Sunday, May 6, 2012

Transformation Takes Time

Acts 9:26-31
Psalm 22:26-28, 30-32
1 John 3:18-24
John 15:1-8

One of the most difficult things about the spiritual life is that we’re not in control. We can try and try to make progress in holiness and feel as if we’re only spinning our wheels. Confessions can seem to be mere a time to repeat the same sins as the previous time and we become frustrated because of the apparent lack of change, or at least the length of time that the changes take. Today’s reading from Acts makes a beautiful response to this sentiment in the person of St. Paul. Three years after his dramatic conversion to Christ, St. Paul comes to Jerusalem in hopes of joining the disciples in spreading the Gospel. His boldness, abrasiveness, and previous history bring the whole Church in Jerusalem into a state of unrest until they sent him away. It seems that the instantaneous conversion of St. Paul from sinner to saint wasn’t so instantaneous after all, being that three whole years later he still had no positive impact on things within the Christian community. It took several more years before God’s grace was able to transform him into the saint that God desired him to be. And the same goes for us today.

The culture in which we live is not a big supporter of taking time to do things. Things ought to come how we want them and when we want them, even in our spiritual lives. But the reality is that the spiritual life takes a great deal of time to grow; after all Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom were things like mustard seeds, fields producing crops, and merchants patiently waiting to find that one pearl that would sustain him for the rest of his days. The spiritual life is about diligence in moving forward.

Caravaggio's The Martyrdom of St. Matthew
Anyone who has ever been in my office knows that I love books. One of the books that I’m currently reading, entitled Caravaggio, - about one of my favorite artists, Michaelangelo Carravaggio. The thing that interests me most about the book is that it describes the technique, history, and theology of each of his paintings. One of the first paintings that he was asked to do on a large scale in a chapel in Rome was one of St. Matthew’s martyrdom. I was struck by the fact that he painted the entire thing several times. He painted the image and the whole scene, then decided that it was not yet perfected so he began to change things here and there, painting an entirely new center portrait of St. Matthew, and ultimately changing the whole view scene. The one who had commissioned the painting was a bit frustrated at the length of time that it took, but when the finished product was revealed it was stunning and has been a great source of prayer and contemplation for all who look upon it. It wasn’t done in a day, and it wasn’t completely perfect the first time. It took a long process and many months to get things to be as the creator desired.

In the midst of our own spiritual life, are we willing to let God take His time in bringing us to perfection? Like St. Paul, we can try to push things before they are ready and cause more harm than good, settling for a half-finished product. But this is not what the Lord desires and I am certain this is not what any of us desires either. We must be patient, but this doesn’t mean we are inactive. Growth in the spiritual life takes our effort as well. As branches on the vine, we must remain rooted in Christ through daily prayer and the sacraments, drawing our life from Him. As branches, we can’t see the change that takes place within us as the life of the vine continue to nourish us and produce fruit within us, but over time we can notice a difference. Notice new leaves, a new shoot here and there, a cluster of grapes that have begun to ripen. But for this to happen we must be men and women of prayer. Not necessarily in great ascetical works or lengthy vigils as many of the saints have done, but at least in the little things of the day – a chaplet or rosary on the way to or from work, a few moments in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, waking up 10 minutes early in the morning to be able to pray with the scriptures for the day. These and so many other things will enable us to truly remain in Christ and He in us.

As we now proceed to the celebration of the Eucharist, may we who receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord today renew our commitment to being branches that are full of His life as the Lord renews His commitment to transform us and bear within us much fruit.