Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine


Dearly Beloved,
Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Augustine, the spiritual father and founder of this monastery. His actual
feast day fell on this past Wednesday, August 28, the day on which he died and went to heaven in the year 430.
But we offer Mass today in his honor that we might be able to celebrate his feast with you since most of you
could not join us for his feast, as it fell on a weekday.
St. Augustine is our spiritual father not only because we follow his Rule, written about 100 years before that of
St. Benedict, but because he lived as we do. When he became a Catholic at the age of 33, he founded a simple
monastery in northern Africa and lived there even when he was ordained a priest. When he became a bishop, he
mandated that all of his clergy live with him in the episcopal residence, so that they could pray together, support
one another, and contemplate the Holy Trinity and things of heaven.
It is a forgotten fact that religious life, especially priestly religious life, exists principally so that the religious
priest has enough leisure, or free time, to consider the things of God and then enrich his people with the insights
gained and the union achieved. You support us financially so that we can think about the things you have less
time to think about: it is much like a mother bird: we feed you with the richness of the truth and beauty of God,
and we do that because you supply our material needs. Religious priests are not the lazy liars that Voltaire and
Hitchens say we are, but instead religious priests are the sign of a healthy Church and society, for if God has
revealed Himself to man, should not some souls devote themselves wholly to studying all He has said and then
handing it on to others?
In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the most perfect human activity is contemplation, in the sense
of thinking carefully and profoundly about reality. He supports this claim by many reasons: for one, the highest
activity of man must be in accord with his highest power, and that is his intellect. Another reason is that
whatever makes him most like God would be the most perfect action, and God is thought thinking itself. Lastly,
the highest human activity must be something which requires no exterior things to make it possible, and one
may consider the truth regardless of whether he has material goods.
What does the contemplative person think about? Since it is an imitation of God, it would have to be the most
perfect and lasting things. We could also say that the contemplative thinks about the essence of things, the heart
of the matter, and habitually tries to move past appearances to what is most real about a thing or an action. We
become exhausted by details, but considering the ‘why’ of a thing actually mysteriously rejuvenates us.
Augustine excelled at this most perfect of human activities. Despite the fact that he had never-ending duties, he
was one of the most profound contemplatives that has ever lived. In his homilies and the Confessions, he
relates that the most happy time of his life was between his conversion to the Church and his ordination to the
priesthood, a period of about five years in which he had leisure to pursue wisdom by reading good authors and
discussing truth with his friends. When he became a priest, and especially upon being consecrated a bishop, he
no longer had any leisure—like us Canons and like most of you--and yet he found time to contemplate because
he made it a priority in his life. In this contemplation, he always looked for center of the matter, the essence,
whether it concerned marriage or music, time or the Trinity.
Although his thought is more complicated and varied than a homily allows for, there are three areas of his
contemplative life worth looking at more carefully. Of course for Augustine all contemplation was ultimately
of God, and secondarily of the things He has made, but he really did enjoy pondering all that was important,
true, good and beautiful.
First, the natural world. Augustine loved nature and felt that the most natural human action was fascination
with the natural world. He once wrote, “What words can describe the myriad beauties of land and sea and sky?
Just think of the illimitable abundance and the marvelous loveliness of light, the beauty of the sun and moon
and stars, of shadowy glades in the woods and of the colors and perfume of flowers, of the songs and plumage
of so many varieties of birds, of the innumerable animals of every species that amaze us most when they are
smallest in size.” In other words, he loved the details of the world around him, and they never lost their
newness for him.
And yet, he also looked for the essence of such things. For him, they all pointed to God. In a famous passage
in the Confessions, he asks created things who God is: “To the sky I put my question, to the sun, the moon, the
stars, but they denied me: ‘We are not the God you seek.’ And to all things which stood around the portals of
my flesh I said, ‘Tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him.’ Then they lifted up their
mighty voices and cried, ‘He made us.’” For Augustine, nature is most what it is when it functions as a step to
God; created things most perfectly achieve their purpose and are therefore most glad, one could say, when they
point to the One who made them and help a human being love his or her Creator more.
