During the celebration of Epiphany, Pope Francis spoke of the “journey of life and faith” that “demands a deep desire and inner zeal.” It was this deep desire and inner zeal for God that inspired the Magi, he said, in their search for the newborn king. “As a Church, we need this,” the Holy Father said. Francis asked Catholics to consider, “where are we on our journey of faith? Have we been stuck too long, nestled inside a conventional, external, and formal religiosity that no longer warms our hearts and changes our lives? Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move toward God, or are they a ‘dead language’ that speaks only of itself and to itself?” Francis warned against communities of faith being satisfied with an attitude of “maintenance” and encouraged that they “allow [themselves] to be startled by Jesus and by the explosive and unsettling joy of the Gospel.”
“Maintenance” is a temptation for all believers, I think. We can become comfortable in the familiar, even if the familiar fails to inspire deeper reflection or action on the Gospel. Our devotions become rote, our prayers simple recitations. Even so-called spontaneous prayers can adopt a familiar formula that includes the same old admonitions and patterns that express little of what is in the heart.
I recall the story of an older monk and a younger monk walking together by a river. The younger monk had been beseeching the older to teach him how to pray. The older monk took the younger by the nape of his neck and pushed his head down into the water of the river, so that he could not breath. He struggled, of course, until the older monk finally released him, and he came up gasping for air. “When you want to pray like you want to breath,” the older monk told him, “then I will teach you.”
I confess that I don’t yet want to pray like I want to breath. But I can say that I want to want to pray like I want to breath. I pray that God would so move my heart to desire Him with a zeal that is unrelenting, in the same way my body’s desire to breath is unrelenting in those circumstances where I cannot catch my breath.
Pope Francis speaks of desire for God. I think people genuinely desire God. I think that desire for God is wired into us because we are His creation. Each of us is an expression of the Creator’s imagination and love. We cannot escape this because we are human and created by Him. We are the work of His hands and the tell-tale signs of His work in us are as certain as the characteristic brush strokes of a master painter. One of those tell-tale signs is our desire for Him, as expressed in our desire for something more than ourselves. Where we lose focus is our failure to recognize that God is the One we desire, so we put our energies toward connecting with false gods: fame, money, physical pleasure, worldly or professional success, etc… Or we desire God and know that we do, but we desire Him on our terms rather than His. A symptom of this is a failure to read the Scriptures in a way that challenges us to live our lives as a better reflection of the Gospel, but in a way that confirms the way we have decided to live our lives and are determined to continue to do so. Another symptom is a refusal to embrace the revelation God has given through His Church, replacing the Church as instrument of God’s revelation with ourselves as instrument of God’s revelation. We make choices and demand that God and the Church respect those choices, regardless of whether or not they reflect His will and revelation. They reflect our will and what we believe, and that should suffice for God and the Church.
But God is mighty Lord, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Do we dare to imagine that God is beholden to our will? True desire for God is manifested in a desire to form our will according to His. How do we know the will of God for us? It is crucial that we read the Scriptures with the mind of the Church. How do we do this? There are countless commentaries available, including those of the Church Fathers and respected spiritual masters and scholars. A spiritual director can assist in discerning between wants and needs and help keep perspective by encouraging us to not judge ourselves too harshly or demand too little of us. We know, for instance, that something is likely awry if every decision over which we pray miraculously reflects the one we were hoping for. God is a God of surprises, and not all the surprises are happy ones or perfectly in tune with what we are convinced is best for us. Best to develop the virtue of Christian indifference. Not indifference as in not caring for yourself or God or life or loved ones. The virtue of Christian indifference is a willingness, even an eagerness, to accept and even embrace whatever it is God has in store for us, good or bad (bad from our perspective, not His). Do I want good health? Of course! But I am willing to embrace poor health if it is God’s will for me. Do I want riches? Well, enough money to pay my bills and meet my needs certainly. But I am willing to embrace the struggles of poverty if it is God’s will for me. Do I desire a loving relationship? Absolutely! But I am willing to embrace loneliness and rejection if it is God’s will for me. Do I desire success and respect in my profession? Without doubt, I do! But I am willing to suffer the sting of failure if such is God’s will for me.
