Friday 22nd March 2019

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The Happiness Of Having God As Our Only Hope

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Each day the Church places her fate in the hands of her Divine Bridegroom by beginning all the Hours of the Divine Office with the supplication, “O God, come to my assistance / O Lord, make haste to help me.” From Day One the Church has always needed that assistance, for it is only by it that she has survived for two thousand years.
So much of her survival and her propagation to the ends of the Earth has in the Providence of God depended upon an unlikely cast of repentant sinners and converts, including an Apostolic College that on the night of the first Holy Thursday had entirely deserted our Lord, with a first Pope who swore he did not even know Christ, and a man named Saul whose initial reaction to the Gospel was to do all he could to destroy it. And how is it humanly possible to explain the spread of a faith that for those who chose to embrace it in many cases brought upon them and their families imprisonment, torture, and death?
Many know from personal experience how very hard, and even seemingly impossible, it can be to convert a friend, a family member or colleague. And yet it happens, by the hidden workings of God, and the Church has been carried on the shoulders of such former obstinate sinners and nonbelievers. In the Church today, so much of the heavy lifting is being done by now-fervent Catholics who have converted from other faiths or who were formerly away from the sacraments.
At a retreat I attended many years ago, I remember one retreatant telling the rest of us that he was convinced his own conversion had been wrought by the prayers of faithful Catholics who did not even know him but who had simply been praying for conversions. Such is the power of prayer, of prayers of petition.
Although the sacred liturgy is ordered first and foremost to the fitting worship of God, to offering Him due and worthy praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, the liturgy is likewise filled with supplications of every sort, asking God for everything necessary in our lives. Much of the very prayer our Lord taught us, the Our Father, is a prayer of petition, and every Mass is offered for a particular intention, a petition for the living or the dead.
In the back of early printed missals from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can be found an amazing variety of votive Masses for a wide range of intentions, with their own proper collects and readings geared toward expressing these intentions — Masses to obtain wisdom, humility, patience, the gift of tears in prayer, Masses for resistance against temptations and impure thoughts, Masses for friends, for enemies, for small children, for women laboring in childbirth and women suffering from sterility, and for the ill who are close to death.
Prayers of petition, the prayers in which we ask God to grant us or give us something, have been an object of criticism and even ridicule in some quarters. In this regard I particularly recall an appalling homily in which the priest mocked his own sister for having a whole deck of holy cards with which she invoked a multitude of saints for all sorts of requests.
While we all know of people who only seem to turn to God when they need or want something but otherwise ignore Him in their lives, this is no reason to see prayers of petition as making God into a “vending machine,” as this priest irreverently claimed. For sincere prayers of petition are a humble admission of our creaturehood, of our total and utter dependence upon God for absolutely everything. They are a tacit profession of who God is and who we really are.
There is in fact a certain joy to be found in being utterly dependent upon God. Is it not a joy that He is the Vine and we are merely the branches, and that apart from Him we can do nothing? In a recent conversation Dr. Alice von Hildebrand proposed this very idea to me — “the joy of being indebted to God,” of being “beggars” at His doorstep, as she so poignantly expressed it.
And our Lord seems especially to love coming to our rescue when we are beyond human help. Recall how David came up against Goliath with nothing more than five smooth stones that he had selected for his slingshot from a brook. Recall how the people of Israel fleeing Egypt found themselves caught unarmed and unsheltered between the sea and the approaching well-armed charioteers of Pharaoh’s army. Time and again in our own lives, God summons us to trust Him entirely and to “walk on water” toward Him as he summoned St. Peter to do (Matt. 14:28-31).
In facing the prospect of his own martyrdom, St. Thomas More (1478-1535) made this very comparison: “Yet shall I remember how St. Peter, with a blast of wind, began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray him to help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand unto me, and, in the stormy seas, hold me up from drowning” (More quoted in letter of Margaret Roper to Alice Alington, August 1534, in Elizabeth Rogers, ed., The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1947, letter 206, p. 531).
Many readers may recall from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy The Lord of the Rings one of the most dramatic moments in the second book of the trilogy, The Two Towers, the climactic turning point in the battle for “Helm’s Deep.”
After King Theoden of Rohan and Aragorn the future king of Gondor had ridden forth in a final, desperate, seemingly hopeless sortie to save Helm’s Deep from falling to the evil forces of Isengard, “There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun….Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands….The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness” (The Two Towers, Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings, New York, Ballantine Books, 1982, p. 186).
There is something implicitly supernatural suggested by this scene of the character Gandalf, “the White Rider,” arriving just in time to drive the enemy away. And it bears a remarkable resemblance to a decisive moment of supernatural intervention depicted in Torquato Tasso’s epic retelling of the First Crusade of 1099, Jerusalem Delivered (c. 1575).

Angels On Our Side

In his poeticized rendering of the events leading to the liberation of Jerusalem, Tasso presents the hermit Peter exhorting the commander of the Crusade Godfrey de Bouillon (+1100) not to rely merely on his earthly soldiers but to invoke the assistance of the angels and saints, telling him, “Begin with heaven, let heaven direct your course” (Jerusalem Delivered: Gerusalemme liberata, ed. and trans. Anthony Esolen, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, canto 11, n. 2, p. 213).
Godfrey heeds the hermit’s advice, and the clergy followed by Godfrey and his army go forth in procession to the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, raising supplications sung antiphonally to the Holy Trinity, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the angels, to St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, the Apostles, the martyrs, the virgins, and “those whose pen or preaching taught the Church / the way to heaven” (ibid., n. 9, p. 214).
Then upon the summit of Mount Olivet Mass is celebrated. When at length the Crusaders lay siege to the walls of Jerusalem, their prayers are ultimately answered in spectacular fashion:
“And now to Godfrey’s eyes appears / a heavenly warrior none can see, / Michael archangel; in the clearest skies / the brilliant sun would bow to such as he. / ‘Godfrey, behold, the hour has come,’ he cries, / ‘when Sion leaves her cruel slavery. / Your eyes are dazzled — do not cast them low, / but see what hosts heaven brings to help you now….‘See there the souls who were Christ’s champions! / Citizens of Jerusalem above, / they fight beside you as the great war ends, / they are with you, they share the glory of this conquest’” (Jerusalem Delivered, canto 18, nn. 92, 94, p. 354).
In our own lives, in our battles for the greater glory of God, for the salvation of souls, for the exultation of Holy Mother Church, for the victory of good over evil, of truth over falsehood, of purity over lust, of love over hatred, of fidelity over infidelity, and of the culture of life over that of death, the saints and angels do indeed fight at our side. And thus “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) to support us with their prayers, we will find the courage happily to put all our hope in God. O Crux, ave, spes unica — O Cross, hail, our only hope!

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