Et divites dimisit inanes

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Eighteenth Sunday of the Year C

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Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23
Psalm 94: 1-2, 6-7abc, 7d-9
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

Empty Hands

“Even in the night his mind does not rest.” (Eccl 2:23). So does Ecclesiastes describe the inner state of one whose search for happiness has produced little more than anxiety, exhaustion and sleepless nights. Toil, pain, and work amount to nothing in the pursuit of things eternal. The gifts of God are His for the giving. They cannot be produced or merited, purchased or won. In His wisdom, God often allows us to experience the utter vanity of all our toil and labours — even of our spiritual toil and labours — in order to bring us, sometimes by a path of apparent failure, to a state of blessed abjection and poverty. Blessed Jeanne Jugan put it this way, “It is so beautiful to be poor, to have nothing, to await all from God.” Saint Thérèse, in her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love, prayed, “In the eventide of this life, I will appear before you with empty hands.”

Working to Have Nothing

We are all so reluctant to appear before God with empty hands. We would prefer to have something to show for our toil and strain, for our days full of pain and our labours. The spiritual life is not about working to have something; it is, if anything, working to have nothing. This, of course, is unsettling and disturbing.

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To Await All From God

I am reminded of the novice mistress of Saint Bernadette at Nevers, the virtuous but icy Mère Thérèse Vauzou. All her religious life she had toiled and strained in the pursuit of holiness, mortifying her senses at every turn, holding herself with a will of steel to the slightest prescriptions of her rule, driving herself mercilessly towards perfection. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). When little Bernadette appeared on the scene, an ignorant peasant girl, unschooled in the spiritual life, rough and unrefined in her manners, and when this mere child admitted to conversations with the glorious Queen of heaven and Mother of God, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, it was altogether more than the virtuous Mère Vauzou could admit. Were all her spiritual labours and mortifications then worthless in the sight of heaven? Had she done so much, so hard, for so long, all for nothing? But, of course. For nothing. That is precisely the point, is it not? To be brought to nothing. To have nothing, to await all from God,” and to be able to say with Blessed Jeanne Jugan, “It is so beautiful.”

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The Peace of the Poor in Spirit

The biographers of Saint Bernadette say little about the final chapter in the life of Mère Vauzou. Long after the death of Bernadette, she was tormented with feelings of guilt and anxiety. She had, after all, treated the little saint harshly and added to her sufferings. In an attempt to recover peace of soul she went to the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide to consult with the saintly Père Jean, a monk known for his wisdom. We do not know the details of what transpired in secret between the monk and the distressed religious. We do know that after that meeting Mère Vauzou was freed of her anxiety and guilt, and found peace of heart. In all likelihood, Père Jean helped her to see that holiness is incompatible with achievements and great works, even spiritual ones, and that the Kingdom of heaven is given to the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3).

Adoration

The Responsorial Psalm invites us to turn our gaze from ourselves and to become totally focused on God. “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker, for he is our God” (Ps 95:6-7a). The liturgy is a school of humble fascination with the Divine. Souls fashioned by the liturgy lose interest in themselves and become, little by little, all adoration. Adoration brings us to nothing so that God might be all. Adoration, while lowering us into the depths of our creaturehood and poverty, lifts us up out of ourselves and hides us “with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).

Hearts on High

This is why Saint Paul tells us in the Second Lesson to “seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). Echoing Saint Paul, the liturgy, on the very threshold of the Eucharistic Prayer, cries out Sursum corda, “Hearts on high!” And the priestly people respond, Habemus ad Dominum, which we ought to translate as “We hold them toward the Lord.” “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). So long as we are focused on the things that are on earth, our doing, our accomplishments, our toil, our straining and striving, we are restless. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St. Augustine, Confessions 1:1). Our hearts are restless until they are lifted up, until we go out of ourselves towards the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit. And this, of course, is the great movement of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the passage out of ourselves into God. This too is why the Eucharist is the foretaste and anticipation of heavenly rest, an active rest that is the purest adoration.

Christ Our Life

The Holy Gospel describes a man who is restless and worried precisely because his possessions have so weighed down his heart and narrowed his vision that the Sursum corda finds absolutely no resonance within him. “A man’s life, says the Lord Jesus, does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). What is a man’s life? Saint Paul gives us the answer. “Christ, our life” (Col 3:4) he says.

The Fullness of Life

So long as we invest in other things, material things, yes, but in the accumulation of spiritual commodities as well, we are far from the fullness of life, the superabundant life, that is prepared for us in the Kingdom, and that is already ours here and now in the holy and life-giving Eucharist.

The Divine Hospitality

Only the poor know how to respond to the Sursum corda. This means, really, that only the poor are capable of entering into the Eucharist, the Divine Hospitality lavish and inexhaustible, withheld from the great and the self-sufficient, but given to those who have nothing, to those who await all from God.

2 Comments

Hello Fr. Mark,

What are you saying exactly "poor in spirit" means? It certainly must not mean "poor in the Holy Spirit"! What does the "spirit" part mean?

+Dear Father,

A most blessed feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ! We are thinking of you and praying for you on this glorious feast and your profession anniversary. Humbly beg, what was the year of your monastic profession? I don't recall if you told us. We are experiencing a great joy as we sing the exquisite office that you composed for today. May Our Lord grant you choicest graces today. (We are also in the midst of our novena to our HMClare).
Egeria also sends love and greetings... May His glorious face shine on you!

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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