Friday, June 25, 2021

The Loving Collect of the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Icon of St Peter at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai, 6th century

Lost in Translation #58

Because of their usual proximity to the feast of Ss Peter and Paul on June 29, the Fourth and Fifth Sundays after Pentecost make some allusion to the first Vicar of Christ: the Gospel of last Sunday concerned the Barque of Peter, and the Epistle of this Sunday is taken from St Peter’s First Letter (3, 8-15) Today’s Epistle and Gospel both stress the importance of being a “lover of the brotherhood,” a person who, like St Peter, truly loves his brothers and sisters in Christ in spite of everything. Indeed, our offerings to God are suspect if they are tainted by coldness or indifference to our fellow Christians (see the Gospel reading). Today’s Collect, a brief but breathtakingly eloquent prayer, explains why: it is by having a God-given and well-ordered love of the people and things around us that we reach the divine goods that God has promised us, goods that surpass all human desire:

Deus, qui diligéntibus te bona invisibilia præparásti: infúnde córdibus nostris tui amóris afféctum: ut te in ómnibus et super ómnia diligéntes, promissiónes tuas, quæ omne desidérium súperant, consequámur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who hast prepared invisible goods for those who love Thee: pour forth into our hearts the affect of Thy love: that loving Thee in all things and above all things, we may obtain Thy promises, which exceed every desire. Through our Lord.
There is a classical distinction between intellectus and affectus that is difficult to translate. Intellectus is an understanding of what is good, whereas affectus is the heart’s appropriation of what is good. It is a feeling but also more than that: it is a disposition, a condition, a state of being. In this Collect the Church asks God for a love that changes our disposition, to make us better lovers.
And the Collect answers what and how we shall love. The Catholic tradition rightly speaks of the virtue of contemptus mundi, of disdaining the world. But disdain is not hate: it is looking down on things that are low, but it is also seeing their true value. That is why St. Hildegard of Bingen defines contemptus mundi as “the radiance of life.” [Ordo Virtutum, 2, 114] How can disdain be radiant? By seeing through the false allures of the world, we can affirm what truly makes life worth living and start living that life. In seeing through the false, we begin to truly live.
But seeing through the false allures of the world does not mean hating all things. As the Collect lays out, the trick is to love all things as the fingerprints of God, and to love Him as superior to what He has created. The prayer reminds me of a quote from the Irish short-story author William Macken:
I will tell you this. There is no use looking and admiring beauty, unless you see what is behind it. Any man will become bored looking at beautiful things if he is just looking at them for themselves. In themselves they are poor things. It is in what they are a reflection of that their true beauty lies. You see a reflection of a wood and a mountain in a still pool. That is good. But look beyond the reflection at the real thing and the reflection at the real thing pales in your eyes. [“God Made Sunday” in God Made Sunday and Other Stories: NYC, Macmillan Co., 1962, 45.]
Finally, the goal of loving God in all things and above all things is to attain something that exceeds our every desire. Our current age is besot with lusts, desires, and unreal aspirations. The temptation is to recoil from this pornographic, polyamorous, consumerist cesspool and become Stoic--numb, immune to desire, unfeeling (I am hearing Simon and Garfunkel's “I am a Rock” in the backroads of my mind). But the Collect corrects this impulse. The problem with us is not that that we desire too much, but that we desire too little. Our Catholic faith does not reduce our desires but increases them: it make us, in the true sense of the word, more erotic. And yet, even so, God will reward us above and beyond these heightened, heavenly desires. The Collect beautifully channels what we already know from 1 Corinthians 2, 9: “That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him.”

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