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Should We “Despise Earthly Goods and Love Heavenly Ones”? A Liturgical Lesson for Lent

With a majority of German bishops now on record as voting for official permission for contraception and the legitimization of sodomy, it seems time to reexamine the irreconcilable contrast between two views of reality.

The Church in her traditional Roman Rite frequently prays that we may receive the grace to “despise” (or, as Lauren Pristas says would be a better translation, “look away from”/“not be captivated by”) earthly goods and to long for those of heaven, our true and lasting home. To take a few of many examples, the Postcommunion of the Second Sunday of Advent says:

Filled with the food of this spiritual nourishment, we suppliantly entreat Thee, O Lord, that through our participation in this Mystery Thou wouldst teach us to despise earthly things and to love heavenly ones. Through our Lord…

The Postcommunion for the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus reads:

May Thy holy mysteries, O Lord Jesus, produce in us a divine fervour, whereby, having tasted the sweetness of Thy most dear Heart, we may learn to despise earthly things and love those of heaven: Who livest and reigneth…

The Collect for St. Casimir (March 4):

O God, Who amidst the delights of royalty and the blandishments of the world, didst strengthen holy Casimir with the virtue of constancy: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his intercession Thy faithful may despise earthly things, and ever aspire to those of Heaven. Through our Lord…

Fr. Antoine Dumas, relator of the Coetus (18b) in charge of reforming prayers and prefaces, published a piece in 1971 called “The Orations of the New Roman Missal” in which he explained:

Concern for the truth required adaptation in the case of numerous orations, as we have said above. For example, many texts, for a long while too well known, put heaven and earth into radical opposition—from whence the antithetical couplet oft repeated in the former missal: terrena despicere et amare caelestia [to look away from/refuse to obey earthly things and to love heavenly things], which, although a right understanding is possible, is very easily poorly translated. An adaptation was imperative that, without harming the truth, took account of the modern mentality and the directives of Vatican II. Thus the prayer after communion for the second Sunday of Advent quite justifiably says sapienter perpendere [to weigh wisely] in place of the word despicere [look away from or refuse to obey] which is so often poorly understood.[1]

As a result of the Consilium, the modern rite of Paul VI (i.e., the Novus Ordo) removes all such language, as being too “negative.” We now have a more positive evaluation of the goods of this world, etc. etc. This is one of the most poignant instances of the general problem with the entire project of aggiornamento assigned to Vatican II, namely, that it took the form of a turning to the world, which resulted in nothing other than worldliness, as we have been able to see with the unraveling of decades.

The temptation has always been there. Our period is not the first time amor mundi has infiltrated. The Renaissance was thick with sensuality, profanity, nepotism, simony, and every sort of moral aberration. Fortunately, the Counter-Reformation, with immense effort, put an end to the majority of such scandals. What we need today is exactly the opposite of what the German bishops or the Bergoglio court are looking for: a second and more sweeping Counter-Reformation—this time, one that is opposed to the liturgical reform that enshrines the optimistic utopian secularism of the 1960s.

The key insight that was apparently missing from the reformers’ none-too-capacious brains was given its most perfect enunciation by the pagan philosopher Aristotle:

It is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises—“Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray”—for of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils… But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.

Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.[2]

I don’t know if this is where we get our familiar saying “bend the stick in the opposite direction,” but that’s exactly this wise pagan philosopher’s advice for those seeking virtue.

Scylla and Charybdis

Let us apply this insight to the orations. Given the propensities of fallen nature, if we pray consistently to despise the things of earth and love the things of heaven, we might actually succeed in mildly disliking the things of earth or enjoying them moderately, and liking the things of heaven—occasionally even hoping sincerely to arrive at them someday. But if we pray to “make a good use” of worldly goods (which is what the new prayers do), we will keep loving them too much, and our prayer will be worthless. If we ask to give up goods, we might use them well; if we ask to use them well, we will abuse them.

This is, of course, the wisdom of the ages (not that the Vatican II generation cared much about that; modern man knows better). St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on St. Benedict on the virtue of humility, notes that he teaches that all good comes from God and all defect from man. What is in man, considered as his own apart from God, is already perverse. Hence, the humanism of the “turn towards the world” of Vatican II came from a well-disguised pride, and bred, in the decades thereafter, a pride that has no longer even attempted to conceal itself.