The second thing Augustine loved to think about was man, both his powers and his actions. Half of book ten of
the Confessions, which in an English translation is equivalent to 22 pages, is about the power of memory—how
we remember things, what we remember, where we store memories and other considerations. And his epic
work on the Trinity, he devotes a fourth of it to discussing man’s intellect and will and how they enable him to
know and love and he does such things. But he didn’t concern himself only with thinking about the essence of
the soul—he also thought about why man acts as he does, especially why he sins, and he thought a lot about
why he sinned. When he was sixteen, the bishop to be famously stole some pears from a nearby orchard, and
25 years later, he was still thinking about why he had done that. He never stopped looking for the essence of his
own actions, and seeking the why of them so that he might live better, more virtuously, more peaceably with
others.
Both these considerations again led him closer to God: contemplating bad action, he knew what good action
must look like and how it would make him closer to his Savior; pondering the human soul made him think of
the Trinity, and his use of the memory, intellect and will as analogies for the Father, Son and Spirit remains the
foundation of Trinitarian theology to this day.
Finally, Augustine loved to read and ruminate upon the Word of God. In his youth, he thought Scripture was a
joke, something below himself that only unintelligent people read. But when he heard Ambrose expound the
holy books from his pulpit in Milan, Augustine realized that there was an immense profundity to the writings
that he had thought were for children. From that time on, he never ceased to read, and write and preach on
Scripture. In fact, one of his first writings after his conversion is a lengthy commentary on the first three
chapters of Genesis. Although he knew all of Scripture very well, Augustine had, just as we should have, his
favorite books. He especially enjoyed reading and commenting on Genesis 1-3, the Gospel of John and the first
letter of John, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and most of all, the Psalms. Again, in the Confessions, he wrote,
“How wonderful are your Scriptures! How profound! We see their surface and it attracts us like children.
And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous. We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both
the awe of reverence and the thrill of love…they are sweet with the honey of heaven and radiant with your
light.”
Whereas when he was young, he thought the Word of God was the least important of all written works and that
worldly authors were much more important, when he came to love God as a young man, he began to gauge all
human wisdom by the measure of holy Scripture. It became for him the essence of all good thought, and now
Cicero and Plotinus and Virgil had to prove their worth in light of the Bible, rather than vice versa. And those
who expounded the holy books were those he trusted most, for he knew that they were closer to the center of
truth.
All this talk of Augustine’s contemplation of nature, man, and Scripture is meant, of course, to encourage you to
do the same, and imitate him. But to return to Aristotle for a moment, notice that contemplation of true and
lasting things is not the mark of a Christian qua Christian but of a human being. We don’t have a choice
between contemplating or not contemplating any more than we have a choice between being human or not. If
we wish to be good persons, we must make time for ourselves to think and meditate upon profound things.
Moreover, it is not only that this will make us holier persons, but also happier persons.
Too many of us spend our lives not acting like human beings but some elevated form of domestic animal
because we don’t give ourselves time and space to think, and we use our leisure time so badly. We will not be
happier by devoting more time to details of life, like social media and sports, but by thinking about the things
that last, as St. Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think
about these things.” You must trust me that you will be more enlivened and refreshed by contemplation than
by any other activity you choose. We are built to think about God and the things that are like Him; when we
focus on lesser things, we exhaust ourselves.
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!” As we enter more deeply into
the holy mysteries of the Mass, let us consider this famous lament of St. Augustine. In a very real way, for each
of us, it is late. The day is spent and night is approaching. It is time to re-prioritize our lives, inasmuch as it lies
within our power, so that we can be men and women, boys and girls, dedicated to what matters in life. To set
aside time for contemplation, prayer, reading, discussion; to use our leisure well. And if, by God’s grace, we
persevere in this desire, we will be able to pray once more with Augustine: “You called, you shouted, and you
broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance
on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You
touched me, and I burn for your peace.” May we burn as he did until we are filled with the Lord’s peace, in the
world to come, in the New Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost 2019

