The forgotten days

This week, the third of September, the traditional Roman calendar has us celebrate what are known as the "Ember Days". These are essentially days of prayer and fasting, recurring four times a year (whence their Latin name of "Quattuor Temporum"), and destined to sanctify the four seasons of the year. These celebrations are among the most ancient and venerable in the liturgical calendar of the Roman church, their institution going back, most probably, beyond the early church and the apostles, to pre-Christian Jewish celebrations. 

Such ancient ceremonies must hold a very deep secret. As usual, we have a privileged way of tapping into that mystery, and that is the sacred texts the Church gives us on these days. If you have an old missal, you might want to open it to roughly the 16th or 17th Sunday after Pentecost. You will find tucked in there Masses for Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday and Ember Saturday. All the Masses are incredibly rich, and contain profound lessons to nourish our prayer, devotion, and acts of penance.

I will reflect only on one point here, namely the marvellous juxtaposition of texts which invite us to bend over in repentant adoration and fasting, and at the same time, almost in the same breath, other texts that invite to rejoice, to celebrate, to feast. What can be the mystery hidden here, if not one of the more profound paradoxes of our Christian faith, namely that we are a people of joyful penance, that is to say, we acknowledge our sinfulness and need for atonement, but at the same time, we know and we have the unfailing conviction that our humble efforts, which impose a bit of self-denial upon us, are pleasing to the Lord and obtain for us renewed graces of friendship with God and brotherhood with those who share our faith. 

Did not Our Lord try to get this across when He said in substance: "When you fast, do not be as the hypocrites who disfigure their faces to show people they are fasting. Rather, wash your face, perfume your head, so that you will appear not to be fasting, but rather feasting". In that way, we can see that fasting is, in a way, feasting. It is when we learn to give up certain satisfactions out of love for God that we find true joy. Then we understand why it is that the Church begins today's Mass with "Let the heart of those rejoice who seek the Lord", and why last Wednesday we were told that the "joy of the Lord is our strength". Then we will also understand why it is a pity that these holy days have been forgotten, and we will make efforts to bring them out of oblivion. They may once again be days of salvation for many.

God is not mocked

If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 

Living in the Spirit signifies living of the life of grace which Christ Our Lord has merited for us and which we receive through the Church and the Sacraments. Walking in the Spirit signifies living up to and putting into practice the far-reaching demands of that new life. It is a recurring theme in the apostolic letters of all the apostles. They had received the mandate to preach the Gospel to all nations, to baptise them, and lead them to the newness of life in Christ. But they were very quickly confronted with a sad reality: being baptised, having received the Holy Spirit, does not dispense from the spiritual combat. Rather, it imposes a higher form of life, an existence in which the flesh is restored to its primitive state, in entire submission to the Spirit. If this new life is made possible through grace, it does not dispense from personal effort, and many fall back to their former pagan way of life.

Today’s Gospel on the resurrection of the son of the widow of Naim illustrates symbolically the sad state of a soul, which had been reborn in the Spirit through Baptism, but had fallen back into sin, and was being carried away to eternal death by impetuous passions, while Holy Mother Church stood by and wept, powerless to aid a soul that had insisted upon returning to its vomit, to employ an expression of St Peter. But the Lord Jesus steps in, and restores the life of the Spirit through the sacrament of penance. The dead man rises, the sinner is absolved, he can now go forward in rediscovered newness of life: he has taken advantage of what the Fathers of the Church call the “second plank of salvation”, the sacrament of confession. 

The great lesson for us today, the great mystery which should make us marvel unceasingly, is the condescension of God who comes to lift up the sinner and give him a new chance. But also the great dignity of the faithful soul, graced with the very life of God, the life of the Holy Spirit, which makes us a new creature in Christ, and empowers us to live in a way that stuns the world. 

At the end of today’s epistle, St Paul adds: “in doing good, let us not fail; for in due time we shall reap, not failing. Therefore, whilst we have time, let us work good to all men”. Whilst we have the time. Today we have the time, God has given us another day to do good, to live up to the demands of our holy baptism, and live our faith in a pagan world in need of conversion. Let us not miss this opportunity, perhaps our last, for we do not know if we will have a tomorrow. God is not mocked. Let us be instruments in the hands of the Spirit, who gives us a share in the Divine Life, and through us, wishes to raise other souls from the dead. Through us, he wishes to bring to the ears of many those inspired words: Awake, thou that sleepest (in sin), and arise from the dead, and Christ will give thee light.

The joy of suffering

It's a paradox, one that has to be experienced to understand: suffering leads to joy. Our Lord Himself gives us the example in embracing His passion and death. It all started in the Garden of Eden when our first parents sinned. They chose to be fooled by the Enemy into putting themselves before God, lifting themselves up in pride to refuse God's commandment and do as they pleased. The tragic result was original sin and its consequences: the flesh revolts against the spirit, and must therefore be kept in check with penance and suffering. St Paul will later speak of the "superbia carnis", the pride of the flesh erecting itself against God, thinking to find satisfaction in giving in to its impulses, but at the same time experiencing its weakness. How often have you not met people who say they are free to do what they want, but prove by their actions that they are enslaved to their passions? We read about them everyday....

That is why the Word Incarnate, our sweet Saviour Jesus Christ, chose the path of suffering. Suffering serves the purpose of curbing our lust for power and pleasure; it brings us down to the dust, which is where we should be, because that's what we are made of. Only humility saves, and suffering is a privileged path to humility.

This goes for physical suffering, but it also goes for emotional or psychological suffering. The greatest evil that can befall a human being is to have a too lofty opinion of themselves, for that is the sin of Satan, and it leads to revolt against the Creator, against the order of things which are as they are and must be accepted as such. We are in a universe we did not create, and our true grandeur lies in acknowledging that, in humbling ourselves enough to play our role in that whole, without usurping the rights of God, the greatest evil, one which our present-day world excels in. 

