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.”

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Quinquagesima Sunday - 'Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me.'

Quinquagesima Sunday - the last stop before the fullness and the rigours of Lent. With Ash Wednesday only days away, the season of Lent is imminent, and even though memories of the joy of Christmas are still fresh, Holy Mother Church calls us to begin to meditate upon the passion and death of Christ. All Her liturgy points towards Calvary, starting from the Gospel for this day in which Christ reminds His apostles of the words of the prophets, foretelling His death and resurrection.

The passage, drawn from St. Luke’s Gospel, highlights the importance of faith, while the Epistle points to charity. In describing to the twelve the details about His passion and death, Christ found that they did not understand Him. Yet later in the passage, Christ heals the blind man who calls out to Him for aid, saying that “thy faith hath made thee whole.” These words set the tone for Lent every year, but particularly so in the current global situation which sees illogical and unjust laws imposed upon innocent people, depriving them of the practice of the faith, from seeing their family, from working, or from normal daily life. In the face of such restrictions, all of which are underpinned by a subtle but relentless attack upon religion, Lent can appear to be just too much effort, at least for this year.

However, in the spiritual warfare only spiritual weapons will suffice to defeat the enemy, and as many prominent prelates and commentators have warned, the world is in the midst of a severe spiritual battle. Committing to making a good Lent, with whatever penances or extra acts of piety one chooses to do, is one of the best ways of taking an active role in the battle. Just like the apostles, who did not understand the words of Christ even though He was visibly with them, it can be hard - almost impossible, to understand why God is allowing the world to continue in this state. Yet God does not call us to necessarily understand, but to follow Him, by taking up the cross each day. 

Thus, in the manner of the blind man, Catholics are called to take up the call throughout Lent: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Redoubling the efforts made in the spiritual life are more important in such times than ever before. Just like those around him tried to silence the blind man, many, including priests and bishops, will try to make this Lent ‘easier,’ or dissuade their flock from attending the sacraments. Perhaps they might irreverently mandate Holy Communion on the hand only, or close the churches out of fear of infection and make the Church nothing more than just another click on the computer, or another video to watch. Yet, just like the blind man, who took no notice of those around him telling him to be quiet instead of bringing him to Christ, faithful Catholics must use this Lent to ignore those who should be leading them to Christ, but are instead reneging on that sacrosanct duty. 

Let this Lent be a time of ardent preparation, not just for Easter, but for the trials of the years to come. Few will understand the purpose of such a Lent, allowing it to pass by without noting the value of such a time. Others might understand it, and yet partake in the active un-bloody persecution of the faithful, by making it even harder to avail of the sacraments. Yet, a response of this kind did not deter the blind man, who “cried out much more: Son of David, have mercy on me.” 

Christ highlighted the strength of the blind man’s faith, and this serves as a guide and a consolation. As a guide, it reaffirms the importance of the virtue of faith, a subject which was discussed recently on this blog. It was through his faith, that the blind man was able to approach God, earnestly desiring His help, and confident that Christ would reward such faith. Going forward into Lent and into the uncertain future, the virtue of faith should be the lifeboat which faithful Catholics cling to, in order to traverse the rough waters of persecution and hardship, in whatever form they present themselves.

But the blind man’s faith also is a consolation, for his faith was rewarded. He placed complete faith in God, and received his sight. “Receive thy sight, thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he saw and followed Him, glorifying God.” This is a truth which Catholics know well, but which the atheistic forces of the world attempt to hide, in order to fuel the attacks upon the faith. Faith is thus a consolation, knowing that God will not be outdone in generosity and rewards His faithful and devoted servants. 

