Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 34-Lex ipsa gratia vivificata est

THE MORAL LAW MAY BE DIFFICULT TO KEEP, particularly in certain circumstances. There are both external and internal circumstances that affect man's ability to exercise his freedom in a manner that conforms to the precepts of morality. But "[e]ven in the most difficult situations man must respect the norm of morality so that he can be obedient to God's holy commandment and consistent with his own dignity as a person." VS, 102.

A rose garden we have not been promised.

Certainly, maintaining a harmony between freedom and truth occasionally demands uncommon sacrifices, and must be won at a high price: it can even involve martyrdom. But, as universal and daily experience demonstrates, man is tempted to break that harmony: "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want" (Rom 7:15, 19).

VS, 102.

Man is thus "divided," and this "inner division" in man, of which any introspective person will be aware, is evidentiary or testamentary of a prior failure to acknowledge "the Lord as his Creator," and a wish "to be the one who determines, with complete independence, what is good and what is evil." VS, 102. Every man, then, bears the vestiges of a prior rebellion, the vestiges which easily attract temptations to ignore or trespass against God's commandments. There is in us an unfortunate disorder, a disorder which affects the entire man, his emotions, his physical desires, his will, and his intellect. Although revelation describes this as a "fall," revelation is not required to know that something is wrong. Observation and plain common sense tells us something is wrong, though reason alone may not give us the reason why this is case. That obvious fact is what led G. K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy to observe that original sin "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

The moral law, however, can be kept. God does not legislate the impossible, and it follows that the temptations that haunt man do not compel an act against the moral law. The temptations do not rob us of our free will:
But temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them: "His eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man. He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin" (Sir 15:19-20). Keeping God's law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church's tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent: "But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30)."
VS, 102.

The law, however, cannot be kept without divine grace, and man sees "before him the spiritual horizon of hope," a hope that founded upon the confidence of the "help of divine grace," which cooperates with, and in fact buttresses, his freedom. Semper conceditur homini spiritalis via ad spem, divina gratia adiuvante atque humana libertate operam navante. VS, 103. Lex ipsa gratia vivificata est. The law itself is enlivened, is given life, by grace. Cf. VS, 103. In the moral life of man, law is its skeleton, and grace is its flesh.

God, of course, is the author of this grace, and he distributes it as he will. And yet he has provided in the Christian dispensation for some ordinary channels of this grace, channels which only the foolhardy, the ignorant, or the evil would forego:

It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. Jn 19:34), that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God's holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. As Saint Andrew of Crete observes, the law itself "was enlivened by grace and made to serve it in a harmonious and fruitful combination. Each element preserved its characteristics without change or confusion. In a divine manner, he turned what could be burdensome and tyrannical into what is easy to bear and a source of freedom."*

VS, 103.

St. Andrew of Crete

The central act of God's grace is found in Christ, in his Redemption of all mankind. For this reason, the Pope insists that "[o]nly in the mystery of Christ's Redemption do we discover the 'concrete' possibilities of man." VS, 103. What John Paul II means by that is that the natural moral law should not be considered some ethereal, transcendent ideal way beyond man here-and-now. The ability to keep the moral law in all its fullness is not pie in the sky. The keeping of the moral law is achievable in the here-and-now, in the concrete circumstances, in the "categorical." The moral law is not some ideal which must be dumbed down, "adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man."

But in speaking of the "concrete possibilities of man," and of the ability to keep the moral law, we must distinguish between what "man" we mean. "And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or by man redeemed by Christ? VS, 103. This is the question rarely asked by both advocates and opponents of the natural law: when we talk about man's nature, what man are we referring to?

The man dominated by lust cannot keep the law, and it is not this man whose nature we appeal to. On the other hand, the man redeemed by Christ can keep the law, and it is this man whose nature is normative. And so the law's ideal, when applied to the "concrete possibilities of man," will force us to the recognition of a reality: "the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us!" VS, 103.

And what does this mean? The Redemption of man by Christ and the promise of forgiveness, provides man with the opportunity, one built on grace and powered by the Holy Spirit, of being free, free of the heavy hand of past wrongs, free of concupiscence, free to live a life awash in the splendor of moral truth.

[The Redemption of man by Christ] means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ's redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God's command is of course proportioned to man's capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given . . . .

VS, 103.

Even man's failure to enjoy these new-found possibilities given to him by Christus Redemmptor is governed by that Redemption. That perfection of Christ's redemption, if not seized by man in the first instance, may be seized by him in a second, since "though he has fallen into sin," the fallen "can always obtain pardon and enjoy [anew] the presence of the Holy Spirit" in all its fullness. VS, 103.

Christ's Redemption is perfect, but man remains imperfect. Part of that imperfection arises from man's weakness. Man, even the man of good will, even the man who lives in grace, remains weak. And so "appropriate allowance" must be made "both for God's mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness." VS, 104.

And yet this "appropriate allowance" is something worlds apart from compromise:
Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.
VS, 104.

There is, in fact, a need to resist succumbing to the temptation of a reductio of the moral law to accommodate our weakness, our failures, or our sins. The moral law always tugs per aspera ad astra, from difficulties to the stars. It does not tug the other direction: per aspera de astris, by adversities down from the stars. The stars don't come down to man; rather, man must reach for the stars, in particular one star, the "star of Jacob," stella ex Iacob, the "bright morning star," the stella matutina that is Christ. Cf. Numbers 24:17-19; Rev. 22:16.

