The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Isaiah 66:18-21  +  Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13  +  Luke 13:22-30
August 21, 2016

“God treats you as sons.”

I’m sure during the course of growing up that I gave my sisters many reasons to call me a “nerd”, but one of them had to do with the start of school.  For those of you who don’t have school-age children, you’ve surely noticed that the start of school is upon us by the bright, smiling faces seen this past week on the faces of youngsters when you pass them on the sidewalk.  Our young people are tired of staying up late at the lake, or watching movies.  They cannot wait to hit the books once again:  to be filled with the knowledge and virtues that will make them upstanding citizens in our fine nation.  Or maybe not.

When I was growing up, my sisters just shook their heads at me when—every August—I begged our mother to go shopping for school supplies.  Each year as summer wound down, I would walk up to our grade school every morning, hoping that that would be the day that classroom assignments would be posted in the window telling who my teacher would be.  One year when I got home from this walk and announced with enthusiasm who my new teacher was, one of my sisters asked our mother if I was adopted.

There are several reasons why school is not a universally loved experience.  In fact, everyone, no matter how enthusiastic, found things about school that he didn’t like.  For some students that would be walking a long distance to school.  When I was growing up, our parents insisted that my siblings and I walk to school, every year from grade school to high school.  Even during the dead of winter, we walked uphill in the snow, both ways, and we never complained.  Or maybe not.

Another reason that some people don’t like school is because of the discipline.  I attended the public schools at Goddard for twelve years, so I didn’t have the benefit of Catholic schools, or Catholic schools’ nuns, or Catholic schools’ nuns’ rulers.  But given that my elementary education took place forty years ago in a small town in Kansas, our principal still used corporal punishment.  This morning’s homily is not about the morality of corporal punishment:  I bring it up only for the sake of a contrast that might help us reflect on today’s Scriptures.

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If you equate the words “discipline” and “punishment”, you’re going to have a very hard time growing in the life of Christian prayer.

Is there anyone who likes to be punished?  A person may recognize that punishments can be fair and just, and helpful in keeping order within a family or community, but that doesn’t mean that that person will like to be punished.

But here’s the important distinction.  Discipline has two different forms.  The second is punishment, and at times that’s needed:  in the classroom, in the home, in civil courts, in the confessional, and at the Gates of Saint Peter.  However, you’re going to have a very hard time growing in the life of Christian prayer if you don’t recognize that there’s another form of discipline that’s even more important than punishment.

Discipline has two different forms.  The second is punishment.  The first is the form of discipline that we might call the “trial of training”, taking our cue from Saint Paul in today’s Second Reading.

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This “trial of training” is not punishment.  But it is necessary for success.  This is also true regarding many earthly endeavors.  To take an example related to high school, think of a football team.  A player might explain to his parents that the coach put the team through a “punishing workout”, but the player doesn’t mean that the coach was punishing the team for having done something wrong.  Just the opposite:  he was preparing them to do something right:  to achieve a victory.  Victory demands discipline.  This is true not only on the field of football, but also in the field of faith.

The same principle is true in academics.  Whether you consider the example of a debate team or of an individual student striving for an academic scholarship, success demands discipline.  The same principle is true in music.  Whether you consider the example of a choir practicing madrigals, or an individual striving for a top rating in state competition, success demands discipline.

So much of life demands discipline if we want to reach a goal.  Remember that this is not the discipline of punishment, but the discipline that is “trial” and “training”.  Reflect on what Saint Paul stated in today’s Second Reading.

The discipline that prepares for success is a trial.  St. Paul uses the word “trials”.  He writes to the Hebrews:  “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons.  For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?”  This is not the same as the discipline that’s punishment, though St. Paul does speak of that form of discipline also when he counsels the Hebrews:  “‘do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by Him; for whom the Lord loves, He disciplines’”.[1]  Reproving is punishment, and punishment is the second form of discipline, but it’s important to focus our efforts more on the first form of discipline:  namely, the discipline that is a “trial” and “training”.

The word “trial” has many meanings.  One meaning relates to the courtroom, but clearly that’s not what St. Paul is referring to when he insists that the Hebrew Christians ‘endure their trials as discipline’.  A different meaning of the word “trial” means a bad experience, as in the phrase “trials and tribulations”.  This is simply part of life’s constant ups and downs.  This is closer to what St. Paul is getting at, but there’s still something more specific that he wants us to think about.

A still different meaning of the word “trial” is part of the phrase “trial and error”.  This is connected to the very simple verb “try”, as in the old adage:  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  This is what St. Paul is speaking about when he insists that the Hebrew Christians ‘endure their trials as discipline’.  It’s something very simple, like the trial of learning your multiplication tables, or the trial of learning how to drive a stick shift, or the trial of learning how to throw a football to a receiver thirty yards away.  It’s very simple, but it’s difficult, and that’s why we call it a “trial”.  This “trial” is a basic building block of success, and that includes success in the life of Christian prayer.