What is the purpose of thus arming oneself for the spiritual battle and deepening the spiritual life, when all around seems to be pointing towards the ineffectiveness of such measures? St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in his sermon for this Sunday, answers by pointing simply to eternity. “My brethren, it is certain and of faith that there is a hell. After judgment the just shall enjoy the eternal glory of Paradise, and sinners shall be condemned to suffer the everlasting chastisement reserved for them in hell.” No matter the achievements, the joys or sufferings, the riches enjoyed, the poverty endured, or the extreme measures taken to attempt prevention of infection from a virus - one fact is certain, namely that all must face death, sooner or later.

This thought is not born from a morbid fascination with death, but simply from truth, and hence it falls to each person to prepare his soul for death, so that he might either spend eternity in heaven with God, or in hell with the devil. With this in mind, every single time a church is closed, or a cleric refuses someone access to the sacraments, or falls prey to the unfounded fears of the world about physical health, the devil rejoices, since he knows that such actions make it harder for Catholics to practice the spiritual life and to prepare themselves for eternity. 

The actions of such faithless shepherds are in the service of satan, either deliberately or accidentally. Yet along with every suffering God provides the necessary graces, and so He allows His children to endure such trials in order that they grow in virtue, and give greater glory to Him. In light of this, the words of St. Alphonsus take on renewed meaning: one must always be concerned with the salvation of his soul, as the chief and only matter of importance. There is no other cause which compares to the matter of saving one’s soul. 

Hence bishops, priests and the laity alike, must ask themselves this Lent if their actions of daily life are conducive to attaining salvation? 

They must ask whether every church closure, every unchallenged infringement upon the rights of the Church, or every sacrament denied, serves to bring them closer to God or satan.

They must ask whether being complicit in promoting fear, in abandoning reason and faith in God for earthly advisors, serves God or satan.

They should ask whether, in order to ease an unfounded fear, they are willing to avail of medicinal technology, developed and tested upon tissue and cells taken from innocent babies, who were cut apart whilst still alive, in order to extract the required body parts. 

And in answering this, they must ask what action will bring them closer to God or to satan.

They should ask, as they contemplate benefitting from the dissection of newborn babies, if this is something which Our Blessed Mother would do, or if she would have faith in God?

Or, as they cower to the increasingly illicit and unjust dictates of faithless and godless men, who pretend to be motivated by concern for health, whilst promoting abortion, euthanasia and disregarding the health needs of millions, whether Sts. Peter and Paul would stand idly by and do such a thing? 

They should ask, when the great, the ‘good,’ the powerful, their friends, neighbours, relations and loved ones, all cave to the pressure of immoral leaders and become implicit in promoting and profiting from the murder of innocents, what St. Michael would do in such an occasion.

And finally, faithful Catholics should ask, when their commitment to the faith, to the sanctity of unborn life, and to the rights and dignity of the Church, cause them to be persecuted, threatened or even put to death, (as is already the case in so many countries around the world), what would Christ do? What would the Man of sorrows do, He who died the bloody death on the cross for our salvation? 

This Lent is thus an opportunity to examine such questions, and prepare oneself to be able to answer them through one’s actions in the near future.

“Son of David, have mercy on me.” 

“In this life, how great soever may be the tribulations which we suffer, there is always some relief or interruption. The damned must remain for ever in a pit of fire, always in torture, always weeping, without ever enjoying a moments repose.”

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Sexagesima Sunday - Importance of humility in prayer

The theme of humility is spread throughout the Epistle and Gospel for this Sexagesima Sunday. St. Paul writes that "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that concern my weakness." He preaches about the glory of God shining through His creatures, warning lest man attributes to himself that which is due to the work of God. "Gladly therefore I will glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me."

This is reflected also in the parable of the sower, drawn from St. Luke's Gospel. Only that seed which fell on good ground, spread its roots and produced fruit. Such is the way in the spiritual life, as it is only those who are humble and willing to listen, who can heed the words of the Gospel. Indeed, such is the explanation of Christ Himself: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" 

In light of this, Mater Dolorosa is reproducing the below post, first written in August of last year, concerning humility in prayer, due to its constant relevance, but particularly to the themes from today's liturgical texts.

