Our Call to Holiness
Contents (page numbers refer to printed book)
There are many people I must thank in connection with the writing of this book. I thank Bishop Ambrose Griffiths OSB for writing a very helpful Foreword, and Charles Whitehead for writing such a positive notice for the back cover of the book, and for his encouragement.
Very warm thanks to my good friends Gerard and Toni Pomfret of New Life Publishing for again publishing one of my books. As always, they have been very helpful. I thank them for having taken the risk of encouraging a somewhat geriatric octogenarian to write another book. Readers will be able to judge for themselves whether or not they were wise! Truly dedicated Christian publishers are a great blessing for the church. We should support them with our prayers.
Thanks to John Lynch and Helen Stell for having deciphered my difficult handwriting and typing it out.
And special thanks to Helen for having corrected my somewhat original spelling and for preparing the text for the publisher, making sure that none of it got lost!
Many thanks to my prior and the members of our small monastic community for their continuing interest and support, which made a big difference.
Finally, thanks indeed to the members of our prayer groups and others who have upheld the writing of this book with their prayers. Without their prayers it would certainly never have been written.
In a very real sense this book is not my book but our book, the book of a group of members of the Body of Christ.
Benedict Heron OSB
Bishop Ambrose Griffiths OSB
Of course, I may be wrong. Maybe it is not the Lord pushing me in that direction. Maybe it is my own pride or imagination. However, I feel that I have to try to write. Otherwise I fear that I may be disobeying the Lord. So I must lay aside my fears that I am too old (83), too confused, too tired, and too ill. At least I must try to write. In one way, the results are up to the Lord.
I should add that I have been encouraged to write by people whose opinions I value, and by my very helpful publisher. Also, very encouraging is the number of people who are praying for this intention. From my own past experience I feel that my special advice to Christian authors would be, 'Above all, get sufficient prayer backing'. Where there is good prayer support, it seems to make all the difference in this area and in many others in life.
What is my special concern about this subject? Why do I feel called to write on this subject? It is this: so many Catholics and other Christians seem to consider that a lukewarm Christianity is sufficient and the goal we should be content with. If we usually get to Mass or church on Sunday, remain basically faithful to our spouse, say very brief morning and evening prayers normally, don't cheat too much in business and financial matters, do not look at serious pornography, only drink too much occasionally, and in general try to have friendly relations with people, then we are doing quite well and need not be too concerned about our spiritual well-being. After all, if in general we live according to the above standards, then we are doing much better than so many other people around us.
Yes, it is certainly better to live in that kind of way than to have gone right off the rails. But the lukewarm Christian can often be in greater spiritual danger than he or she realises. It is normal that sooner or later in life we run into serious trials. Maybe the doctor tells us that we or our spouse have serious cancer, or are in danger of losing our eyesight. Perhaps our marriage runs into serious difficulties. Perhaps we suddenly lose our job and cannot get another one. Perhaps we suddenly wake up to the fact that we have a real alcoholic problem or are really depressed. Maybe we are involved in a serious road accident or get badly mugged. Perhaps we suddenly run into unexpected serious financial problems. Perhaps a close member of our family dies. Perhaps we are hit by problems of old age and approaching death. We can all think of many people who have had to face serious trials like these.
A lukewarm faith and life of prayer often can easily collapse when we really come up against serious trials and difficulties. In the face of such trials and difficulties some people can lose the little faith they have, stop praying, perhaps take to drink or wrong sex, and in some cases commit suicide. A skin-deep Christianity is not much protection in the face of the serious trials of life.
It is true of course that serious trials can also be used by God to deepen people's faith and
bring them into a really living relationship with Jesus or God. I think of the woman who used to say before she
died that the best thing which ever happened to her was getting cancer because through that she got to know Jesus.
However, one does not have to contract cancer in order to get to know Jesus or God, and we can hope for and work
for less dramatic ways!
Jesus said to his disciples 'Be perfect, therefore, as
your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48). He never suggested a lesser goal for
any of his followers. We shall only arrive at perfection when, by the grace of God, we arrive in heaven. No one
reaches a level of sanctity in this life when they no longer need to say the act of repentance at the beginning
of Mass. God help the Christians who think that the act of repentance no longer applies to them!
There is sometimes a danger of trying to adapt the Christian message and teaching to what we think the modern generation can take and find acceptable and watering down the demands of the gospel accordingly. If it is considered too difficult in present circumstances to ask fiances to abstain from sexual intercourse until they get married, then be satisfied with saying that they should get married when they can. If expecting a homosexual couple to abstain from sexual activity is considered unrealistic, then teach that they should stick to one partner. If asking people to be honest about tax returns and taking things from the-place where they work is considered too much, then tell them be 'reasonable' in those matters and not overdo it. If asking someone to abstain from over-drinking would be socially too difficult for them, then be satisfied with getting them to cut it down.
In writing the above, people may misjudge me. I think we have to be pastorally very sensitive as to where people are, and try not to break the bruised reed. Sometimes we can only proceed one step at a time, and slowly. However, I do not think we can say that things are morally all right when they are not. We may not say to someone that homosexual activity is all right, we may not say that getting drunk is all right, that corruption in business affairs is all right, because so many other people do these things. We may not say that there is no harm in a little pornography because you cannot expect anything else from a young man in today's society.
