2 Peter 2:4-3:13

For if God did not spare the angels who sinned but consigned them to the lower depths of darkness where they are kept for judgment; and if he did not spare the ancient world, but did protect Noah, the herald of righ­teousness, with seven others, while he let loose the flood on the world of the impious; and if he doomed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, making them an ex­ample of what is in store for the impious; and if he res­cued the righteous Lot, who was afflicted by the vicious behavior of these lawless people (for, righteous as he was and living among them, by what he saw and heard day after day he was tormented in his righteous soul by their lawless behavior); then the Lord knows how to rescue the pious from their ordeal and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the Day of Judgment; especially those who follow the flesh in lust for corruption, and who despise high authority. Daring, headstrong, they do not tremble before glorious creatures, but insult them; whereas angels, who are greater in strength and power than they, do not insult them as they demand judgment against them.

But these men, like unreasoning beasts, creatures of nature bred to be caught and slaughtered, insulting what they do not understand, will be slaughtered as such beasts are slaughtered, damaged for the damage they have done. They think of happiness as the luxury of the day, they are blots and blemishes who revel in their own beguilements as they share your feasts. They have eyes that are full of adultery, insatiable in sinning, and they seduce unstable souls since their hearts are well practiced in serving their greed. Children of the curse, they left the straight road and went astray, following the course of Ba­laam the son of Beor, who longed for the wages of wickedness but was reproved for this transgression; a dumb beast spoke in a human voice and stopped the madness of the prophet.

These men are waterless springs, clouds before the whirlwind; the dark of hell is in store for them. For speaking loud in their lewdness they seduce, through the lusts of the flesh, through depravity, some who are barely escaping from the wrong way of life. They promise them freedom, being themselves the slaves of corruption; for anyone is the slave of one to whom he has lost. If they once escaped from the defilements of the world by rec­ognizing the Lord and savior Jesus Christ, and then once more are involved in these and overcome, what hap­pened to them last is worse than what happened first. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, having known it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was handed down to them. What has happened to them is what is in the true proverb: The dog returns to his vomit; and: The sow washed clean goes back to roll in the mud.

This, dear friends, is the second letter I have written you, to quicken the pure purpose in you by reminding you: that you should remember the words spoken of old by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and savior from your apostles. But first understand this, that in these final days mockers will come with their mockery, people who go the way of their own desires, who will say: Where is the promise of his coming? For since our fathers were laid to rest, all things remain as they have been since the original creation. But they are unaware, as they wish to be, that the skies existed from of old, and the earth formed from water and standing in the water, by the word of God; and through these waters the earth was flooded with water and perished. And by the same word the skies that are now and the earth that is now are stored away for the fire, kept for the Day of Judgment and the destruction of impious people.

Do not forget this one thing, dear friends; that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow with his prom­ise, as some think it is slowness; but he is patient with you, because he does not want any to be destroyed, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and on it the heavens will disappear with a sizzling noise, and the heavenly bodies will fall apart in flames, and the earth and the things inside it will be laid open. When all these things break up, how great is the need for you to keep to the saintly and pious life, expecting and urging on the coming of the day of God, when the heavens will fall apart in fire and the heavenly bodies melt in the flames. Then, according to his promise, let us look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness resides. (2 Peter 2:4-3:13; trans. Richmond Lattimore)

St. Thomas on Job

Perhaps after finishing Gregory’s Moralia I shall read St. Thomas’s Commentary on Job. Jeremy Holmes has a splendid introduction to the new English translation at the Aquinas Institute for Sacred Doctrine. He makes an interesting point about the constraints that a commentary makes on its author, as opposed to a speculative work such as the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Everyone knows that the artist flourishes under constraint: the poet’s creativity is unlocked, not diminished, by a rigid sonnet structure; the architect’s brilliance emerges especially under the demands of an unusual terrain; the painter’s genius rises to the challenge of a fresco where ceiling and walls dictate the contours. The same is true of a theologian. It is one thing to compose a treatise on divine providence in the open spaces of unshackled speculative reason; it is quite another thing to teach about divine providence through respectful engagement with the complicated, pungent, and often obscure poetry of Job.

