Sunday, October 6, 2013

Redimentes tempus, quoniam dies mali sunt

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 6th, 2013

Saint Joseph’s-Troy NY
Rev. Michael Taylor

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise,
making the most of the time, because the days are evil.[1]

            What do we mean when we speak of morality in general, Christian morality in particular? Often spoken about today is this decline in morality. Indeed, we, as a society come at this question from multiple faiths, no faiths, and there is much confusion in our conversation. Most people will agree that it is important for us to be a good person. Yet what definition would we give the idea of “a good person”? And, more importantly, why is it important to be a good person? We as a society are in trouble not because we are morally slipping. We’re in trouble because we don’t even know how to begin the conversation.
            Let me take a step back. I was reading this article by Alan Jacobs in the periodical First Things, wherein he writes about the TV show Girls found on HBO which apparently has garnered not only critical acclaim but a significant following for its realistic portrayal of life among twenty-something year old girls. I’ll spare you the details of the show, but it is sufficient to say, that one of the protagonists’, Hannah’s, boyfriend, Adam, commits a series of acts which would seem to fit the category of “a bad person.” Yet rather than say it as such, she, Hannah, admits that while Adam’s behavior is “patently ridiculous and degrading [to her]” she goes on to say “but who among us hasn’t had our artistic judgment eroded by love?” [2] Now let us stop to think about this for a moment. While this is seemingly an absurd line of logic (which it is), it is far more useful in how revealing it is of our society’s concept of not only love but of our ability to discern morality in general. Cultural critics of the show have made excuses for Adam’s erratic behaviors, abhorrent fantasies, and abysmal treatment of his girlfriend, by pointing to the fact that he’s an artist and that art can excuse excesses of passion. Clearly we have a crisis of aesthetics.
            This is not an abstraction either. If our culture defines life in general as art, yet the criteria of that art is completely determined by each individual, then we can begin to understand how we can no longer converse on topics of morality in the classic sense. Jacobs’ article contrasts the fictional world of Girls to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Jacobs points out that “the great theme of Mansfield Park is moral education: the difficulty and necessity of pursuing it, the stability and patience it yields to those who have been given it, the terrible price paid by those lacking it, who therefore find themselves at the mercy of a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right.’” [3] Yet in the contemporary landscape, the idea of a moral education is not only antithetical to the dominant discernment process for determining right morals, but the terms themselves, “moral education” have become incomprehensible, leaving only subjective “artistic judgments” eroded by our giving into our passions.
            Aristotle noted that the distilment of virtue was to be the foremost goal when considering the reason for education, writing “the things that tend to produce virtue taken as a whole are those of the acts prescribed by the law which have been prescribed with a view to education for the common good.” [4] Now we can begin to see how far we are from the traditional mode of discerning truth. If you ask the modern person, what is the purpose behind education, you will not find listed among their reasons the idea of instilling virtue, because virtue requires that there be an objective goal towards which we can agree on. Since the modern person determines beauty is within the individual’s inviolable self to discern, our education system has no goal to present our young with, and our young in return, have nothing objectively beautiful to offer.
            The Catholic faith though offers us a different way of looking at the question. First our Jewish roots provides us the idea of the moral life being a faith-filled life which in turn is a beautiful life. In Deuteronomy we find faith and education tied together, hearing Moses instruct, hear, O Israel: “The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children.[5] For the Jewish person, the law was the objective standard of the beautiful life, as we see written in the Psalms, Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day.[6] Yet it is not the law by itself, but the ancient affirmation[7] of the relationship between God and man, of a man walking humbly with his God,[8] as again noted in scripture, I have chosen the way of faithfulness, I set thy ordinances before me.[9]
            In the person of Jesus Christ, this relationship becomes perfected. Rather than dry words written down, we are given the model of a fully human being, who had come not to abolish them [the law and the prophets] but to fulfill them.[10] Simply put, Christ is the beautiful icon towards which all our hopes of virtue must be oriented towards. As it is written in Hebrews, we run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,[11] no longer walking blindly, but following out the commands of what the beautiful life looks like. As Saint Paul affirms, finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.[12] The moral life for the Christian becomes the one that is ever conformed to the person of Christ Jesus.
            And now, let us contemplate truly the beauty that exists before us. As we mentioned before, the hypothesis given to us by the culture is that life is art, and yet somehow  art undermined love. Yet life in Christ is art, and when grounded in Christ, love becomes the song of the art of our life. Christ is the groom and the Church is the bridesmaid, whom the groom’s heart is enflamed for with attraction to her. Consider in the Song of Solomon when the groom, upon seeing his bride, says, Behold, your are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful! The groom is moved beyond himself, considering only the beauty of the one for whom he loves. The bride, responds, My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.[13] The bride, in responding to the groom’s love, is brought out of herself, being called behind the harshness of winter, true love allowing us to escape subjective isolation and respond to that which is beautiful before us. Now consider this in light of Saint Paul’s words, husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up to her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[14] The pursuit of the moral life, of the virtuous life, must be grounded in love and the joy that comes from such love. As Saint Thomas noted, “joy is a passion. Therefore justice cannot be without passion; and still less can the other virtues be.” [15] Christ helps us to tame our passions, ordering them to be virtuous by the witness of sacrificial love, and producing as its fruit, joy. Consider this in light of our Savior’s words, if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.[16]
            Now I have gone through all of this so that we might gain an understanding of our epistle this morning. Saint Paul writes saying, Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.[17] I would offer to you two solutions in spending our time wisely. The first is to contemplate the lives of the saints. It is one thing to look at the perfection of Christ and admire it. It is another things to realize that it’s possible to receive the promises of Christ, as one witnesses how the power of Christ’s graces can transform the human life. The saints lets us know that it is possible. This is why it is written in Hebrews, we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who inherit the promises.[18] The saints also help keep us grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ, not allowing us to be deceived by passing trends or popular diversions, as again it is written, remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. [For] Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led by diverse and strange teachings.[19] So read the lives of the saints. Contemplate on how they carried themselves. How did they spend their time? How did they speak to one another? How did they pray? In imitating the saints, we will find ourselves imitating Christ Jesus who transformed his saints.
            Secondly, spend your time developing friendships with one another. Let the Christian count as his close friends those who walk the same journey of faith. As the Apostle exhorts us, let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.[20] Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “If you try to outdo one another in showing honor, your life on earth will be like that of the angels.” [21] I think we become discouraged about the moral decay of our society because we do not spend enough time with each other. Looking into the abyss, it can seem impossible to live a moral life. Yet if we form groups of friendship, we find comfort in times of adversity. As it is written in Sirach, a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure…a faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him.[22] Let us support each other while it is still today, for indeed, the days are evil.

