Meditations Upon the Virgin’s Virtues for Contemporary Clergy, Part 2

Mother of Divine Providence by Scipione Pulzone (1550-1588)

This continues the meditation begun in Part 1, here.

Generosity: Mark 3: 31-35
Before Dr. Phil, there was a story about a couple who sought marriage counseling. The wife went in to see the counselor first, and alone. And after she left, was her husband’s turn. But after talking with the counselor just a few minutes, it’s as if lightning struck, and the husband exclaimed: “Wait a minute! Are you saying that the only thing my wife wants from me is sincerity?” “Exactly,” affirms his smiling counselor. “That’s great!” shouts the husband. “Sincerity! I can absolutely fake that!”

Some people are givers, and some are takers, and this husband is a taker. He’s opted for emotional avarice. He may shower his wife with luxury, but still be emotionally greedy because the heart of the matter is that his heart matters—too much. He can’t share it. He can fake it, but not share it.

Many people are like this husband. Because all humans are limited and sinful, experience teaches us that we are hurt by the ones we love. Emotional avarice is the consequent conviction that it is better to hoard our heart than to risk losing everything by emotionally investing in anything.

However, that is not the logic of Our Lady. She knows that with the Lord, less is more. Our Lady is asked, over and over, to risk everything she loves for God, whom she loves more. First, she’s asked to risk losing Joseph through divorce in order to conceive, in due course. Then, she’s asked to flee her native home, and go to Egypt, the land of her forbearer’s slavery and toil. Now she’s asked to leave hearth and home in order to follow Jesus wherever he roams. And soon she’ll be asked to lose her son to the cross, the final and fatal loss. Yet, each time she gives without counting the cost, she discovers that with the Lord, less is more. Mary thrives because God provides. And with God providing everything, she becomes the consort of his generosity, Our Lady of Divine Providence.

Our Lady of Divine Providence exemplifies the virtue of generosity. Now, our Lady was human. Like us, she, too, experienced human limitations, and suffered their sinfulness. She knew that humans always hurt the ones they love. But she also knew that God is not like humans. God does not hurt; God heals. God is not limited or sinful. God is unlimited and saving. And on the Cross, Jesus proved that God does not hurt the ones he loves. Rather, God loves even the ones who hurt him.

Our Lady of Divine Providence teaches us that although God allows suffering, God does not cause suffering. Sin, and it’s consequential suffering unto death, are not the works of God, but of men. We use, or rather abuse, our free will to hurt the ones we love. Divine Providence is God’s plan that with the Lord, less is more. God, in Jesus, emptied himself, becoming less than a slave, so we could become more than angels. God’s providence proves that we can always afford to be generous, because God’s giving to us is infinite.

We need not hoard our heart when God calls because no one can be more generous than God. Rather, God made this heart of ours to be like a hole. When we give away part of our heart, it becomes larger and deeper, or in other words, roomier. And that means more of God’s love can get into that heart. The more we give ourselves away in love, the more room there is for God’s love.

Let me tell you about “holy old Father Joe.” That’s what everyone always called him. Father Joe founded a parish savings and loan so that the poor could have a bank they could access; and he created a clinic where doctors and dentists volunteered to give free care. On his deathbed, he was giving away the last of his possessions. They say that he told the last nurse caring for him:

O Emma, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything left to give you. …Wait! There on the night stand is a Bic pen I’ve hardly ever used. It’s still good and I want you to have it.

And that pen was good, not because it wasn’t exhausted, but because Fr. Joe had not exhausted his energy in a wasteful pursuit of selfishness. Rather, he had believed so much in God’s providence, that he never worried about having enough for himself, but rather only about how to give himself away. Now nobody lives as long as he did without being hurt, but he would remind us that generosity and gratitude heals hurts: Or as he put it, “If you don’t deal with your pain, you become one!”

