January 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 6
Watch Those S-Curves
Recently, I read an article by a Dominican priest, Father J.M. Sullivan, which brought back many memories. He described a stretch of interstate highway that runs through the hills of Northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River into Cincinnati. It was in that area that I attended a minor seminary known as the Seminary of Saint Pius X, in Erlanger, KY.
At any rate, the hills of Northern Kentucky presented a great challenge to the designers of I-75. The initial solution was a steeply banked "S-curve". I liked the S-curve, and on more than a few occasions careened down it in the Ford station wagon that was owned (and insured) by the seminary. But most people did not love the S-curve because tractor trailers were forever failing to downshift and, with a high center of gravity, these trucks often turned over with destructive results. Even on the best of days, the S-curve was a place where traffic was delayed in both directions.
In Saint Luke's gospel on the Second Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6), we met John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin - and crying out to any who would listen, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Isaiah 40:3).
It is clear that S-curves are found not only on the roads we build but in the hearts that design them. Jeremiah has it right when he says, "More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy, who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).
Advent is a joyful season of welcoming the Lord more intensely into our lives so that we may greet the Lord in joy at the end of our lives and at the end of time. But the joy of Advent and Christmas will be denied us if the inroads of our hearts are full of S-curves - that is to say, if our hearts remain twisted by sin. The joy of Advent and Christmas will be denied us if our hearts remain rocky, hilly, and convoluted, not only because of overt sins but also because of preoccupations with ourselves and with the cares and anxieties that are part of life, as well as the mixed motives that so often lie behind our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Saint John the Baptist tells us what we must do to share in the Lord's joy: "Make straight the way of the Lord!" And to find out how to do this, let us return to the infamous S-curve.
You will be happy to know this dangerous stretch on I-75 has been redesigned. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the road was re-engineered, widened, and repaved. And this will give us the key to understanding what our Advent project must be.
This project has 5 steps:
- To re-design and re-build that dangerous stretch of I-75, there had to be the will, the resolve, to do so. The local community, the general public, and federal, state, and local officials had to say, "Enough!"
So it is with us. If we want to eliminate an S-curve in our hearts, then we must have the will to do so. We have to accept the grace which enables us to evaluate realistically the tortuous ways of our hearts and to resolve to make the changes that will straighten them out.
- To eliminate the S-curve from I-75, the road had to be re-engineered. The engineers could not simply follow their whims but had to study the lay of the land and, in the light of the soundest principles of road engineering, come up with a new design.
So it is with us. To make straight the way of the Lord, to eliminate the S-curves in our lives, we cannot simply follow our own desires. We cannot reengineer ourselves by denying our sins, nor can we re-engineer ourselves by re-inventing the teaching of the Lord as it comes to us through the Church. Rather, we must be attentive to who we are in God's eyes and what the lay of the land is in our hearts. We must be attentive to the plan God the Father decreed in Jesus Christ: to remake us in His image and to lead us to salvation. That is what John the Baptist is pointing to!
- Before re-building a road, a model is constructed and studied carefully. It's necessary to visualize how and where the road will run.
So it is with us. To make our hearts a wide and direct highway for the Lord, we need to have a model. In this case, we have two models: the Humanity of Christ who reveals us to ourselves; and the sinless heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are more than virtual models - they are the real thing! And just to make sure we really understand, there are the saints who model for us in thousands and thousands of ways what it means to welcome Christ wholeheartedly.
- The old road must be broken up, and the chunks must be hauled away. The hills need to be leveled and the valleys filled in. Demolition is not pleasant work but it must be done before a new road can be built. It requires the use of heavy equipment and must be entirely faithful to the plan.
So it is with us. In many places Scripture speaks of the hardness of the human heart. Our hardened hearts must be broken. Psalm 95 says, "If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts." And Psalm 51 tells us, "A broken, contrite heart, God does not spurn!" Contrition is akin to having a broken heart on account of our sins. And the heavy-duty equipment that enables us to accomplish this demolition phase includes a daily examination of conscience, frequent and fruitful use of the Sacrament of Penance, and mortification in our daily lives.
- In place of the old, tortuous highway, a new road must be put in place according to design. So it is with us. The road will not be exactly the same in any heart, but the road must be direct, wide and smooth. The tortuous ways of sin must be replaced with the royal road of truth and charity. The hills which make difficult our passage from sin to grace and from grace to glory must be leveled by the daily celebration of the Eucharist and by a life of daily, sustained mental prayer.
The valleys - the depths of our hearts - often rendered dark and barren by our sinfulness and by a lack of hope, must be filled in by the ocean-depth of Christ's love revealed for us in His Cross and Resurrection. And the whole structure must be shored up by the continual development of the moral virtues. The virtues not only enable us to withstand the onslaught of the traffic of daily life, they also prompt us to make constant upgrades in the inroads of our hearts - so that we may be counted among those who have set their hearts on what is above rather than what is below.
Dear friends, as Advent passes by so quickly, we must thank the Lord for His goodness and then allow His grace to work in us so that our hearts will be a royal highway for the Lord, at Christmas and throughout our lives.
I wish you and your loved ones a blessed Christmas and a happy, healthy, and faith-filled New Year!
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