Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life - Part 4

Over these last four weeks, we have been considering the call to both marriage and the religious life.  We have studied their fundamental differences and have also discovered their mutual complementarity.  These reflections were an attempt to highlight the beauty and the richness of both of these vocations so as to aid some readers in their personal discernment.  I certainly hope this goal was accomplished.  Yet, I want to close with a word of caution and an exhortation.
            First of all, the word of caution:  In your discernment, don’t get lost in the world of lofty theology and overly-sentimental idealism.  The theology is beautiful brothers, and it is all true.  However, our knowledge and understanding of marriage and the religious life is helpful only insofar as it leads us to a true encounter with Jesus Christ!  Sacred Scripture tells us that Jesus is the author of our salvation.  If that’s true, then that means He is also the author of our vocations.
            Vocational discernment and vocational choice take place in the context of a relationship with Jesus.  And as our relationship with Him grows, eventually he asks us the same question he asked those two “vocation visitors” in John’s Gospel 2,000 years ago, “What do you seek?” (Jn 1:38).  And so begins the dialogue, the open and honest dialogue with Jesus regarding the deepest and truest desires of our hearts.  On one hand, the answer to the question “what do you seek?” is “You, Jesus!  I come seeking you.”  That response is true regardless of what marriage we are called to.
But, we also recognize that Jesus is calling us to something specific, something personal.  And it takes time and it may take struggle—struggle with ourselves and struggle with God—in order to arrive at a place where we can freely choose the vocation that God is calling us to.
We may be really attracted to religious life while also having a deep desire for marriage, secretly wondering, “Can I really be happy without a wife and children?”  Or maybe our hearts contain a question or a fear of a different sort:  “Can I be holy without becoming a priest or religious?”  The answer to both questions is YES, ABSOLUTELY, DEFINITIVELY...as long as God is not calling you to that respective vocation!  Our happiness and holiness will be found in whatever vocation God is calling us to!  The Second Vatican Council states quite clearly that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (Lumen Gentium 40).  So again, the question is “which marriage or which vocation is God calling you to?”
Discovering the answer to that question will depend largely on the answer to another question, and here comes the promised exhortation.  The question is:  Can we trust God?  The answer and exhortation is:  YES!  Can we trust that God has a plan for our lives?  YES!  Can we trust Him with the deepest desires of our hearts?  YES!  Does he want us to be happy?  Can He make us happy?  YES!  YES!  And He will do so if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), the one who “came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

God bless you all!

Fr. Isaac Mary Spinharney, CFR
St. Joseph Friary
Harlem, NY

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life - Part 3

            I concluded last week’s reflection on marriage and discernment by stating that “the question is not whether one is called to marriage or not, but which marriage is one called to?”  This week’s reflection will explain the meaning of that surprising statement, demonstrating that religious life points us to the ultimate marriage between God and man in heaven.  As a reminder to our readers, this is the third part in a four part series and this reflection will be more meaningful if one has read the first two parts (see e-letters of 10/10/12 and 10/15/12).
In Matthew 22:30, Jesus boldly declares to the Sadducees that “in the resurrection they [man and woman] neither marry nor are given in marriage….”  At first glance, these words of Christ seem to undermine everything we have said about the greatness of marital love.  However, as we’ll see, they actually reveal the ultimate fulfillment of it!
Let’s return to the gospel from the 27th Sunday in Ordinary time, Mark 10:2-16.  In this passage, the Pharisees approach Jesus seeking “to test him” by asking him whether divorce is lawful.  After they remind him that Moses allowed divorce, Jesus reminds them that this was a temporary concession made because of the hardness of their hearts and that “from the beginning of creation” God made the marriage bond between man and woman indissoluble.  The reason for this is that “from the beginning of creation” the sacrament of marriage has existed to point us to the ultimate marriage, the marriage of Christ and His Church.  And, in heaven, this ultimate marriage is fully realized; the sacrament of marriage gives way to reality!  The sacrament is no longer needed!  This is where religious life comes in!
In Matthew’s version of the same gospel passage (Mt 19:1-12), after Jesus restored the permanence of marriage according to God’s original plan, his disciples concluded that it was better not to marry because of the difficulty presented by Christ’s teaching.  But, Jesus takes the discussion to a whole different level:  “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who haven been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19:11-12, RSV).
I don’t think I need to explain what eunuchs are!  But, in the Christian tradition a eunuch “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is someone who freely forgoes the earthly sacrament of marriage in anticipation of heaven, where men and women “neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  In Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on the appropriate renewal of religious life, the Church teaches that “for ALL CHRIST’S FAITHFUL religious recall that wonderful marriage made by God, which will be fully manifested in the future age [heaven], and in which the Church has Christ for her only spouse” (PC, 12).  Again, Genesis 2:18 tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone.”   Religious who faithfully live the vow of chastity reveal that the ultimate fulfillment of solitude, the ultimate communion that all men desire, is found only in union with God.  This is the Church’s understanding of religious or consecrated life, a life that already participates in the ultimate marriage between Christ and His Church in heaven.
So, again, I pose to you the question, “which marriage are you called to?”  Put another way, are you called to the sacrament of marriage which is an image of the ultimate marriage of Christ and His Church, of God and man?  Or are you called to religious life, to freely surrender the earthly sacrament of marriage so as to anticipate and already participate in the wedding feast of heaven? As you begin or continue to ponder that question this week, stay tuned for next week’s final installment of our four part series on Marriage and Religious Life!