However, “holy old Father Joe” wasn’t born old, or holy. Lots of young men were in the seminary with him, and although all grew old, not all of them grew up. Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional. Growing up means becoming generous enough to put other people’s needs before our own especially when we are responsible for them. Priests are often challenged to take on more responsibility, to become leaders, to grow in generosity. And being a generous leader is hard because the people whom you serve can disappoint you.

However, consider this logic from Our Lady. If you think people have hurt you, try having King Herod chase after your child to kill him. If you think your heart has been broken, try watching someone lance the heart of your Son. If you think it’s hard to hear parishioners complain, colleagues criticize, and the media mock your vocation, imagine Mary listening to hypocrites lying about, and condemning, her perfect Son. Mary knew human limitations, and suffered the hurt of humans’ sinfulness. She knew that humans always hurt the ones they love. But she also knew that God is not like humans.

Because Mary learned to trust God’s Divine Providence, she is Our Lady of Divine Providence. She is full of grace because she made room for grace by giving her heart away. She risked losing everything, and learned that God’s providential care helps us through anything. Generosity may feel like we are losing a part of ourselves. The Gospel says Mary was on the outside, although she always held Jesus inside. Only because she had chosen to share Jesus, to give him away, did she seem like an outsider. Now, Mary knows the truth she shares with us: God only asks us to give ourselves away in order to expand our capacity to receive gracefully, until the day our heart has made room for enough of His love to last us an eternity.

Consider this:
1) A generous person does not hoard his heart. How can you have proper boundaries, and yet, give yourself away boundlessly?
2) You can only give away what you possess. How are you becoming more self-possessed, that is, self-aware rather than self-absorbed?

Veracity: Matthew 2:1-12
There are mottos repeated so often that they sound infallible. Mottos like: “You can’t argue with success,” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We repeat these mottos without question because to question them seems to contradict social sanity. But just once, let’s question both of these two mottos.

First, can we ever argue with success? I think Christians often can, and should, argue with success. As an example, let’s consider the factual differences between the comparative successes achieved during the lifetimes of Jesus versus Mohammed. When Mohammed died, he had converted his whole known world to Islam, and was revered by thousands. But at Jesus’ death, relatively few people knew him; most who did wished they never had, and Jesus was quickly buried like a death row “John Doe.” Mohammed was successful, and Jesus was a failure; but despite the motto, to the contrary, Christians argue with Mohammed’s success, right?

So let’s move to the second motto: Should we fix things that aren’t broken? Again, let’s consider an historical example. Nazi death camps operated at peak efficiency. They purred along unbroken, like a well-oiled machine, although the oil was really blood, and the machine was really a gas chamber. Does that mean the death camps didn’t need fixing? Well, units from the American Fourth Armored Division of the Third Army were the first Americans to discover a Nazi camp with prisoners, and corpses, which they then “fixed” by breaking into it, and liberating the inmates! Hence, followers of Jesus might also “fix” things that are unbroken, despite the motto to the contrary, correct?

These are important questions for Christians because, too often, what seems like social sanity contradicts Christian sanctity. However, such truth-telling is hard to hear in our success-driven world, where sometimes the price of financial achievement is the cost of family bereavement. Before the recent Volkswagon scandal, there was the General Motor’s “ignition switch from hell” that caused over 50 wrecks, and at least thirteen deaths. Now I don’t mean to pick on GM, in particularly, or the business community, in general. Every country, and every generation, has its virtues and vices. However, right now in our country, I suggest, that vanity, or the desire to look good, and strut around successfully, is a crucial cultural challenge. Hollywood manipulates our vanity, in hyping reality shows, promising fame and idol worship, and a chance to be the center of the double-take, rather than be taken for granted. It seems that it is the “socially sane” thing to do for humans to covet recognition. After all, there is no televised competition called: “Who Wants to be a Mediocre?” Vanity, or the desire to look good, and strutting around looking successful seems to be a crucial, cultural challenge. This “all about me” preoccupation, sadly, has been around since the days of Herod.

