Some forty years ago, the Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen admonished the priests of his day with these words:
We become real priests when we empty ourselves, and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going “down to people.” Too many of us today feel we have to be loved … [thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down; they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag them down … (Retreat for priests, “The Meaning of Being a Priest”)
I remember especially my teenage years (the seventies), when priests, religious sisters, and adult parish leaders wore jeans, sandals, and flashy sweaters. The men grew their hair long and the parish leaders recast “Sunday school” as a “rap session.” (In those days, to “rap” did not mean anything related to music; it meant to “talk,” but in a way that was “real” and “down with the struggle.”)
The goal, it would seem, was not for the clergy, religious, or adult leaders to teach, but rather to “relate” and to “facilitate a discussion.” I remember it was considered “hip” (i.e., cool, popular, etc.) to have the class sit on the floor in a circle. The “teacher” was “one of us” and would often start off by saying something like, “I don’t have the answers, but together we can explore the questions.”
Even those of us in our rebellious teens knew there was something amiss. I wonder if the “hip” priests, nuns, and youth leaders knew that we laughed at them behind their backs. Frankly, they DID look strange trying to dress and act like us. And though we humored them, we knew that we had them in our back pockets. They were not to be taken seriously, and so we didn’t.
I will not excuse our violations of the 4th commandment, but it was hard not to laugh and even mock them behind their backs. We used to laugh at one cleric in particular, who showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. He thought he did a pretty swift “Peter, Paul, and Mary” gig; he didn’t. And when he left the room, convinced that he had “reached us,” we would “imitate” him derisively (I am sad to say), playing our air guitars and changing the lyrics to the silly songs he sang.
Ah, the ’70s; a sad and “dorky” time that endured well into the ’90s and is still operative in some places today.
I think most younger priests today are clear enough that people, both young and old, are appreciative when we dress and act as clergy. Religious Sisters, too, are far more respected and appreciated when they wear the full habit and exhibit the qualities of dignity and grace that go with their honored state. It is no coincidence that the traditional orders are attracting vocations, while the secularly clad, “aging hippie” orders are all but dead.
We serve a Lord who, while popular at times, made a journey to the Cross that few, even among his 12, were willing to follow or found pleasing. They were looking for a Messiah who was “down with the struggle” on their terms, who would usher in a new worldly kingdom of power and prosperity. Yes, this is what it meant for them that Jesus be “down with the struggle.” But when Jesus went up to the Cross, few would follow him. Only St. John, Mother Mary, and several other women made it there.
Those of us who lead (clergy, religious, parents, and laymen) must point to the Cross and be willing to shepherd others there. As for pointing to what is popular and what will make us seemingly “loved” and accepted, any newscaster or Hollywood star can do that.
It is true that we ought not engage in all-or-nothing thinking or set up a false dichotomy. Being “up with the Cross” is not in absolute conflict with being “down with the folks.”
We preach the Cross not as an abstraction, but as focused on very real and sometimes difficult choices. We preach a Cross that includes turning away from the pleasures of sin and of the flesh, embracing chastity, self-control, and openness to life, even in difficult circumstances. The Cross means there is to be no abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. It means we are to work out our marital difficulties instead of splitting up. We hold up the Cross in calling the unmarried to chastity and homosexuals to perpetual continence. We preach the Cross of enduring persecution, forgiving our enemies, humbling ourselves through confession, atoning for our sins, and obeying the Commandments. We hold up the Cross when we insist upon generosity to the poor and the forsaking of greed and the accumulation of so many unnecessary things. We hold up the Cross when we remind others of their duty to family, community, the Church, and the nation.
This goes not only for clergy but for parents as well. We are to preach His gospel, the whole counsel of Christ, in season or out-of-season, popular or unpopular. We point the way of Christ.
And Christ had this “crazy” way of the Cross. The Cross is like a tuning fork for us. It is the “A 440″ that helps us to know if we are in tune with Jesus or just reflecting the world, if we are just “down with the people” or “up with Christ” on the Cross.
On that Good Friday, many told Christ that they would be believe if He came down from His Cross. But He would not come down from the Cross just to save Himself. He stayed … to save you and me. Had He been “down with the people” where they wanted Him, He could not have saved them or lifted them up.
Here are a few quotes from Scripture to finish:
- Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it … If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mk 8:34-38).
- Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41).
- Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:20-25).
- You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified (Gal 3:1).
- If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:9-10).
- We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else … (1 Thess 2:4-6)
Are we with Christ, or just “down with the people”? If we are with others, as we should be, are we there with Christ? Do we preach His way of the Cross, or do we seek merely to please men?
Are we up with Christ and the Cross, or merely down with the people and the pillow of popularity and the esteem of men?
Here is a favorite video of mine, one I have used here before. It illustrates both the silly ’70s and the dark side of “tolerance.” Meet Professor “Stanford Nutting” (i.e., stand for nothing):
In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.
St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility (I am using the list from Vultus Dei HERE) and it is these that we consider in today’s post. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, but the commentary on each step is shown in plain, black text and represents my own poor reflections. Take what you like and leave the rest. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing his book Steps of Humility and Pride.
(1) Fear of God - To fear the Lord is to hold God in awe. It is to be filled with wonder and awe at all God has done, and at who He is.
Cringing, servile fear is not recommended here. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride.
It is a look to God, and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies, that begins to break our pride.
Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord, seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside and upward from myself to God.
Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.
(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to his father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). And this is what abnegation of the will means. It means to be willing to surrender my will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to subsume mine.
Pride demands to do what it pleases and to determine whether it is right or wrong. But in this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.
The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”
But on the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to God, and to submit to His vision for us.
(3) Obedience - And now, having attained a more humble disposition of heart, we are more able and willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying God’s holy will, to being willing to surrender our stubborn wills to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to obey and put into action the will of God. And thus the descent of the mountain of pride begins, toward the freedom of children of God, little by little.
(4) Patient endurance - Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride and striving to hear and understand God’s will and to obey Him, one can surely expect obstacles, both internally and externally.
Our flesh, that is, our sinful nature, does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. Our flesh resists prayer, resists being submitted to anything other than its own wishes and desires. And thus, internally, we suffer resistance from our sinful nature.
But little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.
Externally, too, we often encounter resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps old friends seek to seduce us back to former ways. Perhaps, too, the structures of our pride remain standing, structures such as willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intentions: to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.
Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. Yes, it often takes years, even decades, of patient and persistent action, for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.
(5) Disclosure of the heart - As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).
Making this journey requires a lot of humility, as we recognize our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities. We must often uncover unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. And in that place of our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy, or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.
We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a very humbling, but necessary journey, as we continue to come down from the mountain of pride.
(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance and is a very great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:
External contentedness is rooted in the capacity to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that we don’t prefer for a reason and a season. Acceptance does not connote approval of everything. Indeed there are many things in the world that we ought not approve of. But acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully according to our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. And even in those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them quickly or even at all right now. Jesus told a parable about the wheat and tares and cautioned us not to act precipitously to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.
Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. In pride, we demand that our agenda, our menu be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with gratefully accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”
(7) Lucid self-awareness - In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.
But as we continue down the mountain of pride, fearing the Lord, submitting our will to His in docility and obedience, being more honest about what is in the deep recesses of our heart, our disordered drives and unrealistic agendas, we become increasingly prepared to embrace true humility.
Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, remembering that they ARE gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.
With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves more the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). This is because, as we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be, and our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do, and how we interact with God and others. But we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.
(8) Submission to the common rule - The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.
But as our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others and understand that we must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches that the world does not revolve around me and what I want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than my own. Humility helps me to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws exist most often to protect the common good. Humility also makes me more willing to submit my personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.
(9) Silence - Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say, or that what he has to say is more important. But as humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.
(10) Emotional sobriety - Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened. For fear begets anger.
And, as we saw yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered.
