Over the last week or so, I’ve been called back, over and over again, to Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (see some posts below). What can I say? I wanted more. So this morning I began praying with II Timothy… and in an all too rare sign of wonder, the sequel was just as good as the original!
Paul is nearing the end of his life. Imprisoned at Rome, he’s writing to one of his favorite disciples, Timothy… possibly the bishop of Ephesus. He identifies Timothy right off the bat as, “his well beloved son.” (1:2). The circumstances of the letter convey the deep movements of Paul’s heart… How beautiful, to peer into the heart of an Apostle!
We’re also given a privileged look into the relationship between Paul, Timothy… and Timothy’s family, as Paul traces his disciple’s spiritual lineage through his mother and grandmother’s faith:
“I long to see thee again so as to have my fill of joy when I receive fresh proof of thy sincere faith. That faith dwelt in they grandmother Lois, and in they mother Eunice, before thee.” (1:4-5).
These verses give me hope for the life of the Church in our parish. In our neighborhood, traditional family structure has been eviscerated. That structure has been under threat in every parish where I’ve served, but here it’s different. It’s not just a matter of semi-isolated divorces, as elsewhere… or young people rationalizing a reticence to marry… Here there’s very often a total apathy toward relationships, a desperation that plays out in broken/frayed family structures… and all too often a violence both physical and psychological that destroys all the people involved. The result is that when families try to pass on any sense of faith, it’s usually through a grandmother and mother. Timothy’s circumstances might not have been quite so tinged by violence, but cynicism was surely there… marriages were bartered business arrangements in the Roman world. Irreligion was a factor too as traditional Olympian worship broke down into doubting syncretism. Men were largely out of the picture, but Paul, and later Augustine refer frequently to the role women play in handing on spiritual as well as physical life to the next generation. Maybe we can build on that here.
The second theme that catches my attention today is the power of personal influence. Here, I’m not just talking about winning friends in high places or any other such networking skills. I’m referring to communicating a wholistic truth through the whole range of who each of us is as a person. Paul brings up the issue in 2:14-16 as he reminds Timothy how to deal with false preachers:
“Bring this back to men’s thoughts, pleading with them earnestly in the Lord’s name; there must be no wordy disputes, such as can only unsettle the minds of those who are listening. Aim first at winning God’s approval… Keep thy distance from those who are bringing in a fashion of meaningless talk…”
That first part about “no wordy disputes,” is also rendered “arguments with words.” In the Latin, “Haec commone testificans coram Deo verbis non contendere.” Here, verbis can mean “by, with or based on words.” Obviously Paul isn’t dissing the use of language, but there’s more to communication than words. Have you ever had a discussion that devolved into an argument and realized that you lost sight of the actual issue… that really, what you were pursuing was victory, or even just the adrenaline high that came from the argument? Such dialogues are the stuff of every undergraduate debate I’ve ever witnessed, and far too many on major news outlets. Paul is telling us: don’t even jump into that arena, or you will have lost. IF on the other hand, in all things we aim at winning God’s approval…. then our whole being will testify to the truth of his Gospel and convince others. We see this all the time in those members of our lives who seem to “be above it all,” who maybe we think of as really, “transcending,” the rat race of earthly arguments. When we see someone who really works every day for God’s pleasure and not human victories, that person is instantly attractive and wins souls for the Gospel without firing a single verbal shot. Blessed Cardinal Newman spoke of this so eloquently in his Parochial and Plain Sermon #5: “Personal Influence as the Means of Propagating the Truth,”. I highly recommend googling and reading it. One caution: I’m not saying… andI don’t think Paul is saying… that we should never use words. Goodness knows anyone who wrote as many letters as Paul could never suggest such a thing. And the famous phrase, “Preach and if necessary use words,” does indeed apply here… HOWEVER, that phrase has been used and abused as a cop out from ever having to actually discuss the Gospel with anyone… Don’t fall into the trap. Use words… but use all our other forms of communication as well.
This brings us to the final inspiration St. Paul gave me this morning: the power of vocation.
“That is why I would remind thee to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in thee, when my hands were laid upon thee.” (1:6)
Paul is speaking specifically about Timothy’s ordination at his hands, but the issue is no less true for any of the baptized who receive gifts of the Spirit by the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and pouring of water in baptism. Here, the inspiration comes, as do the gifts, from without. “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Jesus tells us (Jn 15:16). The gifts are HIS power in us, not our fallible, ultimately mortal strengths. If we stir into a flame the gifts of our baptismal/married/ordained vocations, nothing can stop us. We can move through life’s challenges with peaceful confidence. Paul reminds Timothy of this -in a way- in chapter 2:
“God’s foundation stone stands firm, and this is the legend on it, the Lord acknowledges none but his own; and again, let everyone who names the Lord’s name keep far from iniquity.” (2:19)
Paul is referring to the Roman custom of marking the foundation stones of temples and other major public buildings with the builders’ original intent. The marking or “legend” (also rendered, “seal”) preserved the building from misuse, or ineffective use. Likewise us. If we rely on our own gifts, our own sense of self-determination, then we will be ineffective at best, harmful at worst. But if we turn to our identity as belonging to God, written on the foundation stone he laid when he made us (see also Jer. 1:5) then we can’t go wrong.
I saw this play out beautifully yesterday when a blessed a poor man’s house. He’s a lovely simple soul, but got lost through a lot of life. He’s also complained that something at home has been preventing him from doing good or growing. He’s baptized… and so when I went with a missionary to his home yesterday, we prayed over him and blessed him and his apartment with holy water. I charged him to remember that he belongs to the Lord and nothing can change that. I laid hands on his head and prayed over him. When we finished, he was like a new man. He actually became light on his feet… sort of danced in place a bit and smiled. What happened was a two-fold action of blessing from without… and reminding from within… a visit down to the basement of the soul to re-read the foundation stone and rise up more confident and peaceful than before.
These are just a few thoughts, reading II Timothy and the experiences of life with eyes of faith. I hope you find them edifying and pick up the Letter for your own prayer. Peace!