St. Thomas More is a model of prudent discernment. In his early life, he seriously considered the priesthood. After he became a lawyer, he discerned becoming a Carthusian, living near the London Charterhouse to join the monks in their spiritual exercises. But More discerned not to become a religious. This was not out fear or neglect but prudence – at least according to fellow Christian humanist and dear friend, Erasmus. He said More “proved himself far more prudent than most candidates who thrust themselves rashly into that arduous profession (religious life) without any previous trial of their powers.” More went on to be a chaste husband and a good father, but he never lost his admiration for the religious life. Most of us mistake cowardice for prudence. But based on the observations of friends and later discoveries, this did not apply to More. He died a martyr’s death which was not the result of spontaneity but the fruit of faithful servitude to Christ. On this feast of St. Thomas More, may we have the prudence to discern God’s call and the strength to follow Him.
Now some insights into Aloysius’ spirituality. To the one virtue which the Church has chosen, and on account of which has chosen him ‘the universal patron of youth’, was his chastity. All the evidence we have indicates that he had very strong sexual passions. We know that from his own writing; we know that from people who knew him and we know that from what is called penance from one view-point, what is really, you might say ‘preventive austerity’ from another. He simply believed that unless he mortified his body, and I didn’t tell you one tenth of what he did, he just would not get that passion under control. The lesson for us, in a sex-mad world, is obvious. You do not control that passion without mortification, you just don’t. As a result, the Church has held him up as a model of what even the most passionate personality can achieve, always with God’s grace, but not as we’ve said, more than once. We may not be able to, given our temperament of the circumstances in which we are living, we may not be able to cope with temptation–we need grace, very well, how do you get the grace? –through prayer and mortification. And Christ’s words, remember? about a certain demon, not being able to be driven out except, remember? through penance. Well, it’s a non-title to give the devil, but, he is the demon of lust; though being without a body himself, he knows, he knows, how by stirring this passion, he can lead people into any kind of sin. That’s the first and towering lesson of the life of St. Aloysius.
That chastity is not easily preserved in any age and in our day, is humanly impossible without grace merited through prayer and penance. A good reason, a very good reason, for becoming a religious these days, I mean, of course, a good religious, a real religious, is to preserve oneself from the lust that we breath in a country like ours like the atmosphere.
Second feature of his spirituality. His profound humility shown in the fact that as you know in certain cultures, notably the Italian and Spanish nobility, is highly prized. And after four hundred years, for example, in Latin America, the cleavage between, call them the nobility, and the rest of the people, Aloysius, under divine inspiration from early boyhood, recognized that if he is to even save his soul, he cannot pride himself on his rank or social state. In the United States we don’t have, I suppose I can say, “thank God”, nobility. We don’t have a lady this and a sir that or counts and countesses, but, my friends, we sure have status. The books that I’m not recommending to your reading, but just to know that it exists. It’s a good book to read, called “Status Secrets” by Vance Packard. In the United States, Packard describes with great detail how status conscious Americans are. I live on 83 and Park Ave. All I have to do is walk up Park Ave. to 96th Street and then it’s a different world. In other words, you might say the barbarians of New York live beyond 96th. Where people live, how they dress, even the names of the streets, ‘Aw, you can live on such and such a drive or such and such a lane or you have not a cheap, pardon me, Chevrolet or Ford, but a Buick or a Cadillac. Aloysius hated pretense–a lesson for everyone of us–putting on, and let me tell you, this has infested every rank and every state of life. I won’t dare identify the diocese, but I called up … I was in the city on some great problem affecting the large community of the diocese and I wasn’t just a private individual because I do work for the Congregation for Religious, so I called up to make an appointment with a Vicar for religious in that diocese and he invited me, 12 o’clock noon, I thought to myself, “how kind of him, we’ll have lunch together”, so I showed-up at the Chancery, few minutes before 12 and a receptionist said, ‘sit down’ so I sat down. And a telephone call from the priest was “Vicar, call the office”, he was in the building, ‘would you tell Father to wait while I have my lunch’. I waited over an hour. He came back smiling. All I can tell you, it took a lot of grace, but I smiled, too. He wanted to make sure I knew who was in charge, because he knew the message that I had to share with him would somehow touch on his authority. That’s the second feature of Aloysius’ spirituality–a humility without pretense and he didn’t have to pretend because he was of the highest nobility.
