According to the American author Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.” The end of October was a period of consolation in my spiritual journey. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same is true for the 11th month of the year.
November is a tough month for me personally. Three years ago, my wife and I suffered a miscarriage and all the horrifying feelings resurface during this time of the year. Along with the memory of our loss, the dimming of daylight [especially when we turned the clocks back an hour on November 5th!] provides the perfect recipe for despair and desolation. When it comes to spiritual attach by the Evil One there are generally two general methods to combat him: actively fight through prayer, good works, and reception of the sacraments or secondly retreat from the vices that tempts us.
Today I am going to reflect on the latter strategy. I feel like am called to retreat to my spiritual cave to try to eliminate opportunities for future temptation as to help me avoid further sliding into despair.
Throughout the Bible God calls individuals to experience a conversion in solitude and reflection before granting them power and authority to lead others to Him. For the purpose of eliciting imagery [as I am a visual learner and tend to like symbols] I will refer to such an experience as my “spiritual cave dwelling”!
- Exodus: Throughout the Book of Exodus God calls individuals and His people as a whole to conversation during a trip in the wilderness. Exodus 2-3 details Moses flight from Egypt to the rural land of Midian and his eventually encounter with the Divine presence under the form of the burning bush. God also utilizes a period of spiritual “dryness” to help transform the idol worship of the newly freed Israelites to trust in His Divine Providence. Over a period of forty years, the Israelites had to wander the wildness as reparation for violating the first commandment.
Perhaps, November is my own personal “time in the wilderness” to help me grow in virtue and eliminate bad habits.
- Jesus’ Fasting in the Wilderness: The Gospels placed Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert at the start of his public ministry. Along with calling to mind Moses’ and the Israelites period of conversion, Jesus fasts not because he needs it [because he is without sin!], but rather to be a model of the Christian spiritual life. Sometimes we need to practice self-denial to grow in holiness. While I usually associate fasting relating to physical items such as food or drink, I recently had a thought. What if God allows for consolation to be rescinded from us in order to permit authentic spiritual growth and trust in Him? In my youth I experienced growing pains. Why should be not be different when I grow in my spiritual life? St. Ignatius of Loyala addresses the same point in the Seventh Rule for Discernment of Spirits. He says,
Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it [my emphasis]: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.
November 2017 could be a spiritual schooling from the Holy Spirit allowing me to wean off the need and desire for God’s spiritual candy of consolation that I too quickly “gobbled up” [along with physical candy 🙂 ] in October!
- Athanasius the Bold: During the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church faced arguably its worst and most pervasive heresy in history—Arianism. Stemming from the false beliefs of the priest Arius, proponents of this belief denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. According to Arius, “There was a time when He [Jesus Christ] was not.” Confusion was so rampant that the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea was convened at 325 A.D. which pronounced Arianism as official heresy. While officially the matter was theologically solved, Arian agents still remained throughout the magisterial network for the remainder of the century.
To combat this heinous heresy, God sent St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, to champion authentic truth of the Holy Trinity. However, testifying to the truth came with a price—a bounty on Athanasius’ life not once but five times! As a result he went into hiding each time. He led his diocese clandestinely through the protections of monks. St. Athanasius stands as an exemplary model of obedience to God. He could have despaired and lamented his situation, but instead he remained steadfast to the truth!
The easier path this month would be for me to languish in my despair. Job promotion denials, stress at work, and daily anxiety abound. How did Athanasius prevail with his life on the line? Reading his work On the Incarnation provided me clarity. Athanasius states, “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
Periods of desolation are unavoidable on this side of eternity. Sometimes I feel like crawling into an actual cave to escape the entrapments laid out before me by the Devil. While going away on a sudden sabbatical would be irresponsible to my family duties as husband and father. Warding off vice through removing myself from opportunities to sin is not the same as skirting my vocational calling. Fasting and prayer will be powerful weapons for me the remainder of the month as I strive in my pursuit towards holiness.
According to Matthew 7:15, Jesus cautions us by saying, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” Frankly, I did not realize that adage originated from the Gospels. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Thinking about this phrase I have come to realize that Jesus is speaking not only to humanity in general, but directly to me! I need to be consistent in my love toward God and my fellow man in order to avoid turning into that same false prophet I am called to be on the look-out for.
