Sermon for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost, 2018
"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities, against the rulers of the world of darkness, against the spirits of iniquity in the heavenly places." So does St. Paul say in the epistle for today's Mass, and so we know it to be in the midst of the current scandal in the Church. The devil is the sure source of the evil carried out by the clergy and especially our prelates, for only he can convince men who once loved the Church, at least on their ordination day, to now seek to destroy her from within; only he can persuade such men that their sins are not really sins, that they should lie and dissimulate and that the lies will never be exposed; only the devil can convince such men that they will escape eternal damnation even if they do not repent. The plan to destroy the Church is of the devil; he found willing accomplices, but he was and is the mastermind, and we should bear this in mind no matter what happens next. The Church is the ark of salvation, the priest acts in persona Christi to offer Mass and forgive sins, the Pope is the rock against which hell will not prevail, and so quite naturally Satan hates all of it and wishes to undermine it and confuse and dishearten all who know the truth and strive to live according to it.
But this teaching of St. Paul is operative on more than just the global level; it also applies to our individual lives, and that is made evident in the Gospel parable. The protagonist of the parable made two significant errors which led to his damnation, and they are two sides of the one truth: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the world of darkness.
Just as the devil has worked hard to divide the Church, so he works to divide our families and our communities. He loves nothing better than to create dissension and distrust between husband and wife, parents and children, priests and their people. The main character in the parable saw his fellow man as an enemy, a person whom he had to throttle in order to reestablish his relationship with God. In fact, it was the devil who encouraged him to harass his friend and create enmity with him, because that served as a larger plan to affect the man's damnation. We too often fall prey to the fallacy that we can be saved by our own efforts, and this in two ways, which reflect the two mistakes the man made. First, we think we can be saved without other human beings. Second, we think we can be saved without God.
The devil tries over and over again to make us think that the person or persons to whom we are bound by blood or vow are actually a hindrance to our salvation. We would be so much better off if only they would change, if only they would grow in virtue or wisdom or holiness, then life would be easier and I would finally prosper. Instead I labor under the burden of this person. How long do I have to endure this? This line of thinking then leads us to strangle our neighbor, trying to exact the pittance they owe us, while we overlook the fortune we owe God.
When St. Augustine wrote his rule of life for himself and the monks living with him, he began the Rule in what seems a curious way. He said that the reason the monks had come together was to live in unity in the house. Not grow in holiness, not fast and pray, not accomplish great works for the Church, but to live in unity. Augustine understood that unity, real unity in Christ, is the mark of holiness and a bulwark against which Satan fights in vain. The Latin words Augustine used to describe this could also be translated as living harmoniously: unanimiter and concorditer.
Based upon this insight of Augustine, the image of an orchestra is a helpful one when considering how Christian unity actually works in a household, a religious community, a business or a group of friends. There is a goal to be achieved: we are all striving for union with God and holiness of life. And yet each of us strives for holiness in a distinct way and brings different gifts and weaknesses, virtues and vices to the common endeavor. It is music with a purpose and a goal, but it is achieved by a variety of instruments, each adding its own voice to the whole: the trombones that are courageous but always flat; the percussionists patient but lacking enthusiasm; the cellos playing perfectly but a bit too proud of that.
In the orchestra that is life there are two principal temptations that arise due to our place in the whole. For those who play first violin—husbands, parents, superiors, managers, older siblings—there is the temptation to force the other musicians to take on the characteristics of the violin, to play in unison rather than harmony, to play with perfect pitch even if it means breaking the spirit of the one playing out of tune. This is not right: yes, the first violin gives the pitch to the rest of the orchestra, yes, it sets the standard for tempo and dynamics, but it is not the only instrument in the group; it is one of many and it is called to lead rather than compel, foster love rather than fear, and humble itself so others may be encouraged to grow and mature. There are not just violins and all other instruments, known as non-violins; there are French horns and trumpets, timpani and oboes, violas and even the triangle. There is one who exalted himself above others and thought his way was the only way, who said, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, … I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” Though the devil has his comrades in evil, the fallen angels, he despises them and merely uses them to attempt to achieve his purpose.
The other temptation is more subtle, for it belongs to the one who plays the tuba in life—the wife, children, the employee, the novice, younger siblings, the subprior. The tuba is very necessary to the orchestra, though it is surely less glamorous than the violin. But because God has made it such that the violin leads and the tuba follows, the tuba can experience the desire to do better, to write, as a friend of mine once did, a solo for unencumbered tuba. But a tuba is good because it is a tuba; it is not good when it acts as if it is a violin. The pride of a tuba is not to despise its subjects and lord it over them, but to second-guess the violin, to murmur under its breath, to complain to others that if only it were first violin, then the orchestra would be truly grand. Remember that according to Tradition the devil rebelled because he objected to God’s plan for the universe, especially the inclusion of man in beatitude.
