Sunday, 28 February 2021

Second Sunday of Lent - Pleasing God as we have been taught.

 “For the rest, therefore, brethren, we pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus that, as you have received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more.” These are the opening words of today’s Epistle from St. Paul to the Thessalonians, which present the same teaching to the Church now as the apostle did centuries ago. 

The practice of the spiritual life is often forgotten about or left aside: it is something about which one can easily become complacent about. Diligence and attention is far sooner given to diets, exercise regimes and the like, than is devoted to increasing in the practice of the spiritual life. In fact, the humble practice of the spiritual life from day to day is often ignored deliberately, as one excuses oneself with matters ‘more important’ such as responding to various crises, either ecclesial or temporal.

One is called to work to save his own soul. Whether this is achieved through actions which are public, noble, hidden, forgotten, or ordinary, then no matter, as long as the aim is always to save one’s soul. How often is it though in the course of a day, that the thought of doing actions that will direct one to salvation, comes into one’s mind? Then again, how often is it, that one takes action on such a thought, assuming one even dwells upon it? 

Perhaps one of the most widespread issues in the Church today, is the complacency about the issues of faith, whereby all (this writer included) think hopefully of the mercy of God, yet avoid dwelling upon His justice. Think of the stories of souls, who lived such good and holy lives, and yet endured the pangs of Purgatory for what they deemed minor offences. Would the ‘minor offences’ of these pious souls even register as an offence in the mind of modern man? It would seem that the lively practice of the spiritual life is indeed rarely found.

But with today’s Epistle, St. Paul warns about such complacency, urging people to recommit to the practice of the virtues and regular prayer. He calls for a living of the faith, not a mere knowledge which becomes stale over time. By pointing to the fact that the Thessalonians have been taught how to “walk and to please God,” but have yet to do so, the apostle describes a fact common today: namely how many have perhaps been taught the faith, to varying extents, but their practice of it is widely lacking.

As ever though, the text is carefully chosen for the liturgical season. If ever there is a fitting time to make efforts to practice the spiritual life, it is most certainly the season of Lent. The Imitation of Christ states that if a devout soul wishes to truly follow the Redeemer and attain salvation, he must “study to make his whole life conformable to that of Christ.” Such is the theme of today’s Epistle. “For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Thus it is that the most vital study which we can make, is that regarding the pursuit of perfection and the cultivation of our devotion to God. St. Francis de Sales describes it as a true love of God which “makes us not only do good, but do so carefully, frequently and readily.” Such devotion is firmly rooted in the interior, and is centred upon the truth that “God being the one source and the one author of holiness, the reasonable creature ought to depend on Him in everything.” 

St. Paul mentions specifically that those desirous of perfection should avoid the vices of impurity, envy and dishonesty. “For God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto sanctification,” he writes.  

In order to answer this call, avoid such vices and practice their contrary virtues, one must turn to the command given by God in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. (Matt 22:37-39)

This command of Christ demands some explanation, since it is the answer to how to attain salvation. We can notice that He expresses no limits upon the love which we should show Him, but rather states we should love with the entirety of heart, soul and mind. The spiritual life is a share in the life of God, and the perfection of the spiritual life is found by being in perfect unity with God through love. Hence the charity required for the spiritual life and for the reaching of perfection, is a charity which moves us to love God and unite ourselves to Him to such an extent, as to even avoid the slightest sins. Abbe Tanquerey describes it thus: “charity so well established in the soul as to make us strive earnestly and constantly to avoid even the smallest sin and to do God’s holy will in all thing out of love for Him”. 

“But we entreat you, brethren, that you abound more.” With these words, St. Paul encourages his listeners to strive for the charity which is required in order to follow Christ, in the manner in which He describes. Paul’s zeal for souls is driven by his love of God and understanding of His words. Commenting on this passage, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “he is urging them to make progress in charity. He seemingly insists that since you have charity towards all men, we urge you to make progress in it. And though others may ridicule you, nevertheless devote yourself to charity: in abundant justice there is the greatest strength (Prov 15:5).”

It is this charity and union with God which we must strive for in the spiritual life. For it is not spiritual reading, many prayers and severe penances or fasting alone which are the essence of the spiritual life. These are means, indeed necessary means, by which one is able to approach God.

But rather it is the intimate union of love with God, in response to His limitless love, which is the true essence of the Divine life. This charity is “the law of love engraved on the hearts of His faithful servants by the hand of the Lord Himself.” Christ is the model of perfection whom we must follow, for He is the full realisation of Christian perfection. 

