Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How To Deal With Your Spiritual Achilles’ Heel

Achilles, after being mortally wounded by Paris

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 15, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 17-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2006]

Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War and one of the central figures of Greek mythology.

The story is told that, shortly after his birth, his mother Thetis tried to make him immortal by dipping him into the river Styx. The only problem was that she held him upside down by one of his ankles when she lowered him into the water—and that ankle never got wet.

Consequently, he was always vulnerable to injury in that particular area of his body.

Achilles fought and won many battles over the years, but in the end he was killed when Paris (helped by the mythical god Apollo) shot him with a poisonous arrow in his ankle—the one part of his body where he could be harmed.

Obviously this is where we get the term “Achilles’ heel”. We use it to identify a point of weakness; an area of vulnerability; a dimension of our character which is prone to some sin or failing.

In today’s Gospel story, the rich young man has his “Achilles’ heel” exposed by Jesus. For him, interestingly enough, it was not a weakness that involved a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Apparently this young man had very little trouble obeying the precepts of the Decalogue: he hadn’t killed anybody (presumably that also means he hadn’t “killed” anyone’s reputation by calumny or detraction); he hadn’t committed adultery; he hadn’t engaged in pre-marital sex or masturbation or any other serious sin of the flesh; he hadn’t stolen; he hadn’t lied; and he hadn’t sinned grievously against his parents.

All in all, he was a pretty good, upright, moral person.

But, like everyone who suffers from the residual effects of original sin, he did have his spiritual Achilles’ heel: an excessive attachment to his possessions. And Jesus challenged him to deal with it! Our Lord said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

We know, of course, what happened: he failed the challenge, and he failed it miserably! As St. Mark tells us, “At that statement [of Jesus] his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Sometimes a spiritual Achilles’ heel is obvious, as was the case with this rich young man. (His ‘heel’ was his materialism.) For other people it might be a weakness for a sin of the flesh (like the viewing of pornography on the internet). It might be an addiction to alcohol, or drugs, or gambling; it might be a problem of the tongue, such as gossip, or swearing, or lying, or taking the Lord’s Name in vain.

At other times, however, the Achilles’ heel is not so obvious. For example, most of you know that some Westerly High School football players were caught drinking at a high school dance a couple of weeks ago, and were thrown off the team for the rest of the season. I commend the high school administration for doing that; it was the right decision. However the Westerly Sun recently reported that the mother one of the players was planning to have her son transfer over to Stonington High, so that he can play football again this fall.

This woman’s spiritual Achilles’ heel, sad to say, is her relationship with her own child! Instead of allowing him to experience the negative consequences of his immoral—and illegal—behavior, and teaching him to be responsible for what he’s done, she’s actually teaching him to be evasive and irresponsible! By her actions she’s unwittingly giving him the message that his behavior in life really doesn’t matter. She’s saying to him, “Son, live by your own rules; do whatever you want. And don’t worry about the negative consequences of your bad choices. You can always find a way to escape from them if you want to.”

Now we have to be very careful about pointing fingers at this woman, because she’s not the only one who has an Achilles’ heel.

We all do! We might even have more than one!

But this is not an excuse for sin! Having an Achilles’ heel is never an excuse for sinful behavior! Remember, an Achilles’ heel is merely a weakness—and every weakness can be overcome by the grace of God.

Consider, for example, the great St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul very candidly speaks about his so-called “thorn in the flesh” (which was his personal Achilles’ heel). He never identified it explicitly; he never said exactly what it was—and that’s okay. It’s enough for us to know that he had it and that he struggled with it.

What he did tell us, however, was that he begged the Lord to take it away three times and God refused. The Lord said No to that prayer.

Sometimes God does that.

But the Lord was still faithful: even though he refused to remove this weakness from Paul’s life, he did give the apostle the grace he needed to deal with it successfully! He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for in your weakness [my] power reaches its perfection.”

Paul didn’t deny that he had a spiritual Achilles’ heel, even though he was a great apostle. He humbly admitted it; and, just as importantly, he dealt with it.

God wants us to follow that example.