The prideful violin and tuba both throttle the other instruments just as the man in the parable did, but from different angles. Both forget that it is not they who are directing the orchestra, but God. It is God who puts people into our lives, who sends us our spouse or our siblings, our children, our novices, our superiors, our bosses and employees. It was an adage among the desert Fathers that if one was soft, lazy and gluttonous, that monk should seek a hard and even cruel father to place himself under. We do not necessarily benefit from having persons in our lives like to us in temperament and virtue and desires; we often grow more when people who are contrary to us live with us and work with us, because it draws from us the virtues of patience and charity and longsuffering and courage.
It is God who wishes to unite mankind; it is the devil who wishes to divide us. And so every time we allow pride to intervene in our relationships with others, when we strangle our fellow in order to exact a supposed debt from him, rather than pleasing God, we please the devil. He applauds when we tear others down in our speech or our thoughts, for he knows that by creating division, he will win our souls; he will separate us from the very ones with whom God willed that we should work out our salvation. On the other hand, the remedy to our pride is simple and pleasing to the Lord: to see the good in others, to rejoice in their strengths, to overlook their faults, to pray for the other person each time we are tempted to despise or to complain. The spiritual giant is not the one who throws off his yoke and liberates himself, but the one who keeps struggling to love even when the yoke seems too heavy to bear.
A final point: the Collect speaks of the Church as being God’s family. In a family, there are sometimes cases where a certain member not only has character flaws and vices, but is abusive, and therefore the family members are obliged to separate from that person. Many of our bishops and priests have been abusive fathers, not only in horrible ways which have finally been exposed, but also in promoting heresy, in neglecting their duty, in countenancing moral depravity, in destroying the liturgy, in furthering their own cause; in short, in directing the orchestra rather than playing in it. These men need to go. But we ought not abandon them to the torturers. These men will never be able to repay Christ for the debt they have incurred, but neither will we be able to pay our own debt.
The point of the parable is not that there are some of us who are more righteous and therefore owe God very little and have the right to strangle our neighbor, but that each of us is in the same boat—if it were not for God’s mercy, we would all be handed over to the devil for all eternity. The fall of a priest or bishop, especially if he is to all appearances unrepentant, is something over which to weep, not gloat. Perhaps our tears will win their conversion. In his own battle against the status quo, the prophet Jeremiah once said to the priests, “Hear and give ear; be not proud, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings darkness, before your feet stumble on the twilight mountains, and while you look for light he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness. But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord's flock has been taken captive.” These are the words of a saint. May we strive to imitate him, and in so doing save our souls and the souls of other sinners for whom Christ has shed His blood.
Sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost 2018
“Salus Populo ego sum, dicit Dominus . . .”
I am the salvation of the people saith the Lord: in whatever tribulation they shall cry to me, I will hear them. And I will be their Lord forever. Attend, O my people, to my law. Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.” Most beloved in Christ, with these words the introit has opened the ineffable Paschal Mysteries on this, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.
Judging from the quality of our society, arisen as it has from modern philosophical opinions and driven on by technology – a world become instantaneous, materialistic and superficial – the very concept of God seems to be a merely superstitious relic from the past, hanging on from a different time when man had not been enlightened by science, medicine, and feats of technology, when man had not yet realized he was, as it surely seems in our days, the master of his own destiny.
The proponents of change as both necessary and good – which it is automatically neither one or the other – usually point out how we are in the process of creating a better world, a better society, a world in which our children will live deeper an richer lives.
The problem with this vision is that it is not corroborated by reality. A better society is not one that advocates, for example, the legalized barbarism of mothers murdering their children, or the practitioners of medicine exterminating the terminally ill to name but two examples.
In truth, our world which is sinking more deeply into a dark age of moral depravity each day, rejects, ever more and more, the most fundamental law which governs human conduct: the Natural Law. This is not what scientists refer to when speaking of the laws of nature. Rather, it is that universal law which determines the finality or purpose of all things. This purpose inheres – or belongs intrinsically – to all things according to the nature of each: gravity pulls, teeth are for chewing, language is for communication. The world-wide ascendancy of the acceptability of artificial birth control which has taken place since the 1950’s is a spectacular example of what I am speaking. It is self-evident that sexual activity has, as its natural purpose – its finality according to the Natural Law – the propagation of the human species – even when and if a specific act does not result in fertilization. I say self-evident because the pharmaceutical industry generates its multi-billion dollar business from devotees of artificial contraception precisely because by the use of their products – and far from unawareness as to what sexual acts have for their purpose – they recognize the Natural Law perfectly: such people deliberately choose to violate that law in order to obtain the pleasure of sexual acts while ridding themselves of its purpose and responsibility.
