ALL of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.
Trinitytide is the season of growth as the Church, through her readings, gives us an outline of the Christian growth through purgation, illumination, and finally union with God. The Christian life starts with the cleansing of baptism and the process of purging of sin from our lives. As we rise to our new life in the Spirit, we also grow in the knowledge and practice of the Spirit’s gifts; and as we recover our true selves, we grow in the love of God and join Him in perfect union.
As I spoke of last week, this supernatural process of growth is what we mean by participation. It begins as a pure gift at the deepest of our human nature as we are given a new life in our baptism. At that level, we participate in the life of God as a baby in the womb participates in her mother. God seeks to lead us to our final happiness, and as His children, he gives us all that we need to freely live and participate in His life. This type of participation involves our own will and actions: it is what we might call the moral life.
The moral life is the regulation of our free actions through reason in regards to our final end. The moral life comes as a result of our incorporation in the Body of Christ–I cannot emphasize this enough. It blossoms from the roots. But let me add a few words about morals before we go too far.
Morals though are not the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We know that often things happen to us that we cannot control — even to the point of how we were raised, or the genes that we received, etc. Moral action is how we intentionally and freely act in response to the circumstances and knowledge we are given.
I understand that the moral life can be daunting, especially since we understand that our lives are already incorporated into the end. We do not have to sin as sons and daughters of God, gifted with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. And yet this does not mean that our struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil within our everyday lives and everyday circumstances is easy. Obviously, our moral life does not gain our salvation…that is just a false way to view the Christian life. It puts the cart in front of the horse, so to speak. But, our moral life does matter, and its consequences are eternal.
Here again, though, it is easy to fall into a very legal view of morals, which can distort our view of participation. In a purely legal view, a bad act gets a punishment and a good act means one’s status is the same or even gets rewarded. But this view artificially views morals as the means to an end, and sometimes, the means (our moral life) seem to get more emphasis than the end (union with God). The purely legal view distorts the moral life because it misses the relational and participatory nature of the Christian life. All of our actions are lived out towards an end, but they are not just a means to an end. Rather, our lives as Christians already participate in the End which is union with God. We already taste and see in part — we are already living in eternity.
Perhaps it is better to see our moral actions are like a diet. Health comes from and is the natural result of a consistent healthy diet over time. An unhealthy diet may still support some form of life, but one can become so accustomed to junk food that even the freshest snap pea from the garden will taste bad. Likewise, our actions matter because they either accustom us to the presence of God (which is our ultimate end), or they decay our sensitivity to God so that we do not even seek forgiveness. The Bible often calls this the ‘hardening of the heart.’ To such a one who has accustomed himself to the pleasures of his own pride, the presence of God is terrifying and hellish.
And so we attentively care for our own lives, examining our outward actions and inward intentions in order to grow our love towards God and our neighbor. This attentiveness is like weeding a garden. Weeds are tricky: they often sprout and look like plants around them…only one who is very attentive over time can notice the difference. At first, one catches a weed when it is already grown up and perhaps has a complex root system. But by gaining maturity and wisdom, the gardener is able to pluck a weed when it has just sprouted because she is now able to judge between weed and the intended plant. Likewise, only one who really knows oneself can tell when a virtue is growing or a vice is starting to take root. Lack of attentiveness lets everything go wild. There is a lot of growht. Ha. Lots of growth, but it is a cancerous and wild growth that sucks out the life of the intended garden. Attentiveness to one’s own moral life though brings greater bounty
You all know this already — and you also know how tempting and easy it is to ignore ourselves so we don’t have to work on our inner life. The moral life is daunting, but God has not abandoned us to grow these bountiful virtues on our own. And this is where the idea of friendship is such a helpful metaphor for our Christian lives. As I noted last week, all friendships revolve around a shared knowledge that is the beginning of a shared love towards a common object. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that he has chosen us and then gives us the knowledge of His Father which is our greatest end. As we learn from Jesus about His Father, we grow closer to Jesus and all other friends together. At Baptism, God chooses us and blesses us with the gifts needed to walk with Him. And then Jesus leads us in our moral lives by walking with us and teaching us about His Father. In John 15, we might expect Jesus then to lay out for us what to do in every situation, giving us a strict and precise moral code. But this is not what he goes on to say. The teaching is remarkable:
Jesus teaches about how God seeks to redeem us. In fact, he has even laid down the life of his Son for us and that this sacrificial love is the nature of God’s love. As the true Friend, Jesus reveals that the common object of our friendship (God the Father) is also the bond of our common love. The nature of God is marked by this sacrificial love in which we must live. He is the one who seeks after his sheep. He is the one who rejoices over any sinner who repents.
In any friend group there are common actions, habits, etc., In this group, we all must emulate and resemble the life of the Son, because he is the only Friend who can teach us about His Father. And here is a key point. His teaching is not just some esoteric spiritual knowledge. We today like to separate out knowledge as if there is difference between practical and abstract knowledge.But Jesus’ teaching is his own life and so his teaching is his way of life.
In a friendship, we are encouraged along, supported, and loved towards a common life. We live our lives not in isolation towards random ends but with a great host of friends together with our best friend towards a definite and blessed end. As in every friendship, one may turn away and refuse to take part , to think that ones own ideas are better or greater or more important than any other. So if your life is marked/distinguished/finds importance in your relationship/friendship with Jesus, and that life is a certain way of life (marked by a common moral life), that means that we must align our lives to that common life. And as we saw in the First Epistle of Peter, the entrance in a healthy moral life is humility.
We know this because Jesus, our friend who leads us towards our end, led a life of supreme humility. In our own humility, we begin to see ourselves in a correct way. We understand that we are part of others, not just an individual able to impose ones own rights and powers on others. Instead, we live together towards a common goal.
Humility also helps us understand our finite nature, that we are, in fact, created by another. It is only when we give ourselves to God that we can begin to understand how he has given himself for us: how he has cared for us. And that type of humility teaches us how to listen to God. When we are open to God’s care and love, we will see Him working in the world and in our lives. We will know His presence in the liturgy and be aided by His Body and Blood. We will read Holy Scriptures and hear the words of God to us. We will pray and be comforted in all dangers and adversities. We will ask for help and our Friend will be there, leading us toward our true Happiness and Joy.