But as we now grow deeper in humility we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.
Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, rumor, and so forth. We are less stirred up by the machinations of advertisers and less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the cable news marketers. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us.
The humble person trusts God more and is thus not easily unsettled by all these mental machinations. And it is thoughts that generate feelings.
Thus as our thought life becomes more measured, and our conclusions more humble and careful, our emotions are less volatile and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.
This is a very great gift to seek and cultivate by God’s grace.
(11) Restraint in speech - As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, we see that serenity reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are content to stay in the conversation or to just sow seeds and leave the harvest for later or even for others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking and we are more able and content to speak the truth in love, with clarity, and also with charity.
(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside - We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word “hypocritas” refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role that is not really who they are.
The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. But as humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.
This is because, by the gift of humility, we open ourselves to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.
By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.
Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. And as we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.
So you think the idea of the “Twelve Steps” is new? Well, if you think you’ve got a new idea, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the Medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride in his work Steps of Humility and Pride.
In today’s post, we focus on the Twelve Steps of Pride. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the Twelve Steps of Humility (from St. Benedict’s rule). Below, I list the Twelve Steps of Pride briefly and then provide some commentary (it’s my commentary, so don’t blame St. Bernard :-)). Again, the list is his; the inferior comments are mine.
Note how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious and lead ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps tend to build on one another, beginning in the mind, moving to behavior, then to deepening attitudes of presumption, and ultimately bringing forth revolt and slavery. For if one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.
There are twelve steps up the mountain of pride. Think of these like escalating symptoms:
(1) Curiosity - Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we ought not: other peoples affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity to be annexed to pride is that so often we think we have a right to know things we do not. And hence we pridefully and indiscreetly look into things that we ought not: things that are not for us to know, or that are inexpedient and distracting for us, or perhaps that are beyond our ability to handle well. But casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged sense, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.
(2) Levity of mind - Occupying our mind with inappropriate things grows, and we tend to become playful in wider matters. Here, too, a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion have their place. A little light banter about sports or pop culture may provide momentary diversions that are relaxing. But too often, this is just about all we do, and we pridefully cast aside matters about which we should be serious, instead pursuing only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we pridefully ignore things to which we ought to attend. Watching sitcoms and “reality” TV for hours with no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth, shows a lack of seriousness that manifests pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.
(3) Giddiness - Here, we move from levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors it produces, behaviors in which we overemphasize lightweight experiences or situations at the expense of more important things having to do with profundities. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We pridefully maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We find plenty of time for frivolity but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.
(4) Boasting - Increasingly locked into our own little world of darkened intellect and foolish behavior, we begin to exult in baser, carnal activities and consider them a sign of greatness; we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should learn to appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they ARE gifts given to us by God and often developed through the help of others. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) But the boaster thinks too highly of himself, either asserting gifts he does not have, or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride. In addition, as we have seen, our boasting tends to be about foolish and passing things.
(5) Singularity - Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves even greater. We are king, all right, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. But as our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are all contingent beings, dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily withdraw into our own little mind and world, tending to think that something is so just because we think it to be so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel, we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and advice from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for an adviser, and a prideful one at that! Singularity is pride. Yet this pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more singular, focused increasingly only on our own self.
(6) Self-conceit - Here is described an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world gets ever smaller and our pride ever greater, our self-focus and delusion grows ever stronger and we become increasingly self-referential. Now, something is so merely because I say so. I am fine because I say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in ourselves. Further, we too easily seek to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” But being better than a prostitute or a drug dealer is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. Rather than comparing ourselves to Jesus and seeking mercy, we compare ourselves to others on whom we look down, and give way to pride.
(7) Presumption - At this stage, even God’s judgements must cede to ours. I am fine and will be saved because I say so. This is a sin against hope, wherein we simply take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect, we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life; this is the theological virtue of hope. But it is pride that makes us think we have already accomplished and possess what we in fact do not already have. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek God’s help as beggars rather than as possessors or as ones legally entitled to glory in Heaven. Presumption is pride.
(8) Self-justification - Jesus must now vacate the judgment seat because I demand His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the Cross because I don’t really need His sacrifice. I can save myself, and, frankly, I don’t need a lot of saving. Self-justification is the attitude that says I am able, by my own power, to justify (that is, save) myself. It is also an attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). But the prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God. The prideful person forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.
(9) Hypocritical confession - In Greek, the word hypocrite means “actor.” In certain settings, some degree of humility and acknowledgement of one’s faults is “profitable.” One can get “credit” for acknowledging certain faults humbly and calling oneself a “sinner.” But the prideful man is just acting. He’s merely playing a role and doing his part, more for social credit than out of real contrition or repentance. After all, he’s really not that bad off. But if posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get him somewhere, he’ll say his lines, play the part, and look holy. But only if the applause from the audience is forthcoming …
(10) Revolt - Pride really begins to get out of control when one revolts outright against God and His lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, his Word, or His Church. To revolt is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this case God and His Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and to act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.
(11) Freedom to sin - Here, pride reaches its near conclusion, as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man increasingly rejects any restraints or limits. But the freedom of the proud man is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). The Catechism echoes, The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin (Catechism 1733). But the proud man will have none of this, arrogantly asserting his freedom to do as he pleases, even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.
(12) The habit of sinning - Here we see pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to it. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity (Conf 8.5.10).
And thus we have climbed the twelve steps of the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety, rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive, dismissive attitudes. Last come outright revolt and slavery to sin. The slavery results because if one refuses to serve God out of pride, he will serve Satan. Pride is now in full flower.
We have seen an escalation in these steps that is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.
Is there a way down this mountain of pride? Tune in tomorrow …
The themes of early Lent are pretty basic. The ashes of Ash Wednesday announce the simple truth that we are going to die and thereafter face judgment. Hence, we need to repent and come to believe the good news that only Jesus can save us.
Another early reading from Thursday after Ash Wednesday featured Moses laying out the basic reality that all of us have a choice to make. He says to us,
Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom …
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse (Dt 30:15, 20).
So there it is, our choice: life or death, prosperity or doom. An old Latin expression says, Tertium non datur (no third way is given). We often like to think that we can plow some middle path. But in the matter of the last things, there is no middle path, no third way. Either we choose God and His kingdom, reflecting that choice in all of our smaller decisions, or we do not.
To those who think that a middle path is possible, I would say that it is in effect the way of compromise, ambivalence, and tepidness. Walking such a path shows a lack of real commitment and a refusal to witness to Christ. These are not virtues that belong to God’s Kingdom; they pertain more to the kingdom of darkness. Jesus says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt 5:37). He also says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
So we are back to a choice: for the Kingdom of Light or for the kingdom of darkness, for the world and its ways or for God and His ways. Do we choose to gratify the flesh or nourish the spirit, to serve Satan and his agenda or Christ and His will and plan?
You’re free to choose, but you’re not free not to choose. That is to say, you must choose. And if you think that you can go on simply not choosing one or the other, I’ve got news for you: not choosing is choosing the kingdom of darkness.
While it is true that many do not directly choose Satan, but rather indirectly choose him by following his ways, we are asked to choose God explicitly, by accepting the gift of faith and basing our life on what the Lord commands. Faith is not some sort of “default position” we can have by accident. Faith is the supernaturally assisted and transformed human decision for God and all that that choice implies. Faith is a gift freely offered, and one that we must also freely accept; it is a choice that will not be forced on us. And through many daily choices we are called to reaffirm, by grace, the choice we have made for God.
So again, life is about choices: the fundamental choice of faith and all the daily choices that either affirm or deny the reality of our faith.
We live in times in which people like to demand free choice but at the same time want to evade the responsibilities that come with making choices. Moses goes on in the reading today to describe the fact that the choice we make for or against God will have consequences:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy (Dt 30).
