June 2015 - All that is Excessive is Insignificant
In this month's newsletter, the rector reflects on excessiveness, disproportion, their roots, and a proper understanding of love.
Dear Friends and Benefactors,
The respect for measure – that is, due balance and order – seen as a vital need for man, is an ever-present theme in Greek and Latin antiquity. Influenced by the natural balance of the Mediterranean landscape and by the gentleness of its climate, Greeks and Romans alike, in their literary and philosophical works, harshly and consistently condemned the lack of measure. In their eyes, it is an insanity that arises from the denial of our human condition, that is, of being limited, dependent individuals, living in a specific area with clearly delimited boundaries. Thus, he who claimed to be free from these limitations could be only a madman or suffering a divine punishment that pushed him to exceed all measure. Euripides expressed this in a famous verse: Quos vult perdere deus prius dementat, “Those whom the gods will to destroy, they first deprive of their senses.”
Thereafter Catholicism rooted itself in this ancient wisdom to establish there the solid base of its own doctrines. God is the uncontested and undeniable center. Far from being mutilated or enslaved, man is elevated by this union of ancient wisdom with the higher wisdom of the Gospel. We have the proof in the architectural masterpieces that cover Europe or those other masterpieces, no less splendid, developed by the thought of St. Bernard or St. Thomas Aquinas. However, if Aquinas’ Summa remains, without question, a monument of balance and harmony, could one appeal in the same way to St. Bernard who, talking about divine love, entirely endorsed St. Augustine’s expression: the measure of this love is to love without meas-ure? This happy turn of phrase could sound to our ears as an invitation to disproportion…
In truth, the reign of love is not synonymous with loss of measure, insofar as it is a movement of the will which seeks the good of the beloved; the heart that loves, gives and is given for the good of the other. In order to understand that love is really the opposite of a blinding, tyrannical power, and thus a pos-sible source of disproportion, it is necessary to distinguish love from being in love. It is a common error to confuse these two states of soul.
The heart in love may follow a movement diametrically opposite to that followed by love. Victim of a tyrannical passion, it is likely to quickly become its slave. Far from being concerned first with the good of the other, the man in love seeks his own good, which he believes he will find in the possession of the other. He does not go out of himself to give himself to the other, but attracts the other in order to possess and enjoy him. This attitude is exactly the opposite of love. The state of “being in love” is only a disease of soul, while love is precisely the remedy. The state of “being in love” leads to disproportion, while love re-stores order and measure, which flow naturally from it. The man who loves finds his full measure.
But then God, Who is charity according to the revelation made by St. John, can only love infinitely, since He is, by nature, infinite! And in return, any man who wants to respond to this love does not seem to have any other alternative than to love without measure!
But to reason thus is to follow a completely wrong path. To try answering the love of God only by means of human powers is equivalent to insulting God – self-conceit leads to self-destruction, as even fa-bles teach us. Such is the great lesson that St. Bernard teaches us by underlining this very simple truth, namely that the unlimited charity of God requires an answer of comparable nature, beyond any human measure. St. Bernard thus invites man to put himself in his true place, humbly, accepting his poor condition of being limited and admitting his fundamental impotence to answer adequately the eternal love of which he is the object.
God loves us and expects an answer of love: the only one that we can give is to offer Him the infi-nite merits of His divine Son and to unite to these merits both the poverty of our stammering and the sordid reality of our sins. It is by humbly accepting his limits and letting grace work and transform his soul that man can really answer to the pressing advances of divine charity. Man does not have to leave his condition to enter into an intimate union with his God; he must, on the contrary, fully assume that condition in order to leave the field free to the action of grace.
Catholicism knew to respect the limits of nature and to make man grow while making him respect the measure that surrounds and protects him. But since the Renaissance a deep swelling called Liberty has, quite to the contrary, freed man from it. The monumental sculptures of this time, which exalt the less spir-itual aspects of man, offer a convincing illustration of it. Since this time, the church is not any more at the center of the village; man reigns there as a god and master, proclaiming I am master of myself as of the uni-verse, I am such, I want to be such. The reign of disproportion reached its height at the time of the French Revolution with the blasphemous worship of the goddess Reason, to whom an altar was raised, a macabre altar: the guillotine.
Aren’t we living in a time of decadence, thanks to the advances of modern technologies in the last disorienting and distorting fifteen years? True reality is blurred when confronted with the “virtual reality” that hypnotizes and gives everyone the illusion of being a new demi-god with unlimited power. Good sense disappears, the social fabric thins, intelligence is atrophied, and the knowledge of man, of his nature, of the laws that rule it, is no more than a distant memory. Man, sure of his power, travels the world, discovers masterpieces and buys with frenzy – whereas he is in fact lying on his couch, his eyes hypnotized by a screen, a foreigner to the world that surrounds him but from which he is morally separated; tinkling away at his keyboard and playing with his mouse, he is intoxicated by the power which he believes to have, whereas he is a slave of his compulsive passions. Yes, Euripides was right, Quos vult perdere deus prius dementat.
One cannot mock God or the reality that He has created. The disproportion in which we live is only temporary. Excess cannot last forever and, as Talleyrand said – for once, correctly – all that is excessive is insignificant.
Let us not be upset: good sense never loses its rights.
In Christo sacerdote et Maria,
Fr. Yves le Roux