Friday, January 27, 2017

Amazing Grace - Hour-Long Talk Given to MOMs (2017)

Good evening! It is a pleasure to speak to the MOMs group again and on such a wonderful topic as “Grace.” Actually this really speaks about the quality of this group: you are wanting solid food. That’s awesome and it makes me a proud papa.

Grace Defined

Grace, simply defined by the Catechism, is:

favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God (CCC 1996).

Grace is something that “perfects the soul” (CCC 2000) and thus enables it not only to live with God (cf CCC 2000), but to actually make us “partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996).

In other words, grace is a gift that God gives; it is a gift that we receive; and this gift, in its highest form, can result in us becoming like gods—or as Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal 2:20).

The Image of Water

Perhaps an image will help us here. The best image to describe grace (that I know of) is that of water. I have a few plants sitting on the windowsill in my office. Sometimes, they get very droopy. And why? Because I haven’t watered them. So, I get a glass of water and I pour water into the soil. At that point, the water disappears into the soil. Nothing happens.

Or, at least, not immediately—not typically. Usually, it takes a few hours and my plants start perking up again. But how did this happen? We know it was the water. But when it was in the soil, there was something invisible going on in there. So it is with grace; it is invisible how it works, but we see its effects. That’s what Jesus is talking about when He talks about “bearing fruit”—He wants to see the effects of His grace. That’s why He had the conversation about the fig tree—it was being watered but not bearing any fruit; the soul is receiving grace, but where are the effects?

Now, I said that we usually don’t see the effects immediately. Usually, the effects in the soul is a slow, habitual growth—like the trees in front of the church here. We don’t see them grow every day, but come back in ten years and you will notice the growth. So too, the soul: typically, we don’t see our growth in holiness day-to-day, but look back on your life after a year or so, and you’ll likely notice a change.

Sometimes, however, the effect of grace is immediate. If my plants have become very, very dry, when I pour water into them, they perk up immediately. Sometimes the effect of grace is similar: St. Paul and his horse; St. Augustine and his book; …

Scriptural Considerations: The Well and The Vine

One of my favorite stories is the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4). She is coming to the well to draw water—perhaps for bathing, perhaps for cooking, perhaps just because she’s thirsty. There, she meets Jesus. And what does He ask of her? He says, “Give me a drink.”

What is He asking for? Sure, it’s water. He’s thirsty. But, ultimately, He is asking for humanity’s love—for a response to His love. (He will ask again when He is on the Cross). The woman doesn’t understand why He is talking to Her and Jesus responds: “If you knew the gift of God”—huh, grace!—“and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am God. I am asking you for your love. And all you need to do is ask me and I will fill you with the gift of my divine life”—living water—grace.

So, Jesus reveals Himself as the source of grace. Please note, then: grace comes because He gives it, not because we earn it. We must be very careful of the heresy of Pelagianism—that’s the heresy that says that our salvation depends entirely on us. Salvation is not entirely dependent on us. Indeed, it is firstly a gift of God. Even more, if we should respond, that response too is a grace: “Beloved: if we love, it is because God loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19).

There is a tension, then: salvation is tied up with God’s initiative (His grace) and with our response. I like the image that Jesus gives here. He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). He then says “remain in me” and that the one who remains in Him will “bear much fruit”—why? Because the one who responds to God’s gift will continue to receive the water of grace that flows from the vine to the branches.

A branch that is not connected to the vine will die. So too, every branch that is, first came from the vine. And, even more, every branch bears fruit does so precisely because it remains connected to the vine and the waters that flow from it. Therefore, Jesus summarizes the role and need for grace by saying in that very same image: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

In other words, everything is grace. God’s initiative, our response, this moment, this breath, … everything. It is all a gift. This is actually one of the fruits of being “poor in spirit.” When we are poor in spirit— that is, when we are humble and realize that God is King and Father and GOD (and we are not)—when we start to realize how dependent we are on Him for everything, we start to realize that everything is a gift. This is why God promises the poor in spirit: theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

What Grace Does & The Power of the Sacraments

What does grace do? Well, we have already noted that it leads to salvation, to love, and to bearing fruit. Let’s unpack that a little more.