Elsewhere in the Summa, St. Thomas asks whether faith has the effect of purifying the heart. He replies: “The rational creature is more excellent than all temporal and corporeal creatures; so that it becomes impure through subjecting itself to temporal things by loving them,” and: “Error consists in this, that the human intellect adheres inordinately to things below itself, through wishing to measure divine things by the rule of sensible things.”[3] Here he sounds a lot like St. Augustine, who writes:

First of all, then, it is necessary that we should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will, what He commands us to desire and what to avoid. Now this fear will of necessity excite in us the thought of our mortality and of the death that is before us, and crucify all the motions of pride as if our flesh were nailed to the tree.[4]

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) says, in a narrower context but with the same understanding:

No chains of slavery are stronger than those of passion. Under its burden body, soul and spirit lose their strength and health, their clarity and beauty. Just as it is scarcely possible for one impaired by original sin to own things without clinging to them, so there is also the danger that any natural affection may degenerate into passion with all of its devastating consequences. God has provided two remedies for this: marriage and virginity… Christ has come to tear sinners away from sin and to restore the divine image in defiled souls.[5]

St. Pio of Pietrelcina returned to this point again and again. Three letters to Raffaelina Cerase could serve as an admirable defense of why the Church prayed as she did for century after century. On April 25, 1914, he wrote to her:

You say that you cannot tell if the rays of light that are coming into the depths of your spirit at times are coming from God or not….

Well, here are three signs by which to discern if these rays of light are from the Father of lights. The first is that such light gives us even more wonderful knowledge of God. To the degree that this knowledge is disclosed to us, it gives us a much deeper understanding of his incomprehensible greatness. That light leads us to love God the Father even more and to sacrifice ourselves even more for his honor and glory. The second sign is an increased knowledge of ourselves, a deeper sense of humility when we realize that such wretched creatures as ourselves have had the impudence to offend him…. The third is that these heavenly rays always produce increasing disdain for the things of this world, except for those things that can be useful for God’s service.

If the rays of light produce these three effects, consider them as coming from God. These results cannot be produced by the enemy and even less so by your fantasy and imagination.[6]

Again, on September 28, 1915: “Feeling no attraction whatsoever to any place in this world below can have no source other than God himself, who wants to detach the soul from everything that is not himself.”[7] Finally, on November 16, 1914:

The path that the apostle marks out for Christians is to strip themselves of the vices belonging to the old nature, the flesh, and to clothe themselves with the virtues taught by Jesus Christ. In terms of vices Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” [Col 3:5]. Although Christians are sanctified through baptism, they are not exempt from the rebellion of the senses and the passions. For this reason there is a pressing need to put them [the sense and passions] to death.[8]

The teaching of Scripture and of the saints have, needless to say, massive implications for how the Church prays, teaches, and governs. As Gianfranco Amato put it, in the midst of a critique of the modern inversion of natural and supernatural goods:

There is [in the Church today] complete silence about the eschatological principle of the Christian Faith whereby the Earth is made for Heaven and the destiny of Man makes sense only in an otherworldly perspective. It seems, instead, that for some years now we are reliving the old South American ‘theological’ vision for which the supernatural ends of the Church must be deferred to the struggle for social justice. The idea becomes heretical when it claims that the plan of God is that this world must be just, fraternal, and happy. Amerio pointed out that ‘in this way the perfection of the world becomes the purpose of the world, the subordination of everything to God disappears, and the Church merges with the organization of the human race.’[9]

The truth taught for ages by the traditional liturgy was even appreciated by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who otherwise caused so much harm with his rhetoric about “razing the bastions.” Writes Keith Lemna:

In his own book on the Paschal Mystery, Balthasar provides a bevy of citations from Eastern authors which, he says, ‘give the lie to the modern myth . . . that Christianity is above all an “incarnationalism”: a taking root in the (profane) world, and not a dying to the world.’[10]

In a paradox familiar in Church history, it was precisely a liturgy that proclaimed and begged for the grace of dying to the world that was successfully planted everywhere on earth, taking root with the incarnational power of the sacraments in human life yet without being absorbed by the world, becoming its mirror or, worse, its slave.

The Miracle of St. Gregory: an incident that may be taken as tropological


Images: public domain and Getty. Title painting: Hans Holbein the Younger – An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments (1530)f

[1] For a translation of Dumas’s highly revealing essay, see Lauren Pristas, “The Orations of the Vatican II Missal: Policies for Revision,” Communio 30 (Winter 2003): 621–53. For commentary and many examples, see idem, “Theological Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal (1970),” The Thomist 67 (2003): 157–95.

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 2, ch. 9. One can see, reading his moral philosophy, why Cardinal Newman famously said: “To think rightly is to think like Aristotle.”

[3] Summa theologiae II-II, qu. 7, art. 2.

[4] On Christian Doctrine, Bk. 2, ch. 9.

[5] Collected Works, vol. 4, 103–4.

[6] In Gianluigi Pasquale, Padre Pio’s Spiritual Direction for Every Day, trans. Marsha Daigle-Williamson (San Francisco: Servant Books, 2011), 94.

[7] Ibid., 95.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Jesus Christ: the ‘Great Absence’ in Today’s Church,” La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, August 21, 2020, translated at Rorate Caeli, August 24, 2020. The whole article is well worth reading; and his primary inspiration for the critique is Luigi Giussani, by no means a traditionalist!

[10] The Apocalypse of Wisdom: Louis Bouyer’s Theological Recovery of the Cosmos (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2019), 187.

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