 Such passages thus accentuate the importance of humility in prayer. The Baltimore Catechism defines prayer as “the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God to adore Him, to thank Him for His benefits, to ask His forgiveness, and to beg of Him all the graces we need whether for soul or body”. (1) The first end of prayer, adoration, thus orients the importance of humility in prayer, for with true adoration necessarily comes humility. One cannot know and love God, yet remain full of self love and pride. 

When seeking to be humble in our prayers, it helps to remind ourselves of the nature of prayer. Our end is union with God, and prayer is a conversation with God. Perfection is not God aligning Himself with us, but quite the opposite. Hence, in prayer we must always act in humility, seeking “the accomplishment of the divine will, and not of your own, both by the act of prayer itself and by what you desire to obtain”.(2) Humility and prayer are the antitheses of pride, since the proud soul will not submit himself to the will of God and ask for assistance. For this reason we are reminded of our need for humility at the start of Lent, with the words “remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return”.(3) Christ warns us not to be like the Pharisee, but to model ourselves on the publican who came to God with the words “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”. This is also taught in the epistle of St. James: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”.(James 4:6) Dare we say it, but prayer without humility, cannot be prayer at all. A proud ‘prayer’ twists reality and is the work of one who seeks to have God conform to him. On the contrary, the devout soul can never forget that we have nothing which we have not received.

St. Alphonsus teaches that the prayer of a humble soul “at once penetrates the heavens and presents itself before the throne of God, and will not depart thence till God regards it and listens to it”.(4) With humility, a soul is thus able to know itself better and consequently pray more sincerely. Just as pride is the source of all vice, humility is the opposing source of virtue. It makes the soul pleasing to God, and disposes one to hear the voice of God in the silence of the heart.

St. Bonaventure recommends three steps in gaining humility. The first step is to think upon God, the author of all creation. He has made all for Him and disposed creation so that we might come to a happy union with Him, if only we can so decide to do so. In our own strength we have not the ability to do anything, and if we seek to attribute anything to our own power then we become like Lucifer. Rather, we must attribute all to Him and nothing to ourselves but the faults of each day.

Next, we must think on Christ, who so humbled Himself to suffer and die upon the cross, the most ignoble of deaths. Through His humility was won our redemption, and it is in humility that He calls us to follow Him in the way of the cross. This life of the cross is still reviled by the world to this day, as people scorn and deride the followers of Christ. Yet just as Christ, the highest good, lowered Himself to be treated as a common criminal, the humble soul must be able to do the same and follow Him in meekness of heart.

The third step recommended by the saint is to think of oneself. By becoming familiar with our faults and failings we can readily observe just how far we have to go in order to attain to the heights of perfection. Sin has become the predominant feature in our lives yet we are called to imitate Christ in perfection. Of ourselves then we have nothing which we can be proud of. Thus, we can ask “where have we come from and where are we going?”. This question should serve to keep us away from our own prideful failings and desire to follow Christ in humility. 

Our Blessed Mother is the perfect example to follow in the practice of humility. She responded to the highest honour with perfect humility. Instead of allowing herself to become filled with pride at the thought of being the Mother of God, instead she uttered the words, “Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”. (Luke 1:48) She is the guide and shining beacon who leads her children to her Son through the sure path of humility. Her very life can be summed up in this virtue. Close by her Son in all His life, she never sought to draw attention away from Him, but chose rather to lead others to Him. This she continues to do from her throne in Heaven and so it is to her that we can have fruitful recourse. 

Humility in prayer is one of the chief marks of true prayer, nor can prayer be effective without it. In conversing with God, the humble soul is aware of his failings, the majesty of God and the awful price which Christ has paid for his redemption. He models himself thus upon Our Lady and seeks to become like her when responding to God. For in the end, what better prayers are there, than the words of Mary and the humble publican: “be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38); “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

1: Kinkead, The Baltimore Catechism No 4, q304.

