On Easter Sunday, Jesus conquered death. We dare to taunt death, ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ [1 Cor 15:55]
Jesus didn’t just defeat death in His own case only, making Himself a special exception to the laws of life and death. He crushed death itself, abolishing its reign and dominion. He annihilated death at a metaphysical level.
The whole world was held in death’s grip, and no one could hope to escape it. It was known that eventually, each and every man, woman and child would come to be cut off from the land of the living and go down to join the dead. Everyone knew that this is simply our fate.
Everyone would eventually be cut off from the land of the living because we were all cut off already from God, the author of life. The body was subjected to corruption and death because the soul was subjected to sin. The death of the body was just a delayed reaction to the death of the soul.
But Jesus overcame both death and sin by uniting Himself to them. By becoming sin, identifying Himself perfectly with sinful humanity, and suffering death, He brought the fullness of love, and life, and righteousness down into the heart of sin and of death itself. He descended to the deepest existential depths of human misery and hopelessness, the darkness from which no one returns, and there He brought life to death and redemption to sin, utterly overcoming them from the inside.
As Christians we have already been baptised into Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have passed over from death to life already, and the grave will never hold us captive. Even after our bodily death, when we still await the resurrection of the body at the end of time, we will not be trapped in the grave, but alive in the spirit in Heaven.
‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’
Yesterday morning the clocks went forwards an hour. Which sounds very dull, admittedly. But when you break down what is really happening, there’s something much more interesting going on.
Imagine if you didn’t understand our modern concept of time. If you understood time in terms of the natural rhythms of life, sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, birth and death. What would British summertime even mean? (and while we’re at it, what would British mean?)
It would mean that we all simultaneously agree to wake up one hour earlier/closer to sunrise, and move our schedules forwards an hour too. Incredibly, we all make this change at once, waking an hour earlier every day, so that we can enjoy one hour more of sunlight. Millions of people, most confessing that they are “not morning people”, all doing what they need to do to wake an hour earlier every single day.
It is astonishing that we think of it as losing an hour’s sleep and not as simply waking earlier every day. It says something about our separation from nature. For us, time has become something artificial, something primarily about other people’s rhythms, not the natural world’s. It has become something we create and define, a rhythm we dictate rather than dance to. In this note, thank God for the Church’s liturgical calendar, with its lumpy organic character, giving a bit of rhythm to the life of the soul. Thank God we don’t have a sterile religion, without feasts and seasons and God given rhythm.
We should also recognise the power of reframing our ideas. If we were all told to move our lives to be an hour earlier, we’d say no. If we asked those who wake up at 7 to suddenly start waking up at 6 each morning, they’d say it’s asking too much. But if we reframe it as just changing the clocks and missing one hour of sleep, we can all do that and we hardly even mention it (except for me, it seems). We have made a significant change consistently across a large population, just by a small change to our thinking, a slight shift to our frame of reference.
‘Business activity is essentially “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world”. God encourages us to develop the talents he gave us, and he has made our universe one of immense potential. In God’s plan, each individual is called to promote his or her own development,and this includes finding the best economic and technological means of multiplying goods and increasing wealth. Business abilities, which are a gift from God, should always be clearly directed to the development of others and to eliminating poverty, especially through the creation of diversified work opportunities. The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use.’
Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti n. 123
I don’t think anyone really told me, growing up, just how good work itself is. I thought that some work is good, like charity work or teaching, some is bad, like selling drugs or spreading lies, and the rest (and the large majority) is morally neutral, and basically selfish. It was mainly working itself that corrected me.
In work, we add something to the world. We take our capabilities and materials, and make the world a better place, for ourselves and for others. There is a very deep moral value in that.
The fact that private businesses organise work in exchange for payment in no way detracts from this. Working for money is just a way of cooperating with another for mutual benefit. It is even a moral good to cooperate in such a way.