Yes, choices have consequences. And even small daily choices have the cumulative effect of moving us in one direction or the other, toward God and our goal or away.
Many little choices also have a way of forming our hearts. Deeds become habits; habits become character; character becomes destiny. These choices move us into one future or the other.
And while it is true that sudden and dramatic conversions are possible as long as we are still living, it is more common that, as we make our journey, our hearts become more fixed and our fundamental character becomes less likely to change. As we get older, it’s harder to change because that’s what choices do to us: they move us in a certain direction, down a certain path. And the further along that path we go, the less likely we are to turn back.
Therefore, daily choices are important, and making frequent examinations of conscience and frequent confession are essential. Each day we ought to ask the question, “Where am I going with my life?” If we go on too long living an unreflective life, it is easy to find ourselves deeply locked in sinful habits and patterns that are harder and harder to break. Thus, frequent reflection is necessary and we ought not make light of small daily decisions.
We live in times in which, to some degree, it is easier to insulate ourselves from the immediate consequences of many of the choices we make. Medicine, technology, social safety nets, etc. are all good things in and of themselves, but they do tend to shield us from immediate consequences and they help cultivate the illusion that consequences can be forever avoided.
We also live in times in which, perhaps more than ever before, the community is willing to bear the burden of many bad individual choices. Again, this is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does become an enabler of bad behavior and fosters the illusion that consequences can be avoided forever. They cannot.
Our own culture is currently struggling under the weight of a colossal number of poor individual choices, ones that have added up to a financial, spiritual, moral, and emotional debt we cannot pay. Sexual misconduct, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, STDs, the use of hallucinogenic and addictive drugs, the casting off of of discipline and parental responsibility, the rejection of faith and ancient and tested wisdom, rebellion, silence in the face of sin and injustice, greed, consumerism gone mad, factions, envy, discord, and on and on … all of this is taking a tremendous toll. The consequences are mounting and it is becoming clear that even the most basic functions of society such as raising the next generation, preserving order and stability, and ensuring the common good are gravely threatened.
And what is true collectively is also true for us as individuals. Lots of bad little choices quickly draw us into self-destructive patterns that become more and more ingrained. And without regular reflection and penitential seasons like Lent, we lose our way too easily! St. Augustine noted this in his Confessions, in which he described himself as being bound, “not by another’s irons, but by my own iron will … For in truth lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity” (Conf 8.5.10).
Moses’ warnings are before us as never before.
Back in 1917, a beautiful and holy Woman (Our Lady) appeared to three young children in Portugal. She explained that the horrifying war (World War I) was finally coming to an end. But, she warned, if people did not turn back to her Son Jesus and start praying, a worse war would ensue; Russia would spread her errors and great disaster would befall this world. Do I need to tell you what happened? Of course not! Any even casual assessment of the 20th century would find it hard to conclude that the century was anything but satanic.
Life and death, prosperity and doom. What will you choose? What will we choose?
And now from heavy to humorous …
In the Beatitudes, and indeed in the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8), the Lord is painting a picture of the transformed human person. The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s great moral treatise. But it is not to be understood so much as a list of things to do (out of our own fleshly power) but as gifts to receive from God’s grace. This is what happens to the human person in whom the Lord lives this life through the Holy Spirit.
I have written on aspects of the Sermon on the Mount before, but for Lent this year it may be good to review its essential points little by little throughout the season.
Today, let’s consider the Beatitudes. I want to use here the insights of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in his treatise The Three Ages of the Interior Life (Vol 1, pp 165-173). I include many thoughts of my own as well, rooted in other studies and in my experiences as a spiritual director and directee.
Following St. Augustine and St. Thomas, Lagrange sees the Beatitudes as following the petitions of the Our Father in reverse order and to be divided into the classic categories of the spiritual life: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. Consider, then, some brief reflections on each of the Beatitudes with this schema in mind. Seen in this way, the Beatitudes build on one another and lead us deeper into the spiritual life.
I. The Beatitudes of the Purgative Way - wherein we see sin put to death as the Lord forgives us our sins and delivers us from temptation and evil.
A. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. The Lord delivers us from the lie of the world that happiness consists in an abundance of possessions and instead roots our joy in the spiritual riches of His Kingdom, which lasts forever. The poor in spirit are those who are poor, but without murmuring, impatience, or jealousy. Blessed too are those who, though more materially fortunate, have not the spirit of riches with pomp and pride, but are detached from the riches of the world, which so easily enslave.
For indeed, the desire for riches divides us; it fosters quarrels, lawsuits, and even violence and war among nations. Such things must be purged from our hearts if we are to find the joy of God’s Kingdom. The transformed human person is increasingly purged of the desire for things that do not ultimately satisfy, and grows in a desire for God and the things of God that await in Heaven (and are available to some extent even now).
B. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land. Having been purged of the aggressive desire for riches and fearful grasping for what is “mine, not yours,” the faithful are purged of wrathful anger by the Lord.
Meekness is the virtue that moderates anger and preserves the middle ground between too much anger and not enough (for there are things (e.g., injustice) that should incite anger). The meek are given the gift of authority over their anger. They are purged of anger rooted in obsession with improper objects. They possess the land but are not possessed by it.
Purged of excessive and inappropriate anger, they do not seek vengeance nor do they wish to dominate others. They do not judge rashly and do not see in their neighbor a rival to be overcome, but rather a brother to be helped and to be a source of support. The meek are not stubbornly attached to their own judgment. Because they are not dominated by egocentric anger, they are able to express themselves simply and straightforwardly. They do not need to call Heaven to witness in trivial matters. There is little need for a person purged of this sort of anger to feel he must return anger to the angry, or crush a vulnerable oppressor.
To say that the meek are purged of unrighteous anger is also to say that they are purged of the most common root of anger: fear. The first Beatitude removes a good bit of this by purging from us our obsession with worldly and passing matters. No longer obsessed with having more, we are purged of many of our fears as well. And thus the way for meekness is paved. As fear is purged, meekness grows.
C. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Here the Lord delivers us from the lie of the world that pleasures are the source of happiness.
Who are those who weep? First, they are those who weep for love at the recognition of the mercy, love, and goodness of God, who has saved them. They are those who weep for their own sin and ingratitude.
Those who mourn are also those who see the awful state of God’s people. They see that many do not know God, for whom they were made. They see that many, blinded by their sin, are locked in fruitless and sinful patterns and neither glorify God nor experience the true glory of God.
Yes, having come to know the beauty of God and His Kingdom, and having been purged of being enamored with the passing world, the blessed mourn for their own sins and attachments as well as for others who often seem lost and perversely attached to the mere trinkets of this world.
But they are comforted (strengthened) because their purgation helps them to see even more poignantly the beauty of God and His Kingdom. If they weep, they weep over what really matters, not lesser things. Their mourning is a motivating mourning, one that makes them dedicated to making a difference. Their tears come from being purged and lead to deeper purging so that greater blessings can take the place of what has been purged away.
II. The Beatitudes of the Illuminative Way - whereby we learn to see God and His wisdom more deeply and brightly, whereby we receive our daily bread, whereby God’s will is understood more deeply and appreciated more richly.
A. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Having been purged of the obsessions and slaveries of the world, our heart is freed. No longer sick on the candy of the world, no longer filled with fattening appetizers, the heart hungers for the true food of God’s Word, Wisdom, and Sacraments.
Through purgation, the Lord creates in us a desire for the better things. He also dilates (enlarges) our heart.
Hunger is very motivating. Seeking the illumination of God’s truth and righteousness is the usual result of a hunger that will not be satisfied by the snacks and empty calories of this world. Once one has read great literature, dime-store novels and formulaic sitcoms no longer satisfy. Higher forms are sought. Milk will no longer satisfy; the true meat of God’s truth is now necessary.