That is why the cross is so important, why the Church celebrates this day with joy, for She knows that in spite of the difficulty we all experience in dealing with it, suffering is the divinely appointed way to being happy, in a very mysterious way, even in this life, provided we unite our sufferings with those of the God-Man and revolt not against Him. The Cross leads to Light, it leads to Glory. Let us beg for the grace to understand and embrace this all-important truth which moulds valiant souls, such that are pleasing to God and to men.

One day better than a thousand

One day in Thy vestibules is better than a thousand elsewhere. (Ps 83)

Such are the words Holy Mother Church puts on our lips at the beginning of today’s Mass. Better one single day in the Lord’s house, even at its threshold, than a thousand in the tents of the worldly rich. A gaze of faith is here required, for living in the house of the Lord can sometimes mean not having all the comfort one could obtain in many other places. It takes faith, but it takes also a bit of courage, and even more, lots of love. Is it not love that was our prod when we left behind family and friends, the perspective of a career and perhaps a fulfilling marriage and family? 

Those acts of faith and love are not forgotten. In today’s Gospel, the Lord Himself, in what might be considered the climax of the Sermon on the Mount, tells us that the soul which gives itself to God need not concern itself with anything, not even the most basic fundamental needs of a human being, such as food, drink and clothing. For the soul who truly seeks only the Kingdom of God, all these things, of which Our Father knows we have need, will be given even without our being concerned with them. The Kingdom of God and His justice: that kingdom which the preface of Christ the King will tell us is a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

It is the kingdom of which St Paul speaks in today’s epistle. Therein he paints two portraits, one tragically disheartening, the other magnificently encouraging. The first is that of those who walk according to the flesh, seeking the things of this world. Their works, which soil the mind and the body, cause them to abandon themselves to lustful desires, and it all ends up in idol worship and bloodshed. Indeed, the goods of this world being limited, not everyone can have them. So if the race is open to whomever can get there first, there will of necessity be conflicts, fights, and murder. In the second portrait, St Paul tells us of the fruit produced by those who live according to the Spirit, that is, who let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, and who seek the eternal good of their own spirit, their soul. The fruit they produce is sovereignly desirable:  charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering endurance, meekness, mutual trust, modesty, continence, chastity. 

In this way, the great apostle was painting a picture of what every Christian community should be. If the realisation of such a program is not limited to monasteries, it is certain that monasteries should be model exemplars of it. If each of the monks strives to allow himself to be governed by the Spirit of God, if he pursues at all times the goods of fraternal communion, he will come to “taste and see how good the Lord is”, as we sing in the offertory verse from psalm 33. And we will discover the bliss of living to perfection those words of Our Blessed Saviour: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added”.

Saint Regina, a virgin conquers Caesar...

Today, 7 September, is the feast of St Regina, a young virgin martyr from Alise-Sainte Reine, France, just a few miles from Flavigny-sur-Ozerain where I spent 32 years of my life. St Regina is dearly loved by the monks of Flavigny, the main reason being that her relics were kept and guarded by the monks for over a thousand years in the ancient abbey of Flavigny. Her relics, saved at the time of the revolution thanks to some God-fearing faithful, are now in the village church of Flavigny, but the monks of Abbaye Saint Joseph have a significant relic in their possession. And there is also a first class relic of St Regina at Notre Dame Priory in Tasmania, a well guarded and venerated treasure...

According to tradition, Regina, having embraced the faith, consecrated her virginity to Christ. It so happened that a local lord fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. But this was impossible, for Regina had already given her heart to the King of Kings. Her refusal would cost her her freedom and finally her life: after being imprisoned, she was tortured and martyred. For centuries, she watched over the monks of Flavigny, and now we ask her to watch over and bless too our fledgling community in Tasmania.

The place of her martyrdom also happens to be the very same place where Julius Caesar obtained his definitive victory over the Gauls in the century before Christ. Tradition tells us that there was once a stone inscription at the place of her martyrdom which read: "Here Caesar conquered Gaul; here a Christian virgin conquered Caesar."

There is much more to this epitaph than poetical expression: there is a very profound lesson and deep theology. Caesar conquered Gaul by strategy and the force of arms. It was an astounding feat, one that would have long-lasting consequences — very good ones actually —for Gaul, for the Roman domination is what would allow the Gospel to reach what would later be known as France within the first generation of Christians. But Regina conquered Caesar — here of course, Caesar refers symbolically to the Roman authority at the time — with other weapons, the weapons of her faith and her virtue. She conquered as all martyrs conquer: by allowing her body to be put to death so that her soul might live forever with Christ.

Does this not contain a very profound lesson for us today, tossed around as we are with novel ideas and practices which seek to take our soul from us? All the grave moral issues which rock the Church and the world today (abortion, adultery, same-sex "marriage", gender ideology, child abuse, etc.) all have the same root problem and the same root remedy. The problem is impurity, and the answer is chastity.

Saints like Regina are there to remind us that there are no situations which are outside of God's providence. There are no situations in which we have to sin or are allowed to sin. Faith and chastity are always and everywhere possible. But they demand both humble prayer and courage.

Those who know how to practice them are victorious, even over the modern Caesars. Those who give in become prey to the whirlwind of passing ideology, and lose their soul on the altar of impurity. The battlefield is the heart of every human being. Whose side shall we be on? I choose Regina.

Saint Regina, Pray for Us!

The Good Samaritan and the longing for eternal life

Today the traditional Roman liturgy has us read the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. It also happens to be the Sunday on which, here in Tasmania, our Archbishop has asked his priests to preach on the Catholic doctrine of marriage, in view of the upcoming plebiscite vote on what is wrongly called "same-sex marriage".

One cannot help but see in the poor man who has been beaten up, robbed, and left half-dead, the image of our world, so broken, so out of its senses, that it no longer sees the obvious. There is little profit in repeating here the tragic reality which is known to all, but it would perhaps be useful to say quite simply that our attitude to whomever does not see the obvious should be that of the Good Samaritan. No one should ever be abandoned as hopeless in this life, and sometimes we are called to extend a helping hand or a helping word to someone in doubt, or someone who is not in doubt, but who needs to be told the saving truth, evening if this truth is disturbing.