Nor may we try to rewrite the New Testament to fit in with what is considered reasonable to today's world. I am sure that many of the demands of the New Testament must have been considered utterly unreasonable, undesirable, and indeed impossible by most of the people in the world where the gospel was first preached. The disciples of Jesus did not try to adapt their teaching to what contemporary society might consider reasonable, acceptable, and possible. They did not teach, for example, that we should forgive people in certain circumstances, but they taught that following the example of Jesus we should always forgive, however difficult, however great the offence.
Let us take, for example, the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23: 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me'. Is this not a little too blunt, off-putting, and too uncompromising for modem ears and our wounded psyches? Perhaps we should understand and interpret this as, 'If any want to be Christians, let them develop self-discipline, make sacrifices when reasonable and necessary, and follow my example as far as possible'. Would not we all feel at times more comfortable with this 'interpretation'? However, we may not water down the demands of the gospel in order to accommodate our weakness. The subtitle of this book is The Reflections of a Sinner, not those of a 'spiritual athlete'! Perhaps this will make some readers feel more at home. This book is not written for spiritual heroes, but for those who experience their own weakness.
I think there would be something incomplete in this introduction if I did not say something about
divine judgement. In the creed we repeat the words, 'He will come again
to judge the living and the dead'. Many Christians seem to have forgotten or half-forgotten
this aspect of our faith, which is of course to be found dearly in the New Testament, quoting the words of Jesus.
I want to say immediately that rightly or wrongly I tend to be optimistic about divine judgement. What do I mean
by that? There have been times in history when Christians tended to think that only a minority of them would be
saved: one of the saints, Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), preaching to a vast outdoor crowd said to them, 'Try to be among the minority of us who will be saved.' It was
assumed that the majority of them would end up in hell. This does not seem to me to fit in with the truth that
Jesus is above all a loving Saviour, who came to save people, and who is always on our side. I think that people
can exclude themselves from heaven. We are not all automatically saved whatever
I am a great believer in the doctrine of purgatory. Further healing can take place beyond death, and we can help this healing process with our prayers. I think that many people who are basically loving people despite areas of their lives which are definitely not right, will get to heaven; but after further healing in purgatory.
As a Christian I believe that no one is saved except through Jesus. 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). Does that mean that all non Christians are lost? No. I think that Jesus is busy saving very many people who would not call themselves Christians, some of whom may never have heard of Jesus. I think a key text for understanding this question is found in Matthew 25:40-45, when Jesus says, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' But there is also the challenging follow-up: 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me'. As St. John of the Cross wrote, 'At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love' (quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church - paragraph 1022) In my experience very many people who would not call themselves Christians are living truly loving lives.
The remembrance that we are all going to have to face judgement when we die can, I am sure, sometimes help people not to get involved in evil ways. However, I think that the love of God and other people should normally be our main motive for avoiding sin. In the past there was, I think, often too much stress on the fear of hell in our preaching. So Christianity was in danger of becoming above all a religion of fear rather than of love. I meet quite a number of good Catholics, normally of an older generation, who despite the fact that they are living good Christian lives and praying seriously, are living in very real fear at the thought of the divine judgement which awaits then at the end of their life. This is surely a very wrong state of affairs. Yes, the thought of the judgement which lies ahead of us can sometimes be fruitful. But the thought of Jesus' love for us and his dying to save us, of God's infinite love for us, and his mercy, should surely be the dominant motive and inspiration of our Christian life. His love is far more powerful than our weakness.
Some Christians, especially younger people, can feel that they will have time later in life to do something about living a more serious Christian life. They want for now to 'enjoy' and experience life a bit, get on with the business of living and leave the preparation for eternity until later. One young English man with a drink problem, which since then has led to his death, said to me concerning his mother, who is a deeply prayerful person, 'She was not always a prayerful person like this.' The thought or hope behind that statement was in part that there will be time later to deal with my problems. Well, of course, there will not always be a 'later' in this life. We never know when the Lord will come to take us. So we can never safely afford to postpone the decision to follow Jesus seriously until later.
Also, while trying to have 'a good time and experience life' we can easily get ensnared in problems which will make it more difficult to follow and serve Jesus later. I thank God that my conversion experience, which changed the whole course of my life, took place when I was about twenty-one years old and not later. My conversion experience of Jesus, which caused me to believe in the divinity of Christ for the first time, and which led in my case to becoming a Catholic, a monk, and a priest, gave me a personal relationship with Jesus which has not left me even in the really difficult times. I very much doubt whether I would ever have become a Catholic priest if my conversion had happened ten years later, by which time I would almost certainly have been married, which I do not think was God's will for me — not, of course, that marriage is not a good thing. It obviously is. (My last girlfriend had proposed marriage to me, and was surprised I had not joined her in bed when the opportunity had occurred one night. It simply had not come into my mind that I might do so. I was already being drawn to becoming a Catholic priest. And God, in his loving providence, was protecting me.)
