The Opiate Of Theologians

The Opiate Of Theologians

Septuagesima Sunday

“Run that you may win”

As every author knows, introductions and conclusions are crucial points of any composition. Today’s Mass and office, which are an introduction to the Easter cycle of the liturgical year, rise to the task in exemplary fashion. The texts, admirably chosen and chiselled to perfection, make them truly some of the most precious gems of the Roman Liturgy.

We find therein a summary of the mysteries of our faith. From the marvellous contemplation of creation to the tragic event of the Fall with the anguish of spirit that set in immediately after the first sin, taking us down to the very brink of hell; from St Paul’s salutary reminder that ever since the fall we must make every effort to come back to God, an effort which we must undertake as the athlete who runs to win a race, to the Gospel story of the workers in the vineyard, called to take their share in the labour and in the eternal reward; from the offertory verse in which the psalmist has discovered the secret of happiness in our fallen world, namely the persevering chant of the divine praises, to the communion verse which seems to already point us to the glory of Easter Sunday when the radiant countenance of the Risen Saviour will shine upon us: we have here a veritable masterpiece of liturgical composition.

At the heart of today’s Mass, we have the Gospel of the workers in the vineyard. They are hired by the Master of the vineyard and offered a reward, which symbolises eternal life. The hiring tells us that the Lord goes out looking for souls who are willing to work to attain the eternal kingdom. There is no blanket admittance to all, no facile handout of meaningless prizes. God does not discriminate – all are called to salvation, but all do not respond. Salvation is offered, but it must be chosen, willingly, lovingly. The eternal retribution is immense, so beyond our wildest dreams, that it is worth every effort. To see God face to face is worth sacrificing everything.

The ancients knew this, they lived it. In our day, we have a situation in which this doctrine, even for many who style themselves Christians, has become incomprehensible. We feel that we have a right to salvation just as we have a right to insurance and social benefits, on our own terms of course. It is so true that very often one gets the impression that salvation comes to all, and that you must really make an effort to avoid it by committing some really heinous crime. This is what one author recently called “the opiate of theologians”. It is a falsehood that lulls consciences into a deadly sleep, from which many never wake until it is too late. It is this opiate which has emptied our churches, our seminaries, and our religious houses, paralysed the missions and caused of the scandals which continue to rock the Church today.

The saints and doctors of the Church, on the contrary, perfectly in tune with the Gospel, remind us that it is not the case at all that everyone is saved. Many are called, but few are chosen. The call goes out to the multitude, but few actually respond, and therefore few are saved. Far from discouraging us, this teaching of our Blessed Saviour should inspire us with a great desire to reform ourselves and save our souls. It should instigate us to reach out to those who are far from God and give them a wake-up call while there is still time to convert. For this, the meditation of death and eternity remains the most powerful motives.

St Philip Neri expresses it this way: “He who often meditates on the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell), will not fall into sin. If they are not meditated on, they vanish from the mind; and then the pleasures of the senses present themselves, and those who do not keep before themselves the eternal truths are easily taken up by them; and this is the reason why so many abandon themselves to vice and are damned”.

Let us then renew our zeal for our monastic calling, for according to the teaching of the saints, there is no more powerful means of saving souls and evangelising the world than the prayer and sacrifices of contemplative souls. “Woe to the world if there were no monasteries,” St Teresa of Avila once said. Let us ask her to obtain for us the grace to be faithful, and that many more monasteries may spring up in the wasteland of the modern world.

“Run that you may win”.