In 1927 then-Bishop Angelo Roncalli was Pope Pius XI’s representative in the predominantly Orthodox kingdom of Bulgaria. As there were very few Catholics in the country, it was largely his responsibility to organise and unite the Church, scattered as it was in small groups in far-flung districts, travelling often on poor roads, beset with bandits. Roncalli was often lonely and in danger; he was regarded with suspicion when he first arrived. He wrote to a priest friend:
It is not that the reasons for my troubled mind last year have ceased to exist; no, they are all still there, almost as powerful as before. But I found a reason for life and a reason for suffering; and so I live and suffer willingly…
From the outset of my episcopacy I have recited one of the prayers of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and I still say it. Well, one morning when I was suffering more than usual, I became aware that my state indicated precisely that my prayer had been granted.
Receive, O Lord, my whole liberty,
receive my memory, my intelligence,
and all my will.
All that I have and possess
was given to me by you,
I give it back to you entirely.
Do with it as you will.
Give me only thy love with thy grace
and I am rich enough
and ask for nothing more.
From John XXIII by Leone Algisi, Catholic Book Club 1966, p77.
In the war-against-drugs campaign, a popular slogan was used in commercials and billboards: “Just say no.” That is precisely the lesson the gospel reading today urges upon us. With each temptation the devil proposes, Jesus says no. What is suggested to us in this passage from Matthew is that we have the power to keep a lot of trouble out of our lives by the use of a very simple word. However, many of us tend to discount the power we have to resist temptation. We prefer to believe we are “victims” of circumstances, genetics, upbringing, or hormones. When we find ourselves beset with problems, we look for someone or something else to blame, like Adam and Eve in Genesis claiming, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” – like saying “the devil made me do it”. The reason we don’t like to face our power to say no is that if we can say no, then saying yes is an admission of guilt. And not many of us like to admit that. The lesson we learn in today’s readings is not that there is serious temptation awaiting us in the world; we already know that. It is not, as Paul reminds us, that sin has serious consequences for ourselves and others; we already have experience of that. What we are hearing is a reminder that we are responsible for most of what goes on in our lives, and we can say no – to our bad habits, our laziness, our inclination to lay blame on others for our failings, our small-mindedness, our waste of time and energy in fruitless worry, our impulse to bring others down. We humans can be as resistant and stubborn as we want to be. We can say no to anything we want, and stick to it. Think about it! We have the power; we use it all the time with things we don’t like. The devil in today’s gospel displayed seductiveness by trying to get Jesus to consider values that were not in his best interests, but the greatest seduction of all is to make us believe that we are powerless over temptation, victimised by our weakness and failings. It is the ultimate deceit. Effective adult living will always require that we refrain from making excuses and blaming others and take full responsibility for what goes on in our lives. We are what we are, and face what we face today because of the decisions we made yesterday. Tomorrow will be what it will because of decisions we make today. All because of a simple yes or no. Lent has traditionally been a season of penance and self-denial. We mustn’t deny ourselves some good, but something bad – something that is preventing us from being the best we can be, something that is putting our spiritual growth on hold. It will come as a pleasant surprise how much freedom awaits us and how more productive life becomes when we learn to “just say no”.
It is a strange thing this bed, this mimic grave, where we stretch our tired limbs and sink away so quietly into the silence and rest. “O bed, O bed, delicious bed, that heaven on earth to the weary head,” as sang poor Hood, you are a kind old nurse to us fretful boys and girls. Clever and foolish, naughty and good, you take us all in your motherly lap and hush our wayward crying. The strong man full of care—the sick man full of pain—the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover—like children we lay our aching heads on your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by. Our trouble is sore indeed when you turn away and will not comfort us.
How long the dawn seems coming when we cannot sleep! Oh! those hideous nights when we toss and turn in fever and pain, when we lie, like living men among the dead, staring out into the dark hours that drift so slowly between us and the light. And oh! those still more hideous nights when we sit by another in pain, when the low fire startles us every now and then with a falling cinder, and the tick of the clock seems a hammer beating out the life that we are watching.
From Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome was writing in 1886, making his way out of poverty. He had lost his parents as a teenager, and left school early to work. He would have had real sympathy for the people represented by today’s image. All too often, over the last few years, a homeless person’s pitch has been replaced by bouquets of flowers following their death in a disused shop doorway or under a tree. This winter, the corona virus led to their being swept up off the streets. Will they be still under a roof when the crisis is over?
A few more extracts from Jerome follow; have we improved our country and our world since 1886?
Another reflection from Mrs T’s mirror: she copied this little list onto another scrap of paper, but I cannot find it now; it seems to have got blown away. Still, even if I’d forgotten the whole thing, Richard Rohr OFM, whose list it is, is well ensconced on the internet: see our link on the right for his website.
This is as good a vade mecum as you’ll find anywhere.
1) Life is hard.
2) You are not that important.
3) Your life is not about you.
4) You are not in control.
5) You are going to die.
Mrs T describes this as ‘tremendously liberating’, and it does give another way to look at the golden rule of ‘Do as you would be done by’ or ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Lots of worries can be revisited and laid aside, with this list in mind.