St Michael and All Angels 2018

St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral
Jacob Epstein’s representation of St Michael, Coventry Cathedral
Whenever a human being encounters an angel, the first words spoken by the angel are always ‘Fear not!’ or some such phrase. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful, and the role they play in the economy of salvation is awful, too.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. The Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

We are given several helps. Scripture and the sacraments are the first that spring to mind, but there is also our fellowship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. Too often we forget that we do not face evil alone. We have the saints and our ‘even Christians’ to do battle with us. We also have the angels themselves. The old prayer to St Michael is sometimes smiled at by those who dismiss the idea of evil as ‘quaint’ or the product of an over-heated imagination. I would suggest such persons look at the remains of an aborted child or the body of a victim of chemical warfare or of a woman raped and brutalised and then dare to say, ‘There is no evil.’ Meanwhile, I trust the rest of us will be praying:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 

For a Benedictine, of course, angels are everywhere and are constantly linking us with heaven. Their role is primarily one of surveillance, which can be unsettling at times, but Benedict does not dwell on the negative aspects of that. He ends his discussion of the first step of humility, which we read today, with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with an important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins — murder, adultery and so on — we tell ourselves; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Our first step in humility, then, is to become aware of God and to make the angels our friends, that they may help us keep to the strait way that leads to life and eternal happiness. May St Michael and All Angels pray for us and all who seek their protection. Amen.

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The Most Misunderstood Gift: Fear of the Lord

Speak about fear of the Lord and many people, Catholics among them, will shy away as though one were some kind of crazed fundamentalist whose religion is a mass of prohibitions and punishments. My own religion isn’t of the ‘anything goes’ variety, but it is also not of the craven and cringing variety, either. There is a servile, anxious fear, unworthy of God, many associate with Christianity — but that is not what is meant by the biblical fear of the Lord or the seventh gift of the Holy Spirit we are considering today. The fear of the Lord, properly so called, fulfils or perfects the virtue of hope in us. It makes us want not to offend God but, rather, to obtain his promises; and we couldn’t do that did we not hope. It is a beautiful, luminous gift. Misunderstood though it often is, the fear of the Lord keeps us going through thick and thin, which is precisely what we, as members of the Church, are called to do.

If we look at the Church’s traditional teaching on the fear of the Lord, we find that it is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9.10) as, for St Benedict, it is the first rung on the ladder of humility (RB 7.10). That doesn’t mean it is a gift for beginners only, something that sets us on our way but which we can conveniently forget once we have made a little progress. On the contrary, the fear of the Lord is fundamental to our love and reverence for God, something that grows greater and greater the nearer we become to him. The ancient Israelites, like the Jews of our own day, had a profound reverence for the holiness of God — so much so, that his name was never pronounced. Something of that same awe should mark us, too. Whenever we say, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘hallowed be thy name,’ we are reasserting the absolute holiness of God and expressing our loving and reverent fear of the Lord in union with the whole Church. That is a great gift, and one for which we pray today.

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Self-Will and Humility

It is noteworthy that Benedict devotes a substantial part of his first step of humility to consideration of the role of the will (RB 7. 19–23). It is significant that the word he chooses to express this concept is voluntas. That is not a neutral word. It is more akin to ‘self-will’. It means the desire for an unchecked autonomy which opposes even God himself. It is the desire to usurp the role of God — which is why it is so shocking and so deadly. Benedict’s advice is sharp and snappy: steer clear of it, and don’t be deluded into thinking that what we think best actually is best. We are back to needing right judgement again, but our unruly desires, our desideria, often lead us astray. Benedict, however, does not leave us plunged in despair at our own inability to help ourselves. He reminds us that God is always with us, and that our every desire is before him. I have always found that a good way of examining my conscience. What have I wanted today, where have I placed my desire, what has driven me? The answers can be troubling but they can also be encouraging. Grace is everywhere, even in the apparent chaos or failure of our lives. Recognizing that is humility in action.

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Mindfulness the Beginning of Humility

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 10–18, is like a bucket of cold water over one’s head. It pulls one up sharp with its reminder that what we call ‘the spiritual life’ is quite the opposite of that deliciously dreamy, pseudo-mystical stuff peddled by religious charlatans. Humility begins with mindfulness, with remembering God, keeping the fear of him before our eyes at all times, and guarding ourselves at every moment from those sins of inattention into which we so easily slip. It is an active and earnest pursuit which transforms our whole way of life. God’s gaze is always upon us. To some, that is terrifying; but if we reflect a moment, it is really quite the opposite. We know — or should do — that our merciful Lord wills us nothing but good. The fact that he is always with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, should be a source of joy. Our problem is that we are too busy looking elsewhere, too caught up in our own ideas, that we don’t notice; and not noticing is where all the trouble begins. The sins of omission, the sins of inattention, are like a great pile of dead leaves around our ankles. They clog our way, hold us back, keep us from beginning to climb the ladder of humility, because they obscure its first step: awareness of God.

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Mindfulness: the First Step of Humility

Three times every year we re-read RB 7, St Benedict’s sustained treatment of humility, and it never fails to strike me that the first quality he singles out is mindfulness — keeping the fear of God before one’s eyes at all times and never forgetting it; constantly keeping in mind all that God has commanded . . . recollecting that one is always seen by God in heaven . . . always saying in one’s heart, and so on and so forth (RB 7. 10–18). In Benedict’s monastery, there is neither opportunity nor excuse for forgetfulness. God is always and everywhere present, and that is the ground of our humility.

It certainly makes sense to me that constant awareness of God would preclude any pride or vanity, but isn’t it rather a strain to be always thinking of God and godly things, a little forced? I think that may be one reason why the Rule provides a whole way of life in which God is always at the centre. Everything in the monastery, from its layout to its contents, is intended to reinforce this awareness of God, but naturally and without effort. Already in this first degree or step of humility Benedict is looking towards the twelfth, when the monk or nun will ‘begin to observe without struggle, as though naturally and from habit, all those things which earlier he did not observe without dread.’ (RB 7. 68) Tellingly, the motivation he gives for this new way of acting is ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB7. 69) That is the goal of mindfulness, of humility in all its forms, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. (RB7. 70)

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