 

Beloved in Christ,
Two facts determine the growth of the kingdom of God within us: the grace of God, and the attitude which we take towards the working of that grace. In today’s epistle reading St. Paul says, “There are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; and there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord; and there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. . . . To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge . . . ; to another the grace of healing in one Spirit... But all these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to every one according as He will.” To this all-powerful working of grace entirely independent of man corresponds, on the part of man, a humble recognition of his utter helplessness, for St. Paul adds, “No man can say: The Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Spirit”. The instruction within this Sunday’s liturgical celebration teaches us that wherever man’s weakness and inability to fulfill by himself the demands of the supernatural life are acknowledged, there alone is possible the development of the life of grace in man.
For this reason, acknowledging the insufficiency of our own human and natural faculties, as true believing Christians we take ourselves to Holy Mass on this 10th Sunday after Pentecost. Here, in the Gospel reading we encounter a type or figure of the religious man who is self-deceived: A Pharisee stands with proud composure and has the arrogance to pray, “0 God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men.” He meditates upon what he judges to be his self-worth, all too ready to assert of his apparent moral superiority over others. His proud prayer, however, becomes his undoing: “I say to you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [Pharisee]; because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” God forbid that the Pharisee should ever be, in fact, a figure of you or me.
Beloved, if we recognize before God our frailty, our proneness to sin, our tendency to prefer self to Him, self to others, self to just about anything other than money and other forms of worldly gain – if we confess this real moral failure to Him while also acknowledging the power of His grace as true Christians must do, the humble and repentant expressions of the publican – hardly daring to lift up his eyes to heaven – will be that figure towards which we should always aspire. Our prayer, then, will not be a rehearsal to Him of our marvels in patience, or long suffering the litany of com-plaints we carefully harbor against our neighbor, but rather a sincere mea culpa: a penitent and sincere, “0 God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Acknowledging our unworthiness and weakness, we are bidden by Christ Himself to return to Him, with trust, beseeching Him as one dependent upon His forgiveness and generous mercy. It is this Publican who should be our model in today’s Gospel, and it is in that vein that we make the Church’s prayer our own: for today’s opening collect begs: “O God, who dost manifest Thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; in-crease Thy mercy towards us.”
Thus my beloved by faithfully responding to the Word of God and the Sacraments of faith we put into act our belief in the working of divine grace in our souls. Grace – the free gift – of God’s mercy. All we need to do to bring this to bear on the full fabric of our daily lives is to recognize this irreducible necessity of the God life within our hearts while beseeching Christ at all times to help us live according to His divine will. This has ever been, and will ever remain, the program of true Christian faith by which Christ slowly forms us to receive us to Himself in Glory.

 

 