Jesus spoke with such clarity and used tangible examples. I am not going to “reinvent the wheel” regarding today’s topic. During his Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 5, the Good Teacher charged his followers to be the salt of the earth. Above there are two pictures: one is salt the other is sugar. At face value both appear to be indistinguishable—similar to a wolf donning lamb’s fleece is camouflaged from its prey. Salt and sugar play a significant part in our life. Both add flavor to otherwise dull food. Excessive amounts of sodium and sugar lead to health problems. What I want to focus on is the dichotomous relationship between salt and sugar? Am I the salt or sugar of the Earth? Let’s see!
1. To preserve or not to preserve…that is the question: Aside from flavoring bland dishes or enhancing taste in already good meals, the main purpose of salt is to preserve food against deterioration. Salt draws out excess water from foods and dehydrates it. This process allows for increased storage times—especially in cases where food is in abundance and needs to be saved for later periods. Jesus used the example of salt because of its universal application and practical usage in daily living. He calls Christians to act as theological relish and preservative to society. Sometimes a little salt goes a long way in improving the taste of food. We need not feel defeated if it feels like we are moving against a seeming endless tide of negativity from the world. Holiness is what all Christians are called to—look at the saints and the witness they provided a world in despair.
2. Deny Yourself and Follow Him: In high school, I took chemistry and became fascinated with the various atomic structures of elements, molecules, and compounds. I found a certain beauty in their ordering and design. Below are picture of the atomic structure of NaCL [sodium chloride- table salt] and C₆H₁₂O₆ [glucose- a common sugar].
From a microscopic vantage point, a clear distinction may be made between these two common household items. Both are composed of entirely different elements [hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in Glucose] and [sodium and chloride in salt]. Along with the having different building materials, sugar and salt are fashioned with different types of bonds—covalent and ionic respectively. Covalent bonds are stronger because the shared electron is what keeps the elements held together whereas in an ionic bond one element loses an electron to another causing one element to become positively charged and the other to become negatively charged such as in the case of NaCl or table salt.
In other words, the elements in table salt lose an electron to effect the ionic charge of the sodium or chloride molecule. Initially, losing may be viewing negativity [no pun intended!]. One may think that due to the stronger nature of the covalent bond in sugar that it should be preferred to salt. The New Testament does shed some light on the reality of loss and rejection. Luke 9:23-25 turns this notion on its head when Jesus says, “Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me. 24For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?'”
Christ’s words elicit a sense of paradox, yet allure within my mind. Interesting, I gain life when I serving other’s needs above my selfish desires. In my weakness I am stronger! Through a theological ionic bond, Christians act as holy seasoning to embolden our world.
3. Instant Gratification Leads to Decay: Dentists frighten me. Not in The Exorcist or The Shining sort of way. Still, I get apprehensive, anxious, and move toward hypochondriac-like behaviors when the subject of dentists come up. Perhaps, it stemmed from my penchant as a little kid for losing my teeth quickly and easily. Or maybe my periodontal panic happened due to my need for braces– not once, but twice in my elementary school years! Regardless of where this toothy torment began, I recognize that when I limit my sugar intake life is much easier during my semi-annual check-ups.
Excessive sugar proves damaging to both our physical and mental well-being. Unhealthy attraction to sugar is simply a euphemism for the sin of gluttony. Our society suffers from the belief that instant gratification is better than self-denial or self-control. I am as guilty of this vice as anyone. I have made it a point to limit my sugar consumption and practice fasting– to help me both spiritually and physically. I think Jesus choose not to use sugar as an example to relate to Christians because he understood the appeal and temptation this food item poses for humanity.
While sugar and salt look similiar in outward appearance the two are vastly different. How do we distinguish between the two? First, we learn to trust the authority of the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of these products. We trust that the packaging is correct. When a box at the grocery store says “SUGAR” it really is sugar and not salt. A second way to learn is more difficult– through the school of experience. Maybe sugar is housed in a clear container in your home. If you forgot to label it only tasting the substance will you determine if it truly is sugar and not salt.
The same may be said about temptations and goods sent our way. Oftentimes, Satan dresses up sin as “sugar” to enhance its allure. This makes is easier to fell prey to his trap. Our adversary disguised sin under the costume of a juicy fruit– see Genesis 3 for the story of the Fall. May we continue to rely on the tradition of the Catholic Church, Sacred Scriptures, and testament of the saints for guidance in our journey toward holiness. Let us be the salt of the Earth and preserve society! There is more to you than meets the eye.