That truth is first and foremost the truth of why we are in this world. My personal reflexions over the years have led me to the strong conviction that almost all the woes of our society flow directly from the ignorance of eternal realities. If there is no afterlife, or if heaven is the final destination of all, regardless of how they lived, then life in this world, of necessity, reduces itself to finding ways of getting along with each other. And that of course is the open door to the widespread apostasy of our day, which has not spared the Catholic Church.

I cannot possibly express it any better than did St Gregory the Great in his book of morals on Job, a magnificent text we read this morning at Matins:

"There are some that take no heed to their life, and whilst they are seeking transitory objects, and either do not understand those that are eternal, or understanding, despise them, they neither feel grief nor know how to take counsel, and when they are taking no account of the things above which they have lost, they think, unhappy wretches, that they are in the midst of good things. For these never raise the eyes of their mind to the light of truth which they were created for, they never bend the keenness of desire to the contemplation of their eternal country, but, forsaking themselves amidst those things in which they are cast away, instead of their country they love the exile which is their lot, and rejoice in the darkness which they undergo as though in the brightness of the light.

"But, on the contrary, when the minds of the elect perceive that all things transitory are nought, they seek out which be the things for which they were created, and whereas nothing suffices to satisfy them out of God, thought itself, being wearied in them by the efforts of the search, finds rest in the hope and contemplation of its Creator, longs to have a place among the citizens above; and each one of them, while yet in the body an inhabitant of the world, in mind already soars beyond the world, bewails the weariness of exile which he endures, and with the ceaseless incitements of love urges himself on to the country on high".

In other words, being the Good Samaritan means reminding people that this life is short, that it will end soon, and that if we want to take part in eternal life, we must live in accordance with God's commandments. There is no other way to true happiness, in this life and in the next.

What our conscience fears

Today's oration, 11th Sunday after Pentecost, petitions God to "dismiss what our conscience fears and to add what our prayer dares not ask". What does our conscience fear if not sin? When we take a look back, we can sometimes feel fear at the thought of the evil we have done, the people we have harmed or scandalised. When we look at the future, we may be afraid of falling back into past sinfulness or of doing still greater harm. By asking the Lord to do away with what our conscience fears, we are asking His omnipotent mercy not only to forgive our past offences, but also to guard us against future failings. In this way, the petition resembles the embolism of the traditional Roman Rite Mass: "Deliver us, O Lord, from every evil: past, present and to come....".

When we beseech God to "add what our prayer dares not ask", we are acknowledging our very limited capacity to even imagine the admirable goods that lie in store for those who fear and love God. "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it has not entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love Him", says the Prophet Isaiah in a passage that St Paul made his own centuries later. For sure, what God wants to give us is beyond our wildest dreams, and so we cannot possibly ask for it. Today's oration does the asking, and as always, we see how Holy Mother Church always finds the right way to express our needs. How could it be otherwise when we know that her liturgy, which developed organically from the very sources of our faith, sanctioned by so many saints and handed down by Tradition, is guided by the Spirit of God Himself?

When we come to contemplate and understand, even a little, these truths, then can happen to us what happened to the deaf and dumb man of today's Gospel. He was deaf, meaning he could not hear and understand the word of God; he was dumb, meaning he could not sing the praises of God. But when Jesus enters his life and pronounces the word of healing, he begins to hear, he listens, and then begins to sing the praises of God. His conscience has been unloaded of all fear, and his prayer begins to ask for the sublime, whose fulfilment will come in time, a very short time for those who love God, for this life is very, very brief... 

Yes, He hath done all things well: He hath made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.

The triumph of our Mother

The Assumption is, historically and liturgically, the greatest feast of Our Lady, for in this mystery we celebrate and honour her definitive glorification, body and soul, in Heaven. It is a feast dear to all Catholic hearts, for the honour of the Mother redounds upon her children. It gives us great joy to know that she, who gave birth to each of us in the bitter hour of Her Son's passion on Calvary, is henceforth beyond all suffering and death, and reigns with Christ forever. Anyone who loves Mary as a son or a daughter cannot help but feel joy on this day. 

The feast has many implications for our spiritual life. I would like to point out just two of them today. First of all, the glorification of Mary gives us a tremendous hope in our own glorification. Indeed, she is the only human person who we know has already been glorified in this way. Her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, is glorified in his human nature, for sure, but He is a Divine, not a human Person. Mary is 100% creature, just like us. Her being assumed into Heaven strengthens our confidence that we too some day, through Her intercession, will be raised up in glory and will no longer be subject to the frailty of our flesh.

Secondly, this feast shows us the great dignity of the human body, destined as it is, to be suffused with the glory of God, completely possessed, as it were, by the divinity. Perhaps this is the reason for which the definition of the dogma of the Assumption waited till the middle of the 20th century, at at time when, like never before, the human body is degraded, especially in the person of women, counted as nothing more than an object to be used and discarded. The rampant and decadent culture which surrounds us on every side is shown, by the Assumption of Mary, to be what it really is: a false, filthy, corrupt, perverse attempt at altering God's plan for humanity. God created us for Himself, and He wants us to achieve fulfilment in Himself. He wants our bodies to be pure, dignified, adorned with every virtue, and glorified in Heaven. And that is precisely why, in these latter days, the Enemy exerts all his power to debase it to the level of the animal, for then God's masterpiece is trampled in the dirt.

On this feast, let us lift up our eyes on high to the glorious Mother of God. Let us beg her for the grace to always respect the dignity of our own bodies and those of others. Let us ask Her in particular to convert all those who make sordid money through the profanation of the body, especially those of women and children. May the abomination cease thanks to the grace of penance, and may the real dignity of our human nature be thus acknowledged and protected by all.

When he defined the dogma on 1 November 1950, Pope Pius XII composed this beautiful prayer which we can make ours on this day:

O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of God and Mother of men.

