Reading the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent with the Church Fathers...

This coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, we hear what is a somewhat enigmatic parable concerning yet another tree. The passage from Luke 13, is perfused with a sense repentance. It can be and is a troubling passage. It stirs in us a fear of our end and unsettles anyone who is not yet prepared to meet God, or who has otherwise failed to do enough to consider his life a pleasing sacrifice.

In the end, we ultimately need to be aware of what it is that God is asking of us, so that we are not caught ignorant of the task at hand. To that end, I cracked open the Cantena Aurea (Caput 13, Lectio 1-2), of St. Thomas and drew on the knowledge of some of the earlier interpretations of Scripture.

Gospel Lk 13:1-9 

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” 

And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”

We would have to be pretty dense to fail to recognize the theme of repentance found in this Gospel reading. For, Christ says most explicitly, "I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"Following this most astounding of statements, He tells a parable.

The person who had a fig tree: 

The Church Fathers unanimously agree that the owner of the fig tree is God Himself. It was the Lord who first established a covenant with His creation, and told it to be fruitful and multiply. It was the Lord who first promised to Abraham that he would be a "Father of a Multitude," like a fruitful tree in the midst of a great vineyard. It was God Himself who through Moses set the people of Israel apart and dwelt in their midst, establishing for them a law by which they were to be spiritually and politically fruitful. It was God Himself who allowed Israel to be taken into exile for the sake of recognizing the primacy of a holy life as the source of true sacrifice (cf. Ps 51), and from that experience the synagogue became a type of this fig tree.

The fig tree in his orchard: 

The Church Fathers give different readings of the fig tree. Some see it as Israel. Others as the synagogue. What is clear is the relation between God and His fig tree. God has established something for the sake of bearing fruit, but, whatever it is, for one reason or another, it has failed to do so. In retrospect it is clear that God's intervention in salvation history has ultimately failed to produce fruit to no fault of His own. In this story, it is ultimately because of the weakness of humanity that we have failed to produce fruit. 

"For three years now I have come in search of fruit... and found none":

It is clear that God has come in search of fruit three times, as represented by the the three years the landowner has come to check his tree. On this St. Ambrose says:
Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. He came to Abraham, He came to Moses, He came to Mary, that is, He came in the seal of the covenant, He came in the law, He came in the body. We recognize His coming by His gifts; at one time purification, at another sanctification, at another justification. Circumcision purified, the law sanctified, grace justified. The Jewish people then could not be purified because they had not the circumcision of the heart, but of the body; nor be sanctified, because ignorant of the meaning of the law, they followed carnal things rather than spiritual; nor justified, because not working repentance for the their offenses, they knew nothing of grace.
...and St. Gregory Nazianzus says:
But our Lord came three times to the fig tree, because He sought after man’s nature before the law, under the law, and under grace, by waiting, admonishing, visiting; but yet He complains that for three years he found no fruit, for there are some wicked men whose hearts are neither corrected by the law of nature breathed into them, nor instructed by precepts, nor converted by the miracles of His incarnation.

The Gardener:

The gardener can be thought of in three ways. First, according to the interpretation of St. Gregory Nazianzus who says, "By the cultivator of the vineyard is expressed the order of those placed in charge [the Bishops], who, by leading the Church, take care of our Lord’s vineyard."He attributes the cultivation of the fig tree to the work of those leading the Church. St. Augustine, however,  extends this work, to the whole Church:
Or, the farmer who intercedes is every holy man who within the Church prays for them that are outside the Church, saying, O Lord, forgive it this year, that is, a grace period, until I shall dig all the way about it. To dig about it, is to teach humility and patience, for the ground which has been dug is lowly (De Verb. Dom.).
In St. Thomas' Cantena Aurea, he quotes Theophylactus as interpreting the gardener with Christ, "cultor vero Christus." And maybe, that is the glue that bonds the whole of it together. For, the Bishops  and all holy men and women within the Church make up the Body of Christ. So, it can be properly said that the work of cultivation, that is a work of humility, patience, and repentance, belongs to the Church, with the ordained as its head and the lay faithful filling out its body.