Grace illuminates the mind—wisdom, understanding, knowledge. It strengthens the will (we start to love from Love). It helps to tame the passions and give us victories in temptation. (Grace is connected to victory over sin—as we see with Mary who is full of grace. Precisely because she is full of grace, she is empty of sin). The more grace we have, the less sin. And, grace upon grace (!): “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Romans 5:20). That means that, just when we think we and the world are doing more sin than is reversible, God shows that He is all the more powerful and generous. There is always more grace than sin! And that’s awesome—because we can often think that the world is really, really sinful, and we start to lose hope. Well, there is never a reason to despair. We can always hope! (And that’s a grace!)

Grace helps us to live the moral life. Oftentimes, I hear people talk about the Ten Commandments as though they were ideals or as though they were impossible. When the disciples were faced with the fact that Jesus had raised the bar on the Commandments (Mt 19)—eg. not only to avoid stealing, but that it was even easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—they cry out: “Then who can be saved?” Living it out seems impossible! (Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had the same thought when the angel told him how Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, would have a child in her old age: Zechariah said in his heart “that’s impossible!” (cf Lk 1).

How does God respond to this? “Nothing is impossible with God” (Mt 19:26 and Lk 1:37).

We often think the same way: “I can’t do this!” Often, when I am talking to engaged couples during their marriage prep class, and I tell them about the new life that God is calling them to, they get this look of fear on their eyes as though to say, “I can’t do this!” And they are right! They can’t do this!

They need God’s grace. They need the Sacrament of Marriage.

I like to remind people about the graces of their sacraments. We often forget how much grace we have received. Have you ever thought about that? How much grace have you received from the Sacraments? Think for a moment about all of the Holy Communions you have received. … That’s a lot of grace, isn’t it? I mean, we are receiving God there, right?

When we are feeling like we can’t do it, like we can’t “adult” very well, we need to call on those graces. Call on the grace of your Confirmation. Call on the grace of those Holy Communions. Call on the grace of your baptism.

Do you want to know how powerful the grace of your baptism is? Look at a holy religious sister—imagine her for a moment.  … Was there a special sacrament that she received to become a sister?  … No. So, where does this come from? What makes her a religious sister? … It’s her baptism. She is simply responding to and living out all of the graces that she received in her baptism.

The Four Waters & Walking in Grace

There is so much more we could talk about tonight. Let’s talk a little about receiving grace.

St. Theresa Avila gives a great image that connects God giving grace and us receiving grace. It is her image of the Four Waters. In each case, there is water to be had and the person is going to receive that water. But the amount that they receive is based on God’s initiative and the person’s capacity. It is ultimately an image of the soul’s development in a life of prayer. Here’s how it works:

In the First Water, a person draws water with a bucket. It’s a lot of hard work and they only get a bucket-full. So, too, when a person first begins to pray, their disposition or capacity may be small and prayer seems like a lot of hard work for so small a grace.

In the Second Water, a person draws water from a small brook by means of a water wheel. It’s a lot less work and there is more water to be had than a well.

In the Third, a person draws water from an aqueduct—gravity pulls the water from a great reservoir. Very little work and even more water to be had.

In the Fourth, a person simply stands in a downpour: so much water and no work at all.

What we are getting at is that as we develop in our life of prayer, so too will our ability to receive and the ease to receive; so, too, God will give according to however He wishes to give. But there is a superabundance that awaits.

That said, our disposition—that is, our attitude, our approach—to receiving grace is so important. Being open to God’s grace may bring us a greater return. For example, there is a place in Europe called Medjugorje. You may have heard about it as the place where Mary may be appearing. I’m not going to comment on that because we wait for the Church’s judgment there. Whether Mary is appearing or not, there have been many people who have made the long journey there, a very long pilgrimage, and as they walk the grounds and pray at Holy Mass, there is a very real sense that they expect the miraculous to happen. Their hearts are wide open for something great to happen. Many people have come back from those pilgrimages not talking about how Mary appeared to them, but how they felt a great sense of faith and a much, much greater love for the Holy Mass: “I’ve never gotten so much out of Mass," they say.

Many will say that this is the result of Medjugorje and Mary’s apparitions. Again, I will not comment on that. But I will say this: when we are at Holy Mass, where are we? We are at Calvary; we are at the gates of heaven; and so on. There is only one Mass, after all. The graces don’t come from the city “Medjugorje” any more than they come from the city “Cottleville.” So why do so many people come back from the pilgrimage saying they got so much out of Mass?

Expectation. They are disposed. They want it; they believe that it is going to happen; they are wide open and expecting miracles.

