I had a visit last week with my friend Father Benedict Groeschel, who is the most popular spiritual writer and speaker New York has produced since the days of Fulton J. Sheen. At 78, he has survived a heart attack, a stroke, and being run down by a car. With his cane and grey beard, he looks every inch the wise old man.
When Father Benedict asked how I'd been doing since our last meeting a year ago, I said "I'm doing fine, though I'm not as holy—or as thin—as I'd like to be."
He slowly leaned forward in his chair and replied, "Welcome to the club!"
Few of us, whether saints or sinners, are satisfied with ourselves. We make and break promises to ourselves, we slacken off, we don't feel we're making any progress. It can be disappointing or even frustrating.
Today's first reading can help. Isaiah paints a picture of an arid desert blooming with flowers; then he calls us to forget our spiritual arthritis and to jump with joy. It's a positive and hope-filled vision. But the prophet keeps us guessing—where do we find this strength and energy? What's the source?
I got part of the answer from my friend Heather who was in Palm Desert with her husband while I was shivering back East. She e-mailed me pictures from her holiday: photos of palm trees, swimming pools, and lush and beautiful fairways. It was almost enough to make me want to play golf!
But the background of some of the pictures showed the brown and bare slopes of the San Bernardino mountains—a reminder that every drop of water and every blade of rich green grass came from irrigation. Palm Springs advertises itself with the slogan "Like no place else." The truth is, without massive irrigation, it would literally be "no place."
There's the key to defeating the dryness of our spiritual lives—we need to be watered. My soul is a desert that won't flower unless it's soaked: Soaked by what Isaiah calls the rain of righteousness that pours down from heaven (45:8). His words are used in the entrance antiphon for next Sunday's Mass, the ancient verse Rorate coeli that calls the skies to open so that our Saviour might appear on earth.
It's the exact opposite of self-help. St. James says the farmer needs the early and the late rains to produce his crop. Positive thinking and even hard work will get him nowhere if the rain doesn't fall. So too with us: we need to be watered by God's Spirit if the dry soil of our lives is to be made green and fruitful.
By the way, there's something in this text that youth and the elderly should pay close attention to: St. James says both the early and the late rains are needed—in other words, the fields need water in both the autumn and the spring. We need the outpouring of God's Spirit at every stage of our Christian lives: the very elderly can bloom spiritually with God's help, just as the youngest can produce abundant fruit even at the beginning of their faith journey.
And it's all because God does the work! St. Paul says to the Corinthians: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." (1 Cor. 3:6) We see the same thing in today's Psalm: It is the Lord who keeps faith, it is the Lord who gives food, it is the Lord who sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, and who raises up all who are bowed down. Not me, not you, but God.
So why do we try so hard when God wants to take over?
I suspect it's partly because we're impatient. We want results now. We want to lose ten pounds in ten days—at least I want to! We cram for exams, and we look for quick and easy returns on investments. Yet St. James says "Be patient!" Like farming, spiritual growth does demand work; the lazy farmer is a poor famer. Jesus said as much when he told us that as we sow, so shall we reap. But the rain from heaven is absolutely necessary, and neither the farmer nor the Christian can be successful without it.
Balancing patience, expectant faith, and personal discipline is a great challenge… too much for one homily or one Sunday. Let's focus on expectant faith as we pass the half-way mark of Advent: what could better than to ask God to pour out his Spirit as we prepare for Christmas?
Surely we all know that even our very best efforts can't ransom captives or make the desert into a garden. Only God can do it—and He will do it, if we ask. That's what St. Peter promised on the first Pentecost, using the words the Lord had spoken through the prophet Joel: "I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity" (Acts 2:17).
I'm not suggesting some vague prayer for spiritual progress. We need to ask specifically, individually, and confidently for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Do it after Communion today, or before bed tonight. Do it walking in the rain, or on your knees at night. Or get up half an hour early tomorrow and pray at the kitchen table in the dark. Let's all pray this week for the "living water" that Jesus promised the woman at the well; let's pray for a spring of life within that will irrigate our dry hearts and make them green again.
Perhaps you've never prayed such a big prayer before. Maybe it seems too bold or too much for you. Try it anyway, and see what happens.