“The kingdom of God is within you, says the Lord. Convert yourself with your whole heart to the Lord, and quit this miserable world, and your soul will find rest.” (IC 2,1,1) | “You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins.” (Jn 8:23-24)

The quote above contains the first words of Kempis in this chapter (2,1).  How does one have a deep interior conversation with God (the theme of this chapter) when one’s heart is in this world and its distractions?  When one’s status is considered paramount and the affairs of others is a bigger concern than the Lord and personal conversion?

Certainly, Jesus’ calling out of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel (Jn 8:21-30) is meant to bring conversion, not condemnation (see Jesus’ different conversation with a Pharisee at Jn 3:17).  Many Pharisees did not accept Jesus despite claiming to know the Scriptures (see Mt 22:29).  These men were far too concerned with their status among the people and the affairs of others.  Jesus wishes to shake them from their erroneous ways, often with pointed language like we hear in this reading and particularly in the quote at top.  Jesus loves (He is Love — see 1 Jn 4:8), but sometimes it is tough love.

“The kingdom of God is within you,” Kempis says (see Lk 17:21).  Our challenge is to get our “whole heart” to fall in line.  Quitting this “miserable world” does not mean we want out as soon as possible or that we don’t engage the world (although certainly some of the monks and nuns to whom Kempis was [and is] speaking to did take that route — and thank God for the men and women who devote their lives to prayer).  Rather, as we have already seen frequently in The Imitation of Christ, our focus must remain on eternity, on the Christ who came into the world for us but who does “not belong to this world.”  His warning about “d[ying] in your sins” was meant to serve as a wake up call for the Pharisees of his time as it is for us today.

Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.

This last line of the reading is interesting isn’t it?  One might have expected folks to be upset or walk away, but His strong words to the Pharisees, His declaration that He is God (“I AM”), and His statement that He always pleases the Father, were attractive to many of his hearers that day.  It serves as a lesson this day that we are never to soft peddle the truth: we are sinners and need to hear this fact in no uncertain terms (see Heb 4:12); Jesus is God and that entails that we believe in Him and listen to Him (see Mt 17:5); Jesus followed the will of His Father in all things and this perfect example is what we are called to follow (see Mt 5:48).

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“Christ will come to you, and reveal to you His consolation, if you will prepare Him a fit dwelling within you.” (IC 2,1,1) | “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She replied, ‘No one, sir.’ Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.'” (Jn 8:10-11)

Today we begin the second, and shortest, of the five books of Thomas à Kempis’s masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ.  This book is entitled, “Admonitions Concerning the Interior Life.”  The first chapter: “Of Interior Conversation.”  Once again, Kempis discourages materialism and distractions so that we can better communicate interiorly with God — the better disposed we are to listen, the more fruit will come of this practice.  The headline gives us in a nutshell the entire chapter.  We will be consoled if we allow in Christ fully.

The Gospel proclaimed this day (only in Jn 8:1-11) is the episode in which the Jewish religious leaders bring to Jesus (forcibly, most assuredly) a woman caught in adultery in order to attempt to trap Him: let her go and He breaks the Law of Moses; authorize her killing and He breaks Roman law (executions were only to be carried out by Roman officials).  As always, Jesus cleverly avoids their trap by turning it around on them: are they willing to break Roman law and do they feel interiorly disposed to cast this judgment?  Eventually they all drop their rocks and go away.  The words above are the only discourse between Jesus and the woman in this story.

It seems to me that this is a very good example of something good coming from something evil.  Actually, two evils: the woman’s adulterous act and the conniving of the scribes and Pharisees.  The woman, undoubtedly ashamed, embarrassed, and afraid for her life, is dragged to the temple area, no less, in front of this great teacher, preacher, and healer (I wonder how much she knew of Him — He must have been the talk of all Jerusalem by that time).  This all changes quickly as, in a matter or minutes, Jesus frees her and commands her to amend her life.  What began as a horror fer her turned out to be the greatest blessing of her life.

Per Kempis, Christ did come to her (or maybe better put, Christ brought her to Himself).  What consolation must she have felt when Jesus not only caused her freedom but also doesn’t condemn her.  He desired to make for Him “a fit dwelling within [her]” if only she would renounce her previous immorality and embrace holiness.  We do not know what becomes of her (at least explicitly; this short article makes a compelling case for her as Mary Magdalene).  But, it’s hard to imagine that her life was not changed forever.  We hope that her consoling encounter with Jesus kept Him in her heart always and that she gave up her sinful ways for her remaining days.

