“Trust not in your own knowledge…but rather in the grace of God” (IC 1,7,1) “Not as man sees does God see, because he sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

Another common early theme of Kempis (1,7) is the insufficiency of our own learning as compared to the inscrutability of God.  Here, again, he warns the reader to have faith in God much more than in our own limited knowledge, as deep as it may be.

For Samuel in the first reading (1 Sam 16:1-13), in looking for the next king to replace the disgraced Saul, he is led by God to the family of Jesse in Bethlehem to pick the new monarch from among his sons.  In seeing the first born’s handsome “appearance” and “lofty stature,” and undoubtedly considering his status as the eldest, Samuel was sure this would be the chosen one.  Not so, God tells Samuel, then speaks the words in the headline to him.  After going through one son after the other, likely from oldest to youngest, Samuel finally has to ask Jesse if there are any more sons, for Samuel was assured that the next king was among them.  This is when we finally meet the humble shepherd boy, David, the youngest of the group, who is immediately anointed by Samuel.

Thus, we have another cautionary tale for our own lives.  It seems to me that too often folks are very quick to attribute positive events or circumstances to God’s ordained will.  A certain dynamic person comes into our lives unexpectedly so he must have been sent by the Lord.  Look at how all these circumstances fell into place for me so that I am able to attain this thing I desire.  What good fortune that I am able to pursue this matter uninhibited.

Now it may well be that God has actively intervened on our behalf in certain matters we desire.  But we must be careful.  We can be tempted by appearances to think that we know best.  Rather, we are to keep up regular conversation with God, place all things in His loving hands, and ask for a discerning heart (here a spiritual director can be of great help to give an objective evaluation of situations).  And, of course, as Kempis indicates, have recourse to the sacraments, the ordinary means of grace, to receive this free gift from God that surpasses all human knowledge.

Samuel anoints David by Mattia Preti (1613-1699)

“Be not proud of your own works: for the judgments of God are different from the judgments of men; and oftentimes, that displeases Him which pleases men.” (IC 1,7,3) “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam 15:22)

Kempis encourages us to be introspective in our actions (1,7): is what we are doing or considering doing objectively good in God’s eyes?  Are we getting more out of it than God, in the sense that we are considering our own glory instead of desiring God’s glory?

Samuel convicts King Saul, the first king of the Jews, precisely of being more concerned about himself and his men than of God, in today’s first reading (1 Sam 15:16-23).  God’s command to entirely exterminate the Amalekites was broken by Saul’s troops with at least his tacit approval.  Saul’s claim that they saved the choicest animals for sacrifice to God is tenuous at best (see verse 9 for the author’s view [1 Sam 15:9]).  And, why bring the defeated king back with him unless Saul wanted to use Agag as a trophy for Saul’s own ego?  All this self-focus and disobedience had already cost Saul his dynasty (see 1 Sam 13:8-14); now, this latest defiance cost him his kingship.

And even if we were to take Saul’s word at face value regarding sparing the animals, he is still displeasing God: he thinks he knows better than God (the Original Sin) how to please God.

Consider a current application of this principle in the context of sacrificial offerings, i.e., liturgy, from The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The First and Second Books of Samuel (by Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch, and Michael Barber from Ignatius Press, 2016):

Separating the moral life from liturgical life is a contradiction of biblical religion that God finds deeply offensive — so much so that brazen disobedience is on a par with idolatry…Scripture declares worship an empty and vain gesture without a corresponding submission to the Lord’s will. (pp. 36-7)

Scripture, Tradition, and Holy Mother Church provide guidance for right worship of God and right living.  May we never find the latter in opposition in our own lives due to pride leading to disobedience.

Image result for SAMUEL AND SAUL 1 sam 15Photo Courtesy of the-athenaeum.org

“Continual peace is with the humble; but in the heart of the proud is frequent envy and indignation.” (IC 1,7,2) “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” (Jn 1:30)

The seventh chapter of The Imitation of Christ (1,7) rails against vanity and pride and exalts humility (as we’ve seen, and will continue to see, this is a common theme of Kempis’s and, frankly, of any solid work of Christian spirituality — especially the Bible).  No better example of humility among human persons, aside from Our Lady, is there than John the Baptist.