Herod did not want anyone threatening his strutting around his own success, or breaking his “looking good” operation. He, and his loyal political party followers, known as Herodians, were public relations experts. When Herod rebuilt Solomon’s temple, it had the same effect as his video going viral. Of course, he and his followers weren’t pious Jews; they never cared about substance, only image. The substance was that Herod was just a tiny spider in a world-wide Roman menagerie. And the reality was that the Jews, who hated that Roman zoo, only kept to their cage if they were free to practice their religion. Hence, successful royal rule required the pretense of piety from Herod. Thus, the shining temple was just first century Facebook. Herod could Photoshop reality between Rome and Jerusalem because whatever the public demanded, the Herodians always had the right image branded. The perfect public image, or vanity, which was packaged as social sanity, was the secret to his success.

Herod did not want anyone threatening the myth-making that hyped his success. So when he was surprised by the magi, he immediately slipped into a spin. First, he made a show of consulting the religious leaders and prophets of old. Then, he pulled the magi aside to make them feel important. Finally, he pretended to help them by pointing them toward Bethlehem, with pious promises to follow them in their worship of the new King of the Jews.

Vain Herod was a man without conviction. He interwove threads of fact with a fibers of fiction, telling everyone what they wanted to hear, and they became caught-up in his web of contradiction. The chief priests and scribes he convened were impressed, and his pious pretense was the perfect defense because it turned the wise men into unwitting webmasters of Jesus’ destruction. Herod’s image as a pious Jew remained unstained even while his rival, Jesus Christ, was slain. This is spin control powerful enough to rotate the earth off its axis.

But Herod’s web of deception did not account for Mary’s intercession. And it doesn’t do to miscalculate Mary.

Mary was interested in truth-talk; not vanity, but veracity. That is why Mary is the mirror of justice. And like a mirror, she reflects back truthfully. Because Mary is spotless, she reflects only the truth. And when we get close to her, she reflects back the truth of who we are as beloved children of God. That truth-talk or veracity is so much more compelling than vanity that anyone who looks into her eyes, loves the truth that in them lies. And the truth is that we are loved just as we are. We don’t have to strut our “bling” or prove anything.

Herod’s vanity is no match for Mary’s veracity. Loving Mary frees us from vanity, and frees us for veracity. Therefore, the manipulated magi, upon seeing Mary with her child, poured out not only the riches of their coffers, but also the truth of their hearts. Once freed from the web of vanity, they were freed for veracity. No longer concerned about the opinion of men like Herod, they begin to dream like men such as Joseph.

Mary, spotless mirror of justice, lets us see the truth that we are loved despite our flaws. We don’t need to Photoshop anything for God. God even gives to His beloved in sleep. While asleep, Mary’s spouse, Joseph, in a dream, decides against divorce. So, too, the magi while asleep, also dream of departing for their country by a route that circumvents Herod. It was when they were asleep, and therefore with their internal Facebook shut off, that God could finally get a word past the web of vanity’s insanity. And God’s word to us today is the same as it was to the magi. “Take a different route.” Don’t return to Herod, that fox of vanity. Return to your home country, which is veracity. Return to the truth talk of God’s love that frees you to dream. The magi were wise because they did not try to be seen by men, but were men who only wanted to live up to how Mary saw them. The truth-talk of Mary is that she sees all of us as she saw the magi; and she saw them as the real stars of Bethlehem.

Consider this:
1) How can truthfully talking to your spiritual director about your temptations and struggles help you trust the light of Christ?
2) With whom can you share one great truth that you have never shared before? Prayerfully consider how doing so might set you free.

Courage—Luke 1: 26-38
Many saints warn that the angel of darkness sometimes appears as an angel of light. Let me explain through the real life experience of a woman whom I will call “Cheri.” Cheri married her high school sweetheart, and like lots of couples, as they settled down they began to settle for. He settled for a little weight gain. She settled for comfortable old clothes. And as they settled down and settled for, they also settled into a routine. Life became settled and set and predictable.