2: Scupoli, Spiritual Combat, 122.

3: The Roman Missal 1962, (London, Baronius Press, 2007), 293. ‘Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.

4: St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Way of Salvation and Perfection, 441.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Septuagesima Sunday - Running the race in the manner of St. Paul

    Septuagesima Sunday marks the return of purple to the Church’s liturgy, an occurrence which seems sometimes jarring when fresh from the splendour of Christmas. The many flowers, the beautiful vestments, and familiar Christmas chants and carols, are replaced as the Church begins Her journey towards Lent.

    As the liturgical seasons shift so markedly, it can perhaps be easy to become despondent with the rigours and trials which are part of Septuagesima and the rapidly approaching Lent. Christmas time has perhaps been a time of ease, and practices of the spiritual life which seemed so easy when surrounded by the cosy trappings of Christmas, now seem demanding, time-consuming, and un-appealing in the face of a more austere season. 

    Yet this is precisely why the Church chooses the texts for the Epistle and the Gospel today, in order to encourage Her children in the practice of the spiritual life, as they enter into the preparation for Lent. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is full of the spirit of Catholic perseverance, as the great missionary describes the nature of the spiritual life.

    “Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air.”

    This is a key element of the spiritual life which is somewhat uncomfortable to mention, but so crucial. In pursuing perfection one must really strive for the goal. Prizes and medals are not given to all who compete, but to the victor, and it is just so in the pursuit of heaven. Paul wishes to galvanise the Corinthians, and members of the Mystical Body today, by highlighting the great risk they run in not committing themselves to the race. It is a race unlike any other, not one which can be re-run next year if one is not successful, or in which second place is some consolation, but rather a race in which one is either for God or against Him. 

    In order to certify that one stays on the right path, Paul advises the practice of mortification, a practice which is helpful even in this pre-Lenten time. “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” Indeed, it is perhaps advisable to accustom oneself to some small practice of mortification, so that when Lent properly begins, a faithful soul is already in the proper spirit in which to earn the graces proper to the season. It is a way by which one can begin to re-learn the spirit of self-denial, which is so necessary during Lent, but so often easily forgotten over Christmas tide.

    St. Paul continues with a warning, reminding souls that those who outwardly performed the actions of God, were not pleasing to Him. “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.  And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea: And did all eat the same spiritual food, And all drank the same spiritual drink; (and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.)  But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the desert.” 

    In the passage following that which is used in the Epistle, Paul continues to explain why this was the case. He notes that even though they ate and drank the spiritual drink from God, the children of God coveted evil things. Thus Paul issues another warning, so appropriate in this Septuagesima time: “these things were done in a figure of us, that we should not covet evil things as they also coveted.” The cost of coveting evil things, is incurring the displeasure of God and the loss of one’s soul.

    This reflects what St. Alphonsus Ligouri writes in his own homily for today, pointing out the meaning of the Gospel as being an instruction on the salvation of one’s soul. The text, drawn from St. Matthew’s Gospel, recounts the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, and the words of Christ: “For many are called, but few chosen.”

    “The vines of the Lord are our souls,” says St. Alphonsus, “which he has given us to cultivate by good works, that we may be one day admitted into eternal glory. Christians believe death, judgment, hell, and Paradise: but they live as if they believed them not as if these truths of faith were tables or the inventions of human genius. Many live as it they were never to die, or as if they had not to give God an account of their life as if there were neither hell nor a heaven. Perhaps they do not believe in them? They believe, but do not reflect on them; and thus they are lost. They take all possible care of worldly affairs, but attend not to the salvation of their souls.”

    With these words, the great preacher sets the tone for Septuagesima, mirroring the warning given by St. Paul, that one must not become lax, but ever remember the heavenly goal and the terrible cost of straying from the path of God.

    “Brethren, remember that, if you save your souls, your failure in every worldly transaction will be but of little importance: for, if you are saved, you shall enjoy complete happiness for all eternity. But, if you lose your souls, what will it profit you to have enjoyed all the riches, honours, and amusements of this world? If you lose your souls, all is lost.”