The Church’s teaching on this matter is considerably older than Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. It is older than Christianity itself, but found already explicitly taught in the Didache, the oldest magisterial document known and dating around 90 AD. This teaching is also found consistently down through the ages.
I cite this as but one example of how our modern society has not come of age, but is sinking ever more deeply into a moral abyss indistinguishable from barbarism. The ultimate cause of all our social ills is traceable, without much effort, to society’s attitude towards God and religion. Our world, quite simply, has rejected God in the public order, and claims, at best, that God is your opinion or mine, and thus must be kept in the domain of what is called “private.”
The First Vatican Council teaches in Session Three in its dogmatic constitution concerning the Catholic Faith that “…Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude from created things by the light of human reason,” and anathematizes those who oppose this teaching willfully. Be assured, my beloved, that the Church has not changed, nor has this teaching changed, nor can it change. And whereas God transcends the order which He has created, and therefore human reason can only know Him analogously and imperfectly from the natural world, His existence remains knowable without an act of faith. This fact is arrived at quite naturally by young children – the best philosophers since they are not yet old enough nor corrupted enough to have personal interests to protect through falsified opinions. Children quite easily arrive at the knowledge of God’s existence and so they say, “But something had to make everything.” This is the first cause, itself uncaused, and what is known as God. In a word this God is the source and purpose for our being.
This superficial world in which we are living is certainly not liberated from yesterday’s superstitions: rather it is alienated from the life spring of its own health and salvation. God, knowable by reason and yet Who has splendidly revealed Himself through the Prophets and His Incarnate Son, has been, quite simply, rejected by individuals and entire societies for selfish motives.
Liberation movements whose ends have now developed into legalization of murdering the most helpless members of human society, sexual depravity on a scale hitherto inconceivable in human history, the development of Amazonian women difficult to comprehend and impossible to control, are not indication of better world. Our society’s rupture with its past, its discontinuity with its Christian heritage, the bashing of the Catholic Church and harping on its supposed crimes across the centuries, always judged by the incoherent principles of modernity - are the root causes of underlying today’s massive defection from God and religion. This has permitted the establishment of a new morality predicated on moral license. This is not freedom: it is slavery.
Against this St Paul says in today’s epistle reading, “ Be ye renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man.” He is referring to the very real need for the interior con-version of men’s hearts, the “new man” being none other than the human person who, fallen in nature, is regenerated from sin and death by the waters of Baptism and nurtured in the life of God by sanctifying grace. Yet is this some dark superstition of past centuries? The unenlightened religion of some bygone day? Something which needs overthrowing in order to create a better world?
Certainly not. Christianity is that bright sword of truth which divides – the sons of light from the sons of darkness. And our God, - Jesus Christ – has told us that the Prince of Darkness – Satan – is the Prince of Lies as well. Being as he is the highest angel God created – and angels are pure spirits of pro-found intellectual prowess – Satan’s hatred for God is total. He has worked for centuries in the heart of human civilization to sow error under the guise of truth to bring men to their ruin. This does not become untrue merely because it is politically incorrect to say as much! No merely human power ingenuity could have affected the evils which are now freely legislated and protected by civil states.
“I am the salvation of the people, says the Lord. In whatever tribulation they shall cry to me, I will hear them.” Beloved, God exists, and He calls us to Himself – for our health and salvation. But it is only those who respond to that call who will be saved.
The parable of the wedding feast in today’s Gospel reading is directly connected to this universal call for our health and salvation. But it depends, as we will see, on two factors: the first is that it is God Who has chosen to save man in the first place; the second is that each man, individually, must accept the offer of salvation by an interior and exterior adherence to God who has done the calling. This adherence must be without compromise: that is, each person must submit 100% to God: the Natural Law which He has imbedded in the nature of His creation, to His revealed Law, and to the authentic teaching of the one Church He has founded.
To the idea that everyone will be saved because God would never cast anyone into perdition the church answers: those who are lost have condemned themselves. Jesus Christ – true God and true man – has revealed in to-day’s parable that those who are found at the wedding feast, that is at the gates of paradise at life’s end, without a wedding garment are to be bound hand and foot and cast into the exterior darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is Hell. Elsewhere Jesus says, “Though many are called few are chosen.” The Church has always understood this as meaning many are Baptized and offered salvation, while it is only those who respond in humility and fidelity to grace who will be saved.