In St. Gregory’s case, “constraint” is perhaps not the right word, as he uses Job as an occasion to talk about everything. As Gregory explains, he sees what we might call “going off on tangents” as a duty of the commentator:

He who explains the word of God should imitate the behavior of a river. when a river flows in its bed and the side of the bed dips down, the river promptly turns its course to include the dip. When it has filled the lower level, the river returns to its normal course. the one who explains God’s word should act in like manner; whoever is explaining something and notices a chance occasion of edification close at hand should direct the waters of eloquence there, as though it were a dip at the side, and then when the lower ground has been inundated by instruction, he may return to his former discourse. (Moralia, Letter to Leander, 2)

St. Gregory’s Moralia

I have started reading St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in the new English translation by Brian Kerns, O.C.S.O., only occasionally checking a pdf of the Latin. It’s an enormous work—about the length of Augustine’s City of God and Confessions combined— and I have only got through book I, but so far it fully justifies its reputation as a masterpiece.

Scripture, St. Gregory tells us, is “a river both shallow and deep, in which a lamb walks and an elephant swims.” In his commentary (at least in book I— the editorial introduction that the procedure changes later on) Gregory interprets each passage in three senses. First he interprets a few verses in the “historical” sense as applying to Job, and then goes back and interprets them again in an allegorical sense as referring to Christ the head, and then goes back and interprets them a third time in a moral sense as applying to Christ’s body, the Church. He thus takes what we would call the anagogical sense as part of the moral sense.

One theme that struck me particularly in reading book one was hope (perhaps because I had just preached a retreat on that virtue). Here is Gregory on how the burden of earthly life is unbearable without hope:

What indeed could be heavier or more burdensome than to bear the troubles of a passing world without any hope of reward to relieve the mind? (1.XV.22)

Et quid esse gravius atque onustius potest, quam afflictionem saeculi praetereuntis perpeti, et nequaquam ad relevationem mentis gaudia remunerationis sperare?

And again on a donkey as a figure of how hopes makes the burdens of life bearable:

So he offers his shoulders to bear burdens, for he has spotted eternal rest, and he obeys difficult orders at work, regardless of anything his natural weakness may and impossible; he believes it to be light and easy, in hope of the reward. (1.XVI.24)

Quae ad portandum humerum supponit; quia conspecta superna requie, praeceptis etiam gravibus in operatione se subjicit, et quidquid intolerabile pusillanimitas asserit, hoc ei leve ac facile spes remunerationis ostendit.

At the same time I have been reading Benoît Peeters’s Derrida biography, and I was struck by a line from a letter written by the young Derrida to a friend: “If the only thing we can share in this world is despair, I’ll be ready to share it with you, always.” (p. 90). Too things struck me about that line: the first is the inescapable human orientation toward the common good; even in the apparent absence of anything good, one must at least convert one’s despair into a good to be shared. The second is how well the sadness of the line illustrates St. Gregory’s point: what could be heavier or more burdensome than despair?

Life as a Long Lenten Fast

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; then on that day they will fast. (Mark 2:20)

The days when the bridegroom is taken from us have now come. He has not been entirely taken taken from us; he is really, truly, and substantially present, but in a hidden way. We wait for Him to come again, and celebrate the definitive wedding feast. St. Benedict tells us that our whole lives should be a Lenten fast, awaiting the Easter of eternal life, but since in our weakness we are unable to fast always, we should at least use the holy forty days to separate ourselves from attachment to earthly things, and long with holy joy for the coming of the bridegroom:

Although the life of a monk ought at all times have the aspect of Lenten observance, yet, since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all during these days of Lent to lead lives of the greatest purity, and to atone during this holy season for all the negligences of other times. This we shall do in a worthy manner if we refrain ourselves from all sin and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to abstinence. Therefore during these days let us add something to our ordinary burden of service, such as private prayers or abstinence from food and drink, so that each one may offer up to God in the joy of the Holy Ghost something over and above the measure appointed to him: that is, let him deny his body in food, in drink, in sleep, in superfluous talking, in mirth, and withal long for the holy feast of Easter with the joy of spiritual desire.

Seek nothing else

I sought the Lord, and He heard me. Those who are not heard are not seeking the Lord. Mark these words, holy brethren; the Psalmist did not say: “I sought gold from the Lord, and He heard me; I sought length of days from the Lord, and He heard me; I sought this or that from the Lord, and He heard me.” It is one thing to seek something from the Lord, and another to seek the Lord Himself. I sought the Lord, he says, and He heard me. But when you pray, saying: “Put that enemy of mine to death,” you are not seeking the Lord, but, so to speak, making yourself the judge over your enemy and making your God into an executioner. How do you know that he for whose death you are asking is not a better man than yourself? Perhaps from the very fact that he is not asking for yours. So do not seek anything outside the Lord, but seek the Lord Himself, and He will hear you, and even as you are yet speaking He shall say: Here I am. What is the meaning of Here I am? Behold, I am present, what do you want? What do you ask of me? Whatever I give you is of less worth than myself: take possession of my very self, enjoy me, embrace me. You are not yet wholly equal to it; lay hold of me by faith and you shall cleave to me—so God tells you—and I will relieve you of your other burdens so that you may be completely united to me, when I have changed this mortal being of yours to immortality; so that you may be equal to my angels, and may always look upon my face and rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you; for you have sought the Lord, and He has heard you and delivered you from all your afflictions. (St. Augustine on Psalm 33)

