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In the biography of St. Catherine of Siena, written by her one-time spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, there is a passage that recounts a mystical conversation between Catherine and Jesus as He taught her about the foundation of the spiritual life. Jesus tells Catherine: “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed.” Jesus then goes on to say: “You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in your soul and the Enemy will never deceive you and you will escape all his wiles; you will never disobey my commandments and will acquire all grace, truth and light.”

At first hearing, this might sound a little rough on Jesus’ part: “You are she who is NOT?” Jesus goes on to explain why knowing these two things is foundational to the spiritual life. First of all, God created Catherine. Secondly, He held her and holds her still in being. Finally, every talent and virtue that she had in this life — including the means and fortitude to acquire new talents and virtues — ALL of them came from God. In fact, the only thing for which we as human beings can take complete credit are our sins and the miseries that we bring upon ourselves. Everything good that we are and that we do are a gift of He who is. That is why our only boast should be in the God who created us, redeemed us and destined us to eternal life with Him. By having this insight firmly in our minds and hearts, all temptation to pride, to thinking of ourselves as better than others, simply disappears. We look at other human beings through the same lens that God sees us — as poor, but beloved, creatures who are in great need of His mercy and goodness.

In today’s Gospel, we see the consequence of HAVING or NOT HAVING these two things firmly in mind. The Pharisee, who undoubtedly has many talents and human virtues, is blind to what is missing in his own soul: the humility to acknowledge God as the source of any goodness within himself. Instead, he self-righteously looks down upon the tax collector as a great sinner — not realizing that because of his pride and arrogance, he was an even greater sinner! Jesus then has this to say: the tax collector went home justified, while the Pharisee did not. Now, justification means to be put right in our relationship with God; it means to be reconciled to Him and open to the process of sanctification, to building up a life of grace through Him. The tax collector, in this moment of humbly turning to God was now spiritually alive; but the Pharisee remained spiritually dead. How tragic!

This story is every bit as relevant today as when Jesus told it almost two thousand years ago. There is always a temptation to Pharisaism in all of us. I am often struck by how often the media — especially the cable media and some social media — demonstrate the same attitude of the Pharisee in looking down upon others and disparaging those with different beliefs or behaviors. These types of media outlets, I believe, have contributed greatly to the polarization that we see in our society today — both on the left AND on the right. Often, this type of polarized narrative is pushed as a type of entertainment that can feed on people’s disordered desire to feel superior to others. One can only wonder at how many souls are falling into this pit, especially those who have made a regular diet of these media outlets.

To be clear, there is no question that the ranks of those who attack or disagree with our Christian faith are growing. However, as Christians, we need to respond in a way that is congruent with both truth and charity. When we see an erring brother or sister, do we say to ourselves “there but for the grace of God go I” and see what it is that we can do to manifest to them God’s mercy and goodness? To do this well means relying first and foremost on the Lord, going to Him in heartfelt supplication for the justification and sanctification of each and every one of us. As we heard in today’s first reading from Sirach: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”

My brothers and sisters, the Lord closes his ears to the proud and the arrogant. No amount of good works will make up for this. So, we must honestly ask ourselves how often it is that we look down upon others — whether the neighbor next door, politicians in Washington or ecclesiastics in Rome. However good that we are and whatever good that we do, ALL are a gift from God. We can take NO credit for these; only for our sins. Only bending down and passing through the lowly door of humility will allow us to be justified. Then, along with Paul, “the Lord will rescue [us] from every evil threat and will bring [us] safe to his heavenly kingdom.” It would indeed be a pity, my brothers and sisters, if we allowed our enemies and opponents to lead us to be condemned.