Sunday, 24 June 2012

23: “Fortitude” and “Sacred Threshold”

Yesterday I was at Mass, and, in his homily, the priest commented on saint Thomas More. It is always very poignant to see any human being, young or old, going through trials and ordeals with strength. 'Martyrdom' and 'the way to martyrdom' are something fascinating and emotional. Well I speak for myself at least.
Martyrdom is the highest grace one can receive in a lifetime, it is as well the highest rank in holiness. The closest to Christ himself, THE MARTYR par excellence!

Experience, knowledge and discernment tell us that we can see and understand “martyrdom” in a human way, as if it was a matter of personal strength. A bit like an athlete (and the image is used by saint Paul see Acts 20:24; Gal 2:2; Ph 3,12-14; 1st Tim 4:7; 1Tm 4:8; 1stCo 9:24-27) who prepares himself for years and years. Olympics are close now and remind us of the values of “effort”, “perseverance”, “professionalism”, “achievement”, and hopefully the “Gold medal”.

We can read and interpret the Strength we observe in the Martyr as “something of another class”.

Pope John XXIII once said that when he read for the first time saint Thérèse's writings ("The Story of a soul") he felt he was reading not the story of the “little Flower of Lisieux” but the story of “a steel bar”. Her own sister, Céline, the one who became Sister Geneviève, said that the most prominent “virtue” in Thérèse was: “Fortitude” (la Force).

Hummm, that leaves us no better informed.

Saint Teresa of Avila speaks a lot about “determination”. Remember her famous expression “determinada determinación” (determined determination). She mentions how this steel determination is important in order to grow in spiritual life. She even dares to say that the trials the “contemplative” people (read: monks, cloistered nuns) face are infinitely greater than the ones the “active” ones face. Would you believe it? How many times I heard people saying: "ah these nuns, how happy life they lead – the cloistered ones!" "They are always so smiling!" Do they know that these “refined metals” are prepared in a very though “melting pot”?

I do read as well these words of Jesus: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force (Mt 11,12).

What is this "violence"? what is the “Violence” required in order to “enter the kingdom”? A “violence” that will make us cross the threshold of the “kingdom”. I remember as well that there is a “threshold”, a “door”, a “narrow door”: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20) I hope you'll remember that the righteousness of the Pharisees in putting into practice Moses' Law was already impressive and very “athletic”: see how saint Paul describes himself as “Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6), “being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14).

What is this sacred “threshold”?

We need to become like children in order to enter in the “kingdom”; to go through the eye of the needle. Mt 18:13: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

To change, and become like little children, is an adult choice. The most difficult. We don't have toward God the trust and the capacity of abandonment that a child has. We lost it while going through teenage time, and early adulthood. The tough world of adults made us tough. But, in fact, it is a weakness, not a strength. Not being able to make a total act of trust, of abandonment and not being able of entrusting ourselves to God, this is a sign of weakness. Wouldn't you agree?

When Jesus puts clearly, in black and white, the conditions to follow Him, we feel we reach a dead end. Remember the rich young man: (well, if you look carefully, we are all “rich” and “young”, at least “rich” by our desires) Jesus shows him the “threshold”: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Mk 10:21)
What happens to the young man?
“At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” 

It doesn't stop here, what comes after is the most enlightening teaching ever: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”” This is his way to say: it is simply impossible. “The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

difficult” or “impossible”?

At this junction one has to pay great attention. It is not “difficult” to enter the kingdom, it is simply “impossible”. Our last richness we have to sell is our “ego” (being attached to oneself). Can we get rid of this huge mountain? Move it? Remove it? The reaction of the disciples is really a huge light that crosses the whole Gospel, because the threshold, the entrance door, that allows us to enter in the Trinity, is simply crossing the whole Gospel. It is a central matter in Jesus' teaching on “how to enter the kingdom”.
who then (with these conditions) can be saved”, who can enter the kingdom? Who can have that Strength, that Fortitude, these “muscles”, that training that would allow him to enter the kingdom?
I LOVE Jesus' answer: “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

The day we understand that Christianity is not only “an amazing religion” (as Gandhi said it, and many others from other religions who read the Sermon on the Mount for instance), “with very high ideal” (think of: “love your enemy”, “pray for him/her”, and “do them good”), not only “a very difficult religion”, but simply an “impossible religion” to put into practice, then we start to become Christians.

It is simply “impossible” to become Christian, to be Christian! I mean by that: it is impossible for our own forces to live really by the Sermon on the Mount (read Matthew 5-7). Don't dream of that, don't fool yourself. If you say it is “difficult”, then your understanding of “Fortitude”, “the Fortitude of the saints”, “the Fortitude of the Martyrs” is not there yet, you are not getting it. You just see it humanly.

Do we see the conditions to “enter the kingdom” AS they are? Do we give them some “make up”, or “paint brushing”, or “photoshop retouch” in order to adapt them to us, to our aesthetic views or to our understanding? Do we see that they are not only “tough”, “difficult” but mostly and simply: impossible to us, to our own forces? Do we see the difference between : “difficult” and “impossible”?

- “difficult” means: that with “a lot of effort, perseverance, and inner strength” we will get there. “difficult” means as well sometimes, in our popular understanding of holiness that some are “born saints” (some think of that about saints, like P Pio) and others not.

- “impossible” means what? “impossible” means that one needs to let go, one needs to decide, with a virile strength, to rely on God (like a child) and ask for His Holy Spirit: because He wants to give us His Holy Spirit.

Ask you'll receive”. We know that “proverb” very well. These are not just an English Proverb, they are Jesus' words, they open us the Kingdom, they help us, as adults, “become like children”. It looks very simple, “too simple” that we are not used to it. We prefer to pay our own bills, with our own money, earned by the sweat of our own brow. We don't know that “new language” of “asking in order to receive”. It is so alien to us, that it costs us an arm and a leg to get to do it, and to transform it into a new habit. We prefer to deserve what we receive. We are not used to “free things”, not used to “receive freely”, and less to “ask for it”, yes, just “ask for it”. Heaven is right above our head, but is might be closed from years. We can't imagine it that close and in fact: opened, wide opened, waiting for us to just: ask.
Are we decided and determined for the “impossible” religion?
Or, are we still fooling ourselves with a “fantastic religion”... that is really never put into practice? It is not by going to Church every Sunday that we become Catholic, or remain Catholic. So sorry to say that. It requires simply the whole Gospel to be put into practice, it requires the “impossible religion”, the fantastic but impossible “conditions of Christ” to become reality in us. Are we ready for that challenge? Let us just go back to the fundamentals: Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5 through to 7.

One more step

- What is the most difficult task Jesus' disciples had to go through during their lives?
- To follow Jesus in His Passion.
The strong, generous, fervent Peter, the one who was ready to die for Jesus (see John 13), didn't really make it (see John 18). The strongest person on earth in this very tough, dark, dramatic moment is simply a woman: Mary, the mother of Jesus, his first disciple, the New Eve.

Mary, give us your heart, your docile heart, so we can “ask and receive”, so we can be docile to Jesus, to His impossible words. You are the one who believed that all what He says is possible to God, that if Jesus-God says something it is totally possible, by the Holy Spirit, to put it into practice. Mary, show us the Way, transform, with your prayers for us, the “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh”, at the image of yours, you the Archetype of the Disciple, the Mother of the Martyr, Martyr yourself in your Heart. Then, learning to be docile, like you, we'll be filled by the Holy Spirit, the Love of God, and then we'll be able to follow Jesus, as you did, with Fortitude.”

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