14th Sunday after Pentecost
Profound peace and serenity pervade all the chants of today’s Mass. The introit sings of our firm assurance that the Most High is our protector and our shield, that as He looks down upon us, He sees in us the beloved Face of His Christ, His Son, our Lord, in whom the Father always finds pleasure. The offertory will proclaim our faith in the presence of God’s angels who surround us, protecting us from harm, and giving us to taste the sweetness of the Lord’s goodness. The gradual and alleluia both told of the delightful privilege of singing the praise of the Most High God. The central piece of the Mass however is the Gospel taken from the Sermon on the Mount. Who can fail to be moved by the invitation we read there to trust in the providence of the Father, as the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field? In the epistle, St Paul teaches that if we live in the Spirit, we will reap the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, chastity (Gal 5:22-23). We could say that we are given here an attractive portrait of the ideal society where God reigns in all hearts and in which fraternal peace and charity make it truly a pleasant place to be.
Among all these consoling texts, there is however a sour note, a warning. Rather, it is the explanation as to why that promised peace and tranquillity is seldom realised in this life. The answer is simple, and the Apostle pinpoints it when he writes: The flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, …Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:17-21).
The gist of the apostolic teaching is that if we live in the Spirit, charity and peace will reign. But if we give in to the desires of the flesh, then we will reap what we sow, and the evil fruit produced will provoke three distinct shipwrecks. The first is that it will break our relationship with God; from the sweet service we are meant to pay our Creator, we will fall into the dark ugliness of idolatry, substituting a dead creature for the living God. The second is that it will destroy our relationship with others; instead of peace and mutual loving support, we will fight and hurt and kill each other in numerous ways, making for a society that is a living nightmare. The third is broken harmony within ourselves, our body being handed over to lusts that defile it and by the very fact destroying the peace of soul that can only reign when the flesh is kept in check by the fervour of the spirit.
A single person who lives a disordered life in the flesh is enough to cause trouble. So what are we to say of a society in which the majority of members turn their backs on God? Or what are we to say of a society that lifts up as a principle its autonomy vis-à-vis the Creator? Then it is that we have anarchy, for only God can be the unifying principle of human society. There is no other.
In modern times, at least since the Renaissance, there has been a futile attempt to find common ground on natural values, to live as if there were no God and impose a new moral code whose first commandment is to get away with as much as you can as long as you do not harm anyone else, and whose second commandment is that if you do hurt anyone, make sure nobody finds out. Such an approach to life in common leads inevitably to social anarchy, for those coveted goods are not to be had in unlimited quantities. In such a world, it is easy for everyone to be sent whirling with dismay as soon as some disaster hits. For the past 18 months the whole world has been desperately trying to free itself from a real evil, namely the Covid-19 virus, but since it lives, not in the Spirit but in the flesh, the methods that have been adopted are those of the flesh, and as such they are doomed to failure.
Seek first the kingdom of God, says Our Beloved Saviour, and all the rest will be added. Our world does not seek the kingdom of God, it wants only the kingdom of man. But the kingdom of man, by its very nature, produces those bitter fruits St Paul speaks of today. Is it any wonder that having legitimised crimes that every civilised nation in history has held in abomination, we find ourselves under the duress of this trial? But what is more alarming is that still we do not see. The Lord’s words are clear: if we want to enjoy peace and all the benefits of God’s kingdom, we must begin by trusting in Him, by ceasing to be solicitous for the things of this world: what shall we eat, what shall we put on, how shall we be covid-free, what new miracle drug can we come up with to replace God? So do pagans think, for they have nothing else to live for. In a truly Christian civilisation, the preservation of physical life has never been the absolute norm; rather, it is the salvation of the soul that commands every decision. If we wish to get our country and our world back on track, reduce illness and ward off economic disaster, the solution is spelled out for us right here in the Gospel. It has been written there for two thousand years. Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice and all the rest will come.
The message that the Son of God sends then, – and that we send in His Name – to all those who in our day hold power, is this: The choice is before you. Either you Seek first the kingdom of God, and open, today, the doors of all churches, you go there yourselves, you get down on your knees, you repent of your misdeeds, you weep bitter tears over the life of the flesh you have lived and encouraged others to live, you stop the massacre of the unborn and the final solution for the elderly, you make atonement for the sins of your nation, and desist from your obstinate pride which is the cause of the catastrophe in the first place, you remember that you are not gods but mortal men who will die soon, very soon, and at the judgment throne of Christ, an “I tried my best” will not be good enough. Do not be like those men we read about in the book of Revelation who, under God’s punishment, blasphemed the God of heaven, because of their pains and wounds: and did not penance for their works (Rev 16:11)
But, if you continue to live in the flesh as if there were no God, if you persist in trying to find a solution without God, you will have death, lots of deaths, not just the deaths of those nameless babies who were murdered and continue to be murdered, not just the deaths of all those young people who take their lives out of despair over a world gone insane, not just the slow deaths of those you will have forced out of business by your mad obstinacy in thinking that you can get through this without God, but also your deaths. For history always repeats itself, and peoples always end up revolting against leaders who oppress them for whatever reason.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it is not too late. It is all really quite simple. The fruit of the Spirit grows inevitably on the tree of life, that tree that is planted in the good soil of a life of prayer and penance. It’s all as simple as the act of the presence of God, which St Benedict says is the first degree of humility
“The first degree of humility is that a man keep the fear of God before his eyes, altogether shunning forgetfulness. Let him ever remember all the commandments of God and how hell will burn for their sins those that despise him; and let him constantly turn over in his heart the eternal life which is prepared for those that fear him. And guarding himself always from sins and vices, whether of thought, word, hand, foot or self-will, and checking also the desires of the flesh, let him consider that God is always beholding him from heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the eye of the Godhead, and are constantly being reported to God by the angels” (St Benedict, Rule, ch. 7).
That awesome thought of the continual presence of God is one that causes anguish in the hearts of those who live in the flesh, but for those who seek God, it is the sweetest of all thoughts. Let us exert ourselves in this practice. Let us plunge ourselves frequently into it. Let us persevere in silence and recollectedness in His presence. Let us return frequently to that divine dwelling place in our hearts where God Himself beholds us and seeks to converse with us. For this, we must avoid noise and haste. Fear not, be not troubled. Seek the fruit of the Spirit.
St Elizabeth of the Trinity, a short time before her death, wrote to a friend: “I leave you my faith in the presence of God, the God of love who dwells in our souls. I confide to you, it is this intimacy with Him on the inside which has been the beautiful radiant sun of my life, making it already as an anticipated Heaven. This is what holds me up today in my suffering”. And in her prayer to the Trinity, she proclaims: “O Eternal Word, Utterance of my God! I yearn to spend my life in listening to Thee, to become wholly docile, that I may learn all from Thee. Then, through all nights, all emptiness, all helplessness, I long to gaze on Thee always and to dwell beneath Thy lustrous beams. O my beloved Star! So fascinate me that I may never again withdraw from Thy radiance!”
If we are able to do that, my dear Friends, then we are certain to be producing the sweet fruit of the Spirit. Then, the heavenly Protector whom we sang of in the introit, will look down, and He will see in us the Face of His Beloved Son, whose image we strive to reproduce in our souls. Then we shall say truly: this day, a single day in Thy house, is worth more than a thousand anywhere else.