In uniting charity to works of penance undertaken during Lent, one is able to seek to reawaken the practice of the spiritual life, turning it from a stale practice of meaningless actions, into a daily striving for union with God.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

The First Sunday of Lent - Lent as a time of hope.

 The first Sunday of Lent might perhaps bring with it the foreboding of the rigours of the season, as sacrifices and resolutions appear so weighty and unmanageable, after only a few days. Decisions concerning Lenten practices, made in the easier time before Ash Wednesday, now appear rash, and optimistic. The Church also presents a warning in Her Mass texts on this day, reacquainting Her children with the purpose and seriousness of the preparation for Easter. But accompanying that, She offers a message of hope and guidance, pointing faithful souls towards to path of salvation, through attentively drawing near to God.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the temptation of Christ in the desert, where the devil attempts to break His resolve, goading Christ to commit sin. The Church ensures by using this text, that Her children can be under no illusions about the trials which they may undergo during the holy season of Lent, since even Her Spouse and Founder had to contend with temptings from satan. But the Church is not simply presenting the image of temptation, and then abandoning Her children to their dread at future trials. Rather, She is acting in charity, warning those faithful souls about the struggle which they must undergo, but simultaneously giving them the means to endure it. 

“Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan! For it is written: The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.” At the start of Lent, this passage must be read in conjunction with those found elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel: “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” With these two passages, the Church points to the way through Lent and through temptation - choose a master, and follow Him. Attempting to live a dual life, indulging in some aspects of the world, and some of the Christian life, does not work, as eventually either the worldly or the heavenly spirit must decide the direction of one’s life.

Lent is the chance to commit oneself to choosing and committing to the heavenly Master. In fact, it is the only way that one can hope to gain from the season, for otherwise penances and sacrifices will be meaningless, ashen and eventually hated.

But in studying the rest of the propers of today’s Mass, one is swiftly struck by how much the Church wishes to encourage Her children in devoting themselves to God in Lent. Each of the texts point to the loving attention which God shows to those who present themselves to Him, asking for His aid in following Him. “He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days,” reads the Introit, drawing from the Psalms. 

“The Lord will overshadow thee with His shoulders, and under His wings thou shalt trust: His truth shall compass thee with a shield,” from the Communion. 

Then also, we have the long and beautiful Tract: “He that dwelleth in the aid of the most High shall abide under the protection of the God of heaven. He shall say to the Lord: Thou art my protector and my refuge: my God, in Him will I trust. For He hath delivered me from the snare of the hunters, and from the sharp word. He will overshadow thee with His shoulders, and under His wings thou shalt trust. His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night.”

Just as he did with Christ in the desert, satan seeks to tempt all faithful souls away from the path of virtue during Lent. He accounts it a particular victory if he can discourage souls away from their chosen penance, or pious acts. The length of Lent stretching into the distance, can seem a time that is to long to endure. 

And yet, as it was also with Christ, one has only to choose his master, turn to God, ask His aid, and the devil is rebuffed. Despite the machinations and temptations of the evil one, he is as nothing to the Word Incarnate. Today’s Mass is full of encouragement for souls who are as yet uncertain, fearful, or in need of encouragement that they can stay firm not only to their chosen penances, but also to the faith. “For He hath given His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”

That is not to say that God does not allow faithful souls to endure sufferings or hardships. Indeed, these are the choice gifts which He bestows on those who ardently seek the pursuit of virtue. But even though such souls are beset with trials, they have the confidence that all they endure is permitted by God, who never allows them to be persecuted more than He gives them grace to bear. 

In Lent and in life, if one follows the Master he has chosen, staying close to the flag which is the cross, then the devil is rejected as he was in the desert. “Because he hoped in Me I will deliver him: I will protect him, because he hath known My name.”

What then is the message the Church gives on this first Sunday in Lent? In short, She warns of the real occurrence of temptation and trials, which the devil will delight in placing before souls who seek to grow in virtue. Just as he did with Christ, so also will he do with Christ’s followers. But along with this clear warning, the Church presents the message of hope, pointing Her children to the means by which they can indeed attain to the perfection which they aim for. In choosing Christ as Master, one is given the graces to grow close to Him, to stay firm in the face of temptation, and to attain the heavenly reward. Those who place their trust in God are supported by the legions of angels He sends to assist His children in the pursuit of virtue. 

Hence, Lent is a time of hope, for in choosing one Master instead of the other, one is able to imitate Christ in shouldering the cross and winning the crown of glory. “He shall cry to Me, and I will hear him: I am with him in tribulation. I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days, and I will show him My salvation.”

Second Sunday of Lent - Pleasing God as we have been taught.

  “For the rest, therefore, brethren, we pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus that, as you have received from us how you ought to walk and...