We believe with all the fervor of our faith in thy triumphal Assumption, both in body and soul, into heaven, where thou art acclaimed as Queen by all the choirs of angels and all the legions of saints; and we unite with them to praise and bless the Lord who has exalted thee above all other pure creatures, and to offer thee the tribute of our devotion and our love.

We know that thy gaze, which on earth watched over the humble and suffering humanity of Jesus, is filled in heaven with the vision of that Humanity glorified, and with the vision of Uncreated Wisdom; and that the joy of thy soul in the direct contemplation of the adorable Trinity causes thy heart to throb with overwhelming tenderness.

And we, poor sinners, whose body weighs down the flight of the soul, beg thee to purify our hearts, so that, while we remain here below, we may learn to see God, and God alone, in the beauties of His creatures.

We trust that thy merciful eyes may deign to glance down upon our miseries and our sorrows, upon our struggles and our weaknesses; that thy countenance may smile upon our joys and our victories; that thou mayest hear the voice of Jesus saying to thee of each one of us, as He once said to thee of His beloved disciple: behold thy son.

And we who call upon thee as our Mother, like John, take thee as the guide, strength, and consolation of our mortal life.

We are inspired by the certainty that thine eyes which wept over the earth, watered by the Blood of Jesus, are yet turned toward this world, held in the clutch of wars, persecutions, and oppression of the just and the weak.

And from the shadows of this vale of tears, we seek in thy heavenly assistance and tender mercy comfort for our aching hearts and help in the trials of the Church and of our fatherland.

We believe, finally, that in the glory where thou dost reign, clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars, thou art, after Jesus, the joy and gladness of all the angels and of all the saints.

And from this earth, over which we tread as pilgrims, comforted by our faith in the future resurrection, we look to thee, our life, our sweetness, and our hope; draw us onward with the sweetness of thy voice, that one day, after our exile, thou mayest show us Jesus, the blessed Fruit of thy womb, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

St Maximilian and the Immaculata

It was no accident that St Maximilian Kolbe achieved his long martyrdom on the vigil of the Assumption. He was one Our Lady's greatest devotees, had served to promote her honour like few saints have done, and deserved finally to be admitted to enter Heaven for the greatest of her feasts. To help us enter into the spirit of this feast, here is the text of his consecration to Mary Immaculate: 

Consecration prayer of St. Maximilian Kolbe to Mary Immaculate

O Immaculata, Queen of Heaven and earth, refuge of sinners and our most loving Mother, God has willed to entrust the entire order of mercy to thee. I, N., a repentant sinner, cast myself at thy feet humbly imploring thee to take me with all that I am and have, wholly to thyself as thy possession and property. Please make of me, of all my powers of soul and body, of my whole life, death, and eternity, whatever most pleases thee. If it pleases thee, use all that I am and have without reserve, wholly to accomplish what was said of thee: “She will crush your head,” and, “Thou alone hast destroyed all heresies in the whole world.”

Let me be a fit instrument in thine immaculate and merciful hands for introducing and increasing thy glory to the maximum in all the many strayed and indifferent souls, and thus help extend as far as possible the blessed kingdom of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. For wherever thou dost enter, thou obtainest the grace of conversion and growth in holiness, since it is through thy hands that all graces come to us from the most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

V. Allow me to praise thee, O Sacred Virgin.

R. Give me strength against thine enemies.

Refuge of sinners

Today in some places Our Lady is honoured as the "refuge of sinners". And it so happens that today's gospel (10th Sunday after Pentecost) presents us with the perfect attitude of those who wish to find refuge in her Immaculate Heart.

The pharisee of our gospel is the epitome of the person who thinks he is "OK". He does all the right things at the right times, he fulfils all his duties as he should. Apparently he's a "good guy". But there is one problem, or rather there are two problems. First, he doesn't need anybody's help, not even God's; he doesn't ask for anything, for he has it all right. Second, he scorns others, and not just any others, but all others: "I am not like the rest of men". Since he needs no help, and doesn't ask for it, he won't get it, he will not find a refuge and he will be lost. 

The publican on the other hand does not dare approach to the altar; he does not lift up his eyes; he has no speech to make to God; he knows God does not need him. All he can do is strike his breast and ask God's mercy for his sins. He is the perfect example of the soul who knows it's not "OK", and who needs help: he will find a refuge.

Today's collect tells us that the omnipotence of God is manifested most perfectly when He shows mercy. Why is that? Because His forgiveness can manifest itself only upon those souls who humbly acknowledge their need for it, and who in the end profess that God is all. Since God is almighty and is in need of no one, there is no attitude He finds more repugnant than that of the soul who is "OK", whereas there is no attitude He finds more attractive than that of the soul who confesses its absolute need for God's grace. It is as if He cannot resist showing mercy to the humble soul.

Mary, our sweet Mother, is given to us to be our refuge, but we must first acknowledge our sins, we must come to her as a child in trouble who knows it needs its mother. If we do, we will find in her Immaculate Heart the assured refuge from our sins, from our past, from ourselves. We will find peace, the peace that only God can give, and that is the fruit of the exercise of His omnipotence through the forgiveness of our sins. "Whoever humbles himself shall be exalted". And who is more humble than the childlike soul who runs to the Immaculate Mother, begging her to open her arms and lead her to God?

 

Virgin most powerful

In these days which lead up to the glorious feast of Our Lady's Assumption, it is good for us to reflect upon some of the invocations found in the tradition of the Church and particularly in the Litany of Loreto. The past couple days I have been meditating on the invocation "Virgo Potens", often translated as "Virgin most powerful".

One of the first things that struck me is the juxtaposition of two words that so many of our contemporaries would probably find incongruous. Virginity is often identified with weakness and lack of gusto. The strong woman, so people say, is one who fearlessly offers what she has, affirming her independence, and scorning the consequences. The virgin is portrayed as a girl who has not yet found the courage to be done with her childhood or has not yet succeeded in attracting a man. 

