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Sufficit tibi gratia mea

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Sexagesima Sunday
12 February 2012

The Introit

Today's Mass opens with a great cry asking God to wake up. The prayer is one of a people that feels forgotten, of a people that fears being rejected. God seems to be asleep, or far away, or on holiday , or occupied with other things. "Why turnest Thou Thy face away, and forgettest our trouble?" When God looks away, dreadful things happen: we fall low, so very low that our belly cleaves to the earth.

The psalmist is expressing what he, from his perspective, feels. He is doing what we so often do in our relationship with others. We blame the other person for the very thing that we ourselves are doing. It is not, in fact, God who needs the wake-up call. We do. It is not God who has forgotten us but, rather, we who have forgotten God. It is not God who has turned His face away from us, but we who have turned our faces away from Him. It is not God who would cast us off, but we who would throw off the yoke that binds us to Him.

Honest Prayer

It is perfectly right that we should express ourselves honestly to God in prayer, even if this means asking questions, railing against Him, and bemoaning the disgust we may, at times, feel against ourselves, against others, and against life in general. The entire Psalter teaches us to do this. At the same time, the very act of praying honestly, of "getting it all out" in the presence of God, softens our hearts, changes them, and allows us to begin to see things from God's perspective, which, if we persevere in prayer, we are obliged to admit is the only right one.

The Collect

The Collect demonstrates that praying honestly changes our point of view. We begin by saying, "O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do." The somewhat self-righteous lament of the psalmist in the Introit, who is convinced that God is being inattentive and distant, becomes the prayer of one who admits that, ultimately, nothing he does or acquires is, as it were, money in the bank . It is not a question of striving and achieving, but rather, of becoming utterly poor, and of learning to receive all things from God.

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La petite Thérèse

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, our 24 year old Doctor of the Church, wrote:

It is true I am not always faithful, but I never lose courage. I leave myself in the Arms of Our Lord. He teaches me to draw profit from everything, from the good and from the bad which He finds in me. He teaches me to speculate in the Bank of Love, or rather it is He Who speculates for me, without telling me how He does it--that is His affair, not mine. I have but to surrender myself wholly to Him, to do so without reserve, without even the satisfaction of knowing what it is all bringing to me.

And again, in her prayer of self-offering to the Merciful Love of God, she wrote:

When comes the evening of life, I shall stand before Thee with empty hands, because I do not ask Thee, my God, to take account of my works. All our works of justice are blemished in Thine Eyes.

The Collect also asks God to grant us the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles, that is, of Saint Paul, who in the Epistle, speaks to us candidly of his own sufferings, weaknesses, and glory. Saint Thérèse had read her Saint Paul well. I can see her endorsing enthusiastically all that he says to us today.

Saint Paul

Challenged by those who see themselves as super-apostles, Saint Paul is obliged to present his own defense. He glories not in heroic deeds, not in the working of miracles, not in honourable accomplishments, and not even in mystical experiences of the highest order but, rather, in his sufferings and in his infirmities. Why? The things we perceive as heroic -- our pathetic attempts at playing the splendid Christian -- risk filling us up with ourselves to the point of leaving no room for mercy, no room for grace, no room for the power of Christ. Our infirmities, on the other hand, our failures, our dodgy escapades, and even our sins, empty us of any pretext for glorying in ourselves. For some of us, God Himself will see to it that we never become inflated by the gifts we have received from Him, by giving us, at the same time, "a sting of the flesh" to buffet us into the humility without which we cannot be saved.

The Grace of Christ

That weakness in yourself that you so detest, the chronic failure that leaves you sitting in the gutter, the sin that spoils the imaginary portrait of yourself as nearly perfect, all of these things may be permitted by God, and this because the grace of Christ penetrates us most easily through our wounds, through the chinks in our armour, through cracks in our systems of defense.

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to each one of us today the very words that He spoke to Saint Paul. "My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity."

The Seed of the Word

Will we hear these words of Our Lord? Will we take them to heart? Or will they fall upon the wayside to be trodden down and stolen away by wicked birds of prey? Or will they fall upon the rock of our hearts grown hard in pride and self-sufficiency? Will we receive them with a superficial thrill of spiritual enthusiasm, and then forget them to go on with business as usual? Or will they be choked by the cares of this life, by the drive to have, to control, and to enjoy? Or will these words of Our Lord find in our hearts a good ground, receptive and open, ready to hear them, to keep them, and to bring forth fruit in patience?

Should we receive Our Lord's words in this last way, we will find ourselves capable of saying with complete honesty, together with Saint Paul, and with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, who so assimilated his doctrine: "Gladly, will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me."

