Pope Gregory I on the road to Emmaus

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Once again, from the 1960 Matins for today (Easter Monday); once again, my own translation.  There is some Latin wordplay in the second paragraph that doesn’t really work in English – but then, it doesn’t really work in Latin, either.

Dearest brethren, you have just heard that the Lord appeared to two disciples walking down a road, not quite believing in him but yet speaking of him.  But he did not show them a face that they would recognize.  So outwardly the Lord did to their bodily eyes what he was doing with them inwardly, in the eyes of their hearts.  For between themselves, inwardly they loved him, and they doubted: and the Lord outwardly came and was present to them, and did not show who he was.  So he showed his presence to those who were speaking of him: but he hid his recognizable face from those were doubting about him.

Indeed, he shared words with them, he rebuked the hardness of their understanding, he opened to them the mysteries of sacred Scripture which were about himself: and even still, since in their hearts he was yet a stranger to their faith, he feigned having farther to go.  By “feigned” [fingere] we mean “gathered” [componere]: just as we call a gatherer [compositor] of clay a potter [figulus].  For the simple Truth does nothing through duplicity: but he showed himself to them in the body in the same such way as he was with them in the mind.  They were to be tested as to whether, even if they did not yet love him as God, they could at least love him as a stranger.

But since charity could not be foreign to those with whom the Truth was walking, they invite him to their hospitality as a stranger.  And why do we say “they invite him”, when that Scripture says “they prevailed upon him”?  Evidently we should gather from this example that we should not only invite strangers to our hospitality, but even drag them!  So they set the table, they bring him bread and food: and they recognize God in the breaking of the bread, whom they did not recognize in the explanation of sacred Scripture.  So they were not enlightened by hearing the precepts of God, but they were enlightened by the doing of them: for it is written, “Hearers of the law will not be righteous before God, but doers of the law will be justified.”  So whoever wants to understand the things he hears, let him hasten to carry out in deeds what he has already been able to hear.  You see?  The Lord is not recognized while he speaks; he does permit himself to be recognized when he is fed.

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Augustine in the Tenebræ of Holy Thursday

As we approach our annual remembrance of Our Lord’s Passion, we might read these passages of Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 54 and find it a fitting reflection on its own merits:

Graciously hear my prayer, O God, and do not disdain my pleading; look upon me, and graciously hear me.  These are the words of one who is hard pressed, who is anxious, who has been placed amid tribulation.  He endures much as he prays, wanting to be freed from evil.  It remains for us to see what kind of evil he is in – and, when he begins to say it, to recognize that we are there too, so that we might join our prayer with his as we share in his tribulation.

I am deeply saddened in my trial, he says, and I am greatly distressed.  Where is he deeply saddened?  Where is he greatly distressed?  In my trial, he says.  He has recalled the evil people whom he endures, and he calls this very endurance of evil people his trial.  Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.  We have been shown the devil and his angels in the sacred Scriptures, that they are destined for eternal fire.  Of them only should we despair of their correction, against whom we have a hidden battle.  The Apostle arms us for this battle, saying: Our conflict is not against flesh and blood (that is, not against people, whom you can see) but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of the world, of this darkness.  Perhaps when he said of the world, you understood demons to be the rulers of heaven and earth.  What he said was, of the world, of this darkness; what he said was, of the world of lovers of the world; what he said was, of the world of impious and unrighteous people; what he said was, of the world of which the Evangelist says, And the world did not know him.

Since I have seen unrighteousness and opposition in the city.  Pay attention to the glory of his cross.  That cross for which his enemies insulted him is now drawn on the foreheads of kings.  Its effect has proven its power: it made the whole world its home not by steel, but by wood.  The wood of the cross seemed deserving of ridicule to his enemies, and as they stood before that wood they kept shaking their heads and saying, If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  He kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people.  For if the one who lives by faith is the righteous one, then the one who has no faith is the unrighteous one.  So when he says unrighteousness, understand faithlessness.  So the Lord kept seeing unrighteousness and opposition in the city, and he kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people; and yet he kept waiting for them and saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

But the now-anonymous compilers of the liturgical tradition that now gives us the matchless Tenebræ Matins and Lauds for the Triduum perceived a particular usefulness for this passage on Holy Thursday.  Consider the responsory verse they paired with it:

My friend betrayed me with the sign of a kiss: The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him: he made this evil sign, he committed murder through a kiss.  The wretch threw away his price of blood, and in the end he hanged himself on a tree.  It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.

