Over 21 years ago I made my canonical retreat that was required before being ordained a transitional deacon. We were studying the Letter to the Romans in the retreat conferences and came upon a particularly difficult passage early in the retreat. The retreat master, an older priest and well known scripture scholar stopped his train of thought, perhaps perceiving we were having difficulty and said, “Do you know what is the biggest obstacle for us in understanding the Word of God?” I was expecting a geeky answer like, “We don’t know enough Greek,” or “We haven’t studied the Historical Critical Method carefully enough.” But the priest pleasantly surprised me we he paused, looked around the room and then said, “The biggest obstacle we have to understanding the Word of God is our sin.” He was (and still is) Fr. Francis Martin. He went on to encourage us in the discipline of study but warned us that all the study in the world could not be of great help, indeed it could be of harm, if we did not have a clean heart.
I have respected him ever since and listened on tape to probably two dozen other priest conferences and courses he preached and taught. He became one of my principal teachers through his tape ministry though I was never formally enrolled in a class he taught.Scholars, academicians, even unbelievers to some extent can tell you what a biblical text is talking about, but only the holy, the Saints, can tell you what it means.
Fulton Sheen was famous for saying toward the end of his life something to the effect, that we have tried in modern times every possible way to build up the Church: committees, study groups, task forces, seminars, advanced degrees in every sort of theology and religious study. But there is only one thing that we have not tried and that is holiness. He went on to recommend that every priest commit to make a daily Holy Hour.
This past week in the Office of Readings from the Breviary the following reading reminded me of all these things:
If you say, “Show me your God,” I will say to you, “Show me what kind of person you are, and I will show you my God.” …..God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open. All have eyes, but some have eyes that are shrouded in darkness, unable to see the light of the sun. Because the blind cannot see it, it does not follow that the sun does not shine. The blind must trace the cause back to themselves and their eyes. In the same way, you have eyes in your mind that are shrouded in darkness because of your sins and evil deeds. A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light. If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it. In the same way, no one who has sin within him can see God. But if you will you can be healed. Hand yourself over to the doctor, and he will open the eyes of your mind and heart. Who is to be the doctor? It is God, who heals and gives life through his Word and wisdom…. If you understand this, and live in purity and holiness and justice, you may see God. But, before all, faith and the fear of God must take the first place in your heart, and then you will understand all this. When you have laid aside mortality and been clothed in immortality, then you will see God according to your merits.— From the book addressed to Autolycus by Saint Theophilus of Antioch, bishop
So there it is, holiness, a the fear of the Lord are the only way to really see at all.
There was an option this past Sunday in Parishes where the Second Scrutiny was celebrated to the Gospel of the Man Born Blind. In a pivotal moment Jesus smeared his eyelids with clay and sends him to the Pool of Siloam to wash. He comes back able to see. When asked how he came to see he says, in effect, “I went, I washed and now I see.” This is Baptismal theology even if in seminal form. We cannot see until we are washed. In the end it is Baptism, Confession and a holy life by God’s grace that give the greatest light. One of the great theologians and Fathers of the Church St. Cyprian experienced the vision that Baptism and holiness brings:
And I myself was bound fast, held by so many errors of my past life, from which I did not believe I could extricate myself. I was disposed therefore to yield to my clinging vices; and, despairing of better ways, I indulged my sins…But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the waters of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man. And then in marvelous manner, doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened…and what had been thought impossible was able to be done(“Letter to Donatus,” 4).
Only after baptism did some things make sense and seem possible for Cyprian. For me too, I have come to understand some things only after many years of prayer and growth. Daily Holy Hours, daily mass and the liturgy of the hours, weekly confession, only then do some things clarify and does that which had been in darkness come to light. Studies have had their place in my life to be sure, But only the path to holiness (combined with study) can ever really bring light.
We’ve tried everything! How about holiness? … Prayer anyone?