7th Sunday after Pentecost
By their fruits you shall know them.
In the epistle of today’s Mass, St Paul points out that if we have in the past handed over the members of our body to impurity, now that we are baptised, this is no longer possible, nor is it profitable. For indeed, the flesh produces death. If you live for the flesh, you will die the death. Your flesh will rot in the grave very soon, and your soul will be tormented in hell for all eternity.
As a tree is known by its fruit, so souls are known by their works. To make sure there is no confusion in our minds as to what is evil, the same apostle gives us several lists. To the Galatians, he mentions a number of works of the flesh which he considers to be obviously wicked and to be reproved: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like (Gal 5:19-21). To the Romans, he refers to: greed, murder, rivalry, treachery, spite, gossiping, scandalmongering, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, being ingenious in wickedness, rebelliousness toward parents, senselessness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. To the Corinthians, he adds specifically fornication, adultery, prostitution, sodomy, theft, greediness, drunkenness. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. No beating around the bush with St Paul.
This has ever been a major theme of the apostolic preaching of the Church. Indeed, it is a foundational theme of all authentic Christian preaching that it calls out vices, and moves souls to repentance. In every age, that preaching has met with obstacles, for there are always men who are so attached to themselves that they will not tolerate being reprimanded for their misconduct. Just as there are always shepherds who have not the courage to speak out against sin. They are the wolves in sheeps’ clothing who allow the flock to be scattered, or devour it themselves. By their fruits you shall know them. If the teaching produces purity and holiness, it is of God. If it finds provision for the vices of the flesh, be it couched in the most subtle language, it is of the enemy.
But the apostolic teaching does not stop there. We must first get souls out of sin, then we can give them a good clean, which is achieved through the sacrament of Penance (or baptism for those who are not baptised). But being cleansed is only the starting point. When a person bathes to remove the filth from their body, they must then be clothed in clean clothes, otherwise there is no sense in washing in the first place. In the spiritual life, we are clothed with the gift of sanctifying grace, which is the very life of God in our soul. The Triune God comes to take up residence in our heart. He shares with us His own life. With sanctifying grace come the infused virtues, not just the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, but also the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
Yet another precious gift of God are the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are a supernatural disposition by which the soul is inclined to obey with promptitude the movement of the Holy Spirit who stirs us up to do great things for God. Every soul in the state of grace has the seven gifts, but not all are equally receptive to the inspirations they afford. The saints are ones who are perfectly tuned into the voice of the Spirit, allowing them to achieve extraordinary feats for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. However, we would be mistaken were we to think that for the likes of us ordinary folk, it is enough to perform the duties of our religion and avoid falling into any of the big vices St Paul condemned earlier. That would trying to take the easy way out. And that easy way reveals itself not easy at all, but actually terribly difficult. For the grace of God is such that it continually goads us on to higher things. God wants to lift us up to Himself, He wants us to perform works of greater merit, He is not satisfied with mediocrity. I would thou wert cold or hot. But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth (Ap 3:15-16). If we do not listen intently, we remain like spiritual dwarves who refuse to grow up, and we make ourselves miserable at the task, for we would then be fighting the nudge of God, that omnipotent touch which, while it respects our freedom, nevertheless is insistent.
A great poet, Francis Thompson, described this in a poem called The Hound of Heaven. He tells of how he fled:
“those strong feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat, and a Voice beat,
More instant than the feet:
All things betray thee who betrayest me…
Nought shelters thee who wilt not shelter Me.”
On the other hand, the soul that opens itself up to God’s grace, that makes itself entirely receptive of that grace, and does not place any limits on God’s action in itself, that soul is moved swiftly along by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and begins to manifest the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are opposed to the works of the flesh, and which the same St Paul enumerates to the Galatians: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, chastity (Gal 5:22-23).
If we will but acquiesce to produce such fruit, today’s Mass gives us the secret: Come, my children, hear me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Approach close to Him and you will be enlightened… Bend the ear of your heart, and you will be delivered. My Dear Friends, the life of grace is the happiest life on earth, just as there is no more wretched, miserable, unhappy life on earth than that of the sensuous man who goes from one disgusting sty to another, always hungry, always devouring, never satisfied, destroying himself and destroying others in the process.
But all that should be behind us, and we should long to go out and bring others to realise the joy of belonging to God, of living in the Spirit, of loving God and neighbour, promoting all that is true, good and holy. We should long to see the day when, as we sang in the introit and again at the alleluia verse, all nations together can come clapping their hands with shouts of joy, joy for the victory of grace over sin, of life over death, of heaven over hell, of God over Satan.
That this is possible is portrayed for us in the liturgy once again by King David. Last week, we were saddened to hear of David’s terrible sin, the cause of which was his sensuality. Today we see him grown old and mature, but unable to keep warm. A beautiful young maiden is found to sleep with the king to keep him warm (see III Kings 1). But oh the marvel, she is hot enough to keep him warm, but holy enough to not arouse lust, for the king knew her not, tells us the sacred text. This young virgin symbolises wisdom which keeps the love of God warm in our our hearts, and at the same time calms our passions. This wisdom is made within the grasp of all. The only thing required is to want it, to desire it, as the Book of Sirach tells us: Blessed is the man who meditates on wisdom and who reasons intelligently. He who reflects in his mind on her ways will also ponder her secrets. Pursue wisdom like a hunter, and lie in wait on her paths. He who peers through her windows will also listen at her doors; he who encamps near her house will also fasten his tent peg to her walls; he will pitch his tent near her, and will lodge in an excellent lodging place; he will place his children under her shelter, and will camp under her boughs; he will be sheltered by her from the heat, and will dwell in the midst of her glory (Sir 14:20-27).
The young maiden who kept David warm foreshadowed that other maiden who was loved by God and chosen to conceive the Eternal Son, the Immaculate Mother of God, Mary most Holy. This past week we celebrated her as Queen of Mount Carmel, and we gave thanks for the gift of the Brown Scapular which we are privileged to wear as a breastplate of salvation. Now we are already looking ahead to Our Lady’s great triumph on the glorious feast of the Assumption. Under her mantle, holding her hand, we wish to move forward, not in any utopian tranquillity of life in this valley of tears, but fortified and strengthened to go from victory to victory. We are at war, but God is on our side. Our Mother sustains us. We will win, but let us not faint in battle. He who perseveres until the end, he shall be saved (Mt 10:22).