Just the same, we are freed by Jesus (see Gal 5:1) and commanded to amend our lives so Jesus can find “a fit dwelling within [us].”  We dispose ourselves to the ever greater lordship of Christ in our lives through daily prayer, contemplation, examination of conscience, Scripture and other spiritual reading, along with frequent sacramental Confession, and weekly or more Holy Communion (at least spiritually, if not able to get to daily Mass).  If we are faithful, we need not be ashamed, embarrassed, and afraid for our spiritual life.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) by Pieter Bruegel

“Oh, if only there were nothing else to do but to praise the Lord our God with all our heart and tongue!” (IC 1,25,10) | “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” (Jn 11:45)

It seems fitting to end this chapter (1,25) and, thus, Book One of The Imitation of Christ, with the words above.  If God consumes “our heart and tongue” then all that we do will be in accord with God’s will and we will work all the more diligently to correct all the deficiencies in ourselves that he has not hesitated to point out.  Kempis goes on to the bemoan the fact that, sadly, of fleshly necessity, we must eat, drink, and sleep instead of being entirely focused on spiritual things.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  While all gospels tell of Jesus raising persons from the dead, this particular episode only appears in John (11:1-45).  Jesus, upon hearing of Lazarus’s illness and the call of his sisters to come heal his friend, delays the visit in order to manifest in a special way the glory of God.  When Jesus finally arrives with the apostles, the poor man has already been dead and buried four days.  Martha is bothered that Jesus did not come post haste, but still expresses faith.  In front of many, Jesus cries, but then orders the tomb opened at which time He calls Lazarus to come out.  The line in the headline concludes the story.

I bring the two quotes together because it is not hard to imagine that, for at least Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (and hopefully many more in the crowd who “began to believe”), they must have desired to unceasingly “praise the Lord our God with all our heart and tongue” after this unexpected event — their beloved brother was returned to the sisters!  Now, of course, as Kempis lays out in this chapter, we should wish that nothing would distract us from this disposition.  But, life and nature being what it is, we can only continue to strive, by the grace of God, to approach the Lord in this way in all our tasks and circumstances.  It is unlikely that we will ever witness a miracle like the one proclaimed today; our challenge is to give glory and praise to God in everything, even when it’s difficult to understand how a greater good will come from it (that may only come in the next life).

As an aside, in my reading of this passage, I noticed (or at least interiorized) for the first time that this last sentence says the Jews “had come to Mary” (presumably referring back to v. 31 when they followed her to the tomb).  Now, of course, the context refers to Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’s and Martha’s sister.  But, in finally taking note of this, it is impossible not to think of another Mary, Jesus’ own mother, and how she can be an avenue to show what her Son has done (leading them first to the tomb and then bearing witness to the Resurrection) and to help people believe in Him and come to praise Him.  I am certain that both Marys are available for that assistance right now and until the end of time.  Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Bethany, draw ever more persons to Jesus!

As an aside to the aside, there is debate as to whether Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are the same person.  I have heard good arguments on both sides of this question.  But it is worth pondering: is it not somehow fitting that both(?) Marys are the first to tombs (Lazarus’s; Jesus’) and led others there (the Jews; Peter and John)?

Parma - The fresco of Assmption of Virgin Mary in side cupola of church Chiesa di Santa Cristina by Filippo Maria Galletti (1636-1714).

“Be vigilant and diligent in God’s service; and think often for what end you came here, and why you left the world.” (IC 1,25,1) | “I knew their plot because the LORD informed me; at that time you, O LORD, showed me their doings. Yet I, like a trusting lamb led to slaughter, had not realized that they were hatching plots against me” (Jer 11:18-19)

Kempis begins this chapter on amendment of our whole life (1,25) with the words above.  He is speaking specifically to those who have committed to the religious life, but all of us can take lessons from it.  Certainly, religious have “left the world” in a special way but, as we’ve often seen, Kempis calls all Christians to “leave the world” by renouncing any undue attachment to material things.  A (super)natural outgrowth of being increasingly “vigilant and diligent in God’s service” is being decreasingly interested in passing things.

Today’s short excerpt from Jeremiah (Jer 11:18-20) finds the reluctant prophet again (thus we get the word “jeremiad“) bemoaning the fact that plenty of folks are out to get him.  He entrusts his cause to the Lord and he asks vengeance on those plotting against him.  He certainly must once again be recalling the mission he received as a youth and does not want cut short his work for his God.

Like Jeremiah, per Kempis’s call, we too are to keep foremost in mind “for what end you came here” — not specifically the monastery (unless it is your calling) but more generally life in Christ through baptism. Living that life intentionally is challenging — not only because of the weakness of our fallen nature but because the world militates against a Christian outlook.  Unlike Jeremiah, we don’t ask for vengeance against our enemies (in fact, they are the enemies of Jesus whose rage is taken out on us — the good news: Mt 5:11-12), rather we pray for their conversion (see 1 Tim 2:3-4).

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Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling

“[I]f you see anything that is reprehensible take care that you do not do the same; or if you, at any time have done it, strive to amend yourself quickly.” (IC 1,25,6) | “[T]heir wickedness blinded them” (Wis 2:21)

Kempis closes out Book One (“Useful Admonitions for a Spiritual Life”) of his The Imitation of Christ with his longest chapter so far: “Of the Fervent Amendment of Our Whole Life” (1,25).  In a certain way, it is a good summary of the entire first book, focusing on those in religious life, but certainly applicable to all who seek to please God.  It is filled with short helps and admonitions like the one above: see bad behavior for what it is and avoid it or, if you have been guilty of it yourself, repent and do better.  Even the bad example of others can lead to (a return to) good behavior in ourselves.

