There is a remarkable statement at the end of the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. It speaks to the unity of the mystical Body of Christ and to the treasury of merit, which extends both backward and forward in time. Hebrews 11 is devoted to reciting the glory of many Old Testament saints. That litany concludes with the following verses:
These were all commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. Since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).
It is astonishing to think that we who live now might have had anything to do with the sanctity and heroism of the saints who came before us, but the text says that without us they would not have been perfected.
How can this be? Simply put, it is because we are all members of the Body of Christ, and Christ transcends time. What we do today touches both the past and the future, for to Christ all things are present in the “eternal now.”
Therefore, consider well that whenever you offer your sufferings or prayers or good works, you are contributing to the treasury of merit from which people of all time may draw. Whatever we do to contribute to this treasury of merit has always been known to the Lord and is always present to Him.
Of this treasury, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
The ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.
This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.
In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body [CCC 1476-1477].
Is it possible that I, even if in a tiny way, contributed to the holiness of my patron, St. Charles Borromeo, or of my heroine, St. Catherine of Sienna? Yes, albeit in a small way. My contribution to the treasury of merit is but a drop in the ocean compared to what Christ has provided and the saints have deposited. Yet without us and our contributions they would not be perfect. We all contribute, by the grace of Jesus, to one another’s sanctification.
Ponder, then, the sweeping effect of your contributions to the treasury of merit! Whenever you offer your sufferings to the Lord, whenever you pray, whenever you perform good works, you make available to Christians of every age an additional store of grace on which they have drawn or may draw. All of this is solely by the grace of God, and because of that grace it is a reality.
St. Paul also speaks to this:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you (Col 1:24-25).
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically lacking in the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Christ. It is only imperfect (or incomplete) from our perspective in time, in which each of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, “waits” to bear our sliver of the passion and cross. The Lord, however, isn’t waiting for anything. What we have done, are doing now, or will do in the future has always been present to Him. While our contributions extend forward in our chronological time, they also go backward and are part of the perfect and full treasure of merit on which the members of the Body of Christ have always drawn.
It is awe-inspiring to ponder how we all affect one another over time!
All this said, we ought also to be aware that if we can contribute to one another’s growth in holiness, we can also detract from it and harm others through our sins. It matters whether or not we pray, whether or not we offer our sufferings to the Lord, whether or not we strive for holiness.
We are one Body in Christ. Consider well your role in helping others to be holy. Did your contributions to the treasury of merit help the saints of old to become saints? Even if in a small way and only by the grace of God, the answer is yes, for apart from us they should not be made perfect.
In the video below, one woman’s laughter is infectious, affecting everyone around her. Let’s pray the same for holiness.
On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.
I. The Persecution of Faith – Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.
We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.
Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!
As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!
While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.
The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.
II. The Prayer of Faith – In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.
There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.
III. The Prescription of Faith – In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:
Rise! – The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.
Restrain – The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.
Ready – Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!
Righteous – Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.
Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”
IV. The Procession of Faith – Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:
Not easy – The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.
Narrow – The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.
Need an angel – As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.
V. The Product of Faith – There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).
Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!
Today is the Feast of All Saints. Some saints of the Church have a particular day on the calendar associated with them and are commonly recognized by name. Many more, though not as familiar to us, are still known by God and have been caught up with Him to glory. Today is their day, the day of the countless multitude who have made it home to glory by God’s grace and by their “Amen” to the gracious call of God. Let’s consider these saints under three headings, based on today’s readings.
I. Their Privileged Place: The first reading today, from Revelation, speaks to us of saints: from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” … They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Note how liturgical the description is. In fact, the most common way that Heaven is described is in liturgical imagery. The liturgy is a kind of “dress rehearsal” for Heaven. To those who find Mass “boring,” this description can be challenging.
Indeed, many people today have rather egocentric notions of Heaven. Heaven is a place where I will be happy, where I will see my family, where I will take leisure. I will have my mansion; I will no longer get sick; I can play all the golf I want, etc. Heaven is a “better place.” But this better place is generally understood in very personal terms; it’s a kind of “designer Heaven.” But Heaven is what it is, not what we conceive it to be.
As for the real Heaven, the heart of it is being with God, looking upon His glorious face and thereby having all our inexpressible longings satisfied. In Heaven, the saints behold the glorious face of God and rejoice. It is their joy to praise Him and to rejoice in His truth, goodness, and beauty.