Now, revisit the parallel passage from Augustine – indeed, the passages that directly precede and follow this responsory:

Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.

And now, if you can, take a few minutes to reflect on just how the Catholic tradition – indeed, the public prayer of the Church, a theological statement in its own right and the supreme expression of Catholic piety – holds in perfect paradoxical balance the legacy of Judas Iscariot.

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The Venerable Bede: The Church at sea, the Lord on the land

From today’s (Saturday after Ash Wednesday) Matins reading (1960 edition):

Bede the Venerable on today’s Gospel: And when it was late, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and himself alone on the land. And seeing them labouring in rowing, (for the wind was against them,) and about the fourth watch of the night, he cometh to them walking upon the sea.

Again, my own translation:

The disciples’ labor at their rowing, and the wind against them, means the various labors of the holy Church, who attempts, among the waves of a hostile world and the breath of impure spirits, to reach the calm of the heavenly homeland like to a trusted harbor on the shore.  So it is well said there that the boat was in the midst of the sea, and He was alone on the land: since often the Church is not only afflicted but even defiled by the pressures of the pagan peoples so much that – if such a thing be possible! – her Redeemer seems for a time to have utterly deserted her.

This is the reason for that saying of her who is caught among the waves and storms of trials breaking upon her, and seeking the aid of His protection with a groaning cry: Why, O Lord, have you withdrawn so far away?  Why do you look away in times of trial?  Then she relates the saying of her persecuting enemy as well, adding in the continuation of the Psalm: For he said in his heart, “God has forgotten; He has turned away His face, He will not see it again.”

But He does not forget the prayer of the poor, nor does He turn away His face from those who hope in Him: nay, rather, He assists those who strive against their foes, that they might conquer, and He crowns them as victors forever.  That is why this also is clearly said, that He saw them laboring at their rowing.  The Lord certainly does see them laboring on the sea, though He Himself is situated on the land: since even if He seems for a while to delay expending his aid on those who are troubled, nonetheless He is strengthening them by the gaze of His kindness, so that they do not fail in their trials: and eventually, revealing His aid and conquering their adversities, He frees them like by treading upon the swells of the surges and calming them.

Augustine on hypocritical fasting

From today’s (Ash Wednesday’s) Matins reading (in the 1960 edition):

Augustine’s commentary on today’s Gospel: And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

My own translation – a little freer than I usually like, but the only way to produce a good English version of the Latin.

From these commands it is obvious that all our focus should be directed towards interior joys, lest by seeking outside for our reward we conform to this world and lose the promise of happiness – which is more stable and firm the more interior it is – by which God chose us to become conformed to the image of his Son.

But in this passage we should especially notice that one can be ostentatious not only in the splendid display of material things, but even in mournful drabness itself; and that is more dangerous, for it deceives in the guise of servitude to God.

So the one who shows off in excessively cultivating his body and in splendid clothing or other things is easily convicted as a devotee of the world by those same ostentatious things, and he does not mislead anyone with his fake image of holiness.

But the one who, in professing his Christianity, makes others’ eyes focus on himself by his unaccustomed squalor and mournfulness – when he does it by will, not undergoing it out of necessity – he can be appraised by his other deeds: is he doing this out of contempt for gratuitous cultivation, or out of some kind of ambition?

For the Lord commanded us to beware wolves in sheep’s clothing.  By their fruits you shall know them, he said.

So when the very things which, under this disguise, he either is pursuing or wants to pursue start to be taken away or denied him by some kind of trial, then it will inevitably appear whether he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a sheep in its own.

For if it is true that pretenders often assume a spare and minimal attire so as to deceive the gullible, a Christian should not on that account entice others’ attention with gratuitous adornments.  The sheep should not abandon their native clothing just because wolves sometimes dress themselves in it.

(St. Augustine, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount II.12.40-41)