The biblical example of this appropriate attitude is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Had the tax collector, the publican been so disposed, he might have justified his sins through all manner of moral casuistry. He may have adopted the posture of the modern libertine. He may have adopted the stance of the modern proportionalist. He may have adopted the attitude of the Pharisee who felt "self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings" to the point that he was blind to them. But had our humble publican done so, in his self-justification would have remained in his sins, and he would have missed the opportunity for forgiveness and his opportunity at becoming free. "But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications," Pope John Paul II observes, "but rather on his own unworthiness before God's infinite holiness: 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'" VS, 104.

Deus, propitius esto mihi peccatori! This is the attitude of a man about to be set free.

Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a 'repentant' conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a 'self-satisfied' conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.
VS, 104.

We must stand watch against becoming Pharisee. The sin of the Pharisee is not in maintaining the integrity of the law. The sin of the Pharisee is in self-justification, in adapting the law to his ability, in making the law come down to him, and so never seeing himself as a sinner in need of redemption, of forgiveness, of God's mercy.

All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one's own limits and of one's own sin. In our own day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one's own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm. Accepting, on the other hand, the "disproportion" between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it. "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" asks the Apostle Paul. And in an outburst of joy and gratitude he replies: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:24-25)

VS, 105.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Pope John Paul II ends this part of his encyclical with a prayer of Saint Ambrose which typifies and enshrines the attitude of the tax collector in its simple and total lack of self-justification before the Thrice Holy God:
What then is man, if you do not visit him? Remember, Lord, that you have made me as one who is weak, that you formed me from dust. How can I stand, if you do not constantly look upon me, to strengthen this clay, so that my strength may proceed from your face? When you hide your face, all grows weak (Ps 104:29): if you turn to look at me, woe is me! You have nothing to see in me but the stain of my crimes; there is no gain either in being abandoned or in being seen, because when we are seen, we offend you. Still, we can imagine that God does not reject those he sees, because he purifies those upon whom he gazes. Before him burns a fire capable of consuming our guilt (cf. Joel 2:3)

Quid est enim homo nisi quia visitas eum? Non ergo obliviscaris infirmum, memento quia pulverem me finxisti. Quomodo stare potero, nisi solidaturus hoc lutum semper intendas, ut de vultu tuo soliditas mea prodeat? “Cum averteris faciem, turbabuntur omnia” (Ps. 104 (103), 29): si intendas, vae mihi. Non habes quod in me aspicias nisi contagia delictorum: nec deseri utile nec videri est, quia dum videmur offendimus. Possumus tamen aestimare quia non repellit quas videt, quia emundat quos aspicit. Ignis ante eum ardet, qui crimen exurat (Cfr. Ioe. 2, 3)
VS, 105.**

The "Jesus Prayer," so beloved by the Orthodox, presents to us in a concise and precise way the attitude of a man who will be freed as he confronts the personal God, the only uncontingent and absolutely free Being, whose only limits are the Good which is the same as His Being:
Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν!
Domine Iesu Christe, Filius Dei, miserere me peaccatorem!
أيها الرب يسوع المسيح ابن الله, إرحمني أنا الخاطئ
(Ayyuha-r-Rabbu Yasū` al-Masīħ, Ibnu-l-Lāh, irħamnī ana-l-khāti’)
Տէր Յիսուս Քրիստոս Որդի Աստուծոյ ողորմեա ինձ մեղաւորիս!
Госпадзе Ісусе Хрысьце, Сыне Божы, памілуй мяне, грэшнага!
Pane Ježíši Kriste, Syne Boží, smiluj se nade mnou hříšným!
Herra Jeesus Kristus, Jumalan Poika, armahda minua syntistä.
Heer Jezus Christus, Zoon van God, ontferm U over mij, zondaar!
უფალო იესუ ქრისტე, ძეო ღმრთისაო, შემიწყალე მე ცოდვილი!
Herr Jesus Christus, Sohn Gottes, erbarme dich meiner, eines Sünders!
Viešpatie Jėzau Kristau, Dievo Sūnau, pasigailėk manęs nusidėjelio!
Mulej Ġesù Kristu, Iben ta’ Alla l-ħaj, ikollok ħniena minni, midneb!
Herre Jesus Kristus, forbarm deg over meg!
Panie Jezu Chryste, Synu Boga, zmiłuj się nade mną, grzesznikiem!
Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя грешнаго!
Señor Jesucristo, Hijo de Dios, ten piedad de mi, que soy un pecador!
Seigneur, Jésus Christ, Fils de Dieu, aie pitié de moi, pécheur!
Ē ka Haku ‘o Iesu Kristo, Keiki kāne a ke Akua: e aloha mai ia‘u, ka mea hewa!
Uram Jézus Krisztus, Isten Fia, könyörülj rajtam, bűnösön!
Signore Gesù Cristo, Figlio di Dio, abbi misericordia di me peccatore!
하느님의 아들 주 예수 그리스도님, 죄 많은 저를 불쌍히 여기소서
Wahai Isa-al-Masih, Putra Allah, kasihanilah aku, sesungguhnya aku ini berdosa!
Senhor Jesus Cristo, Filho de Deus, tende piedade de mim pecador!
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

In all languages or one, the sentiment is the same, and humanity would be far better off if all men prayed the prayer in common.
*The quotation is from St. Andrew of Crete's Oratio I, found in PG 95,805-06.
**Citation to St. Ambrose,
De interpellatione David, VI.6.22. [CSEL 32/2, 238-84]

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