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.

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Imitate St Paul to effect the reign of Christ the King

  Dom Gueranger writes in his commentary for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, that the Mass has references to the “days of the anti...