Father Michael's Number Two Rule for the Interior Life: Never Expect to See the Results of Your Efforts.
Lessons from cycle II of the feria, according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite:
II Thessalonians 3: 6-10, 16-18.
Psalm 128: 1-2, 4-5.
Matthew 23: 27-32.
The Memorial of Saint Monica.
The Twenty-First Wednesday of Ordinary Time.
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10:15 AM 8/27/2014 — Yesterday, we observed the Blessed Apostle Paul throwing some cold water on an argument that had arisen in Thessalonica about the Second Coming of Christ, telling the Thessalonians that they'd do better to simply live the faith the way he taught them to and not bother nitpicking about apocalyptic details that have nothing to do with how they're supposed to be living their lives anyway: when Christ comes again is his affair, not ours; and, as long as we're in the State of Grace, what difference does it make? But in every community there are always nitpickers whose low self-esteem compels them to agitate at every opportunity, getting everyone ginned up about things that no one can do anything about anyway. I even mentioned that, if Paul had written his letter to the Blue Army instead of the Thessalonians, he would tell us to focus on what our Blessed Mother requested of us at Fatima;—Confession, Holy Mass, Rosary, First Saturdays, reparation—if the Mother of God has an issue with what she requested of the Pope, she can take that up with him; it has nothing to do with us. So, I gave you Father Michael's Number One Rule for the Interior Life: mind your own business.
Today's Apostolic lesson is the end of that letter to the Thessalonians, and he concludes it with some rather mundane admonitions about how they need to learn to behave themselves and stop agitating about stupid things that shouldn't concern them. Tomorrow's lesson is the beginning of his First Epistle to the Corinthians; and, since I won't be with you tomorrow, I thought it would be good to pick up on something I mentioned yesterday. Just to review, Paul had dropped off his friend Timothy in Ephesus to be the new bishop there, then continued on into Macedonia where he receives a vision from the Lord asking him to take the Gospel into Greece. He goes to Philippi, to Thessalonica, to Athens; he basically fails in all of these places except for a few converts here and there, and later writes letters to them which are preserved for us in the New Testament, with the exception of Athens, with his activities there being recorded by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. So, he's all depressed and dejected about this when he first sets his eyes on the great city of Corinth; and, I had mentioned that what happened there would be a story for another day; but, since I won't be with you tomorrow, this is another day.
Corinth is a very old city, founded as early as the nineteenth century before Christ. In the days of Socrates it was known as the Doric city, filled with museums and works of art; that is until the Romans stumbled upon it and decided that it just wasn't Roman enough to suit them, so they set about to improve the décor in the only way they knew how: by burning it to the ground. A century later, around 44 BC, it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a military outpost, and he colonized it with Italians. Over the next one hundred years, it grew again to become the leading commercial and political center of Greece, and this is around the time that the Blessed Apostle first sets foot in it.
Now, to understand Paul's activities in Corinth, we have to understand something of what this city had become. Athens, of course, was the capitol of Greece, and it never did cease to be the intellectual and cultural center of that country, but its political influence was waning in the face of Roman expansion; so, that role began to be assumed more and more by Corinth. And while the old Doric city that Socrates would have known was probably one of the most beautiful in the world, the new Corinth was a cesspool by comparison. It had all the political and commercial influence of the old Athens, but none of the culture. It was Athens without the statues and the poetry; kind of like Washington, DC, with all the politics but none of the monuments. You've heard the expression, “A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there”? Well, Corinth wasn't even a nice place to visit. Nobody wanted to go to Corinth; you went there because it was the biggest seaport in the world; and, if you were involved in any kind of trade at all, and wanted a piece of the action, you had to be there. Its debauchery had even become part of the popular lexicon: the phrase “to live like a Corinthian” was slang for someone who lived an immoral life, and prostitutes were often referred to as “Corinthian girls.”
When Paul enters Corinth, with all of its debauchery and corruption and immorality, he has little reason to suppose that he will have any more success than he had anywhere else along the way;—in Philippi, in Thessalonica, in Beroea (which was another place he was chased out of), and particularly in Athens—and yet, by time he leaves there in the summer or fall of the year 52, it is the largest, most flourishing, and most active of all the Churches he established, even to the point of sending out missionaries of its own to spread the Gospel throughout cities all over Greece. We can't estimate how many Christians Paul left behind in Corinth, but we do know that they were from every nationality on the map, and some of them he mentions by name: Tertius was a Roman; Erastus was a Greek; Crispus was Jew. Most of them were from the lower classes, but there were some wealthy merchants as well; and, all of them, so Paul himself testifies, were fervent, eager, and richly blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I remember having a conversation with a younger priest who was discouraged about what he perceived to be his failure to reach the souls of the people of his parish, and I had a hard time getting through to him because it's the kind of lesson you learn only after years of experience, which he didn't have: you leave a parish behind after being replaced by someone else, thinking that you've been a failure, only to learn years later that the seeds of Grace you planted there have borne fruit; you just weren't there to see it. And it's just as true for all of you: you may think that you've failed to reach your child who can't stay out of trouble, or that relative who won't talk to you, or the friend or neighbor that you crossed the wrong way, or anyone that you've tried to bring back to some semblance of Christian living. You may not see the change take place, but that doesn't mean what you tried to do was worthless. Yesterday I gave you Father Michael's Number One Rule for the Interior Life; today I give you the Number Two Rule: never expect to see the results of your efforts.
One of the frustrations we face in our quest to follow our Lord is the sense that we all have at times, that we're not making any progress. We suffer the same struggles over and over again, we confess the same sins time and again, and we think that nothing we can do will change it. But we are not the ones to judge that. No effort we make to reproduce the Gospel, either in ourselves or in others, is ever wasted. Every effort, every struggle, brings Grace. We're not exactly objective when viewing ourselves, so we don't see it. In this sense, we could say that St. Paul needed to heed the advice he had given to Timothy: to stop looking into himself and instead trust our Lord to the work.
Consider the saint whose memorial we observe today: St. Monica spent her whole life praying for the conversion of her son. We don't know for sure if she lived long enough to see him baptized; she certainly was already gone when he becomes a bishop, and had to watch from heaven to see him become one of the Church's greatest theologians and defenders of the Faith.
As we listen, beginning tomorrow, to the lessons from First Corinthians, we might find it advantageous to add an item to our examination of conscience: after listing all the sins we need to address, we might consider to what extent we're willing to let God handle them for us. Remember how the Prodigal Son had a whole speech rehearsed for his father about how it was all his fault, but his father never let him finish the speech because he had already forgiven him.
I'll leave you, then, with a thought about this by Our Holy Father Ignatius of Antioch. Reflecting on St. Paul's experiences, he said:
The Lord overlooks nothing. Even secrets are open to Him. Let us then do everything as if He were dwelling in us. Thus we shall be His temples, and He will be within us as our God—as He actually is (On the Letter to the Ephesians).