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?’
“78. We give the name of Levites and priests to those who dedicate themselves totally to God, alike through the practice of the virtues and through contemplation. Those who do not have the strength to hunt down the passions may be called ‘the cattle of the Levites’ (Num. 3:41). They have a genuine and continuing thirst for holiness, and try to attain it so far as they can; but they frequently fail, hamstrung by sin. Yet we may expect that at the right moment God will grant the gift of dispassion to them as well, solely by virtue of His love; for ‘the Lord has heard the desire of the poor’ (Ps. 10:17. LXX).”
St John of Karpathos, ‘For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written to Him – One Hundred Texts’
I watched a great video from Ascension Presents today (link below) and just wanted to share my basic realisation from it.
In lent, we enter into Jesus’s poverty and join ourselves to Him on the cross; in advent, we enter into our own poverty, and pray for Jesus to come into our poverty. In lent, we die to ourselves in order to live truly in Christ; in advent, we experience the darkness of where Christ is not present, and we wait and beg Him to come. Our lenten penance is the expression of our Christian life, and sanctifies and perfects us; our advent practices are the best efforts of sinners, attempting to make space, to prepare a way, for the desperately needed saviour.
This may be why Christmas and its build up have retained their hold on a secular world far more than lent and Easter: advent and the hope of Christmas belongs to those who are still waiting for a saviour. And maybe we shouldn’t be concerned by the Christmas songs on the radio earlier every year, maybe that is a sign that our society is longing more deeply for Christmas with all its joys, with Jesus at the very centre of them all.
Today I began 33 days of preparation to consecrate myself to Mary, following St Louis de Montfort’s instructions, and ending with consecration on the feast of the Presentation of Mary. I’ve done the consecration before on the same feast, and am renewing the consecration this time. Please pray for me, that I will give myself fully and hold nothing back.
Marian consecration is one of the most beautiful of all the devotions in the Church. It is perhaps the summit of all true spirituality.
We consecrate ourselves to Mary, because she is perfectly consecrated to God, and we wish to be united to Mary in her consecration. I once wrote the following:
‘God gave Himself to us by giving Himself to Mary. We are saved through God giving Himself to Mary in Jesus Christ, and through Mary’s “yes”, her giving herself up to God in Jesus Christ. God gave Himself through Mary, and we must receive God, be given up to God, through Mary’s “yes”.’ (https://asalittlechild.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/marys-teaching/)
I really want to double down on this point. We are saved through Mary’s fiat to God. When she said yes at the annunciation, she said yes on behalf of the whole universe, welcoming Jesus into creation. To be saved is to be united to Mary in saying yes, in surrendering and consecrating ourselves to God and welcoming Jesus to be conceived in us.
And this yes, this surrender and consecration and welcome, are simply who Mary is, through and through. From the first moment of her existence, her Immaculate Conception, she was claimed wholly for God. And at every moment following she gave herself wholly to God. We can see this in the annunciation, but also in every single Marian feast: God has claimed her entirely for His own, and she gives herself entirely to Him. The entirety of her being is caught up in loving God back. She is love returning love. To be saved is to be united to Mary.
Please pray for me to make this consecration well.
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?
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:
“The inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation.” – the Catholic Encyclopedia
What is so terrible about lust? Lust reduces something which was made for connection and creating new life, into a sterile, lifeless pleasure, devoid of all meaning. We are left with an empty shell of sexuality. It is a pleasure separated from the real good it corresponds to, and so it is a mere illusion, and produces only the illusion of happiness, an experience only skin deep. Seeking after pleasure for its own sake hollows out a person, as they live for images and not for reality.
It also generally involves reducing another person to an object of our own pleasure, and not regarding them in their full humanity. It thus hollows out the lustful person, and their image of the other also, so that the humanity and reality of both is denied. I should note however, that there are degrees of lust, and they dehumanize to different levels.
Lust is extremely powerful, because it feeds off of our most powerful natural desire – to love and to be loved, and to have children conceived out of that love – and because it is so much cheaper to satisfy lust than the real desire. Chaste love is heroic, putting oneself on the line, taking risks and making sacrifices; lust is lazy, cowardly, and stingy, refusing risk, vulnerability, and gift, in order to ultimately remain alone.
How do we fight lust? Fighting gluttony is an important part, as mentioned in my previous post On Gluttony, and fasting in particular is recommended. St John Cassian adds:
‘Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, for, according to the Lord, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matt. 15:19).’
St John Cassian, ‘On the Eight Vices’ (emphasis mine)
I would add, avoid the near occasion of sin, e.g. don’t go to a nude beach if you struggle with lust. I don’t think this was such an issue for the monks St John was writing for though.
‘If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned’ (2 Tim. 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labour, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from this earthly mire.’
Only God can deliver us from this demon. Only grace can grant to our nature its wholeness, and restore us to reality. Only the supernatural desire can overcome our most powerful natural desire, and order it to our good rather than our destruction.
God bless you.
P.S. Writing about vices is easier than writing about virtues, because virtues are living and vices are dead. Slavery can be summarised neatly, but to know freedom it must be lived. Chastity is so much more than a lack of lust, but it cannot adequately be spoken of. The best I can do for now is provide the above image.