Now that God has purged us and we have reached this stage, He gives us a deepening desire for the very things He wants to give us: the righteousness and holiness of His Holy Spirit. Increasingly, we are satisfied, filled with God, because in our hunger we seek earnestly the things of God. We long for prayer and do not have to be dragged to it. We long for Scripture and the gifts of the Spirit.
Thus, we seek. And having sought, we find and are filled.
B. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Having found God and come to know and love Him, we love also the things and people He loves. As it pertains to God to have endless mercy for us who seek it, so too for us: as we are further illumined by God and grow in union with Him, we also grow in abundant mercy for others.
We are able to love, show mercy, and bless others, not because we have to but because we want to. It is increasingly in our reformed, purged, and now illumined nature to do so. We love with the love of God in us; we are merciful with the mercy of God in us.
The merciful obtain mercy because as God sees how His graces abound in us, He is prone and happy to share more and greater graces and mercy. Scripture says, Give and it shall be given unto you in good measure. Why? Because when God can trust us with His gifts, He gives us more, knowing that we will share them.
Since we are all going to need mercy on the day of judgment, here then is a gift of God to particularly benefit us in what we need most: the grace of mercy, in abundance.
III. The Beatitudes of the Unitive Way - wherein, having been purged and illumined, we now enter into deeper union with God, who is our Father, whose name is holy, and whose kingdom has come for us in abundance.
A. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The Greek word καθαροὶ (katharoi) more literally means to be without admixture. Hence the Beatitude can be phrased, “Blessed are the single-hearted.” To be single-hearted is to be focused on one thing. St. Paul says, This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).
The pure (single-hearted), having been purged of obsession with the things of this world and having been illumined more fully in the things of God, hungering for them and being filled with them, now see their hearts become more pure, less admixed with the things of this world. Their hearts are singularly focused. Here are the clear waters of a mountain lake; contradictions and hypocrisy are less and less present; the many divisions of heart, the feeling of being pulled in many directions and of having divided loyalties, are largely removed.
Such a blessing to have a “single heart,” a heart set on one thing! Jesus says, If your eye be single, the whole body will be lightsome (Matt 6:22).
And thus, that they “shall see God” means that they will be filled with His light. It is not understood as a mere intellectual seeing. Rather, one who is deeply immersed in the experience of God “sees” Him, experiences Him deeply, and increasingly sees Him everywhere. Cor ad cor loquitur: heart speaks to heart! God is seen by the heart everywhere and in everyone, even amidst trials.
Blessed, happy is such a one!
B. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. Souls in this purged, illumined, and increasingly unitive state are at peace and bestow peace on those around them. Since they are docile to the providence of God and the wisdom of the Cross, they are not easily unsettled or fearful. They are serene even in the face of unexpected and troubling events. In their serenity, they are able to confer a calm on troubled souls, to radiate peace. They are not easily troubled by their enemies because, being more united to God and trusting in His providence, they do not fear whatever God allows. Thus they fear their enemies less, and without fear there can be no unrighteous anger. Hence they seek no vengeance, but only peace with their neighbor.
Ah, the blessed peace of those who know they are the children of God! And knowing this, they do not need to have their dignity affirmed by others. Neither can others harm it. If God is for us, who can be against us? If I am God’s child, what harm can anyone do to my dignity?
Ah, the blessed assurance of those who are the sons and daughters of God! Being at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we radiate that peace to others.
C. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. We become most configured to Christ on the Cross. We are able, by the gift of God, to remain humble and meek in the midst of persecution, even toward the persecutors themselves. In this way, our love of neighbor is perfected. We conquer our pride and the pride of the world by humility and by not being unsettled by the worst it can dispense: loss, torture, and death.
How does the Lord accomplish this? By the grace of having us know and experience that the kingdom of Heaven is ours. Souls that reach this stage have become deeply immersed in the things of God and in God Himself. There is little effect the world can have at this point; God is all.
St John Chrysostom, exhibiting this Beatitude, says,
The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence … (Ante exsilim 1)
Here, then, are the supreme gifts of the Beatitudes. They build as God first purges us, then illumines us, then unites us more and more fully to Him, so that finally nothing can shake us. Please see the Beatitudes not as works of your flesh, but as gifts of God’s Spirit, gifts to be supremely desired. During Lent, we realize our poverty and run to God’s wealth. The Beatitudes paint a picture of what God’s grace can accomplish if we but run to Him in repentance and ask Him to accomplish what He died to give us.
On the first Sunday of Lent, the readings have a very baptismal theme. It makes sense, for it is common on this Sunday that the catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election, wherein they are recognized as elect (chosen) of God in these final weeks before their baptism.
In today’s readings, there are many themes that form the “spokes” of a wagon wheel, and baptism is the central hub around which they turn. And arching over it all is the great image of the rainbow in the sky, the great sign of God’s love and mercy upon us all. Even in Lent, as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined, and at times even unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky. (Sadly, the image of the rainbow has been corrupted in recent years. But it is here meant in its uncorrupted sense, not as a symbol for a group that celebrates what God calls sin, but the freedom from sin and its effects.)
More on the biblical rainbow in a moment. But for now, let’s look at the baptismal theme of these readings from two perspectives.
I. The PORTRAIT of Baptism – Both the first and second readings today make mention of Noah and the ark in which he and his family were delivered from the flood. The second reading says, God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now (1 Peter 3:19-20).
Note that while we think of water as a symbol for baptism, the image is really a dual image, an image of WOOD and WATER. For if it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed Noah’s family. And thus for us too, the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the Cross.
Indeed, by God’s plan we might be so bold as to say, “Wood and water work wonders!” There are numerous places in the Scriptures where where wood and water, not just water alone, manifest God’s saving love. Here are five examples:
- Cleansing Flood - We begin with today’s image and one of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world: the flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin so multiplied that God concluded He literally had to wash it clean. And you think it’s bad now! God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. “Build an ark of gopher wood, Noah!” Now this was no small project. The ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards); it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. Now you really have to trust God to do all that work! “And then gather the animals, two pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals.” More trust, more time, and lots of wood. But then God troubled the waters and the waters of the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing. But first Noah had to wade on in. Through water and the wood of the ark, God worked wonders! (cf Gen 6-9)
- Trouble at the Red Sea - Many centuries later, Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt after 400 years of slavery. But fickle Pharaoh once again changed his mind and pursued them. With the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh behind them, the people were struck with fear. But God would win for them. How? By troubling the waters. God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two … So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided (Ex 14:16, 21). Now you and I know the end of the story, but the people that day did not. With water like two walls on either side they had to go forth; they had to wade, if you will, in the waters. They had to trust God that the waters would hold. God brought them through, out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? With God, wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters brought forth freedom.
- Trouble in the Desert - It is a fine thing to be free, but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23). So once again, with God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
- More Trouble in the Desert - But again as they journeyed further, there was more thirst. And God said to Moses, Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, … Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink (Ex 17:5-6). From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert.
- At the River Jordan- After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. But the Jordan was in flood stage, impossible to cross. Once again, God had a plan and was going to trouble those waters. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders and wade into the water. The ark was a box made of acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tablets of the Law, the staff of Aaron, and a ciborium of the manna. They knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, just as it is in our tabernacles today. The text says, And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water, the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off … so the people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15-16) So again, with God, wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted, bringing the blessing of the promised land.
These Old Testament prefigurements bring us to the wood of the true Cross. And on that wooden Cross, the waters of our baptism come forth from the side of Christ. With Jesus, our Lord and God, wood and water work the wonder of eternal salvation. We’re not just being freed from an army, or from thirst, or from a flood; we’re being freed from sin and offered eternal salvation. The waters of our baptism are given the power to save by our Lord Jesus and by what He did on the wood of the Cross. You might as well say it, “With God, wood and water work wonders!”
