“You came hither to serve, not to govern; know that you are called to suffer and to labor, not to pass your time in idleness and talk.” (IC 1,17,3) | “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Pt 5:3)

It is always a particularly blessed event when the readings from Kempis (1,17) and the day’s Scripture (1 Pt 5:1-4) align so perfectly.  On this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle, we have such a happy occasion.

Kempis, in this chapter, deals with the religious life.  Peter, as part of the first ordination at the Last Supper, and now pope (see the note below), speaks to his presbyters (from which we get “priest”).  The first among the apostles exhorts them to imitate the Good Shepherd, Jesus, in tending their flocks well; key to this is humility and service.  They are not to “lord it over” their followers but to imitate the Lord in tending to the needs of the people or, as Kempis says, “to serve, not to govern.”

We are to be grateful to God for all the wonderful priests who selflessly serve the Church.  Let us support them by helping, volunteering, encouraging, and outdoing each other in generosity (see Rom 12:10).  Of course, most importantly, pray for your parish priests, and for all priests in the world (and those in purgatory), daily.  It is not an easy life but the benefits are out of this world, since those who are faithful in their duties, as Peter concludes, “will receive the unfading crown of glory” (v. 5).  May more men heed the call to this special vocation through our intercession, as Jesus requested: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Mt 9:37-38)

An important side note: today’s Gospel not only give us the institution of the papacy, but also of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Peter is the Rock on whom the Church (the only time Jesus says this word in the Gospels) is built.  Remember Matthew 16!

Let us pray in special way this day, but throughout the year, for the occupant of the Chair of Peter, that he will be strengthened in mind, body, and spirit by the Holy Ghost.  May he be an exemplar of his master and ours, Jesus the Christ.

Image result for peter as pope

“If you wish to act as you ought, and make due progress, look upon yourself as an exile and a pilgrim upon earth.” (IC 1,17,1) | “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)

We now come to Thomas à Kempis’s seventeenth chapter of the first book of The Imitation of Christ, entitled, “Of a Monastic Life” (1,17).  It may be tempting for us who do not live in a monastery or are not in the priesthood or the religious life, to bypass this chapter and others like it.  That would be a mistake.  There are profound lessons for those in all walks of life here, including: renouncing one’s own will, mortification of the passions, and the value of suffering and labor.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel (Mk 8:34-9:1) were addressed not only to His disciples, but also to the large crowd gathered to hear Him — this was meant for all of them to take to heart as it is likewise meant for everyone in all ages.  Not succumbing to the world and the culture, especially in these times, automatically entails carrying a cross.  Being counter-cultural often leads to scorn, derision, exclusion, and even threats (of course, countless thousands of Christians have paid the ultimate price for their steadfastness in the Faith — may it not come to that for us).  Yet, as Kempis says, no advancement is made without considering oneself “an exile and a pilgrim upon earth.”  Our true home, where the Lord “will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:4), is in the mansion God has prepared for us (Jn 14:2).  When we convey the Truth, that is Jesus, who is the Word, and are persecuted for it, we are to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:12).

Compromising the Gospel is not an option for the Christian.  Our call, our duty, is “living the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).  Let us never miss the opportunity to share the reason for our hope (1 Pt 3:15).

Finally, a quick note on the first reading from James.  This passage is the primary defense for Catholics against the doctrine of sola fide that Martin Luther devised some five hundred years ago.  He pointed to Paul’s letter to the Romans (specifically 3:28) to back his argument; in fact, Paul does not even write the words “faith alone.”  Those words, back to back, are only found in James (2:24), whose words refute this false teaching (no wonder Luther wanted to “throw Jimmy into the stove”).  All Catholics should be aware of where to find it, or at least know that this defense exists.

Isn’t it wonderful that James and Kempis agree with Jesus that faith requires action?  Who are we to argue with them?

“We are willing that others should be bound up by laws, and yet we cannot suffer ourselves to be constrained. Thus it is evident how seldom we weigh our neighbor in the same balance with ourselves.” (IC 1,16,3) | “[I]f you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (Jas 2:8-9)

Kempis’s words remind us of the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Wouldn’t life be so much easier if everyone agreed with me and did as I desired them to do?  Don’t they know that I know best?  And when things don’t fall precisely in line for me, then I might spout Jean-Paul Sartre famous and oft-quoted line, “Hell is other people.

Kempis, in this chapter (1,16), tells us we gain merit by our patience and exercise of virtue in our challenges with others.  No, it is not hell, but our duty, our command, to love others and bring a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven to them with the goal of bringing them to eternal glory with us.  Both Kempis and James (2:1-9) speak of the law.  We are constrained by the law…of love.  Being transgressors of this law, means conviction and punishment.

The tie-in of the two excerpts is clear: Kempis speaks of dealing with the “defects” of others.  James speaks of partiality, especially regarding having a dim view of the poor.  Aren’t those of a lesser stature in society an easy target for our ire?  Poor breeding?  From the other side of the tracks?  Lacking ambition?  Lazy?  Stupid?

Is this a Christian approach?  Is this showing love of neighbor?  Is this not making judgments, often with little information and based on stereotypes?

May such talk and attitudes never be found among us!  Remember, there, but for the grace of God, go I.

