Those of us who gather between services to discuss the day’s Lectionary readings always seem to find depth and wisdom in the Collect of the Day. We have a way of allowing it to ask questions of us and this always takes us to interesting places. Today’s collect is no different. I love its first petition: “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity”. Simple and straight forward, right? Notice what the prayer asserts: faith, hope, and charity are not something we muster in and of ourselves. They are gifts from God and apparently they can grow and develop throughout our lives. Conversely, it seems possible they can atrophy if not used or diminish if left unattended for a long, long time.
Here is a question to ponder: if we ask God to increase the gifts of faith, hope, and charity in us, how does God answer our prayer. Is it like a software update? Is our prayer similar to clicking on a button, accepting the terms and conditions, and then having something new and more glorious operating in us – faith, hope, and charity 7.0? Do we pray and then be passive until what we ask for is installed in us?
I don’t think so. In my experience, the gifts of faith, hope, and charity increase in us when we are challenged and stretched and (often times) brought up short. Reflection, confession, and amendment of life is often the process required for true growth.
So it was when I found myself in the rural, wooded countryside of Spain ten days ago walking the English Way of the Camino – an ancient pilgrim’s path to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. In front of me was a dirt path on a very step uphill grade rising up approximately ¼ of a mile or more. A woman stood at the beginning of the grade, appearing apprehensive about making the climb. She was a large woman with the body shape and looks of an East German shot-put Olympian. She had elastic sleeves on her knees and clearly had been struggling. The challenge before her was daunting.
Then, from behind, an attractive young woman riding a mountain bike approached. Now, if you know me, you know I am a big fan of mountain bikes… and attractive women. Up the hill she pedaled in the highest gear ratio her bike offered. Up the hill I walked in pursuit. Much of the trail had been washed out making it difficult to bike. Up ahead I could see her struggling. Finally she got off her bike and walked it to the level summit. She was still breathing hard when I made it there. Winded, I too stopped to catch my breath. We did not speak the same language but managed to communicate a little. I indicated I ride a mountain bike as well. She said of the hill “Too steep for me.”
Soon she was off and riding again and I was ready to continue walking. I glanced down the hill and did not see any sign of the woman at the bottom. She still had not yet mustered the energy or the courage to begin the climb.
I began to walk and as I walked I thought about the woman down the hill. Should I have offered to walk with her? Perhaps some encouragement and companionship was all she needed. Why, I wondered, did I respond so positively to the youthful, athletic, attractive woman and so indifferently to the one who was unattractive? Why does physical beauty trump spiritual beauty? I don’t have a highly developed theology of the Christian doctrine of resurrection of the body, but I suspect once we die physical beauty will be no more. All that will be left is spiritual beauty. Perhaps the stocky woman one day will be a soul-beauty queen in heaven. As I walked I began to ponder the beauty, or lack thereof, of my soul. How attractive or how ugly will I be in the next life?
Today’s readings invite us to ask what God requires and expects of us. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable manifests all the outward signs of religion – prayer, fasting, tithing. He is by the standard of institutional religion a “beautiful” person, and he knows it. The only problem is all the outer beauty cannot mask his inner, spiritual ugliness. The reading from Sirach describes the integrity necessary to make an offering to God and what is required to come before God with a prayer. A certain posture of heart and spirit is absolutely essential. The psalm describes to joy of making a pilgrimage to God’s house. The desire to dwell in the Temple – to be in the physical place where God lives – certainly is pleasing to God. Paul’s letter to Timothy describes his faithfulness as he endures persecution for his religious beliefs.
What is the one thing God asks of each one of us? What is the one thing God requires of you? As I walked on the Camino I asked myself this question and here is the answer I came up with: All God asks of each one of us is to make it your mission in life to make your soul beautiful.
As with the prayer for faith, hope, and charity, the opportunity to make our souls more and more beautiful comes to us over and over again. And, as with my pursuit of the mountain biker as opposed to helping the woman at the bottom of the hill, often times the moment passes us by and is lost forever.
What makes a soul beautiful? I think it involves a certain desire for God. It looks like growing in reverence, gratitude, and humility. It involves a sense of awe and wonder and joy in all God’s works. If you are bored in church it may be because your church is boring. But still, you are sitting in the presence of the Holy One and if you believe this with even 1% of your heart, mind, and soul you will never be bored by the opportunity to praise God and to worship God.
As we were leaving the Cathedral in Santiago after the Pilgrim’s Mass, we encountered sporadic cheering and applause outside the transept door. John, our English guide, blurted out, “Oh my God, it’s the king. It’s King Juan Carlos of Spain.” He was 25 feet away and walking right toward us. John’s entire nature changed in an instance as he was overcome with a severe case of “royal fever” – trailing after the king like a star struck zombie. He was in absolute awe. Every time we step into this space we are entering the presence of Royalty. Our heavenly King dwells here. Like the hymn says, this is a time to be “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” A beautiful soul knows this.
What makes a soul beautiful? I believe it also involves a certain disposition toward other people. Kindness, compassion, generosity, selflessness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, humility, and respect – not just for some people, but for all. We’re talking about behaving exactly the opposite of what we have witnessed in the Presidential Debates. I believe people desire to cultivate a beautiful soul because so many of us are so repulsed by the behavior of the candidates. Unlike what we see in some of the hard-core supporters of one candidate or another, more and more I am noticing how everyday people in and around Suffolk are consistently kind and considerate. I think people are making a conscious choice to renounce the ugliness typifying this political season in order to embrace something more beautiful.
How, when, where, and to whom can you exhibit the marks of a beautiful soul? The more you do it the more natural it becomes and the more natural it becomes the more beautiful your soul becomes.