Note, too, both the sense of communion of the saints with God and with one another. The biblical portraits present a multitude, a vast crowd. The biblical way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not to envision physical crowding but rather deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people standing around talking or moving about.
St Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). And though we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another, we will have deep communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love, and sense of how we all complete one another and are one in Christ.
Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.
St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His body. This is all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and one another, all swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).
II. TheirPrize of Perfection:The second reading, from the First Letter of John, says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We cannot even imagine the glory of the saints in Heaven. The Heavenly Father once said to St. Catherine that if she were ever to see a saint in his or her transformed heavenly glory, she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God.
This is our future, if we are faithful. We will reflect the glory of God and be transformed by the look of love and glory. Just one look, and oh, the glory we will reflect, God’s very own glory!
Gotta make a hundred; ninety-nine and a half won’t do. And when God is through with you and me, oh, the glory!
III. The Picture to Ponder:The Gospel today (the Matthean beatitudes) sets forth a kind of picture of what sanctity looks like. The beatitudes are the description of the transformed human person; they describe what happens to us as Jesus begins to live His life in us through the Holy Spirit.
This picture is not one that merely waits for Heaven, but one that is true of us even now as we grow into the likeness of Christ.
I have written more on the beatitudes HERE and HERE. For the purposes of today’s feast, we need to acknowledge that a beatitude is not something we do but rather something we receive. A beatitude declares an objective reality as the result of a divine act.
The present indicative mood of the beatitudes should be taken seriously and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start being poor or meek and then God will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed.
Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and yield to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding, we see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of what a human being is like whom Jesus Christ is transforming into a saint! And this transformation is a growing, stable, deep, and serene beatitude and holiness.
Therefore, today’s feast of all saints does not merely point to the completed saints in Heaven, but to us who would be saints, not just someday in the future but beginning now and in increasing degree.
At the end there will be saints and ain’ts. Which do you choose? As for me, ninety-nine and a half won’t do. I gotta make a hundred.
As we approach the Feast of All Saints this Sunday, we do well to meditate on one of the great English hymns, “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. Its imagery is regal and joyful, its poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. To me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much in the spirit of my father, who loved to memorize things that moved him.
Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and “treasure to be shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
As the hymn begins, we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant. Stated in the first verse is the hymn’s purpose: that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the Lord, they can say, It is finished. Like St. Paul, they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). By their words and deeds, these saints declared to the world His holy and blessed name. They confessed and did not deny Him. To them and us, Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). We, too, are called to take up the cry, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia!
Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life are only possible by the grace of God. Only if God is our rock, our defender, and our strength do we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, Without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only through Christ: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by His light could they have the strength for the battle and garner the victory.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Ah, this is the connecting verse. We here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in Heaven because we are one in Christ. The Body of Christ is one and so we have communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments, unconnected to the saints in Heaven. We are one in Christ. And though we struggle feebly here on earth, we are strengthened by our communion with the saints and the vision of the glory they already share with Him. Referring to the saints in Heaven, the Book of Hebrews says, Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Having gazed heavenward and having derived strength from our mystical communion with the saints in Christ, we now face the trials of the Church Militant and are counseled to have courage.
We are told to be like courageous soldiers, holding firm and loyal to the end. We must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and His truth. So fight we must, nobly, for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. Although it doesn’t always look that way to us, Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us, or even kills us, the victor’s crown awaits all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Now comes a call to courage, rooted in the song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says, I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from Heaven through the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is ours today!
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
For now it is God’s will that we hear the call to fight on. Now we are the Church Militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things, because one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in Heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array. The heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines that describe the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus, passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides!
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
The hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from Heaven to earth and then back to Heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth I will draw all men unto me” (Jn 12:32). So now look, fellow Christians! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to Himself.
Ah, what a hymn! What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life! Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.
This past week, I have been traveling in Europe: Fatima, Lourdes, Avila, and soon enough up to Notre Dame in Paris. What a privilege it is to be in these places so near to the feasts of our Lady of Fatima (10/13) and St. Teresa of Avila (10/15)! Yes, two very important women in my life: Mother Mary and St. Teresa.
Indeed, I have come to realize my need for and indebtedness to the holy women of God’s Church, to those who are living and those who have gone before and set forth a glorious testimony of the feminine genius and mystique of deep, mystical prayer.
