Divine Physics, St. John the Baptist, St. Philip and the source of real Fortitude

Some weeks ago, I attended a great seminar on evangelization in the present cultural moment.  The Speaker used a phrase that really stuck in my mind, “divine / spiritual physics.”  The idea is that because God has placed certain systems in place in Creation… and because he is always faithful to his own Word, there is a divine physics in place to which we are subject (as created beings), and to which God voluntarily subjects himself in fidelity to his own Word.  So, for example, God gave us free will.  We must live with the consequences of that… and so does he (albeit by his own choice).  God does not enslave us.  To do so would go against the divine physics of Creation.  

Often enough, I think we focus on the negative (for lack of a better word) consequences of divine physics: “Why did my relative get cancer?”  “Why did disease break out in that village?”  “Earthquakes… really God??”  Each of these things is a consequence of humanity introducing sin into Creation.  They’re not God’s fault any more than it’s his fault I can’t breathe under water… It’s just the way things are.

There is however a more positive approach to divine/spiritual physics.  These laws of Creation establish an objectivity… a floor on which we can stand… something we can lean on with absolute certainty throughout life.  Consider the words of Jeremiah at tonight’s mass for the Vigil of the Nativity of John the Baptist:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said,
“I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, “I am too young.”
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
(cf Jer. 1:4-10)

The would-be prophet makes a reasonable argument… the same one Moses made in fact… “I’m not good a public speaking; and you want me for your Prophet?”  Jeremiah was forgetting about divine physics.  Eloquent or not, it’s not about him… or you… or me.  God’s plan is about God’s will, not ours.  Relying on this, Jeremiah goes on to become not only a prophet, but one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament.  

Celebrating his nativity, it’s appropriate to look to the Baptist’s parents.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were unable to conceive a child.  Nonetheless they remained faithful to their relationship with the Lord.  God rewarded them, sending them not only a son, not only a miracle, but a son who would be the greatest of the Prophets and point the way to Jesus himself!  Keeping it all about God became their strength.  John, their son, was no different.  Whether it was his ascetic life in the desert, his preaching repentance, or his courageous witness in the court of Herod (cf Mt. 14) John was able to let go of this life by being totally focused on what God wanted.  This was his strength.

I also think of St. Philip Neri (whose patron saint, as a Florentine, was John the Baptist… and who often preached in the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini in Rome).  God performed many miracles through St. Philip including one very much related to divine physics.  A certain Gabriele Tana was dying in Rome.  Calling for St. Philip, Gabriele told him, “I do not want to die.”  The man was tormented by this desire to hold on to earthly life, even as heaven called him.  Philip, embraced Tana and asked him, “My son, do you trust me?”  He responded to his confessor, “Of course Father.”  “Then give me your will… and I will offer it to God at holy mass.”  Gabriele surrendered this spiritual gift to St. Philip who immediately offered mass, lifting up the dying man’s will to God.  When Philip returned from the chapel Tana was preaching to everyone around him how peaceful he felt.  Suddenly, a terrible vision locked Gabriele’s attention.  The devil was tempting him to hold on to life, but Tana replied with great peace, “You cannot tempt me because I have no will of my own anymore; God’s will be done.”  He died having made a great witness to all those around him.  Gabriele’s problem was the disconnect between what he wanted and the reality (i.e. divine physics) in which he found himself.  Once he surrendered himself to that reality, peace… and death… came quickly, as did Eternal Life.

Great challenges can plague us, none greater perhaps than our own self-centered willfulness (e.g. Gabriele Tana).  More commonly however, we prefer to play the victim.  “I don’t trust the government anymore.”  “It’s all the president’s fault.” “If only Congress would…” etc., etc…  In the life of the Church we find this (sadly) all too frequently: “My priest stinks, so I don’t believe the Gospel.”  “This leader set a bad example so I’m not buying all this ethics business.”  etc., etc… While the credibility of a teacher, a leader, even a priest may make belief easier or harder, Truth is not dependent on the messenger.  Truth is dependent only on God it’s author, His witness, His power, His beauty, His miracles.  Truth is a matter of divine physics.  And in times of great sadness and struggle, those divine physics become a pillar of strength for me.  I hope it may be that way for you too.  

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

With the return of Ordinary Time, it can feel like the Church is returning to business as usual.  But as many catechists will repeat around the world, “There’s nothing ordinary about ordinary time.”  It’s really a period of Mission in which the Church takes what she has received from the Advent-to-Pentecost season and brings it into the world.  Consequently, it’s appropriate to meditate on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, that launch us – as it were – into this long stretch of Ordinary Time.

Sunday Homily for Corpus Christi – Spirit’s Gift of Understanding