Until the house payment ballooned, which meant Cheri had to return to work. So she bought a few new dresses on sale, and splurged when the mall offered a special on a makeover, with manicure. Then, she walked into a world larger than home’s horizon, although it fit into an office cubicle. And, to her delight, she met an “angel of light.”

Instead of snowy feathers, her angel had a distinguished white wing at each temple. But his smile flashed when he hailed her, and his gaze made her feel graceful. Her angel of light was also called Gabriel, and he greeted her: Hail, Cheri, full and graceful. Men are blessed to be with you.

The Blessed Virgin Mary was also surprised by an angel of light. And like Cheri, she too was already committed to a blue-collared beau past his prime. However, unlike Cheri, Mary knew that the angel of darkness sometimes appears as an angel of light. So silver wings fluttering, and flashing eyes flattering, did not sweep Mary off her feet. Rather, she was troubled precisely because she knew that all that glittered was not God.

But Mary was courageous. At the Annunciation, she was shocked, but not panicked, by this angel of light. Unlike Zechariah, she did not lose her voice, or her sense. Mary had the calm courage that doesn’t seek danger, but is ready to charge hell with a water pistol if it threatens her commitment to heaven.

Her angel Gabriel at first seemed such a threat. He appeared to threaten her commitment to virginity. Nowadays, remaining a virgin before marriage sounds as old fashioned as a moon pie. Of course, virginity should always be in vogue, but courage continues to be a virtue even modern sexual cynics admire. Who would not admire Mary’s pluck when, in a culture where women had no religious leadership, she spars with an angel of God? Like a girl fencing lightening with a steel sword, Mary thrusts “how can this be?” and parries “I am a virgin!” Remember this same angel had just struck Zechariah mute with terror. Any feminist would have to admit that Mary is a woman with spunk to spare.

But why should we care? We should care because Mary is a lioness ready to protect us from every dark desperation that masquerades as dazzling temptation. And because fear is the darkest of desperation, security becomes our dazzling temptation. But as Cheri learned that in this life—even when things seem settled and set and predictable—there is no such thing as security. Because although we can put alarm systems in our homes to protect ourselves from crime, and pay insurance companies to shelter ourselves from calamity, who will rescue us from ourselves? We can’t secure ourselves from sin because it lurks within. Cheri didn’t go out looking for temptation; she was just looking for a job. Yet, like all of us, she took temptation with her. Sin seduces, temptation tricks, darkness masquerades as light, and immorality wears us down until we’re convinced that our only relief is to submit. Except Mary: Because Mary had grit.

Mother Mary has the grit, the spunk, the pluck, and the common sense courage to leave no child behind.

Mary is a steel sword in a silk scabbard. She is meek and mild on the outside, but when necessary she can confront sin with steel. Mary was Father Hayden’s only aid when he had to confront his Archbishop about the prelate’s alcoholism. Fr. Hayden had asked all the other bishops of the province to intervene, but they all said they lacked the authority. Meantime the Archbishop was making disastrous decisions no one had the courage to confront. Until Father Hayden took away the Archbishop’s car keys when he had been drinking, saying: “You’re going to treatment, or I’m going to television.” To his shock, the Archbishop stammered: “I’ve been waiting and praying for someone to help me.”

Courage starts now. Just as we can’t wait until the day of the marathon to start training, we can’t wait to cultivate courage until fear appears. Courage is seeking counseling when needed. Courage is talking to the fellow priest who drives you crazy, instead of talking about him. And, sometimes, courage is talking to someone about a brother priest because we refuse to be part of any old-boy network of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, don’t tell on me, and I won’t tell on you. That might be the ethics of a frat house, but not God’s house. When we’re afraid someone might call us a snitch, courage reminds us that our integrity is more important than our reputation. Consider how Church scandal would have been handled differently if every priest and prelate was more concerned for his integrity than his reputation. The movie Spotlight would have been about courageousness rather than cravenness. One can tell a brave man from a snitch because a brave man believes in mutual accountability, and a snitch is only interested in culpability. We may be brave, transparent, and direct enough with each other to hold each other accountable without starting a witch hunt, or snitching scrupulosity because it’s easier to trust each other if we have the courage to be honest with each other.