If we think we’re better than St. Paul and deny that we have a spiritual Achilles’ heel in our life, we need to know that we’re asking for trouble. Big trouble! Denying that we have one is a sign of pride; and, as the Bible says in Proverbs 16:18, “Pride precedes a fall.”

The proper way to approach our weaknesses is to admit them—as Paul did—and then to deal with them through prayer, and counsel, and medical assistance (when necessary), and the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession).

Satan, like it or not, will always be shooting his arrows at our Achilles’ heel. That’s a fact. And he won’t stop until we take our final breath—so we had better get used to it! But those arrows can always be blocked—or pulled out after they strike—by the grace of God.

That’s the good news.

The only question is: Will we seek that grace and use it (like St. Paul), or reject it and suffer the consequences (like the rich young man)?

St. Paul, pray for us, that we will be like you.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

John Paul II’s Theology Of The Body

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 8, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty Seventh Sunday 2006]

What was the greatest contribution that John Paul II made to the Church and to the world during his 27 years as pope?

That’s not an easy question to answer, because our former Holy Father did many incredible and noteworthy things as the Successor of St. Peter.

Some might answer the question by focusing on all that he did to bring down the Iron Curtain and put an end to Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. Others might focus on his many travels: he made over 100 trips to foreign countries during his pontificate, taking the Gospel to the world in a way that no other pope before him had done.

Others might say that his greatest contribution was in his outreach to young people. As some of us remember, it was his idea to call youth from all over the world to Rome in 1984, for what he described as a “World Youth Day”. Many people thought he was crazy to think that teenagers and young adults would travel thousands of miles to listen to him—a man in his 60s!—talk about Jesus Christ. They were wrong: 300,000 showed up! And in the Philippines 11 years later a record 5,000,000 young people came to hear the same man when he was in his 70s! Apparently John Paul II didn’t know the meaning of the term “generation gap”.

Some might say that his greatest contribution was in the area of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. After all, our former Holy Father did quite a bit to heal the thousand-year-old division between Catholics and the Orthodox, and the 500-year-old division between Catholics and Protestants. And he did a great deal to establish good relations with leaders of Islam and other non-Christian faiths.

But many of those who followed the career of John Paul II most closely, and who studied his teachings most intently, would say that his most significant contribution was not any the four I just mentioned (as great as each of them was). They would say that his most important contribution was, without question, his “theology of the body.”

Perhaps this is the first time you’re hearing about this aspect of his thought; perhaps it’s the first time you’ve ever heard the expression, “the theology of the body”.

If so, you’re not alone.

And yet, this just might be the subject that dominates conversations about John Paul II in future generations. This may prove to be, as many experts have said, the most enduring aspect of this pope’s incredible legacy.

If you were in Rome between September of 1979 and November of 1984, and attended a general audience with the pope when you were there, then you have heard at least something about the theology of the body (although you might not realize it). That’s because the Holy Father shared his thoughts on this subject during the 129 talks he gave at his Wednesday audiences in that 5 year period.

In these talks—which begin with a reflection on the Gospel text we heard a few moments ago from Mark 10—John Paul reiterates all the traditional teachings of the Church on marriage and human sexuality. No surprises there.

But he does it in a unique way.

For example—concerning sins of the flesh—instead of simply saying, “These acts are wrong because they violate the Ten Commandments and the Natural Law” (as many before him had done), John Paul goes one step further and says, “Yes, these acts violate the Natural Law and the Decalogue, but at a deeper level they also contradict the meaning of our bodies as designed by God.”

In his theology of the body, the pope approaches moral issues in the same way that Jesus does in his encounter with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel: by going back to God and his creative intent.

The Pharisees in this story want to discuss the morality of divorce by referring exclusively to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament.

Jesus responds to them by saying, in effect, “That’s the wrong way to deal with the issue. If you want to understand whether divorce is morally good or not, you need to go back further than the time of Moses. You need to go back to creation: to God’s creation of our first parents. Once you understand God’s intention in creating men and women at the very beginning of human history—before the Fall—then you’ll understand the truth about marriage and divorce.”

At that point he quotes a passage from Genesis 2 (which was part of the text we heard in our first reading): “’God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall lave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined, no human being must separate.”

