Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, “The Church knows after 1900 years’ experience that any institution which suits the spirit of any age will be a widow in the next one” (War and Guilt, OSV Press, 1941, pp. 138-139).
This is a clear admonition to the many who demand that the Church update her teachings, particularly (1) her moral doctrines, and (2) the dogma that salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ. Some say that the Catholic Church is hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Some point out that even her own members disagree with a large number of her teachings. But the role of the Church is not to reflect the age or even the views of her members; it is to represent the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. The Church cannot love or admire the world if she is to remain the Bride of Christ. Scripture says,
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Much is made of the declining numbers in the Catholic Church. The loss over the past fifty years has been staggering. Today, fewer than one fourth of Catholics attend Mass each week. But if the Church were to become the world, the number of Catholics would go to zero. Mainline Protestant denominations have tried just this method—giving the world what it wants—and their services are far emptier than our Masses. Some of them are in so steep a decline that it is hard to imagine them even existing in twenty years except on paper or in tiny pockets.
As Sheen notes, the Catholic Church brings two millennia of experience to this modern problem. That experience says, in effect, “This too shall pass.” In the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, nations come and gone, heresies have flourished then decayed, enemies have advanced and then retreated; but we are still here preaching the same gospel. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Union now? They are all gone. So shall it be with the scoffers and deceivers of this age. When this present foolishness has passed, the Church will still be here, preaching, teaching, and celebrating the sacraments.
The teachings of Scripture stretch back some 5,000 years to the earliest writings. They have perdured for a reason: they are true, and they work to bring us the greatest fulfillment possible in this world. These time-tested truths wait patiently while trends and popular notions pass away like mist at dawn.
In Sheen’s time he spoke of the Church knowing this truth, which implies that this was widely understood by Catholics of his era. Sadly, that is less true today, when many in the Church—right up to the highest levels in the hierarchy—have tried to adapt, compromise, and even discard ancient, tested doctrines in favor of worldly preferences, errors, and trendy notions. Many people today, even within the Church, need to rediscover Sheen’s maxim.
I. The Place – Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
The name of the city, Nain, means fair (in the sense of beautiful)—and it was, for it sat upon a high hill and commanded a magnificent view.
This is an apt description of this world as well, which has its beauty, its magnificent vistas, and its pleasures and offerings. As men and women of faith, we ought to appreciate the beauty of what God has created. It makes God angry, to quote Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “when you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” God has given us many gifts and the mystic in all of us is invited to wonder, awe, gratitude, and serene joy.
Thus, we have the first prescription for peace. The world, with all its woe, never loses the beauty of God’s glory. Appreciating this brings serene peace even in the midst of storms. God is always present and speaking to us in what He has made and is continually sustaining.
II. The Pain – Fair though this world is, the very next thing we encounter in the text is pain: As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her.
Indeed, we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. God had made paradise for us, and while we cannot fully understand what that paradise would have been like, it is clear that Adam and Eve were driven from the best of what God had made.
Adam was told that the ground was now cursed on account of him; it brought forth thorns and thistles in a kind of protest. For Adam, work became arduous and sweat-producing; a kind of battle set up, pitting him against the forces of nature in order to provide for his basic needs.
Having simple sobriety about this provides a strange kind of serenity. If we are willing to accept them, there are certain hard truths that will set us free. One of those is that life is hard. Joy will come with the morning light, but some nights of weeping must be endured as we journey to our heavenly homeland where sorrows and sighs are no more.
Accepting the pain of this world is the second part of the prescription for peace in a world of woe.
III. The Portrait of Jesus – When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her. This woman’s sorrow becomes His own. While there is a mystery to God’s allowance of suffering, we must never think that He is unmoved or uncaring.
There is a saying (attributed to various sources) that “Jesus didn’t come to get us out of trouble; He came to get into trouble with us.” Yes, He takes up our pain and experiences it to the utmost. An old hymn says, “Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done; There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, No, not one! No, not one!”
Note that the word pity comes from the Latin pietas, a word for family love. Jesus looks at this woman and sees a sister, a mother, a dear family member, and He is moved with family love.