John was quite famous in his time.  As we have already read, the people flocked to him.  His message was severe, but his dynamism was evident.  He had his own group of loyal followers.  If anyone could have succumbed to pride through legitimate popularity it was John.  But it’s evident from his words above that he always knew his role and his place as a precursor to the Savior, the Son of God (a title he confers on Jesus in the last words of today’s reading).

John is clear why his cousin “ranks ahead of me”: it is “because he existed before me.”  Now John’s parents certainly would have told him that Jesus was born six months after he was, so Jesus came into existence in the flesh after John.  But Elizabeth, his mom, would also have told him that Jesus was the eternal Lord, as she exclaimed upon meeting Jesus’ mother Mary (see Lk 1:39-45, esp. 43).  In addition, how many times must Zechariah, his dad, have regaled him with the story of his encounter with the angel and what it meant for young John (see Lk 1:5-25, esp. 15-17)?

John undoubtedly would have taken this all to heart and meditated upon it often.  It is solid theological speculation that John was sanctified in the womb (“He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” — Lk 1:15) and that this happened when Mary visited as indicated by when he “leaped for joy” inside Elizabeth (Lk 1:44) who at that moment was “filled with the holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41).  So, it may well be that he never committed a personal sin.  In any case, he was a most fitting vessel to be the last, and greatest, of the Old Testament prophets who actually saw what they “longed to see” (Mt 13:17).

John was at peace with his mission, his exiting of the stage, and his ultimate demise.  He followed the Lord’s will perfectly and was able to meet death with the peace that comes with a clear conscience and a perfect submission to God’s will.  If we do the same we will hear the words that John undoubtedly heard upon his martyrdom: “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy.’” (Mt 25:21)

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Preaching of St. John the Baptist (1486–1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio

“[I]f he has pursued his inclination, he is immediately tormented with remorse of conscience, because he has followed his passion, which helps him not at all to the peace he sought for.” (IC 1,6,2) “While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.” (Mk 2:15)

Kempis tells us of an experience most every person knows because we sinners ourselves have actualized it: giving in to temptation and then instantly feeling terrible about it. (1,6)  Some Catholics, usually non-practicing or ex-Catholics, often derisively refer to this as “Catholic guilt.”  Well, guess what, God, in His mercy, has gifted everyone with a conscience (see the CCC for more on this) which, when properly formed, helps us to stay on the narrow path to life (see Mt 7:13-14) or get back onto that trail when we have taken a detour.

In today’s Gospel (Mk 2:13-17), Jesus, as is often the case, takes heat from the Jewish religious leaders because He is dining with “tax collectors and sinners.”  Jesus deals with why He is compelled to do this in the passage, but what about His dinner guests?  Undoubtedly, they found Jesus’ preaching appealing and His manner welcoming.  They were quite bold to be so near to this great figure when they certainly realized the manner in which they were being judged by others.  Regardless of any hesitation they may have felt, they had become keenly cognizant of their own sinfulness and were not at peace with themselves.  Maybe they were aware of this all along.  Or maybe it was Jesus who tweaked their hearts (or, rather, pierced their souls — see Heb 4:12).

Both Kempis and Mark the Evangelist direct us, sinners all, to the Prince of Peace (see Is 9:5) the Divine Physician, to find forgiveness, healing, and the strength and grace to carry on and stay on His path.

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The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (1567-1570) by Paolo Veronese

“Whenever a man desires anything inordinately, he is immediately disquieted within himself.” (IC 1,6,1) “There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations” (1 Sam 8:19-20)

Kempis tells us (1,6) that obsession with acquiring material things causes us to lose our peace of mind and heart.  Is it not the case?  “I gotta have that ‘hot’ new phone — I can’t stop thinking about it!”  “I must get those expensive tickets — I’ll move heaven and earth to make sure I snag a pair!”  “How can I show myself in public without the latest designer outfit — I’ll do and spend whatever it takes to get it!”  “We must get our candidate into office — if we don’t it will be the end of civilization as we know it!”

Anyone who watches even a bit of news or dips his toe into social media knows that the last sentence is not an exaggeration for far too many folks.  Well, as the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles 1:9).  This is where the people of Israel were.  While it is true that a lot of encouragement to the Chosen People was not provided by the judges regarding the latter’s personal behavior and their ability as leaders, the elders in today’s first reading (1 Sam 8:4-7, 10-22a) come forward and essentially want to double down.  Instead of going back to God, who should have been the only leader they ever would need, they look around and see other nations’ kings and want to have an earthly monarch as well.  Samuel relates to them that God says, “they are rejecting me as their king,” and warns them in detail that they are in for even worse times with this type of leader, yet they insist.  So God grants them their desire, essentially giving them the punishment they deserve (read the rest of the Old Testament for proof).