Our call to repent and the constant conversion of each of us and the entire world to God is the necessary work of His vineyard if we want to see it bear fruit.

You're a Bad Person and God Will Never Change His Mind About You...

In case you have not been to Mass lately and/or failed to notice the change of liturgical colors, we are now in the season of Lent. For the pious, that may be a good thing. It may be a time to inwardly rejoice that a time to purify your heart is here. But I think that for most of us (at least those who take it seriously) it is a time of pain, suffering, repeated failure, and so on.

Job as portrayed by Bonnat
Lent brings great things. It brings spiritual growth, purification, and strengthening. For me, at least, it also means that I have to crack down on myself and really put things into perspective. And when we put things into perspective we recognize the pain we have to go through in order to win our crown. I get frustrated with anyone who 'enjoys' Lent. I feel like saying, "If you enjoy Lent, you're not trying hard enough." The fact of the matter is we are all flawed, and we all need grace.

I, for one, know that I need grace. I need a lot of it. I know my own flaws and my own need for Divine Assistance. I also know that in order to receive more grace I have to open myself to receive it. I need to expose the dark parts of my soul to light. I need to empty out myself so that God can fill the spaces. How could I expect anything less than suffering when even Job, who was righteous, suffered greatly. I do not pretend to know God's mind, but find it difficult to presume that it will be easy.

The problem is, I have lived so many years of my life for myself that it is particularly difficult to live for anyone else: God, wife, neighbor, etc... So, little acts of self-denial always find their way into my Lenten practice. For example, if I think I should eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, maybe this time I will forego the jelly. Should I eat it with a glass of milk? I think this time I will just have water.

Does it work? I have no idea. I do not feel it working. It hurts. I do not enjoy it. I feel like it is pointless most of the time, but I have to tell myself that that sort of thinking is the exact temptation I am trying to extinguish. In all honesty, I do not succeed every time. I fail a lot. I cannot overcome many of the temptations I face in these little things. And in my failures I recognize that I really am a bad person. If I cannot avoid this small temptation, how will I ever be able to overcome the big ones?

Will I ever succeed? Does it really work? It is hard to say, but I know that I am different person than I was five years ago and for the better. That gives me comfort.

Amidst it all I have the certainty that God will not change His mind about me. I believe in an immutable God. A God who is truly perfect cannot change. If He could it would imply that what He could become He is not now, but I believe in a God who is perfection itself, lacking in nothing. Furthermore, change implies time, and I believe in an eternal God. God is not restricted to our universe, to our time. He created our universe and is not subject to it.

The same God who has given me life continues to hold me in being. The same God who gives me being expects nothing in return. So my life is a free-gift, and my God is a loving God. All I can offer in return is my love, and the sacrifice of myself, as unworthy an offering it may be.

It gives me comfort to know that God does not change, and "His anger" is my relation to Him and not His relation to me. I means that with His grace I can change. As painful as it may be, I can offer myself to Him. And though I fail time and time again, I know that His gift of grace will always be there offered to me waiting for me to cooperate.

Fasting with St. Thomas Aquinas...

Unfortunately, St. Thomas was limited by the science of his time, and so much of his reasoning, though logical is founded on bad science. That being the case, I have chosen to leave out sections from his thought that, though relevant and not without real relations to experience, are not wholly 'digestible.'

I would encourage you to read the entirety of his Question on Fasting (ST IIa.IIae, Q.147). All the following excerpts are taken from this one question, and no further citations will be given. Minor spacing changes have been made to the text to make it easier to read and understand. My own thoughts and emphasis.

