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Monthly Reflection by
Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

I have come to set the earth on fire" (Lk 12:49) - Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

Prayer of the Month

Monthly Reflections

"Seek first the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33) - Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

Lent is the Season of Grace when the Lord reaches out to us inviting us to turn to Him and experience the intimacy of His Love. The Presence of God forgotten in the humdrum life of the everyday is sought afresh and with much eagerness. There is a longing to hear the Voice of God and enter into His Presence. God becomes more real than anything else. People reach out to the core of Christian faith in this sacred time. Awareness of failures leads to repentance and new decisions are made to live an authentic Christian life.

“Begun in the Spirit… Now ending in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus details for us the basic orientations of a renewal which are crucial for us to heed as we take on the special practices of this season of Lent (Matthew 6:1-18). Jesus gives His teaching against the background of the Jewish spirituality. There were three cardinal virtues in Jewish asceticism – almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The pious Jews looked at these as the way to God. However, in the traditional practice of these virtues, human considerations got the better of the Divine character. These strongholds of religious life, which were considered as the sure path of salvation, get de-spoilt by ungodly motives. As a result, these lost their spiritual worth.

When alms were given not for the betterment of the needy but for the glory of the giver, the giving is robbed of its spiritual content. When prayer is not directed to reach the Heart of God but is meant for the satisfaction of one’s ego, of one wanting to make a reputation as a prayerful person, it becomes inglorious. In the same way, fasting observed with a base intention of showing to the world how high-souled the person is, it can no longer lead to God. Jesus criticises the manner in which the people of His time exercised these ascetic practices for reason of ignoble motives that prompted them.

Jesus turned to the pious men who could not accept the Good News of Salvation saying, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Evaluating such religious practices Jesus emphasises three times, “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward already.” This comment of Jesus is very sharp because the real translation of the phrase is “They have received their payment in the full; they do not deserve anything more.” This implies that their religious activities are tinged with the mundane and too banal to have any significance in the Eyes of God. All that they pursue is their personal glory; in no way an exercise in the pursuit of God. What Jesus wanted to impress upon them, as well as us today, is that if we do good to others like giving alms to show how generous we are, we will get the admiration of the people around us and it will have no spiritual value. What was sought would be the payment in the full. In the same way if our prayers are meant to show others how pious we are, we will earn that reputation in the eyes of those who watch us; but that is all the value it will have. If we fast only for the sake of gaining a prestige of being devout, the people may speak well of us. That is where the reward of such fasting ends. Such activities will have no relevance for the true purpose of religion which is to draw us to God and His graces.

“Probe me, God, know my heart” (Psalm 139:23)

The Lord is warning us that human nature is corruptible. Even when we take up a virtuous task with a spiritual intent, selfish calculations creep in affecting the motivation. If we are not honest and alert, soon these selfish and worldly motives take over and our practices lose their heavenly value.

Jesus is making it clear that religion is a matter of what is within the heart and not so much about the externals. In fact the externals can have any value only in so far as they are sincerely meant and genuine expressions of what is noble within. He criticises the religious leaders of the time calling them ‘hypocrites’ because of the dichotomy between their proclamation and their actions. He called them ‘blind fools’ because of their short-sightedness that led them to pursue human rewards losing complete sight of the Heavenly Goal. “You hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence... You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Jesus insists that in order to be truly religious we need regularly to make an honest soul-searching to cleanse the defilement in the heart. As He would explain, what defiles one is not the things that surround one but what is held in the heart which ultimately comes out of one. The Lord is affirming that there are evil powers at work within us. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (Mark 7:21-23)

“Satan has demanded to sift all of you” (Luke 22:31)

St. Paul explains to us how these unholy powers enter into the human heart. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) Pointing to the anger and hatred that we harbour in our hearts, St. Paul tells us that such evil powers have come to dwell within us because we gave them entry by deliberating holding on to these negative feelings in our hearts. Getting angry could be a matter of temperament, but after that first outburst, one always has a choice. This choice is deliberate: either to get reconciled with that person with whom one is in discord or to justify the anger and nurse the grudge in the heart. Every sin justified, will make its home in the human heart as a powerful inclination to evil and one can no longer resist it because one is already enslaved to it. The sin of anger, hatred and revenge get accumulated in the depths of the heart. This is true of every other evil doing. One may have glanced through a pornographic site by accident and some filthy picture may have left an impression in the mind. This image will resurface continually through the imagination until he makes a deliberate decision to say no to it. By postponing the decision, he allows the filth to get rooted in the heart. The same is true of an unholy relationship. A first attraction to someone can be a natural inclination. If someone is passive and allows that attraction to grow strong, the possibility is that it develops into an emotional involvement and unholy obsession. St. Peter warns us, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9) Evil addictions like drinking, smoking, drugs, lustful habits, gambling, gossiping, rude and arrogant behaviour patterns - all these had their beginning in an irresponsible option.

