. The heart is the seat of the will. This is where we choose God or ourselves. Where we choose good or evil.
If in lectio we engage with the senses (touching the page, reading the text), and in meditatio we engage with the intellect (asking questions, imagining the scene), in oratio we engage with the will.
Oratio is often called “mental prayer,” but that’s misleading because we’re not talking about thinking at this point. That’s meditatio. I think the best modern translation of oratio is “interior prayer.”
This is where we enter into conversation with our Lord. St Teresa of Avila puts it this way:
“Oratio in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 8,5.
It means applying what we have read and thought and imagined to our present and our future. We might share some thought, or ask for a grace or favour, or make a resolution to act or think some way. (This is naturally what happens, when we’re in the company of anyone we love.)
Because our normal interactions with people we love are incarnate, but in the Lord’s case we’re dealing with someone who is invisible to our senses, I think oratio is the hardest type of prayer. Harder than lectio and meditatio, anyway. But like going to the gym, it gets easier with practice. The senses can be trained to permit the interior silence which facilitates focus on the Lord.
“You will only have to make a sign to show that you wish to enter into recollection and the senses will obey and let themselves be recollected.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 28.
Still, Teresa is adamant that oratio is something we will, not something mystical.
“You must understand that this is not a supernatural state, but depends on our will, and that, by God’s favor, we can enter it of our own accord. . . . For this is not a silence of the faculties; it is an enclosing of the faculties within itself by the soul.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 29.
Don’t find time, make time
That means that we should schedule oratio into the day. It also means that if we scheduled ten minutes, we don’t abandon ship at seven minutes. We have to persevere! My old seminary confrere and well-known priest, Fr Rob Galea, has a good rule. He schedules a very precise 31 minutes of prayer to eliminate the temptation, during a hard slog, to round up 26 or 27 minutes to “half an hour.”
Find somewhere quiet
Ideally, we sit before the tabernacle. But remember, “pray as you can, not as you ought.” Oratio can be done at home — before an icon or holy image. It can be done in the bush or on a mountain top. As long as the place is quiet and lends itself to conversation with God.
If you prefer sitting to kneeling, then sit. If an extreme temperature distracts you, then turn on the heater or air conditioning. Oratio is not the time to mortify the senses. Remember, we need to train ourselves to quieten the senses, so that we can focus our will on God.
Now I can do all this — schedule time, find somewhere quiet, get comfortable — and then conduct a monologue. It’s very easy to think about myself, imagine conversations with other people, and plan my next meal. Hardly a raising up of my heart to God. So St Teresa gives one more word of advice:
BRING A BOOK!
The fuel for oratio, and the greatest protection against monologue, are the previous steps I blogged on: lectio and meditatio.
As Saint Augustine puts it:
“Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.”
Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 7: PL 37, 1086.
Meditatio is the second step in praying with the scriptures. The word is most obviously translated as meditation.
But the popular conception of ‘meditation’ is an Eastern conception which evokes ‘mindfulness’ or some other variation of emptying the mind. St Teresa of Avila warns against such practices:
“Some books advise that as a preparation for hearing what our Lord may say to us we should keep our minds at rest, waiting to see what He will work in our souls. But unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good.”
The Interior Castle, chapter 3
Christian meditatio is almost the direct opposite of Eastern meditation.In meditatio, the mind seeks to understand the mysteries of God. Far from emptying the mind, we engage with our reason and our imagination.
Scriptural meditatio is, I think, rather straightforward and easy for us moderns. It’s not much different to reading a newspaper and thinking about what we’ve read. Analysing it. Contemplating consequences. That’s engaging reason.
Or we can engage the imagination. The most famous proponent of imaginative meditatio is St Ignatius of Loyola. In more recent times, another Spanish saint — a compatriot of St Ignatius and St Teresa — and like them a holy founder, also practiced and encouraged imaginative meditatio. Here is St Josemaría Escriva’s description of meditatio:
“My advice is that, in your prayer, you actually take part in the different scenes of the Gospel, as one more among the people present. First of all, imagine the scene or mystery you have chosen to help you recollect your thoughts and meditate. Next apply your mind, concentrating on the particular aspect of the Master’s life you are considering — his merciful Heart, his humility, his purity, the way he fulfils his Father’s Will. Then tell him what happens to you in these matters, how things are with you, what is going on in your soul. Be attentive, because he may want to point something out to you, and you will experience suggestions deep in your soul, realising certain things and feeling his gentle reprimands.
“Make it a habit to mingle with the characters who appear in the New Testament. Capture the flavour of those moving scenes where the Master performs works that are both divine and human, and tells us, with human and divine touches, the wonderful story of his pardon for us and his enduring Love for his children. Those foretastes of Heaven are renewed today, for the Gospel is always true: we can feel, we can sense, we can even say we touch God’s protection with our own hands; a protection that grows stronger as long as we keep advancing despite our stumbles, as long as we begin again and again, for this is what interior life is about, living with our hope placed in God.”
Friends of God, 253, 216
Whether you’re more analytical or more imaginative, I think meditatio is very attractive and easy way for us to pray. It leads directly into the third step, oratio, but that’s a post for another day.