Solemn Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated)
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: cc Bill Couch
Picture: cc Bill Couch
Sisters and brothers, when you travel, what is probably the single most important item, apart from yourself of course, that you need to safeguard? I know someone who recently received a painful reminder of the answer to this question. This person had flown into Changi Airport to catch another flight to a foreign destination. Unfortunately, he carelessly left his passport behind on the first plane. And ended up being stranded at the airport, because the authorities wouldn’t let him board the connecting flight without a valid travel document. Thankfully, the airline was able to very quickly locate and return his passport to him. Which allowed him to catch a later flight. So all he lost were some hours of travelling time. Imagine how much more inconvenience he would have suffered if someone had stolen his passport…
This person found out the hard way what all travellers have to learn at one point or another. Whenever you’re travelling, you have to make sure that you keep your passport in a safe place at all times. And there’s a similar lesson to be learnt in the spiritual life as well. A lesson that our Mass readings help to teach us. A lesson that is central to the spirituality of St. Ignatius. The patron of our parish. Whose solemn feast we celebrate today.
As you know, the spiritual life is commonly imagined as an ongoing journey. A continual pilgrimage. Out of selfishness and into love. Away from the narrow and anxious concerns of our ego. And towards God and God’s concerns. This image of constant travel is also something we find in our readings today.
In the first reading, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years, the people of Israel have finally arrived at their destination. They are preparing to cross the Jordan River to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land. But before they make the crossing, Moses gives them an important pep-talk. A pre-flight safety briefing, if you like. And it’s important to pay close attention to what Moses is saying. On the surface, it seems as though his only concern is that the Israelites keep the Law. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, Moses tells them, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. But the keeping of the Law is not really an end in itself. It’s only a means to an end. A way to achieve a deeper purpose.
We realise what this deeper purpose is when we carefully consider what Moses says next. If you turn away your hearts… and serve other gods... you will perish. Moses’ concern is not so much that the Israelites follow all the rules, as much as that they keep their hearts in the right place. Just as those who travel the world need to constantly protect their passports, so too do those who travel in spirit need to place their hearts in the safekeeping of God’s loving embrace. And they do this by keeping the Law.
For the Israelites, to keep the Law is to deposit their hearts with God for safekeeping. And it’s important that we not forget this deeper reason. This higher purpose for the Law. Otherwise, we can too easily reduce our faith simply to the following of a list of dos and don’ts. We can end up placing our hearts in the cold lifeless hands of the Law. Rather than in the warm and loving embrace of God. And this can lead to undesirable results.
We may, for example, become so burdened by the constant struggle to keep the letter of the Law that we lose the joy and delight experienced by those who appreciate and live its spirit. Those who keep growing in the realisation of how much they are loved and cherished by God. As a result, some of us may end up becoming so exhausted that we give up on God altogether. And others may turn ourselves into modern day Pharisees. Becoming rigidly legalistic. Even hypocritical and judgmental. Both of others and of ourselves as well.
Either way, we end up losing that life-giving connection about which the psalmist sings so beautifully. The nourishing bond enjoyed by the tree that is planted near running water. That yields its fruit in due season. And whose leaves never fade… The deep connection experienced by those whose hearts are ever kept in the right place. Secure in the loving embrace of God.
In the gospel, we find a striking image of what it looks like when someone is able to maintain just such a connection. Someone whose heart is always kept in the right place. As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, we find travellers preparing for a crossing. Not the River Jordan this time. But the Sea of Galilee. We’re told that when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other shore. To travel from Jewish to Gentile lands. And, as Moses did before him, Jesus gives his fellow travellers a pre-flight safety briefing. He offers them two instructions.
The first is a reminder of what we said earlier. That the spiritual life involves constant travel. An experience of homelessness even. Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Yet this homelessness is not for sightseeing or vacationing. Much less is it because one is unable to commit to settling down in a particular place. The Lord submits to homelessness in the kingdom of this world, only to fulfil his mission of proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. And to help everyone to find their proper place in it.
We do this by making Jesus our first priority. By entrusting our hearts to him for safekeeping. By finding our rest in the Lord. Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead. Jesus demonstrates just what this mysterious restfulness in the midst of continual homelessness looks like. On the crossing, when his boat encounters a violent storm, we’re told that Jesus was asleep. The Lord experiences a deep calm even when surrounded by chaos. A powerful image of how he is able to endure not having a fixed place to lay his head, because his heart remains always securely deposited in the embrace of his Father’s will.
And this is also the twofold lesson taught by St. Ignatius. First, that to be a disciple of Christ is to be constantly travelling in the spirit. Continually on mission. Proclaiming–sometimes with our words, and always with our lives–the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. And, second, that we can travel safely, even on stormy seas, when we place our hearts in the hands of God. The second reading tells us that this has to do with our motivations. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not for turning a profit. Or for making a name for yourself. Or to take pride in your own accomplishments. But for the glory of God. As St. Ignatius would say, en todo amar y servir. In all things, to love and to serve (God).
Sisters and brothers, all seasoned travellers know well the importance of safeguarding their passport. On the road of discipleship, where are you choosing to place your heart for safekeeping today?