Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fr. Perrone: Don't Make God only an object of study

This homily was delivered by Fr. Perrone at the 9:30 am Mass on October 9, 2011 which was the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the 1962 Missal.  He speaks about loving God with our whole heart, soul and mind.

I’ve been waiting for two long years to preach a sermon on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. When it came round last year I did not have the Tridentine Mass. The reason for my zeal to have a word about it was the reading of Saint Bernard’s Commentary on the Song of Songs which was my spiritual book at the time. In the final chapter of the first volume there’s found the Saint’s thoughts on three key words of the Gospel today: heart, soul and mind. The greatest commandment, in the words of our Lord, is to “love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind.” His second commandment, as is well-known, is “to love thy neighbor as thyself.” Sermons easily gravitate towards the latter commandment but less frequently explain the primary one. I thought it wise to share my enthusiasm for Saint Bernard’s thoughts with you since the ‘greatest commandment’ is so often slighted in preaching.

These three words of Christ–heart, soul, mind–have a distinctively Hebraic ring to them. By this I mean that they would probably have been received by Jewish ears as synonyms, as three words meaning basically the same thing, their repetition lending intensification or emphasis, just as when we say that the summer’s weather is “hot, muggy, and uncomfortable.” Thus, to love God with the whole of one’s heart, soul and mind would have amounted to saying “with all you’ve got.” Yet one cannot so easily exhaust the divine word of God in this way. As commentators over the centuries have pondered the meaning of every syllable uttered by Christ, they have uncovered shades of meaning and divine intentions not so facilely suspected upon first hearing. And so we come to the Commentary of Saint Bernard ready to learn from his mind so well immersed in the word of God.

To begin with, let us review that anyone who does not love the Lord is accursed, according to the teaching of Saint Paul. Indeed, we ought to love the One through whom we have our being, our life, and our ability to know. If we are ungrateful to God, we are unworthy of Him. We were created for the express purpose of Himself, and so, whoever lives for himself and not for God is as nothing. The other motivation that arouses in us the love for Christ is the chalice of suffering that He drank to the full in His passion and death in order to win the salvation of our souls. This should add a sweetness to our love for Him since He labored so hard in us, whereas in creating us He merely spoke His word, effortlessly.

I turn now to a consideration of those three words–heart, soul, mind–which express the qualities of our love for God. We learn from Christ how it is that we ought to love Him. We can’t allow the undeniably attractive things of the world or the pleasures of the flesh to lead us astray. Christ is a greater good than the deceits that beguile so many. There is this threefold love commanded by our Lord: The love of the heart refers (according to Saint Bernard) to the warmth of affection. The love of soul relates to the judgment of reason. The love of strength to our constancy and vigor of spirit. Accordingly, one should love God will the full and deep affection of his heart. One should love Him with a mind fully alert; and one should love Him with such strength so as not to fear even to die for love of Him.

The Saint deepens his insights. Your affection for your Lord Jesus, the love of the heart, should be both tender and intimate. In this way it will be able to oppose the sweet enticements of the sensual life. This is how one sweetness can conquer another sweetness, just as the way one nail drives out another. Loving Christ with your mind means that He is the guiding light of your thoughts, not only by your rejection of false religion and heretical beliefs, but even by shaping of the words of your conversations. The strength and constancy of that love means that one need have no fear at the sometimes hard-work there is in Christian living. In sum then, one should love Christ affectionately, wisely and intensely. All three are needed: affection without reason can be carried astray in emotional fantasy; a wise love is good but alone it is too fragile without the added strength.

Loving Christ with the heart means being touched by His every word, by His sacred humanity. The soul at prayer, says the Saint, should have before it a sacred image of the God-man, in His birth or infancy, or as He was teaching, or dying on the cross, or rising or ascending into heaven. This image of Christ helps bind one’s soul with the love of virtue and helps it expel impure vices, eliminate temptations, and quiet the raging desires of the flesh. Bernard himself believes that this may have been the principal reason why the invisible God wished to come and to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men who would have been unable to love Him in any other way than by first drawing them to His own humanity and then gradually to raise them to a deeper spiritual love. The measure of our love for Christ can easily be calculated by whether we prefer Him to someone else, or to some sensual pleasure. This would prove in us a love divided. As He said, however, “whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” To love with the whole heart means to put love of His sacred humanity before everything that may tempt us, either from within or without.

While there is a good deal more to the teaching of Saint Bernard on this subject, I inject here a reflection of my own. There is a huge danger in proposing the Catholic faith without a tender affection for Christ. A number of things have leagued together to create an affective vacuum in our spirituality: one of which has been the removal of uplifting sacred images from our churches, the scarcity of printed holy cards, crucifixes and absence of pious images form our homes. Another has been making Christ’s words a source of didactic instruction without any corresponding love for them. It’s wholly significant, I think, that Christ did not say that we are to know or to learn about God with our whole heart, soul and mind but rather that we must love Him so. Religion can be a pretty chilly exercise of the mind and will when piety is removed from it. Such a religion would be, I think, incapable of shunning the sinful attractions everywhere proposed to us and would fail to make us ascend unto sanctity of life. The Lord once uttered a provocative word when He asked whether upon His return to earth the love of God in men’s hearts would have become cold. The spiritual atmosphere has certainly cooled in recent years and there is little left to make us devout Christiansother than discovering, or rediscovering, the love of Christ through affection for His sacred humanity: through His Sacred Heart, through the Divine Mercy, through His cross. This is the very Christ who comes to us in Holy Communion: His obstinately faithful way of proving His love.

People easily err today in regard to religion by making it too much a cerebral thing, making God only an object of study. As a consequence, many feel spiritually disengaged and think they are losing their faith, when in fact that may indeed be the case. Re-enkindling the love of Christ is the remedy for recurring sinfulness and for waning devotion. That totality which Christ speaks of–the whole heart, soul and mind–is the goal of anyone aspiring to eternal life. Catholics have much to relearn about the love of God that comes to us through the sacred humanity of God-become-man in Christ.

Given on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2011 - October 9, 2011 (1962 Missal)

Photo note:  Fr. Perrone meditating at the organ during readings at the Noon Mass on Easter Sunday, 2006.  He had conducted an orchestra Mass at 9:30 am, and assisted with singing at the Noon Mass, filling in at the organ.

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