Fish with Fins

In my last post, I described a rather unique homily of Pope Gregory the Great, in which he compares the virtue of compunction to a smelly bucket of dung that we can use to fertilize a robust spiritual growth. By humbly and truthfully acknowledging our sins and through eager repentance, we can receive God’s grace and bear fruit in good works.

Gregory proceeds to consider the woman who has an evil spirit that causes her to be stooped over for eighteen years. As with the fruitless fig tree, he suggests that she is an image for fallen human nature.

He contrasts homo incurvatus with homo erectus. God made us in his own image and likeness: upright, erect, and good. We are destined for heavenly glory, and have those eternal desires in our heart. But earthly desires have bent us over: wealth, honor, power, and fleshly delights. We have stooped low in our sins, and can no longer stand erect. Like the woman, we must cry out to Jesus, so that he can cast his light on our sins and help us to stand once again.

Luke describes the woman as beyond crippled, as “having a spirit of infirmity.” Even in Jesus’ time, not all cripples were seen as oppressed or possessed. Some ailments are explained by natural causes; others suggest a superadded torment inflicted by demons.

This distinction does not escape Gregory’s notice. He describes all sin as hunching us over, causing us to be “stooped and deeply bowed” (Psalm 38:7). But then there evil spirits who prowl like lions looking for the opportunity to torment us. They are enemies of our human nature and envious of our true human destiny to become like God. So Gregory calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the plight of God’s people in their sins: I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk over you.” So you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Isaiah 51:23).

Who on earth would willingly bow down and give their backs to evil spirits to walk on? Well, many of us. Fewer more truthful words can be found than those of Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Many of us Catholics find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over again –even sins that we hate intensely. Often it is the lies of fear and shame that oppress us, binding us up. In our false belief that we are not really lovable, we can become mired in habitual sin, face down in the muck. In our darkest moments we think, “Why bother? What does it matter? I’m already ___(fill in the blank)___.”

Deceived by those diabolical lies, it can definitely happen that we bow down and give our backs to evil spirits, allowing them to trample on us. When that happens we find ourselves, like the stooped woman, unable to stand erect even when we really want to. Thankfully Jesus is our Lord and Savior who can bind up the evil one and reclaim our freedom and dignity (cf. Mark 3:27).

Gregory specifically mentions desire for “illicit pleasure” (voluptas illicita) as bowing us over in a crippling way and becoming an entry point for diabolical activity. I think any number of the addictions that are on the rise today (pornography, sexual deviancies, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) can be entry points. Don’t we often talk about “battling our demons”? As Paul tells us, our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against powerful spiritual beings (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is the one who can deliver us from oppression at enemy hands. He is the one who can help us stand erect. He is the one who inflames our hearts with a holy desire for heaven.

To illustrate this point, Gregory turns to the image of fish. The law of Leviticus forbade the Jews from eating fish without fins or scales. Fish with fins are able to leap from the waters, striving heavenward. Fish without scales and fins (in Gregory’s understanding of biology) were bottom feeders, even detritivores, engaging in coprophagia. But for the grace of God, so go all of us. Once the diabolical lies of shame get a grip on us, we can habitually do the things we hate, like the dog that returns to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22).

That is where holy desires come in. Gregory preaches so beautifully about them, here and elsewhere. Holy desires are like the fins on the fish. They propel us to soar heavenward. True, until this fleshly existence is fully transformed, we will always come back earthward, like the fish re-entering the water.

But, returning to the fig tree, holy desires are meant to grow and bear fruit. The greater our desire, the greater our capacity to receive. So often people pray for many years to overcome a certain sin in their life. They imagine it is just a matter of willing the sin away. But God wants to go down to the roots of the tree, to see the whole truth (sometimes painfully), to heal and deliver us. The combination of compunction and heavenly desire will ultimately set us free – thought not always in the way we imagined. Delivered and restored, we can learn to look upward habitually, and so receive ongoing healing and peace.

The Communion of Saints

As most of you know, “Hallowe’en” is short for All Hallows’ Eve. Tonight is the vigil of All Saints. On this day, we rejoice in the victory that God has already won in the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith. They are now fully alive in the heavenly Body of Christ. Their triumph in Him gives us hope amidst our difficulties.

They also give us comfort and support. We are not alone in our struggle. We are united with them in love. For Christ’s Body is one.

You may recall the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus questioning him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ and his members are one. Many parts but one living body. Branches abiding on the vine. Living stones in the temple. Bride and bridegroom united as one flesh.

Paul’s encounter was not simply a one-on-one personal encounter with Jesus. It was an encounter with the whole mystical reality that is the Church. The encounter changed Paul’s life was forever. His old self died, along with his desperate striving for self-righteousness. He took on a completely new existence “in Christ” – a phrase that he went on to use 165 times in his letters! He understood our existence “in Christ” as a totally new identity, now no longer in isolation, but in an abiding communion with God and neighbor. In Romans 6 he described faith and baptism as causing us to die with Christ and rise with him to new life.

We are united in Christ in a living communion of love that far transcends the here and now. Saint Augustine offers a panoramic view of the Church as the whole Christ united in love:

“His Body is the Church, not this or that church, but the one that is spread throughout the world, not only that which exists now in the men and women of this present life, but includes also those members who existed before us and those who will exist after us – all the way to the end of the world.  For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful (for all the faithful are members of Christ) has in heaven that head placed over her that guides his body. Though separated in vision, she is united as one in love.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a prayer treasured by Catholics and Protestants alike. In it, we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” The Latin phrase is sanctorum communio, words that are delightfully ambiguous. They can mean “fellowship of holy people” as well as “sharing of holy things.” In fact, “communion of saints” means both. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer. When one is exalted, all are exalted. Christ and his Bride are truly one flesh. They share everything together.

In our present days of darkness and division, this heavenly communion should give us great hope and encouragement. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They have already conquered in Christ. They are now cheering us on as we run the race and fight the good fight.

Their triumph and their love also nurtures our deepest and holiest desires – which often lie dormant and forgotten, buried beneath the stress and chaos of our lives. Chief among those desires is the virtue of hope. Christian hope is a deep and intense longing for our true heavenly homeland.

There are many counterfeit versions of “hope” these days – political ideologies, fantasy escapes, worldly success, or the promise that technology can solve all our problems. These false hopes promise much but deliver little. They leave us disappointed, as the thing-hoped-for proves not to be the answer to our heart’s deepest questions.

True hope does not disappoint. We are destined to be perfected in the love of Christ. If we freely cooperate with his free gift, we will one day be strong enough and pure enough and holy enough to see God in the face and live. Mind you, He already loves us dearly. But we are not yet ready to receive all that love in all the ways he would love to share it. He prepares us step by step. Our capacity to receive needs to be stretched. Our desire needs to grow and grow. The more intense our longing for the Lord, the more capable we become of receiving true holiness.

Often, it is precisely through the painful trials of life that God blesses and strengthens us the most. In the moment they are cause for misery, but over time they emerge as part of a larger and beautiful story. Jesus compares the experience to a mother in labor, who finally gives birth. Paul compares it to athletes in training, with their eyes on the prize. Scripture frequently speaks of gold or silver plunged into the furnace, purified of all dross so that God’s glory can shine forth.

In this life or the next, all of us are destined to be purified by the fire of God’s love and come to shine with the saints in heaven. I have never heard that encounter described more beautifully than in the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

“…the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw … and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

May we all draw inspiration from the holiness of the saints. May we be unafraid of the intensity of God’s love, which is indeed an all-consuming fire. Rather, may we be filled with true hope, abiding in God’s love until all his promises are fulfilled.