Learning to trust in Jesus’ love for us, especially when we suffer, is a critical part of the prescription for peace. We need to pray constantly in our suffering: “Jesus I trust in your love for me!” If we pray this in the Holy Spirit, it brings peace.
IV. The Preview – [Jesus] said to her, “Do not weep.” He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
We have here a directive from Jesus not to weep. That directive is rooted in what He plans to do. This is more than a human, “Cheer up. Don’t be sad” sort of exhortation. Jesus is about to give her back her son. Based on this fact, He says, “Do not weep.”
In a very moving line we are told simply, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Do you realize that one day the Lord will do this for you? Jesus will return and restore everyone and everything that the devil and this world have stolen from us. It will all be given back and more than we could ever imagine will be added to it.
In my own life the Lord has given me victories over sufferings and setbacks. I have experienced healings and restorations, as I’m sure you have. These are previews; they are down payments, if you will, on the total restoration that the Lord is going to effect in your life. Whatever you have lost, you will recover it all and far more besides.
What previews have you had in your life? What victories? What healings? What restorations? These are like previews of the promised and more-than-full restoration that is to come. What is your testimony?
It is important for you to reflect on the previews the Lord has already given, for these are another important part of the prescription for peace: the promise of complete restoration and the previews he has already given of that promise.
Here, then, is a prescription for peace in a world of woe:
Make the journey to Nain, a place called fair and beautiful. That is, let the Lord open your eyes to the beauty and blessings all around you. Come to see the magnificence of His glory on display at every moment. It will give you peace and serene joy.
Ask for the grace to accept that we currently live in a “paradise lost” and that life is hard. This sober acceptance of life’s sorrows brings a paradoxical serenity because our resentment that we do not live in a perfect world goes away. Accepting that this world, with all its beauty, also has hardships, brings peace and a determination to journey to the place where joys will never end.
Accept the Lord’s love for you even amidst His mysterious allowance of suffering. Accept that He is deeply moved and just say over and over, “Jesus, I trust in your love for me.”
Be alert to the previews that God gives and has already given you, previews of the future glory that awaits the faithful. Once you have accepted this evidence, this testimony from the Holy Spirit, peacefully accept the Lord’s instruction not to weep and His promise that you will recover it all—and much more besides.
This motet from Night Prayer is by John Shepherd. The translation of the Latin text (In pace, in idipsum dormiam) is “In peace, in the self-same, I will rest.”
On this Feast of St. Cyprian, a classic writing by St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on the fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to have God (and the things waiting for us in Heaven) as our highest priority.
In this meditation, St. Cyprian has in mind the Book of James and the Epistle of St. John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts are present in his mind as he writes. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian, it may be good to reference these forceful and uncompromising texts:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:4,8).
The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).
And St. John also adds,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Nothing is perhaps so difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, as being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us by their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” For who can really say that he has no love for the world?
We may, however, be able to find temporary refuge in some distinctions. The adulterous love of attachment and the preference for the world over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet surely the love for what is good, true, and beautiful in the world is proper. St. Paul speaks of those things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).
However, our distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us with full cover, since we also know that the adulterous love of this world is still aplenty in our soul, however much noble love we also have. And the lust of the world is more than willing to sacrifice the good, the true, and the beautiful (not to mention God himself) for baser pleasures.
Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to achieve remarkable poverty of spirit long before departing this world, most of us are not ultimately freed from the lust of this world until God uses the dying process itself to free us. Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength, and looks begin to fade as we age. And as old age sets in, we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, and maybe the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing, and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults; complications begin to set in.
For those who are faithful (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner as well as some family members), it begins to become clear that what matters most is no longer here in this world, that our true treasure is in Heaven and with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. For those who are faithful, slowly the lust of this world dies as we let God do His work.
Yet too many, even of those who believe, resist this work of God. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial of and resistance to what is inevitably coming. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that we can hold on to this world, and some people try to tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping, clinging fear, rooted in a lack of faith and little desire for God.
And this is where we pick up with St. Cyprian:
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!
Instead we struggle and resist [death] like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here, than reign with Christ.
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?
John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live for ever.
Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.
Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.
We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.
What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!
There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314).