God bless you,

Fr. Isaac Mary Spinharney, CFR
St. Joseph Friary
Harlem, NY

Monday, October 15, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life - Part 2

Last week we considered briefly the vocation to married life in light of the Lectionary readings for the 27th Sunday in ordinary time.  Next week I would like to offer a brief consideration of the vocation to religious life.  This week, however, as a bridge between our reflections on the vocation to marriage and the vocation to religious life, I would like to make some practical observations about marriage and discernment.
            The Church’s teaching on the sacrament of marriage (see e-letter of 10/10/12) is quite rich, and very beautiful.  Let’s face it, it’s downright attractive!  And authentic discernment of religious life demands that we are honest about the attractiveness of it.  Therefore, if someone discerning religious life feels a desire for the vocation of marriage, that desire should not be ignored!  We need to face the desire for marriage, think about it, pray about it, speak to our spiritual directors about it—it is a holy desire, “ordained by God and ordered to his purposes,” (Fr. Robert Barron, Magnificat, October 2012, p. 99).
And even if we are called to the priesthood and/or religious life, that does not change the fact that we are made for another, made for marriage!  It is written into every aspect of our person—spirit, soul and body.  So, even though one may be called to religious life, his sexual desire will not mysteriously disappear.  Moreover, his emotional/affective desire for another will not mysteriously disappear.  And finally, his desire to be a father will not mysteriously disappear.  In religious life, all of that becomes part of that gift of self made to God in living out the vow of chastity.  In fact, for the religious, these desires become power for loving God and others in a free, total, faithful and fruitful way, and in this they are uniquely fulfilled.
Religious life is not an escape from marriage.  It is not a safe place for those who are uncomfortable with or afraid of their sexuality or for those who are emotionally immature and afraid of relationships.  It is a place where one must face and fully embrace his sexuality and his emotional life and with the help of God’s healing grace seek to integrate them fully into his personality and his life.  From this standpoint, the expectations of one called to religious life—psychological and sexual maturity—mirror those for one called to married life.  And this makes sense, for as we’ll see next week, the question is not whether one is called to marriage or not, but which marriage is one called to?  Until then…