St. Pius X once said the true friends of the people are men of tradition. The Catholic religion is, essentially, the tradition of the revelation of the Son of God. It is a divine, revealed Truth coming from Christ, which fits with perfect harmony not the natural world in which we are placed. These truths – nature itself as constituted by God and Divine Revelation as given through Jesus Christ are mediated to us across time through the guardianship of holy Church and her true pastors If we do not stray to the right or left, if we do not listen to the allurements of this world – which are many and insidious – we will come to win our souls by the true Christian way. This consists of our pursuit of virtue at the expense of vice: that we pray and seek true humility of heart that we may know ourselves as God knows us, and that we practice charity towards God and our neighbor for the love of God in that way which places ourselves, and all our sinful tendencies, in lowest priority.
“I am the salvation of the people, saith the Lord.” Most beloved in Christ, let us truly believe what we pray in our worship. Let us turn to God with renewed acts of gratitude and hope. Let us repent from our sins of self-centeredness and forgetfulness of God. In so doing we work out our salvation by the wed-ding garments of grace; the more we receive the sacraments of the Church in humility and charity towards our neighbor the more god will hear us when we cry for His help. This is the way of our faith in this life here below, and the gateway to that bliss which is the reward of the just in the world which is to come.
Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine 2018
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Augustine, the great bishop and doctor of the Church, and the spiritual founder and father of this canonry. His actual feast day is August 28, the day on which he died in 430 and entered the joys of heaven, but we transferred his feast this year, as we often do, so that we could celebrate it with you, our little flock.
As I say every year, there are so many angles to pursue when preaching on this day that if one were to preach on this feast for a lifetime, there would still be things yet to be said about this tremendous and saintly man. This year it seems most fitting to speak about the trials he bore due to the time in which he lived, because it serves to give us perspective about our own days and it should also encourage us that the world and the Church have both known trying times and yet Christ has brought them to better days, even in this world.
Augustine was born into the Roman Empire in its waning days, and spent much of his early years in Italy, most notably in Milan and Rome. When he moved to northern Africa after his baptism, where he became a priest and then bishop, he maintained close ties with Italy via his friends and fellow clerics. In 410, when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, he was 55, at the height of his fame and influence in the Church and in society. And he, like his contemporaries, was deeply shaken by the fall of the city which was a sign of power, stability and peace. As St. Jerome wrote in his commentary on Ezekiel, “When the bright light of all the world was put out, or, rather, when the Roman Empire was decapitated, … the whole world perished in one city, 'I became dumb and humbled myself, and kept silence from good words, …If Rome can perish, what can be safe?”
The sack of Rome led to a sort of chaos in the Western Empire, with the lawful emperor opposed by two usurpers who controlled significant sections of France and Spain, and all but Italy and northern Africa under the hold of no less than seven different barbarian groups. Augustine’s area was saved for a time, but not for long, for as he was dying in 430, his episcopal see of Hippo, together with most of Christian north Africa was being overrun by the Vandals. All his life’s work of building the kingdom of God on earth was being destroyed before his eyes as he prayed the penitential psalms on his bed, weeping. For from the monastery that Augustine founded in 390 had come forth all the bishops of the region who, following in their superior’s footsteps, had lived and preached the Gospel so fervently that it could be argued that northern Africa was a more important center of Christianity at that time than was Italy. And yet, as he died, all the visible traces of his work were burning up, and they were never to be seen again, for what the Vandals left standing, the Muslims razed to the ground and to this day Islam reigns where Christianity once flourished. Thus from a natural point of view, even Augustine’s life and legacy are a parable for earthly fragility and disappointment and yet the one for whom he lived and died, Christ and his Church, lives on even though worldly empires fall. Because he served Our Lord with a pure heart, Augustine also lives on though the world he knew is gone.
In the Church life was no easier for him, for when he was not confronting the heresies of Manicheanism and Pelagianism, he faced a crisis from within the Church itself. Around the year 310, about 45 years before Augustine’s birth, a controversy arose over whether clergy who had wavered in times of persecution retained their powers received at ordination. The Donatist faction, named after their leading bishop, held that such clergy were no longer priests or bishops and they created a rival hierarchy, so numerous in Augustine’s lifetime that in his own province, the Donatists outnumbered the Catholics and held more of the important episcopal cities. He preached and wrote against this division within the Church for thirty years, teaching, as Trent would confirm some thousand years later, that even the unholiest of clergy retain their priestly character, and that even the holiest clergy outside of the visible Church damage her by their rebellion, if it is deliberate. Augustine’s point was that sinners exist in the Church, both among the laity and the clergy, and Christ has told us as much by the parables of the wheat and the weeds and the net that draws in both the good and the bad. We should not be surprised that many within the Church are unworthy, when the Lord said that many are called, few are chosen.
But despite his balance on the issue, Augustine was angry; angry that his flock was torn apart by such men, angry that they refused to admit their error and sin. He said, putting words into the mouths of the unholy priests, “Their answer should be, if they feared God. It was human to be mistaken, it's diabolical to remain in the mistake out of spiteful animosity. It would indeed have been better if we had never gone wrong; but at least let us do the next best thing and finally correct our error. We deceived you, because we were deceived ourselves. We preached untruths, because we believed others who preached untruths.”
