Monday, August 27, 2012

Putting Faith First in the Family

What a sad story.  People who walked and talked with Jesus turned away from him when he offered them the greatest gift of all—his flesh and blood.  They couldn’t accept what he wanted to give.

It’s not our story.  If we thought the Eucharist sounded suspiciously like cannibalism, we wouldn’t be at Mass this morning.  We’d be happily reading the Sunday paper and shaking our heads as the oddball neighbours headed off to church.

Our problem is different.  We accept what Jesus says, but we do not always give it the first place in our lives.

Let me give you an example of what it means to put faith in first place. In my first parish there was an elderly widow at Mass each morning, Mrs. Schmidt. One day the pastor pointed her out, and said “there is a woman of the deepest faith.”  When I asked why, he told me that when her husband collapsed in their kitchen, she knelt beside him and said “Hans, make an act of contrition to the good Lord” before she called 911. Her concern for his immortal soul came ahead of her concern for his mortal body.

Even as I tell the story, I wonder what I would have said had I been the husband—something like, “will you just hurry up and call the ambulance!”

But this was a woman who understood the bottom line of St. Paul’s teaching on marriage that we’ve heard this morning. Marriage is essentially a spiritual project, and job number one is the salvation of both spouses, each helping the other.

And of course when the marriage produces children, another vocation comes into being—the salvation of the children. I will never forget the example of my friend Leone Young: faced with the terminal illnesses of two of her adult sons, she showed more concern for their spiritual welfare than their physical health.  She accepted their eventual deaths because she was serene in knowing they were strong in the Lord.

We might ask whether we are as concerned for the soul of our children as we are for their success in the world.  I heard a psychologist on the radio say that his number one technique is convincing parents to junk half the stuff their kids are doing.  Just this week a friend told me about a summer camp her son had attended.  It was one of these specialized “computer camps.”  The big selling point was the words “No recreation”!  They were promising that it would be all business.

Again, do we realize—in practice, not in theory—that the spiritual welfare of our children, even adult children, is more important than their success in school or in sports or in business?  Are we as dismayed when children lose the faith as we are when they lose a job?

This week we celebrate the feast days of a mother and son who are two of the most fascinating people in history—and two of the most fascinating people in heaven. Their names are Monica and Augustine.  Monica’s feast is tomorrow, Augustine’s is on Tuesday—notice that the mother comes first!

The son is one of the towering figures of Christian history, one of the greatest minds the Church has ever seen. His writings have shaped theology to this very day and his autobiography is one of the classics of world literature. The story of his conversion from lust-filled paganism is one of the most gripping stories ever told.

The mother, by contrast, is just a minor footnote to Christian history.  She wrote nothing that we know of, and the few words of hers we have came from Augustine’s pen.

Except for this: the son would never have become a saint but for the mother.

How do we know this?  First because he tells us so.  He says Monica “brought me forth from her flesh to birth in this in this temporal light, and from her heart to birth in light eternal.”

Augustine’s most famous lines still echo sixteen hundred years after they were written: “Late have I loved you, beauty ever-ancient, ever new.  Late have I loved you.” But late though he was in turning to God his Saviour, it would not have happened at all if Monica had not loved him… and loved him in a way that put his spiritual welfare first.

Because nothing but the power of prayer can explain Augustine’s journey, first from pagan philosopher, then to Christian thinker, next from a believer ensnared by his own flesh, and finally to the freedom of surrender to God’s will.  He was the toughest of tough cases.  But through it all his mother prayed and prayed and prayed some more, even when he seemed beyond reach.

Monica thus becomes a model and an intercessor, and a source of lasting hope, for the countless Catholic parents who are stunned at their adult children leaving the faith.  No so-called lapsed Catholic has had a journey back half the length of Augustine’s, and no grieving parent should ever stop praying for their children who have turned away from Christ.

Augustine himself reminds us that his mother needed not only faith but patience: “she expected to see me washed in the saving waters of baptism… and she rejoiced that her prayers were beginning to be answered and your promises with regard to my faith fulfilled.”

But we would not grasp the exquisite beauty of the relationship between Augustine’s faith and Monica’s love if we stopped there.  For once he was baptized, they strengthened one another by sharing faith.

His account of their final days together describes a meeting of hearts in spiritual conversation.  In he put it, “our talk that day seemed to make the world with all its charms grow cheap.”
Thus Augustine and Monica remind us how important it is that families share faith, that they talk about holy things.

Long before that mystical conversation, the mother was free in speaking about her own spiritual and moral struggles.  Augustine learned directly from her about his mother’s early problem with alcohol, and learned that it was God who cured her from what he called “that sly sickness.”  It’s a wonderful example of how parents—at an appropriate time—can teach their adult children by sharing their own stories, honestly acknowledging their difficulties.

Monica’s clear sense of her life’s mission strengthened her to the end.  As she lay dying at Ostia, she said “I find pleasure no longer in anything this life holds,” she said. One thing only kept me here—to see you a Catholic Christian before I died.  And this my God has granted to me more lavishly than I could ever have hoped… What now keeps me here?”

Her final words should also instruct children in the lasting duty they owe parents who have gone before them in faith.  When Augustine’s brother said that they would not bury her in a foreign country—she was from North Africa, not Rome—she replied “What nonsense: lay this body anywhere. One thing only I ask you: that wherever you are, you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”  Prayer for deceased parents is an obligation that no child, however old, should forget.

It’s not easy living on earth with one eye always on heaven. But that’s just what Jesus asks us to do, strengthened by the heavenly gift of his Body and Blood.  It’s not easy to put spiritual success—another word for salvation—ahead of every other accomplishment.

But anything else is illogical, if we believe. Where else can we place our lasting hope?  “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.” Let’s make Peter’s reply our own.  Let’s not only accept Christ’s words, let’s make them the source of our number one mission on earth—working for our salvation, and the salvation of those we love.

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