For Jesus—and for John Paul II—the self-giving of a husband and wife to one another in marriage, expressed most profoundly in the marital act, is something “of God”; it’s part of the Lord’s creative intent. (So much for the idea that the Church thinks sex is dirty!) In fact, in a very real way the self-giving of a husband and wife to one another in marriage mirrors the divine self-giving that is present in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity.

So of course divorce isn’t possible! Is it possible for the Father to get a divorce from the Son in the Blessed Trinity? Or the Son from the Spirit? Or the Spirit from the Father? No way! Well, if it’s not possible for the 3 Persons of the Triune God to divorce themselves from one another, how can it be possible for a marriage bond to be broken, if that bond is supposed to reflect the inner life of the Trinity?

(Here, obviously, I’m referring to a valid, sacramental marriage. The fact is, not every wedding ceremony causes a true, sacramental bond to form between the couple. The Church recognizes that. Sometimes there’s a problem—a defect—present at the beginning, which, unfortunately, doesn’t become apparent until long after the couple has exchanged their vows. Some of you, perhaps, know this by experience. In those cases, separation is acceptable and an annulment is possible.)

The main point here is that John Paul II and Jesus both go back to “the beginning” in order to unfold the true meaning of marriage. John Paul does the same thing throughout his ‘theology of the body’ talks in dealing with dozens of other important questions and issues.

In his mind, for example, if you want to know who you are as a human person; if you want to know the meaning of this earthly life; if you want to understand the sacraments and the nature of the Church; if you want to understand moral issues like divorce; and if you want some legitimate insights on what eternal life is like, you have to go back to the beginning when God made the bodies of our first parents. There you will begin to discover the truth about all these other matters.

Consider, for instance, the meaning of life. In the beginning we are told that God made us “male” and “female”. He made our bodies different (I’m sure you’ve already figured that out!). That difference, John Paul would say, is extremely significant. It means something very important that points us to life’s true meaning.

The difference we experience in our bodies as male and female is a sign of the fact that we need others; it’s a sign of the fact that we need community. Our bodies thus have a “nuptial meaning” whereby we are called to give of ourselves to God and to other people in love and in service. As the Holy Father put it in one of his talks: “The human body includes right from the beginning . . . the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”

So you want to know why there are so many lonely and miserable people living in the United States right now?

It’s because they don’t know this truth! They don’t know the meaning of their own bodies! They think their bodies are primarily designed for “receiving” and “taking”; they don’t realize that their primary purpose for being on this earth is to “give”. Consequently they are miserable in their selfishness and hedonism! They think the meaning of life is about “getting” and “possessing” and “accumulating”. They don’t realize that the real meaning of life is about the giving of themselves to others.

In closing, I highly encourage you to learn more about this crucial subject. Understanding John Paul II’s theology of the body can bring many blessings and benefits. If you don’t want to read all 129 talks of the Holy Father, there are some very good commentaries available which explain the essentials of the pope’s teaching in about 100 pages. There are also some great talks you can purchase on CD, by Christopher West and other recognized experts on the subject.

The basic message of John Paul II in all this is simple and clear: Know your body! Really know your body and its meaning! It’s ultimately the best thing you can do for your body—and your soul.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

How To Keep From Getting A Millstone-Necktie!

Good for grinding, but bad for neckties!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 1, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 9: 38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2006]

Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Thus the title of this homily is, “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”!

Jesus explicitly says here that leading others into sin is the underlying problem: it’s the reason a person deserves to take a dip in the ocean with a millstone tied firmly around his neck. So, obviously, that’s where our focus needs to be this morning: on the ways we can lead others (consciously or unconsciously) into sin.

One way, certainly, that this can be done is through our actions. We can cause other people to sin by setting them a bad example, or by bringing them into situations where we know they will be severely tempted to do what’s wrong (like teenagers who take their friends to parties where their friends will be tempted to drink and engage in other immoral activities).

But another way we can lead people into sin is through our WORDS: by the things we say to them; by the instruction and advice we give them.

