Circular Letter: Lent 2019
Battle for the Kingdom
“Be sober and vigilant. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world ¬undergo the same sufferings” (1 Pet 5:8-9). As in the days of the Kulturkampf of Otto von Bismarck against the Church in the late 1800’s – which paved the way for the rise of Hitler in Germany – so also today we see a vehement, open, ultimately demonic attack against the Church and the foundations of Christian society: life, the family and motherhood. Through the media, “sex-ed” in public schools, social networking, etc., there is an attempt to shift and transform our culture, the collective sense of the people of what is true and false, what is good and evil, what is “reasonable” and what is extremist, what is morally acceptable and what is unacceptable.
Advertisements on television, in magazines, even in gas station videos, along with television sitcoms flaunt homosexual “partners” with the intent of making this lifestyle part of the newly accepted “normal”. Judicial appointments are challenged on the basis of membership in the Knights of Columbus, or accused of being “extremist” simply for being Catholic and because of their stance on abortion. Governors celebrate the political “breakthrough” of making infanticide legal, a guaranteed “right” under the law. The evil is also within the Church; Pope St. Paul VI lamented that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the Church (Letter, June 29, 1972), with clerics accepting the secular agenda. Today we see it even more clearly in the abuse crisis and the -frequent homosexual subculture in seminaries. Pope St. John Paul II saw through this trend very early on, giving it a name: the “culture of death”, which is contraposed to the “culture of life”. We might also call it the war between the culture of light and the culture of darkness. Did Jesus not call the devil a “murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44)? More than anything else, it is a spiritual battle in which evil assaults the good, in an attempt to transform society, and each man within society, into darkness and to make them reject the God of light.
The Division of Ranks “in the Beginning”
The holy Angels underwent a similar trial and subsequent “battle” at the beginning of time: “…and GOD separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4), the good Angels from those who had rebelled against GOD and His holy will.
The demon is a creature of GOD like the Angel, spirit like the Angel, of angelic nature like the Angel. He underwent the most severe and deepest transformation of his whole being through his “No!” to GOD; he changed himself into a demon, was darkened, fell below the level of an animal and manifests himself on earth as a dragon, as a furious dog, a ferocious wolf, a cunning snake. His love was changed to hate, his light to blackest darkness and he wants nothing to do with any vision of GOD. Still he burns to drag people down to himself into this darkness, to his coldness of heart. No effort is too great for him to attain to this goal. (Mother Gabriele Bitterlich, Readings for the Year I, p. 57).
It seems undeniable that we are in the battle of the end times. “The insidious spiritual attacks on all mankind are becoming too much: the whole spiritual atmosphere is becoming sterile, GODless, and all men are breathing it in” (ibid, p. 61). More and more we are ¬entering on a battle for the Kingdom of GOD. We have tried to be good Christians, but now we are called to be “fighting” Christians – at the side of the holy Angels.
It is not a question of “taking up arms” in the material sense, for “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Rather, “what is needed is that we -recognize what comes from the evil spirits, isolate it, expose it. What is needed is that we deactivate the spiritual mines which are being laid in the Holy Church, that we fill up with GOD the spiritual voids in man’s religious thought, and let the grace of GOD flow in” (Mother Gabriele, Readings, p. 61).
Fighting from Without: Forming Culture
There are two levels of engagement in this battle. We can fight the external battle against error and perversity, the atheistic press and against covert or open attacks against Christianity, the Church, the family and the human person. This task is most especially for our Bishops and priests, but also in collaboration with the laity and their active political presence. The battle is also fought at universities, in the schoolroom, through publishing houses, and in the missions. At the synod on youth, Bishop Robert Barron noted that one of the chief reasons why our youth leave the faith is intellectual indoctrination, which leads them to believe “that religion is opposed to science or that it cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, that its beliefs are outmoded, a holdover from a primitive time, that the Bible is unreliable, that religious belief gives rise to violence, and that God is a threat to human freedom.”
