I have developed an affection for a verse in Psalm 16: Propter verba labiorum tuorum ego custodivi vias duras, “On account of the words of Thy lips, I have kept the arduous paths” (Ps. 16:4). King David, to whom these words are attributed, knew what it was like to keep to arduous paths. At the low point of his reign, he was driven forth from his royal city by his usurping son Absalom.
And David said to his servants, that were with him in Jerusalem: “Arise and let us flee: for we shall not escape else from the face of Absalom: make haste to go out, lest he come and overtake us, and bring ruin upon us, and smite the city with the edge of the sword.” … But David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, going up and weeping, walking barefoot, and with his head covered, and all the people that were with them, went up with their heads covered weeping. … “Perhaps the Lord may look upon my affliction, and the Lord may render me good for the cursing of this day.” (2 Sam. 15:14,30; 16:12)
We may not ever face a situation as desperate as the one faced by David, but no life will pass without its moments of weeping, affliction, and ruin. Some will be called to enter even more fully into the Passion of Christ and His martyrs. No matter what, we will be asked to tread arduous paths for the sake of God’s Word.
Make Firm My Steps in Thy Ways
We learn from Scripture that the “arduous paths” for all of us are primarily two: the keeping of God’s commandments and the offering of worthy worship to His divine Majesty. These things, which for unfallen man would have been easy and a source of delight, have become burdensome for fallen human nature. Christ our Lord has come to Earth, has given for us His very life and death, to restore some measure of ease and joy to those arduous paths by which we reach our ultimate destiny in the heavenly Jerusalem. “Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me,” He says, “because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29–30).
This rest we find most of all in the Sacred Liturgy, where, like the cherubim, we “set aside all earthly cares” and throw ourselves into the infinite mystery of Jesus Christ, who alone can save us from our sins and from the Evil One, who would desire nothing more than to see us abandon the Faith, grow relaxed in our practice of it. In these days of enforced non-attendance at Mass, we retreat into the Divine Office, the prayers of the Mass read from a missal or viewed from afar, the rosary, and other devotions. We hold on to the day of rest that Christ hallowed by His Resurrection:
There remaineth therefore a day of rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, the same also hath rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us hasten therefore to enter into that rest; lest any man fall into the same example of unbelief. (Heb. 4:9–11)
The Psalms of David also remind us of the virtue of steadfastness, immovability — what we might call a holy stubbornness. “My persecutors will exult if ever I should be moved” (Ps. 12:5). But the faithful man says: “Ever will I keep the Lord before my eyes: for with Him at my right, I shall not be moved” (Ps. 15:8). Indeed, he begs the Lord: “Make firm my steps in Thy ways, that my footsteps not be moved” (Ps. 16:5). Our enemies, both spiritual and temporal, demonic and democratic, wish to shake us up or thrust us out of the narrow way of truth, but they will not succeed if the Lord Himself, who is an immovable Rock, strengthens our feet, that they not be moved.
The God-Man, Our Ultimate Rock
In the Holy Bible, God speaks to us with a variety of images, each of which conveys some aspect of the infinite truth that our finite minds can never fully comprehend. Of these images, one that has always been greatly cherished, not only for obvious architectural reasons, but also and primarily for its function as a spiritual metaphor, is that of the rock.
Scripture compares both Christ and His Church to a rock. Of all the natural materials we know in the world, rock is the most firm, the most solid. It can serve as the foundation for everything else because it is stable and unchangeable. Rock is found in massive deposits — in vast mountain ranges, canyons, the bottom of the sea, in fact everywhere on Earth. The earth seems to be primarily rock. Rocks are ancient. When all else is changing, they abide. This is why Scripture speaks of the “everlasting hills” (Gen. 49:26, Dt. 33:15, etc.) and “mount Sion,” which, like the Lord Himself, “shall not be moved for ever” (Ps. 124:1 Douay-Rheims).
According to Scripture, Jesus Christ Himself is the rock of the Church. He is the rock on which the wise man builds his house, so that the rain, floods, and winds cannot sweep it away (cf. Mt 7:24–27). He is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen and made honorable by God, a chief cornerstone, elect, precious; and the one who believes in Him shall not be confounded (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4–8). He is the stone rejected by the builders, who has become the cornerstone (cf. Mt. 21:42; Eph. 2:19–20). He is a stumbling stone and a rock of scandal (cf. Rom. 9:33). He is the spiritual rock from which the children of Israel drink their fill (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4). The Epistle to the Hebrews throws down the gauntlet to the cult of change: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He is, so to speak, the Platonic form of rock — the living, intelligent, divine Rock that, unlike material rock, is truly beyond the clutches of time and change.