    Ligouri also reiterates the fact briefly alluded to earlier - namely that the soul, once lost, is lost forever. “But we can die only once: if the soul be lost the first time, it is lost for ever.” The race of which St. Paul talks, must be run in order to achieve the prize, which is union with God in heaven. Truly there is no other option nor ideal more worthy of ones entire zeal and energy.    Ligouri terrifyingly reveals that “the greatest torment of the damned arises from the thought of having lost their souls, and of having lost them through their own fault.” 

    God never permits a soul to be tried more than such a soul can handle, with the grace of God. Thus no matter the enormity of the trial which is before a soul, including the austere season of Lent, he will be able to rise to the challenge, and devote his entire energy to achieving the prize, if he but places himself in the hands of God, and relies on His grace. “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.” (1 Peter 1:18-19.) 

    As the new season of Septuagesima thus arrives, heralding the great season of Lent, the Church and Her saints place before us these Scriptural passages, chosen so carefully. They serve as a firm, but tender warning, reminding faithful souls of the importance of the practice of the spiritual life, and the dangers which lie in becoming lazy or in falling away from pursuing the goal altogether. 

    With these words of Christ in one’s mind, a faithful soul is thus encouraged and emboldened to re-invigorate his spiritual life at this crucial time. “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul ?”

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Third Sunday after Epiphany - Faith, Hope and Charity.

Faith is the secret weapon which Catholics have in their arsenal, but so often forget to use. The virtue of faith is shown to be a key aspect in today’s Gospel, in which Christ sees the eminent faith of the centurion, who comes pleading for a cure for his servant. “And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.” 

    Despite many outward pious practices, demonstrative of faith and indeed hope, it is all too easy to find oneself losing faith, especially in times such as the present. With the onslaught of demoralising news, both political and ecclesial, coupled with the evident manner in which the world is ever swiftly turning away from God, the practice of faith in God, combined with a lively hope and ardent charity, is critical.  

    This attack upon the virtues, is perhaps one of the greatest victories of the devil, because it was precisely these virtues which moved the many thousands of martyrs throughout the centuries. Due to their lively faith in God, and firm hope of attaining salvation, they were able to face whatever actions their persecutors made against them. But without the practice of these virtues, the modern world will face no opposition from Catholics, because at the moment when we are called upon to make a stand, the lack of faith, hope and charity will manifest itself, and the spirit of the martyrs will be no more. 

    What then is faith? Fr. John Laux describes it thus: “Catholic faith is a virtue infused by the Holy Ghost into our souls at Baptism, by which we believe, firmly and without hesitation, all that God has revealed and through the Church proposes for our belief.” Faith carries a soul through times of difficulty, so that even if the world attacks his beliefs, he is able to cling to the tenets of the faith, precisely because they are revealed by God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

    “This is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4) Faith is that by which one is “ready to make any sacrifice, even that of life itself,” writes Fr. Laux. The virtue is more poignant today than ever before, (if one can say such a thing), since most of the world places its ‘faith’ in earthly, temporal, fleeting objects, such as money, wealth, fame and the like. The object of faith for those of the world is thus completely opposed to that which Catholics hold, for as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, “Accordingly if we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth.” Aquinas also teaches that faith is the first virtue by its very nature, preceding all the other virtues. 

    If faith is thus rooted in God, and is that which overcomes the trials and temptations of the world, it is only right that more attention should be given to the virtue in these times. The good centurion had such faith that Christ could and would cure his servant, that he asked Christ only say the word, and the servant would be healed. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” This is surely the faith which is able to move mountains, even though it be the size of a mustard seed. 

    Fr. Laux writes that faith “is God’s choicest gift to man and man’s most valuable possession.” It is the “pearl of great price,” and as such we are duty bound, by nature of the gift of faith and our baptism, to ensure that it is ever protected from harm.  