The temptation here is to ask, “Why would God desire poor health, or poverty, or loneliness, or failure for me? God loves me and He desires my happiness.” Yes, God desires our happiness. But He knows better than I what will make me happy. What will make us all happy, truly happy, is eternal life in His kingdom. God knows what is needed for each of us in this temporal realm to guide us more perfectly toward His kingdom. The key is not to find happiness in good health, riches, loving relationships, and professional success. The key is to be happy in God’s will and grace regardless. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was asked how he would react if the Society he founded, his greatest life accomplishment, collapsed and was no more. He admitted he would be sad for about fifteen minutes, then he would move on, accepting it as God’s will. St. Louis de Montfort spent great energy and money building a replica of Calvary. On the day before the local bishop was to bless the memorial to Christ’s suffering and death, the bishop heard that it was to be destroyed by order of the King of France. So, the bishop refused the blessing, to which Montfort responded simply, “Blessed be God.
A genuine desire for God is a desire to be one with the One Who made us, Who sustains us, Who redeems us, and Who longs to share with us the glories of His kingdom. The way to be one with God is to form our will according to His. To surrender our every desire to God’s will for us. To lose ourselves and our understanding of our own needs and wants and recognize that all that we need is what God has in store for us, and all that we want is that His will and grace empower every decision for our lives.
Pope Francis speaks of zeal for God. I’m not so sure people are much interested in zeal, even zeal for God. Zeal is frowned upon by moderns, who regard it as fanaticism. Fanaticism, even for God, is viewed as so much of a good thing that it turns sour and the zealous one loses his or her perspective. They become wide-eyed or wild-eyed in their determination to live faithfully and, even more disturbing, that others do so.
But Christian zeal is altogether different, being an expression of profound love. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Zeal … arises from the intensity of love. For it is evident that the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition or resistance. Since therefore love is ‘a movement toward the object loved,’ as Augustine says, an intense love seeks to remove everything that opposes it” (ST I-II:28:4). Zeal for God, then, is the intense desire, inspired by love for Him, to remove from within ourselves or outside of ourselves anything that opposes or stands in the way of our loving God or being faithful to Him.
Jesus recognized that the merchants having turned the temple into a “den of thieves” started cleansing the temple of them and their merchandise. Why? Because they were an obstacle to genuine faith and devotion for which the temple stood as the sign of God’s presence in the world. His disciples, looking on, recalled the verse from Psalms, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn 2:17). In imitation of Jesus, we ought to be willing to take a “spiritual whip” (no, I’m not recommending flagellation!) to whatever is within us that keeps us from giving our all to our Lord. Prayer, fasting, sacrifices, service to others … all of these are “whips” that can cleanse the temple of the Holy Spirit that we are from all that stands in the way of our giving ourselves utterly to God.
Psalm 69:10, the verse that came to the mind of the disciples when they watched Jesus cleanse the temple in righteous anger, reads: “Because zeal for your house has consumed me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” This is a reminder that those who love God and are zealous for Him will find no support but much scorn from those who have turned from God and rejected Him. This is especially true, perhaps, for those who regard as sacred those teachings of the Church that are judged harsh and intolerant toward those whose lifestyles and choices have found favor with the world, even as those lifestyles and choices are counter to God’s revelation. Abortion. Same-sex marriage. Gender ideology. Religious syncretism. Jingoism. The world demands that these not only be tolerated but embraced by all, including the Church and all believers in Christ. Sadly, some have surrendered the integrity of their faith to these idols. Those, however, who have a zealous love for God, whose love will brook no opposition or resistance to their love for God, will not tire as they stand in the breach defending true faith and devotion.
Pope Francis has called us to a renewed desire and zeal for God. May this New Year prove to be the one in which we turn toward Him in complete devotion, without compromise or fear, but with hearts and minds determined to go forth and set the world on fire!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.