Growing up, whenever we went on vacation to our family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin, my dad would bring his toolbox with him. He always had some sort of project that he wanted to work on while he was up there. Although it was heavy, he knew from experience that it was better to bring the whole toolbox with him than just to pick out just the tools that he thought he needed. After all, it’s hard to predict all the tools you might need for a project, or how one project might lead to another. And my dad’s toolbox was exactly the kind you wanted to have on hand for a project. It was like Mary Poppins’ handbag, filled with all the right tools for all the right occasions.
Although it’s not the best analogy to think of our faith as a “project”—something we can work on or fix as we would a house or car—it can be helpful to think of ourselves as having a “spiritual toolbox.” These are the tools we have for growing in our faith. One of the best “tools” in my experience, one of my favorite “tools” in my own “spiritual toolbox,” is called Discernment of Spirits. This tool helps you determine which of the thoughts, feelings, and desires you have come from God, and therefore should be accepted and acted upon, and which do not, and therefore should be rejected and ignored. The saint who helped develop this tool, and wrote the “manual” for how to use it, was St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Ignatius’ teaching on Discernment of Spirits is rooted in an experience he had while recovering from being injured in a battle with French troops in Pamplona. Ignatius was a solider with the Spanish army at the time, and although his own forces were outnumbered at Pamplona, he convinced them to keep fighting. During the battle, Ignatius was struck by a cannon ball, breaking one of his legs. When the battle was over, the French were so impressed by Ignatius’ courage, that instead of capturing and imprisoning him, they carried him back to his own castle to recover.
During his recovery, which was long and slow, Ignatius asked for books to read. Only two could be found for him: one about Christ and the other about the saints. This was not Ignatius’ preferred reading material, which usually involved stories of conquest and chivalry. But, since they were all he had, he read them nonetheless. As the days passed, Ignatius would spend time thinking about what he read, about Christ and the saints, and then he would think about more worldly things, like winning battles and wooing the hearts of noble women.
One day, in a moment of divine inspiration, Ignatius noticed a difference in how these thoughts left him feeling afterwards. When he thought about Christ and the saints, he was left feeling content and happy, even long after he had stopped thinking about them. On the other hand, when his mind turned to more worldly things, he initially enjoyed it, but the joy soon faded and he was left feeling dry and discontent.
I’m sure all of us can relate to Ignatius’ experience here. There are things in life which make us happy for a while, but the joy doesn’t last; it’s fleeting and soon fades. There are other things in life, however, which bring a more lasting and stable happiness. This is a joy that lasts even amidst the storms of life, when sorrow comes and tragedy strikes. We might think of this joy as a kind of reward that God gives us for becoming the person He created us to be. This is not a reward we can attain by our own efforts, however, but only with God’s help, with the help of His grace.
The idea of receiving a reward from God is prominent in our gospel this weekend. “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt. 10:41-42).
Jesus uses this word, “reward,” on nine other occasions in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is at the end of the Beatitudes, when Jesus says to His disciples that their reward will be great in heaven if they are persecuted for being His followers. (Mt. 5:12). Jesus uses it again when talks about loving your enemies, and that a reward will not be given just for loving your friends (Mt. 5:46). The other seven times Jesus uses this word is in the context of receiving a reward for praying, fasting, and almsgiving (Mt. 6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18).
God wants to reward us for becoming the people He created us to be. And the reward that He wants to give us is joy, the kind of lasting joy that comes from loving Him, our neighbor, and ourselves in rightly ordered way. Each of the twelve times Jesus uses the word “reward” in the Gospel of Matthew has to do with rightly ordered love. When Jesus speaks of receiving a prophet or a righteous man in our gospel today, he’s talking about being hospitable, the kind of love that the Shunammite woman showed the prophet Elisha in our first reading. When Jesus talks about receiving a reward in the context of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, He’s also speaking about love. Prayer has to do with love of God, almsgiving with love of neighbor, and fasting with love of self. (We might not initially think of fasting as a form of rightly-ordered self-love, but in fact it is. Fasting teaches us to love our soul more than our stomach, which is the right order in which to love them).
To the one who grows in true and authentic love, and so becomes the person God created him or her to be, God gives the reward of true and lasting joy—partially in this life, and fully in the next. Whether that joy is lasting or fleeting is dependent on whether our love is rightly-ordered or not. Compare the joy we feel when we are engaged in something truly recreational, that helps to refresh and renew us, with the short-lived happiness that comes from mindless entertainment. One is a form of rightly-ordered self-love, the other is not. Compare the empty pleasure we feel when we use the gifts God has given us for greedy and selfish purposes, to the joy we experience when we use them selflessly to love our family and serve our neighbor. Compare, finally, the kind of happiness we have in life when we put God first, to the restlessness we experience when He’s not a priority. Whenever there is a lack of true and lasting joy in our life, it always has to do with a lack of rightly-ordered love: whether of self, of neighbor, or of God.
Although we may not have as much free time on our hands as Ignatius did when he was recovering from his injury in battle, we are all called to make the kind of discernment he made in his life. God wants to reward us with joy for growing in love—for this is love’s proper reward. Joy is the flower of love when it has come to full blossom. Where is there joy in your life right now? What is the quality of that joy? Is it a fleeting kind of joy, leaving you ultimately dry and discontent? Or is it long-lasting, capable of withstanding the storms of life? These questions are meant to prompt a change, a conversion, in us, as they did for St. Ignatius. They are meant to help us grow in love, so that we may become who God created us to be, and so that, at the end of our earthly lives, we may hear God say to us: “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy” (Mt. 25:23). Amen.