October 6; 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year C

27th OT2Fan into flame the gift God has given you

One of my favourite memes which I often send to friends after a busy and tiring day is that of this chubby boy slump over his desk with his head resting on folded arms, with the following caption, “This is me every day, and not just on a Sunday.” Weariness and exhaustion in life are all too common. We go to work day after day, drive forty minutes plus, pick up the kids from school, drive home, make dinner, help with homework or send them for tuition, and maybe live with someone we barely talk to, only to start it all again tomorrow. Sounds familiar? Yes, even the most extroverted and highly motivated would arrive at a point in life where they are almost on auto-pilot, repeating mindless and meaningless routine. If this is true of your personal life, can our spiritual life be any different? It is at this stage that for many, faith no longer makes sense. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton has his finger on the problem: “Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.”

The early Church fathers had a name for this affliction – acedia, which later got translated into “sloth”, one of the seven deadly sins. The association with sloth unfortunately leads many to equate acedia with pure laziness. But there is more to it. The Catechism teaches us that: “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God, and to be repelled by divine goodness” (# 2094). Dorothy Sayers, who wrote an entire book on the subject, describes it as “a sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.” In short, “sloth” does not mean inactivity but rather apathy. Instead of finding anything exciting, we get bored with everything.

What do we do when apathy sets in to our faith life? The problem and remedy seems to be addressed by this week’s readings. Faith is the motif in each reading. The seldom-referenced prophet Habakkuk had grown frustrated with the lack of faith evidenced in his people's behaviour and responsiveness to God. They had grown spiritually slothful and now the prophet himself is tempted to follow suit. But God assures him, however, that his prayers are heard and God never disappoints. Perseverance would be the first remedy to acedia. We should keep praying, even when we don’t feel like it. We should keep going for mass and confession, even when we seem to get nothing out of it. As the Lord assured Habakkuk, “if it comes slowly wait, for come it will, without fail,” because “the upright man will live by his faithfulness.”

Similarly in the gospel, when the disciples learned more about the demands of discipleship, they feared they did not have the faith to meet the challenges that came with it. The heaviness of discipleship weights down on them. To that end, they beg, “increase our faith,” a frank admission their profound lack. But the problem is that faith is not quantifiable. Nevertheless, it is the power that inspires us, helps us to persevere, enables us to struggle and not lose heart, and keeps us ever mindful of God’s abiding presence. That is why our Lord uses the images of the mustard seed and the mulberry tree to graphically illustrate the power of faith, even the tiniest spark of it, can move the unmovable and accomplish what appears to be impossible.

At first glance, it might appear that the Lord was being sarcastic. But this was not His intention. In fact, He clearly knew and understood their weaknesses, but He also wanted them to understand that even a little faith goes a long way. His parable about the servant seems to say that faith is not a reward for the spiritually proficient; rather, faith is the requisite for every disciple. And when we have faith, we are merely doing our job as disciples and should seek no reward.

Yes, even a little faith can go a long way. Faith begets faith. Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “Faith does not quench desire, but inflames it.” True faith is like a small snowball poised at the top of a long slope, waiting to be pushed so it might then grow as it picks up speed. But that snowball is always first formed and moved by God. Faith is first and foremost a gift from God. But faith is also a response. When we respond in obedience to God and His gift, faith grows. This is because faith is also a habit, a power or capacity that gets stronger when it is exercised and atrophies when it is not. So faith is like a spiritual muscle. The way you develop faith is, to exercise it regularly and to do so against ever increasing resistance. Don’t expect faith to get easier. It necessarily gets harder because the only way faith grows is to be challenged. If you ask for faith, know that this means giving the Lord permission to put more weight on the bar. If we wish to grow in faith and resist the vice of acedia or spiritual sloth, we must be ready to discipline ourselves. For, as St. Paul says, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:8).”

That brings us full circle back to St Paul in the second reading and the wisdom he shared with his friend and colleague, Timothy. As he reminded Timothy, our faith must be tended, stirred and fed like a flame. Our Christian faith can be likened to hot coals which would make a fire when fanned but become cold and useless if left alone. Many of us Catholics were baptised as infants, thus becoming Christians before we knew anything at all. Many of us grew up without properly tending that initial spark of faith that was given to us at baptism or we had allowed the pressures and distractions of life to reduce our faith to cold ashes. The result being so many have left the faith of our childhood, the faith of our parents, believing this is no longer relevant.

How do we fan into a flame God's gift of faith that has been kindled within us? Fanning our faith into a flame implies that we respond to the grace of God in us. It is achieved through daily communion with God in prayers, taking time to prayerfully study His Word and frequenting the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. It means reading good spiritual books and attending good formations to deepen our faith. Being immersed in a faith community and community life, is essential for our growth in faith. As we open our hearts to God in these ways, He strengthens our faith, allowing the seed of faith planted in us to blossom. But when we cease doing these things, we would soon find our enthusiasm for anything spiritual diminishing.

Most of us need an occasional shot in the arm to keep our faith strong and vibrant. But this does not mean that we should be constantly searching for extraordinary experiences that give us an emotional high. Growth in friendship with God does not happen only in the special, uplifting moments. It is through our daily efforts to be faithful to God, to live our faith in the everyday, with the help of the Sacraments, that our bond with God is strengthened.

Yes, we need to fan into flame the gift of faith God has given us. But in order for it to really catch fire, we need to step out in faith. Every step of faith that we take is like the oxygen added to the fire to keep it blazing! Our effort, feeble though it may seem to us (like a tiny insignificant mustard seed), works like a bellows blowing air onto the fire until it is a blazing bonfire. So, let us fan the flame of the Spirit. Let His fire burn away all doubt and hesitation, all sloth and apathy, so that you can become a beacon of faith, hope, and love for the people around you. As Pope Francis constantly reminds us – what the Church needs more than ever today, are joyful witnesses full of enthusiasm rather than someone who had just walked out of a funeral.