The Book of Wisdom starts off with guns a blazin’, so to speak.  The wicked are called out within the first few verses of this book, carrying through the entire second chapter.  In the first reading today (Wis 2:1a, 12-22), it quickly becomes clear why this passage was chosen as we quickly approach Holy Week.  We can hear plainly the religious leaders of Jesus’ day in this passage.  The author (Solomon gets the attribution) speaks of a “just one” who “boasts that God is his Father” and “judges us debased” so “[l]et us condemn him to a shameful death.”  The author’s conclusion regarding their sentiments can be seen in the headline.

Kempis warns his readers to not do the reprehensible things they see others do, and to change our ways quickly if they are guilty of the same.  The danger if they don’t: the blindness that comes with sinning habitually.  Justification for bad behavior comes more and more easily: everyone else is doing it; others are doing much worse things; I’m basically a good person so I can allow myself this “little” vice; I’m only human; and on and on it goes.  The inevitable result: growing blind to offenses against God and becoming more easily disposed to give into temptation to do even worse things.  Amend quickly!  The consequences of being obstinate in wickedness are dire indeed, as Wisdom attests.

File:087.King Solomon in Old Age.jpgKing Solomon in Old Age (1866) by Gustave Doré

“All…is vanity, except to love God and serve him alone.” (IC 1,24,7) | “How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44)

We close out this chapter of Kempis (1,24) with an all-encompassing message: all we do must be done for the love of God.  If we sincerely try to do this and have sorrow, repent, and do penance when we do fall short, fear of judgment will not be in us.

Jesus’ long message to the Jewish religious leaders, after His healing on the sabbath of the man at the Bethesda pool, takes up the remainder of the chapter, with a long excerpt proclaimed today (Jn 5:31-47).  This comes immediately after Scripture tells us that “the Jews tried all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God” (v. 18).  Jesus’ words are strong and pointed as He hopes to shake these men out of their biases, misconceptions, egocentrism, and envy.  In the quote at top, the Messiah calls them out for what is truly important to them: praise from men rather than the approval of God.

The Jews are guilty of what Kempis highlights: vanity.  They lost perspective (if they ever even had it) regarding who they were supposed to be serving primarily.  For these men it was themselves first and everyone else (including Yahweh) somewhere down the line, if at all in their thinking.  Over and over Jesus attempts to instill the fear of judgment in them (see for example Mt 21:28-32), but few seem to interiorize these warnings; rather they harden their hearts against Jesus all the more.

So, in the service of God, we are not to seek the approval of anyone but our Lord.  From those persons who understand this, we will get affirmation (praise God), but we shouldn’t count on receiving comfort in this world.  From the rest of secular society and its worldliness we don’t expect accolades and often get condemnation.  Let us always seek the praise of God and let the chips fall where they may.


(1852-1901)

“[T]he poor and humble will have great confidence, and the proud will fear on every side.” (IC 1,24,4) | “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.'” (Lk 1:38)

Kempis never tires to speak of the importance of humility and being poor in spirit, that is not prioritizing or having undue attachment to the material over the spiritual.  In this chapter (1,24), his emphasis focuses on our particular judgment at death and the punishment meted out at that time to those who have sin or the effects of sin still on their souls (see CCC 1030) as well as the benefits of being faithful (both aspects seen above in a very short phrase).

As is appropriately proclaimed each March 25, The Feast of the Annunciation, we hear from Luke, the only evangelist who fully records this scene, the visit of the Archangel Michael to Mary in her home town of Nazareth (Lk 1:26-38).  The angel appears suddenly, declaring her chosen to bear the “Son of the Most High.”  She wonders how this could be since she must have made a vow of perpetual virginity (why else would this even be a question since she was betrothed to be married?).  In humility, she gives her consent (God never forces Himself on us — He is a gentleman) as “handmaid of the Lord.”

Two things struck me about Kempis’s words in relation to today’s Gospel.  Firstly, there is no better example than Mary of poverty and humility.  Sinless from conception until her dormition, Mary lived perfectly our divine directive to always put God first, others second, and herself last.  Secondly, I have long imagined her as the picture of confidence in her interaction with the angel.  Surprised, no doubt, in her humility, that such a great favor would fall to her, I can’t believe there was even a bit of fear in her despite her encounter with “one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord” (Tob 12:15) who likely appeared in all his glory.  She expressed herself with poise (not doubt) when questioning how his announcement squared with her vow, and then humbly, but forthrightly, agreed to this request from her Creator, fully assured in faith that God wanted and needed her for His plan of salvation.

Servile fear of God or unwarranted anxiety about events should not be a part of Christian life.  God is in control, even in the most troubled times, ordaining or permitting all that happens.  The questions we should ponder are: How can God be glorified in the midst of this difficult time?  What can we take from the challenge He has put in front of us?

Like Mary, we should approach whatever is presented to us in full confidence in Our Father, who knows what’s best for us (see Lk 11:11-13).

Fear is useless. What is needed is trust. (Mk 5:36; Lk 8:50)

The Annunciation Painting - The Annunciation  by Agostino MasucciThe Annunciation (1742) by Agostino Masucci