Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on Evangelization, II: Spiritual Growth through Evangelization

Yesterday I walked the streets for the final time before my wife has our baby boy.  It was a spirit-filled experience, not least because I read the second half of Matthew Manint's free little e-book, Like a Dove in the Cleft of a Rock.  It is a beautiful spiritual meditation by a consecrated layman with a special devotion to Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  I found myself repeating the plea to our Lord,

"Draw me after you, let us make haste."

Lord, draw me up after you, and help me follow your quick steps up the holy mountain.  Let us make haste, the time is short.

I'm happy to say that my prayers have not been in vain.  The Lord has drawn me up after him, and the vehicle of my sanctification has been my ministry on the streets.  In fact, I have been the great beneficiary of my own evangelization efforts!  I only wish I could say that those on the street have benefited as much.

One way to witness my spiritual growth is to consider some of the changes in my perception of the ministry and it's challenges.  One shift in perception concerns how I inwardly respond to verbal abuse.  When I first began the apostolate, I was mildly disturbed by hostile stares or angry shouts from passing cars, but I would consciously offer it up to God the Father as a small sacrifice.  Then after a few months I ceased to be disturbed, and walked on in peace--happy to be of some use to God, but sorrowful for the sake of the angry person.  But yesterday God gave me the grace to take things a little deeper.  A shrill voice yelled from a passing car, "Go to hell!"  And for the first time I realized, "Lord, I'm not worthy to be despised for your sake.  Who am I to be given such a great grace as to be despised for doing your will?"  That thought had never occurred to me before, but now it seemed so obvious.  I used to think I was a splendid candidate to suffer for our Lord, how could I have been so presumptuous?

A similar shift in perception concerns my attitude toward the apostolate itself.  When I first began the apostolate, I did it largely from a sense of duty and curiosity.  But I quickly discovered that it was painful to walk the streets: the weather was often bad, my feet and joints were tired, the tunic was awkward and I stood out amidst passers-by, there was the occasional abuse, and the spiritual combat was especially draining.  I even had to fight off feelings of resentment, "Thanks a lot God for giving me this thankless ministry."  But I grudgingly endured it, and forced myself out the door, week after week.  Then the gloom broke and I began to be at peace with the ministry, and it just became a part of my weekly schedule and who I am.  Then yesterday God gave me an even deeper grace.  For the first time I realized that I was blessed to be given this ministry.  It was a conviction of the heart, and not an intellectual exercise.  I didn't even give myself reasons, I just knew it to be true.  

In just one short year I have progressed from resenting and grappling with the ministry to embracing it as a great blessing.  It seems paradoxical that evangelizing others would offer a considerable source for our own sanctification. After all, we presumably evangelize out of love for others and God, and not for our own sake.  But when we commit ourselves, week in and week out, to share the Gospel with those who lack it, Christ slowly saturates our own hearts with his love.  In making this sacrifice for the sanctification of others, we are doing what Christ did in becoming man and accepting the cross for us.  By imitating him, we become more like him, the "holy one of God".  At first our hearts are small and hard, but if we persevere then they swell and grow until they begin to more closely resemble his own.  Then the more closely they resemble his own, the more efficacious our efforts at evangelization.  He is always trying to build us up since he desires to do his work through us, but we always slow the progress!

So if you want to be holy, then sacrifice for the sanctification of others.  Evangelize the streets, evangelize and pray for your friends and neighbors, pray and counsel outside Planned Parenthood, and you'll soon find that you are growing closer to Christ.  It's a paradox of the spiritual life, but then again, most of the deep truths of our faith are counter-intuitive.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Reflections on Evangelization: Laughter should come easy

"May the good Lord deliver us from gloomy saints!"
                                                                            --St. Teresa of Avila

Humor is essential for growth in the spiritual life.  It is therapeutic and refreshing, lifting the weight of our cares. In fact, abiding humor is a sign of a healthy soul.  But it isn't just any form of humor, for even the demons laugh and find some refreshment in their jokes and gags.  The humor of demons' springs from malice and pride--their jokes always point back to their own prowess or cleverness, and what they find easy to despise (namely, us).  As Christians, it should be expected that our sources of humor run in the opposite direction: not in pride, but in our littleness and dependence on God; not in our own craft, but in welcoming the providential surprises of God; not in despising the follies of his "poor banished children of Eve", but in a gently pitying mirth.  

In the past several decades we have all heard laymen and religious reject talk of sin, the devil and spiritual warfare as gloomy and destructive of joy, but they have it exactly wrong.  In fact, it is only through a sober understanding of sin that we are freed for the joyful fruits of humility, and it it only by living each day in spiritual combat that we can laugh at our topsy-turvy world.  An abiding sense of our sin and weakness is not a psychological or spiritual handicap, it is actually a great grace from God!  Once we recognize our dependence on God's mercy and our need for angelic aid, then we will have the ability to laugh at ourselves and our circumstances.

There have been many amusing moments as I walk the streets and many of those moments point back to my own weakness and foolishness.  I think, for example, of the first time I walked the streets in my freshly sewn tunic.  A powerful wind repeatedly blew the front 'yoke' of my tunic with the Jesus Caritas heart right back into my face.  I'm sure the demons had a good laugh and I conceded it was funny since I had set out with such a solemn sense of purpose, a hidden belief in my own importance.  On another occasion a woman who knew how to party (what some people call a 'barfly') saw me coming and stepped out in front of me to block my path.  She straddled the sidewalk in her faded jean shorts, and firmly planted her hands against the pink tank top at her hips.  I looked into her wrinkled tan face, at the black eye-liner and sparkling lip gloss, and watched her erupt in hoarse laughter as she reached out and poked at my tunic.  I immediately joined her laughter.  She was right:  I looked like a fool, like a wayward time-traveller walking the streets.  If a Christian can't laugh--especially at himself--then he is finished.  He will collapse under the weight of his own seriousness and the gravity of the times.  He will collapse because he has secretly placed himself at the center of things rather than trusting that Christ has overcome the world.

St. Therese having some fun as Joan of Arc

The other day I was gripped by the seeming absurdity, the utter implausibility, of the traditional Catholic worldview.  In the age of microscopes that can peer at "invisible" organisms, and telescopes that can examine distant solar systems, who can still maintain a belief in invisible spirits--both holy and wicked?  Who can believe that all of our good and wicked actions will reverberate into eternity?  Where is this all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God with his Kingdom of Heaven and barren desert of Hell?  Hasn't science, the ingenuity and industry of man, uncovered everything and finally rendered life safe and predictable?  Mankind no longer has to cower in caves, fearful of the creatures in the forest, mysterious diseases and the wrath of the gods.  Civilization has finally won!  Or so it seems.

But all is not what it seems, and the faithful Christian needs a healthy sense of humor about these things.  When I walk the streets and a wounded, self-righteous person glowers at me as though I am his enemy, I laugh inwardly because he has it exactly wrong.  It is a moment of absurdity.  So often I want to say, "But I am the best friend you've got!  I will pray and sacrifice for you, and I want nothing in return.  But those whom you call your "friends", what do they want from you?"

We must have humility, humor and gratitude because the scales have fallen from our eyes, and what God has kept from the learned and powerful, he has revealed to the little ones.  It is a great grace and a great responsibility.  May we have the good humor to continue undisturbed along the Lord's path.