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost 2019


Dearly Beloved,
Today, for our consideration, the Church presents to us one of the most bizarre and confusing of Jesus’
parables. The parable of the unjust steward is found only in Luke, and it ought to baffle us that the master, who
in all of Jesus’ other parables is representative of God, praises his steward’s dishonesty at the end of the whole
episode.
The key to understanding the parable is to think of ourselves as the unjust steward. We are that person in the
parable who misuses his own office, and then draws others into his sin. We have squandered the gifts that God
has given us: some of us in illicit loves, some in sloth and laziness, some in avarice, others in gluttony, nearly
all of us in pride. What is more, apart from the children present, most of us know of some era in our lives in
which we wasted God’s blessings for a long period of time, perhaps months, years, even decades.
And that is really the point of the parable: since we have misused God’s gifts, we should find others who will
help us get to heaven, poor people who also debtors of God, but not in the same way that we are. We have
knowingly offended God; they, in their God-given innocence, have ceased offending him (or never began) and
so they are merely paying off the debt from original sin or their personal sins. Is this obscure? It ought to be, in
a way. But I will try and clarify what I am saying.
Our Lord tells us at the end of the parable to use money (the mammon of iniquity) to gain spiritual benefits.
When we do good to others by way of money, they will welcome us into eternal dwellings, either because they
have lived righteous lives with the help of God’s grace and will welcome us into heaven, or because the Lord
will receive us in their place with the words: I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me. So the
clearest meaning of the parable is that we ought to use our money (if we have any to use) to help those in need
bodily and spiritually.
The obvious implication is that we should give money or goods to those who lack the basics of life, and ask
their prayers for us. We do them a bodily good; they pray for our spiritual good. The difficulty is that so often
the poor of today’s age are not religious and do not care about spiritual things; in those cases Christ rewards us
in their place with spiritual benefits and mercy. The less obvious implication is the use of money to help the
souls in purgatory by way of Masses. This interpretation of the parable is infallible in that the holy souls have
ceased to sin, and therefore can no longer offend God; they also are poor in that they cannot help themselves:
they rely upon our spiritual charity to speed their entry into heaven (whatever that means). Most certainly when
we free souls from purgatory by way of having Masses and other prayers said for them, they will welcome us
into eternal dwellings, because unlike the poor we meet on earth, the holy souls definitely care about spiritual
things and will be in heaven when their debt is paid. Imagine, then, the line of persons that will greet each of us
when we arrive in heaven, greeting us because we did them good while we were on earth, and therefore they
prayed that we be converted and be forgiven our sins.
Even if we don’t have money to make use of, the parable is still applicable in regard to spiritual goods. The
simple lesson would be: we should know who to turn to when we are in trouble. The Saints are the first ones,
beginning with the Mother of God. Those Saints to whom we were devoted in this life will welcome us into the
eternal dwellings insofar as we have been faithful to them, and shared the blessings they gave to us with others.
On earth, we should turn to the humble and pure of heart. Practically speaking this means asking spiritual help
from children, and adults who have the heart of child, lacking ambition and guile, in love with the Lord.
A story to illustrate this: Roy Schoemann, a famous American convert from Judaism, had a mystical experience
while he was searching for the truth. Our Lady appeared to him in a dream. She said very little, but exuded a
purity that filled him with extreme awe and peace. She also permitted Roy to ask questions. Perhaps trying to
fill time, he asked her to tell him her favorite prayer. She replied with the text of a Portuguese prayer that Roy
later learned Brazilian mothers teach their children to say throughout the day as they go about their work and
play. Thus Our Lady was pleased with the prayer not because of its erudition or even because of the
understanding of the one who uttered it, but because of the purity and humility of the children who prayed. In
the same way, the prayers of the single hearted are more pleasing to the Lord than the prayers of those of us
who fall into the sins of pride, sensuality, murmuring and especially lack of charity.
Another example: in a monastery there are a variety of personalities: those with many natural gifts of
intelligence, wit, drive, etc., and then there are those who are more focused on God, less worldly, and
oftentimes less attractive in personality. Whom should we ask for prayers? The latter person, the person whom
we may find harder to understand, but whom we are sure possesses a pure heart. Ask the poor man who trusts
God and prays and lives in a humble manner.
So, the parable tells us, albeit in a curious way, we who are endowed with many gifts but who struggle at the
same time with pride and self-will, should turn to those who are more child-like than us and ask them for the
help of prayers for our spiritual needs. This is the sure economy of salvation: the proud will be crushed by the
humble. But if we, knowing our sins and our pride, willingly humble ourselves to ask prayers from others,
Christ will congratulate us at the end of our lives for our ingenuity. And then all of us, those in need of help and
those who provide such help, will be united in the New Jerusalem, where our debts will be wiped away, as will
our tears, and we will rejoice together at the vision of the Most Holy Trinity.

 

 

 

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

 

Dearly Beloved, 

When I was trained to preach by the Dominicans, I consistently received the criticism that I was too serious.  Today we have two serious readings, so serious that one could think they were accidentally transferred by a sleepy scribe from a weekday in Lent to this ninth Sunday after Pentecost.  Serious readings and a serious preacher make for a very serious homily, which I don’t want to give today and you likely don’t want to hear.  So instead of dwelling on the gravity of today’s Mass readings, let us consider an image from the Gospel connected to today’s reading. 

What we heard in the Gospel of today is from Luke, chapter 19, as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  He weeps over the city and wishes it would have been open to Him when He came to save it.  In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus makes a similar lament, but there He adds, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets and stones those sent to you, how often have I wished to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not have it?”  By considering these two texts together, we can easily see that the Lord’s sorrow over Jerusalem and her people was very great: He wept, which He rarely did, as far as we know, and He said He was like a mother weeping for her children, wishing He could have protected them as a hen does her chicks. 

We know from even a cursory reading of the Gospels that Jesus liked to use images when He preached, and those images were almost always drawn from the world of nature or from agriculture.  There are the parables of the sower, the wheat and the weeds, the mustard seed, the tree that bears good fruit or bad fruit, the grain of wheat that dies and then bears fruit.  And in St. John’s Gospel, there are the ‘I AM’ sayings such as the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the True Vine, all agricultural or natural images of the Savior. 

Why did Jesus use such images of nature to teach us?  There are many reasons why, but three suffice for us this morning.  First, to have something that sticks in our minds and in our imagination.  Jesus did not say, “I am the Unmoved Mover” or “I am the Efficient Cause,” though he could have rightly said such things.  Unmoved Mover does not quite stick in the mind like the Good Shepherd or True Vine, which unite our intellects and imaginations and so engage our whole being and help us better consider divine truths. 