Remember the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Prepare to meet God eagerly; run toward Him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for Himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious, and confident—eager to go and meet God?
The three parables in this Sunday’s lengthy Gospel challenge conventional thinking. They describe people doing things that we most likely would not do. All three of them – especially the first two – seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep does or what the woman with the lost coin does? Probably no one. Likewise, the father in the Prodigal Son parable breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality to it. No father in Jesus’ time would ever have tolerated such insolence from his sons. So all three of these parables, on one level, are just plain crazy.
But that is one of the fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here: The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” By that I do not mean that it is irrational but that it stretches the limits of human thinking.
I also intend no irreverence in my use of the word “crazy.” Please permit me a bit of hyperbole in trying to describe the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. Permit, too, my stepping away from the normal interpretation of these parables. The typical approach is to try to make sense of them through certain presumptions, but I wonder if that approach does not miss the Lord’s truer intent: presenting His love for us as mysterious and to some degree unexplainable in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond our ability to comprehend. It transcends human concepts. Thank God! If He were like us, we’d all be in trouble; frankly, we’d all be in Hell.
Let’s look at each parable in turn. (The Gospel is too lengthy to reproduce in this post; you can read the entirety of it here: Luke 15.)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep – The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one that is lost. Would a shepherd do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. If he knew the lost sheep were nearby, a shepherd might venture over the next hill, but it would be more likely that he would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Some of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine to search for the one.
Many scholars and Church Fathers believe that the “ninety-nine” refers to the angels the Lord left in Heaven and the one lost sheep refers to us. Yet, if that be the case then why does the Lord describe the shepherd as leaving the ninety-nine “in the desert”? There are many other theories as well, but I wonder if they all do not miss the point: God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even more when we stray. He intensifies His focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous—possibly enabling. God’s love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.
The Parable of the Lost Coin– A woman loses a drachma. It’s a small coin, worth perhaps a day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms it would equate to less than $100. It’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s not a huge amount, either. Some speculate that it was a special coin, perhaps one from her wedding headdress, but the parable does not say that. At any rate, she sweeps the floor diligently looking for it, a reasonable reaction. I’d probably look around a while for a missing $100 bill!
Things get crazy, though, when she finds it. She rejoices to such an extent that she spends most (if not all) of it on a party celebrating its recovery! Crazy!
That is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh His love for us in terms of whether or not it is “worth it.” Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value, but trying to make sense of it may well miss the point.
This woman is crazy because God is “crazy.” His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son – A young man, entitled by law to a third of his father’s estate, essentially tells his father to “drop dead.” He wants his inheritance now and the old man isn’t dying quickly enough. Incredibly, the father gives it to him!
Crazy! The father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over for serious punishment for such dishonor. Inheritance in hand, the son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land,” where he sinks so low that he ends up envying pigs. He comes to his senses and returns to his father, daring only to hope to become one of his father’s hired workers.
Then it gets even crazier! The father sees his son from a long way off (meaning that he was looking for him), and then does something a nobleman would never do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman because it would imply that he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive. Further, in order for a man to run in the ancient world, he first had to “hike up” his long flowing robe. Otherwise, his legs would get tangled up in the garment and he would likely trip and fall. For a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity.
Do you get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy! Do you know what this son has done? Does he deserve this humble love? No! The father is crazy!
Exactly! The heavenly Father is “crazy” too. He actually loves us and humbles Himself for us. He even sent His own Son for us. Do we understand what we have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy!
The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party being given for his wayward brother, he refuses to come in. Again, it would have been unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to come when summoned by his father. And what does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him to enter!
Again, it’s crazy! It’s unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever have permitted his son to speak to him in this way. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders; he refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting, saying that he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But—pay attention here—our goal in life is not celebrate with our friends; it is to celebrate with the Father in Heaven.
This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it means to refuse to do what God says? Yet we do it every time we sin! Our heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are His creatures. If He wanted to, He could squash us like bugs! But He does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons be taught a lesson? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? All our human thinking kicks in when we hear this parable.
But God is God, not man. There are other Scriptures that speak of God’s punishments, but in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. Jesus’ point in this parable is that God is merciful, and His love is crazy; it makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.