St. Thomas on Fasting:

Fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose.
First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): "In fasting, in chastity," since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For, according to Jerome [Contra Jov. ii.] "Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there," that is to say, lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink.
Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related (Daniel 10) of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks.
Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning."
Immediately upon reflecting on the order in which these purposes are given it seems confusing that the first and the third purposes are separated by the second. Upon closer examination, however, we can recognize in this logic that these three purposes can be boiled down to two ends. In 'bridling the lusts of the flesh' we avoid sin so as to 'order the mind to heavenly things.' So, even though the first and third share the same object, namely sin, the first actually shares the same end with the second purpose, namely turning the mind away from earthly things and toward heavenly.
The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon (De orat. et Jejun. [Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore)]): "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity."
The relationship between fasting and chastity may not be immediately obvious. When we consider the two ends of fasting, the relationship seems a bit clearer
Fasting is directed to two things, the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things.
For St. Thomas there are two acts of virtue that pertain to purity, namely chastity and continence. By chastity one withdraws from unlawful desires, continence from lawful desires which are lesser goods for the sake of giving full attention to higher goods. So, the abstinence and fasting of these good things is a practice in continence, for the sake of refraining from and standing firm against unlawful things including but not limited to lust. Since, however, lust is the strongest of our concupiscent passions, curbing it is difficult. Only by smaller acts of temperance can we strengthen our mind and body to turn toward God for the strength to avoid temptation and stand firm in the face of it. 

Now, since fasting is directed to the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things, St Thomas continues: 
...fasting ought to be appointed specially for those times, when it behooves man to be cleansed from sin, and the minds of the faithful to be raised to God by devotion: and these things are particularly requisite before the feast of Easter, when sins are loosed by baptism, which is solemnly conferred on Easter-eve, on which day our Lord's burial is commemorated, because "we are buried together with Christ by baptism unto death" (Romans 6:4). Moreover at the Easter festival the mind of man ought to be devoutly raised to the glory of eternity, which Christ restored by rising from the dead, and so the Church ordered a fast to be observed immediately before the Paschal feast.
That being the case, we should be particularly sensitive to our own needs. We should reflect on our own failures and need for fasting. The Church requires, as a bare minimum, us to forego full meals. We can have two smaller meals, and one full meal, on days of fasting. The two smaller meals combined should not equal that of the larger meal. 

If we look at the purpose of fasting as being a means to practice virtue through the denial of our bodily appetites so as to strengthen ourselves against sin, we should be striving to do the most that we can for the sake of our salvation. Let us face it, we have grown spiritually lazy when we are satisfied with the minimum. 

Imagine for a moment an person who wants to build muscle that only lifts two-pound weights three times for five sets all because it is the bare minimum that a person in physical therapy should be doing to maintain muscle mass. Now, we may not be olympic weightlifters, but surely we can try to lift what we can. 

We need to be realistic about what we can handle. If we cannot handle more than the bare minimum at the beginning of Lent, maybe we should incorporate smaller fasts into our lives for more days per week for the entirety of Lent. Now that I have said my piece about fasting, here is what St. Thomas says about not fasting: 
The "fasting of joy" proceeds from the instigation of the Holy Ghost Who is the Spirit of liberty, wherefore this fasting should not be a matter of precept. Accordingly the fasts appointed by the commandment of the Church are rather "fasts of sorrow" which are inconsistent with days of joy. For this reason fasting is not ordered by the Church during the whole of the Paschal season, nor on Sundays: and if anyone were to fast at these times in contradiction to the custom of Christian people, which as Augustine declares (Ep. xxxvi) "is to be considered as law," or even through some erroneous opinion... he would not be free from sin. Nevertheless fasting considered in itself is commendable at all times; thus Jerome wrote (Ad Lucin., Ep. lxxi): "Would that we might fast always."
In short, fasting for the right reason is always profitable. Make the most of your Lent. Do not let this one go by without growing in virtue. And enjoy Sundays... temperately.   