The lukewarm half-hearted Christian will not really experience the peace and joy which Jesus promised us. 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives' (John 14:27). 'So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.' (John 16:22). 'I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete' (John 15:11).
Many of us have met Christians who despite their sufferings, perhaps great sufferings, radiate peace and joy. I think of Christians dying of cancer, perhaps painfully, or mourning the loss of a loved spouse, or facing persecution and cruelty. As a priest I may visit them to minister to them, and I come away far more ministered to than ministering, inspired by their example.
Yes, the Christian life will involve suffering and the cross. But it is not only people who say yes to the cross who suffer and perhaps very greatly. Recently I saw a video on the life of Padre Pio, now Saint Pio. One of his fellow friars pointed out what a joyful and humourous person he was, despite all his suffering.
If we want to experience the full richness of this life, let us try generously to go all the way with Jesus, despite our weakness. This will lead later to the fuller life: 'What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him' (1 Corinthians 2:9). We were conceived in the womb in order to go to heaven, after we have accomplished whatever God wills us to do for his service on earth. Let us never lose sight of our heavenly and eternal goal. That ultimately is what our life on earth is all about. Alleluia.
This book has no pretensions to be a theological treatise on the subject of sanctification. There will be aspects of this subject which I will not treat at all, perhaps because I do not think I have anything special or worthwhile to write. Perhaps also because I do not want simply to repeat what I have written in my three previous books: Praying for Healing: the Challenge; I Saw Satan Fall: The Ways of Spiritual Warfare; and Come Holy Spirit, Help us to Pray.
The chapter near the end of this book on the subject of the Second Coming of Jesus, the Parousia, may seem to some readers out of place in this book. Yet in a sense everything that happens in his period of human existence is leading towards that climax. Most Catholics and many other Christians seem simply to forget this aspect of our Christian faith, which is relevant for the whole Christian life. Perhaps this subject is particularly relevant today.
Many people have the problem of too much waiting to be read, so brevity and the avoiding of padding will be two of my aims.
Perhaps 83 years of trying to fight my own sinfulness — 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves' (John 1:8) - and trying to move towards sanctification, and my experience as a priest for fifty years listening to other people's efforts to move in the same direction, will by the grace of God, enable me to write some things which certain people may find helpful. Some other people will doubtless think that senility has sit in!
Our sanctification is, of course, the work of the Holy Spirit and grace. No amount of human effort, perseverance, or know-how, by themselves will succeed in sanctifying us, so I will end this introduction by asking the reader to call upon the Holy Spirit every time they start reading. Indeed, may the prayer Come Holy Spirit' be frequently on their lips and in their heart. That prayer will certainly be a royal road to sanctification.
Benedict Heron OSB
Love (Charity, Agape)
'Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love' (1 John 4: 7-8)
'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them' (1 John 4:16).
Of course I am not referring to just any kind of love, but to authentic Christian agape love. For some people today the word 'love' can be used to cover a multitude of sins.
Needless to say, the primacy of love does not mean that other virtues such as faith, hope, humility, chastity honesty, and prayerfulness are not really important. They are important in so far as they are expressions of love and lead to love. Dishonesty, for example, is normally a failure in love. If we truly love people we do not steal from them or swindle them. Adultery is often linked with lack of love for one's spouse and children. The sexual abuse of children shows a profound failure to love them truly. Pride leads to unloving tensions with other people. My pride bumps up against the pride of other people and this leads to unloving relationships. Wrong anger always involves a failure in love. So much calumny and wrong criticism are rooted in lack of love. Envy and jealousy disappear when people truly start loving. When by the grace of God we grow in authentic love, then all the other virtues start flourishing, and only love can cause this to happen.
The great St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote, 'Love, and do what you will.' This was not an invitation to neglect the other virtues or to immoral living. He knew very well that if we truly love we shall be doing our best to grow in all the virtues. Jesus said to his disciples and still says to us, 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' (John 14:15). There is no room there for immoral complacency and wrong compromises. True love encourages sanctity in every area of our lives.
'Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or
boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not
rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures
all things' (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). There have been times in my life when I read the
above beautiful verses to myself almost daily, and I found it a real help and inspiration to do so. Surely, here
we are at the heart of what living the Christian gospel is all about. (There may be some readers who would find
it a real blessing to read the above passage daily for a time, or at any rate to read it in difficult times, especially
when personal relationships are causing friction. If you feel like knocking someone on the head or verbally abusing
them, try reading the above verses slowly and prayerfully. It can help. I know from experience!)
We can also feel inclined to judge harshly some other people who have obvious failings. I think the words of 1 Peter 4:8, can help us here: 'Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.' So that the man who drinks too much and is not always faithful to his wife yet gives generously and sacrificially to the starving in Africa may be more pleasing to God than someone else without the fault just mentioned but with a stony heart and closed fist when it comes to the needs of the poor and starving. Yes, we must trust to overcome all our weaknesses and failings, but let us above all seek to be truly loving people.