A second reason for images is they appeal to everyone: they appeal to the straightforward because the meaning is clear: in the parable of the Sower, we want to be like the fruitful crop, not like the other seeds; I must protect my faith from being eaten, dried up or choked.  The image keeps the teaching from being too abstract.  Images appeal to the contemplative because the deeper meaning can be considered for years without exhaustion, for Christ’s words are divine words, and so even the simplest image has an eternal quality.  So, in the parable of the Sower, can we be many seeds at once?  Can we both bring forth fruit and be choked by the thorns and the same time?  Why does Jesus sow seed in places where he knows it will be eaten by Satan?  These are questions we can ponder for the rest of our lives. 

A third reason for images is one we might not think of: they are to refocus our attention towards natural things, which then serve as a bridge to supernatural things.  St. John says that no one has seen God, but by using images, Jesus has taught us that certain natural things are like God and certain natural things are like human beings in their relation to God.  Thus the current culture’s divorce from nature and from farming is not a happy thing; it means that we have less means at our disposal to know and love God.  The simple farmhand who milks the cows and sows the crops and prunes the trees and feeds the chickens has a lot more possibility of knowing God than does the typical man of our day who habitually avoids nature by such inventions as central air, supermarkets and bright street lamps.  He never sees the sun rise nor the stars twinkle; he lives in accord with his cell phone.  And so, in whatever we can re-attune ourselves to nature and to farming, we are not only enriching our lives and making them more human, we are opening ourselves to the divine. 

To return to the saying that prompted this long introduction: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets and stones those sent to you, how often have I wished to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not have it?’  With tears in His eyes, the Lord compared himself to a hen in its desire to shield its chicks from danger, especially the dangers that lead to hell.  He had sent prophets, He had sent priests, and now He had come in person, to save His people from certain destruction, and instead of welcoming Him, they turned Him over to the Romans to have Him killed. 

Jesus still desires to gather men under His wings as a hen does her chicks, but now He desires to do so not only for the Jews, but for all of mankind.  Jerusalem was destroyed because it had forgotten the living God and rejected His Son; and this world, after having known Christ, has also rejected Him and made its own idols.  Therefore, the Lord says to the world now: “How often have I wished to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not have it.” 

We who are members of His Church and sharers in His Body and Blood, however—we do desire to hide under His wings.  In commenting on this passage, St. Augustine explains how it is that the Lord is like a hen: when we observe other birds, we see them making nests and feeding their young, but we never see them becoming like them in order to protect them.  A wren who’s young are threatened does not sit on top of them to keep them from a predator; rather, she attacks the predator from elsewhere, and angrily chatters at it.  In contrast, when a hen’s chicks are threatened, she lifts her wings slightly so the chicks can come to her, and when they are gathered under her, she lowers her wings and her body and prepares to be attacked by the dog or the hawk that is coming for her chicks. 

In the same way, when we were being assailed by the devil and attacked on all sides by his lies and hatred, the Son of God did not think it was enough to defend us only from heaven—He took on human flesh so that He could shield us by His humanity also.  By becoming man, Jesus lifted His wings, as it were, and invited us to hide there until the enemy has passed on.  And just as a mother hen will allow herself to be killed rather than offer up even one of her chicks to a predator, so the Lord died for us on the Cross so that the devil could not have us. 

And though this mystery happened two thousand years ago, yet Christ continues to protect us from the devil.  Were it not for the Church, which came forth from His side when He was asleep on the Cross, we would be left to the dogs right now.  We would have been torn apart by the lies and manipulation and abuse that is characteristic of our society.  Were it not for the priesthood, which is a continuation of His presence on earth, we would not be able to confess our sins and receive absolution, for the greatest way in which the devil takes hold of us is through our sins. 

Perhaps the greatest example of Jesus continuing to be a mother hen is in the Eucharist.  He becomes weak for us in that sacrament; He is entirely at our mercy, such that Jesus often allows Himself to be harmed, whether by a sacrilegious or unbelieving priest, or by men and women who receive Him despite the gravity of their unconfessed sins.  Pope Benedict wrote well of this some years ago when he said, “How often is the holy sacrament of Jesus’ Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts!  How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! … All this is present in Christ’s Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart.”  

