“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.

Image result for hannah and samuel

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

 

“Men pass away; ‘but the truth of the Lord remains forever.'” (IC 1,5,2) “The people were astonished at [Jesus] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” (Mk 1:22)

In today’s Gospel (Mk 1:21-28), Jesus continues in earnest His proclamation of the Kingdom (as St. John Paul so aptly named the Third Luminous Mystery) in the synagogue in the town that was His base of operations, Capernaum.  Those in attendance were “astonished at his teaching” because of its authoritativeness.  Jesus did not have to appeal to any other teacher, living or dead, as other religious leaders did.  He taught on His own authority.  As if to add an exclamation mark, Jesus caps off this episode by exorcising a demon with five words, adding to the onlookers amazement.

Kempis writes: “the truth of  the Lord remains forever” (1,5).  These blog posts have already emphasized Jesus as truth incarnate (see Jn 14:6) and will undoubtedly continue to do so.  He is also the Word of God (see Jn 1:1, 14), so when He speaks, He not only refers to Himself in quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, He is relaying to us new Divine Revelation in his exposition of existing Scripture — Jesus is the perfect exegete.  This is why we are to pay particular attention when Jesus appeals to the Old Testament regarding His mission.  (As an aside, selfishly, I’m disappointed that we don’t have a transcript of His exposition of the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus (see Lk 24:27); but I  know that the Holy Spirit, the one who inspired the entire Bible, knows what He’s doing, and needs no advice from me.)

In an age in which truth, for some, has become flexible to the point of breaking or even inverting (see Is 5:20), we should share the astonishment of Jesus’ first hearers in receiving the Truth with open minds and open hearts, living it from moment to moment and sharing it unalloyed with our neighbor.

Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum (eleventh century)
from Stift Lambach in Oberösterreich

“We should rather seek for profit in the Scriptures than for subtlety of speech.” (IC 1,5,1) “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

Kempis, in chapter five (1,5), argues for “humility, simplicity, and faith” in reading the Bible and, more broadly, in living our lives.

I pair his quote (in the headline) with Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark (from today’s Gospel reading [Mk 1:14-20]) to show that this was Jesus’ approach, as well.  He comes out with a blunt message meant to strike at the heart.  Brief, straightforward, and memorable.  His time was short and he wasted neither this time, nor His words, getting about His Father’s business (see Lk 2:49).

While it is true that evaluation of one’s audience and consideration of pastoral concerns play important roles in how to formulate and deliver the Gospel message, being too subtle, as Kempis warns, so that the truth of the message is obscured, or worse yet, confused, is no way to approach evangelization.  I’m reminded of Jesus’ admonition: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Mt 5:37) from the Sermon on the Mount.  I heard a preacher once say, “The devil’s favorite color is grey”; there is much truth to this.  Bishop Barron speaks of a “beige Catholicism” which, in his words, “‘is the dominance of the prevailing culture over Catholicism,’ where Catholics are ‘too culturally accommodating’ and ‘excessively apologetic.'”

We should all make a habit to pray to the Holy Spirit, especially when engaging others in discussions regarding the Faith.  The Spirit, who proceeds from the Son (see Jn 14:26) who is the Truth (see Jn 14:6), “will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Lk 12:12).

File:Sankt Matthaeus Kirke Copenhagen altarpiece detail1.jpgAltarpiece – “Sermon on the Mount” – detail
(Sankt Matthæus Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark)
by Henrik Olrik (1830–1890)

“A good life makes a man wise according to God” (IC 1,4,2) “[I]n every nation whoever fears [God] and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:35)

Today’s second reading (Acts 10:34-38) is the beginning of Peter’s speech in the home of Cornelius, a centurion well-respected by the Jewish people, in which Peter preaches Christ to these pagans of good will.  He lets them know that the true God is God of all and that Jesus came to save all mankind (i.e., “every nation”).  But they must fear God and act uprightly if they truly believe.

So, what Kempis says on the matter (1,4) is eminently true: wisdom comes from a good life.  Why?  Because what can show sagacity more eloquently than following God’s command to lead a good life by loving one another?  Not only does our faith in and obedience to God’s revelation put us in good standing regarding our eternal destiny but it serves to fulfill the petition in the Lord’s Prayer to make His kingdom present here and now (“thy kingdom come on earth”).

Solomon, famous for his wisdom, received this gift of the Holy Spirit (see Is 11:2) and more, in addition, than he could ever imagine, because he asked for wisdom in all humility, with no concern for self, but rather mindful only of the proper governance of God’s Chosen People (see 1 Kgs 3:1-15).  This is the model for us.  “[S]eek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Mt 6:33)

Image result for peter and cornelius

“The more humble a man is and the more subject to God…the more at peace [he will be].” (IC 1,4,2) “[T]he best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete.” (Jn 3:29)

A regular theme of Kempis, as we have already seen and will continue to see, is humility.  Humility results in many good things, including peace of mind and heart (1,4).

John the Baptist’s words above (Jn 3:22-30) come after his disciples have a dispute and then express concern (and maybe some envy) that Jesus is baptizing nearby and “everyone is coming to him.”  John responds that he has already publicly proclaimed that he, himself, is not the Christ, but is preparing the way for Him — the best man to the groom.

We know that Jesus said that no greater man was born than John (see Mt 11:11), and we know that a hallmark of canonized saints is radical humility.  So, what human person in all of history could have been more self-effacing than John (aside from Jesus’ mother)?  He understood his mission, fulfilled it perfectly, and now it was his time to exit the scene (and soon, this life).

It seems to me that one major thing lacking in the world and in individual lives is peace.  Even in the midst of chaos, a holy soul finds tranquility in the trust in God that comes with humility: God is God, I’m not, so I will follow His will, not mine, whether ordained by Him or permitted by Him.  One finds much more peace in faith.  A lesson for us in the turbulence of these times.

There is a little book I love, somewhat hard to find, called Confidence in God written in the early 20th century by an English Jesuit.  On page after page it addresses this very issue is a unique and heartening way.  Pick it up if you can.

Jesus of Nazareth photo by Pat York