I think that quite often in life our sins of omission are more displeasing to God than our sins of commission. That is to say, it is the good we have not done rather than the things we have done which are our main sins. For instance, the prayers we have neglected to say for this or that person, or this or that situation which are urgently needing prayer; the kind encouraging word we should have said and did not, the practical or material help we could have and should have given. We have to avoid being scrupulous in these matters. We are not called to give material help to every good cause, or pray seriously for every good intention, or to try to evangelise every unbeliever. We must seek to be led by the Holy Spirit and his gifts in these things. However, I am painfully aware of times when I could and should have done more. Lord, please forgive.
Forgiving is a key area when it comes to the question of loving. The teaching of Jesus on forgiving is very dear. We are all told to pray, 'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors' (Matthew 6:12), and to forgive 'seventy-seven times' (Matthew 18:22), which means always. Jesus himself gave us the perfect example by forgiving those who crucified him, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23: 34). Yet how would I feel if someone blinded me in order to steal my wallet, or tortured my body for fun, or falsely accused me of sexual abuse — all of which happen not so infrequently in the world, as we can read in the newspapers? Many people would say that one cannot expect people to forgive in certain circumstances for that would be asking too much: indeed asking the impossible. Yet Jesus does not command the impossible and we do, thank God, come across some examples of wonderful forgiving even in the most difficult circumstances. Of course, it may need a special grace, but the grace to forgive will always be available. I knew a woman now dead who had truly forgiven the surgeon who had left her paralysed from the shoulders down because he had been drinking too much the night before the operation. It should have been a simple straightforward procedure. Following the accident she had become a wonderful Christian — God bringing good out of evil.
By the grace of God we can basically forgive immediately by deciding to forgive, for forgiving is primarily a matter of the will, not the feelings. We may well have to struggle against unforgiving feelings and thoughts for quite a time, perhaps a long time, which I am sure I would have to do in certain circumstances.
I sometimes say to people who come to me for ministry and who are struggling with great difficulty in forgiving, 'You can leave this room having basically forgiven if you repent of not forgiving, ask for the grace to forgive, make an act of forgiving with your will, and pray for the person in question.' They may have to go on repeating the prayer from time to time, or even often. As they do this, the forgiving will pass from the will into the feelings. It may take time.
However, the situation is more difficult with people who do not want to forgive. I remember a woman who phoned me regularly asking for prayer for healing but who did not want to forgive. She once said with great force, 'I will not forgive, in this life or in eternity.' (Say a prayer for her.) In such cases one must pray that they are given the grace to want to forgive.
I think that often we are failing to teach Christians who may go to church, perhaps regularly, what Jesus is asking of them in the way of forgiving. I remember a woman who came to me for prayer for healing who was waiting for a few years until her children were older and she could leave her husband whom she hated. She and her husband both attended Mass regularly every Sunday in their local church, but she made sure that she never went to the same Mass as him, because she did not want to be present at the same time with him at Mass. She would not think of missing Sunday Mass, but could not see the spiritual contradiction involved in going to Mass regularly and not wanting to be reconciled to her husband and refusing to attend the same Mass. Doubtless we all have spiritual contradictions in our lives — I certainly have — but some contradictions are more glaring than others.
It is good to remember that we are the first victims of our failure to forgive or forgive fully. The unforgiving person does not experience the peace and joy which Jesus wants us to have. Failure to forgive or to forgive fully can also play a part, perhaps a major part, in causing illness, including physical illness. A priest friend of mine was wonderfully and immediately healed from a very painful and incapacitating back condition when after prayers by a member of a healing team he forgave his parish priest with whom he had a difficult relationship. There have been many cases when cancer and arthritis were healed or notably improved when people forgave.
We have to forgive in three directions: other people, ourselves, and God. Quite a number of people find forgiving themselves the most difficult. Sometimes women who have had an abortion find this particularly difficult, and one can understand why, because no amount of repenting will bring the child back to life again. However we always have to remember that when we truly repent Jesus always forgives us, whatever we have done. If Jesus forgives us, then we must forgive ourselves, for the right kind of self-love demands that, and Jesus wants it. I tell those mothers, 'You have a child waiting for you in heaven.'
As to forgiving God, we know that objectively there is nothing to forgive, for God has always been loving towards us. Being love, God cannot do other than love us. However, people can sometimes feel very angry with God for having allowed their baby to die, or their eyesight to collapse, or their wife to desert them, or their business to crash, or their son or daughter to become a heroin addict. 'Why me, Lord? I do not deserve this. I have not been a bad person; other people have been much worse and this disaster has not hit them.' So when a human calamity comes to people, they may stop praying and give up on God.
Here is a thought which may help some people to forgive. If you never had anything or anything serious to forgive, how would you grow in the virtue of forgiveness? We grow under grace in the virtue of forgiving by practising it and by praying for those who have hurt us. Also, how could I know how to help others — there are so many who have major offences needing to be forgiven — if I myself have never had to struggle with a problem of forgiving? So doubtless sometimes God allows us to be hurt, even seriously hurt, so that we can grow in the virtue of forgiving and know how to help others. I talk and write about forgiving, but I almost blush when I realise how very much bigger offences many of the people I try to help have to forgive. What are my molehills compared with their mountains? So we can thank God sometimes when we have something to forgive, and we can know that God will always bring good out of evil if we let him. However, we should not seek to be on the receiving end of offences — do not provoke people to mug you, indeed pray for protection against muggings. We shall receive offences in the course of life, especially perhaps if we are seeking to follow the call of Jesus.