Bishop Barron therefore called for a renewed effort of catechesis and apologetics. He also urged us to draw others to the faith through the attraction of beauty, which is deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition: “Part of the genius of Catholicism is that we have so consistently embraced the beautiful—in song, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and liturgy. All of this provides a powerful matrix for evangelization…. The most compelling beauty of all is that of the Saints. I have found a good deal of evangelical traction in presenting the lives of these great friends of God, somewhat in the manner of a baseball coach who draws young adepts into the game by showing them the play of some of its greatest practitioners.” Not all of us can teach or catechize, or write articles or directly influence others, but all of us can and should manifest the beauty of holiness by our way of life!
The Interior Battle: The Transformation of Heart
This brings us to the second level of engagement in the battle for the Kingdom of God, which is by far the more important and accessible to all: the spiritual battle. We cannot change those around us, only GOD can do that. But we can change ourselves; we can purify and open our hearts more and more for GOD, so that His grace may flow in and through us to others. In this way, beginning with ourselves, soul by soul, heart by heart will be conquered and transformed for GOD, working “the merciful and redeeming transformation of the world in the human heart” (John Paul II, Dominicae caenae 7).
St. Paul exhorts us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). We are called to be children of GOD, to “become God”, as St. Athanasius says, “For the Son of God ¬became man so that we might become God” (De Incarn. 54, 3). The Sacrament of Baptism is the foundation for this transformation. GOD speaks His “ephetha”, “be opened”, to the eyes and ears, the heart and mind so that they may be amenable to grace and the action of the SPIRIT within. Through faith, man can see GOD and understand His will and call. Yet daily we are placed before a decision: “Thou shalt…, thou shalt not!” We can choose to walk towards GOD or away from Him. We must, therefore, arm ourselves with spiritual weapons in the following of Christ, allowing ourselves to be transformed by Him into bearers of His light. At our side walk the holy Angels.
The Angel as Light and Guide in Spiritual Combat
Every holy Angel already passed his great trial at the beginning of time, when with one act he chose with his natural, created, free will for GOD, such that now he exists wholly united to GOD and His will. “Each faithful Angel is an image of light… he is immersed in the light of GOD, gazing upon His face, such that his whole being is light. With his will he has entered into the will of GOD, just as the will of every Saint, MARY included, has entered into the will of GOD” (Mother Gabriele, ibid.). Thus, being one with the will of GOD, each Angel is perfectly free, free always to choose and do the good, which comes from GOD. The Angels are, therefore, sent to watch over the freedom of the children of GOD on earth.
Among men, we witness a transformation to evil, as we see in Cain or in Judas. But there exists also a transformation to the good, as we know from St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Ignatius or St. Mary Magdalene. We have free will and are therefore capable of being transformed, of gaining the true freedom of the children of GOD, uniting ourselves to His will, or – on the negative side – of falling as slaves to sin and the devil. Through Baptism, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8:2). Yet as long as we walk this earth, our transformation is not yet definitive. We are in a time of trial.
Being Transformed into the Likeness of JESUS
CHRIST goes before us; HE is our great model and ¬Redeemer. How did He begin His act of Redemption? With a “transformation”, a self-emptying, a renouncement. He emptied Himself and …plunged from the most intimate embrace of His FATHER into the profound, voluntary transformation of the Incarnation. In this unparalleled transformation, He took Flesh and “became like unto man”. Yet this was not enough. He transformed Himself yet a thousand times more profoundly and made Himself food, He transformed bread and wine into His Flesh and Blood, in order to be able to give Himself to the last, the least, the most miserable ones for all times. (MG, ibid.)
JESUS calls us to His imitation. When He says, “Do this in memory of me…”, yes, He institutes the priesthood and the Most Holy Eucharist. But He wants more: He asks us also to let ourselves be transformed, to renounce ourselves, like He did, in order to ¬become, like Him, bread for others.
Since man is both body and soul, both must be transformed. The body must be made subject to the soul, and the soul to GOD. St. Paul writes,
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason, the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed, it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:5-8)
The body is made subject to the soul through discipline and through all the physical sufferings and trials we endure for the love of God. This divine love is the transformer; it assimilates our bodies with all its natural longings into a pure longing for God, in which all our faculties of body and soul serve God and the growth of His Kingdom.