Most of us who fly with any regularity have learned to tolerate airline food. Frankly it isn’t terrible, but we all know something better. It’s too bad the plane can’t stop at a nice restaurant, but I guess that would defeat the main purpose of flying: getting to our destination quickly. Most people aren’t willing to slow down to get something better.
But that is exactly what the Church bids us to do on Sundays: slow down, go to Mass, and receive the bread of finest wheat, the Eucharist. It does require us to “detour” from the world, to remove ourselves for a while from all its rushing about and come for the best meal, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Enjoy this unusual commercial that envisions more satisfying food on planes:
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Slowing Down for the Best of Meals as Seen in a Commercial
One of the things that I have learned about myself, and humans in general, is that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles. Some people are very passionate; this makes them dedicated and driven to make a difference. But it also makes them prone to anger or depression. Their passion in one area (e.g., truth, justice) can cause difficulties with passions in other areas such as sexuality, food, or drink. Passionate people can inspire others and are often great leaders. But they also run the risk of crashing and burning, whether emotionally or morally.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider those who are very relaxed and steady emotionally. They are thoughtful, thinking and acting deliberately. They are calm under pressure, not easily excited. They make good diplomats; they are the sort to bring conflicting parties together. But such people may often struggle to maintain integrity. Sometimes they make too many compromises and forget that there are things that are worth being angry about, worth fighting for. If a person never gets worked up, it could be because he doesn’t care enough about important issues. There’s a saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
This is part of what makes human beings complex and fascinating. There is a certain tipping point at which a virtue becomes a vice either by excess or defect. St. Thomas Aquinas said, In medio stat virtus (Virtue stands in the middle).
And thus in our example here of the passion of anger, the virtue to be sought is meekness. Aristotle defined meekness as the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough.
The unusual commercial below shows an example of underwhelming joy. It is humorously portrayed in a perfectly deadpan way. But like anger, joy indicates a zeal for what is good, true, and beautiful (even if the subject is just shoes). It is certainly a virtue to be emotionally balanced, avoiding silliness and frivolity. But the strength of a stable and balanced personality can too easily become indifference about things that are important and should bring joy.
Think of someone you love. I’ll bet the thing you like most about him or her is often the very thing that frustrates you the most. Now think about yourself. What are your strengths? Are they not in fact closely related to the areas in which you struggle the most?
Enjoy this humorous commercial. In his subdued joy, is he exhibiting admirable control or is his heart dull? Is this virtue (balance) or is it a defect?
In the Office of Readings this week we read from a sermon of St. Bernard, who was preaching to his monks and priests. He called them to mount the watchtower of their pulpits and, having listened to the Word of God, warn His people of threats to their salvation. Let’s sample from the sermon and ponder its meaning for us.
I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation. Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path (Sermo 5 de diversis,1-4; Opera omnia. Edit. Cisterc. 6, 1  98-103).
St. Bernard reminds these ancient preachers that some people will accept the words of the Lord while others will condemn them as foolish, hard, unreasonable, and harsh. Today it is common for many in the world to attack teachings of the Church and Scripture—particularly those regarding human life and sexuality—as harsh, unkind, and even hateful. They flee to what St. Bernard calls the “pathetic consolations” of the world, which affirm and even celebrate deeply sinful things such as abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide.
What are we to do in the face of this widespread rejection of the Lord’s words? St. Bernard says that we should imitate Lady Wisdom, who cries out to call us back. we must cry out in the “broad and spacious way” that leads to the damnation of the second death; we must call them back and away from the pathetic lies and false consolations of a world gone mad.
[The Lord] calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem (Ibid).
Too many bishops, priests, deacons, and parents fear rejection and fail to rebuke. “Someone might get upset or angry,” we say. Too easily do we fear losing the esteem of man and fret over being in conflict with others. Courage, fortitude and serene confidence in the Word of God seem to be gone from the heart of too many Catholic leaders.
St. Bernard says that we should speak to the heart of others. This means that we should appeal to a person’s conscience, to that better self that is buried beneath rationalization, deception, and self-justification. Deep down inside everyone is his conscience, where the voice of God echoes; to that we must consistently appeal.
