September 11, 2016
I went to mass in Victoria, British Columbia with my father-in-law. It was beautiful to see such a bountiful flock. It is true what is said of Canada, especially of Western Canada, citing Scripture, namely, that there is much here for the Father to reap, “so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together” (John 4:36).
This is a story of how God speaks to us and makes his will known to us, and about the moral courage we need in order to fulfill his will. “The prayer of faith consists not only in saying ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in disposing the heart to do the will of the Father.” (Catechism, 2611, referring to Mt 7:21).
The Old Testament reading that day centered around God’s constant dialogue with His people, from Genesis onward. The gospel reading was the story of the prodigal son who left home, squandered his inheritance, and came home to a rejoicing father who forgave him. The gospel reading also contained Christ’s parable about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the 1 lost sheep. God forgives all who return to Him, goes out looking for and rejoices in finding his lost sheep. During the sermon, I contemplated moral courage – the courage to do right by others.
Upon entering the cathedral, we were ushered to our seats but did not select them. We sat behind a very poor man. At the appointed time to greet our neighbours during the service, I had a thought that I should rub his back as a gesture of compassion to show him love. The thought was loud in my mind but despite this I did not have the courage to do it. “Why touch a stranger, people will notice, it will be weird!” I thought only thoughts of hesitation – how awkward it might be. As he turned around to greet us, I noticed he was crying, something I had not noticed before I had wanted to show him compassion through touch.
It looked like he had suffered a hard life. I thought “this man is crying because here he feels included by the entire mass around him, but all his life he has felt excluded, and now he is rejoicing in tears, a lost sheep who has been found”. After mass, my father-in-law told me he thought the man might be dying. I thought all of this quietly and had not told my father-in-law that I had thought to touch the man to show him affection. Then just as the man turned back around after greeting us, my father-in-law reached over and rubbed the man on the back, this man whose suffering was being passed over by those around him, including me, for fear of doing the “awkward” thing, even in God’s house. I did not recall the thought I had during the sermon about moral courage at that moment, but I felt bad that I had passed up the opportunity to show the man compassion, as Spirit had obviously guided me to do.
Then the man kept wiping away tears that were streaming down his face, and my next thought was, I should give him a tissue, but I had none. All I had was a silk cloth cleaner for my glasses – my only one, which my father-in-law and I were both sharing for the trip. But I felt as if commanded to give it to the man, so I did, and he was touched and wiped his tears. I felt as a person does who completes the task his master tells him to – satisfied that he has done the master’s work, and that is all, for it is not the servant’s will being done but the master’s. There is no pride in that: it is just business – the Lord’s business. When I was in line for communion, I was prompted to look back at the man, and I did. Just then, he looked back at me through a large crowd of people and smiled with a look of gratitude, and then he lifted up his gaze, raised both hands in the air and waived the sign of peace with both his hands.
Later I spoke to my father-in-law about the man who sat in front of us at church. He told me that he himself had been moved to tears by this man, but I hadn’t noticed. My father-in-law cried because he felt this man’s pain, such was his empathy when he noticed him crying. Unlike me, my father-in-law didn’t hesitate to touch him to comfort him. He said I should have as well.
In his sermon, the priest emphasized God’s boundless empathy for the children of his flock, which moves him automatically to leave the 99 sheep and go after the lost one. It is automatic, he said; such is God’s love.
At lunch, I was moved again to do something similar, and again I failed. Where is my courage? The young woman who served us appeared to have suffered abuse and self-abuse in her short life. Her arms were filled with cuts. I heard a loud prompting telling me to ask her if I could pray for her. Pray for her? I was a professional secularist, never bringing topics of religion or religious experiences out in the open. This felt hard to do but nevertheless I felt a deep prompting. But I failed.
The next day I redoubled my will in case I felt the urge again to share what I could only surmise was God’s love. At dinner that night with my father-in-law, our waitress appeared to me to be going through a difficult period in her life. After dinner, when I went to pay the bill privately, I said “look it, I do this thing where I ask someone once a day if they would like me to pray for them. Could I pray for you? I did so as a friend and an equal would do. Her response filled my heart: “yes,” she replied, “I need it a lot these days.”
The second reading at mass was from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy. It emphasized the great mercy God shows to those who repent, even the greatest sinners.
I feel as though my mind is a canvas for God to paint on, and my thoughts count among them the paintings of his brush. But if it a canvass, then the evil one produces his dark designs on it too, for I am in the flesh as I am also in the Spirit, and both he and God compete to see which one’s designs will be given life in me in my ascent to them, and in my words and deeds. Thus thoughts become the stuff of our flesh. The idea becomes a thought in the mind, a word on the heart, a word on the tongue, and an action in the flesh. If we do not wipe away and reject the evil ones, those that are not love and that do not come from love, then they stain our canvas, and interfere with the painting God makes on the canvas of our hearts. If we leave the bad ones there, then they become like bad keystrokes made by a wandering child passing by a master performing a piano concerto.
When I passed the statue of the Virgin Mary, a terrible thought struck my mind after I prayed to her. Therefore I knew immediately it could not have been I that had produced it. How often terrible thoughts visit me! And how often beautiful ones too! Neither therefore belongs to me, except those I ascent to, and thereby make my own. The question is which ones I by the power of my sovereign will appropriate and give blessing by condoning them and turning them into words and actions. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart (Luke 6:45).
How do I know the thoughts that are from God and discern them from those that are from the evil one? The same way the Lord told us to recognize him: one knows a tree is good by the fruit that it bears (Matthew 7:15-20).