The soul ought to reign over and transform the body and not the other way around. The material world “groans and travails in pain until the last day” (Rom 8:22), that is, it must be transformed through pain. So also, the human body must again and again be transformed by the gentle hand of the Lord through the groaning of pain and distress, hunger and thirst, cross and illness into a docile instrument of the soul, which is the handmaid of the Lord. For indeed we should not reach the gate of heaven despite the heaviness of our body, but rather with a body transformed by discipline of will and open to grace. (Mother Gabriele, ibid.)
It is for this reason that traditionally, in this season of Lent, we impose a corporal penance on ourselves, in order to free the spirit, through love for the things of GOD.
Self-emptying: The Condition for Transformation through the Word, the Cross and Love
But more than just the discipline of the body, the Lord wants of us a spiritual transformation, a self-emptying and renunciation of ourselves out of love for GOD, through the word, the Cross and love. “The word signifies the transforming of all our words into the word of GOD to such a degree that we speak − indeed, can only speak − as JESUS spoke and as MARY would speak in our place” (Mother Gabriele, ibid.). Often this can be the more demanding penitential discipline. We have all heard of giving the three T’s in Lent: our time, our talent and our treasure. Now we can apply this more deeply, we can “give the word” perhaps by giving in, when we want to have the last word in an argument. We know what great poverty of spirit this demands of us! We can also give in word by forgiving, making peace, both asking and granting pardon. Humility, humility, humility! Then also, how much value there is in a word of comfort, of encouragement, of cheerfulness. All these require a going out of ourselves, a dying and transformation of our self-centered thoughts and words into a selfless being-there for others out of love for GOD.
“The Cross signifies doing, helping, setting an example, exerting oneself and obeying, serving and leading, suffering and expiating” (ibid.). In order to carry the Cross with courage and resolution, we need to place our trust not in men, not in ourselves, but solely in JESUS. We fix our eyes on Him under the weight of the Cross, and it is He who will carry us. JESUS tells us, “Without Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5), while St. Paul states, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). In Ecclesiasticus we read, “Has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected? For the Lord is compassionate and merciful; He forgives sins and saves in time of distress” (Sirach 2:10-11). St. Bernard applies this same trust to Our Lady, “Has anyone put his trust in Mary and been forsaken?” (cf. Memorare). If we persevere in trust under the weight of the Cross, the Lord will quickly transform us into instruments of His mercy and His love.
Living the Love of the Heart of JESUS
Love is the goal, the ultimate gift of self to GOD and to others for GOD’s sake. The love of GOD is manifested to us in the Heart of JESUS. Normally, the role of the heart is to sustain the life of the body; it strives for self-preservation. The Heart of Jesus, however, leads us far beyond this natural function.
The pierced Heart of Jesus has also truly “overturned” (cf. Hos 11:8) this definition. This Heart is not ¬concerned with self-preservation but with self-surrender. It saves the world by opening itself. The collapse of the opened Heart is the content of the Easter mystery. The Heart saves, indeed, but it saves by giving itself away. Thus, in the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. [“Cor ad cor loquitur.” – Bd. John Henry Newman] It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of self-preservation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing -ourselves over to Him and with Him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world. (Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, p. 69)
Like JESUS on the Cross, we are called to let our hearts be opened that others may find their way to GOD. This is the way of Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35). She stood beneath the Cross, offering her SON to the FATHER for our sake. And thus, she was able to “crush the head of the serpent” (Gen 3:15). We, too, want to wage war through love, through self-sacrifice and self-giving, in expiation for the great sins of our time, for the great needs of the Church, for her priests and Bishops. But we cannot do it of ourselves. JESUS and His love must sustain and transform us, so that we want to give, with the freedom of the children of GOD.
Love signifies being, being light for others. And in love, in this ultimate dedication, in this giving of self in GOD to those who are to be redeemed, to those who are to be gathered in, we go the way of Our Lord and Savior like a child which He bears. He bears us, He gives us away, He makes of us the seed, a host, reduced to ashes. He transforms us into Himself, removing all slavishness. (Mother Gabriele, ibid.)
