Sunday, 1 August 2021

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: 'O God, be merciful to me the sinner!'

(Publican humbly praying at the entry to the temple)

     “O God, be merciful to me the sinner!” Such are the words of the rich publican, drawn from St. Luke’s Gospel used by the Church today. These eight words, so well known, form perhaps one of the most profound, yet also one of the easiest prayers to say.

How is this so? The truth is that in just eight words, there are multiple aspects of Catholic spirituality which are represented, when the words are prayed properly. The phrase begins with a heartfelt, and pious appeal to the Almighty, made not out of haste or presumption, but out of humility. This same humility is that which is constantly evident in the life of Mary, and which moved her to utter her fiat to the will of God as revealed to her by the angel. She willed for nothing other than to perform the will of God, and so humbly united her will to His. It is so with the publican’s prayer, for he comes before God with a heartfelt desire to unite himself to the Divinity and to obey His commands.

“Be merciful to me the sinner!” This phrase is awash with sentiments which echo the brief aspirations which St. Thérèse advocates in her Little Way spirituality, in order to be able to easily dedicate the day to God. The words reveal first of all the publican’s realisation of his own state, that of being sinful. He knows that in himself he is nothing, and identifies his actions with sins, calling himself “the sinner.” Indeed, but for the grace of God, such is the state of fallen man, who is apt for nothing but to commit sin and to indulge his fallen passions. 

The publican also reveals his understanding of God as One whom he can turn to for aid, despite his own sinful countenance. He knows that it is only God who can heal him, guide him onto the path of virtue. The publican also understands that his sins injure God, for it is to God that he turns asking for mercy for those sins. In the order of justice, mercy can only be bestowed by he who has been injured. This principle is clearly known by the publican, and hence he asks God for mercy. 

Such a question reveals something else also: it demonstrates a healthy understanding of one’s calling to the path of virtue and ultimately to the cross. For though he has fallen away from the path of virtue, the publican is aware of his need to reform his ways and to imitate his Saviour once more. No matter his past failings, the publican is determined to renew his zeal in the pursuit of God.  

This renewal he knows can only come about with the help of that same Saviour whom he seeks to imitate. Hence he turns to Him whom he seeks to imitate, asking first for clemency, for forgiveness, and as part of that same request, he implicitly asks for the grace to be able to make amends and continue more resolutely in the future. This point can justly be said of his request, for a sincere request for forgiveness is not made, if the one asking does not desire to amend his ways. 

Thus in just eight words, the publican offers a model prayer for faithful souls to imitate, demonstrating a proper understanding of self and of God, a hatred of sin, a firm purpose of amendment, and a desire to follow Christ. It is first and foremost a lesson in prayer for the soul desirous of following Christ. 

Preaching on this Gospel, St. Alphonsus writes about the importance of prayer, and how the example of the sinful, yet repentant publican serves as a reminder of this. Prayer draws us closer to God, and so the saint notes that God may permit those circumstances which necessitate our recourse to prayer: “The Lord…seeing the great advantages which we derive from the necessity of prayer, permits us to be attacked by enemies more powerful than we are, that we may ask his assistance. Hence they who are conquered cannot excuse themselves by saying that they had not strength to resist the assault of the enemy; for had they asked aid from God, he should have given it; and had they prayed, they should have been victorious. Therefore, if they are defeated, God will punish them. St. Bonaventure says, that if a general lose a fortress in consequence of not having sought timely succour from his sovereign, he shall be branded as a traitor. Thus God regards as a traitor the Christian who, when he finds himself assailed by temptations, neglects to seek the divine aid.”

Such words are strong indeed, but they are not without the evidence of Scripture to support the necessity and efficacy of prayer. The Psalm in today’s Introit serves as a reassurance of this: “When I call upon the Lord, He heard my voice, from those who war against me; and He humbled them, Who is before all ages, and remains forever: cast your care upon the Lord, and He will support you.” (Psalm 54)

Then again at the Offertory verse, this teaching is proclaimed once more: “To You I lift up my soul, O Lord. In You, O my God, I trust; let me not be put to shame, let not my enemies exult over me. No one who waits for You shall be put to shame.”

Indeed the example of the publican serves more than one purpose. Initially it offers a simple, yet profound, lesson on the manner of praying to God, pointing souls to the virtues the are necessary in order to develop the life of prayer and union with God. But it further reveals the necessity of prayer, showing that a soul who is truly desirous of union with God, must accept his complete dependance upon God. Finally it serves as a reassurance for those nervous to cast themselves at the foot of God in such a manner, for as evidenced by the other texts of the Mass, God will never leave a sincere prayer unanswered. 

One of the great counsels of St. Alphonsus in his many works on prayer and spirituality, is that the day be dedicated to God and punctuated with brief aspirations. His sermon on the necessity and efficacy of prayer serves only to compound that teaching. Holy Mother Church, in presenting this parable of Christ, perhaps offers us the eight words of the publican as an aspiration which can be easily made throughout the day, and thus draw one ever closer to the desired union with God. 