Turn to Mary for courage. The image of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that she has the courage to turn predators into prey. The snake that preyed upon her children in the Garden of Eden is now preyed upon by the feet of the Virgin who did not blink before a true angel of light and will not flinch until the last slithering shadow flees the light of Christ. Mary knows that temptation lurks within us because she is one of us. But she also knows how to help us to choose the light, and reject the dark. Like children, we are afraid of the dark, but Mary our Mother soothes us, and assures us, that she has the courage to protect us, even from ourselves.

There is no security in this life, but there is serenity in the maternal mantle that Mary wraps around us to protect us, even from sin that lurks within us. When we are full of fear, she is full of courage. We need not fear anything before us as long as Mary is with us. We are children of Mary, the fearless, not followers of Eve, the fearful. Like Mary, we scatter darkness by saying to the light: “Be it done unto me.”

Consider this:
1) When is it appropriate to bring something to your superior’s attention?
2) How might this require courage from you?

Charity: Luke 11:27-28
While visiting my brother’s family, I was on the first floor reading, while my brother was at work. Downstairs, my sister-in-law was busy, and upstairs my niece, Cathy, was playing. Suddenly, Cathy shouted, “Help! Help!” I pole-vaulted from my seat, and ran two stairs at a time to the rescue. I found Cathy covered with talc. Relieved she had never been in danger, I cleaned her up, and she set to play again. However, I wondered why her mother had not responded to Cathy’s cries. So I went downstairs and asked: “Didn’t you hear Cathy call for help?” “Sure,” she shrugged, “But I can tell the difference between a true emergency, and a false alarm.”

Because I only saw my niece once a year, I couldn’t distinguish between a true emergency, and a false alarm. Any cry made my heart race, and my feet dash. Her mother, however, who had heard her since she was in the womb, instinctively understood such subtle differences. She heard and observed her daughter from the basement because she had a relationship. Maternal love allowed listening.

Mary’s maternal love also allowed listening. Therefore, what we hear in this Gospel, and what Mary heard, are quite different. Jesus responds to the praise of his mother by saying that everyone is blessed who hears God’s Word, and observes it. But that doesn’t mean Jesus denigrates her; rather, he celebrates her. He holds her up as the example of one who hears and observes Him, the Word of God. Even from a distance, like my sister-in-law, Mary understood. Maternal love allows listening.

When we bear Jesus in our flesh, our love is like Mary’s. It is a love that allows listening. And such loving listening assures us that all things work for the good of those who love the Lord. When the world shouts “help, help,” some may dash about in fright. They may even question the calm composure of those whose relationship with God allows them to respond serenely, just as I questioned my sister-in-law. But it is precisely a lifetime of loving listening to God that allows the children of God to find serenity amidst adversity. Love allows listening.

And love or the virtue of charity is the best description of the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Clergy. Because charity crowns the clergy as it crowned Father Xavier. His parishioners knew he loved them because he sacrificed for them. He would spend money on the parish school, rather than his dilapidated rectory, until the insurance company canceled the policy. He survived on leftovers from parish functions and funerals, so he could donate money to the parish food bank. Even in the long-ago days when people still thought priests were pure beyond scandal, he never waited in the sanctuary for those ritually pure enough to go to communion, but rather sought out the unrepentant and unsure. He once stalked into a migrant camp of men, and silently tore down all the Playboy posters replacing them with pictures of the saints. Then, just as quietly, he smiled and invited them to Mass.

