Thomas Merton (d. 1968), the well-known Trappist monk, in his 1948 autobiography, Seven-Story Mountain, speaks of being “salt of the earth”. In this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 9:38-50), Jesus tells us: “have salt in yourselves”. Thomas, of course, speaks of religious life, which is about belonging to God in a unique and special way, thanks to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The spirit of religious life, however, ought to permeate the journey of each of us and of us all as Body of Christ, the Church. We are called wholeheartedly to belong to God. And, in that belonging, to impart the flavor of God to one another and, as the same passage says, to “be at peace with one another”.
I will let Thomas speak:
I had to be led by a way that I could not understand, and I had to follow a path that was beyond my own choosing. God did not want anything of my natural fancies and selections until they had been more completely divorced from their old track, their old habits, and directed to Himself, by His own working…My selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this whole vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world.
Besides, I was depending almost entirely on my own powers and on my own virtues — as if I had any! — to become a good religious, and to live up to my obligations in the monastery. God does not want that. He does not ask us to leave the world as a favor to Himself.
God calls us — not only religious, but all Christians — to be the “salt of the earth.” But the savor of the salt, says St. Augustine, is a supernatural life, and we lose our savor if, ceasing to rely on God alone, we are guided, in our actions, by the mere desire of temporal goods or the fear of their loss: “Be ye not solicitous, therefore, saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” “And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life, for my sake, shall save it.”
In this Sunday’s second reading (chapter three of the letter from Saint James), a great question is posed, one that we might be tempted to pose in the public square:
Who is wise and understanding among you?
Oh, how we need wisdom in our lives, in our homes, in our workplaces, in the public square.
Saint James speaks of wisdom from above, the unique understanding that comes from the Holy Spirit, joining our hearts and minds. Saint James gives us a few hints as to what characterizes such wisdom: “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.
I want such wisdom! It is indeed a gift. If so, it must be sought and received. Who is wise and understanding? The one who asks.
One prayer seeking wisdom is the well-known serenity prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), a United Church of Christ minister, professor, author, and 1964 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Seeking wisdom with you,
Saint James asks, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5). Some would call this revolutionary. Some would simply call this the mystery of divine love. God, who is love, sees what the naked eye does not: our inner beauty.
The words of Saint James remind me of the three years I spent in the L’Arche community (I was in a community in Brussels, Belgium. There are four communities in the greater Washington, DC area, for which our Parish Administrator, Mark Cosenza, was formerly Director or Operations and Finance). “The aim of L’Arche is to create communities, which welcome people who have intellectual disabilities. By this means, L’Arche seeks to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society.” (Charter of the Communities of L’Arche). At L’Arche, the “poor in the world” are recognized as “rich in faith”. And, those who choose to live with them are enriched in faith. The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, in his book, “Becoming Human” says the following:
The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of L’Arche…and at the heart of being human… We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.
We must ask God to see with “divine eyes”, eyes of faith, to see as God does.
Here is a morning prayer (attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi) asking this:
Lord, in the silence of this morning,
I ask You for peace, wisdom and strength.
I wish to see the world today only with eyes full of love,
to be patient, gentle and wise
to see Your beloved children as do You, beyond appearances,
and thus only see the good in them.
Close my eyes to all malice and keep my tongue from all malevolence.
May only thoughts that bless be in my mind,
that I be so kind and joyous that all those who approach me sense Your presence.
Clothe me with Your beauty, Lord, and may I reveal You all the day long.
You may have noticed that we have statues: Christ the King and Mary, as well as Saint Agnes, our Patroness and Saint Vincent the Deacon (both of whom died in 304) (It is unclear how Saint Vincent made his way here, but we welcome him nonetheless!) In front of all of them, we have votive candles. Why votive candles? Indeed, why statues? What is their meaning? Are they a helpful tradition? Are we, rather, engaging in a superstitious practice?
Let us consider what preceded and prepared our practice. In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple (and in the synagogues) primarily to show the presence of God (cf. Exodus 27: 20-21 and Leviticus 24: 2-4). Later the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other sacred writings were kept, to show reverence—a practice that probably influenced ours of having a lit candle to indicate the presence of Christ in Communion reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is evidence that lit candles (or oil lamps) were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s, and before sacred images and relics by the 300s. St. Jerome (d. 420), in his Contra Vigilantium, attested to this practice. And, the practice continued to develop.
Although a natural symbol, light has a special significance for us: Christ, “the true light” (John 1:9). Some Medieval spiritual writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: beeswax symbolized the purity of Christ; the wick, the human soul of Christ; and the light, His divinity. Recall Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark” (John 12:46).
Here, as in the early Church, as a gesture of honor, we light a candle before a statue of our Lord or of a saint. i.e., those whom our Lord has fully “conformed into his image” (cf. Romans 8:29). Of course, we do not honor the statue (or any image). We are not engaging in superstitious practice. It all depends on intention. These are but stepping stones in prayer. We make use of a visual representation and reminder to turn to Him Whom we worship without seeing. As far as Mary and the saints are concerned, we do not worship them; we venerate them because of what Jesus has done in them and because we believe them to be present by virtue of Jesus.
The light signifies that prayer is a “coming into” the light of Christ. And what is wonderful about a candle is that it continues to burn when we are gone, expressing our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.
You are welcome to light a votive candle...
Yours in the light of Christ,,
(Thanks to a July 1994 issue of “The Arlington Catholic Herald” for inspiration for this reflection.)
From the desk of the Rector