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost : 'your enemies will throw up a rampart about you.'

“For days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a rampart about you, and surround you and shut you in on every side, and will dash you to the ground and your children within you, and will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you have not known the time of your visitation.” These stern and foreboding words are taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, used on this ninth Sunday after Pentecost.

They are all too clear in meaning, and serve as a striking reminder of the hatred which the enemies of Christ have for Him and His Church. Indeed, He warns in John’s Gospel that the servant cannot expect better treatment than the master: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:20) The passages presented today by Holy Mother Church are not gentle, but are rather a firm teaching of the faith to Her children. She wishes to ensure that Catholics are constantly reminded of the fleeting nature of life, and to be prepared for persecution, rather than be caught unawares.

An athlete prepares constantly for his race, training himself in every aspect that will improve his performance on the day, visualising the course, predicting any obstacles, and steeling himself for them accordingly. He is aware of the pain he must endure in his training, and the pain he will undergo on the race day itself, but because he is desirous of the goal he is able to bear with these hardships. It is likewise in the spiritual life and in the spiritual battle which all are called to partake in by virtue of their baptism, and given the strength to do so by virtue of Confession, Confirmation, and regular Holy Communion. Just as with an athlete’s fitness, a soul is either progressing or regressing in virtue, for one cannot remain stagnant in the pursuit of God. Hence, the Church is not a Church of softness and laxity, but rather, like a good coach, She constantly guides, encourages, and prepares Her children for their trials. 

In this way, therefore, the words of today’s Gospel have an import which, while perhaps initially foreboding upon first glance, are important to dwell on. The day will certainly come when the enemies of God, who are the enemies of all His followers, will present themselves around the faithful souls in the Church, “and will dash you to the ground.” Such a thought is not a hypothesis, nor the words of some crazed fear-mongering doomsday prophet. Rather they are the words of Christ, God-Incarnate, who came down to earth to die for man’s sin. They must, as such, be taken seriously. 

Indeed, in the same passage, the Redeemer warns against the misuse of the Church. “And He entered the temple, and began to cast out those who were selling and buying in it, saying to them, It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.” 

The admonition which Christ gives to the tradesmen is one which applies in every age also: the Church is a house of prayer. If those inside the Church neglect this aspect, peopling the Church with noise, scandal, desire for money or power, instead of offering true and worthy homage to God, then in truth the very ramparts of the Church which ought to be a defending wall, will seem to be the walls which oppress Her children. The Church is full of sinners and wayward men, yet in Herself is the spotless bride of Christ. Such wayward men will seek to besmirch the spotless garment She wears, tearing down the stones of the Church – “will not leave in you one stone upon another” – out of hatred for God and for His truth.

When this persecution from within is coupled with persecution from the world also, and the protecting walls of a God-centred society are turned into the in-prisoning walls of a satanic-centred society, then the persecution of faithful souls will be most grievous. 

In such moments, all might seem lost, the battle over, and resistance of no merit. Yet it is not so. The great act of redemption came about through the terrible passion and death of Christ, and so too the Church must undergo this passion in faithful imitation of Her Spouse. Nor will Her members be left unassisted, for God does not turn His ears away from those who seek Him. We are reminded of this in the words of the Introit: “Behold, God is my helper, the Lord sustains my life. Turn back the evil upon my foes; in Your faithfulness destroy them, O Lord, my protector. O God, by Your name save me, and by Your might deliver me.”

Almost by means of a training plan, the Church also presents on this day also the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, in which he outlines the steps necessary for the pursuit of virtue, in order to prepare for the attacks against the faith. The great Apostle warns against the follies and pleasures enjoyed by those amongst the world, in order that faithful souls might wean themselves away from such things, and be drawn only to those which are of God. 

“Brethren: We should not lust after evil things even as they lusted. And do not become idolaters, even as some of them were, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, even as some of them committed fornication, and there fell in one day twenty-three thousand. Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them tempted, and perished by the serpents. Neither murmur, as some of them murmured, and perished at the hands of the destroyer.”

St. Paul clearly states how such words are to serve as a warning for those desirous of seeking God, noting that “they were written for our correction, upon whom the final age of the world has come.” He warns against undue pride and presumption, which is a sure path away from the spiritual life: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

But the Apostle also ends with a word of encouragement, reassuring the Church that no matter the trials which God permits to befall us, they are not unconquerable. God ensures that the graces offered to each soul are sufficient to defeat the temptation or trial which the soul is undergoing. This is a great reassurance, for no matter how heavily the stones are torn down around us, God will not permit His Church to be defeated: “May no temptation take hold of you but such as man is equal to. God is faithful and will not permit you to be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also give you a way out that you may be able to bear it.”

Thus, the Church presents a harsh, but necessary passage from Sacred Scripture, designed to ensure that Her children are presented with the tools to equip themselves in the spiritual battles which they are to face. Like a good coach would for an athlete, the Church 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: 'O God, be merciful to me the sinner!'

(Publican humbly praying at the entry to the temple)        “O God, be merciful to me the sinner!” Such are the words of the rich publican, ...