The Manhattan Skyline of the Moral Life
by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
When a father first takes his young son to train him in the art of being a man, there are many apparently unrelated skills the boy has to learn one by one: throwing, catching, swinging, sprinting, sliding, and so on—feats of physical coordination that through long repetition become more and more instinctive so that the necessary mental prowess may be added—prolonged focus, contingency planning, and overall strategizing —which together form the one beautiful game of baseball.
When we see this war game at its professional level, it’s easy to lose sight of all the work and all the time that went into smoothing out and interlocking those seemingly disparate activities which in a child stand out with jagged edges. Generally the overpaid players have so mastered their craft as to make it look simple, if not easy.
What is true in the realm of our national pastime is likewise true in the landscape of virtue. We train youngsters first to tell the truth, and then only after they’ve done so indiscreetly do we also instill in them the need for the counterbalance of a just regard for the reputation of others. We teach them to obey rules, but also to be merciful towards those who have broken rules and are sorry. To the inexperienced, the two extremes are so unlike each other as to seem contradictory, and as a result they cannot blend them into a single moment of action. Only after a little growth and maturity can we appreciate the beauty of a simple virtuous deed that removes the supposed opposition between unlike virtues, like verdure following a rain in the desert.
Take for example the virtues of magnanimity and humility. Magnanimity longs to do deeds worthy of great honor—not for the sake of honor, but because the man is capable of doing something difficult for the benefit of the many. Humility, however, is generally supposed to incline to keeping out of sight, which the magnanimous man can hardly do, even if he wanted to. But look at St. Thomas Aquinas, who undertook for the first time a synthesis of theology that was properly ordered precisely for beginners, a tome of epic proportions that he surely knew would benefit the Church until the end of time. Why? Because God had given him the gifts; he did it because he could and we needed it. But you will search the pages of the Summa Theologica in vain to find references to himself, except those few passages where he mentions how he used to hold an erroneous idea. In this one work, there is a beautiful blend of two seemingly conflicting virtues.
But nowhere do we find a more sublime and powerful instance of the point at hand than the amazing solutions offered by our Lord Jesus Christ. What if duty to state seems to derogate from duty to God? “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Almost nothing seems more diametrically at odds than the virtuous need to punish a wrongdoer and the virtuous need to forgo the punishment. Should we stone the woman or not? “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With infinite genius, our blessed Lord affirms both the dictates of justice and the preference for mercy, uniting both in a single directive.
In other words, as you stand in the streets of Manhattan, say, and look around, you are crowded in by skyscrapers, and any sight of the rest of the city is lost. But as you rise higher and higher, until at last you stand on the top of the Empire State Building, you can take in the whole metropolitan layout in a single glance. How do we do that with our virtues? How can we rise from the fragmented, particularized viewpoint of one virtue or another at a time, and eventually rise high enough to exercise divergent virtues with the same divine simplicity shown by Christ and His saints?
St. Paul says, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.” This considering “everything as a loss,” “as so much rubbish,” is what we call detachment, the sometimes painful separation of our affections from the various goods of this life. But notice: St. Paul makes no exceptions. In the context he is rejecting those things wherein he used to place his hope for salvation. Therefore, no power of man, no self-constructed confidence, no gifts of nature can be clutched and held onto in addition to Christ.
Then how can we tell if the sundries, with which we surround ourselves, have ensnared our affections? How sad would we be to lose them? A man may say about his Lexus that he just needs it to get to work, but if you took it away and left him a classic Ford Pinto, would he be almost too ashamed to drive it? We become so confident in our power to get people’s number, to have the right political insight, to plan out and control every contingency of life—the regularly paid mortgage, an IRA like the fattened calf, the kids’ college tuition—how lost, how confounded, how desperate would we be if people acted in unpredictable ways, or if our well-honed vicarious statecraft turned out false, or if the floor fell out beneath our feet—a lost job and bad investments and foreclosed home? Who of us with genuine resignation and tranquil abandonment could say at that moment, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”?
“I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.” The detachment of our affections from worldly things, most especially from ourselves, sheds our heaviness and allows our spirits to rise. It is for this reason that we have our annual Lenten observance: to mortify ourselves through bodily penance, to teach our flesh its place, to raise our hearts and so gain Christ.
It seems counterintuitive. We want to have the perspicacity of the wisdom of God, and so rather than putting our heads into holy books, we should fast and deny ourselves. The first several chapters of the book of Proverbs encourages the son seeking wisdom most of all to avoid sin, in other words to mortify his evil inclinations and accept the harshness of discipline. Then will his heart love God aright and so see as the Most High sees and know what the Most High knows.
So what we enjoy the least we need the most. Well then, how can we make Lenten penance easy? Good question. Would you like to know? (I would tell you, but I don’t want this homily to go on too long.) The one, simple answer is this: make it a point to impose a penance upon yourself every day of the year. Then a day of Lent will be just another day on the calendar. The horror of enduring contradiction and suffering will be blunted by familiarity, and we can apply ourselves to penance with less fear, more courage, and loving confidence.
Some of you have doubtless heard of the four Missionaries of Charity sisters who were martyred in Yemen on March 4. Few people can be called as deeply detached from the world as Missionaries of Charity. From leaving their native lands, to their radical poverty, to never drinking anything but water, their hearts are freed to love Christ in the poorest of the poor.
The sisters in Yemen, who had learned to love the hidden Christ in the Eucharist, and to serve the suffering Christ in their patients at their nursing home for the elderly and disabled, unified that love into a single moment of witnessing to Christ their Spouse, and so merited to be one forever with the victorious Christ in heaven. For when ISIS broke into the sisters’ compound, they fled not in self-preservation but in loving concern for their patients. ISIS caught four of the five sisters, tied them up, shot them in the head, and then smashed their skulls, not realizing that at that very moment the sisters’ liberated souls were face-to-face praising the King of Martyrs and being praised by Him.
Let us imitate their example of detachment and mortification, so that with hearts wide open like theirs we may unite all our various virtues into a single, simple, and sempiternal song of praise to the One Who lives for ever and ever. Amen.
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