When the imperial government decided in favor of the Catholics in 411 and the Donatists were ordered to submit to the Catholic hierarchy, even though the Donatists had caused him such grief and sorrow, he told his people, “We, brothers and sisters, must be patient with them. The eyes we are trying to care for are inflamed and swollen. …We should avoid provoking them to greater bitterness by crowing over them. Let us mildly give a reasonable account of the affair, not proudly brag about victory. The servant of the Lord, says the apostle Paul, should not wrangle, but be gentle with everyone, willing to learn, patient, correcting those who think differently with modesty, in the hope that God would grant them repentance, and they would recover their wits from the devil's snares, by whom they are being held captive according to his will.” Thus in his dealings both within and without the Church, Augustine experienced our pain, he knew our distress, he knew our fear and anger.
So what would the holy bishop say to us today if he were to preach to us? I don’t presume to speak in his place, but as his son in religion and a student of his works, I can guess at what he might say. First, do not be a people of itching ears. In the epistle for today’s feast, St. Paul warns of such people; they are those who not only love novelty, but also those who love controversy, who feed off it and let it replace their prayer. They have no time to read Scripture because they must read the latest news in the Church and in the world. Their ears itch to hear of the downfall of their enemies; their eyes drink in every new headline. And yet they have no time to pray, no time to visit Our Lord in the Eucharist, no time to read the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church; there is only time for controversy and polemic; the internet has replaced the tabernacle. Augustine was not a man of polemics; he engaged in them because he had to; he like Paul, wanted nothing more than to be dissolved and to be with Christ. Let us imitate him rather the spirit of this world.
Second, love one another. It is said of St. John the Evangelist that in the last years of his life when he was in poor health, his disciples would wheel him in to preach to them. And every time he would say the same thing, “Love one another.” Just as Augustine was a true disciple of Paul, so he was also of John. One of his favorite passages of Scripture was Galatians 6.2, Bear one another’s burdens and you will fulfill the law of Christ. For Augustine, if all we ever did was bear one another’s burdens, we would be saved, for that is the totality of what Christ asks of us. And what does that mean? That we bear with one another’s weaknesses, both bodily and spiritual, that we generously suffer one another’s idiosyncrasies, that we learn to love in others what we would despise if it were not for the power of grace, that we do all we can to bring about the salvation of others, without exception. When Augustine preached on this passage, he used the example of deer—whether it is true in nature or not, it is a beautiful image—when they walk in single file, they lay their heads on one another, with only the leader not having a place to rest his head. When he is weary, another takes his place and thus they bear one another’s burdens until they reach their destination. May we imitate the deer, and make constant acts of charity towards one another so that our souls can rest a little in this life, until we reach the place of total peace, our true homeland of heaven.
And third, Seek the face of God. If there is one thing more important to the Christian life than fraternal charity, it the pursuit of God. Though Augustine did many things in this life that shall remain until the end of time, his one great work was to strive after God, to desire to know and possess him as much as is possible in this life. In his work on the Trinity, he wrote, “Perfection in this life is nothing else than to forget those things which are behind, and to reach forth and press in purpose toward those things which are before us. For he that seeks has the safest purpose, who he seeks until he takes hold of the one whom he seeks, and for whom he reaches forth.” Thus there is nothing more perfect than to desire God and to pursue him until our life’s end, by the means of prayer and study. If to seek the face of God is the desire of our heart and drives our every action, we are not far from the kingdom of God; and if we want to desire to seek God, even if we don’t know where to begin, let us ask with tears and pain of heart, and God will not deny our wish.
And so today let us take courage in the example of Saint Augustine, who, though he lived and died nearly 1600 years ago, is very close to us in spirit. Let us cry out to him who lived through so many trials of the Church that he will act as he did so many years ago: with courage, with power, with charity, and that he may, by the grace of God, raise up men worthy of the episcopal office, men who will lay down their lives for their sheep. May Our Lord in the Eucharist console us in our sorrow and weakness, and give us strength to love one another and to always seek his face, that we may look upon it with Augustine and all his saints in the happiness of the world to come, in the New Jerusalem for all eternity.
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Today we mark the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, and the Gospel tells of the well-known story of the paralytic brought to Our Lord by his friends, whose sins Jesus forgave and then whose body He healed. The question Jesus asks, “Which is easier to say?” can be considered from many angles. One obvious meaning is that it is harder to do something than to speak of it. It is easy to say, Your sins are forgiven, or Rise and walk, but it is not easy to effect either of those things. A deeper meaning is that the material is actually easier than the spiritual; Jesus was not concerned with the mere saying of such things, but the doing of them, and He healed the man’s body to show that He could also heal the man’s soul. He did the easier thing so that His disciples and opponents would believe that He could do the harder thing.