The Witness of Fasting

  • Last Sunday, a good priest friend of mine mentioned something in his homily which made me think, particularly with Lent coming up. To paraphrase, he noted that many people in the secular world are often impressed by acts of piety and asceticism on the part of religious believers, especially if they seem exotic. Thus, the Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer can serve both as a witness, as well as a way to reform the imago Dei in us that has become deformed through sin.
    A Catholic myself, I cannot help but be impressed by the piety of many Muslims who fast during Ramadan, and I know I am not alone. Many in our secularized culture understandably look upon the discipline of Ramadan with a kind of awe, as it reminds them of a religious culture which has been lost to a very large degree here in the West. In this regard, our culture seems to have an almost schizoid attitude in regard to religion, on the one hand parroting the oft-repeated mantra of its intolerance, while on the other drawn to it in a way that demonstrates just how much our society really hungers for God. This fascination, I believe, is a poignant reminder of the Christendom that the modern West thought it had "evolved" beyond and left behind forever. As I was reminded on Sunday, it also signals to us as believing Catholics that the disciplines, rituals, and practices of the Church, particularly fasting and fixed times of prayer, serve as a quiet yet powerful witness to the world around us. In many ways, our faith has been and is still very much outside the mainstream culture, particularly in America and the England. We have a unique opportunity, then, to witness this Lent to our faith through the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting.
    As the Church has always taught, any fasting or ascetical discipline must by necessity be a natural accompaniment of genuine repentance, as well as an increase of prayer. Indeed, true sincerity and contrition of heart must be the root from which the tree of penance springs, if it is to bear fruit. But this does not mean that fasting and abstinence can be summarily dismissed as of a sort of false righteousness either. On the contrary, in a world and a culture which has lost its sense of the true good of bodily existence, it is even more vital that we allow God to use us as examples of a life lived in communion with Him.
    And so, as a witness for Christ, let us consider doing more this Lent than just giving up television or Facebook (although these are certainly laudable things to do). The Church requires us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as abstain from meat on those days in addition to the Fridays of Lent. Perhaps one may consider fasting on the Lenten Fridays as well, in addition to the already required abstinence, or in some way prayerfully discerning a personal rule of fasting and abstinence above and beyond the established minimum (it is most wise to consult a priest, of course, before adopting any kind of ascetical regimen).
    In addition to this, the Church Fathers stress the importance of prayer. This is in order to avoid the "fast of the demons", as even the demons fast (being incorporeal), but they do not pray, and they certainly do not perform works of charity. Increasing time spent in daily prayer, then, is a necessity in addition to even the required fasting during Lent. A daily Rosary, praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Angelus every day, attending daily Mass, all are ways that we can draw closer to Christ during this season of grace. In drawing closer to Him, we are conformed to Him, and in being conformed to Him, we become living icons of Him.
    Ultimately, fasting and prayer, when done in a spirit of genuine repentance, is meant to restore the image of Christ that has been marred in us by sin. By living a life in increased attentiveness to Him and in conformity to His will and in cooperation with His grace, our Lenten disciplines serve as a powerful witness to Christ and His Church, in the midst of a world which is in such desperate need of Divine guidance.

    Four suggestions for praying better at Mass...

    Have you ever fallen into the routine of worship? What I mean is, the recitation of prayers and the adoption of certain postures and gestures without any thought of what you are doing. If you are anything like me, than it happens almost every Sunday.

    It is difficult to put your full mind and heart, at times, into the prayer your reciting when you know it by heart, especially when the kid in front of you is staring at you like he has telekinetic powers that will make your head explode. It is hard not to get distracted by the woman shuffling through her handbag in search of the pair of glasses on top of her head or the teenager who is about to give himself whiplash from his inability to support the weight of his head as he falls asleep. And while you are busy contemplating what these folks are doing or predicting what is about to happen to them, you are reciting your prayers without stumbling, right? Except for maybe that new one that says, "right and just..." instead of "right to give Him thanks and praise..." 

    Then, after the fifteen or so times that you were busy fixing your cuticles while reciting the words like a boss, you have the audacity to say, "I'm sufficiently prepared to receive Communion!" and in good order, you stand up and waddle toward the Eucharistic Minister wondering if you are too close to the person in front of you and if it looks awkward to others around you. Or maybe I am the only person who goes through all this.