The title "Virgo Potens" defies such a corrupt mentality which could not be further from the truth. In reality, it is virginity that is the mark of the strong woman. Not just any virginity. Certainly not that of the woman who simply has "no luck", nor even that of those who are just afraid to lose it. The strong virgin is one who holds in high esteem the treasure of her physical integrity, and who, according to God's plan, holds it in reserve either for her future husband, to whom she will offer it as her most beautiful wedding gift, or to the eternal Bridegroom, should He call her to consecrate her virginity forever to Christ in religious life.

"Virgo Potens" gives us to understand that, in the midst of the battle for purity, lies a soul that draws from the Almighty Himself the strength to be victorious over both the enticements of the flesh and the seduction of worldly and corrupt men whose ambition — worthy of a boar — is no higher than that of using women for their own satisfaction, and then abandoning them to their fate.

"Virgo Potens" clearly inspires us with the wholesome thought that only the person, man or woman, who is capable of resisting the sometimes impetuous desires of the flesh that is truly strong, that is truly in command of their life. The others let themselves be blown around with every dark wind, and as they do, they feel not only their minds and hearts, but their bodies themselves weaken and lose stamina. The chaste generation alone finds its strength renewed from day to day, and goes from combat to combat, winning victory after victory, and can thus rest at peace in the secure citadel of a pure heart.

"Virgo Potens", the Mother of Fair Love, Virgin most prudent, come to our aid, and give to us an insatiable love for Christ Thy Son. Give to all those who have consecrated their virginity to Christ to be ever strong in their resolve, and to find in His love the source of authentic love for all. Give to those who have fallen the hope of rising again, of reconquering their lost purity, and deserving through penance a share in the crown of the chaste.

  

The treasure hidden in the field

Today in Australia we honour our first native saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop who is also secondary patroness of our community, which gives us even greater incentive to honour her in a fitting manner. Her love and zeal for souls inspired her to undertake extraordinary feats which demanded superhuman energy and exposed her, as is so often the case with religious founders, to persecution, which in her case led to the extreme: she was excommunicated!

Her manner of accepting all these trials is nothing short of admirable. Always seeing the Hand of God in events and in superiors, her view on reality was a supernatural one. The Holy Gospel tells us that the Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which when a man finds, he goes and buries it again and sells all he has to buy that field. Why is this passage relevant to St Mary and, in general, why is it used on the feasts of virgins?

St Gregory helps to us understand this when he teaches that the treasure is nothing other than the desire for heavenly realities. The field in which the treasure is hidden is the self-discipline required to attain to heavenly things. When one sells everything one has to buy that field, one is essentially renouncing the pleasures of the flesh and keeping in check all earthly desires in such a way that the soul is neither swayed by the caresses of the flesh nor deterred from the mortification required to keep it in check.

May St Mary of the Cross obtain for us a share in her intense love for Christ. May she obtain for many young women to dedicate their lives to Him and to discover the joy she expressed in this letter to her mother: "What a happiness it will be to you to think that some of your children are endeavouring to serve God in holy Religion — their one great wish being to lead souls to Him... How many are lost through indifference and coldness of those who might and should think more of their eternal welfare and far less of this miserable world?... Think, dear Mamma, of the work that is to be done, and how few there are to do it, and thank God for permitting a child of yours to be one — the least worthy — of the workers".

Mary MacKillop found the "treasure hidden in the field". We ask her to help many young men and women in our day to find it too, and to leave all things and sell everything they have to buy that field.

 

The "secret of that Face"

Today the Church turns her gaze towards the transfigured face of Our Beloved Lord. His face shone like the sun, says the Gospel. It's hard to look at the sun, or rather it is not possible without damage to the eye. Our Lord's face shines like the sun because the human soul cannot penetrate into the divinity: God remains ever inaccessible to our gaze. And that is precisely why God became man, so that, thanks to the human face of God, we could get a glimpse of the inner life of the Blessed Trinity that we will see in eternity if we prove ourselves worthy by a holy life.

As we turn our eyes to Jesus on this glorious feast, let us ask Him for the grace to be ever enthralled by His beauty, for He is, as psalm 44 tells us, the "most beautiful of the sons of men", He is "beautiful and attractive" as we read in the meditation on the two standards; He is someone you want to be with and to get to know better. Let's allow ourselves to be drawn ever more into the "secret of that face", "in abscondito faciei" as we read on psalm 30. 

Through perseverance in prayer, through the lasting effort at lifting up our eyes to our Lord Jesus Christ, we will find ourselves more and more led into the secrets of that Face, the secrets that lie beyond that Face, those ineffable secrets that will be revealed in the glory of the eternal homeland, and that we are blessed to catch a glimpse of in this life, if, and only if, we make the effort each day to detach ourselves from the attraction of the creature that fades, and turn towards the eternal light that abides. Then, and only then, can we ourselves become the "light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day star arise" (2 Pt 1:19).

I have come to cast fire on the earth...

Ignem veni mittere in terram — I have come to cast fire on the earth. These words of Our Blessed Lord come spontaneously to the mind when we think of today's great saint, Ignatius of Loyola. Much more than the root form of the name — Ignis, Ignatius, "aflame" — the comparison comes from the fire that burned in the heart of St Ignatius and that he wanted to light in the hearts of all. Few saints have had a more lasting influence and effect on the mission life of the Church than St Ignatius, and that influence finds its source in his closeness to the burning furnace of love which is the Heart of Jesus.

Is it chauvinism to point out that, like St Thomas Aquinas, St Ignatius owes a lot to the Benedictine order? it was in a Benedictine monastery in Spain that he composed his Spiritual Exercises and at the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1522, that he dedicated his life to wielding the spiritual arms of the Holy Name of Jesus, the Sacred Heart, and the sword of the Word of God. It was in a chapel of the Benedictine Abbey of Montmartre that on the Feast of the Assumption 1534 and later on at the altar of the Virgin of the Basilica of St Paul-without-the-Walls, served by Benedictines, that was born the Society of Jesus. Finally, it was the Benedictine Pope Pius VII who in 1814 reestablished the Jesuits in all their rights after their shameful suppression under Clement XIV. 