Ah, the Holy Women! To be sure, there are also men: St. John of the Cross and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose towns I am also visiting. They, too, have set forth the great mystical vision. But I must say, I am particularly indebted to the great women, to the mystics and Doctors of the Church such as St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Rose of Lima, St. Therese of Lisieux, Sister Faustina, and others who ventured into deep, contemplative, and spousal union with the Lord.
How their deep love, their intensity, and their union with God has inspired me in my own journey toward contemplative prayer! Though I cannot access their spousal love for the Lord, I am able to transpose their experiences to a deep spiritual experience of sonship with God the Father, for He is Abba and I am a son of His.
Ah, the great Catherine of Sienna: her love for the Lord and her wisdom, rooted in both suffering and affliction, joy and ecstasy! She personally met the Lord. What a witness! What a glory! What a testimony the mystics gave us! St. Teresa of Avila: she who encountered the Lord and yet suffered greatly. She was even suspected of heresy and her visions and experiences submitted to the Inquisition.
Alas, Lord, spare us for our suspicious rejection of the normal Christian life!St. Rose of Lima, St. Margaret Mary, and Sister Faustina were considered by many of their contemporaries to be strange, excessive—even possessed! Yet, they knew Him whom they had encountered. They knew His love for them and were willing to suffer with Him and for Him.
Spare us, O Lord,for our obtuseness, our doubt, and our lack of faith in assigning to them, who experienced a normal Christian life, the label of insanity, oddness, extremeness, mental unbalance, and even possession!
They encountered you. They had met you and experienced you. Yet so many of us thought them strange and unbalanced. Forgive us, Lord. Too often have we substituted extreme rationalism for the mystical vision of you, who go beyond mere words and human descriptions.
Forgive us, Lord, for while our intellect is our crowning glory, sometimes we forget that you cannot be reduced to the limits of human concepts.
The mystics remind us of God’s transcendence and we often made them suffer for this.
Yes, Lord, while it is surely our obligation to submit all things to your holy Magisterium, forgive us, Lord, for the times when we have been too slow or skeptical to accept the bold testimony that the mystics gave us: that you are Other and that you draw us beyond what is comfortably understood by us.
Thank you, Lord, for the mystical tradition, for the holy women and men, beginning with John the Apostle, who have testified to us of you, who may have encountered you in ways more deep than words. They suffered much, often at our hands, for their visions, but they knew and would not deny you, whom they encountered.
The intellectual tradition of the Church is magnificent and necessary, but so is the mystical tradition, a tradition not opposed to, or really even distinct from, the intellectual tradition. For the same God is experienced and speaks in both ways. And while all things must be submitted to the sacred Magisterium of the Church, the intellectual and the mystical traditions should both be appreciated and respected.
In particular I must say that as a man, so relentlessly male, I must, despite my gifts as a man, be balanced and completed by the holy women of the Church. Indeed they have been my teachers, especially in the ways of prayer.
Thanks be to God. Some of the most beautiful women I know hang out at the basilica here in Washington D.C. Here is a video I have compiled in gratitude to some very important women in my life:
On this Feast of St. Monica, who prayed at length for her son, I’d like to say that my mother prayed for me, too! And I really needed (and still need) her prayers.
Satan hates priests and seeks above all to get to us. Jesus remarked laconically and pointedly, quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. This is why Satan hates priests and seeks to topple them. Corruptio optime pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst.)
I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, and is now at home with the Lord. She always told me that she was praying for me! I often attributed her prayers to her tendency to worry. But I have learned of the power of her prayers and of their necessity. She told me that the Lord had told her that Satan wanted me and all priests and that she had better pray for me. I never doubted that she did and I’m sure she still does.
I remember once, a week before my ordination in 1989, I was up on the roof of our family house cleaning out the gutters. My mother came out and told me to “Come down from the roof at once!” and that she would hire someone to clean them. She later explained that her concern was that I, so near to my ordination, was now a special target of the Evil One and that I might have fallen from that roof by his evil machinations.
Yes, she always told me she was praying for me. I have come to see both her wisdom and my need for her prayers. I have also come to value the prayers of so many of my parishioners, who have told me that they were praying for me. Yes, I need a hedge of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!
