14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Picture: cc Alexander Savin
Sisters and brothers, do you exercise? What kind of exercise do you do? And why? As you know, if we were to go to East Coast Park after this Mass, we will probably see many people there walking or jogging, cycling or roller-blading. And it’s no secret why these people do these things. They know that the body needs exercise to remain in good condition. They know that unless they engage in some form of regular physical activity, their bodies will grow weak and become more prone to illness. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
I’ve also heard of a community of religious sisters, all of whom have already retired from active ministry. In addition to saying their daily prayers, these nuns actually spend a good portion of their time playing mahjong. Don’t worry. They’re not gambling. The sisters are encouraged to play mahjong because those caring for them know that this game can help them to remain mentally alert. They know that, like the body, the mind too needs exercise. Otherwise, as we age, we become more prone to diseases like dementia. As with the body, so too with the mind: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
But, of course, there is a limit to what we can do. No matter how far or how often we may walk, no matter how many rounds of mahjong we may play, finally, if and when sickness decides to come knocking on our door, we will still be unable to escape its clutches. Death comes to us all. That is just the nature of things.
What’s more, it is actually possible to be in excellent physical and mental condition and still be deeply unhappy. We can think, for example, of the pair of Hong Kong celebrities who have been filling the news lately. So rich and famous. So talented and good-looking. Yet so very miserable. And what about us? Even if we may not be celebrities ourselves, don’t we have our fair share of problems too? Misunderstandings with family and friends, difficulties in school or the workplace, financial setbacks, loneliness, boredom, and the routine stresses and strains of daily living. These are just some of the many burdens that, from time to time, each of us has to bear.
Isn’t this why we find Jesus’ invitation to us in today’s gospel so very consoling? Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. When we hear these words, don’t we wish we could run immediately to the Lord and enjoy the rest that he offers us? And when we listen to the first reading speak about the king who comes to us riding on a donkey, and who will proclaim peace to the nations, don’t we wish we could welcome this king with open arms? Don’t we yearn to experience his peace?
And yet, it’s not always easy to come close to Jesus, is it? As much as we may want to enjoy his company, all too often we allow other things to come between us and the Prince of Peace. Sometimes it’s a matter of simple ignorance. We want to go to the Lord, but we just don’t know how. At other times, we are kept from drawing close to Jesus, because we are clinging to something else. A sinful habit, perhaps. Or a painful memory. Low self-esteem. Or an inadequate appreciation of God's love for me. An obsession with material concerns. Or just plain old-fashioned laziness.
And then, of course, there is that one obstacle that we all struggle with at some point or other. Even the great St. Peter and the rest of the first apostles stumbled over this obstruction. What is it? It is the realization that the way of peace, on which this donkey-riding king from the first reading wishes to lead us, is also the road to Calvary. And the easy yoke that Jesus wishes to lay upon our shoulders in the gospel is none other than the wood of the Cross. For, as we all know, in the mystery of Christ–the same mystery that we are celebrating in this Mass–Death and Resurrection are really two sides of the same coin. We only get to Easter Sunday by passing through Good Friday. To come close to Jesus is also to bear the life-giving burden of his holy Cross. When we realize this, will we still wish to come to the Lord?
What then are we to do? How can we overcome all the formidable obstacles that keep us from approaching Jesus? The solution lies neither in physical strength nor in mental ability. Neither solely in the body nor in the mind. It is to be found, instead, in the spirit. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading: (our) interests are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual. For unless (we) possessed the Spirit of Christ (we) would not belong to him. What all this means, sisters and brothers, is that, in order to live a full human life, as Jesus did, it is not enough just to engage in physical and mental activity. It is not enough simply to go jogging, or to play mahjong. In order to come to Jesus, and to enjoy his rest, in order to experience his peace, what we need above all, is to engage in regular spiritual exercise. We need to deepen our prayer.
Which brings us to the reason why my companions–Fr. Ravi and Bros. Jerome, Stanley and Basil–and I are here today. We are Jesuits, followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint of 16th century Spain, who was blessed with a gift for guiding others in the ways of prayer. The five of us will be outside the church after Mass to share a little, with any of you who may be interested, about the Spiritual Exercises, a book that St. Ignatius wrote. It is a manual for helping people to grow closer to God. For, in the words of Ignatius himself: just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all (disordered) attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God (SpEx. #1).
To rid ourselves of disordered attachments. To grow closer to Jesus. To find the courage to shoulder his yoke–the Cross of Compassion. And, in shouldering it, to enter into his rest, the rest that the Father’s will alone can provide. This is what it means to engage in spiritual exercise.
Sisters and brothers, even as we may struggle with our many problems, our Lord continues to invite each of us to come to him. But in order to be ready to answer his call we need to exercise regularly. For as it is with the body and the mind, so too with the spirit: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Sisters and brothers, what forms of spiritual exercise are you doing today?