Third feature of his spirituality, we may call it casually, penance, but it is much more refined. Under divine guidance, Aloysius recognized that we all have powerful drives in our fallen nature, called the ‘capital sins’, the more sophisticated name is our concupiscence. We all have these drives–there are seven. You know them by heart, don’t you? you know them by memory, don’t you? places g … well, this is an insight into the meaning of penance that only a person as totally innocent as Aloysius could teach us … one reason he was canonized. For even though we have not personally sinned, we commonly and correctly associate doing penance for our own past mistakes. In Margaret of Cortona, all right, she had a sinful past, and Augustine, you better believe it, had a sinful past but not Aloysius. So what’s all this penance about. There are a few things I will share with you during these conferences on the Jesuit saints, more important than this one. The insight that he gave the Church was that even though we have not personally sinned, either we do, and the word is violence to our sinful nature or concupiscence will do violence to us. Now in some people, they are just stronger than in others. Mothers tell me, they can tell when, for example, a child, a girl of three … “Father” the mother tells me, “Mary is going to have trouble with humility for the rest of her life.” Have you seen it in youngsters? or temper, or, and this is the easiest, sloth. We all have these drives, some are stronger than others, depending on who the person is and how much we have given in to a particular tendency. With Aloysius, it was lust, he knew it and in order to teach the world the need for penance, not just to expiate sins committed but in order to master our sinful desires what we still call penance, is something that we should all learn from Aloysius to practice, to ask ourselves, what is my predominant passion? and then, what am I doing? Ignatius famous phrase ‘Hacer contra’ act against, do the opposite of that which you have a tendency to do.
Fourth feature of his spirituality. Aloysius had a profound understanding of the gravity of sin. In his own life, in the life of others and in how dreadful a thing it is to offend the good God. If there is one mystery of our faith that needs strengthening in these days, it is the fact of sin. Who talks about it? He was not a theologian, but one of the ranking American psychiatrists who wrote a book not too long ago on “What ever happened to sin?” People have simply lost their sense of guilt.
Fifth feature. Already from childhood, Aloysius looked forward to going to Heaven, the mystery of Heaven. No doubt one reason that he performed extraordinary penance, and that remember in addition to all of his physical disabilities which he already experienced from childhood, one reason was that he just looked forward to a day and all of this would end. No wonder when he caught the plague in Rome, from which he briefly recovered then shortly after got a fever and died, he confessed impatience with wanting to die. It wasn’t death that he welcomed, it was the aftermath of death, namely Heaven. May I recommend a daily looking forward to Heaven and to ask God to give us some foretaste of what awaits us. It will make this world, seem by comparison, very cheap and dreary, indeed.
Another feature of Aloysius spirituality is charity in the practice of mercy so much so that we can call him a ‘martyr of charity.’ Sometime when we read Christ’s statement which he made by our loving our neighbor even to laying down our life for the neighbor, we don’t really mean this, but, we think, well, it must be some theological exaggeration, Christ didn’t really mean it. He not only meant it, He lived it, or you could make a transitive verb-He died it. That’s what the crucifixion is all about. One meaning of Calvary that can be lost on us–this is a voluntary sacrifice of His life as an act of charity. Most of us find enough difficulty, I don’t say in dying for people, but in living with people. I get some idea of how this charity can be very costly. If in God’s providence He gives us the opportunity of laying down literally our lives for another person, God be praised. Whom is the Holy Father canonizing this year who is a martyr of charity, Maximillian Kolbe. Another one, Aloysius. Charity, in other words, means not only doing good, but giving up self including the dearest possession we have, naturally speaking, our lives.