And though my mother has long since gone home to the Lord, I still feel her prayers.Somehow she knew that I needed them in a way that I, in my pride, did not. But I have come to know.
Thanks be to God; I have been a faithful and fruitful priest for 26 years. But I know that it was not I who accomplished this. It was the Lord and so many people, like my mother, who have prayed for me.
Back in my 33rd year of life and my 5th year of priesthood, I was severely attacked by the Evil One. He made his move and sought to discourage and destroy me; he did not succeed. My mother and others were praying for me. My parishioners, too, saw my distress and rallied to pray for me and hold me up. And now, almost 20 years later, I feel strong, alive, joyful, and grateful. Sometimes I’m weary in the work, but never weary of the work.
But I am no fool; I know that Satan will try again. I pray only for the prayers of God’s holy people and for my own sober awareness of the need to pray and to fulfill the mandate of the Lord who said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).
So today on this Feast of Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with crushing burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer. One day you called me down from the “roof” of my pride and told me to keep my feet on solid ground. Yes, you knew and you prayed. You warned me and then prayed some more.
And thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers. They have sustained me. Better men than I are suffering and better men than I have fallen under the burden of office. It is only your prayers that have kept me. Yes, pray, pray, pray for priests! Join your prayers to those of my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, others in the great beyond, and many others still here on this earth. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!
The photo at the top? Yeah, that’s yours truly, in a needy moment; my mom is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location, closer to the Lord. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.
There is a common Protestant claim that there is one (sole) mediator between God and Man—Jesus. Therefore, they say, asking the saints to pray for us is useless, wrong, and maybe even sinful. Those who object, usually cite some of the following texts:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:5).
Come to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24).
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:15).
To this claim, we should first answer that we do not teach a substitutional mediation in invoking the saints, as if we were trying to go to the Father apart from Jesus’ mediation.
Rather, we speak of a subordinate mediation, in which we seek the prayers of the saints, or of one another. For indeed we could have no communion with them or one another if it were not for Jesus Christ, who as the Head of the Body, the Church, unites all His members and facilitates our communion with one another.
Objectors seem to speak of there being one mediator in an absolute sense, excluding any other possible interaction or any subordinate mediation. But consider that if there is only one mediator in an absolute sense, then no one ought to ask ANYONE to pray for him; and neither should the objectors attend any church, read any book, listen to any sermon, or even read the Bible (since the Bible mediates Jesus’ words to you).
A “mediator” is someone or something that acts as a “go-between,” acting to facilitate our relationship with Jesus. And though Jesus mediates our relationship to the Father, He also asked Apostles, preachers, and teachers to mediate, to facilitate His relationship with us.
Thus Jesus sent Apostles out to draw others to him. St. Paul says, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ (Rom 10:14-15, 17).
And thus Jesus has His relationship with us mediated through His Word and through the Apostles and others who announce that Word and draw us to Him.
But since some Protestants say that there is absolutely only ONE mediator, and no subordinate or deputed mediators, there is therefore no need to ask ANYONE or ANYTHING to mediate. So should they not burn their Bibles, stop asking anyone to pray for them, and seek no advice, since NO ONE can mediate a single thing? No one can do this because there is, as they say in an absolutely unqualified sense, only ONE mediator—one and only one.
But for those of us who see that there is a subordinated mediation in service of Christ’s supreme mediation, the prayers of others, preaching, and teaching all make sense. And just as the Bible can mediate His presence and will, or as a preacher can mediate His word, so too can the prayers of others (including the Saints) convey my prayers to Him. And Jesus can mediate my prayers to the Father and give graces to me by mediating them through others.
Consider the analogy of the body, since the Church is Christ’s Body. Jesus has one Body and all the parts are connected through the Head, who is Jesus. Now consider your own body. All the members of your body have communion and unity through your head, your mind. There are different ways to have interaction with others. Perhaps someone will reach you through your ears by speaking, or through the sense of touch by tapping you on the shoulder, or visually by waving. Various members of your body facilitate (mediate) interaction with others in different ways, but it is all facilitated through the head of your body, your mind. So, too, do I confidently expect to reach Jesus in different ways: directly, or through one of His members (realizing that He Himself facilitates it).
And thus for us Catholics, our relationship with Jesus is a rich tapestry of relationships with all the members of His body, those who are with us here and now as well as those who have gone on before us but remain members of the one Body, the Church, with Christ our Head.