Saint Paul, in addition to speaking about the “trials” involved in spiritual discipline, also refers to discipline as training.  He writes to the Hebrew Christians:  “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  The verb “train”, like the verb “try”, is simple and not very exciting.  To train for a new job at work, or for a new position on the team, or for the role of altar server at Holy Mass, is very simple.  It’s not very exciting and in fact is pretty routine.  But routine is at the heart of success.  Football players get tired, and maybe even bored, with running the same plays over, and over, and over again.  Why do the same plays have to be run so many times?  Most of us know the answer to that question from the experiences of life.  The problem is that many people don’t think that the principle of discipline—that the connection between trial, training, and success—has any connection to the life of Christian prayer.

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What role does discipline have in the life of Christian prayer?[2]  I’m not speaking to the prayers that are spoken, like the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours.  I’m speaking to the type of prayer which leads to communion with God Himself in contemplation.  Above and beyond spoken prayers, and above and beyond meditation, where we reflect on some mystery or truth about God, the prayer which leads to communion with God is as simple as it is difficult.  In this prayer, where the Christian disposes himself or herself to receive the gift of contemplation, discipline definitely is needed.

It’s true that some people believe that there is no such connection.  They think of contemplation being as simple as going outside on a sunny day and soaking in the rays of the sun.  Prayer for them is simply basking in the warmth of God’s love.  The obvious problem with this analogy is there are these things called clouds in the sky, and so also there are clouds in the life of prayer; and not just clouds in the life of prayer, but thunderclouds and lightning.  This is true even in the prayer lives of the saints.  The best guides in this regard are St. Teresa of Jesus (also known as St. Teresa of Avila) and St. John of the Cross.

But apart from the inclement weather of prayer, even more difficult to accept for those who want their prayer life to be sunny and 72° seven days a week is the fact of God’s silence.  Why does God sometimes respond to our efforts at prayer with silence:  that is, by offering us no response whatsoever?

Consider a story about one of those saints I just mentioned.  During a year when her efforts had brought her one form of suffering after another, St. Teresa of Jesus asked one day while praying, “Lord, why must I undergo such sufferings, when I’m striving so much to be faithful?”  The Lord God answered, “My dear one, that’s how I treat all my friends.”  St. Teresa drily replied, “Well, then, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”  Only a saint could get away with saying something like that, because despite that response, she always accepted God at His word.

In her book titled The Interior Castle, St. Teresa speaks about the “interior and exterior trials”[3] that God sets between Himself and the faithful Christian, and which call for disciplined commitment to prayer.  She describes the exterior trials of gossip[4], persecution[5], and “the severest illnesses”[6].  At greater length she describes interior trials.  In one of these interior trials, she writes:  “The Lord, it seems, gives the devil [freedom] so that the soul might be tried and even be made to think it is rejected by God.”[7]  Regarding such trials, St. Teresa explains that “there is no remedy in this tempest but to wait for the mercy of God.”[8]

As she describes this discipline of waiting for the mercy of God, St. Teresa notes that “at an unexpected time, with one word alone or a chance happening, [God] so quickly calms the storm that it seems there had not been even as much as a cloud in that soul….  And like one who has escaped from a dangerous battle and been victorious, it comes out praising our Lord; for it was He who fought for the victory. … Thus, it knows clearly its wretchedness and the very little we of ourselves can do if the Lord abandons us.”[9]

It’s here that God gives us the chance to learn one of the chief lessons about discipline.  Whereas in human endeavors—whether reciting multiplication tables, or running football plays, or hitting a high note on the trumpet—discipline leads us to become smarter, stronger, and more skilled, in the life of Christian prayer, discipline teaches us how to rely not on ourselves and our talents, but on God and His mercy.

[1] Saint Paul is here quoting Proverbs 3:11-12.

[2] We might more easily see the connection of discipline to other areas of the Faith.  First, it’s easy to see the connection of discipline to the moral life:  this connection is illustrated, for example, in the fasting that we’re obligated to carry out every year on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Second, it’s fairly easy to see the connection of discipline to sacramental life:  while some have difficulty seeing why those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are unable to receive the sacraments, it doesn’t take long to explain this to someone of good will.  Third, it’s not difficult to see the connection of discipline to the life of doctrine:  if some preachers said that there were four persons in God rather than three, or that Jesus were only a human being, or that Mary had other children besides Jesus, we would know instinctively that the integrity of the Faith is weakened.

[3] St. Teresa of Jesus, The Interior Castle VI:1,1, in Vol. Two of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980), 359.

[4] Ibid., VI:1,3-4.

[5] Ibid., VI:1,5.

[6] Ibid., VI:1,6-7.

[7] Ibid., VI:1,9.

[8] Ibid., VI:1,10.

[9] Ibid.