One last comment on forgiving. We need to be always living with a readiness to forgive any-offence which may come along. Just as we continue at times to wrongly hurt other people, so we shall at times continue to be wrongly hurt by others. We hope that the others will forgive us, so let us always be ready to forgive others. We need to be living, by the grace of God, in a loving spirit of forgiveness, so that when the offence, great or small, comes along, our forgiveness and our prayers for the offender are there.
I am aware that in this chapter I have concentrated especially on the second commandment to love our neighbour. I think that loving God is largely a matter of praise, thanksgiving and adoration. I will deal with this in a later chapter of this book.
Trusting in Jesus, in God
Trusting God or Jesus — some people may normally find one of the two names comes to them more easily than the other — is a big part of the virtues of faith and hope. Hence the fundamental and vital importance of trusting Jesus, of trusting God in the spiritual life, in the Christian life as a whole. (I personally tend to think and pray more in terms of trusting Jesus than God, but of course since Jesus is God, for me it comes down basically to the same thing.) This whole area of trusting God is clearly a key one in our lives and one in which we all struggle at times, indeed we all fail sometimes.
Jesus rebuked his disciples for their little faith on a number of occasions. When Jesus was asleep in the boat and a storm arose the disciples woke him and said, 'Lord, save us! We are perishing!' Jesus replied before calming the storm, 'Why are you afraid, you of little faith?' (Matthew 8:25-26). How often is Jesus saying the same thing to us when storms arise in life? It may be a matter of material needs, as in Matthew 6: 25,33, 'Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear .... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well' It may be a question of our health or someone else's health. When the disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal the epileptic boy he replied, 'Because of your little faith' (Matthew 17:20). It may be a question of faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus said to Thomas, 'Do not doubt but believe,' (John 20:27). To how many Christians and other people is Jesus saying that today in our secularised society? As Peter began to sink when walking to Jesus on the water he cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?' (Matthew 14: 30-1). When we are afraid that we are 'sinking' in one way or another in life, how often is Jesus saying to us, 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?' I am sure he is often saying it to me, when I start worrying about situations and things I have to do.
There are so many areas of our lives in which our lack of faith and failure to trust easily come into play. It may be a question of health, perhaps people being very worried about the possibility of having cancer, or what is happening to the cancer that has been diagnosed, or how the cancer treatment is going, or how much longer they have to live. (Anxiety in such circumstances is indeed very understandable!) Or perhaps someone is very worried by their failing eyesight and fears of blindness. Or maybe someone is very worried that after they have been raped they may well have Aids.
Many people in London today are frightened of being mugged or burgled. I know an elderly man living on his own who needlessly paid for new locks to be put on his front door although he is in serious financial difficulties. There are many other parts of the world where people have much more reason to be concerned about their safety than we have here.
Then there is the whole area of domestic relations, where many people are very worried that their marriage will break up, their children get caught up in drugs, or go right off the rails in other ways. And people are understandably worried that they will not be able to pass exams, their boss will turn nasty, they will have nowhere to go in old age, that they will go senile. There is also, of course, the very common fear of approaching death.
Then there are the spiritual anxieties, for example that my sins have been too bad to be forgiven, that I am heading for hell, that Jesus no longer loves me and has rejected me for good. (I think these last fears are, thank God, less common than they were.)
For many years I have been a member of a charismatic team for praying for healing. Requests for prayers for the healing of fears and anxieties are very frequent. It is, I think, in this area that we see our most obvious positive results. Even when there are no positive changes in physical healing and transformed situations, people frequently receive a new peace and confidence in Jesus.
Our lack of faith and trust can also show itself in not having confidence that we can bear fruit for God's kingdom in one direction or another. Many Christians very much doubt that their prayers of intercession will make any difference. 'I am too much of a sinner', or 'I do not know how to pray properly', or 'I am only a simple lay person.' (Quite a number of lay people are obviously much more powerful prayers than many of the clergy.) I think the loss of faith in the power of prayer is a large part of the wider crises of faith in much of the church today. 'So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you, search; and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened' (Luke 11: 9-10). Not of course that every prayer will be answered in the way we first hoped. We may pray that someone will not go blind and they do, that there will not be war between two countries and war breaks out. But if we pray as we should, the person or group will be blessed by our prayers in one way or another, even though our prayers may only be a drop in a bucket — but thank God for drops in a bucket. However, I think that all Christians should believe that God wants to use their prayers for building up his kingdom and that their prayers can be truly fruitful.
We should also believe that our lives can be meaningful and fruitful in other ways than prayers. If we are truly loving and believing people, which by the grace of God we can all be, then we shall be bearing fruit —- I would even say much fruit, for that is what God wants for each one of us. 'Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit' (John 15:5). And we know that God wants every one of us to abide in him.