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“[W]e must support one another, comfort one another, assist, instruct, and admonish one another.” (IC 1,16,4) | “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.” (Jas 1:26)

In his chapter regarding how we are to deal with defects we note in others (1,16), Kempis devotes the last section to a proper attitude toward others.  So does James, who closes out the first chapter of his letter (1:19-27) with what at least one commentator calls an outline of the entire epistle: “everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

What is to be our approach to others?  Kempis tells us in the headline.  How do we do this well?  James says that we are to “bridle” our tongues.  What sort of example do we give as Christians if we do not listen attentively, then, using the power of speech wisely, in a limited way, and always to support, comfort, assist, or instruct.  Such words bring love and truth — something we all need.

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“[T]he measure of each one’s virtue best appears in occasions of adversity. For occasions do not make a man frail, but show what he is.” (IC 1,16,4) | “Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.” (Jas 1:12)

We now move on to Chapter XVI of Book One of Kempis’s Imitation of Christ entitled, “Of Bearing the Defects of Others” (1,16).  A particularly challenging chapter that will hit many of us in our most sensitive area: the difficulty in putting up with others who rub us the wrong way while having little concern (or even acknowledgment) of the negative effect we have on our neighbors.

James begins today’s passage (1:12-18) with the words in the headline.  He goes on to say that temptation does not come from God but rather from one’s own desires.  Giving in to temptation can lead ultimately to spiritual death when sin is allowed to grow and fester.

As is so often the case in the Gospels, Jesus gives the premier example of persevering in the face of temptation.  The Christ faced much adversity in His public life, and even before, as we note in the time of His temptation as He prepared for His public ministry (Mt 4:1-11).  Forcefully rebuking the devil’s direct enticements, the Lord’s virtue was measured and He showed not frailty but what He truly is: a faithful servant fulfilling to the letter His Father’s will for Him.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Maybe the reverend doctor was a Kempis fan?  In any case, Dr. King nails it.  Adversity will come.  When it does, do we exhibit virtues such as generosity, kindness, and humility (see the seven capital virtues).  With apologies to Matthew Kelly, do we put forward the best version of ourselves in such circumstances?  It certainly can be difficult in the heat of the moment.  Persevering in overcoming temptation to vice and embracing virtue merits “the crown of life.”  Well worth any trouble we encounter here, don’t you think?

The Temptation of Christ by Simon Bening (c. 1483-1561)

“Ah! If a man had but one spark of perfect charity, he would no doubt perceive that all things are earthly things are full of vanity.” (IC 1,15,3) | “For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes. So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” (Jas 1:11)

Kempis closes his chapter on charity (1,15) with the words above, coming back to a frequent theme of his: the vanity of worldly things.

The closing sentence of today’s first reading (Jas 1:1-11) ties into this theme quite well.  The entire paragraph is excellent: the poor man should be happy in his circumstances (see Mt 5:3); the rich man should remember and embrace his lowliness since this life, too, will pass.  What does the wealthy person to which James refers lack?  Love (caritas).  He is too busy to notice the other and thus dooms himself.  I would be surprised if the writer of this letter did not have in mind Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (see Lk 16:19-31) when writing today’s Scripture.

Once again, Kempis and the sacred author together remind of us our duty to love one another (see Jn 13:34) and to not become attached to passing things that serve to turn us away from this “new commandment.”

I’m thrilled that we will be hearing plenty in the next couple of weeks from James, whose practical wisdom makes his epistle my favorite.

File:St. James the Less, by El Greco, c. 1595, oil on canvas - Hyde Collection - Glens Falls, NY - 20180224 121920.jpg
St. James the Less (c. 1595) by El Greco

“He does well who regards rather the common good than his own will.” (IC 1,15,2) | “[W]hoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19b)

Kempis’s very short chapter on charity is very rich in material, so we continue to explore it here (1,15).  The brief sentence in the headline culminates the connection he makes with love: the person who loves much does well what he does which means he cares for the good of others over any selfish desires he may harbor.

In today’s lengthy Gospel (Mt 5:17-37), Jesus has barely gotten past the Beatitudes, which kick off the Sermon on the Mount, when he ups the ante on what the people, and particularly the Pharisees, think they know about the fourth, fifth, and eighth commandments.  Adultery strictly a physical act?  No!  Murder results only in the end of this mortal coil?  No!  Swearing an oath is confined to courtroom maneuvering?  No!

Unjust anger, insults, lust, unlawful divorce, indiscriminate oath swearing all can result in lengthy imprisonment (purgatory) or the ultimate punishment (hell).  If the Beatitudes were not challenging enough, just continue to read this chapter to the end to understand the high standard to which the Lord holds us.

There is no room for selfishness in Jesus’ doctrine.  We obey and teach the commandments as much by our actions as by our words.  What better way to honor the “common good” than to do this.

The verse immediately preceding today’s Gospel follows:

[Y]our light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

It is only in enlightening others with the truth as manifested in our lives and the value we place on those whom we encounter that we can even approach meeting the daunting standard that Jesus sets for us in the closing sentence of this chapter of Matthew:

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (v. 48)

Sermon on the Mount (1877) by Carl Bloch