14th Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Epistle, St Paul paints a stark portrait, portraying the differences between life under the slavery of sin and life in the Holy Spirit. The portrait of sin with the works of the flesh, with all its horror, is all too familiar to us. That of life in the Spirit is one which we feel instinctively drawn to and want to emulate. The problem is that we too have the concupiscence which leads away from God, and even if we are not among those who make the flesh their idol, we know that it is all too easy for us to slip over onto that side of the spectrum.
At the end of the passage, St Paul states: “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh with the vices and concupisences”. When we read this sentence, we may feel terrified. If I want to belong to Christ, that is, if I want to remain in the state of grace, then I must crucify my flesh? That can sound rather daunting. But is it? When we read the lives of certain saints who took those words almost literally, we may find ourselves discouraged. If this is the Christian life, then it’s beyond me. It’s a nice dream, but unrealistic. I’ll just have to hope not to be completely engulfed in sin, and count on God’s grace to give me the opportunity to confess before I die. But that’s a defeatist mentality. If I can’t fast on bread and water every day, if I can’t scourge myself to blood, if I can’t sleep on the floor, then I can’t crucify my flesh, and so I remain a slave to sin. Is that the way it is in reality? No it’s not.
St Paul is not taunting us to vie with St Simon Stylite who lived on a column or St Catherine of Siena who lived only on the Holy Eucharist or St John Vianney who slept two hours and ate a rotten potato each day for food. Rather, he is giving us to understand that penance and self-denial are part and parcel of the Christian life. A Christianity without the cross is no Christianity at all; it is Gnosticism. Real Christianity takes seriously Our Lord’s words and the way He lived. As author Julien Green once wrote: “Any Catholicism is suspect if it does not disturb the one who practices it, if it does not mark him in the eyes of the world, if it does not overwhelm him, if it does not make of his life a passion renewed every day, if it is not difficult and odious for the flesh, if it is not unbearable”.
But how are we to go about practicing this self-denial, to refuse our flesh some of the nice things it would be entitled to in order to strengthen it against the attacks of sin? Sister Lucia dos Santos, when asked what kinds of penance Our Lady of Fatima was requesting, replied that the first and most important kind, that all of us can practice, is to be faithful to one’s duties of state in life. At first sight, that doesn’t sound like much, but when we consider all that it entails, we can better see what she means. Being faithful to our duties of state means not shirking away from responsibilities. If one is a parent, it means embracing the very demanding task of educating one’s children and providing for their future; if one owns a business, it means being honest in all dealings and attentive to true needs of one’s employees; if one is a priest, it means fidelity to the details of the liturgy, to the needs of souls. For everyone, it also means taking up daily the cross of small mortifications, bearing with insults without answering back, not complaining about other people or about the weather or about the food or about our health. It means to acquiesce to reality, not to live in a dream world, but in the real world. It means seeking in the midst of our daily duties opportunities to make little sacrifices. If I get up with a headache, if my neighbour insults me, if it rains when I would love some sunshine, if I am criticised for doing good, if my work is really hard to do and I get no reward, if I’d love to crack a joke but it’s not the right time and it might hurt someone and so I refrain, if I’d really love that extra serving of cake but I’ll give it up… such are just a few of the multiple ways of crucifying our flesh each day.
The perfection of the Christian life does not consist in doing great things, but in doing small, ordinary things with great love. If you do that consistently, you are crucifying your flesh, and you will find that when those big temptations come along, you will be stronger to ward them off. You are crucified with the Lord, and you want to remain that way. You can say with St Paul: “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20).
If we live in this way, we are living the Sermon on the Mount, a passage of which today’s Gospel puts before our eyes. It is one of the best known passages of the whole Bible. God provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. How much more must He look after us, for whom He created the universe. The doctrine of Divine Providence is here summarised for us by Our Lord Himself, and we learn from His own mouth the value of not fretting about what we might need in the future. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Tomorrow will take care of itself. We might ask, however: what bearing does this have on our struggle to live in the Spirit and crucify our flesh with Christ? Quite a lot actually. Indeed, it is only if we know for sure that a loving Hand guides all events, that whatever happens, we are in the care of One who, as St Teresa of Avila said, “knows all things, can do all things, and loves us”, that we really find the incentive to fight against our wayward tendencies and give up many things, certain that what we give up here in this passing world will be returned to us a hundredfold in the world to come. Today our task is to repose in the Sacred Heart, finding therein peace, solace, sweetness.
That sweetness is mentioned in today’s offertory verse in which we find a quotation from Psalm 33: The angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him, and shall deliver them: O taste and see that the Lord is sweet! The angel here is portrayed as being the agent of God’s care for His creatures, the achiever of His providential plans of salvation. As we approach the feast of St Michael at the end of this month and that of the Guardian Angels shortly thereafter, this reminder is an encouragement to have recourse to our good angels. God has confided to them the task of watching over us, of ordering all things towards our salvation.
Their presence should be familiar to us and should give us to experience the sweetness of the Divine Presence in our soul. In the sequence for Pentecost, we refer to the Holy Spirit as the sweet guest of the soul – dulcis hospes animae. The soul that is familiar with prayer and seeks to crucify the flesh quickly experiences that divine sweetness that is unknown to those who live in neglect of their duties to God and neighbour. If we do not experience it at least on occasion, we need to ask ourselves if we are truly serious about God, about Jesus, about the Gospel. The Lord is sweet, and those who are with Him know that ineffable and incommunicable sweetness of knowing how much we are loved.
May the Mother of Holy Hope and of all Consolation help us to seek the Kingdom of God and His justice, that is to say, holiness. If such is our passion, then we can be assured of producing in our lives the fruits of the Holy Spirit and of having everything else added unto us by our Heavenly Father.