The Selfless Love of the Guardian Angel
The Angels walk this way with us. Having already reached perfect union with GOD, they, too, emptied themselves from the splendor of the Beatific Vision in order to enter this world of darkness as guides and guardians, as simple servants and brothers of men.
Every holy Angel has received in the blessed vision of GOD the one denarius, just as every Saint in heaven receives it. The Angels, however, go with the Redeemer JESUS CHRIST down into the depths and help men to get an idea of GOD, to grasp HIM, to seek HIM, to find HIM and to join themselves to the great army of CHRIST, which the Lord brings home to His FATHER as plunder. (ibid.)
Even though he “continually beholds the face of our Father in heaven” (cf. Mt 18:10), every Angel carries out his task not without a kind of spiritual suffering in seeing a loss in virtue, the loss of souls.
He follows the Lord, for us invisibly, in silence and obedience: he is the shining finger before our spiritual eyes, which always points upwards to GOD. He is the warning signal of the conscience in our heart, but he is also the spiritually bound one, the one scourged by our sins, our infidelity, our shameful betrayal. He must look on as we betray the Lord, as we nail Him to the Cross. Can we grasp such depths, that this mighty being remains silent? (ibid.)
GOD often allows that we are vanquished in battle through our negligence and tepidity, since we should know that our life and this world are a battleground of love for Angel and man. But when we fall, the Angel leads us to JESUS in the confessional, who alone can restore our hearts if we repent and want to make reparation. JESUS will brush off the dust, or, when the fall is grave, transform our heart anew into a vessel of light. How important for our times is the practice of frequent confession! For only through purity of heart and in the light of the Angel will we be able to see clearly through these times of spiritual confusion and blindness.
The Holy Eucharist, Our Source of Love
In order to love, we must first be loved. We are never alone in battle. JESUS is here with us, though at times He may hide Himself, for He wants us to look for Him all the more earnestly in prayer. Throughout the day, especially when things are hard, we can turn to JESUS within and find His love. What would our day be like if first thing in the morning upon waking, we were to say to JESUS, “Lord, I love you! I want to make of everything today a gift of love to You! Every joy, every trial, every renunciation – all for YOU! I want to help You save souls, help priests!” Not with formulas, but in a very personal way, we can speak with JESUS, with the FATHER and the SPIRIT all day long. Mary and the Angel also watch over us and bring us the light and strength we need to stand firm in faith, to make the gift with love.
Our love is intensified especially at the Holy Sacrifice, where JESUS draws us into His own Sacrifice of Love. If we want to follow JESUS more closely, more generously, so that our whole life becomes a holy sacrifice of love for the salvation of souls, then we will need more love, more strength from JESUS, most particularly, from Holy Communion, even daily, if possible.
We are the fortunate ones who [can] receive every day in Holy Communion the One denarius – as a pledge – and the Lord takes us as well into the depths of His ¬redemptive path – in its length and breadth and depth. Each day is transformation, a blood-wrenching demand for transformation also from us. If not, then we cannot do justice to the will of GOD, if not, then we cannot drink the chalice, cannot bear the Cross, cannot rise with the Lord. But JESUS CHRIST wants that: where the Lord is, so should His servant also be, where HE is, so should we also be. (ibid.)
Ultimately, it is a battle of love over hate, of life over death, of light over darkness. St. Paul exhorts us, “Be on your guard, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love!” (1 Cor 16:13-14). Only the love from the Heart of JESUS can overcome the world. If we are generous with God, God will never let Himself be outdone in generosity. We know that “in the battle against the devil, it is always a matter of who has the longer breath. The Cross and love overcome the world and all trials.”
Therefore, let us not be apprehensive: Every emptiness becomes in GOD a fullness, every renunciation becomes a gift, every giving becomes a receiving, every suffering becomes a joy, every dying becomes a rising. The Cross and the Cross alone thrusts Heaven open and then there is Easter joy! (Mother Gabriele)
Sr. Maria Basilea
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