Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

The God Who Loves to Be Unknown

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Christmas at the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

We come at last to the feast of the Incarnation, the brilliant night of the Godhead’s triumphal entry into creation. But the mysteries here are too vast and too bright for our untrained eyes. Let us therefore ascend to higher things by way of lower ones.

A phrase that St. Philip Neri was always repeating to his disciples was Amare Nesciri—”to love to be to unknown.” This injunction lies at the heart of St. Philip’s idiosyncratic sense of mortification. The chief thing was not to punish the body through long fasts and arduous ascesis. Far better was the mortification of the “razionale,” that proud and self-commanding reason common to us all. How often would St. Philip say to his penitents, “The sanctity of a man lies in the breadth of three fingers,” and pointedly lay those fingers on his forehead.

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The Madonna Appearing to St. Philip Neri, Sebastiano Conca, 1740. It is no accident that the vast majority of St. Philip’s iconography shows him in an ecstasy, venerating the Virgin and Christ Child. (Source)

The outlandish practical jokes, the daily confessions, the severe and thankless workload he imposed on his sons; everything tended to mortify the intellect and cultivate humility. Like T.S. Eliot, St. Philip knew that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (East Coker II). And for St. Philip, humility found its greatest expression in “loving to be unknown.” 

In a certain sense, this fact hardly strikes us as noteworthy. All the greatest saints were humble and taught humility to other, lesser souls. But how marvelously unique is St. Philip’s via humilitatis! To better grasp his singular path of perfection, it would behoove us to turn briefly to other saints first.

St. Benedict makes perfection in humility a physical, and even visible, matter. The monk who has achieved the Twelfth Degree of humility goes about with his head and eyes ever downcast, pondering his guilt and preparing himself for Judgment (Regula VII). In this state, the monk is spiritually united to Christ on the cross. As one eminent and trustworthy commentator has it, “The bowed head of the crucified Jesus, and of the monk in whom the Holy Ghost reproduces the image of His death, signifies a total adhesion to the will of the Father.” The monk’s humility is cruciform, stained by the Precious Blood as it flows freely from the holy wound in Christ’s side.

St. Ignatius stands apart as well. Ever spurring his sons on with a single battle cry Magis! Magis!“Greater! Greater!”he demands a humility that can only grow in the self-effacing pursuit of excellence for God. Jesuits must act. Like Christ in His ministry, they have no place to lay their heads (Luke 9:58). But Christ was not always going to and fro. His active life was marked by a profound interiority. He was often withdrawing for times of recollection and prayer. And thus the Jesuit humbles himself like Christ through his Examen, a conscious effort at humbling one’s self before God in an honest review of the day. The Jesuit’s proper humility thus bears a striking resemblance to that of Our Lord during those three momentous years.

We could find similar likenesses all through the glorious garden of the Church. Consider the contemplative humility of Carmel, drawn doubly from Christ on Tabor and Christ in Nazareth. Or ponder the humility of St. Dominic, by which we disappear entirely in the singular and all-absorbing Truth of the Word. How like Christ the preacher is the Dominican in his humility! And need we point to the way in which Franciscans draw their model of humility from the unremitting poverty of Our Lord? Thus, the Holy Ghost has showered the Church with various views of Christ’s one inexhaustible humility.

What, then, is left to St. Philip? How may his peculiar spirit and sense of humility draw us closer to Christ’s own humility? In what way can we find the God of the Universe in the simple words, Amare Nesciri?

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Nativity, Federico Barocci, 1597. Now in the Prado, Madrid. Barocci was St. Philip’s favorite artist. (Source)

St. Philip would have us love to be unknown. And so he leads us to the God who loves to be unknown, the God who willingly entered into human obscurity, who put off His glory, who was content to sleep under the watch of peasants and shepherds and beasts of burden. St. Philip brings us, gently but firmly, to gaze upon the face of the Infant Christ, true icon of humility. In the newborn Deity of Bethlehem, there are no clear signs of divinityonly the ineffable sweetness that seems to mark His features, a sweetness He will impart to the hearts of all His saints.

St. Philip is eminently the saint of the Divine Arrival. His whole life was marked by Pentecost, and his devotion to the Eucharist was legendary. So, too, is he invisibly bound to the conception and birth of the God-Man. His own deeply domestic spirituality drew its core of humble charity from the life of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. See the characters laid out before us: silent St. Joseph, the all-meek Virgin, the wakeful and overawed shepherds. At the heart of it all lies the sleeping babe, “Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word” as Lancelot Andrewes puts it. What a picture of humility! Here is a delightful paradox. God has entered the world in darkness and obscurity, that He might commune more profoundly with those few quiet souls. Here we have no mere abasement, but a stripping away of everything extraneous so that a deeper knowledge might follow. The God who is self-diffusive Goodness nevertheless hides and loves to be unknown, that He might savor the intimacy which only true humility can find.

Let Angel choirs sound their celestial praises; let powers and principalities quake with awe; let even the sky hail a new champion among the sidereal host; yet “let all mortal flesh keep silence,” for here lies the newborn God asleep. Above, music. Below, silence. Christmas is not just about the joyful manifestation of God. It is just as much about the astounding paradox at the heart of our faith, the way that the Infinite and Omnipotent God deepened the mystery of all things by robing himself in lowly humanity. Neither Jew nor pagan could have conceived of such a scandalous humility.

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The Mystical Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501. National Gallery, London. (Source)

And that is the humility that St. Philip Neri taught. We love to be unknown so that we might reach a deeper communion with God and with each other, free of pretense or distraction. That is why Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur, breathes of a peculiarly Oratorian spirit. Heart truly can speak to heart when both are freed by humility. The remarkable life of St. Philip Neri is testament to that truth.

But where did St. Philip learn to emulate the humility of the Infant Christ? I think we can infer two chief sources.

It is the distinctive mark of the Oratory to discourse daily upon the Word of God in a free and familiar manner. Indeed, the very first exercises of the Oratory at San Girolamo always took the reading and discussion of Scripture as their central object. It stands to reason that St. Philip’s profound engagement with the Gospels would have shaped his sense of Christ’s own humility.

But perhaps a more important source can be glimpsed in St. Philip’s intensely Eucharistic life. Surely St. Philip would have entered into the mystery of Christ’s birth precisely as he encountered Him in the Mass. The Eucharistic silence of the Host is but an echo of the silence Christ kept that first Christmas night. God’s hiddenness upon the altar comes from the obscurity in which He enmantled himself on that first night of His human life.

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Icon of The Inexhaustible Chalice. (Source)

Christmas is here, reminding us of God’s wondrous love. But that love calls us to contemplation as well as jubilation. Amidst the lessons and carols, amidst the bells and laughter, amidst the exuberance of family conversations, let us recall the silence of the Holy Infant. He was willing to cloak his Godhead for us. That love of being unknown seems utterly foreign to us, proud and vain as we are. So let this Christmastide see our entry into the mystery of God’s humility. Perhaps St. Philip Neri can help us find what we have missed.