Being bodily creatures, we have a tendency to marvel at material feats and disdain the spiritual ones. Men are praised for bench-pressing 400 lbs, for rushing for 200 yds in a game, for hitting 60 home runs in a season, but the men who battle daily with demons are unknown and unappreciated. We fail to value the strength of soul won by persevering in prayer day after day while we concern ourselves with our diet, our physique, our appearance, our bodily comfort. The spiritual is harder to accomplish than the material and therefore it ought to be held in greater awe and striven for more fervently. A simple proof of this is that a man can woo a woman with perfect manners, say all the right things, buy her roses and treat her like a gentleman, and still he can fail to win her heart, for love, like all things of the spirit, is harder to truly possess or control.
Given today’s Gospel, then, we ought to marvel at the wonder of the forgiveness of sins, especially through the sacrament of confession. To have our sins forgiven is greater than having our bodies healed; to bring back a sinner to spiritual health is more amazing than to bring one near death back to health of body. One aspect of confession that can increase our gratitude for it and our wonder at it is the way that it breaks our evil habits and infuses grace and virtue into our souls.
It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that at baptism, we not only receive sanctifying grace and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, we also receive infused virtues to perfect our intellect, will and lower appetites. Thus at baptism, whether of an infant or adult, the person receives such virtues as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. This makes sense because the powers of our soul cannot simply be void of all direction; they necessarily incline to something, and knowing that, God gives us the right inclinations, in a way that perfects our powers.
These infused virtues, however, do not guarantee our good actions; rather, they strongly incline us to good actions fitted to our powers. This is most striking in the case of adult baptism—though that person had been a thief or promiscuous or a glutton, such habits are broken by the sacrament and good ones put in their place. What remains is the acquired habit—the one achieved through repeated actions. That is weakened but not extirpated, and thus the moral life is fundamentally a struggle to get our acquired virtues in line with our infused ones. It is as if God gives us the first part of the loan, and we must produce a matching fund for it all to work correctly.
In Psalm 115, one of the most beautiful in the entire Psalter, the Psalmist says, Domine, ego servus tuus; dirupisti vincula mea; tibi sacrificabo hostiam laudis. Lord, I am Thy servant; Thou hast shattered my chains; to Thee I will offer a sacrifice of praise. Confession is a sort of second baptism, in which we are cleansed from the sins committed since Baptism. In that sacrament, Christ breaks the chains that have been forged by our sinful actions. Since there are so many ways we can err in the moral life, there are also many chains; the beauty and mercy of the confessional is that they are broken each time we enter it with compunction and contrition.
At certain times in our lives, a chain of sin can be broken such that it never is forged again; we can think of the conversion of St. Augustine from unchastity to chastity. But much more common is the chain that is snapped only to be formed again by our bad habits. And the stronger the fetter, the more often it must be broken by the grace of confession. Thus most of us are bound by the chains of pride, of resentment, or acedia; these are spiritual maladies that are at times close to invisible but are the most deadly to our soul. We can hide them and even convince ourselves we don’t carry such bonds, but we must face them honestly.
With this kind of image in our minds, Confession becomes an opportunity to break as many chains as possible, to have Christ infuse into our souls the grace necessary to break the old deadly habits and infuse the new life-giving ones. The more fetters we want broken, the more we should mention in the confessional; the more shameful the chain that binds us, the more it needs to be exposed and snapped apart. For example, many of us are good at appearing kind and humble and forgiving, but we know in our hearts we are not those things—that we often harbor resentment or look down upon others or even despise them. We keep this from our confessor because we want to keep his respect, we say we don’t want to burden him with such commonplace sins and feelings or tell him what he already knows. We should say them anyway; the deadliest sin is not impurity—it is pride and it is so insidious that it hides in our good intentions.
So the more a confessed sin exposes our true character and shows the things no one else knows about our interior life, the more soundly will the chain be broken when we confess it. And if a chain is broken over and over and over again, it can only be repaired so many times before it becomes good for nothing; confession breaks our vices until they cannot form any longer and God’s grace triumphs in our souls. The less often we go, the more do those fetters gain strength and break only with great violence. But when we make the ascetic effort to go frequently, even if we see very little exterior progress from our frequent confessions, they work our salvation despite our sinfulness, for only the power of the sacrament can truly smash the fetters of sin with which we bind ourselves. Some day we will have the joy of experiencing true freedom from sin in our souls, and then we will also see that it was not from our efforts but from God’s grace given so generously through confession. Let us rejoice, then, at the gift of this sacrament, which the Church possesses to the exclusion of all other religions, including the Protestants. Only we have the blessing of this tremendous help in reaching heaven.