The Vicar of Christ as Rock
In the sixteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord declares that Simon, too, shall be called a rock — the very meaning of the name “Peter” [i]. St. Peter, as head of the apostles, is to exhibit the same properties as rock so that he may be the foundation the Church needs, especially whenever storms of heresy, schism, apostasy, tyrannical governments, laxity, and lukewarmness buffet the house. The pope is called the vicar of Christ not because he substitutes for Christ, but because — to the extent possible on Earth, assisted by Heaven — he represents Him, shepherds His people, enforces His rights, and defends His interests. “Vicar of Christ” is no mere “historical title.”
After his great confession of the divinity of Christ, Peter is rewarded with these words: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed this to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee that thou art Rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” What is this “flesh and blood” incapable of revealing divine mysteries to the soul? It is Peter’s humanity, his human reasonings, his deductions based on sense data — even his “religious sense,” however well developed it was. Flesh and blood are inherently changing, unstable, incapable of attaining the knowledge and love of God in Himself — and the same is true of intellectual fashions and schools of philosophy.
One might imagine Our Lord saying to Peter: “It is not Platonism or Aristotelianism, not idealism or rationalism or materialism or any other -ism that has revealed to you Who I am. My Father, sovereignly free, has revealed it by His gracious pleasure. You are the beneficiary of the His light. This is how it will be in the Church that I am founding: what you must know about God and about the life and destiny of man has been and will be shown to you at the right time, and this precious gift you shall jealously guard and faithfully pass down, so that the same revealed truth may spread to every tribe and tongue and people and nation, until the end of time.”
Straying from the Arduous Paths
But as we know, Peter immediately falls from this lofty height by returning to the comfortable world of secular thought. When Jesus announces His imminent suffering and death, Peter accommodates himself to the mentality of a Jewish zealot: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt. 16:22). Here, Peter shows the flesh and blood of which he is made, and what is worse, he attempts to force the eternal Son of God into the mold of this fallible flesh and blood. This is why he earns the Lord’s sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt. 16:23). Or, as another translation has it: “thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men” [ii].
It is no coincidence that Our Lord said something similar to Satan himself, in chapter 4 of the same Gospel: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Mt. 4:1). The word “Satan” means “adversary” or “opposer” or “plotter against” [iii], and the way he opposes the divine plan is to set up a false worship of himself or of those worldly goods that will lead their worshiper to Hell. Secular accommodationism, the idea that we are to adapt ourselves to the world and adopt its pattern, is the most subtle form of Satanism (cf. Rom. 12:2). To this idolatry of the world and the flesh we may apply the words of St. Paul: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” (Rm 1:24–25).
In the period of the Fathers of the Church — happily free from both the anti-papal exegesis of later Protestant heretics and the “insane pope-centrism and papolatry” [iv] of modern times — exegetes of Scripture did not hesitate to connect the “rock” of Matthew 16 with Christ Himself [v], and with the virtue of faith that unites us to His truth. In the same vein, St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “But what is this? Are both Christ and Peter the foundation? One should say that Christ is the foundation through Himself, but Peter insofar as he holds the confession of Christ, insofar as he is His vicar” [vi].
Fidelity to the Rock of Unchanging Faith
Peter is a rock by holding and publicly professing the faith of Christ and His Church. This is not a subjective faith to be determined by each generation, or customized by each new pope, but rather the common faith of the Church, in which each of us participates as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. This is the faith that waxes strong in any Christian who has learned his catechism well and who knows, by a supernatural instinct, what is true and compatible with the truth, and what is heretical or offensive to pious ears.
In the “Pledge of fidelity to the authentic teaching of the Church by pro-life and pro-family leaders,” published on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, 2017, we find a perfect expression of this faith:
We pledge our full obedience to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the legitimate exercise of its authority. However, nothing will ever persuade us, or compel us, to abandon or contradict any article of the Catholic faith or any truth definitively established. If there is any conflict between the words and acts of any member of the hierarchy, even the pope, and the doctrine that the Church has always taught, we will remain faithful to the perennial teaching of the Church. If we were to depart from the Catholic faith, we would depart from Jesus Christ, to whom we wish to be united for all eternity. [vii]
[i] There is an obvious word play in the Greek: “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my Church.” Even Protestant commentators now recognize that Jesus is talking about Peter here (as well as additional meanings the passage has).
[ii] See Ratzinger, Called to Communion, on Peter as rock vs. Peter as a mortal judging by the thoughts of men.
[iii] Old English Satan, from Late Latin Satan (in Vulgate in Old Testament only), from Greek Satanas, from Hebrew satan “adversary, one who plots against another,” from satan “to show enmity to, oppose, plot against,” from root s-t-n “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.
[iv] A phrase from Bishop Schneider in an interview from January 2018. Full text available at https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/bishop-schneider-interview-catholics-must-not-become-victims-of-an-insane-p.
[v] St. Thomas: “upon this rock, i.e., upon you, Peter, because from me, the Rock, you receive that you are a rock. And just as I am a rock, so upon you, Peter, I will build my Church.” Commentary on Matthew, n. 1383.
[vi] Commentary, n. 1384.