Boasting of Our Weaknesses

We’ve just started our annual Sabbath Summer season at St. Anthony’s, and here are my six recommendations for a restful, renewing, and re-creative summer: 1) Read good literature, because good books are the simplest way to renew the whole person, body, mind, and soul; 2) Go on vacation, because you’re so tired; 3) Waste time with friends, in the sense of enjoy their company and don’t try to accomplish anything; 4) Go on retreat, because wasting time with God is the most renewing activity for the soul; 5) Go to Confession—allow Jesus to remove the weight of sin so as to start the Sabbath well; 6) Go to counselling, because we have problems that need a good Christian counsellor.

[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]

Now, we all have reasons we don’t do these things.  We’re too busy.  We don’t need a vacation, or a retreat.  There’s probably pride in these reasons: We don’t need help.  We delay Confession because we think we’re not that bad.  We don’t go for counselling because it’s embarrassing and we think we can handle it on our own.

I never thought I needed counselling, until, in 2010, my superior in Rome told me to go, and last August, Archbishop Miller told me to go during my sabbatical.  I was surprised, because, in truth, I’m so proud.  I didn’t think my problems were that bad.  I thought I only needed rest and a retreat.  And I didn’t want people to know about it because, again, I’m so proud.

As we begin our Sabbath Summer, we need more humility, to accept our weaknesses.  In the Second Reading, St. Paul admits that he was tempted to pride.  “Considering the exceptional character of the revelations, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor 12:7).  In this letter, St. Paul had just recounted how he had been given a special grace from God fourteen years earlier: a vision of heaven.  He received such a rare grace that God allowed him to suffer a ‘thorn in the flesh,’ to prevent him from becoming proud.  Most scholars believe that the thorn was some kind of physical suffering, headaches, fevers, or problems with his eyes (Thomas Stegman, SJ, Second Corinthians in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 270-271).

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that pride is the most grievous sin, because we’re not just turning towards a lesser good, like pleasure, fame, or other people, but we’re turning away from the greatest good, God Himself.  We’re saying, in effect, that we don’t need Him or won’t listen to Him.  St. Thomas writes, “Pride by its very nature… is the contempt of God.”  Can you imagine this?  When we avoid humbling ourselves and asking for help, we’re unintentionally showing contempt for God.

Pride is always an illusion.  We avoid going to Confession because we think we’re already great people, but, in fact, most of us, according to St. Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions of the interior life, are either in the first or second mansion, or not even in the castle.

Most of us need more rest, but pride in our culture says we need to work more, buy more, do more.  And when we go on vacation, we have to go everywhere and see everything, forgetting that we need to rest, because we are creatures.  Pride blinds us to our human need for friendships, and therefore we spend so much time on devices, and we’re the ones who suffer.

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor 12:8-9).  This is fascinating: God doesn’t take away the pain, but gives St. Paul enough grace to endure it.  Now, sometimes God does take away our illness and problems, but sometimes He doesn’t, in order to make us wake up to reality.

For example, many people need to come to Confession monthly, simply to stay on top of things.  Their temptation to lust, greed, anger will always be with them.  We might think that once they go to Confession enough and stop these sins for a while that they won’t have to go back.  Not so.  They will always have these weaknesses, and God says, “My grace in Confession will be enough for you,” and so they’ll have to go to Confession every month for the rest of their lives in order to avoid falling back.

Once St. Paul realizes that God’s plan is to leave him with this weakness, he changes his response: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).  His response is precisely to go against his pride: Instead of hiding his weakness, he boasts of it, for two reasons: 1) He wants the people to whom he’s writing to know that it’s Jesus Who is working through him and that everything comes from Him; 2) The more he’s aware of his weaknesses, the more he’ll ask for help, and the more he’ll get it (Stegman, 272).

I’m so full of pride, and God, out of love, humbled me.  Through Archbishop Miller’s request, God was saying to me, “Your problems are so serious that you need professional help.  You’ve been struggling with overwork and exhaustion for years.  Here’s the way of healing.  And I’ll heal not only your exhaustion but also your pride.”

So, during my sabbatical, I did online counselling eleven times in addition to my thirty-day retreat.  It was so fruitful after one session, that I started doing it three times a week when I returned from South Dakota.  And it’s been so good that I’ve been going to counselling every three weeks since then, and I don’t plan on stopping.  I need someone to help me live the fullness of life.

I now understand what St. Paul meant about boasting of his weaknesses, in order to have true strength.  Just as St. Paul boasts of his weaknesses, let me boast of my need for help.  I need a counsellor, in order to grow humanly, in my emotions and in my mind.  I need a spiritual director who helps me especially morally.  I have Trudy, whom I call about my prayer life.  I have a coach for parish renewal, and a coach for the health of our leadership team at the parish.  I need five coaches in my life because I am weak, and because of God’s grace through them, I’m strong.

Here again are my six recommendations:

1) Read good literature.  Start with this book: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  If you want to know what to do with your life, read about the meaning of life.  This very short book is about a psychologist’s journey in Auschwitz and his finding meaning when everything in life was taken from him.  Of course, the most important book to read daily is God’s book, the Bible.  After that, read books by the saints, and other great classics.  Here are two lists of great books:  The Book Club by PragerU and Brandon Vogt’s Best Catholic Books of All Time.

2) Go on vacation.  God commands us to rest.  Have you ever realized that the only people who don’t rest are slaves?  They have to work.  Only slaves work all the time.  It’s true that we’re called to lay down our lives for each other, but not by constant work.  We lay down our lives by doing God’s will, and then by willing the other person’s good.  God asks us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, which includes showing others how to rest.

3) Waste time with friends.  We can survive without friends, but not thrive.  God wants us to thrive.  Take the initiative, take a risk, humble yourself, and ask those people with whom you want to spend time if they’re free.  Some will reject you, but some will accept, and you’ll be better for it.  Some of the best times in life are when we’re not looking at the clock, and we create evenings or days when we don’t have to rush to something else.  The reason these times are special is because they have a taste of eternity.

4) Go on retreat.  Most of us suffer from spiritual coasting, and some of us are lazy and slothful.  Retreats are times of renewal.  Do it once a year.  We’ll talk about this more in two weeks.

5) Go to Confession.  Do holy people go to Confession once a year or once a week?  They go more frequently.  Is it because their sins are greater?  It’s because they want to root out even venial sins.  People who love Jesus more, go more frequently.

6) Go to counselling.  A large number of Catholics talk about things in Confession that should be brought up in counselling.  That’s understandable if it’s been years since we’ve been going to Confession.  But, if we go once a month or more, Confession is focused on moral and spiritual growth, on discernment and action.  Counselling is where we talk about past issues, our emotions, and personal struggles.  Since men in particular struggle with pride, it follows that the proudest men avoid counselling, as I did.  I hope that God will force your hand as He did mine, and that you’ll humble yourself, too.  Here’s a list of Catholic and Christian counsellors vetted by our archdiocese.

God wants us to be strong, but it only comes through admitting the truth and relying on Him.  The only way out is humility.  When we are weak, then we are strong.

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