Jesus cautions us to check the first movement of evil in our hearts. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30) The scribes and Pharisees had interpreted the Law of Moses as though only the external acts of adultery and violence were sins of grave consequence. Jesus invites us to look to the heart where lay the source of evil. A thorough cleansing of the heart is necessary that our religious habits and practices may be genuine.

“The labourers toil in vain” (Psalm 127:1)

Lent is the sacred season when the Church invites us to such crucial soul-searching. All the compromises that we may have made with sin should be identified. All the structures we may have built on the premise of evil are to be thrown down. All the dimensions of our relationships should be screened in the Light of God’s Word. The social customs we accepted without questioning are to re-evaluated in the Light of the Spirit of God. This restructuring of our life must begin in the depth of our hearts.

A senior doctor who was serving in a renowned hospital had met me at a retreat. He poured out the frustrations in his life. From his medical college days, he was highly motivated to serve the sick. He would spend his free hours with the sick taking care of their needs with compassion. He would not grudge any of his patients even if they disturbed him late in the night. He proved himself in his profession, won great regard with both those who worked with him and with those whom he served. However, he was very unhappy in his family life. He was not able to find time to be with his wife and children. Almost every other day there would be an argument in the house. He would try to satisfy the wife by giving her gifts. He confided in me that he felt unconnected to his wife and children. The time spent with them seemed a waste. He calculated that he could have done so much more good in the hospital. However much he worked, he never felt an inner satisfaction. This was the frustration in his life.

I enquired about his spiritual life. He said, he used to go to church on Sundays with his wife and children as a matter of obligation. He had no personal prayer time. God was no reality to him either in his personal life or in his profession. He did not remember ever having prayed for the sick people he cared for even in their most painful moments.

I explained to him that his ideal of serving the needy however lofty, was neither an ideal to him nor a grace. It had become a burdensome idol. His motivation was rooted in his ideals. For this idol that he made of his profession, he was now sacrificing his life. Consequently His heart was dried up without any springs of love to animate it. Our hearts are made for God and it is when we are united with God in prayer that God’s Love pours forth into us. This heavenly offering of love is the only nourishment for the heart. Since he was cut off from God, his heart had become hardened - unable to cherish his family or his mission. Though his service to the sick was motivated by lofty ideals, his work had become burdensome. He agreed with this understanding of his situation and commented that often at the end of the day, he was irritated with the demands and expectations of the sick people and hurt them by his angry reactions. I suggested to him that his life and service of the sick should be rooted in God’s Love. It is only then that his wife would be dear to him and his children a joy - as they were meant to be. Even heavy responsibilities become a pleasure when carried out with love. It is not ideals or ideas that should primarily animate our decisions and relationships. Life is so much more than that. Fullness of life is where the Love of God operates through these ideals to make us a blessing to those around us. The experience of God’s Love translates every situation and circumstance of our life into a blessing. Living a life impelled by the Love of God - this is the essence of Christianity.

“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23)

Nothing is good enough or life-giving unless it is oriented towards the Love of God. When we live an indulgent life of sin and selfish pleasure, the misery of a wasted existence is the sure end. When we live for our ideals, even then our heart is not satisfied but choked with frustrations. It is only when we live for God that we experience the fullness of joy.

Speaking of the cardinal virtues of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, Jesus corrected the traditional attitude and affirmed that all these cardinal virtues of spirituality must be animated by the Love of God. Three times Jesus reminds us that such practices are of value in the Eyes of the Heavenly Father when they are done with a pure motivation of pleasing God. On each occasion when He spoke separately about almsgiving, prayer and fasting, Jesus affirmed, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4,6,18) Every religious activity gets its value by its orientation towards God. If we do everything by any motive divorced from God, we would be drifting further away from God. The gulf between man and God becomes wider until God becomes a stranger and after a point even a non-entity. Whatever good could be seen in such a person would have become a burden even for him. However when we live and act with God as our motive, every moment of our life and every activity we do will bring us closer and closer to God. God becomes the great reality of love in which we merge. This is the bliss and fulfilment that we could have on this earth and beyond. This indeed is true religion. In the Season of Lent, Jesus invites us to enter the core of our faith and experience the riches of the loving Presence of God in all that we are and in all that we do.

Let us pray

Lord God, we thank You that You have moulded our hearts to love You. This season of Lent, we offer every moment and aspect of our living as an offering of love. We pray that You will pour out Your Spirit upon us that our eyes might be able to distinguish what is life-giving from what is not - in our motives, deeds and occupations. Purify us by Your L+-ove that our hearts may throb to live for You and our lives may bring You great pleasure. May this season bring us to the intimacy with You which alone can bring beauty to our lives and to this world.

Amen.

 
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