The Drive to Become an Altar

Below is a talk on penance I recently gave to my men’s group here in Rome (the Oratorio)… Enjoy.

Eamonn Clark, STL

One of the most significant figures of the 20th century neothomistic movement had only a four year long career in theology before being drafted into the Great War and getting shot in a trench in northeastern France. Fr. Pierre Rousselot is perhaps best known for a work titled “The Intellectualism of St. Thomas,” in which he does a kind of experiment attempting to reconcile Thomas with the aftermath of the Kantian revolution. One of the conclusions of that work was that our intellectual nature pushes us towards trying to develop the sort of knowledge that angels have, which is a knowledge of the essence of things. It can ultimately be summarized by saying simply that man contains a drive to become an angel; interestingly, the corollary for angelic creatures is that they, in fact, have an intellectual tendency toward Divine knowledge – the drive to become God.

Lent is fast approaching. Perhaps some of you even have “deification” on the brain after attending the conference at the university. While we certainly all are called to become like God according to our capacity, we have before us a different way than just knowledge, which is a special kind of love. Though knowledge indeed precedes love and directs it, just as the procession of the Son is logically prior to the procession of the Holy Spirit, as students we are concerned about knowing God and His revelation well enough. Lent is a challenge to make something out of that knowledge in unique acts of love called penances.

The title of this talk, derived from Rousselot, is the following: “The Drive to Become an Altar.”

First of all, penance is altogether useless for advancing in Christian perfection without sanctifying grace. One may still be bound to complete an act of penance, such as abstinence from meat, but this is a bit like being bound to the matter of a vow by canon law without having actually made the vow which contains that matter – think of an atheist communist infiltrating a religious order, for example. In truth, if he has been baptized, he is indeed bound to fulfill the matter of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but these things do not redound to any merit. On the other hand, someone who promises under a vow to attend daily mass increases the merit of that action – yet there is reason to be cautious about adding up vows, as Our Lord warns implicitly when condemning extraneous oath-taking – let your yes mean yes, and let your devotion be your devotion. You can overdo vow-making just like oath-taking. Something similar applies to penances.

There are four chief motives for fasting and other penances. The first reason is that they are obligatory, such as the penances prescribed by the Church, like abstinence from meat on Fridays or the fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This is principally an act of obedience. The second motive is in reparation for sin – to take on a punishment with some relation to manifestations of our individual corruption. This is an act of religion. The third purpose is to help to elevate the mind from things of the flesh to things of the spirit. The final motive is to discipline the body for the sake of bringing it in line with the rule of charity. These last two seem not to be acts of obedience or even necessarily of justice but of infused temperance, which is a separate species from acquired temperance, as it exists for spiritual aims rather than merely moderating bodily health.

The altar of the Temple was where sacrifices were offered. Sacrifice is one of the external parts of the virtue of religion, and it is known by the natural law – in fact, it has been taught to all the nations throughout time. We know intuitively that we owe to God something. Those who are sensitive in spirit know with David that sacrifice must cost oneself something – another cannot pay for us, at least not generally speaking.

Christ is the New Temple. The Cross is where this becomes most evident, and this point is later confirmed by the “rebuilding” of the New Temple in the Resurrection. On the Cross, the Priest, the Sacrifice, the Temple, and God are in fact all the same. For the baptized who have died and risen with Christ, who live with Him in charity by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul, one participates in the religious synthesis of the Cross and receives the gift of infused temperance in virtue of sanctifying grace. By infused temperance, the abandonment of things of the flesh in favor of the things of the spiritual world is made more attractive. We begin to want to offer things to God more and more the stronger our friendship grows. Our heart becomes more and more an altar, where our will and the pleasures we could partake of, even licitly, are sacrificed to make room for the Lord Jesus.

St. John of the Cross would go so far in fact as to urge the use of physical pleasure only as an immediate springboard to the enjoyment of friendship with Christ. There is a profound sense to this – after all, a friend of the Almighty should not really be interested in enjoying something apart from his Divine Friend, or to be distracted by something lower than Him except out of necessity. However, despite Garrigou-Lagrange’s great attempt to harmonize John with Thomas, the Angelic Doctor seems less enthusiastic about such a prescription for the general public, despite his exhortation that more or less everyone ought to enter religious life, and this without even very much thought about it! But professing chastity, poverty, and obedience in common life is not the same as John’s “nada” doctrine. In fact, St. Thomas’s rather blunt critique of the Stoics – who professed a rejection of all pleasures – could partially be applied to the more rigorous interpretation of Carmelite ascetical doctrine… Thomas says to look at the life of men who say they reject all pleasures, as their lives will be different from their writings.