Clearly, then, Jesus makes Himself weak in the Eucharist, so weak that in His sacramental presence, He can be harmed.  But the reason He becomes weak in the Eucharist is not to needlessly expose Himself to attack, but in order to feed us and by feeding us, to protect us.  Though He is weak insofar as anyone could easily destroy or injure the host or spill the chalice, Jesus is also very strong in the Eucharist, for through His Body and Blood, He shields us from spiritual harm, He increases our virtue, He enlarges our hearts, He gives us strength to keep fighting the good fight.  And it is only upon reaching heaven and looking back upon our lives that we will know how many times we would have lost our faith had not Jesus fed us in the Eucharist.  The hen lifts her wings for us: we need only hide under them, and that by receiving the Blessed Sacrament with faith and love, and as often as possible.  

So, we should take to heart the serious admonitions contained in today’s readings, but we should also consider the gifts of grace and faith we have been given: what great love of the Eucharist so many of you have, a desire to hide under Christ’s wings!  How many of you confess your sins often lest you defile the Blessed Sacrament?  How many of you yearn for Him and receive Him with the love of Mary Magdalene or of John the Beloved?  How many of you have raised your children such that their hearts are pure and their faith is strong so that Jesus may live in them?  And how many of you would gladly die to protect the Blessed Sacrament from sacrilege or abuse?  Yes we are sinners, but today we should imagine Jesus saying to us, “How often have I wished to gather you, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you have let me.  You have run to me in time of trial, you have believed my words, you have trusted in my power, you have honored my Passion.”  

May these words be said of each of us, such that we hide with Christ until this life is over, and then live with Him forever, our Savior and our God, in the city that is above, in the New Jerusalem.

 

 