And that’s the point I challenge you to reflect on today: What kinds of things do you say to others? In other words, what type of advice and counsel do you give on a daily basis to your children, to other members of your family, to your co-workers, and to your friends?

Are you telling these people the right things—the good things they need to hear: things that will lead them closer to Christ and his kingdom?

Or are you telling them things that will lead them in the opposite direction and get you a millstone-necktie?

Consider some of the “pearls” of advice that are frequently given in our culture these days—sometimes by intelligent, well-meaning people. When they say these lines, they think they’re helping others, but they aren’t. They’re actually harming them by encouraging them—or by giving them permission—to sin!

For example:

  • “All religions are pretty much the same. They all basically teach the same things.” Has someone ever told you that before? This very common saying can easily lead someone into sin because it gives the person permission to shop around for a religion that he or she finds appealing. And since we all like to follow the path of least resistance, religions that “appeal” are usually those that condone immoral behavior! New Age religions, for example, are very popular nowadays precisely because they reject moral codes like the 10 Commandments.
  • “Everybody’s doing it, so don’t be too concerned.” That type of advice can make a person complacent in a sin they’ve already committed; or it can make a person more likely to commit a sin that they’ve been able to avoid so far.
  • “It’s your body, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.” As we all know, since the 1960s that line has been used to justify everything from abortion to contraception to physician-assisted suicide. Consequently, in the last 40 or 50 years it has obtained millstone-neckties for many people here in our country and around the world.
  • “You don’t need to go to Mass every week; sometimes you’ve got other things to do that are more important.” Believe it not, many children come to me in Confession and tell me that their parents use that line on them all the time—sometimes almost every weekend! Another common saying with a similar message is this one: “You don’t need to go to Confession; you don’t do anything wrong. Besides, you’re not as bad as so-and-so.”
  • “The Church is old fashioned.” Variations of this saying are: “The Church needs to get with the times,” or “The Church needs to change and update her moral teaching”. I think it should be pretty obvious as to how those lines could lead another person into sin: if what the Church teaches is out of date, then obviously you can tune out the Church and live by your own rules.
  • “Even though it’s bad, you can handle it. It won’t affect you.” This is the line that “assures” people that they can view pornography, or abuse alcohol or drugs and then stop whenever they want to. It’s also the line that assures teenagers that they can listen to songs with vulgar lyrics and not be affected by the bad messages contained in those lyrics.
  • “Worry about your own needs; let others take care of themselves.” Jesus says in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, you do to me.” Our Lord makes it clear in that chapter that we will be judged at the end of our lives by our charity, as well as by our faith. The problem is, if you follow the advice of those who tell you to worry only about your own needs, you won’t be very charitable. And that sin—if it’s serious enough—will have eternal ramifications.

The title of this homily, as I mentioned earlier, is “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”. At this point, it should be clear: To keep from getting a necktie of stone, we must not lead others into sin either by our actions OR BY OUR WORDS! And we must be very careful about the latter, because words are very powerful. By our words we can point others to heaven, and by our words we have the potential to point others in the opposite direction.

“But, Father Ray, I’ve said some of those lines you mentioned a few moments ago. I’ve said them to my friends and relatives and co-workers. I thought I was helping them. I’ve also said other things to people that have encouraged them to do what’s wrong.”

Well, that is a problem—a very big problem—according to what Jesus says in this passage from Mark 9.

But fortunately it has a very simple solution. The solution is twofold. Step 1 involves a conversation. The conversation I’m referring to needs to begin in this way: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”; and it needs to include this line: “I ask God’s forgiveness today because I have said and done things that have led my brothers and sisters into temptation and also into sin.”

Step 2 comes afterward; it comes after absolution is given. And it’s just as important as step 1. It involves going out and trying to undo the damage we’ve caused (to the extent that we can). That means we must admit we were wrong and correct the things we’ve said. I know that’s difficult to do, and it’s certainly humbling—but in the end it’s extremely rewarding. It’s rewarding because it helps us to get rid of our millstone-necktie for good; and it’s rewarding because it puts us—and those we love—squarely on the road to heaven, which I’ve been told is a place where everyone has beautiful white robes, and no one wears neckties!