Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fight the Good Fight of Faith!

A true fighter!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 30, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Timothy 6: 11-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2007]

In the early 1990s, a new version of the New American Bible was published. It contained a revised and re-translated New Testament (for the most part, the Old Testament remained the same in both the old and new editions).

This revised New American translation is the one that we now use for our New Testament readings here at Mass on Sundays. It’s been that way for several years.

I do not know who the translators were who worked on this new edition of the New American Bible—I couldn’t tell you any of their names—but I can tell you one thing about them with absolute certainty: THEY WERE A BUNCH OF WIMPS!

Just look at today’s second reading from 1 Timothy 6. There Paul says to Timothy (and, by extension, to all of us): “Compete well for the faith”—or at least that’s how it’s translated in this revised New American version.

“Compete well for the faith” . . . Doesn’t that sound inspiring? Isn’t that a powerful line? Doesn’t it just make you want to go out and conquer the world for Jesus?

Well, if it does, God bless you—because it does absolutely nothing for me! To me that line sounds blah—and lifeless—and wimpy! It’s as if St. Paul were comparing the spiritual challenges of this life to a game of tiddlywinks!

I like the way this line was translated in the older version of the New American Bible—which is also the way it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version and just about every other English version that’s out there!

It reads: “Fight the good fight of faith!”

Now there’s a verse with some gusto! There’s a verse that has some power and conviction behind it! There’s a verse that conveys the real truth of what this life is about for the true believer!

And if you’re a serious Catholic—if you’re someone who is sincerely trying to be faithful to Jesus and his teachings in your life—then you no doubt agree with me. Because it’s not easy to be a Catholic Christian these days! Emmy award winning comediennes like Kathy Griffin, for example, regularly blaspheme Jesus Christ on national television and radio, and many in the liberal media call it “funny,” “interesting,” and even “refreshing.”

The teachings of the Catholic Church are viciously attacked on a daily basis in many schools, at work during lunch breaks, in newspapers and in magazines—and even during family gatherings. How often have you argued with some of your relatives about religious matters over Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner? It happens all the time.

If we’re going to stand our ground and live our faith and be true to what we believe as Catholic Christians, then we need to have a “fighting attitude”!

That’s why I believe the text should be translated, “Fight the good fight of faith!”

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we should have a belligerent attitude—that’s something different. To have a fighting attitude means to have a strong resolve and determination: a strong resolve and determination to live and love as Jesus wants us to! It doesn’t mean that we should be angry and hateful, or that we should be constantly looking for an argument!

In fact, for the most part, “fighting the good fight of faith” isn’t something that goes on externally with other human beings. Yes, it often does involve defending and explaining the faith to those who attack it. But our battle is not primarily with the Kathy Griffins of this world, as upsetting as those people can sometimes be. First and foremost, our battle of faith is with—and within—ourselves!

In my attempt to “fight the good fight of faith,” for example, my most troublesome opponent is not Mr. David Madden, who often attacks Church teaching with his letters in the Westerly Sun; it’s not the people who write unkind notes to me once in awhile because they want me to compromise the truth in some way. It’s not even the pro-abortion politicians in our government who annoy me constantly.

In my attempt to live out this Scripture passage from 1 Timothy 6 on a daily basis, my most difficult opponent is me! And that’s the way it will always be until the day I die!

By the same token, your most difficult opponent in your “fight of faith” is YOU!

You see, we each have a unique set of inner temptations and inner struggles that are constantly pulling us away from Jesus Christ. These are the forces that we must constantly fight against!

The inner temptations relate to the 7 deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, gluttony, anger, envy and sloth.

The inner struggles we have are rooted in the circumstances of our lives and in the defects in our personalities. Some of us, for example, have to battle moodiness; some of us tend to make rash judgments; some of us tend to hold grudges—those are just a few possible personality defects.

But don’t feel too bad, because even the great saints of the past have had these inner struggles! St. Paul had his “thorn in the flesh,” which he speaks about in 1 Corinthians 12; Thomas the apostle was prone to doubt; Peter’s weakness appears to have been his hot temper.

And Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta had her spiritual darkness to deal with! That was one of the places where she had to fight her good fight of faith.

And it wasn’t easy, as we now know from the things she wrote over the years to her spiritual director.

Many people, of course—especially those in the secular media—have completely misinterpreted this information. They say Mother Teresa’s holiness was all an act; they say she was really a depressed person who didn’t even believe that God existed.

Not true!

Blessed Mother Teresa experienced something that only a few souls ever experience on this side of the grave. It’s what St. John of the Cross and others have referred to as “the dark night of the soul.” Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is this: the person is closer to God than ever, but they don’t feel that way. It’s something like what Jesus experienced on the Cross, where he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus had not been forsaken by God—after all, he was God!—but in his human nature he felt like he had been.

In Mother Teresa these feelings of abandonment and separation from the Lord must have been especially intense, because early on in her religious life—in 1946 and 1947 to be exact—Jesus had blessed her with some very powerful experiences of his presence! As she later wrote, “There it was, as if our Lord gave himself to me in the full. The sweetness and consolation of those past six months passed but too soon.”

Once a person tastes the heights of mystical union with God like Blessed Mother Teresa did, the things of this world don’t have the same attraction anymore. Not only that, dealing with feelings of God’s absence becomes even more difficult—far more difficult than it would be for “normal people” like us, who’ve never had this type of mystical experience.

So Time Magazine was wrong in calling this situation a “crisis of faith” for Mother Teresa. Rather, as one priest said in a recent interview, this was “a trial of faith” for her—a trial of faith that she needed to approach with a “fighting attitude” for 50 years!

And she did.

Why did God allow it? No doubt for a number of reasons—one of which was probably to keep Mother Teresa humble, in the midst of all the accolades she received from people all over the world.

And we know it worked, because she once said (and here I quote), “The interior pain that I feel is so great that I don’t feel anything from all the publicity and people’s talking.”

God also allowed this spiritual darkness, I believe, for the benefit of the rest of us. As Catholics we know that offered-up suffering is like offered-up prayer: it draws down God’s blessings into our lives and into the world. Mother Teresa certainly believed this, which is why she once said, “I wish to live in this world that is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them—to take upon myself something of their suffering.”

This means that Mother Teresa helped the sick and the dying not only by her kind words and physical care, but also by how she dealt with her own unique interior struggle—her spiritual darkness.

Some have said in recent weeks that these revelations about Mother Teresa’s inner life make her less of a saint—less of an example and inspiration to the rest of us.

Well those people—like the people at Time Magazine—are wrong!

In reality, all of this makes her even more of an inspiration and more of an example! Now no one can say, “Well of course Mother Teresa always had a smile on her face, of course she was kind and charitable—after all she lived in the clouds! She was so close to Jesus that she probably felt his presence with her every day! It must have been so easy for her. But my life isn’t like that; my life is filled with struggles.”

Well now we know—so was hers! She was not exempt from temptation; she was not exempt from having her faith tested—in a big way! Like every believer, she had to “fight the fight”.

But she won! That’s the key point and the bottom line. Even in the midst of her feelings of isolation and abandonment and emptiness, she emerged victorious by consistently doing God’s will with love.

And if she can win her fight of faith, then we can win ours!