Given all this, is it too much to say that God himself has united at the feet of Our Lady these two orders which so powerfully help the Church? The Benedictine motto UIOGD — ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, that in all things God may be glorified — and the Ignatian motto AMDG — Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God, — bear more than a striking resemblance. They indicate two souls enamoured with the same love of God and passion to extend His reign in the world, albeit in different ways.

The monks of Notre Dame Priory nourish special devotion to St Ignatius because of their apostolate of retreats which take inspiration from the Spiritual Exercises, the "most perfect code of the laws of salvation and perfection, which every good soldier of Christ should use," to quote Pope Pius XI, who made Ignatius the heavenly patron of all spiritual exercises.

May this great saint inspire us all with greater love for Jesus, and lead us deeper into the spirit of prayer, thanks to which we shall be more focused on the eternal goal of our lives: the praise, reverence and service of the Divine Majesty for the salvation of souls. May that flame be lit in our hearts as well, and may it set the world ablaze with love for God and zeal for His greater glory!

The "Penitent"

St Mary Magdalene is the only saint in the liturgical calendar to have received the title "Penitent". Other holy women are called either "virgin", or "widow", or simply "holy woman". The titles the Church gives to saints are titles of glory. She praises her martyrs, confessors, bishops, doctors, virgins, etc.... Today she sings the praises of her special "penitent". What other reason could there be for this if not that Magdalene is the penitent par excellence? She has received a special grace which she is prepared to share with us, by which she has made atonement to God for her many grave sins. According to tradition, Magdalene went with her brother Lazarus to France where she lived many years as a recluse, praying, contemplating, making reparation to God and to the world for the scandals she had given by her former way of life.

Is this not touching, and is it not a source of immense hope and confidence for us? Whatever might be the number or the gravity of our sins, the example of Mary Magdalene reminds us that redemption, reintegration, salvation, and even the loftiest heights of sanctity are at our disposal.

I have sometimes met women who, having reached a certain age in life, look back, and realise how seriously they have offended God. It might be for having lived a life similar to that of Magdalene, it might be for having foolishly lost their virginity at an early age, for marital infidelity, for having aborted a child, or for having refused children or prevented them from coming into the world. Bitter tears can be shed when the attractions of the senses no longer blind the heart to reality, and when one considers the just judgments of God whom we will meet one day very soon, for we shall soon die.

Magdalene can be a tremendous consolation to such women. How many sins did she commit? How many men did she cause to sin? God knows. What we do know, and this is what is most important for us, is that when the Divine Physician entered her life, when she heard about Him and the mercy He was preaching, far from hardening her heart and justifying her actions, she let herself be touched by divine grace. It is so beautifully recounted by St Luke (ch. 7) who depicts at one and the same time her courage, her humility and her love as she enters the banquet in the pharisee's house, and before all present, prostrates herself at the feet of Our Blessed Lord, washing them with her tears, wiping them with her hair, covering them with kisses, anointing them with precious oil. Such a beautiful scene which shows what Divine Grace can do in a soul that opens itself to it. It can transform us, wipe out sin, and make all things anew.

On that day, Mary Magdalene who had up till then been a woman barren by profession, a veritable disgrace at whom people pointed their finger, becomes — oh marvel of Divine Grace! — both mystical Bride of Christ and Mother of souls. Yes, the Good Shepherd not only forgives her many sins, but He deigns to receive her among consecrated souls for whom she becomes a model of rediscovered purity. But she is also Mother, as we sing in the hymn for her feast: "Pia mater et humilis, Naturae memor fragilis, In huius vitae fluctibus, Nos rege tuis precibus — Mother kind and meek, Think on our nature frail and weak, And raise prayer that we may gain, A passage safe o'er life's rough main".

May Saint Mary Magdalene, the harlot turned saint, the great penitent, the chaste Bride of Christ, the Mother of all penitent souls, obtain for us all the grace of true repentance for our sins, and may she give us to realise the loft destiny of sanctity to which we are all called.

 

 

"I have acted like a fool..."

Today in the traditional calendar, it is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, and we are given to read about King David’s sin and subsequent repentance. Two words caught my attention last evening as we sang the antiphon for first vespers: insipienter egi — I have acted foolishly. With those words David describes his own actions with regard to Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. I have acted foolishly, I have acted as a fool… 

Is that not what happens in every sin? Is not every sin a moment of folly, in which we leave aside the light of reason and cast ourselves headlong into an action that is going to have dire consequences on us and on others? When you stop to think of all that God had done for David (which He Himself reminds David of through the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12), how He had taken him from his lowly origins, saved him from the wrath of Saul and from all his enemies and had established him king of Judah, how also he already had several wives, etc., his action can only be described as an act of folly. It is as if David had momentarily lost the use of reason.

But if sin is folly, then how can it be imputable to us? If we go crazy when we are tempted, are we really responsible? And in that case, are we not just like other animals that follow their instincts without considering the possible consequences? Such is the language of modern materialists and evolutionists who would have us believe that we are just the product of blind evolution in a universe without meaning. The problem with that is it does not explain the order of the universe, nor the reality of the human conscience and human liability before others. If we are just sophisticated animals subject to our passions over which we have no say, then why is their justice and prosecution and retribution even in this life? It does not make sense.

The reality is elsewhere. And this reality is summarised by St Benedict in the first kind of humility when he says: “We must be on our guard against evil desires, for death lies close by the gate of delight”. Death lies close by the gate of delight. Pause a moment to consider what that means: Death lies close by the gate of delight. The gate of our soul is whatever comes to us through the senses. It might be something we have seen or heard or smelt or felt; it may be a thought put into our minds by our fallen nature prone to sin because of concupiscence or by the devil himself. Whatever the case, there is an entrance into our soul, and that entrance can never be forced: the door is opened only from the inside. When the saint says that death lies close by the gate of delight, he is trying to get across the supreme importance of keeping watch at that gate, for there are some passions that, once we have let them in, almost inevitably lead us to mortal sin.