But we do need to make sure business is done right. Businesses are too often exploitative, taking advantage of their customers, their employees, or both. As Pope Francis puts it, they ‘should always be clearly directed to the development of others and to eliminating poverty, especially through the creation of diversified work opportunities.‘ Whenever we are working with someone else, as a customer or an employee, we should always be looking out for their good as well as our own. If we don’t, we are con artists and robbers, taking advantage of others in their need, and it will also sour what could have been a fruitful relationship.
‘The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use.‘ This is a hard teaching. Property rights always imply property responsibilities. We can and should use our resources for our own good and others’, but must never use or withhold resources to the harm of others.
We tend to think of property rights as something absolute, but the truth is they are a human creation, created and governed by society for the good of society. To make them absolute and deny the universal destination of goods is, in the words of the Church Fathers, nothing less than theft. This means there is no right to monopolise resources, to deny others the necessities of life, or to damage the natural environment.
This takes virtue, to insist upon working with and never against others, and for the good of all, but it’s a virtue that will pay off hugely, increasing the happiness and prosperity of everyone involved (and helps us avoid going to hell too).
A kind of “deconstructionism”, whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero, is making headway in today’s culture. The one thing it leaves in its wake is the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism. Concern about this led me to offer the young some advice. “If someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he himself holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them”.
Is prayer a form of escape from the world? Is that the ultimate aim of Christian life – to leave this world behind and instead to dwell with God in heaven? Are we to live for the next life, and not for the present life?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because we are made for God and for eternal life, and we must renounce all finite distractions that would keep us from Him. Our destiny is the fullness of life in God Himself and nothing less. We are told again and again to deny ourselves, to renounce the world, and to live for God alone. We must not fall into thinking that prayer or spirituality or the Christian faith are concerned primarily with improving this world and this life. The Christian faith has a far larger vision.
‘If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ [Colossians 3:1-3]
But no, because Jesus came to save the world. He didn’t come to save us out of the world, He came to redeem the entirety of creation with us in it.
‘For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.’ [Romans 8:20-21]
So then, how can we have both yes and no? We save the world with Jesus, but only in renouncing it with Him. ‘Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it shall preserve it.’ [Lk 17:33] In the same way, whoever seeks to save the world will lose the world, but whoever shall renounce the world will save it.
Jesus saves us and saves the world by the sacrifice He made upon the cross, present at every mass. In this sacrifice, He renounces absolutely everything, His life, His body, His soul, everything He loves and cares for (including you and me), offering it all to the Father. It is in this offering that we are saved. We are sinners, and do not have the purity of heart to truly offer ourselves to God, except by being united to Jesus’s own self offering.
This is the goal of Christian life and the heart of Christian prayer and spirituality. We renounce ourselves and the whole world, and offer it all up to God, united to Jesus’s offering upon the cross. Or to express it differently, we let go of our selves, of every finite thing, of every desire to control and possess and consume, and we entrust it all to God, to Him who is eternal love, uniting ourselves and all the cosmos to the holy sacrifice of the mass.
So then, what does this renunciation and salvation look like? For now, it looks like loving the world, but refusing to grasp at it, even in thought. It looks like placing ourselves and everything in our lives into Love’s everlasting hands. And in the end, it looks like the resurrection of the entire universe.
“Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God’s help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life: and our intellect will remain impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light; for it is written, ‘For my eye is troubled because of anger’ (Ps. 6:7. LXX).”
St John Cassian
The evil of anger for St John Cassian is that it blinds our souls and cuts us off from true life. ‘Anger is a desire for revenge.’ [CCC no. 2302] That is, it is to desire destruction or harm upon someone or something in response to a perceived injury received. It therefore blinds our souls because we see the other as evil/as an enemy, when in truth and in God’s eyes they are fundamentally good and beloved. It cuts us off from true life because we set ourselves against God’s beloved, and therefore against God Himself. Experience confirms that anger destroys reason and opposes prayer, without fail. I am sure we have all experienced “seeing red” and doing something we shouldn’t have.
“Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and all malice’ (Eph. 4:31). In saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or to punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: ‘Physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23), or ‘Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:3).”
St John Cassian
St John is unequivocal: the only place for anger is against our own sins. However, the idea of righteous anger goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas, and so deserves respectful consideration. What does St Thomas say, and can we reconcile the two saints?
“It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice”
ST II-II, Q. 158, art.1, reply obj.3
The difference between St Thomas and St John is just that St Thomas is willing to call this anger and St John is not. This desire for justice, for restitution and correction of vice, is utterly different to the desire for vengeance upon an enemy, to the point where we need another word for it. Righteous anger is as different to anger as chaste sexual desires are to lust.
The point I would like to emphasise here is, that we ought to keep calm even when we must correct or confront a brother. We may feel outrage over the transgression, but we must be calm and contain ourselves, and insist upon viewing our brother as a brother, and if we must confront a brother we must do so in charity.
The purpose of anger
“Our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions. What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: ‘As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.”
St John Cassian
Our incensive power, our internal power of destruction, is of itself good, and is to be placed at God’s service. The issue is that we think our friends (our fellow creatures) are our enemies, and that our enemies (our vices and sins) are our friends. We must study the passions and learn to know and fight our true enemies.
We shouldn’t be kind or gentle on our vices or malicious thoughts. We should expel them with anger. We should dash their heads against the rock, that is, Christ. We must be patient with ourselves, but absolutely merciless with vice.
This brings us back to the question of righteous anger. This anger against our own sins is certainly righteous anger, and I would argue that righteous anger in the larger sense is actually the same thing, only within a community rather than an individual. That is why it belongs especially to those in positions of authority.
It is right for a community to have anger at its own injustices and sins, and so to root them out and purify itself. But it must never be a matter of seeking revenge against others. It must be an act of love for the community as a whole as well as for each of its members, desiring to free us all, and it must be as part of the community. But again, and I must emphasise this, it must be done out of love, and be consistent with love; if it is not, then you are in danger of judgment (Mt 5:22).
How to conquer anger
“The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.”
St John Cassian
Anger will always pretend to be justified. Always. No one is ever angry without feeling they have a right to be.
But you do not have a right to be angry, ever. How do I know? Because Jesus Christ Himself, when mocked, slandered, tortured and executed unjustly, did not respond in anger.
If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses. For can anyone keep perpetually in mind the humiliation that the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake, and all the sufferings that we have mentioned, and yet be so hard and stony-hearted as not to be shattered, humbled and filled with remorse? Will he not willingly become dust and ashes, trampled underfoot by all men?
In the wake of black lives matter protests, there’s been a lot of attention given to many statues. What do we do with our lovely statues of less than lovely people?
Firstly, we should acknowledge that statues aren’t merely a historical record, and taking them down is anything but erasing history. It’s insane that people (including the PM) even try to make this argument. Adolf Hitler had a significant effect on our history, but we don’t give him a statue. We use statues to celebrate and immortalise those we hold up as heroes. They’re usually raised up for us to literally look up to.
With that out of the way, what do we do? I think we should obviously remove statues of bad people. People who we don’t want to celebrate any more. People like Bristol’s Edward Colston, merchant, philanthropist, slave trader and Tory MP.
What about, say, Winston Churchill? Churchill was a hero for the British war effort, but also a terrible racist, and arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians. He was incredibly racist, even by the standards of his day (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_views_of_Winston_Churchill). Should we continue to uphold him as a hero?
I think we need to acknowledge that Churchill played two different roles in two different stories. In one he was the hero, and in the other he was the villain. Does one story discount the other? Not entirely, but they can’t be neatly separated either. Was he a hero? I think it’s ok to say, “yes, but…”. Was he a villain? It’s ok to say “yes, despite…”.
In this, I think that Churchill epitomises the ambiguity of the British empire itself. An empire that did do much good, but also much evil. It’s ok to say it was both. I think the empire was more bad than good, but it’s ok to acknowledge and celebrate the good, so long as we also recognise the evil.