And finally, Aloysius spiritual joy. As we look at the short life of Aloysius, depending on the person’s view point, it may seem oppressive, it shouldn’t be, but, in modern jargon, it has so much (pardon the expression) so much of the negative, you know, penance, mortification, sin–and a world that has gone mad, drunk with sin, doesn’t realize that already this side of eternity, we are to be an Aloysius was literally; we are to be, if it is God’s will, ecstatically happy of that. We are not to be sad. We are not, God forbid, to be unhappy. The secret, and what an open secret it is in the life of Aloysius, the secret is to find the happiness in the right place. That’s all, yes, but that’s everything. In other words, as a closing observation, Aloysius showed that’s why the Church canonized him, that when Christ gave us the eight Beatitudes, which are eight promises of happiness, He meant it. The condition for being happy, well, that’s part of the Covenant, that’s what we do, but if we do our part, God comes through.
Saint Aloysius, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been called the Mozart of Theology. Like Mozart’s music, his writings charm and delight, transporting the soul to heavenly spheres. He can effortlessly intone a piercing chord that strikes at the heart of reality, moving the reader to greater devotion to God. But sometimes he often focuses our gaze on unseemly realities: for example, the crisis of Modernity. Nevertheless, he always ends his addresses on an encouraging note. In particular, my favorite address is one he delivered at a meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture in Paris on September 12, 2008. Unfortunately, this address did not receive much publicity; it was not controversial like the Regensburg Address. And while the media – the paragon of superficiality -mostly overlooked the substance of the Regensburg Address to focus on a section that seemed Islamophobic, the Regensburg Address and the Address in Paris contain gems that are worth reflecting on to this day. The Address in Paris is about culture. But instead of generically talking about culture, Benedict XVI simply described– a brilliant move on his part – the ancient monks’ search for God (quaerere Deum) and the culture that sprang from that. He says,
“It was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God.”
At a time of cultural crisis – something, I think, all faithful Christians can see around them – it is fitting to reflect on the example of those who set out to find God and give up everything to follow Him and to find in Him their very all. While it is good to desire the creation of a robust, God-centered “culture”, too often this gets caught up in talk and no action. Theory is good but that must be translated into flesh and blood. Some concrete order (arrangement) in-forms individual lives. It might be good to look and see what informs you.
Culture stems from the specific actions and beliefs of its individuals that ultimately stem from one’s relation to God. That is why the quaerere Deum is at the root of culture. In the Bible, Israel either worship the true God or an idol. This tension informs its culture. The Consecrated Life is focused on giving up all so as to better worship the true God. It translates itself into particular rules (ordos) that bring about a specific culture. These specific orders need to be appreciated and taken up if Catholics want to be serious about a truly living culture.
Narratives of decline are very popular in the West, and while they can help us better understand our current situation, a temptation to lose the virtue of hope arises. Many people question whether a genuine Christian culture exists, seeing nothing but a culture of death. Some social commentators see themselves as writing the obituary of a Christian West. If you find yourself caught in such a condition, it would be helpful to read an early-twentieth century French poet, Charles Péguy.
For Péguy, hope was the most precious of all God’s gifts. In his famous poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Péguy depicts hope as a little child between her two older sisters, faith and charity. Hope is small and vulnerable, needing protection. God delights the most in such a little child.
Péguy died at the beginning of World War I. This devastating war seemed to crush all hope, at least according to secular humanism’s understanding of it. Péguy intuited that Christian hope, more than ever, needed to be protected. A century later, Benedict turned our attention, once again, to Christian hope. He wrote an encyclical on it, but he also integrated that theme into many of his addresses. Benedict knew that Christian hope stems from the Resurrection and the radical decision to give one’s all to belong to the Lord. His General Audiences focused on the lives of great saints, inspiring people to set out on the same path to sanctity, particularly as lived in the Consecrated Life. For our purposes, the Consecrated Life is Péguy’s little child that needs to be protected at all costs, for the seed from which a genuine Christian culture will grow.
Pope Benedict wrote in Spe Salve, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who has hope has been granted the gift of new life” (§2). This new life is the gift of God. It is a participation in His Communion, the source of all life. But this does not come automatically. It must be sought for. I encourage you to read the Pope Emeritus’ address to have a deeper appreciation for the monks’ desire for God. Maybe the same spark will be ignite in you.