Among the many graces that can be derived from Sacred Scripture, is the fact that the lessons it contains still apply today, regardless of having been written by different people of a different time thousands of year ago. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone, in that all of Sacred Scripture, regardless of time, place or authorship, has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important however, given the ancient character of the Bible, that we reference a reliable source to help us properly interpret the meaning and application of the sacred texts.
The readings we hear at each Sunday Mass were intentionally selected to coincide with the liturgical seasons of the year, and the first reading and Gospel are usually complementary, providing emphasis on one or more key points. Today however, there are two common threads in all three readings. The first being the expression of self-reproach by Isaiah in the first reading; by St. Paul in the second and by St. Peter in the Gospel. We see that Isaiah, upon being granted a vision of God acknowledges his sinfulness and what he deems the consequence of his sinful state - He says: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
In the 2nd reading from 1st Corinthians, St. Paul recounts how after the Lord had risen from the dead, he appeared to the apostles, next to over 500 others and then to St. Paul himself. In that reading he says: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Finally in the Gospel, after witnessing the miraculous catch of fish: “Simon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said; “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
In addition to their respective admission of guilt, God’s purpose for Isaiah, for St. Paul and St. Peter is not in any way thwarted. Herein lies the other common thread. In each case God uses these men in the context of their unique circumstances, to carry out his will. The same goes for you and me. God did not create us without purpose. In uniting us to his Son in Baptism, he has charged us to be his disciples in the context of our life circumstances, trusting that in spite of our sinfulness, God’s purposes will be accomplished in us the through us.
This awareness of one’s sinfulness is a characteristic that I have seen in the writings of every saint I have ever studied. Their experience of the divine nature of God, made them painfully aware of their own sinful nature, and thus of their unworthiness of God’s love. Bear in mind however, that in spite of their sins, they did not despair. Rather, they humbled themselves before God, trusting in his mercy, which in turn compelled them to be and do all that he was asking of them.
Take for example, Saint Catherine of Siena. Catherine was one of 23 children, who at 18 years of age, entered the Dominican third order and spent the next three years of her life in seclusion, prayer, and austerity. Gradually, she began an active public apostolate which grew out of her contemplative life, gathering around her, several men and women, priests and religious.
Catherine wrote many letters of correspondence and in a book that has come to be known as The Dialogue, she described her spiritual life through a series of conversations between God and the soul, represented by Catherine herself. One of the main themes in her writings centers on the necessity of self-knowledge. The question of “Who am I” is at the heart of Catherine’s spiritual journey.
In her writings she insists that without the saving but demanding truth that self-knowledge reveals, we will have no protection against our enemies. Thus Catherine advises, that to come to understand the truth of who we are, we need not only look within, but also to lift our gaze above and beyond ourselves, into what she calls, “the gentle mirror of God!” She explains it this way:
“For just as you can better see the blemish on your face when you look at yourself in a mirror, so the soul who in true self-knowledge rises up with desire to look at herself in the gentle mirror of God…, sees all the more clearly her own defects because of the purity she sees in him.”
This is precisely the experience of Isaiah, as well as that of Saints Paul and Peter. Isaiah confesses in the presence of God that he is “a man of unclean lips.” St. Paul having seen the Lord refers to himself as “one born abnormally, not fit to be called an apostle,” and Simon Peter in the aftermath of the Jesus’ miracle declares: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The lesson is a simple one: In the profound knowledge and experience of God’s divinity, our own sinfulness becomes painfully obvious!
We must beware however, because self-knowledge can be a double-edged sword. While it can help us in our efforts to bring ourselves into a right relationship with God, it could also result in a distorted sense of entitlement - thinking ourselves to be more devout, more holy and thus more deserving of God’s favors, than we really are. Or conversely, self-knowledge can propel us into a downward spiral of obsessive scrupulosity, preventing us from ever experiencing the truth of God’s abiding love and mercy.
That said, I want to remind you of something Fr. Lerner wrote a few weeks ago in our parish bulletin on the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. He recommended to us, a prayer method known as the Daily Examen, which is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of our day, intended to help us to detect God’s presence in our life and discern what he wants of us and for us. St. Ignatius Loyola described this technique in his Spiritual Exercises. If you still have that bulletin, I encourage you to read Fr. Lerner’s reflection again or simply “google” The Daily Examen, and get in the habit using it at night before going to bed, if you’ve not already done so. I have been using it ever since ever since it was introduced to me a few years ago. Over time you will begin to notice more and more merciful presence of God in your life.
So my friends, as a way of summing up all that I’ve intended to share, I leave you with these beautiful words of consolation found in St. Paul’s letter the Hebrews - Chapter 4, verses 15-16.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet never sinned. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor, and to find help in time of need.”