    Faith is accompanied by the virtue of hope, for through hope we have the desire to attain God, who is the highest good, and the confidence that we can do so with His grace. “Hope is the supernatural gift of God by which we trust that God will give us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, eternal life and all the help necessary to obtain it.” Hope enlivens faith, giving the faithful soul the confidence that God does not test him more than he is given the graces to bear. “What we know by Faith becomes by Hope the object of all our aspirations and all our striving.” 

    As such, it is “absolutely necessary for our salvation,” along with faith. It must be living, firm and accompanied by a holy fear and holy distrust of self. That is to say, that a living hope influences one’s entire life, so that such a soul is constantly striving to attain that which he knows by faith.  

    In order for hope to be life-long, it must thus necessarily be firm. Fr. Laux teaches that “only perfect trust in God can give us the high courage necessary to work out our salvation in the face of obstacles necessary to work out our salvation in the face of obstacles that seem insurmountable.” If one abandons hope, then he allows the devil a victory, and the message of the world has prevailed. Indeed despair is almost a direct consequence of placing one’s faith in those objects which the world presents as a replacement for God. Hope is the virtue by which one shuns the world and the devil, rejecting the empty promises of both, and aligning oneself with the unwavering Truth.   

    Finally, hope must be accompanied by “holy fear and a wholesome distrust of ourselves.” This is not to imply some disordered hatred of self, in the manner of the world, but rather a humble acknowledgement of human failings, and a realisation that hope must be centred in God alone. “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor 10:12) Once more, this concept is one which is so alien to the world, since self is promoted instead of God, and therefore a healthy, holy distrust of self is never properly understood.  

     What of charity though, for a discussion of faith and hope is not complete without the third theological virtue. Charity is that which virtue by which “we love God above all things for His own sake and all things for God’s sake.” It naturally accompanies faith and hope and is described as the Queen of the virtues. Charity is the ‘finishing touch’ needed at the hour of martyrdom, for a martyr might have a firm faith, and a lively hope, but if he does not have charity, what will move him to endure the sufferings for God’s sake?  

      Charity is no simple warmth of feeling for the Divine, which could ebb and flow on any particular day. Rather it is described as “a love of preference,” residing in the will “which deliberately prefers God before all things, and is ready to sacrifice all rather than offend Him mortally.”

     “And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel. And I say to you that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven: But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into the exterior darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said to the centurion: Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee. And the servant was healed at the same hour.”  

    Faith, then, is the virtue which sustains a soul through trials and torments, by which he accepts and believes the truths of God. With hope also, a soul is able to keep his sights fixed on the heavenly prize, undaunted by that which might assail him. Finally, charity provides the life-spring of the spiritual life, filling one with a desire for God above all, which moves him to aim hopefully for heaven, which he firmly believes in through faith. 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

    “And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.”     

    Today the Church presents the marriage at Cana, as recounted in St. John’s Gospel. It is of particular note when making a Marian reflection, because it is one of the clearest examples of Mary’s role alongside her Son.  

    We encounter this Gospel one week after the feast of the Holy Family: another feast and Gospel passage which is one of the few, rare occasions in which Mary makes an appearance. Throughout much of the Gospels, she is silent, hidden, seeking not to draw any attention to herself, but point all towards God. One could say that her most ‘visible’ role is at the cross, when the culmination of her life is reached. Yet, each of the occasions in which the scriptures record the presence of Mary is for a specific purpose, and their infrequency makes them all the more precious, and important.

    This passage presents her in a very different manner to that seen upon the hill of Calvary, or when meeting Christ whilst carrying His cross. It is an altogether opposite scene, one full of joy and peace – a wedding. Yet at this wedding, disaster is about to occur, as the wine has run out. Here, our Blessed Mother intervenes: “And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine.” Notice first the manner in which Mary speaks to her Son, not demanding a miracle from Him, or asking what He is to do, but instead simply informing Him of the facts, certain that in His divine benevolence He will come to the aid of the happy couple. 