St. Paul says, We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2). This is the work, the battle, of every preacher, parent, and leader.
Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me (Ibid).
The image of a watchtower reminds me of a pulpit. Our pulpits used to be high places; we had to climb up a good number of stairs to reach them. While this was often necessary for audibility before there were microphones in every pulpit, there was more to it than that. Standing in those older pulpits above the congregation as if in a watchtower, we warned of approaching dangers and summoned our people to battle, describing the enemy, his tactics, and the weapons to be used against him.
Today’s pulpits look more like lecterns; there is little that seems prominent about them. This both affects and reflects modern preaching, which so often fails to warn of the approaching wolf. The good shepherd sees the wolf coming and drives it away, but as for the fearful shepherd, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf pounces on them and scatters the flock (John 10:12). This is emblematic of our times.
I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle. Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses (Ibid).
We must reengage the battle that too many of us have set aside, and this battle must be engaged on every level. Priests have the watchtowers of their pulpits; parents have the watchtower of their table during dinner and of their car when driving with their children. These pulpits must resound again with instruction in the Word of God, with right judgment, with wise counsel, and with sober warning about impending foes and moral dangers.
Use whatever “pulpit” you have as a watchtower. Moral error and foes abound; sound the trumpet of warning. Bestow the medicine of God’s teaching, drawing the faithful to the sacraments, to prayer, and to all that is holy and true.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: An Admonition from St. Bernard and a Summons to Priests and Parents Alike
Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight (Wisdom 9:13-18).
Let’s ponder three reasons for humility and then a prescription for the humble.
1. Our Perceptions – The text says, Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? … and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out? Or who ever knew your counsel, …?
Living in a scientific age and having explained many things that were once mysterious to us, we tend to have an exaggerated idea of what we know. Teenagers often protest to their parents: “I know a few things, too!” Yes indeed, they (and we) do know a few things—a very few things. This is especially true when it comes to the hidden knowledge and counsel of God.
God sees things comprehensively. He lives in the “eternal now”: past, present, and future are all together. Nothing escapes His grasp, and He is able to draw good even out of the great evil we hurl at Him.
The paradox of the cross stands in stark contrast to the thinking of the world. As St. Paul says, the cross is foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews, but to us who believe, it is the wisdom and the power of God (see 1 Cor 1:23-24).
Though at times we are puzzled, none of us can rightfully rebuke God saying, “What are you doing?” God’s ways are often mysterious to us, but He can make a way out of no way and do anything but fail.
We must make frequent acts of humility, especially when things don’t make sense to us. Yes, we must be very humble before God.
2. Our Plans – The text says, For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.
Here, too, there is a tendency for us in the modern age to think that our scientific theories are certain, but over the years many things that were once considered “settled science” have given way in the face of new evidence.
Our plans are often disrupted by external events. The control we crave is ultimately an illusion. So many things we think are under our control are affected by things we cannot control, such as other people or even the next beat of our heart.
Therefore, we must be humble about our plans and deliberations. The Book of James says,
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make a profit.” You do not even know what will happen tomorrow! What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:13-14).
3. Our Passions – The text says, For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
The body can preoccupy us with lesser things. Under the influence of our passions, we are inclined to approve what is pleasing but sinful. We often seek to be affirmed in our errors and predispositions in order to indulge our passions; we deceive ourselves and permit others to do so as well. In humility, we must be willing to be corrected by the Lord through His Word and the teachings of the Church.
Our Plea – Given this threefold basis for humility, the text from Wisdom sets forth our plea, our request for God’s help. Admitting our weakness, we ask for His assistance.
The text says, Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.
While it is possible to know many things without special graces from God (for we are naturally endowed with an intellect), we are limited and often get things wrong. Hence, we seek God’s grace through His Holy Spirit.
Note that four of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit pertain to the intellect: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and counsel. The other three pertain to the will or heart: piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. If we receive these gifts, the text assures us that our paths will be made straight. It does not say that we will become omniscient or even come close to the glory of God’s knowing, but we are assured that we will not utterly lose our way if we are docile to the teaching and promptings of the Holy Spirit.