Father Xavier was the last of the old pastor patriarchs who seemed to serve longer than the pope, and the first of the Vatican II pioneers. People flocked to him like sheep to a good shepherd as Father Xavier led them because he first loved them.. Recall, however, that the Father Xaviers of this world are not newly minted on the day of their ordination. Rather such priests are forged by their daily decisions, which become virtuous habits, that form the character of the person who is ordained clergy, because the grace of ordination builds upon the human nature of the man ordained. Resolve today to be that man, where mercy and faithfulness are met, righteousness and peace embraced, as you live truth hard as the Cross proclaimed by a love stronger than death.

Only such love allows listening to Jesus Who does not denigrate His mother, but celebrates her. Therefore, call upon Mary today as she was the first to hear and observe the Word of God. Call upon Mary, Queen of the clergy. Call upon her now as a man, as well as a priest, and strive to follow her example of charity. Pray the rosary, but don’t only count beads, count the deeds. Listen with love as Mary loved to listen to Jesus, who is Love. Contemplate Mary who listens with love beyond all telling; meditate on the Spirit in her indwelling; consider Jesus leaping in her womb swelling; and promise that your priesthood will glorify God excelling.

Consider this:
1) As a priest you do not cling to one, and forsake all others, but rather forsake the one, in order to love all others. What do you find most challenging? What is most attractive?
2) What priests do you know who are good examples of pastoral charity? Share these reflections with your spiritual director.

I began these reflections with the juxtaposition of a furrow and a rut. But for the conclusion, I adapt another juxtaposition most priests recall from seminary formation, which begins with a question: Can God create a rock so invulnerable that even God Himself cannot fracture it? This medieval question inserts God between a rock and a hard place. Either God cannot fracture such a rock—an assertion which limits God’s power to act in our world. Or God cannot create such a rock—an assertion which limits God’s original power to create our world. To assert either is to insert God between a rock and a hard place, where limited human beings try to limit God, Who is unlimited.

However, a third answer is the assertion that God has created many a rock so invulnerable that even God may not fracture them. That invulnerable rock is the human heart. God created it, but out of all creation, God endowed only our heart with free will. Therefore, our heart is the one stone God created that even God may not fracture because God chooses not to. Were God to fracture our freedom, our diamond hard heart would become worthless dust.

Like a diamond, the human heart is precious to God but hardened against Him. Ponder Peter, the first celebrity priest. The last Gospel contains the final words of Peter to Christ, after Christ predicts Peter’s martyrdom. Peter argues because Jesus spares John such suffering! With Peter, Jesus is always stuck between a rock and a hard place, that is, between Peter’s fossilized freedom, that Jesus may not move, and God’s love for Peter that will not yield.

That crushing space between a rock and a hard place is the altar of sacrifice where Jesus is ground like flour, and crushed like grapes, between our stony hearts, and God’s insistent grace. Now God is not cruel, but kind. God is love. God cannot change Himself, and God will not force our freedom. So the real question is—will my priestly heart become more virtuous, or more tortuous? More immaculate, or more vacuous?

I know that evil and I are bound like sin and death. So what must change if I am to be free? What must change for my beloved Savior’s suffering to be relieved? What must change if His passion was not in vain? I must change! Meditating on Mary is medicine for a priestly heart.

That medicine heals when we cooperate through repentance. Repentance changes our fault or sin into a fault line within our rock hard heart. With just a hairline fracture of repentance, the unwavering and un-wearying weight of God’s love shatters our stony heart. Repentance from stony sin creates the happy fault line that allows our Savior in. Only our repentance allows his Resurrection to shatter the stony sin of our heart as it shattered diamond hard death which could not contain the love of his heart. The power of God’s love, revealed in the Eucharist, is so great that our repentance is a fissure in sin, sufficient to allow our Redeemer in. When the Eucharist moves our stony heart, we hear what only angels heard as Easter’s dawn broke forth, and that other three-day-old stone was drawn forth: “This is my Body given up for you.” My brother priests: Come forth! Pray for me, as I for you, that at every Mass we may say “amen” and let real repentance before His Real Presence break our hearts again.

Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.