God bless you,

Fr. Isaac Spinharney, CFR
St. Joseph Friary
Harlem, NY

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life part 1

This past weekend, we had the privilege of welcoming seven men on a come and see visit in order to discern a possible call to religious life.  I found it to be both surprising and humorous that the gospel passage for that Sunday (the 27th Sunday in ordinary time), the last day of the visit, was from Mark 10:2-16 where Jesus affirms the indissolubility and dignity of marriage!  However, after I stopped chuckling to myself and began to dig in and prepare for the homily, I realized that this was a gift from the Lord offering these young men, and indeed all of us, an opportunity to understand both the vocation to marriage and the vocation to religious life more deeply.  Over these next four weeks, I would like to reflect on both of these vocations in the light of the readings from last Sunday and recent Church teaching.  My hope is that these reflections will highlight both the fundamental differences and the complementarity between these two vocations and, therefore, aid some readers in their personal discernment.  We’ll begin this week with marriage.
In last Sunday’s first reading from Genesis 2:18-24, we read “the Lord God said:  ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2:18).  Immediately this tells us something important about man (mankind; ourselves), namely, that he is incomplete without another.  Man is made for communion.  Marriage is a communion of persons and it is in the context of this communion that he experiences the happiness he was created for! That is why later on in the same reading, Adam, upon seeing Eve for the first time, cries out with joy:  “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  Adam’s first words weren’t, “Wow you’re gorgeous” or “would you like to go out to dinner sometime?”  Instead, he responded to Eve’s presence with the intensity of a poetic, star-crossed lover because in her he saw his own completion, the meaning of his existence.  A modern translation of Adam’s exclamation might be “I will give my very life for you!” or “You are everything to me; I will never love another the way I love you” (Fr. Robert Barron, Magnificat, October 2012, p. 99). 
In marriage, Christ elevates this natural intensity of love to a sacrament!  And He does so because this awesome sacrament reveals something even greater than the natural intensity and happiness of human love.  It actually reveals to us the love of Christ for His Church.
This is the teaching of St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21-32.  In this passage St. Paul begins by exhorting wives to be subject to their husbands because the husband is head of the wife AS Christ is head of his bride, the Church (Eph 5:23).  But, he also exhorts husbands to love their wives AS “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…” (Eph 5:25).  Thus, he concludes that the mysterious, one-flesh union of husband and wife points to the greater mystery of the one-flesh union between Christ and His Church.
The Church teaches that authentic, married love is free, faithful, total and fruitful.  This is because these are the very characteristics of Christ’s love for His bride.  Jesus, the bridegroom of the Church, freely and totally gives Himself to the Church in faithful and fruitful love.  Therefore both He in the gospel and the Church in her magisterial teaching affirm the indissolubility and dignity of the sacrament of marriage because it is an image of His marriage to the Church.  If Jesus or the Church allowed divorce, that would be akin to saying that Jesus could divorce the Church; that He could come down from the cross.
The ultimate purpose of the sacrament of marriage is to reveal to us this awesome love of Jesus for His Church.  That is why marriage and sexual love in the context of marriage are held in the highest honor by the Church.  This is the core of Blessed John Paul II’s teaching in the Theology of the Body.
This concludes our brief reflection on the sacrament of marriage.  I hope this offers you an opportunity this week to ponder more deeply this beautiful vocation.  Stay tuned for next week when we will discuss.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Lord gave me brothers

Today, October 4, is the feast day of our Holy Father St. Francis, arguably one of the most renowned and celebrated saints in Church history.  While popularly characterized as the great lover of animals and an ecological pioneer, those of us who seek to follow his way of life are inspired by his love for Jesus and the holy gospel, and his desire to follow in the very footsteps of his Lord by living a life of prayer, poverty, penance and obedient suffering.  And yet, for us Franciscans, his appeal goes even beyond these qualities.  St. Francis was not only a great lover of God, but a great lover of men.  He understood the two to be inseparable.

In is Testament—a short document written at the end of his life entrusting his spiritual legacy to his brethren—Francis, makes the simple, yet profound statement that “the Lord gave me some brothers….”  It seems as if it were merely mentioned in passing, but the rest of the document and the testimony of his whole life bear witness that this remark is charged with meaning.  His various biographers detail story after story revealing the strong, but tender love that the poor man of Assisi had for his brothers.  For example, on one occasion a brother woke in the middle of the night seemingly dying of hunger pangs as a result of intense fasting.  St. Francis, whose own fasting seemed to know no bounds, rather than chastise the young brother, ordered all of the brothers to get up and eat grapes with the young man so that the he would not be ashamed of his weakness.  St. Francis recognized his brothers as one of the greatest gifts God had given them and he loved them deeply.

In our own community, the tradition of Franciscan brotherhood lives on!  It is days like today, when in honor of St. Francis, almost twenty priests and over fifty brothers and sisters gathered around the altar of the Lord for the holy sacrifice of the mass that I am reminded that the Lord gave ME brothers.  It is days like today, when our liturgical celebration extends onto the basketball court for some healthy and holy competition or into our evening festivities when we seek to entertain each other with some self-deprecating skits that I am reminded that the Lord gave ME brothers.

However, my most powerful experience of Franciscan brotherhood is on the non-feast days, when I am struggling day-in and day-out with the few brothers that I live with to live the Franciscan life.  It is the moments when I am able to share my heart and my pain with a brother or encourage him in his pain that I am reminded that the Lord gave ME brothers.  It is the moments when I need to repent for not loving a brother as he deserves and I hear him say “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart” that I am reminded that the Lord gave ME brothers.  It is the many moments of laughter brought on by the brothers’ antics that remind me that the Lord gave ME brothers.

Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on the renewal of religious life, says that it is much easier to live the vow of chastity in an environment of genuine fraternal charity.  I would extend that statement to the living out of poverty and obedience as well.  Fraternal life and charity is meant to be a particular source of joy and strength for a religious in any community.  St. Francis understood this completely and he continues to teach it to us, the brothers whom God has given him!

Coming soon:  an introduction to the three new members of the vocations team.

God bless you,

Fr. Isaac Mary, CFR
St. Joseph Friary
Harlem, NY

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