Inquisivi Dominum, et exaudivit me. Qui ergo non exaudiuntur, non Dominum quaerunt. Intendat Sanctitas vestra: non dixit: Inquisivi aurum a Domino, et exaudivit me; inquisivi a Domino senectutem, et exaudivit me; inquisivi a Domino hoc aut illud, et exaudivit me. Aliud est aliquid inquirere a Domino, aliud ipsum Dominum inquirere. Inquisivi, inquit, Dominum, et exaudivit me. Tu autem quando oras, et dicis: Occide illum inimicum meum; non Dominum inquiris, sed quasi facis te iudicem super inimicum tuum, et facis quaestionarium Deum tuum. Unde scis ne melior te sit cuius mortem quaeris? Eo ipso forte, quia ille non quaerit tuam. Ergo noli aliquid a Domino extra quaerere, sed ipsum Dominum quaere, et exaudiet te, et adhuc te loquente dicet: Ecce adsum. Quid est: Ecce adsum? Ecce praesens sum, quid vis, quid a me quaeris? Quidquid tibi dedero, vilius est quam ego: meipsum habe, me fruere, me amplectere: nondum potes totus; ex fide continge me, et inhaerebis mihi, (hoc tibi Deus dicit) et caetera onera tua ego a te deponam, ut totus mihi inhaereas, cum hoc mortale tuum ad immortalitatem convertero; ut sis aequalis Angelis meis, et semper videas faciem meam, et gaudeas, et gaudium tuum nemo auferet a te; quia inquisisti Dominum, et exaudivit te, et ex omnibus tribulationibus tuis eruit te. (EnPs 33)

The Eucharist and the Letter to the Hebrews

In writing an e-mail to a Protestant friend about the sacrificial character of the Mass, I did a google search on my confrère here in Heiligenkreuz Pater Robert Abeynaike, O.Cist., to see whether any part of his brilliant dissertation on the Hebrews as a commentary on the Mass was available on the web. I wasn’t able to find any extracts from his dissertation, but I found a brief summary that he wrote for L’Osservatore Romano a few years ago, which Sandro Magister posted to his blog. I paste it in full below. Contrary to what Magister writes, Pater Robert is not African but rather Sri Lankan. Continue reading

Ascendit Deus in jubilatione

The liturgy of Ascension Thursday puts a tremendous emphasis on joy: ‘Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving,’ as a collect puts it. The first reason for joy is the triumph of Our Lord: Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae. ‘God has gone up with shouts of joy, the Lord with a trumpet-blast.’ As the members of His body and the subjects of Kingdom we rejoice that the Lord has gone into His glory. The Exodus of Christ from death to life is not complete until He has left this world of corruption, and returned in triumph to the glory that He had before the beginning. The second reason for joy is that exaltation of our Head gives hope to us the members that we will attain to glory: Christi … ascénsio est nostra provéctio, et quo procéssit glória cápitis, eo spes vocátur et córporis. ‘the ascension of Christ … is our exaltation, and, where the head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.’ Continue reading

Welter and waste and darkness over the deep


Sermon preached in the Carmel Mayerling, Easter Sunday, 2015.

The heathen tribes that lived here in central Europe before the coming of Christianity thought that human life was ultimately doomed. In the end cold and darkness would win. For a time light a space of light and order could be defended against the forces of chaos, the monsters of the dark, but in the end evil would win out. The sun that warms this earth would be eaten by a great wolf. “Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.” At last, the land would sink into the chaotic floods of the sea. Perhaps though the land would rise again, and the whole story will repeat itself. (A story reminiscent of some current theories). The nomadic tribes of the ancient Levant, among whom the patriarchs lived, are supposed to have had similar ideas.[1] For them too the world was a chaotic wasteland, a desert in which demons of the dark wandered about ready to kill. Human life had to be defended against the powers of darkness. It is thought that at the first full moon of spring there was a feast of new year in which human life was to be begun a new. The tents were surrounded with a circle of lamb blood to protect them, from the terrors of the night.