I tend to think that if we approached Holy Mass at our local parishes in the same way as we would if we were on pilgrimage at a holy site, we would see many of the fruits—miraculous fruits, even—that we see at those places. For, isn’t the place of Mass—whether Fatima or Cottleville—holy?

Walking in grace, therefore, means to be expecting grace. Not presuming, but confident. Open and knowing that the miraculous is at our feet.

Getting More Out of Holy Mass

A good disposition, therefore, is very important. For Holy Mass, this means arriving early—at least ten minutes—and quieting down before Mass. You can’t turn a freighter around on a dime. So too, if we’ve been going all week a hundred miles-per-hour, we can’t expect to turn that off in an instant and “be present.” The freighter’s momentum continues pulling it in the same direction, even though the rudder is turned. Thus, we get easily distracted at Mass: “Gotta hit Dierberg’s…” and so on.

(This same principle applies in daily prayer. It’s really hard to stop on a dime and be totally recollected. We have to be patient here and realize there will be some distractions. Note them and then let them go. But, also, it means that we need to cultivate a more peaceful presence throughout the day. And perhaps in order to do that we must admit that we are too busy. Or that we fill our day with too much noise. …)

When we receive the Sacraments, we must therefore take our time. We can’t rush.

Also, in preparing, we need to do our homework. For Holy Mass, take a moment to read the readings sometime in the week and soak with them. If you get distracted at Mass, follow along with the readings and prayers in the book. Sing—especially if you don’t feel like it (singing can change and open a soul in an instant!).

A word about children: I know children can be distracting (personally, I think they're great and I think it's totally ok for them to be running up and down the aisles like they do in some parishes in Mexico City), but I know it is hard in the pew to be prayerful and trying to keep them from spontaneously combusting. Sometimes, we need to leave the little ones (pre-K) home with dad and go to Mass, and then switch: he goes, you stay. Sometimes, however, we just need to be ok with inconveniencing our culture which doesn't like kids very much....

Ok, back to disposing the soul to be more open at Mass.... Have a prayer to say when you walk down the aisle before communion. If you wish to receive kneeling, go ahead. If you are distracted when you are back at your pew, have a holy card to look at and pray with. And, for all that is good and holy, do not leave early. In fact, stay late. No one, when they are on pilgrimage, quickly leaves a church. They linger. And they pray. And that’s where the real fruit starts to grow and mature.

People have received thousands of communions, but very little grace because they don’t linger. The soil has become so hardened that simply pouring water over it no longer means that the water will sink in. Those souls will have to be tilled—broken—before they will receive again. Let us pray!

For Confession, take several moments and read through a good Examination of Conscience. Mechanically-confessed confessions are definitely forgiven (so long as there is at least some sorrow for sin). Those confessions that have been well-prepared and reflected, however, the soul having opened itself to receive the downpour—those will bear lasting fruit. And probably the tears that heal.

Hidden Graces: They Were There All the Time!

Use sacramentals: kiss crucifixes, don’t simply have them hanging on walls; kiss medals, don’t just simply have them as another piece of jewelry; use Rosaries, don’t simply have them as another thing that says “Hey I’m Catholic” swinging from your car’s rear-view mirror. Use it. Have holy water fonts in your house; use them and keep them filled. Sprinkle your children’s rooms and beds with it and blessed salt. Bless your children with holy water. Listen to Gregorian chant (it’s a sacramental).

Respond quickly to promptings of the Holy Spirit. Strike while the iron is hot. When you ask your children to do something, you expect them to do it now. So, when your heavenly Father asks you to do something, shouldn’t we, His children, respond with even greater expedience? This is especially important when it comes to fighting temptation. Jesus always gives us the grace to fend off temptation. Reality, however, is that we dally about it. Remember: so many statues of Mary have her—bare footed, mind you—crushing the head of a serpent. Have you ever tried to do this? I haven’t, but I am certain that you can’t be dainty about it. You have to be decisive and quick. Crush the head of the serpent! - Bam!

As we grow, we will come to realize that Crosses are graces. This is hard, especially when we are living a more comfortable life. For a person who lives an uncomfortable life, however, Crosses are easier to carry. Crosses are blessings because Crosses win salvation. When I visit the sick or the homebound, I remind them that they are sitting on a winning lottery ticket. They just have to cash it in. So too, when we are suffering or experiencing a frustration or disappointment, we simply have to turn to the Father and do what Jesus does on the Cross: make an offering of love. That offering wins grace—just as Jesus won grace for us. Indeed, we “complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions” (Col 1:24)—and what was lacking? Nothing—but our participation in them.