In the Office of Readings we are currently sampling from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian. One of those readings earlier this week offered some cautionary notes on what might be termed “reverential reserve” when celebrating the Sacred Liturgy.
Before quoting St. Cyprian, I’d like to make some observations regarding the role of culture and history. Of course, dear reader, you are free to skip my poor musings and jump right to the teaching of St. Cyprian, who outranks me substantially by being a bishop, a martyr, a Father of the Church, and a Saint!
St. Cyprian surely calls for some reserve in prayer, both private and public. But I wonder how to quantify reserve? And how is it related to respect? I have certainly seen and participated in worship experiences that were “over the top.” In such instances the music was too loud, the musicians were more in the role of performers, and the “house was “rocking” more so than praying. In gospel music there is a distinction between Church gospel and “performance gospel.” The first inspires prayer and praise while the second is designed more to please and excite the audience. Christian contemporary music has similar distinctions. Some pieces can be deeply prayerful or stirring works of praise, while others have more of a “listen to me!” quality or even a “pep rally” feel.
Even in more traditional forms like chant, polyphony, and orchestral Masses there have been excesses that the Church eventually weighed in on. Chant, though seemingly the least capable of excess, did have times and schools in which the use of proportional rhythm or overly extended melismata sometimes obscured the text. Gallican Chant was more florid than Roman, and during the late Middle Ages the people of Paris flocked to places like Saint Denis and Notre Dame to hear the increasingly musical chants now sung in organum. It was quite the rage.
During the Polyphonic Age the rich harmonies and often-complex intertwining of parts sometimes overshadowed the text. The borrowing of secular tunes was also problematic. The Church Palestrina helped lead the way back to a simpler form that emphasized the sacred text over the rich harmonies.
Orchestral Masses increasingly grew to resemble operas. The settings, quite musical and elaborate, wowed the worshippers. They were also quite lengthy: some Glorias and Creeds lasted more than twenty minutes. But here, too, some popes (e.g., Pius X) sought to set limits.
As you can see, excess is not just a modern phenomenon.
Searching even further back, we see that even in biblical times worship was an often noisy affair. Nehemiah 8 describes a kind of Liturgy of the Word that featured the people shouting “Amen” during the preaching, falling to the ground, weeping, and so forth. Many of the Psalms directed the people to clap their hands and raise their voices with shouts of joy. Psalm 150 speaks of trumpets, lutes, cymbals, and many other loud instruments that were often used in worship.
Thus we see in all eras a tendency to a certain “excess,” if a respectful reserve is the norm. Indeed, there are some cultures in which sitting quietly to pray seems almost disrespectful. In the African-American congregations in which I have served, it is often said that “God is worthy of our praise!” or, “Hallelujah is the highest Praise,” or “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord … give Him the highest praise.” Charismatic worship has similar features and declarations.
But in every age some limits have had to be found. Even in the earliest days St. Paul had to caution the Corinthians and others to maintain decorum and to set limits on speaking in tongues, prophesying, and so forth. He says to them regarding the Liturgy, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).
And all of this background finally leads us to St. Cyprian, who in the passage quoted below summons us to a kind of sober reserve as the norm for liturgy. In some ways Cyprian, though living in North Africa, displays a kind of Roman temperament and reserve. Latin was his native tongue. And there is, to be sure, a kind of sober reserve evident in the Roman Rite and the Roman prayers, especially the Collects, which are often terse, brief, and quite to-the-point. The whole shape of the Roman Rite is sober and brief. Other forms of this Rite, especially the Gallican and Mozarabic, were far more elaborate and elongated.
And thus St. Cyprian writes from this sort of experience—or so it would seem. But for all of us, his call for reserve can be salutary, even if there are cultural differences that might permit a more demonstrative worship. Consider the words of St. Cyprian as a good reminder that some boundaries are necessary:
Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty–for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it is fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way. …
When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices … And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshipped, O Lord.
Beloved brethren, let the worshipper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple–not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. … and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.
(from the Commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 8-9: CSEL 3, 271-272))
To be sure, Cyprian wrote this as a true Roman. But it is a corrective, or at least a good reminder, for us all. Exuberance has its place, especially in certain cultures, but proper order is also essential. Again, as St. Paul says, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). Amen.