Because of this, a final point is that today’s Gospel says Christ healed the paralytic because of the faith of his friends rather than his own faith. Jesus can forgive the sins of others through our prayers for them—we carry them to Christ though they cannot walk themselves. Think of all the ways in which God has drawn us to Himself while we were in sin or uninterested or spiritually asleep; can He not do the same for others, especially when we are begging Him to do so? Thus even though our fallen away loved ones and others whose eternal fate worries us cannot benefit from confession as we can, nevertheless we can bring them to Jesus through our prayer so He can heal them through some means other than the sacraments. And then, through God’s mercy, they may return to the practice of the faith or enter the Church and then know firsthand the spiritual benefits we have known and experienced for years.
May Our Lord, through His holy Body and Blood, today give us the courage and even joy to confess our sins more often and more honestly, and may we also be renewed in our efforts to pray for the salvation of others. God cannot fail to answer such worthy desires of our hearts such that He will bring us ever closer to the place where our hearts will rest and all chains will be broken, in the glories of heaven, in the New Jerusalem.
Sermon for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost 2018
Today’s Gospel about the ten lepers is short but striking and well worth our prayerful attention both now and when we return to our homes. The lepers had faith in Our Lord such that they thought he could heal them; for the lepers were social outcasts and the most profound way Jesus could have mercy on them was to heal them of their leprosy and thus restore them to society. And yet upon being cleansed (Our Lord told them to show themselves to the priests, for that was what a leper had to do upon being healed), only one returned to show gratitude for the favor so freely and generously given. The others went on with their lives and let their routine get in the way of showing proper thankfulness to God. Just as with last week’s parable, the Samaritan gives us an example to imitate, contrary to the expectations of Jesus’ listeners and especially his enemies.
The Samaritan’s action—thanking Jesus for being healed so suddenly and at only a few words from the lepers--shows the beauty and spontaneity of thankfulness. It shows beauty, because as Seneca says, “It is the mark of a good character to attend more to goodness than to evil,” and the thankful person chooses to focus more on the blessings of life than on its negatives, and spontaneity because gratitude arises from love for the one who has bestowed the blessing, and the response to that knows no bounds if the love is sincere and strong.
In speaking about gratitude, St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully speaks of three levels of response to the good things we receive from others, foremost of whom is God, then our parents, then spouses and then friends, and these three levels can assist us in becoming more grateful persons, which is not only a necessity to live an integral moral life, but also because a grateful person is attractive and serves to draw others to Christ and His Church.
The first level of gratitude is to recognize that a favor has been given. This is harder than it seems, for we so often overlook gifts from those we take for granted. In the realm of grace, since most of us are semi-Pelagians of some variety, we do not readily recognize the constant movement of God in our souls, drawing us to conversion, to penance, to prayer, to perseverance. Pelagius’ idea of grace was that it was restricted: God only acts now and again, but not continuously; we can do many good things without Him. In contrast, Augustine argued for the all-pervasive nature of grace—every good thought, inspiration, word, action—all of it is due to God’s movement in our souls. God is much more at work bringing about our salvation than we are. To use just one example: a man falls into mortal sin; he needs to go to confession. God is the origin of the man’s sorrow over his sin, his desire to be forgiven, his confession, his absolution, and his doing of penance. A Pelagian thinks that God intervenes only at the time of the absolution; a Catholic believes that God is at work through the entire process, and therefore he is thankful for each movement of grace along the way.
Thus for most of us the first movement of gratitude towards God involves a better theological grasp of how active God is in our lives. There is a parallel between the way God sustains and enlivens things on a natural level and his activity in the realm of grace: whatever exists exists because of his continuous action to keep that thing in being; whatever good happens in our spiritual lives, whether it be acknowledgement of sin or growth in holiness or desire to pray, all of it is due to divine motion inside of us. And just as God keeps things in being by sending other things necessary for life, such as rain and food, so he sends or allows things good and useful for our spiritual growth. He is the source of both the good movements inside us and the good things outside us. If the first step of gratitude is recognition of favors given, then this is key to truly being grateful persons.
In this realm it is also good to consider how much we take for granted (and thus fail to see) in regard to our parents and our spouses. Our parents are the source of so many good things in our life, beginning with life itself. St. Thomas rightly says we can never repay them for even that gift considered by itself, but added to that is their supplying the context in which we can grow and mature. It is the mark of a small soul to dwell on parental sins and shortcomings, for they too are children of Adam, damaged by original sin, their own sins, and the current deformative culture. Better to express gratitude as often as possible, to see that most if not all of my good qualities come from the influence of my parents, and even where I feel I have surpassed them in some quality of soul, it is often their contrary influence that brings about the goodness in me. This is a reason for gratitude.