I write on this subject as someone who has had to struggle much with my lack of faith and failure to trust over such things as my health, my practical circumstances, and my ministry to others. By the grace of God, and only by His grace, I have, I think, made and am making some progress in this field. (About time!) Basically, the way forward has been and is through repenting of my lack of faith, asking for the gift of faith or greater faith, and stepping out in faith. And this is what I recommend to other people who come to me for assistance with this difficulty. It seems to help some of them also.
I sometimes say to people who come to me for confession, 'If you are happy with this as a penance, spend say five minutes repeating the words, "Jesus, I trust in you", and as you do so simply hand over to Jesus this or that problem or anxiety. Many seem to find this a helpful penance, indeed a good way of praying at other times.
I find it fruitful to pray in this way before the Divine Mercy picture connected with St. Faustina. Obviously a very large number of people are finding this Divine Mercy devotion, so strongly recommended by Pope John Paul II, a real blessing. I personally do not say the recommended prayer at 3.00 p.m. each day, but I know many people who do and find it very helpful to do so.
In this chapter I am in general recommending people to believe more strongly in the power of prayer and to believe that their own prayers can be very fruitful. However it needs also to be said that one has to avoid presumption and spiritual pride. If I presume that because I have prayed for a particular intention this or that result will automatically follow, then I am going to experience some unhappy surprises when nothing happens! If I think that my powerful prayers are almost infallible, then I am on an ego trip. If I think that Jesus is bound to answer the prayers of Christians who are not even trying to follow him and his teaching, then I am being presumptuous.
Our intercession is all about asking God's mercy and loving help for us sinners. The true desire to be used by Jesus in intercession will encourage us to try to put our own house more in order and to progress in the way of sanctification. It may also encourage us to follow the New Testament recommendation to fast. Jesus said not if you fast but when you fast (See Matthew 6:16.)
I meet some Christians who say that they never experience answers to their prayers an+d other Christians who say they frequently experience answers. I think that there is something wrong when Christians never experience answers. It may be due to lack of faith or to something really wrong in their Christian life. Sometimes prayers for a particular intention, for example physical healing or passing an exam, are not 'successful', because they are not in line with God's will for that person. Perhaps the time has come for the sick person to go to heaven, which is the only perfect healing all round. Perhaps someone does not pass an exam because God does not want them to study that subject. I also think it is normal that sometimes we shall have to struggle in prayer with this or that trial or intention, perhaps for a long time, maybe as a test of our perseverance and patience. However, if we really trust God, I think we shall experience his presence and power in our lives despite times of difficulty, perhaps great difficulty, and apparent failure. It is sometimes when we feel most weak and incapable that God is able to work through us more powerfully. I think the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians can encourage us: 'And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God', (1 Corinthians 2:3-5).
I am sure that the Charismatic Renewal has been used by God to increase many Christians' confidence in the power of prayer. Certainly in my case the Charismatic Renewal has been used by Jesus to give me a much more vital faith in prayer in general and especially in the power of prayers. As a monk and priest I already believed in and practised intercessory prayer, but involvement in the Charismatic Renewal gave me a wholly new expectancy that my prayers by the grace of God could make a real difference, when God so willed. And I began to see answers to prayer in a way I did not before I got involved in the Charismatic Renewal, especially in the field of healing. Not that I am a great miracle worker — I most certainly am not. I know many Christians who have much more powerful healing ministries than I ever had. However, God also uses Christians with lesser gifts and ministries. At 83 with ill health in more than one way, I consider that my active healing ministry days are largely over. But I thank God for the ministry he gave me and for the fruits it produced — very modest fruits in comparison with the ministry of many others, but far beyond anything I could have imagined before I became involved in the Charismatic Renewal.
Now for a point which is close to my heart! In this country and in many others in the First World, the number of Christians who go to Mass and other church services on Sunday has in general declined considerably, at any rate in what may be called the historic churches, both Catholic and Protestant. The younger generation is frequently noticeable in our churches by their absence. The Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches and movements like Alpha are in general increasing, sometimes rapidly, and often attracting young people. It seems to me that their faith in the power of prayer and consequently the time they give to prayer often helps to explain in part why some churches are flourishing and others are not.
I am not of course suggesting that people have to be involved in the Charismatic Renewal or something like it to believe in the power of prayer and to see beautiful answers to prayer. There are Carmelite convents and other religious communities where no one has ever been to a charismatic prayer meeting or anything similar and the community is obviously exercising a powerful ministry of intercession. And I think of our own parish here in Cockfosters (London, UK) where I meet some wonderful prayers, often older people, who have never been to a charismatic prayer meeting or anything of that kind. However I think that the general climate of confidence in the power of prayer is very low in many churches and parishes, and this helps to explain in part the declining numbers, the shortage of the younger generation, and the weakness of evangelisation.
Come, Holy Spirit; help us to believe in the power of prayer!
The Christian ideal of humility is the exact opposite of the world's ideals of ambition and success. It is not for nothing that people like Hitler particularly despised and rejected the Christian ideal of humility. 'Worldly' heroes and heroines are driven by pride not humility.
