There is much we can reflect on in today’s Gospel. However, we have only time to reflect on Jesus’ apostles asking Him, “Lord, increase our faith.” Let us note that in the preceding verse 4 of today’s Gospel, Jesus was instructing them to forgive those who have wronged them.
Jesus said to them, “If your brother does something wrong, reprove him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.” If this were to happen to us, would many of us simply say that the person who asked for forgiveness so many times and keep hurting us is not sincere or he is not repentant or he is taking my compassion for granted.
The Jewish Rabbis have a saying that if a person forgave another three times, he is a perfect man. However, as for Jesus He advised in St Matthew’s Gospel 18:22, that we should forgive “seventy seven times” which is to forgive unconditionally and all the times. Being human and weak like all of us, the disciples probably found Jesus teachings to be too demanding, even as they believed in Him. Thus, they asked Jesus “Lord, increase their faith.”
To ask Jesus to increase our faith is a very basic and common petition especially when our trials seem to threaten to overwhelm us, or when our hopes in God have dimmed from the long years of pain and sufferings and when we are tempted to give up on God when we feel that He does not seem to be answering our prayers and attending to our needs.
Jesus who understands the trials of our lives answered His disciples, “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we reflect on our lives, we would say that when things are going well with us, faith in God is never a problem. It is when we are facing much challenges, trials and tribulations that we find what Jesus is saying to be difficult to accept and live with fidelity. Yet, we also know that it is when we are able to continue to be faithful to God in times of trials that we show the true strength of our faith and the deep love we have for Jesus.
Fr Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit was arrested by the Russian secret police in June 1941 and convicted of being a "Vatican spy." He spent 23 agonizing years in the Soviet prisons and the labour camps of Siberia. Fr Ciszek shared that it was amidst the “arrogance of evil” that he endured great hardships of loneliness, pain, frustration, anguish, fear and despair that he pleaded with God, “Lord, to increase my faith” and persevered in his prayer in spite of the darkness that was enveloping him.
Fr Ciszek shared that in all his trials, “One day, together with his fellow priest, Fr Nestrov, God suddenly granted us the grace to see the solution to our dilemma and the answer to our temptation. It was the grace quite simply to look at our situation from His viewpoint; from God’s point of view rather than from ours.”
In other words, God was giving us the grace and wisdom not to judge our efforts by human standards or by what we ourselves wanted or expected to happen, but rather, to see that all that is happening to us, regardless of how trying it may be, is happening according to God's design. With such graces from God, we began to understand that our dilemma, our temptation, was of our own making and existed only in our minds, and not in accordance to God’s divine mystery and plans for us.
Fr Ciszek added that in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the First Principle and Foundation states that "Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created . . . Hence, man is to make use of them insofar as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them insofar as they prove a hindrance to him. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things."
How often had Fr Nestrov and I heard those words, read those statements, prayed and meditated over them? And yet, under the pressure and pain we underwent, at Teplaya-Gora salt mines, we had forgotten them. We had accepted them as abstract principles of the spiritual life, but have not allowed these spiritual insights to become part of our daily lives.
If they had been, we would have understood much earlier that our sole purpose at Teplaya-Gora—as indeed in our whole lives—was to do the Will of God. Not the will of God as we might wish it, but as God envisioned it and revealed it to us each day.
We began to realise that God’s Will for us was precisely what was happening to us twenty-four hours of each day. God had a goal and purpose for everything that happened to us each day, regardless of how painful they may have been. And, we had to learn to look at our daily lives, at everything that crossed our path each day, with the eyes of God.
To predict what God's Will is going to be, to rationalize about what His Will must be, is at once a work of human folly and yet the subtlest of all temptations. The plain and simple truth is that God’s Will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us. Thus, the challenge lies in learning to accept this truth and act upon it, every moment of every day.
Fr Ciszek adds, “... every moment of our life has a purpose; every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may seem in itself, has a dignity and a worth beyond human understanding... For it means that no moment can be wasted, no opportunity missed, since each has a purpose in man’s life, each has a purpose in God’s plan. Think of your day, today or yesterday. Think of the work you did, the people you met, moment by moment. What did it mean to you, but also what might it have meant for God? Is the question too simple to answer, or are we just afraid to ask it for fear of the answer we must give?”
Fr Ciszek continued to trust in God’s Providence and lived God’s Will, and as he continued to shovel coal as a slave labourer for 12 hours each day. Finally, his greatest joy came. He was finally able to say Mass again. Polish prisoners made wine from raisins. His chalice was a shot glass, and his paten was a cover from a gold watch. Fr Ciszek was overjoyed. He said, “My joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described. . . . I heard Confessions regularly and from time to time was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I had said Mass. The experience gave me new strength. I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.”
As I conclude, let us remember too that we are not saying that all suffering or pain are Willed by God and pleases God. Some suffering should be avoided, lessened or combated like treatable illnesses, abusive marriages, unhealthy work situations, dysfunctional sexual relationships and so on. As finite, fallible and fickle human beings, we need to trust God constantly and surrender our lives to His Will daily. Clearly from our experiences in life, we confirm the truth that we are incapable of fully comprehending the meaning of suffering in our lives, in our world and most of all the Mystery of God’s Suffering in Jesus for us.
Nonetheless, Fr Ciszek understood that God invites us to accept the inescapable realities placed in front of us. This is because the temptation to turn away from God in our suffering is very great. And, so, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking us to seek and discover God in new and creative ways and not run away from the trials of life because they are too painful.
Fr Ciszek says that in prayer, he found a courage that eased his loneliness, pain, frustration, anguish, fears and despair. In prayer, he found the solace of spiritual contemplation that gave him an inner serenity upon which he was able to draw amidst the "arrogance of evil" that surrounded him. Fr Ciszek was then, through God’s graces able to turn the torturous labour in the Siberian camps into a source of positive value and a means of drawing closer to the compassionate and never-forsaking Spirit of God that he found intimately within him.
In other words, Fr Ciszek was truly experiencing what Jesus in today’s Gospel is saying to you and to me,“Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” What about us? Will we follow and obey the Wisdom of Jesus’ Words and Trust in Him more wholeheartedly or will we rather rely on our own human strength that will surely disappoint and fail us?
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.(Adapted from: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, by Fr Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., Ignatius Press, exerpt from “He Leadeth Me;” chapter 3 www.IgnatiusInsight.com.
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