This Sunday, I celebrated the opening Mass for the faculty and students at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. Below if the homily.
How did your parents discipline you as a child? In our family of thirteen children, we kept our parents on their toes with lots of behavior that needed correction. As a child, I remember my mother’s loving approach to discipline. Since dad was often out in the field, mom usually refereed fights and doled out the daily discipline. Before she spanked us she would say, “Now you know that this hurts me more than it hurts you.”
As we reflect on the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today (Heb. 12:5-7, 11-13), remember the loving discipline of a mother or a father. That is how God disciplines us. “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. . . . For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:5-7).
For the person of faith, even the trials in life are seen as coming from the hand of a loving God who is teaching lessons to a son or daughter. It is the same love he had for his beloved Son whom he allowed to be scourged in the passion. God “scourges every son [or daughter] he acknowledges.” Even the pains and trials in life are part of our education from God.
This is the perfect reading for the beginning of the school year. In Greek the word for discipline (paideia) comes from the same root word as that for a little child (paidion). The word means not only discipline, but also upbringing or training. It includes much more than punishment for wrongdoing. It involves the discipline of good study habits, the rigor of physical training as an athlete, and self-control as we grow in the virtues.
In the Letter to Hebrews, it involves the instructiongiven to a person to help them grow in being a son or daughter of God. It is training in discipleship. First of all, such a person has a disciplined prayer life. He or she strives daily to imitate the Lord who cared for the least. The disciple serves selflessly like Jesus who humbled himself and washed feet, even of those who would deny or betray him.
Finally, this discipline includes staying the course in the trials of life. It means persevering to the end – not by our own strength, but by the grace of God. Earlier in the Letter to the Hebrews, that kind of discipline is described for Jesus. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8)
Some of the greatest lessons of life come from suffering. In suffering we learn to lean on God with complete humility. It forces us to be puny creatures before the all-powerful Creator. Have you ever noticed how suffering calls forth an inner strength that you may not have known was possible? Suffering is one of the greatest teachers.
This is the formation of the whole person that Catholic education seeks. We form a young person in body and mind, heart and soul, faith and reason. We seek to form disciples who think, speak and act like Christ. That is why Catholic education includes helping young people learn how to pray the way Jesus prayed, to forgive with his mercy or to serve the less fortunate with his compassion.
As students, see yourselves in a school of discipleship. See yourselves as a beloved son or daughter learning from God. See your journey as being guided by our loving Father in heaven. Seek to grow as a disciple of Jesus.
As teachers, see yourself as a parent figure. Help young people recognize the loving hand of God guiding their steps. Help them listen to the voice of the Lord, more than your voice. Remember, you are training disciples.
The Gospel gives us an image that intensifies this training as disciples. Someone in the crowd asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few in number be saved?” (Lk. 13:23) Sometimes we ask a similar question: What does it take to get to heaven? This gospel urges us to see our daily discipline in the context of the final judgment. In your daily studies, keep in mind the end of your life. It’s a healthy spiritual exercise. It puts everything in perspective. It points us to the end goal.
Jesus responded by saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many . . . will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Lk. 13:24) The verb means to ‘struggle continuously,’ or strive with everything you’ve got. The word is used for athletic training in 1 Cor. 9:25 as St. Paul wrote, “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”
Think of how young people train for sports. They get up early for morning practice. They might practice twice a day for several hours. They are striving for a trophy, a perishable crown. But we are striving for the crown in heaven.
What kind of spiritual discipline do you have? Do you pray every day? Are you willing to get up 15 minutes earlier to pray? Olympic athletes follow a special diet of highly nutritious food. Do you feed your mind and heart the best images and words? Do you end your day with an examen by reviewing your conduct in the Light of Christ?
Do you sacrifice in your spiritual life as much as you do to be good at sports, or have a sleek figure, or score high in a test, or be popular among peers? St. Paul agonized for his own spiritual life, he strove like an athlete. He said, “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
But he also used this image for his effort to train others in discipleship. Paul agonized to bring others to Christ. In the letter to the Colossians he wrote: “It is Christ whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me” (Col. 1:28-29).
For Paul, all this hard work is done in the context of grace. He said, “I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.” He never strove on his own. Perhaps, he said it best when he said, “I have toiled harder than all of [the apostles]; not I, however, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Paul strove to form others in Christ because he was transformed by God’s mercy. In contrast, some people work really hard at their spiritual life, but it is ‘their’ work. Be careful not to strive in this way, but always with a humble awareness of God’s gracious mercy. Then we maintain a gentleness and kindness toward ourselves in our striving for discipline, as well as toward others.