In a way pride, which is the opposite of humility, is the root of all sin, the preferring of our will to that of God. The rebellion of Adam and Eve was just that, the disobeying of God and doing their own will rather than obeying God. Not every sin is directly a sin against pride but every sin involves pride.
Since we human beings are all sinners none of us is perfect in humility We all at times need to repent of our pride, and we all need to grow in humility. If you think you never need to repent of pride, then you are suffering from at least spiritual pride!
Pride can take so many forms. We may be aware of our pride in certain areas of our lives, and
be unaware of pride in some others, areas which are perhaps obvious to those people who know us well. Furthermore
as time goes on and as we hopefully grow in the virtue of humility, we become aware of
Our pride, my pride, is not only sinful it is also pathetic! What a sorry sight we must sometimes make to the saints and angels in heaven, indeed often to other people on earth! So let us look at some common or possible areas where pride can manifest itself. Let us first ask the Holy Spirit in prayer to illuminate our minds and touch our hearts Remember that a certain amount of pride is considered not only normal but also desirable in the society in which we live, so we must try to see ourselves in the light of the Christian gospel not according to standards of respectability and 'success' in England at the beginning of the third millennium.
Money, wealth, and possessions are surely major areas where pride often manifests itself. Important reasons for seeking to amass a lot of money are frequently to be richer, and to have more property than other people, material one-upmanship. This easily leads to ridiculous and scandalous excesses. What is the point in having a car costing more than £150,000 which can go at more than 150 miles an hour, wasting a lot of petrol, in a country where one is only allowed to travel at 70 miles an hour? Obviously a car costing less than a fifth as much can perform more than adequately. The purpose of the more expensive car is dearly largely that of being a wealth symbol, to impress people with our wealth.
A friend of mine was taken out to dinner in a London restaurant some years ago, where the starter course cost more than £100 for each person — this in a world where millions of people are dying of starvation. Then there are of course the areas of very expensive wines, clothes, jewellery, holidays, houses — the list could be continued. People forget, if they ever knew, that some day we are all going to have to render an account to God for the way in which we have used our money and possessions. Jesus said some very clear things when speaking about wealth, for example, 'No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth' (Matthew 6:24).
I always feel rather nervous when speaking or writing on this subject because people listening to me or reading me are not normally the great worshippers of money, but are more likely to be devout Christians who are already giving away generously. Indeed some of them are perhaps giving away more than they should. Perhaps they should be spending more money on themselves for healthy food, keeping warm, and taking an occasional holiday. Our aim as Christians should not be to live on as little as possible, but to live in the way which Jesus wills for us. If we make that our aim some of us will doubtless be led to give away more and live a simpler lifestyle, while others of us may well be led to spend more on themselves.
I would think that the most widespread form of idolatry in the western world today, perhaps in
the world as a whole, is the worship of money and wealth. 'Success' in life is often largely measured in terms
of money and wealth. If people say that someone is 'successful' they often mean in the first place financially.
The advertisements are so often telling us that happiness is to be found in eating this food, drinking this whiskey,
going to the other end of the world on this expensive holiday, driving this car, wearing these clothes. It is really
all mainly illusory. Yes, our pride and materialism are indeed pathetic!
One of the reasons for some people wanting to be wealthy is that wealth can also give power over others, for example over the people one employs. Lust for power over others is certainly one of the forms of idolatry which alas is fairly common. Think of the vast harm done to humanity by dictators who are largely motivated by a thirst for power. Indeed even in our democracies commentators on the political scene often seem to assume that politicians are largely motivated by the desire to obtain or retain power. How far all this is away from the words of Jesus, 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth' (Matthew 5:5), and, 'Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls' (Matthew 11:29).
Yes, our pride can show itself in so many areas. Class and family, for example. I once met an elderly lady who was cut off from her family for marrying beneath herself — her husband was a mere medical doctor. She was only allowed to visit her family home when it became National Trust property decades later. I think things are in general better in this kind of area nowadays, but that does not stop some people being made to feel inferior in certain family or other gatherings because of their backgrounds. Accents, table manners, and where they went to school can all be held against someone. Education or lack of it can lead to some people being regarded as all right or not.
Our prejudices linked to pride often work at a very hidden level. We may think we are not prejudiced, but subtle influences can unconsciously be at work. There can be religious pride — Catholics or evangelicals can regard each other as second-class Christians. Spiritual pride has played no small part in the persecution of some of the saints. Clerical pride obviously can hinder the well-being of parishes. Have I always been entirely free of clerical pride? The answer is certainly, no!
Then there is masculine pride, which dearly causes much injustice and suffering, indeed has and still does lead to real cruelty and persecution. And nowadays in some of the more extreme feminist movements, by reaction men are definitely regarded as second class.