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost 2019


Dearly Beloved,


Today we mark the seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and
the epistle from the Romans, and both speak of the fruits of good and evil lives. If we use the imagery of a tree
as Christ does, each of us is a tree that produces fruit according to the inner principle at work in us, either sin
and evil or the Holy Spirit and His grace, and the fruit we produce leads to a reward, either death or eternal life.
But whereas a tree cannot choose what fruit it produces, good or bad, and therefore avoid being cut down, we
can choose to bring forth fruit that leads to life.
The teaching of St. Paul in the reading from Romans is a stylized way of expressing the classic teaching on
human morality: our actions serve as means to achieve some end or goal, and depending on the end we hope to
reach, we act accordingly. Thus, there are some actions called intrinsically evil, which can never be chosen as a
good human action; they lead only to eternal death. Then there are others, the great majority of actions, which
are good or neutral in themselves and remain or become good by our doing them with the right intention, love
of God being the most perfect intention we can have, but others, like performing our duty, as also acceptable
and good.
By way of these actions, we choose what kind of person we will be: either a person worthy of God and of
eternal life, or a person deserving of separation from God and everlasting death. For by performing actions
repeatedly, we become what we do, and thus we can be called by the name of our virtues or our vices. We say,
he is a just man, or she is an angry person. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul gives us lists of things which lead to
life and to death: works leading to death are fornication, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy,
anger and selfishness; and, as St. Paul says, “I warn you that those who do such things will not inherit the
kingdom of God.” Paul’s fruits leading to life are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness
and self-control. These lead to eternal life and also help us to share in that happiness even now. If we are
honest with ourselves, we realize that we have the potential to engage in all the works of death, and that we
struggle to consistently bring forth the fruits of life. So, it is appropriate to discuss the moral life in more detail.
Thomas Aquinas teaches that human beings, despite original sin, still have an innate tendency toward good
desires and good actions. We all know, for instance, persons who have good hearts and are inclined toward
good actions in a natural way, as if they were born with it. Each of us has some of these inclinations; rarely do
people have all of them; Saints like Maria Goretti and Aloysius Gonzaga are exceptions in that they possessed
all of the virtues at a young age, and were likely prepared for that by being given dispositions to all the cardinal
virtues at their conceptions. Instead, most of us have tendencies to some virtues, like temperance and kindness,
but lack dispositions to other virtues like chastity and meekness. For each of us it is different, and that is why to
despise someone because they lack a natural disposition to a virtue is foolish and vain.
But such natural dispositions to virtue are only inclinations, they are not virtue. Virtue must be purposely
chosen, and it is through trial that we learn whether we possess a virtue or only an inclination. For example, a
person may be considered temperate because he is thin but when he is put in the presence of an abundance of
food, or when he is troubled by other circumstances, he becomes a glutton. Thus, he does not possess the
virtue, but only the semblance of it. It is also the case that the person who is overweight can be more temperate
than the person who is thin due only to a high metabolism rather than to virtue, for appearances deceive and
temperance is not about being thin but rather about eating properly for one’s state in life and one’s type of body.
So also many think they are kind and patient but when they have children or enter a monastery they learn they
are actually angry and mean. It is revealed to them that they appeared to be virtuous because they could avoid
difficult persons and control their lives, but when they face adversity and trying circumstances, they are less
holy than they thought. Such self-knowledge is good, because it reminds us that we’ve just begun in the
lifelong pursuit of virtue. Better to be a beginner aware that he is just beginning the race than a beginner who
thinks he’s already finished.
When faced with one of these revelations, we must set about doing the good action necessary to develop the
virtue in us, and that requires grace, hard work, and trials of every sort. Thus, temptations and adversities are
the means we need to grow and we should be thankful for them as often as possible. And the higher the virtue
at stake, the more we should thank God. Sufferings which cause us to develop our faith, hope and charity are
the most precious, for they increase in us the most important virtues for the Christian life and most perfectly
prepare us to persevere in this life and fully live in the world to come. Thus, when a tragedy or an intense trial
befalls us, we should strive to see God working in it, bringing us from a weak faith to a stronger one, from
worldly hope to supernatural hope, from love of earthly things to love of God and the things to come.
It is also good to consider that the persons who bring adversity into our lives are either knowing or unknowing
accomplices in virtue. We grow in holiness both by working together with those who support us and whom we
get on well with, and by those who try us and expose our vice and weakness. St. Augustine often made the
point in his preaching that evildoers help the just by providing opportunities for them to grow in virtue, and
even among good people pursuing holiness together, there are persons we don’t get on well with who still assist
by not allowing us to grow stagnant in certain virtues and by keeping us from growing in pride at our supposed
accomplishments.
To help us in our pursuit of virtue, we should remember two final things beyond what I have already mentioned:
first, our decisions for virtue or vice are decisions for life and death; while we should not obsess over them,
which would not be productive in the long run, neither should we become complacent and satisfied with
ourselves. He who despises little opportunities to do good and grow in holiness will lose what he has little by
little, and then he will wake up with a vice he can overcome only with great suffering.
Second, the grace of Christ can overcome everything, our vices, our evil tendencies, our weaknesses. How
many of us have labored against a principal fault for years and still see little to no progress? We are still angry,
lazy, impatient, intemperate, unchaste. So we must rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of God’s grace, to
remember that one of the functions of the sacraments is to heal our interior wounds, and the greatest sacrament,
the Eucharist, heals our greatest wounds. The Postcommunion prayer testifies to this: “By the medicinal
operation of this sacrament, O Lord, mercifully free us from our perversities and lead us to the things which are
right.” We are sick, and the liturgy calls the Eucharist our medicine.
What we cannot do of our own power, Christ can do in us; we should not lose hope even when we wake up at
the starting line day after day. If we are committed to humility and to never giving up, God will save us. And
the Eucharist will be the food that sustains us, whether it seems that we ran with God or He carried us. And so
if we can do nothing else, if we are discouraged and wearied by our evil fruits, we can frequent the sacraments.
Christ will do in us what we cannot do ourselves, but only if we let Him work in us. Therefore, if we sense in
ourselves a vice or vices that do not go away no matter what we do, or which we have despaired of ever
overcoming, we must commit ourselves to weekly confession and as many Masses a week as our schedules and
duties permit. The Lord does want to heal us; we need only admit our illness and make use of the remedies He
offers.
Today then as we strive to bring forth good fruit that will lead to eternal life and everlasting union with God and
His Saints, let us consider the consoling words of Christ in Revelation: “I know your works. Behold, I have set
before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have
kept my word and have not denied my name. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep
you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth. I am
coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him
a pillar in the temple of my God; and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my
God, the new Jerusalem.” May we give our weakness to Christ, enter the door He opens to us, and thus be
found worthy to bear the name of God and live in His heavenly city forever.