Kempis speaks of earthly possessions; his reproofs do not apply to the divine.  We cannot desire God too greatly — pleasing Him and doing His will are proper obsessions.  So, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that there is some magic formula among our fallen race to make us happy, to make everything right.  Let us not desire this elusive temporal “ruler” to straighten things out.  Let us look to the Almighty constantly and we will quickly come to the realization that “our hearts our restless until they rest in [God]” (St. Augustine in Confessions).

Image result for samuel in the bibleIcon of the prophet Samuel, 17th century

 

 

“The proud and covetous are never easy” (IC 1,6,1) “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the LORD from Shiloh that it may go into battle among us and save us from the grasp of our enemies.” (1 Sam 4:3)

Chapter 6 of The Imitation of Christ (1,6) deals with human persons’ inordinate desire for carnal and sensual things.  Above is the first half of the second sentence of this chapter.  He means that the proud and covetous are never at ease, never at peace.  They are not content with what they have but, rather, are continuously concerned about what they have and what they want.  This drive of the flesh never ultimately ends well.

Consider the bit of history related in the first reading (1 Sam 4:1-11).  The Philistines attack Israel and defeat them soundly.  Israel, constantly running after foreign gods, suddenly remembers the true God’s dwelling among them, and decides to use the Ark of the Covenant as some sort of good luck charm.  Eli’s two evil sons (they fully embraced the carnal and sensual pleasure Kempis denounces [see 1 Sam 2:12-17]) are sent to “fetch” it.

Not only does Israel’s army get slaughtered (more than seven times worse than before), but the Ark is captured and taken by the enemy.  This is not the end of the story of the Ark (it will soon be returned), but is it any wonder that a God who is ignored and forgotten “ignores” and “forgets” the Chosen People?  Could they (we) ever have peace, could they (we) ever be at ease, in ignoring, or worse, defying God?  God sent His prophets time and time again — “one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned” (Mt 21:35).

The silver lining is that this happens while Samuel is being groomed, and is already widely acknowledged as a prophet (see 1 Sam 3:19-21), to lead the transition from the age of judges to the institution of an earthly king.  Samuel becomes the heir that Eli’s son forfeited by their actions and which ultimately led to their deaths.

Fresco of the Philistine captivity of the ark, in the Dura-Europos synagogue.

“God speaks to us in many ways without respect to persons.” (IC 1,5,2) “[T]he LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.'”

We know that “God speaks to us in many ways” (1,5): in prayer, in Scripture, in holy books, through others, through events.  No one is too good to hear from God; neither is anyone too bad.  No one is too lofty for God; neither is anyone to lowly.  In fact, explicit personal divine revelation is almost always granted to the humblest and most nondescript persons in the Bible and since, it seems.

So, Samuel was also of humble origins.  His mother prayed endlessly that her barrenness end and the first child that was an answer to that prayer was Samuel, whom she promptly dedicated to the Lord.  Today’s first reading (1 Sam 3:1-10, 19-20) indicates, “At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet” (v. 7).  Now the Lord reveals Himself with several audible “taps on the shoulder,” so to speak. in the middle of the night.  Thus begins an amazing life in service to the Lord.

Samuel did not recognize the Lord’s calling.  Maybe he did not think it could happen to him (it certainly took his mentor Eli a while to figure out what was going on — as the reading says, in those days “the word of the LORD was scarce and vision infrequent” [v. 1], so maybe we can understand his obtuseness).

Do we recognize God calling us?  Certainly, it is a rare occurrence indeed to have the Lord personally and audibly make Himself known to us.  But no one is above or below God’s interest in him (see Mt 10:29-31, for example).

We must take quiet time with the Lord and listen closely for the help and guidance of His “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:11-13).  Additionally, reading Scripture, taking up spiritual reading, seeking the counsel of a spiritual adviser, and paying attention to persons and events that seem to be giving indication of the Lord’s presence, are all means that God uses to speak to us.

In a day and age in which there are more distractions and noise than ever, we must give God, ever the gentleman who does not impose Himself on us, the opportunity to reach us.

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Hannah presenting Samuel to the priest Eli by Albert Valentin (b. after 1908–d. after 1968)