II. The POWER of Baptism – Here we encounter more of the spokes of the wagon wheel radiating out from the hub, which is baptism. And we largely collect these “spokes” of teaching from the second reading (1 Peter 3:17-22). The spokes speak of the power and gifts that radiate from baptism. Let’s look at them.
A. Salvation - the text says, baptism … saves you now. The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei) and means to be delivered from present danger. Yes, we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan, who seeks to devour us.
The Book of Psalms says, If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped (Psalm 124).
St. Paul says of Jesus, he rescued us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:4).
And old Gospel hymn says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”
Yes, through baptism and the faith it confers, we have been saved by the outstretched arm of our God. And if we hold to God’s unchanging hand, Heaven will be ours.
B. Sonship – The text says, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Yes, Jesus has opened the way to the Father. He has reconciled us to God the Father by His precious blood.
In baptism, we become the children of God. Isaiah says, For we like sheep had gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6).
And we were angry and fearful of God, unable to endure His presence and His love. But Jesus, as a Good Shepherd, has gathered us and restored us to grace.
One of the great gifts of baptism is the grace to experience a tender affection for God the Father and to experience him as Abba (cf Gal 4:6, Rom 8). As we grow in the grace of our baptism, so does our tender love and affection for the Father.
Jesus, through baptism and the indwelling Holy Spirit, causes us to experience increasing trust of the Father and to obey Him out of deep love rather than servile fear.
C. Serenity – The text says baptism … is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Baptism, while it touches the body, has as its goal the soul, the inner man or woman. In effect, this text speaks to us of the new mind and heart that Jesus, through baptism, confers on us.
In the Gospel today, Jesus refers to this new mind when he says “Repent!” The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.”
Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart, a whole new way of thinking, new priorities, understandings, goals, and vision.
So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not mean “brain” per se. Rather, it refers to that deep, inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with ourself and our God. Through baptism, the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day.
As our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience that is confident and loving before God.
D. Spirit! – The text says of Jesus, Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. As God, Jesus did not need or acquire the Holy Spirit, He was always one with the Holy Spirit. But as man, He acquires the Holy Spirit for us.
And who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the very life of God, the love of God, the joy of God, the holiness of God! To receive the Holy Spirit is to come to a totally new and transformed life.
When Jesus rose, it was not merely that His corpse was resuscitated. It was truly His body that rose, but He took up a wholly transformed human life and He offers this to us.
In baptism, we die with Him and rise to this new life. If we are faithful to our baptismal commitments, we become ever more fully alive; sins are put to death and innumerable graces come forth. Yes, new life, life in the Spirit, comes to those who are baptized and remain faithful.
Do you see what God has done? He has put a rainbow in the sky! When we were spiritually dead in our sin, hostile to God, He would not forsake us. He remembered the rainbow that He promised Noah. Along with you, I can say that I have been unworthy, unrighteous, unmerciful, and unreachable. I have been unteachable, unwilling, undesirable, unwise, undone, and unsure. But I can also say that because of you, O Lord, I have never been unloved. I’ve been unamended, uneasy, unapproachable, unemotional, unexceptional, undecided, unqualified, unaware, unfair, and unfit. But even I can see the sacrifice that God made for me, to show me that I have never been unloved.
Yes, “when it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.”
Do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water, the rainbow in the sky, the sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.
God put a rainbow in the sky!
The video below, which I recently saw on Fr Z’s Blog, quite vividly illustrates that we are hauling through space in a kind of whirlwind or vortex of motion. Later this week, I will say more about the cross writ large in our sky. But on Fridays I like to keep it a bit lighter. This isn’t exactly light, but it sure is a neat illustration of what I have written before: if you think you’re in a hurry, you’re right. Consider, before you view the video below,
- At the latitude of Washington D.C., the Earth is rotating at about 750 miles an hour. 
- The rotating Earth is also revolving around the Sun at approximately 67,000 miles an hour. 
- The sun, around which the Earth revolves so fast, is moving around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. 
- And the whole Milky Way Galaxy is moving through space at 1,339,200 miles per hour. 
It’s dizzying to consider our speed and motion. A spinning planet, revolving around a sun, which is moving around the center of a galaxy, which itself is careening through space at over a million miles an hour. So if you think you’re standing still, think again. We are actually hurtling through space at dizzying speeds.
Yes, you’re on the move! You’re moving so fast that you met yourself coming back. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re loafing.
Here are some biblical “speed texts.” Hurry up and read them!
Look! The Lord advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles (Jer 4:13).
I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands, O Lord (Psalm 119:60 Heth).
Hurry! Go quickly! Don’t stop! (1 Sam 20:38)
God has told me to hurry (2 Chron 35:21).
Enjoy this video:
Most pastors and confessors are aware that in any parish there are going to be a few who are scrupulous, even in times like like these. Some have a kind of scrupulosity that is mild and almost admirable. A sensitive conscience is a beautiful thing and bespeaks a kind of innocence that is rare today.
Some others have a more unhealthy form of scrupulosity, rooted too much in cringing fear of a God who is seen more as a punishing adversary than a delivering Father who wants to help us overcome our sin.
But saddest of all are the large majority who have very little compunction (sorrow) for sin. Most Catholics have lived so long in a culture that dismisses, excuses, or makes light of sin that they have very little notion of just how serious sin can be. That God had to send His only Son to die in order rescue us from our sins shows just how serious they are; weeping for our sins is not some “extreme” reaction.
Indeed, a worthy Lenten practice is going to the foot of the Cross and allowing the Lord to anoint us, so that we see both how serious our sins are and at the same time how deep His love for us is. When it finally begins to dawn on us that the Son of God died for us, our heart breaks open, light pours in, and we can begin to weep for our sins and in gratitude for His love.
Consider that Jesus looked at a paralyzed man and, “not noticing” his paralysis, said to him, “Courage son, Your sins are forgiven” (Mat 9:2). In a sense, He saw the man’s sins as more serious than his paralysis. Jesus says elsewhere,
I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt 5:28-30).
Now the Lord does not mean literally to gouge out eyes and cut off appendages. But what He is saying is that it is more serious to sin (in this case through lust) than to lose our eye, hand, or foot.
Now we don’t usually think like this, but we should. Sin is much more serious than most of us imagine. It is our most serious problem. It is more serious than lack of money or poor physical health. Sin is our most serious problem; whatever is in second place isn’t even close.
In times like these, when self-esteem is overemphasized, personal responsibility is minimized, and excuses abound, we do well to ask for the gift of tears. We do well to ask for a profound and healthy grief for our sins.
More than ever, this is a gift to be sought. Note that these tears are not meant to be tears of depression, discouragement, or self-loathing. The tears to be sought here are tears of what St. Paul calls “godly sorrow.” Godly sorrow causes us to have sorrow for our sins but in a such a way that it draws us to God and to great love, gratitude, and appreciation for His mercy. St. Paul writes,
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).
With all this in mind, consider that in the current (2011) Roman Missal there is a beautiful “Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins (B).” In the old Missal (1962), it is called the Missa ad Petendam Compunctionem Cordis (Mass Requesting Compunction (sorrow) of Heart). It is known more colloquially as the “Mass for the Gift of Tears.”
Consider these beautiful prayers from the Roman Missal (both the 1962 and current (2011) versions). I post here the English translation from the current (2011) Missal:
Almighty and most gentle God,
who brought forth from the rock
a fountain of living water for your thirsty people,
bring forth we pray,
from the hardness of our heart, tears of sorrow,
that we may lament our sins
and merit forgiveness from your mercy.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.
Prayer over the gifts:
Look mercifully, O Lord, upon this oblation,
which we offer to your majesty, for our sins,
and grant, we pray, that the sacrifice
from which forgiveness springs forth for the human race,
may bestow on us the grace of the Holy Spirit,
to shed tears for our offenses.
Through Christ our Lord.
May the reverent reception of your Sacrament O Lord,
Lead us to wash away the stains of our sins
with sighs and tears, and in your generosity
grant that the pardon we seek may have its effect on us.
