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This week I was asking different folks about something I had no idea about--poison oak. A parishioner pointed out a poison oak vine growing intertwined through the sago palm on the side of the church. All I knew about poison oak was not to touch the leaves or the plant’s oily sap because it will cause an itching rash when it comes in contact with the skin. First I did what I had seen on a commercial for a weed-killer. In the commercial, a man wearing a cowboy hat holds the nozzle of the weed killer and shoots weeds growing near his garage. My attempt didn’t turn out so successful. Only parts of the poison oak shriveled, and in the process of spraying, I also killed portions of the sago palm. Then someone suggested that I put on a long-sleeve shirt and rubber gloves to pull up the vine. I was able to pull one main vine with the root intact, but other smaller ones broke in the middle as I pulled on them. I know those will be growing back shortly.
Many things we encounter in our lives are similar to my experience with poison oak. The good and the beautiful are mixed with the bad and the ugly. With some things you can’t just spray chemical poison to make them go away. The weeds of life are resilient, and some are even permanent. Take for example our personality. One religious sister said, “I’m Italian by nationality. We’re very short-tempered—always mad! Sometimes I wake up in the morning impatient and angry. Little things bother me like not finding my cane or my shoes...I went to Confession one time and I told the priest, ‘I lost my temper,’ and the priest said, ‘Keep it, nobody wants it.’ Well, I never said ‘lost’ again because I was afraid I’d get another smart-aleck comment.”
St. Paul puts it this way, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate...For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Do you find yourself saying this too? One of the largest sections in bookstores are self-help section because many of us want to learn how to eliminate the parts of ourselves we do not like. Our Lord gives us a different approach to things that we’d rather wish would go away. He uses an image of a farmer who sowed a field of good wheat. He later unexpectedly finds weeds growing everywhere and was greatly disappointed. Yet when his servants suggest pulling the weeds up immediately, the farmer stops them, for he fears that the good wheat will be pulled up together with the weeds.
Through the parable of the farmer, Jesus reveals Heavenly Father’s approach with each of us. As we learn in the First Reading, God is lenient and mild in His judgment. Not only lenient, He has has great patience in dealing with our weaknesses and faults. He knows that we enter His house sometimes after making mistakes like the Prodigal Son. It should be a relief for us to know that the Church is not a museum for perfectly behaving saints, but a school for sinners. When do our faults and weaknesses finally go away? The moment we die.
Meanwhile living on earth, maturing as a Christian means having the strength not to be ruled by one’s emotions or allowing one’s feelings to dictate one’s choices, and possessing the determination to stand upright in the face of an emotional storm. This is the path of becoming a saint. Our short temper, impatience, quick tongue, or critical judgment can feel like a storm that we cannot control. We cannot endure our emotional storms on our own strength; we need strength from God’s grace. Someone said, “When I feel my volcano of anger coming up from my belly, I quickly pray a Hail Mary, and it helps me calm down. The anger is still there, but I don’t feel like I’m a slave to anger.”
God may not remove thorns or weeds that cause much suffering in us. St. Paul had to face his own thorn too, which he asked God three times to remove the thorn from him. God simply replied to his request, “My grace is sufficient for you.” We may ask God for an “instant chemical spray” to deal with a personality faults, interpersonal problem, an illness, or an obstacle. But God allows the “poison oak” in our lives to shape and mold us into the image of His Son Jesus. Holiness and virtue are a slow process. Our goal is not so much to totally eliminate the weeds in our lives, for there will always be some in our lives. Instead we need to ask from God for the grace to resist the temptation of the moment, to see it as an opportunity to grow in virtue and rely upon the grace of God. Every day we can make a choice to be like Jesus and transform our soul.