Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Dysfunctional Family (22nd Sunday, Year B)

Today we’re going to talk about a very dysfunctional family.

The mother became alcoholic in her teens. Although she found sobriety through her faith, she was something of an ‘enabler,’ putting up with pretty outrageous behavior from her husband, who had a serious anger management problem.

The eldest son was brilliant, but lazy and self-indulgent. He was wild even as a teenager, and developed a sexual addiction, fathered a child outside of marriage, and was drawn to a cult.

Doesn’t it sound like great material for a reality show?

But unlike some of those shows, there’s a happy ending. Through all these trials, the mother grew closer and closer to God. She prayed intensely—and constantly—for her husband and son. She could be seen weeping in church as she pleaded with God for the graces needed to save her family.

God heard her prayers, but not for many years. Her unfaithful husband became a Catholic just before he died. And her son overcame his sins, began to pray, and eventually received the grace of a vocation to the priesthood.

Despite the very personal details of the story, I’m not violating any confidences if I tell you the mother’s name. It was Monica. And her son was Saint Augustine.

We celebrated the feast of St. Monica on Thursday, and that of her son on Friday. But, believe it or not, that isn’t why I’ve told this story.

It was our gospel today that made me think about St. Monica. We’ve just heard Jesus quote these words, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Compare that to what Augustine wrote about his mother: “You could feel God’s presence in her heart and her holy conversation gave rich proof of it.”

You could feel God’s presence in her heart. Isn’t this just the opposite of what Jesus is saying in the gospel today? Monica’s holy conversation was merely the proof—the rich proof—of what was happening in her heart.

The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in talk, in lip-service. They felt that pious talk was more important than pious hearts; rules more important than people.

Our psalm says that those who speak the truth from their heart will live with God. Again we see the same message: all our words, all our prayers, have to flow from our inner selves, or they’re meaningless before God.

These lessons are crucial for us today, when so many parents wonder how to reach their children, when Catholic students wonder how to be faithful in non-Christian environments, when so much contradictory teaching swirls around us.

The message God’s Word gives us today is powerful, but simple. Faith is primarily a matter of doing; talking comes later. That’s perhaps the chief point made in the entire letter of St. James, a part of which we read today. “You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it.”

This has some very practical consequences for us. It means that parents have to come to grips with a mighty challenge—to pass the faith on to their children not so much by what they say as by what they do. This isn’t to say for one single moment that parents don’t have to teach their children; of course they do. But teaching without example—why, that’s lip-service.

For the rest of us, priests included, we must make it possible for others to feel God’s presence in our hearts. We must live so that the force of grace working in us is something people can sense. And then, of course, our words—our holy conversation, as St. Augustine said—have to be the proof of that.

One of my teachers in high school said faith is caught, not taught. He didn’t mean to make light of the important work of teaching religion—he was a religion teacher himself—but to emphasize that we can only properly teach the truths we’ve already taken on board ourselves. Our hearts must be where our words are.

Yesterday’s Vancouver Sun had a fascinating article about a very modern argument: that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. Religion, in this view, is just a set of beliefs, while spirituality is an awakened state. Indeed, to some writers like Eckhart Tolle, religion is oppressive and bad, while what he calls “spirituality” is liberating and good.

This isn’t some unimportant discussion of the meaning of words. Hasn’t anyone said to you lately, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual?” Happens to me all the time.

But the Sun’s religion writer Doug Todd—with whom I often disagree—does a good job in showing why opposing religion and spirituality is false. I won’t get into the subject now, but I mention it because the anti-Christian authors who create this false opposition between religion and spirituality are to some extent doing us a favour. They’re reminding us indirectly of what Jesus tells us today: we can believe in our heads without believing in our hearts.

Or as St. James says elsewhere in his letter, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, faith that does not lead to action is by itself a lifeless thing.

Worse still, when we say one thing and do another, we give fuel to those who distort our faith and blame it for half the world’s problems instead of seeing it as having the answer to them.

All of us, myself more than most, can probably talk about the faith better than we can live it. Jesus doesn’t mean to make us feel guilty because of that. Instead, his tough words today are a challenge and an invitation to put the externals—the words, the rituals and so on—in second place, where they belong. It is the inner person we need to examine each day, the center of the person where motives and morals really live.

St. Monica, as far as history tells us, never once argued or yelled at her pagan husband or son. Instead, Augustine tells us, her virtues were “like so many voices constantly speaking about God”. She even won over a hostile mother-in-law by her constant patience and gentleness.

It’s a lot easier just to preach with words. But Monica’s way is the sure way, not only to win converts for the Lord, but to win salvation for our souls.

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