A great example comes to us in the treatment St. Thomas gives of the use of alcohol, and we should remember that he would have known the life of St. Dominic. The latter, we read, gave up the use of wine for some 10 years, only to take it up again at some point after founding the Order. It may sound like a joke, but not if Thomas is to be taken seriously: Dominic may have really just needed a drink. The teaching of St. Thomas is that, of course, the careless deprivation of reason through intoxication is always grave sin. Sometimes the use of alcohol can be scandalous, and for some certain persons who are especially bound to pursue perfection of their mind, such as bishops, it is probably better to abstain altogether. But, he says, for some people alcohol is extremely helpful. It seems it was for Dominic – or perhaps he wanted to soothe the scruples of his brothers by providing a good example. Another similar anecdote comes from near the end of the life of St. Anthony Claret, who had given up all alcohol many years before. When returning to visit the order which he had founded before becoming a bishop, the superior of the community ordered a glass of wine set before the prelate. He did not protest. St. Francis de Sales also speaks of the good example of St. Charles Borromeo, a great ascetic no doubt, but who would occasionally have a glass of champagne to celebrate some great accomplishment. To do otherwise would have brushed up against scrupulosity, suggests Francis.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a later Carmelite, warns of excessive penance and deprivation in his famous little book “The Practice of the Presence of God.” “One does not become a saint all at once,” he says. Of course, the Cross is only the means to the end. When the means becomes harmful for reaching the end, the means ought to be adjusted. If penance is driving one into despairing altogether of deprivations, or causing bitterness and harshness towards others, or neurotic worrying about pleasures being excessive, one ought to reduce the penance. If one becomes proud of what penances he is doing, it is maybe better to stop using penances altogether except under obedience.

So we must not be “overly virtuous” lest it be too much for us, as Qoheleth warns. St. Thomas says pleasures ought to function somewhat like a “spice of life.” However, Lent is a time for decidedly less spice.

Christ is now mostly hidden in the glory of Heaven, appearing only in the most extraordinary of visions. Penances ought to be mostly hidden as well, allowing us to appear normal, with the interior transformation conforming us to Christ. This is just like Christ in the Eucharist – an interior change of something ordinary which makes Him present.

The Crucified Christ is indeed a sacrifice which we can in fact offer, though it has cost us nothing; and yet, in the Mass we do indeed present materials which have been changed by human work, in bread and wine. By this symbol of human labor, we are taught to appreciate the fact of participation in the liturgy which is mystical. The Mass is an incarnational representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and it is in fact so incarnational that it is a real sacrifice itself. This explains why one must be physically present at Mass in order to fulfill the obligation of attendance – one does not really offer oneself to the sacrifice which is occurring without some kind of moral presence before the altar where the sacrifice is occurring.

We also see in the Mass the four characteristic motives of penance: we are commanded to celebrate Mass by Christ Himself, we celebrate Mass for the reparation of our sins and the sins of others, and our minds are elevated to God. By the reception of Holy Communion we are conformed to the Glorified Christ, Whose Flesh and Blood which we receive as food is perfectly subject to His Soul and Divinity, which we likewise receive. And like penance, attending Mass profits one nothing without sanctifying grace. Therefore, go to Confession. Be contrite. Receive grace. Do penance. And be conformed more and more by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gift of Wisdom which flow from charity, which call us away from worldly goods, and urge us toward the Crucified One: “Christ the Power of God, Christ the Wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) In this way, our hearts become true altars where the world is sacrificed, dies, and is transformed by rising to a Christified state, where He is all in all, and only charity moves us to have anything to do with its pleasures, and God is enjoyed above everything else for His own sake, not for His gifts which He will nevertheless lavish upon us. Just as His love comes down upon the altar at Mass, surely, it will come down likewise upon hearts which are altars where He lives as well.