Through Christ our Lord.
So beautiful, scriptural, and spiritual. Pray these prayers. Ask your priest to celebrate this votive Mass often. We need the gift of tears today.
Still struggling to know your sins? Consider this list I compiled: Litany of Penance and Reparation.
Here is the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem. The text says, “Day of tears that day when from the ashes man arises and goes to his judge. Spare O God then, O sweet Jesus, Grant them eternal rest.
The beginning of the Lenten season puts before us an urgent plea that we should be sober and watchful of our soul and its condition, for the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
Simply put, we are going to die and we need to be made ready to meet our God. Recall some of the urgency present in the readings:
- Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart …
- Sound the trumpet in Zion!
- We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!
- Behold, now is the day of salvation.
Yes, now, not later. There is an urgency announced that we must hear and heed.
What’s in a picture? The picture at the upper right was taken April 2, 1967. It was my sister, Mary Anne’s 7th birthday. On Ash Wednesday morning, the picture appeared on my screen-saver slideshow and I thought, “There it is; a picture of passing things.” For as you look at the picture know this, there is absolutely nothing and no one in the picture that is still here in this world today. My sister, who is blowing out the candles, died tragically in a fire in 1991. My mother, who is leaning over her, died in 2005 (also tragically). My maternal grandmother, who is sitting, died of cancer in the late 1970s. But that is not all. The building in which the picture was taken was demolished 8 years ago. My father, who is taking the picture, died in 2007. The Polaroid camera with which he took the photo is long gone as well. There is simply nothing in this picture that any longer exists in this world, and there is no one in the photo who still walks this earth. Yes, the form of this world is passing away. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
The Church’s reminder to us is a strong rejoinder to most of our priorities. Most of the things we think are so important are not really all that important in the long run. Most of the things that claim our attention are not all that critical either. Like Martha of the Bible, we are anxious about many things. We worry about our money, our house, our car, our physical health, how we look, what people think of us, and so forth. But none of this really matters all that much in the end. All these things pass.
But what about what really does matter? What of our soul and its well-being? What of our direction? Is it heavenward? What are we doing with our life? Where are we headed? Do we know, love, and serve God? Are our eyes on the prize of God and Heaven? These things garner little attention in most people’s lives. The unessential and fleeting things are our passion, while the most essential things are all but ignored.
During Lent, the Church says, “Stop.” Be thoughtful and earnest. You are going to die. What are you doing to get ready to meet God? Your body and the things of this world are but dust, a mere passing reality. But what of your soul? Are you caring for your soul? Is it nourished on God’s Word and Holy Communion? Are the medicines of prayer, Scripture, Sacraments, and holy fellowship (cf Acts 2:24) being applied so that your soul stands a chance?
Remember … REMEMBER … you are dust; you are going to die. Get ready. Now is the time; be earnest about it. Be thoughtful; reflect, considering carefully what your decisions amount to, where you are headed, and what your life means. Too many people live unreflected lives, never thinking much on these things. But not you. You have heard the trumpet sound in Zion and the Church has implored you. Will you listen? Will I? Where are you going? Where will you be when the last trumpet sounds?
Immutemur habitu in cinere et cilicio; jejunemus, et ploremus ante Dominum, quia multum misericors est dimittere peccata nostra Deus noster.
Let us change our garments for ashes and sackcloth; let us fast and lament before the Lord, for our God is plenteous in mercy to forgive our sins.
To the modern mind, the story of Noah and the flood is a dark tale and one that is hard to equate with the “loving God” (i.e., the “kind” God of our notions). Why would God regret what He had done and want to kill everything He had made?
Now never mind that we do this all the time when we harvest a field, or prune our roses or slaughter animals to feed ourselves, etc. When we do these things, we understand why we do them and so we give ourselves credit for doing what is right and good. But when God prunes, or plows under one culture to bring forth another, or ends life here to nourish life there, we call Him despotic. The atheists like to call Him wrathful and vengeful.
But the Church has always understood the flood in terms of the language of baptism. God ends one life to begin another. In every baptism, even to this day, one life ends so that another can begin. The baptismal font is both tomb and womb. It is a tomb because the old Adam dies in us, and it is a womb because the new Adam (Jesus) is birthed in us. St. Paul says,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:3ff).
This may not seem like the flood, but it is. We are overwhelmed in the flood of baptismal water and lose our old life. But a new life is set forth in us. This is just as in the old flood, which ended the regime of sin and sowed the seed of new life on a washed-out world. It is an allegory of baptism, not the reality itself but pointing to the reality.
The Catechism references the blessing of Easter water, in which the Church speaks of the flood: The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.
Thus, in terms of baptismal theology, the flood was not a disaster, but a new beginning.
“But Father, but Father, so many died!” True, but we will all die and God decides when that will be. Further, He does not simply have my good or your good in mind, but also the common good. So God must sometimes end certain human projects, epochs, and empires so that others may emerge. He knows why He acts; we do not. We may think we are the “bee’s knees,” but God knows something better. So He ended antediluvian (before the flood) culture to bring forth something different. Do you judge Him for this? And if you do, on what basis do you do so? Is the Roman Empire better than what came later? Is “Western Culture” better than what might come next? How do you know? Can you see the future? Are you sure of your judgments? Are they better than God’s?
In November, I pruned my roses from eight feet down to just one foot. Do you judge me for this? Today they poke through the snow awaiting the coming of spring. Have I done well, or was I just violent and nasty? Well, wait until spring and you might have a different perspective. My Crape Myrtle is also protesting and calling me a despot, for I pruned it severely. But wait until May before you condemn me. You might be surprised as vigorous growth bursts forth.
Well, I hope you get the point. We have often judged God based on very little evidence. He knows why He does what He does; we do not. If a flood or the collapse of a culture is needed, He knows; we have no idea.
Floods and other dramatic steps are sometimes needed. And we who protest such actions are not much different than rose bushes that protest pruning. We know not whereof we speak.
Let God be God. If floods are needed He knows. If lesser measures are adequate He knows. If more is needed He knows. Floods are “in his pay grade,” not in ours. He knows. Do not judge God. If you do, I am going to ask you why we kills tens of thousand of animals, or rip healthy ears of corn from their plants to feed ourselves. I am going to ask you why we prune roses. I am going to ask you why we wield scalpels to cut cancerous tumors from people and then throw those tumors in the trash.
If you will judge God, please answer first the prosecutorial questions I ask you. Is a flood too strong a response to sin? Well, is reducing my roses by 7/8ths during pruning season too much? Is putting people to sleep so they can’t defend themselves and slicing open their bodies and forcefully removing tumors too extreme? Is wielding the sickle and harvesting grapes to feed the poor too much? Is it evil to take the eggs of chickens or to kill mature chickens to feed the hungry?
OK, the flood happened. Are you ready to sit in judgment of God as you munch on your Chicken McNuggets?
Who will judge the flood or the God who sent it? If you will, then never, EVER again plow under your summer marigolds to plant autumn mums. Otherwise, I will call you evil, despotic, and just plain mean. I realize that people are more valuable than mums or marigolds. But God has every right to decide that the season for marigolds is over and mums are now needed. Do you doubt His judgment? If you do, then never again pull weeds from your garden, mow your grass, swat a fly, or seek the repel the devourers of your crops.
Otherwise, let God be God and do not call Him to account for things you do not understand.
The flood was necessary. Do you deny it? Show that you know better than God and cease your own husbandry. Allow rats to infest your home and flies to devour your food stock. Indeed, you should never harvest at all; you devour plants and animals and follow your own designs, designs that those plants and animals cannot discern. How dare you, you devourer, you sender of floods, you user of oxygen. How dare you use precious resources the animals could use, you interceptor of natural processes!
You stand accused with God! How do you answer? Will you still prosecute God for the flood?