That is what happened to David. He saw this gorgeous woman bathing on the opposite balcony in the heat of the day and, instead of turning away his gaze, of busying himself as he should have with healthy work, he opened wide the gate of his eyes, the evil desire entered and took possession of his heart, and led him not only to a shameful act of adultery with a woman whose husband was risking his life on the front defending the king, but even to the almost unbelievably treacherous dirty business of having this valiant man killed in order to cover up his own licentiousness! Dear Lord! What a shameful deed accomplished by a man who had been so gifted by God…. A terrible lesson for us, for all men. It matters not how much we may have already done for God, nor how many years we may have been in His service: we remain weak men, subject to temptation, and we must set a constant guard at the gate of our heart.

That gate is most often violated through the path of the eyes, as we can see here with King David. Which also brings up the question of Bathsheba: what was she doing bathing in a place where she knew she could be seen by the king? It is hardly conceivable that this was a purely innocent action. Whatever the case, it points out the importance of modesty in dress and the grave responsibility women in particular have in this realm. It is true that men too must be modest, but it is a fact that the chastity of men is greatly imperilled by the immodesty of women. 

At the same time, this history reminds us of the responsibility we have of making good moral choices, and of the effect these choices have on the world. One's man's sin can be the cause of great disasters — as the next chapters of the Bible show us in the life of King David. But one man's virtue is also a tremendous grace for an entire people, even for the entire world.

Let us ask King Saint David to obtain for us the grace of salutary repentance and of atoning for our sins by willingly accepting the hardships that come our way. If we do so, even the dark pages of our lives can be transformed by Divine Grace, and can be an encouragement to others of what it is possible to do for God in this short life we have to live. Let us live it wisely, not foolishly!

St Benedict and saving the West

A few days ago the President of the United States gave a speech to the Polish people in Warsaw in which he spoke of the threats facing the West, in particular the danger of the West losing its soul. In many ways, it was remarkable to hear from the mouth of one of the most powerful men on earth that the Polish people manifested really who they are when they cried out together "We want God". 

"We want God". Strong words indeed from a people who had everything to fear from Soviet oppression in 1979. A profession of faith it was, a refusal to succumb to an ideology that deprived man of his greatest dignity, that of being creatures of God, destined to praise, reverence and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next.

Nearly 40 years later, we find ourselves, in the West, faced with similar oppression, only much more subtle. In the Soviet Union, God was openly attacked and denied, and this atheism was imposed forcefully upon the masses. In today's West, no one is (yet) forcefully made to deny God, but the ambient culture is perhaps even more effective at destroying faith in God. Today the creed is not, "I believe in God who made heaven and earth", but "I believe in myself who have the power to create my own little world and appoint my own gods". This new creed is what is destroying the West and leading it to the same practical atheism which Communist Russia imposed by force on millions of people in their own country and in Eastern Europe.

With Mr Trump, we can say "We want God", but we must never forget that ever since God became man, "God" is not enough. As St Pius X put it so well: there can be no moral civilisation without the true religion. Hence, much of the President's discourse resembles the authors St Augustine read before his conversion and which left him empty, for "the name of Christ was not there".

St Benedict, whom we honour today, is there to remind us of the primacy of God, but he also reminds us of the primacy of Christ: "Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may He lead us all to eternal life". 

In a world abandoned to a latent and insidious form of atheism, it is not enough for us to speak of God, for there is no going to God but through Christ: "No one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6). Nor is there any going to Christ but through His Church: "He that hears you hears me: and he that despises you despises me: and he that despises me despises Him that sent me" (Luke 10:16).

The real salvation of the West lies not in political rhetoric about how great we are, but rather in following the example of men like St Benedict who saved the world by leaving the world, who brought light to it by accepting to go through the darkness of inner purification, who showed by their deeds that there is a God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who alone is the saviour of mankind.

The Precursor and the "truth trip"

The feast of the Nativity of the Precursor, St John the Baptist, celebrated a few days ago, affords us the opportunity to reflect upon the significance of this extraordinary man, the "greatest among those born of woman". His grandeur lies precisely in pointing the way to Christ. This is admirably expressed in the "Benedictus" where his father Zachariah proclaims, "Thou, son, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways".

To prepare the ways of the Lord: is that not the role of every priest? To prepare the path in souls for the visitation of Christ. But to prepare it for what? The Benedictus goes on: "To give knowledge of salvation... for the forgiveness of sins". As much as to say that the role of any worker in the Lord's vineyard, if it is to lead to Christ, can only do so by giving to understand the fundamental importance of conversion. We need to be saved, we cannot save ourselves. And being saved implies being saved from something, and that something is sin.

So we conclude that any form of evangelisation, any form of proclamation of the mystery of Christ and His Gospel, must of necessity start with the proclamation of the reality of sin. The Baptist did precisely that when he pronounced these austere words to the people who came to be baptised: "Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance: and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you that God is able of these stones, to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire" (Lk 3:7-9). Jesus Himself began His mission in a similar way: "The time is accomplished and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel" (Mk 1:15) : And St Peter, on the very day of Pentecost, tells the Jews: "Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost... Save yourselves from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:38-40).

May St John the Baptist give us all, especially us priests, the courage to denounce sin and its tragic consequences. We sometimes hear it said that we shouldn't lead people on "guilt trips". But what if a "guilt trip" is a "truth trip"? For either we are guilty of sin or we are not. If we are not, then we are the Immaculate Conception. But according to our faith, there is only one of those...! And if we are, then our conversion and our peace can only be found once we have acknowledged our failings, and resolve to turn around, have a "metanoia", a change of heart, and set out in a new direction, for "salvation is found in the truth" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 851). Such is the pedagogy of the saints of whom the Baptist is the greatest. St John the Baptist, pray for us!

Treasure, Fountain, Harp, Thurible and Altar

In the preface for the feast of the Sacred Heart, we are told that the Heart of Our Lord was opened in order to become a place of rest for the pious and a refuge for sinners: "ut piis esset requies and paenitentibus pateret salutis refugium". A place of rest and a refuge: two beautiful images of places that we naturally like to be in — we are all sinners, and all need of a refuge from the onslaught of vice, we are experience fatigue in our search for holiness and we all need a place of rest for our tired minds and hearts.