Nationalistic and tribal pride has obviously played a large part in causing wars, and the deaths and sufferings of millions of people. So often even some Christians have in practice put loyalty to their country and tribe before loyalty to Christ, to God, to justice. When I lived as a monk in Belgium I noticed how quite often even some dedicated Christians, were clearly unable to be objective when it came to disputes between the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians. The record of Christians over the centuries has often been very unworthy when it came to resisting the pressures of nationalistic pride and injustice. Thank God for the progress made in some places in this field in recent times — although there is still very much need for further progress. It is not only individuals who should be humble but also groups of people, both small and large. I think that Pope John Paul II's public acts of repentance for the sins and failures of Catholics in the past, for example our attitude and behaviour towards the Jews, were some of the greatest things of his pontificate. When humility is able to enter in, the whole atmosphere changes for the good.
Surely none of us is entirely free from prejudices stemming from pride, whether collective or individual. This causes all of us to be unjust in some of our judgements or actions. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to each one of us where prejudice and pride play a part in some of our judgements and relationships. May the Holy Spirit cleanse us of our pride and prejudices!
Life quite normally will bring with it humiliations at times. These can be occasions for growing in humility if we allow God to do that, but they can also of course have negative results instead,. such as causing bitterness, wrong anger, unforgiveness, loss of faith, inferiority complexes and lack of self-confidence. I am not suggesting that we should deliberately seek humiliations, but that we should with the aid of grace let good come out of them.
There have been strands in Christian tradition where people deliberately sought humiliations, for example the Russian Christian tradition of 'holy fools', where people deliberately behaved as if mentally ill in order to be despised. St Paul wrote, 'We are fools for the sake of Christ' (1 Corinthians 4:10). Some people took this very literally. I think that in general we should be satisfied with accepting positively the humiliations that come to us in life. That is often more than difficult enough for us sinful human beings! If we try to go all the way in following Jesus we shall certainly be regarded as fools by many people. There can be spiritual pride in seeking humiliations.
Humiliations come to us in many forms. I remember dearly my humiliation when at the age of five
I wet my trousers returning from school in the bus accompanied by my older brother. (Now as I move towards second
childhood, similar problems are threatening to arise!) A few years later there was the humiliation of not knowing
how to spell words when asked to stand up and do so in class — this led to nightmares, which my wise parents dealt with, with understanding. There were humiliations
with sex. Then later there was the
Sickness, old age and dying can bring humiliations. Being dependent on others for sight and hearing if you go blind or deaf. Not being able to walk or move your arms. Not being able to wash yourself or go to the toilet on your own. Finding that your memory and mental capacity are slipping away. I think we should in general pray for healing and protection against these problems and that will, I think, often make a real difference. We can also ask God not to leave us on earth until we become a great burden on others (and ourselves). However, God's perfect will for us may sometimes include passing to heaven via painful stripping humiliations. That can be a royal road to glory when God so wills. We may be called to follow the way of Jesus whose passion and death were extreme humiliations.
Now for an important point. Authentic humility is based on truth. If God has given you a wonderful singing voice do not go round saying you cannot sing, or indeed do not think you cannot sing. This applies to all God's gifts to us. We should.recognise and seek in general to use his gifts and the opportunities he has given us for the building up of God's kingdom. It is not true humility to say I cannot do this or that when in fad we can and should do it. Let us remember Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). True humility is not an inferiority complex or a general lack of self-confidence, or indeed laziness.
What a wonderful blessing a truly humble person is for those around him or her! What a blessing a truly humble spouse is! Think how much people often suffer in marriages or in family life because of pride! What a difference it makes in work places, hospitals, parishes, monasteries and elsewhere when people are authentically humble! Pride creates disunity and friction at every level and true humility is always an authentic unifying influence.
What can we do about our pride? The main thing is obviously to repent of our pride, as indeed of our other sins. We should go on repenting of pride, including proud attitudes, not only actions. Then we should ask God for the gift of humility or greater humility, for only the grace of God can help us to overcome our pride. Not that we should develop an obsession about our pride, for that would be unhealthy. Repent, ask for the gift of humility or greater humility, thank God that our sins are forgiven, then get on with the task of living in humility as best we can. This will include mortifying our pride when this is called for. Let us remember Jesus' words about not taking the best seats in the synagogue (Matthew 23:6). Other things being equal, let the other person shine. Let us remember the words of Jesus, 'All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted' (Matthew 23:12).
True humility not only makes life better for other people, but also for ourselves. The truly humble person is at peace within himself or herself in a way in which the proud person cannot be. Our pride makes us restless and discontented. We are not satisfied. Just reflect how sometimes proud thoughts and attitudes rob you of some of the peace and joy which Jesus wants you to experience. Looking back on life I have no difficulty in remembering times when my pride has taken away my peace and caused tensions with others, for example when my healing ministry was criticised or not being recognised. Yes, true humility brings with it peace and joy. What a blessing!
In the Catholic tradition Our Lady has always been regarded as a most wonderful example of humility. She had to face major humiliations as when her fiance, Joseph, thought she had had a sexual affair with someone and planned to dismiss her quietly (Matthew 1:19). The passion and death of Jesus were also humiliations for Mary, signs for most people as to how she had failed as a mother. I do not think I can finish this chapter on humility in a better way than by quoting Mary's beautiful song of praise in Luke chapter one. May we also follow her example of praise and humility:
And Mary said:
Copyright © 2005 Benedict M. Heron OSB
This Version: 13th April 2020