This song says,
Away way back in the ages dark
Old man Noah built a sea-going ark
Old man Noah had his nervous spells,
When he had to listen to the animals’ yells,
But when anything was doing he was there with bells,
He was a grand old sailor.
Old man Noah knew a thing or two,
He made them all play ball,
Old man Noah knew a thing or two,
Because he knew a thing or two, he thought he knew it all,
Some say he was an also ran,
He was the original sailor man,
Old man Noah knew a thing or two,
He was a grand old man.
Said old man Noah to his wife one day
There’s a big storm comin’ on the first of May
So he gathered all his family and made this remark:
The sky’s getting cloudy and it’s getting rather dark,
So gather all the animals, and beat it to the ark,
It’s gonna rain tomorrow!
The rain came down in showers cryin’
The ark made it out on a scheduled time
And every day at half past three,
Noah played poker with the chimpanzee,
Cried the ring-tailed monkey, I sadly agree,
Noah’s got a full house up his sleeve!
When Noah got the animals out to sea,
They organized a regular jubilee
In the middle of the night the elephant said,
There’s a couple of snakes crawled into my bed,
Shut up, said Noah, you’re drunk instead,
Now I’m gonna lose my license!
Recent and persistent attacks by radical Muslims, especially the most recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians, have many asking what can or should be done to end such atrocities. Military actions by numerous countries, including our own, are already underway. Most feel quite justified in these actions and many are calling for more concerted efforts to eliminate ISIS and related zealots who seem to know no pity, no reason, and no limits. I do not write here to opine on the need for or limits on military action. I only point to the “just war” teaching of the Church as a guide for such actions. Obviously, there is a clear and present threat that needs to be repulsed, even with force.
But perhaps, too, given our present experiences, we should not be so quick to condemn the similar outrage and calls for action that came from Christians of the Middle Ages, who also suffered widespread atrocities. The Crusades were a reaction to something very awful and threatening, something that needed to be forcefully repulsed. Many if not most of the great saints from that period called for Crusades, preaching them and supporting them. This includes the likes of St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Francis of Assisi.
Seldom are historical events identical to present realities. But our current experiences give us a small taste of what Christians, from the 8th century through the Middle Ages, experienced. Their response need not be seen as sinless or wholly proper. Armed conflict seldom ends without atrocities, a good reason to set it as the very last recourse. Most popular presentations of the Crusades are arguably more influenced by anti-Catholic bigotry than historical fact.
With all this in mind, I’d like to look at the Crusades using excerpts from an article by Paul Crawford, published a few years back at First Principles, entitled, Four Myths About the Crusades. In the excerpts that follow, his text is in bold, black italics, while my comments are in plain red text. The full text of his excellent, though lengthy article can be read by clicking the link above.
For a longer treatment of this subject, please see Steve Weidenkopf’s book The Glory of the Crusades, recently published at Catholic Answers.
For now, let’s examine Crawford’s article and detail four myths of the Crusades:
Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.
By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.
What had happened? … The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory. … Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. … Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus … toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. … [A]ttacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them. … The Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack. … Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed …
In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews. … Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine.
Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks. … finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Pope Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade.
Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive.
It is difficult to underestimate the losses suffered by the Church in the waves of Muslim conquest. All of North Africa, once teeming with Christians, was conquered. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa. Today, the Christian Church there exists only in ruins buried beneath the sand and with titular but non-residential bishops. All of Asia Minor, so lovingly evangelized by St. Paul, was lost. Much of Southern Europe was almost lost as well. It is hard to imagine any alternative to decisive military action in order to turn back waves of Muslim attack and conquest.
Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.
Again, not true. Few crusaders had sufficient cash both to pay their obligations at home and to support themselves decently on a crusade. From the very beginning, financial considerations played a major role in crusade planning. The early crusaders sold off so many of their possessions to finance their expeditions that they caused widespread inflation. Although later crusaders took this into account and began saving money long before they set out, the expense was still nearly prohibitive.
One of the chief reasons for the foundering of the Fourth Crusade, and its diversion to Constantinople, was the fact that it ran out of money before it had gotten properly started, and was so indebted to the Venetians that it found itself unable to keep control of its own destiny. Louis IX’s Seventh Crusade in the mid-thirteenth century cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown.
The popes resorted to ever more desperate ploys to raise money to finance crusades, from instituting the first income tax in the early thirteenth century to making a series of adjustments in the way that indulgences were handled that eventually led to the abuses condemned by Martin Luther.
In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted. Most medieval people were quite well aware of this, and did not consider crusading a way to improve their financial situations.
Crawford states elsewhere that plunder was often allowed or overlooked when Christian armies conquered, in order that some bills could be paid. Sadly, plunder was commonly permitted in ancient times, but it was not unique to Christians. Here again, we may wish that Christian sentiments would have meant no plunder at all, but war is seldom orderly, and the motives of every individual solider cannot be perfectly controlled.
The bottom line remains that conducting a crusade was a lousy way to get rich or to raise any money at all.
Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.
This has been a very popular argument, at least from Voltaire on. It seems credible and even compelling to modern people, steeped as they are in materialist worldviews. And certainly there were cynics and hypocrites in the Middle Ages—medieval people were just as human as we are, and subject to the same failings.
However, like the first two myths, this statement is generally untrue, and demonstrably so. For one thing, the casualty rates on the crusades were usually very high, and many if not most crusaders left expecting not to return. At least one military historian has estimated the casualty rate for the First Crusade at an appalling 75 percent, for example.
But this assertion is also revealed to be false when we consider the way in which the crusades were preached. Crusaders were not drafted. Participation was voluntary, and participants had to be persuaded to go. The primary means of persuasion was the crusade sermon. Crusade sermons were replete with warnings that crusading brought deprivation, suffering, and often death … would disrupt their lives, possibly impoverish and even kill or maim them, and inconvenience their families.
So why did the preaching work? It worked because crusading was appealing precisely because it was a known and significant hardship, and because undertaking a crusade with the right motives was understood as an acceptable penance for sin … valuable for one’s soul. The willing acceptance of difficulty and suffering was viewed as a useful way to purify one’s soul.
Related to the concept of penance is the concept of crusading as an act of selfless love, of “laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As difficult as it may be for modern people to believe, the evidence strongly suggests that most crusaders were motivated by a desire to please God, expiate their sins, and put their lives at the service of their “neighbors,” understood in the Christian sense.
Yes, such concepts ARE difficult for modern Westerners to believe. Since we are so secular and cynical, the thought of spiritual motives strikes us as implausible. But a great Cartesian divide, with its materialist reductionism, separates the Modern West from the Middle Ages and Christian antiquity. Those were days when life in this world was brutal and short. Life here was “a valley of tears” to be endured as a time of purification preparing us to meet God. Spiritual principles held much more sway than they do today.
Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.
Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before Pope Urban declared the First Crusade. They needed no incentive to continue doing so. But there is a more complicated answer here, as well.
The first Muslim crusade history did not [even] appear until 1899. By that time, the Muslim world was rediscovering the crusades—but it was rediscovering them with a twist learned from Westerners. In the modern period, there were two main European schools of thought about the crusades. One school, epitomized by people like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, and in the twentieth century Sir Steven Runciman, saw the crusaders as crude, greedy, aggressive barbarians who attacked civilized, peace-loving Muslims to improve their own lot. The other school, more romantic, saw the crusades as a glorious episode in a long-standing struggle in which Christian chivalry had driven back Muslim hordes.
So it was not the crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. … Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the crusades.
Yes, this is the strange, self-loathing tendency of the dying West to supply our detractors and would-be destroyers with ample reason to detest us.
I am interested in your thoughts. I don’t think it is necessary to defend the Church’s and the Christian West’s series of Crusades vehemently. There are many regrettable things that accompany any war. But fair is fair; there is more to the picture than many, with anti-Church agendas of their own, wish to admit.