With spouses, the sense is the same: husband and wife do so much for one another that a great deal gets taken for granted. The wife endlessly toils to raise the children and keep the house; the husband labors constantly to put food on the table and shelter the family, but somehow such things are overlooked. Even more important is the mutual support they offer one another, the willingness to suffer alongside, to never give up, to not run away; in our culture these are precious gifts—even if they ought be normative to human life, they are not in our society, and it is right to see the gift of the other person who gives his or her life to me over and over again.
And in regard to friends, it is enough to quote the book of Sirach: “A faithful friend is a strong defense: and he that hath found one, hath found a treasure. Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend, and no weight of gold and silver is able to counter the goodness of his fidelity. A faithful friend is the medicine of life and immortality: and they that fear the Lord, shall find him.” We can never be too grateful for good friends.
The second step of gratitude after recognition is an expression of appreciation and thanks. This is obvious, but we often neglect it as well. It is not enough to recognize the favor; there must be an acknowledgment made which the other person experiences. All the lepers recognized the favor Jesus had given them; they could not have failed to notice that they were now cleansed. But only one expressed gratitude, and notice what he did—he ran back to where Jesus was and thanked him. For human beings, our expressions of gratitude nearly always involve physical contact, whether words exchanged, an embrace, a letter, or a phone call. We can, of course, express gratitude to God by simply lifting our mind and heart to him, and many times that is all we can do, and it pleases him very much, especially when we do so spontaneously in response to some good thing that happens or which we call to mind. But it is better to undergo a material inconvenience to do so—visit the blessed Sacrament, light a candle, go on a pilgrimage, attend daily Mass, get down on our knees--in proportion to the favor received. We are not angels, and so our gratitude is shown by physical gestures; this should also be the case with gratitude toward God.
The final step of gratitude is to repay the favor given. In regards to certain persons, we can never fully repay it: what God gives to us is far beyond our ability to give back, and I already mentioned that parents can never truly be repaid. And yet even in these situations there are two things worth remembering: first, gratitude does not rest chiefly on what is done, but how much love is expressed in doing it; gratitude is a matter of the heart, and a grateful heart quickly repays the gift not by doing great things, but doing little things with much love. Here our model is St. Mary Magdalene—she thought the forgiveness of her sins was worth a public show of love toward Christ, whereas Simon the Pharisee did not. He loved little; she loved much, and by such love each showed their gratitude or ingratitude. Note also that Mary was intent on the Lord, not on her sins, and she loved the most by forgetting herself and seeing only Him. So also when Jesus has freed us from our sins, especially if we habitually fall into serious sin or are still weighed down by past sins, we show the most gratitude by turning to Him and overlooking ourselves. A prisoner who is freed from the dungeon does not stare at his shackles and bemoan his past; he lovingly gazes on the one who freed him and looks to the future.
A second point comes from a curious source, but a providential one. When Aquinas wrote his analysis of gratitude and thankfulness in the Summa, he cited Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher, who wrote a treatise on gratitude and returning favors. In it, he examines the question of how a poor man can repay a rich benefactor and suggests three actions: the giving of good advice; frequent fellowship, and pleasant conversation. Though of course Seneca had in mind human benefactors, for which the counsel still holds, it can also be applied to our returning gratitude to God, especially in the Eucharist. We give the Lord advice when we intercede for others and for ourselves, suggesting what He should do in the world to increase good and curb evil, to encourage the downhearted and thwart the malicious and he is always pleased by such prayers. We engage in frequent fellowship when we sit with the Lord and acknowledge and adore His presence in our tabernacles and on our altars. And we give ourselves to pleasant conversation when we speak to Him as a friend, making ourselves available to Him, setting aside the best part of our day, as well as spontaneous times throughout each week, to converse with Him. It is not in vain that the Blessed Sacrament is named Eucharist in Greek, meaning thanksgiving, for by honoring and worshipping Christ in His Body and Blood, we most perfectly show our gratitude to God for the Incarnation and Redemption. And by His constant presence among us, He gives us the opportunity to dwell with Him and show our appreciation for his countless blessings.
So today, despite all the evil happening in our world and in the Church, may we be resolved to be persons marked by gratitude.
In this time of crisis, let us make the works of Psalm 115 our own:
I have believed, therefore have I spoken; but I have been humbled exceedingly. I said in my excess: Every man is a liar. What shall I render to the Lord, for all the things he hath rendered unto me? I will take the chalice of salvation; and I will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord before all his people: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, for I am thy servant: I am thy servant, and the son of thy handmaid. Thou hast broken my bonds: I will sacrifice to thee the sacrifice of praise, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the sight of all his people: In the courts of the house of the Lord, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.