    And what are her next words? A simple phrase of gentle command, made to the servants: “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.” In a phrase that has so often been said on this blog, these few words and actions of Mary truly allow her children to understand the depth of union which exists between her and her Son. She instantly understands the words of Christ to her, and so issues the command that He be listened to, and trusted implicitly. Thus, Christ worked the miracle of turning the water in the six water-pots, into the finest wine, an action which was marked by the co-operation of His Mother.  

    There are many points one could draw out from these lines. Firstly, it should be noted how Mary is the co-operatrix in this first, public action of Christ, just as she will be in His salvific death upon the cross. She accompanies Him in the role of Co-Redemptrix for the entirety of His life, not just at certain parts. Hence it is only right and most fitting that she should be so specifically noted as being present at this miracle. Indeed, one can dare to say that Mary acted as the loving and tender Queen, pointing her Kingly Son towards the needs of His subjects. Just as she brought before Him the cause of the newly married couple, hoping to spare them the shame of running out of wine, so she also brings before Him our every need.    

    St. Louis-Marie de Montfort describes how Mary is the perfect way to reach God, because she takes our imperfect and sullied gifts, polishes them, and then presents them to God more perfect than we could ever hope to have made them. She is the perfection of Queen Mother, filled only with love for her Son, the King, and so responds to every request made of her. Just as she beckons souls to join her in silent adoration at the crib, so she calls them to the Royal throne and assists them on their pathway. This is the scene presented at the marriage of Cana, and is the scene which occurs every time one turns to her in trusting petition. At Calvary, Mary joins Christ in paying the price for sin, but at Cana she joins Him in bestowing graces upon the world. 

    Another point to dwell on is the consideration of the significance that Mary is with Christ in the moment He changes water to wine. For at the Last Supper and upon the hill at Calvary, she is with Him when He transforms the wine of the Passover, into His body, blood, soul and divinity. She is alongside Christ at each of these moments, which are so key in salvation history. Because of that, she is also present with every priest when he offers Mass, so that she can accompany her faithful sons when they utter the words of consecration in persona Christi            

    As Father Emile Neubert writes: “Take Jesus from her, and you take away her reason for existing, you take away her very life! At her place beside the immolated Lamb, Mary remains His Associate throughout eternity, in His immolation. The priest must repeat the Sacrifice each day and this Sacrifice will cease at the end of the world. Mary gave substantial existence to Christ-Priest when she gave Him a physical body. The priest gives Him a new accidental existence in giving Him a Eucharistic body. Mary offers up the Holy Victim in union with Jesus. The priest offers Him up in repeating the words of Jesus.” 

    The reason for Mary’s presence at every Mass, and at every chief moment in salvation history, is explained by nature of the fact that she is Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix. As Co-Redemptrix she accompanies Christ in every joy and in every pain, culminating in joining Him on Calvary. As Mediatrix, she bestows graces upon her children in the nature of a loving mother and queen, doing all so that they might come to know and love the Royal Redeemer. Her presence at the marriage of Cana should thus not be a surprise, since it is part of her motherly nature, her role as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix, and as Queen of Heaven.  

    “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.” These are the words she utters to the servants at the wedding, and are the very same which she speaks every day to those faithful souls who seek her intercession. The words of the Memorare remind us that “never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” This is precisely because Mary does not act through her own power, but always with and through her Son, with whom she paid the price for sin. She constantly counsels troubled souls to do what He tells us to do, in order that they may become perfect and join her in Heavenly beatitude, worshipping God. 

    In just a short reflection upon this passage, it is impossible to draw out every aspect which is contained within the text, yet the underlying truth which is to be found in the Gospel is thus: the unwavering love of Mary for God, and the constant attention which she gives to her children, so that they might grow in love and knowledge of God. 


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...