And to those secularists and atheists who love to point out “how many have died as a result of religious wars and violence,” I say, “Recall how many died in the 20th century for secular ideological reasons.” English historian Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, places the number at 1oo million.
Does this excuse even one person dying as the result of religious war? No. But violence, war, conquest, and territorial disputes are human problems not necessarily or only religious ones. Our current sufferings at the hands of radical Muslims show the problem with simply doing nothing. Life is complex; not all decisions are perfect or precisely carried out. Lord, help us, and by miracle convert our enemies.
Painting: The Preaching of the Crusades from Wikipedia Commons
This video shows some of the Christian ruins in North Africa, including the See of St Cyprian of Carthage.
True sanctity does not easily fit into our notions of being merely nice or humble. The lives of the actual saints of the Church exude joy and can bring great encouragement to many around them. But it is also true that the great saints were irksome and unsettling to many. Most of the great saints had encountered the holiness of God and wanted to see that holiness be like a fire cast on the earth. When you really want to please God rather than men, you’re not going to be easily silenced in the face of sin and injustice, nor will you be engaging in pleasantries that merely cover over sin.
Catharine Benincasa was such a soul. We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. And though renowned for her love, generosity, and humility, as well as her power to heal, console, and cast out demons, she was no shrinking violet. If she saw something in your soul that was unholy, you were going to hear about it. And it didn’t matter who you were.
St Catherine would meet with anyone from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes, and none of them were denied her love and encouragement. Neither were they spared the hard truths that God gave her to say. Only God was to be pleased, not man. Spiritual truths were to be extolled over every temporal matter like safety, comfort, and pleasing the powers-that-be.
She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father (“Babbo” in her native Tuscan) could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.
Of special significance for our time is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he himself led an exemplary life in many respects, he was a weak, shy, even cowardly man. He was deeply compromised by his temporal ties to power, wealth, and protection, without which he feared he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem, as his own family members kept him wound around their fingers.
Most of the early popes died as martyrs. But by the time of the Avignon Papacy, the popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” Instead of facing their opponents boldly, preaching the gospel, and refusing to be afraid, they had fled to Avignon and had been in residence there for decades, living behind fortified walls, protected by armies, and compromised by alliances with secular rulers. It had to stop.
Gregory XI was the last of the Avignon popes, but he only returned to Rome at the prodding of a young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to “man up.” Perhaps most disconcerting to him was the fact that she seemed to know of a secret vow he had made to God that if he were to be elected Pope he would bring the papacy back to Rome. How could she know? But she did. Yet after all, was that not why he sought her advice? She knew God, and fearful though her words were, they were compelling, for he knew that God was speaking to him through her. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, he left for Rome.
I want to produce here some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI just prior to 1377. I think her words speak to the clergy of today. The specific issues that beset clergy today are somewhat different, but not that different. The Church no longer commands extensive temporal power or rule. But too many (though not all) clergy still exhibit a need to “man up” when it comes to teaching with clarity and authority. And too many clergy, pastors in parishes, and bishops in dioceses, are unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties, ever.
St. Catherine confronts this tendency in her letter and does not, to put it mildly, regard this favorably. She sees it as mired in self-love and in the refusal to suffer with the Lord, who died for us at our hands rather than lie to us. She uses the image of a wound that needs to be cauterized with hot irons rather than soothed with oil. But the weak clergy who do not want to hear the cries of protest use only oil to soothe, even though this does not heal and in fact only leads the wound to get worse and in the end cause death. Such malpractice is rooted in self-love, not true zeal to heal and prevent spiritual death.
Well, I have already said too much; I will let Saint Catherine speak for herself. If you think my blogs are long, try reading St. Catherine’s letters! I present here only excerpts of a much longer letter to Pope Gregory; she wrote several others, too. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa
In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary: To you, most reverend and beloved father in Christ Jesus, your unworthy, poor, miserable daughter Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, writes in His precious Blood … the soul is constrained to love what God loves and to hate what He hates. Oh, sweet and true knowledge, which dost carry with thee the knife of hate, and dost stretch out the hand of holy desire … [But if a prelate] sees his subjects commit faults and sins, and pretends not to see them and fails to correct them; or if he does correct them, he does it with such coldness and lukewarmness that he does not accomplish anything, but plasters vice over; and he is always afraid of giving displeasure or of getting into a quarrel. All this is because he loves himself. Sometimes men like this want to get along with purely peaceful means.
I say that this is the very worst cruelty which can be shown. If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.
Oh me, oh me, sweetest “Babbo” [a term of affection in her native Tuscan which translates roughly as “Papa”] mine! This is the reason that all the subjects are corrupted by impurity and iniquity.
Oh me, weeping I say it! How dangerous is that worm [of self-love] we spoke of! For not only does it give death to the shepherd, but all the rest fall into sickness and death through it.
Why does that shepherd go on using so much ointment? Because he does not suffer in consequence! For no displeasure visits one and no ill will, from spreading ointment over the sick; since one does nothing contrary to their will; they wanted ointment, and so ointment is given them.
Oh, human wretchedness! Blind is the sick man who does not know his own need, and blind the shepherd-physician, who has regard to nothing but pleasing, and his own advantage—since, not to forfeit it, he refrains from using the knife of justice or the fire of ardent charity! But such men do as Christ says: for if one blind man guide the other, both fall into the ditch. Sick man and physician fall into hell.
Such a man is a hireling shepherd, for, far from dragging his sheep from the hands of the wolf, he devours them himself. The cause of all this is, that he loves himself apart from God: so he does not follow sweet Jesus, the true Shepherd, who has given His life for His sheep.
Truly, then, this perverse love is perilous for one’s self and for others, and truly to be shunned, since it works too much harm to every generation of people.
I hope by the goodness of God, venerable father mine, that you will quench this in yourself, and will not love yourself for yourself, nor your neighbor for yourself, nor God; but will love Him because He is highest and eternal Goodness, and worthy of being loved …
O “Babbo” mine, sweet Christ on earth, follow that sweet Gregory (the Great)! For all will be possible to you as to him; for he was not of other flesh than you; and that God is now who was then: we lack nothing save virtue, and hunger for the salvation of souls.
… Let no more note be given to friends or parents or one’s temporal needs, but only to virtue and the exaltation of things spiritual … have that glorious hunger which these holy and true shepherds of the past … hungered and famished for the savor of souls.
… Following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man … Fear not; for divine aid is near. Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds, good rulers, in your cities—since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion.
Give us, then, a remedy … Press on, and fulfill with true zeal and holy what you have begun with a holy resolve, concerning your return, and the holy and sweet crusade. And delay no longer, for many difficulties have occurred through delay, and the devil has risen up to prevent these things being done, because he perceives his own loss.
Up, then, father, and no more negligence! Raise the gonfalon of the most holy Cross, for with the fragrance of the Cross you shall win peace.
We await you with eager and loving desire. Pardon me, father, that I have said so many words to you. You know that through the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh … I beg you to do what you have to do manfully and in the fear of God … Remain in the sweet and holy grace of God. I ask you humbly for your blessing. Pardon my presumption, that I presume to write to you. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love [Letter to Gregory XI, quoted in Letters of Catherine Benincasa pp. 49-51].
Such words still ring true in our day! For too many today in the Church would use the “oil” of accommodation to the culture today, a culture filled with sexual confusion, in which disposable marriages and easy grace without repentance are demanded. To heal such wounds, the cauterizing of the hot iron of truth is needed. Applying the oil of consolation may meet with fewer protests from those who are sick from lies, but in the end this does not help heal the putrefying wounds. Despite the protests, only the hot iron will do.
It’s time for clergy to man up and apply the more difficult medicines. May the upcoming synod show forth the vigor and courage to which St. Catherine summons us.
Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy of today, with that same fortitude and determination to do what really heals, even if the current age protests.