    I do what I can to stay focused, and I have found a few things that have helped me limit the distractions I suffer during prayer. So, I wanted to share a few of them with you.

    Pray with your heart, and not just with your mouth:

    Every so often, I go to Mass and I make a point of not saying the prayers out loud. It is a sort of systems check that I have. I can gauge how successfully I engage the words of the prayers if, by accident and reflex, I say a few of them aloud. It also helps to pinpoint the parts of the Mass that I am most distracted during. I have found that my tendency is to vocalize certain prayers at particular parts of the Mass reflexively. 

    When I catch myself doing this, it helps me to recognize that I am distracted and to focus on the words I am saying. The next time I go to Mass I can preempt my distraction by battening down the hatches and increasing my focus ahead of my "zoning" zone. In the quiet moments leading up to those parts I like to say a quick prayer that I might fully unite my prayer with that of the Mass.

    Pray with your mind, and not just with your heart:

    St. Thérèse of Lisieux says, "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven..." and while I do not intend to disagree with her, I would like to suggest a practice that helps to orient the surges of our hearts toward heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prayer is gift, it is not something of our own creation (CCC 2559-2561). In as much as it is a gift, we have to be open to receiving it. In humility we have to acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26).

    It is therefore a good practice to rely on the missal from time to time. Sometimes we forget that all the prayers, postures, and gestures are written down for us. Nearly every church has some form of the missal in the pews. Most of those missals are also hymnals (or maybe the hymnals are also missals) and contain the parts of the Mass in the first few pages. 

    Furthermore, when was the last time you prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer along with the priest? I am not suggesting that we all start saying those words aloud. But at that part of the Mass we can orient the prayers of our heart better by listening more intently to the words the priest says by reading (in your head) along simultaneously. 

    Relying on the missal from time to time has helped me to better understand who and what we are praying for, why we are praying for them, and by what means we offer our prayers. This knowledge and understanding has deepened the prayers of my heart, so that it surges quite effectively. We should not forget that love is predicated on knowledge, and the more we know and understand, the better we can orient the desires of our hearts. True love depends on a properly ordered will, and it belongs to the mind to order the will properly. This begins with the humility to pray the Mass, not according to our own desires, but according to the desires of our Mother the Church.

    Pray with your soul, and not just with your body:

    The soul is the act and form of the body. What the soul does the body does. Furthermore, the intellect and will are the powers of the soul. In order for full and active participation in the Mass, we must first engage both powers of the soul. I have already mentioned two practices to help focus those powers. Now, I would like to suggest a third. 

    Not participating in the Mass by assuming the proper postures would be both distracting and irreverent. There are reasons for the postures that we adopt, e.g. kneeling is posture of humility and adoration. So, make a habit of prayer during the changes of postures that by that posture you may adopt a similar spiritual disposition. 

    I have found that I can engage the prayers more easily when I know that be kneeling or standing or sitting, I am supposed to be doing something with my heart. Asking for God to do that thing with my heart has fruitfully opened my heart to many insights in prayer.

    Pray fully with your body:

    There are all degrees to which we can use our bodies in prayer, and many of us have to adapt to our own physical limitations.  When capable, however, there is no reason to put forth anything less than a full effort. Here are three postures and gestures to avoid whenever possible:

    1. the Pious Curtsey - A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil (GIRM 274).

    2. the Sign of the [fanning myself] Cross - When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us ... (Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, 1927).

    3. The Sit/Kneel - What once was a posture of penance, kneeling has come to signify adoration by assuming a posture of humility and submission. Kneeling signifies the submission of our wills to the will of God and a lack of self-reliance. Recognizing our need for penance and reliance on God is in itself an act of adoration. Whenever possible, we should make this sign of adoration without recourse to the pew for the sake of our own comfort.