That said, when others receive a blessing or a grace, rejoice in that. It is a grace to rejoice in others’ blessings and exaltations and so on. In our culture, however, people are envious when others receive something good and we say, “Well, why didn’t I get that?” I think of Mary and Elizabeth: when Mary visited Elizabeth, did Elizabeth become envious and say, “Why did you get to be the Mother of the Messiah? I only get to be the Mother of a Prophet—and the last prophet at that! Why wasn’t I chosen… It’s always Mary… first she’s full of grace and now this….”

We are part of the same body. Let us a rejoice in the graces God has given to us. This means, too, that we must stop comparing. We must stop comparing where we are in the spiritual life and where others are. Be as holy as God calls you to be. Ask for that grace. Don’t get discouraged. Ok, so you are not a religious sister. That doesn’t mean that you’re not holy. God has given that sister that grace to be a sister—what is the holiness God is calling you to? Ask Him.

Amazing Grace. Not Cheap Grace.

Finally, let us remember that there is no such thing as cheap grace. Grace is won by the Cross of Jesus Christ and the suffering of His saints. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said Tertullian. If someone gave you a million dollars, you would thank that person. Well, God’s gifts are even greater treasures. So, let us thank Him. For, “where your heart is, there will your treasure be” (Mt 6:21).

Because we know that there is no cheap grace, that every grace is a great treasure beyond price, we must never grow indifferent, cold as if this didn’t matter. Ask for that grace to be grateful. We must never grow thankless, too selfish as if it’s just presumed. Ask for that grace to be grateful.

And then we will understand the words that are said at the Mass: “thanksgiving itself is your gift” and “in heaven, we give you thanks with all the angels and saints…”

The Wonderful World of Indulgences

A handout and a brief explanation on Indulgences was given. This video provides a good explanation.

Here is that handout:

General Requirements to Receive a Plenary Indulgence:

1)   Do the work of the indulgence (see examples below)
2)   The person must have received Holy Communion within 20 days (before or after) the work of the indulgence;
A person must receive Holy Communion once per every indulgence to be received
3)   The person must have received Reconciliation within 20 days (before or after) the work of the indulgence;
Only one (1) sacramental confession is required for multiple indulgences when those indulgences are being received within twenty (20) days of each other;
4)   The person must offer prayers for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff (the Pope). Saying the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or the Creed is sufficient—once per each plenary indulgence
5)   The person must have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
6)   There is a limit: only one per day*
7)   Indulgences can only be applied to one’s self. However, they can be given to another but only when that person has died.

Examples of Plenary Indulgences:

General activity:
1)      adoration for ½ hour
2)      devout reading of Sacred Scripture for ½ hour
3)      devout praying of the Stations of the Cross
4)      praying the Rosary in a church with a family or association (partial if at home)
5)      spending three days on a retreat
6)      listening to preaching at a parish mission (partial when at the usual parish mass)

Special Activities
1)      Renewing your Baptismal Promises on the anniversary of your Baptism
2)      Devoutly attending a First Communion Mass
3)      When you make your First Communion
4)      When you devoutly attend a Priest’s First Mass
5)      When you receive the Apostolic Pardon (typically near death)

Connected to Lent:
1)      Prayer before a Crucifix after communion on Friday’s in Lent (partial on days throughout the year)
2)      Praying the Tantum Ergo on Holy Thursday
3)      Adoring the Cross on Good Friday
4)      Renewing your Baptismal Promises on the Easter Vigil

Connected to other liturgical dates:
1)      Praying the Te Deum on New Year’s Eve (Dec 31)
2)      Praying the Veni Creator on New Year’s Day (Jan 1)
3)      Making a public act of Reparation to the Sacred Heart on the Sol. of the Sacred Heart
4)      Making a public act of Dedication to Christ the King on the Sol. of Christ the King
5)      Visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead at any time during the first week of November (all other days throughout the year, this is partial)

Connected to Parish Churches
1)      Visiting any parish church on its feast (name) day. Eg: Go to St. Joseph on any feast of St. Joseph; go to Immaculate Conception on Dec 8; etc.
2)      Visiting any parish church on August 2nd (Feast of the Portiuncula… google it :)
3)      Visiting any parish church on the date of its dedication (for St. Joseph Cottleville, this is October 24th)—typically, the church’s cornerstone gives this date.

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