But tradition has given us several other images in reference to the Sacred Heart, approaches as it were, of holy souls to this "burning furnace of divine love". They tell us among other things that the Heart of Our Lord is a Treasure containing all the riches of God. Indeed, since this Heart is united "in persona" with the Second Person of the Trinity, it is truly the Heart of God, the human heart with which God loves us. As such, it contains all the treasures of the divinity, and we can therefore find therein all the riches of grace of which we stand in need. In the litany, we pray: “Heart of Jesus, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, have mercy on us”.

The Heart of Our Lord may also be considered as a Fountain, an inexhaustible source from which flows Divine Grace. One might be reminded here of the torrent of life that flows from the throne of God and and Lamb in the Apocalypse (22:1) and which symbolises the Holy Spirit, the unending torrent of grace that comes from God and reaches us wherever we may be. It is always possible for us to drink long draughts at this divine source in order to quench the thirst of our souls for God, for purity, for holiness. In the litany we pray: “Heart of Jesus, source of life and holiness, have mercy on us”.

The Heart of Jesus is also considered as the Harp which gives forth ravishing divine melodies under the touch of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the human heart of Jesus, united with the divinity, is under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit who is given to it without measure (John 3:34) and it therefore gives forth the sweetest melodies through the practice of all the virtues. When the Son of God entered our world, He intoned the eternal canticle of praise, the "perfectae laudis munus" which is the most perfect praise of the divine Majesty: only God can praise God as He deserves. And so, from the first moment that it began to beat within the tiny body of the Son of God in the virginal womb, that Divine Heart began the canticle of praise — the divine harp began to give forth its melodious harmonies which ravish God himself and elevate our minds and hearts to the contemplation of the Divinity.

Another profound image given to us that of the Thurible. Just as our earthly thuribles give forth the fragrant smell of incense and are for that reason used in the Sacred Liturgy to symbolise our prayer and adoration — incense is offered to God alone —, so the Divine Heart of Jesus gives forth continually the most consummate acts of adoration and love of the Father that could possibly be imagined. This adoration reaches its climax in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when, on the altar, the immolated Victim offers to the Father the worship and the veneration that are due to Him, giving forth as well the sweet fragrance of all the virtues. 

Finally, the Heart of Christ is the Altar upon which the perfect sacrifice is offered to the Father. The Lord Jesus is at once the Priest, the Altar and the Victim, for He is the one who offers, He is the one who is offered, and He is the one upon whom the offering is made. Upon His own Heart, the Lord Jesus offers to the Father the acceptable sacrifice. Our privilege during the Holy Mass is to unite our humble, imperfect acts of adoration with those of Jesus, trusting that they will thus find admittance before the eternal throne, and take part in appeasing the Divine Majesty. This also teaches us to offer ourselves on the altar of our own heart, especially in times of trial and pain: nothing pleases God more than a suffering soul that offers itself without reserve as a total oblation, without reserve, to be consumed for the glory of the Father.

May the Sacred Heart of Jesus teach us. May we learn day by day to imitate Him and may we be drawn ever more into the the burning furnace of charity, inflamed ourselves with love for God and men.

 

Wine springing forth virgins

Today is the traditional octave of Corpus Christi and I would like to share some thoughts on the Blessed Sacrament and its importance for the preservation and increase of virtue. Perhaps what sparked these reflections is an invocation in the Litany of the Precious Blood which reads: "Most Precious Blood of Jesus, wine springing for virgins, save us". The wine springing for virgins is a reference to the prophet Zechariah 9:17: "For what is the good thing of him, and what is his beautiful thing, but the corn of the elect, and wine springing forth virgins?". This messianic prophecy with its mysterious reference to wheat and wine (always think of the Eucharist when the two are found together) found its way into the Litany of the Precious Blood because of the transformation of the wine into the Blood of Christ at Holy Mass. How could wine "spring forth virgins" if it were only an ordinary wine? Wine usually leads in the opposite direction, as its abuse leads to debauchery. 

This text inspires us to reflect a bit upon the power of the Holy Sacrament to give and preserve the virtue of Holy Purity. There is no need to expound upon the extreme difficulty of remaining pure in a world given over to impure vice. It is seen everywhere, and work with souls reveals all too often defeats which are set along the the battle line of this virtue. The Enemy knows all too well our weakness when it comes to chastity, and his satellites literally have a heyday with their lasciviously suggestive or even overtly dissolute seductions. And souls are led astray, because they are weak. They are like the flies that are attracted to the flame of a candle in a dark room: they get too close, and are consumed by the fire and find themselves spiritually dead.

In that context, it is such a consolation to be reminded that the Lord has give us the remedy against lust in the Most Blessed Sacrament. If you love the Holy Eucharist, if you stay close to it, if you receive it worthily and frequently, then you can remain chaste. How many souls could testify to this truth: it is when they begin to communicate frequently, even daily, that the allurements of lust start to subside. They never disappear entirely in this life for anyone. There is no such thing as a person who does not have to battle with this. But the soul which is devoted to the Sacrament of the Altar, and receives it with pure intentions and in the state of grace (after confession in the case of a fall), is strengthened from within. How could one receive the Eucharist with devotion, being assumed into intimate communion with God Himself, with the "wine springing forth virgins", and then turn around and return to the mire of unchastity?

So let us get closer and closer to the Blessed Sacrament. You may remember the famous dream of St John Bosco who saw the Church in the form of a ship going through a terrible tempest which threatened to submerge it, and the Pope led the Church to two pillars: one symbolising the Holy Eucharist, the other symbolising Our Lady. When he had anchored the vessel to these pillars, the storm ceased. And so it is, when we stay close to the Eucharist and to Our Lady, we remain chaste. There may be storms, there may be times when we feel drawn back into the filth, but if we stay put and hold tight to Jesus Eucharist and Mary the Virgin, then we remain pure, for we drink the sweet long draught of the "wine springing forth virgins".