[1] Ephesians 5.15-16 [All Scripture quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition (RSV-CE) unless otherwise noted.]
[2] Alan Jacobs. “Lena Dunham’s Inviolable Self.” First Things. May 2013,  p. 78
[3] Jacobs, p. 85
[4] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Book V.ii
[5] Deuteronomy 6.4-6
[6] Psalm 118(119).97
[7] cf. Jeremiah 6.16: Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
[8] cf. Micah 6.8: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
[9] Psalm 118(119).30
[10] Matthew 5.17
[11] Hebrews 12.1b-2
[12] Philippians 4.8
[13] Song of Solomon 2.10-11
[14] Ephesians 5.25-27
[15] Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologia I-II, Q59, a5. I answer that, if we take the passions as being inordinate emotions, as the Stoics did, it is evident that in this sense perfect virtue is without the passions. But if by passions we understand any movement of the sensitive appetite, it is plain that moral virtues, which are about the passions as about their proper matter, cannot be without passions. The reason for this is that otherwise it would follow that moral virtue makes the sensitive appetite altogether idle: whereas it is not the function of virtue to deprive the powers subordinate to reason of their proper activities, but to make them execute the commands of reason, by exercising their proper acts. Wherefore just as virtue directs the bodily limbs to their due external acts, so does it direct the sensitive appetite to its proper regulated movements.

Those moral virtues, however, which are not about the passions, but about operations, can be without passions. Such a virtue is justice: because it applies the will to its proper act, which is not a passion. Nevertheless, joy results from the act of justice; at least in the will, in which case it is not a passion. And if this joy be increased through the perfection of justice, it will overflow into the sensitive appetite; in so far as the lower powers follow the movement of the higher, as stated above (17, 7; 24, 3). Wherefore by reason of this kind of overflow, the more perfect a virtue is, the more does it cause passion.
[16] John 15.10-12
[17] Ephesians 5.15-16
[18] Hebrews 6.11-12
[19] Hebrews 13.7-9a.
[20] Romans 12.9-11
[21] St. Gregory of Nyssa. From a book on Christian Formation. [Taken from the Office of Readings. Saturday, October 5, 2013.]
[22] Sirach 6.14, 17

No comments:

Post a Comment