Mercy, Grace, and Copious Redemption

I am who I am, and you are who you are, and this with all the ugly bits, with the untidiness, the shameful secrets, the chronic weaknesses, and the falls from grace. None of this is terminal, provided that we confess and believe that Our Lord Jesus is who He is, that with Him there is mercy and copious redemption, and that His grace is sufficient for us today, as it will be tomorrow. To whom be all glory and praise, now and always, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Conversion: Saint Paul's and Ours

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Image: A detail from the incomparable Caravaggio's Conversion of Saint Paul.


A Divine Inbreaking

For Benedictines who make a vow of conversion -- conversatio morum -- the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul holds a special significance. For the Benedictine monk, the nun, or the Oblate, conversion is not a once-and-for-all event, it is a mystery of grace that unfolds day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute. It is a Divine inbreaking that re-orders what is disordered in a soul; that re-shapes what is misshapen; and that calls one out of the darkness into the radiance of the glory of God shining on the Face of Christ.

Blind Me that I May See Rightly

One does not embrace the monastic way in order to settle into a tranquil routine of pious complacency. One embraces the monastic way in order to expose one's heart to the piercing two-edged sword of the Word of God, and to the wounding darts of Divine Love. One embraces the monastic way in order to blinded by Deifying Light, so as to see again not as one once saw, but with new eyes and from an altogether new perspective.

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Praying Against Oneself

One embraces the monastic life, in a certain sense, to pray tirelessly against one's own twisted and twisting proclivities, and to turn, and turn, and turn again, until one lives facing Christ or, as Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity puts it, until one lives "with one's eyes in His eyes," avec les yeux dans ses yeux. To vow oneself to conversion of manners is to say relentlessly over an entire lifetime with the poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

(John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV)

But in all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

The Presence of Saint Paul

Why does Saint Paul hold, even after two thousand years, such sway over hearts and minds in every culture and nation? Why does Saint Paul continue to speak compellingly to every man and every woman? Why was Saint Augustine's life turned around so dramatically and so gloriously when he seized upon a book and, opening it, read from Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans? Why is the Rule of Saint Benedict shot through with the Pauline passion for the love of Christ? Why, even in the conflicts that set believer against believer, did Saint Paul remain, on both sides of the conflict, the measure of what it means to belong to Christ? Why, in the last century did Saint Paul so capture the thought of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church; of the Benedictine Abbot, Blessed Columba Marmion; of the young Carmelite, Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity that one is obliged to conclude that, apart from an immersion in his Epistles, there can be no lasting conversion of souls to Christ, and no authentically Christian mysticism?

To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace, to preach among the Gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Ephesians 3:8)

Paul Gives Me Christ

I began reading Saint Paul as a small boy, withdrawing on quiet mornings into the narrow space between my bed and the wall, and going from discovery to discovery in the New Testament that my father gave me, and that I still treasure. More than fifty years on, I am still reading Saint Paul in whatever quiet space I can find? Why? Because Saint Paul gives me Christ. Because Saint Paul places my soul in Christ, and Christ in my soul. Because Saint Paul, once converted on the road to Damascus, has never stopped converting others to Christ Jesus in the wake of his own experience, and because I need, and want, and have vowed a lifetime of conversion.

And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Saint Chrysostom on Saint Paul

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At Matins during Epiphanytide it is customary to read the Epistles of Saint Paul. Yesterday our monastic lectionary gave us a magnificent sermon of Saint John Chrysostom in which he proclaims his own devotion to the Apostle. I mentioned this sermon to our Oblate Charles Michie (who bears the Oblate name of Paul), and promised that I would post it. Here it is:

Paul, the Spiritual Trumpet

As I keep hearing the Epistles of blessed Paul read, and that twice every week, and often three or four times, whenever we are celebrating the memorials of the holy martyrs, gladly do I enjoy the spiritual trumpet, and get roused and warmed with desire at recognising the voice so dear to me, and seem to fancy him all but present to my sight, and behold him conversing with me.

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Ignorance of Paul

But I grieve and am pained, that all people do not know this man as much as they ought to know him: but some are so far ignorant of him as not even to know for certain the number of his Epistles. And this comes not of incapacity, but of their not having the wish to be continually conversing with this blessed man.

A Continual Cleaving to the Man

For it is not through any natural readiness and sharpness of wit that even I am acquainted with as much as I do know, if I do know anything, but owing to a continual cleaving to the man, an earnest affection towards him. For what belongs to men beloved, they who love them know above all others; because they are interested in them. And this also this blessed Apostle shews, in what he said to the Philippians: "Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel."

Read Saint Paul With a Ready Mind

And so ye also, if ye be willing to apply to the reading of him with a ready mind, will need no other aid. For the word of Christ is true which saith, "Seek, and ye shall find, knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

Pay Attention When Saint Paul Is Read in Church

But since the more part of those who here gather themselves to us, have taken upon themselves the bringing up of children, and the care of a wife, and the charge of a family, and for this cause cannot afford to give themselves wholly to this labour, be ye at all events roused to receiving those things which have been brought together by others, and bestow as much attention to the hearing of what is said as ye give the gathering of goods.

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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