There is an important element of truth in all these pessimistic views of the world. The world was created out of nothing, and there is a certain tendency in created things to pass away again into the nothingness from which they came. God created the world good, but his creation was not complete at once: “the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep.” In the six days of creation He orders the world making of it a garden, a house, and a temple— a place of order and beauty, a fit habitation for human life, and a mirror of His glory. But then our first parents sinned, and the world threatened to fall back into chaos. But God does not abandon mankind to the fate they deserve—goodness and light and order will win in the end, not evil and darkness and chaos. Through His covenants He begins to restore the creation that man has marred. In passover of Egypt He adopts elements of the ancient nomadic New Year feast, but gives them a greater meaning. The angel of death, the terror of the night, becomes a means of deliverance for the people, bringing death to their enemies. For the people of Israel the lambs are killed in their stead, buying back for them the lives they deserve to lose. And then, in the crossing of the Red Sea, the chaotic floods of water become a means for destroying evil and saving good.

As Ratzinger notes[1], the passover continued to be celebrated in the home, even after the establishment of the temple. The lambs were slaughtered in the temple, but then taken home, and the houses were marked with their blood. The restoration of creation each year began with the little world of the home, marked off from the darkness, and the chaos. The restoration next moved to the level of the whole city of Jerusalem: no-one was allowed to leave the city during the passover night, so that the city became a house sealed off from the dark.

Our Lord to celebrated the passover in a house within the holy city, but then He got up and “went with his disciples out be­yond the brook Cedron,” that is, beyond the borders of the city into the outer darkness and chaos. He is later brought back into the city, but then taken out again, and He dies outside the city. And by that death He conquers death and chaos. He rises to new life, as the beginning of the definitive new creation—full of light and beauty.

When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen one she thinks He is the gardener. Superficially this is an error, but in a deeper sense she is quite right; He is indeed the gardener of creation who is remaking the whole world, healing all chaos, disorder, and death. But His restoration begins small with the seed of His body that will slowly grow into a tree that can shelter all of creation. The Church is the garden in which His new creation begins. It is shielded on all sides from the powers of evil by the blood of the lamb, but open for Him.

And a Carmelite convent is a little Church— a space closed off from the chaos of the world, a garden in which you can meet the Risen Lord and be remade by Him. Each of you must seal your own heart off from evil, and allow the heavenly gardener to root out all the weeds of you soul, so that in you that new creation can begin, which will be completed when the He comes again in glory, and celebrates His final triumph over all evil: “And He shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be among them and shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall not be any more, nor shall sorrow nor lamentation nor pain be any more, be­cause the first things have gone. And He who sat upon the throne said: Behold, I make all new.”


[1] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Passover of Jesus and the Church: A Meditation for Holy Thursday,” in: Behold The Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

A First Communion Sermon

Johannes and Tristan, the Blessed Sacrament, which you will receive today for the first time, is a miracle. St. Thomas Aquinas said that it is the greatest of all the miracles of Christ our Lord. But for such a great miracle it is not very amazing to look at and to taste. All we see is a little white disk, all we taste is a little baked flour. Why is the greatest of all of Christ’s miracles so uninteresting on the outside? Why doesn’t Christ do something that everyone can see, something really impressive? Christ is all-powerful, all-mighty. What would you do if you were all-mighty?  If I had been given infinite power at your age, I would probably have flown around through the air, with a long cape trailing behind me, and have killed all the “bad guys.” Why didn’t our Lord do something like that?

Two of his apostles wanted him to do something like that. They were two brothers James and John, and they were called the “sons of thunder”— maybe because they liked loud noises. Once Jesus was traveling in in an area called Samaria and James and John went into a village to ask the Samaritans whether Jesus could stay there. But the Samaritans said no, because Jesus was going to the temple in Jerusalem, and they did not believe in the temple. So James and John went and told Jesus that the Samaritans would not let Him stay there. And they asked Him should we call down fire from heaven to destroy them? What do you think? Did Jesus do it? Did He call down fire from heaven to destroy those unbelieving Samaritans? [Johannes and Tristan shake their heads]. You are right; He didn’t do it. Would you have done it? [More head shaking] Ah, you are wise. At your age I would have done it. I would have sent fire from heaven down on those people. Probably even now, even though I am four times older then you, I would still do it. But our Lord Jesus did not do it. He didn’t want to destroy the Samaritans; He wanted to change them from the inside. In today’s reading we heard how after Jesus had died and risen from the dead, one of his disciples (Philip the deacon) went to the Samaritans, and this time they believed. When the Apostles hear about this they send Peter with one of the “sons of thunder,” namely John to the Samaritans. John who before had wanted to call down fire to destroy the Samaritans now calls down another kind of fire, the Holy Spirit, to change them from the inside.

They are able to do this because of what our Lord did in His death. Our Lord did not have to die. In the Garden of Olives He tells His Apostles that He could call more than twelve armies of angels to defeat the people that want to kill Him. But He decides to suffer death. And by suffering He defeats death on the inside; He transforms it into a sacrifice of love that leads to new life. And so He is able not just to defeat His enemies, but to turn them into His friends. After Pentecost, Peter preaches to the crowd that put Jesus to death, and they are converted.

Before suffering His death our Lord gave His Apostles the Blessed Sacrament, which showed them the meaning of His death, and (more importantly) gave them a way of making the power of His death work on us now. In the Blessed Sacrament bread and wine are changed, not in their outer look and taste, but in their very being. The whole substance of bread is changed into the substance of Christ’s flesh and the whole substance of the wine is changed into Christ’s blood. When you receive this Sacrament, our Lord will come into you, and He will change you. He wants to change your life into His life. He wants to change all of your selfishness and brattiness, your disobedience and cowardice and greed and meanness, and give you His own courage and gentleness and obedience and love. He wants to give you the courage to take up your own crosses, all the hard things in your lives, and unite them to His sacrifice, out of love for Him. The great miracle of the change of bread and wine should lead to a change in you, Johannes and Tristan, a change by which you become holy. When you receive Christ our Lord into your mouths today, thank Him for coming to you, and ask Him to stay with you and change you.

[Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The main ideas were taken from a sermon of Pope Benedict XVI’s at the World Youth Day 2005, and a much earlier sermon of Ratzinger’s included in this collection.]

An Easter Sermon for Contemplative Nuns

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

(The following is a translation of the sermon that I preached yesterday at the Carmel in Mayerling).

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb  (John 20:11). Dom Mauro Giussepe Lepori, Abbot General O.Cist, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. Afterwards he wrote the following:

From those first days in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem at the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, I was deeply moved. At the same time, however, the more I went to the holiest sites of Christianity, the more I had to admit that I was not really aware of what they represented, nor of the events that had happened right there: that there in that place Christ had died, that there he had been buried and there he had risen, that there he had met Mary Magdalene and the other women, that Peter and John had ran there…. I felt that the Lord wanted to offer me something more than just simple emotions. On the morning of the third day, after having celebrated the Eucharist at half past four on the Tomb of Christ, I went to Calvary to pray Vigils. […] The first reading of the monastic Vigils [was] from the Song of Songs. One sentence struck me deeply, as if Jesus himself was telling me it from the Cross: “You have seized my heart, my sister, my bride, you have seized my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9).

In this verse Dom Mauro saw the whole mystery of salvation summed up: God allows his heart to be taken by by his people. Everything that He does in the created world He does out of the vehemence of this love:  “The whole Gospel and the whole history of Christian mysticism witness to how much the Lord, on every occasion, has incarnated and expressed his passionate love for the human person, his unreserved giving of himself.”

This love is so great that it could not be defeated by the unfaithfulness, the heartlessness, the cruelty of God’s people: “For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” A love so great that it causes the eternal Son to descend into the darkness of this world to pursue His beloved. A love so great that it causes Him to live the poverty and drudgery of our existence for thirty years. A love by which He takes our punishment on Himself. A love so great that it turns the other cheek to our enmity in order to transform it. He who longed for a glance of love from the eyes of His bride saw therein the terrible glint of cruelty as we tortured and killed Him. A love so great that it moved Him to enter the darkness of the tomb. But a love so great that not even death itself could conquer it. He rose to new life in order to give us new life, in order to transform our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh that we might love Him again.

The Church is Mary Magdalene in the garden; the sinner who has repented and who now weeps with love for her Lord. And who then sees Him alive beyond hope. This is the life of the Church, the vocation of Christians; to weep for the Lord, and then to meet Him, to look at Him, to take his heart with that glance of the eyes, and to receive His love. And this is above all your vocation, venerable sisters, here in the Carmel, at the contemplative heart of the Church. It is your vocation to give your whole lives to the one thing necessary: the glance of the eyes that wins the heart of the bridegroom. It is not an easy vocation, since we cannot hold Him fast until He returns on the last day, but it is the most beautiful vocation. And today it is pure joy; today He comes and dries your tears, and calls to you, venerable sisters, with a love so strong that it shakes the earth to its foundations and melts the mountains like wax, a love that conquers death and bursts open the grave: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come” (Song 2:10-12).