So should we take Churchill’s statues down? Would we be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I don’t know. We’d take them down if he was a pedophile, so maybe we should take them down for him being a horrific racist; it’s maybe just a question of how much it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Can we celebrate him despite his racism and if we can, is that a bad sign about us?
I don’t know. Maybe Churchill doesn’t make the cut, and maybe he does. Maybe we have to learn to accept the contradictions of history and of life, and not be too quick to resolve them. If we have the patience to hold them in tension, we can learn and we can grow. The crucial thing is for us to learn, and learn from, both stories. History is complicated and the world isn’t neatly separated into good people and evil people. We need to grasp this if we are to make any progress.
Avarice is the inordinate love of riches, and is a vice that is especially prominent in the world today. We see it in the growing inequality between rich and poor, in gross displays of luxury, and in the many people who direct their lives to the pursuit of wealth. And yet this sin that drives our capitalist world is too rarely denounced.
The evil of avarice firstly has the effect of setting our hearts and minds on the corruptible things of earth, and so preventing us from rising up to contemplate incorruptible heavenly realities. As Jesus said,
‘Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through, and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’
I feel we’ve grown far too comfortable ignoring Jesus’s words, but He could not be clearer. We have to make a choice: do we want the riches of heaven or the riches of earth? Both is not an option.
Avarice then has the second effect of separating us from our fellow humans. We look at our property and say in our hearts, this is mine and not yours. We build up and fiercely guard a tiny kingdom of what is mine, and we allow no one else in. If you need something I might kindly give it to you, but I’ll make damn sure it’s known I am being gracious and have no debt to you. Here is me and mine, and outside this there is you and yours, and you can look after yours and I’ll look after mine.
This is why evangelical poverty is so important and so powerful. It tears down these walls we have placed around ourselves, and frees us to meet each other without the barrier of mine and thine, but just as people. Basically, it frees us to love one another.
St Basil says, commenting on Jesus’s parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21),
‘But thou wilt say, Whom do I wrong by keeping what is my own? For it follows also, And there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. Tell me what is thine, from whence didst thou get it and bring it into life? As he who anticipates the public games, injures those who are coming by appropriating to himself what is appointed for the common use, so likewise the rich who regard as their own the common things which they have forestalled. For if every one receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.
‘But if thou confessest that those things have come to thee from God, is God then unjust in distributing to us unequally. Why dost thou abound while another begs? unless that thou shouldest gain the rewards of a good stewardship, and be honoured with the meed of patience. Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which rots in thy possession, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.’
(St. Basil, quoted in St Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea)
The rule is simple, but extremely demanding, and many of us should immediately recognise that we are avaricious. We hoard so much that we do not need, and happily leave others to go without. We store up wealth against possible future misfortune, while our neighbours experience such misfortune already.
This doctrine is called the ‘universal destination of goods’, and says that all of creation was made for the enjoyment of all humanity, and in justice ought to be ordered to the good of all. No one has the right to claim anything as ultimately and exclusively his or her own, and to do so is nothing less than theft. This is the teaching of the Church. As St Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.’
This doesn’t mean we all have to take vows of poverty (although that is the ideal). But we do need to inspect and challenge our relationship with wealth. If it is anything to you more than a tool to meet your needs and love your neighbour, then it is avarice.
How do we fight this vice? Very simply, we identify the vice and then practice its opposite, charity. When we are holding too tightly to what we have already, we must consciously decide not to keep track of what others might owe us, and then to forget it entirely, even if they won’t do the same. In fact, we should abandon the notion we could ever have a debtor, since we ask God every day to forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. When we have more than we need, we must seriously ask ourselves how best to use it for the good of our brothers and sisters, and resolve to do accordingly. Essentially, refuse to believe it is really yours at all, and you will do fine.
God bless you 🙏🏽
P.S. For an example of avarice, I recommend this classic from Tom and Jerry, the Movie: