Saints and Rebels

He who is his own master is a scholar under a fool.
–-St. Bernard

Like us, over the last year you have no doubt heard and read much about today’s anniversary, celebrated around the world, marking Martin Luther’s revolt from the Catholic Church.  What many celebrate is actually a sad anniversary for Catholics – and not just Catholics, but all souls, for what is hailed as “a revival not seen since apostolic times” was actually, as Warren Carroll called it in his history series, “the cleaving of Christendom”. On the Cross, a spear pierced Our Lord’s Heart.  In the Protestant Revolt, a huge piece of Our Lord’s Heart was ripped away, and instead of saving blood and cleansing water, five million souls poured out.  It was a wound that Our Lady herself had to repair, when, 16 years later, she appeared to St. Juan Diego and brought nine million souls into union with Christ and His Church. The word obedience  comes from Latin obaudire, to listen.  Mary, who pondered all these things in her heart, is a model of prayer and listening, for prayer and reflection are how we best listen to God who comes, not in the fire or the earthquake, but in a gentle whisper, a still, small voice.  Our Lady, who, in her docility and obedience to God, became the Mother of the Messiah, she who then stood at the foot of the Cross, fully consenting to the Crucifixion of her Son for the salvation of the world, is an icon of obedience.  St Irenaeus tell us that the obedience of Mary untied the knot of disobedience tied by Eve (Eva in Latin).  Or as one old English hymn puts it: Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva! (News! News! “Ave” has been made from “Eve”).  

Obedience unites us so closely to God that in a way transforms us into Him, so that we have no other will but His. If obedience is lacking, even prayer cannot be pleasing to God.
– St. Thomas Aquinas

The anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolution against the Church is juxtaposed with the feast of All Saints tomorrow.  The obedience of the saints, those known and unknown, is what united them to God.  The virtue of obedience, so loved and practiced by the saints, is scoffed at in our post-Enlightenment culture. Jesus said “My food is to do the Will of My Father.”  If obedience to the Father was His sustenance, we can be sustained by nothing less.

Obedience is mission: “I have come into this world to do the will of my Father, who has sent me.” Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue there is no good; where good is wanting, there is no love, there is no God; where God is not, there is no Heaven.
–St. Padre Pio

Obedience is the harder path – dying to self-will is the ultimate sacrifice each man can make.  Obedience requires humility, the idea that I am not the master of the universe, the idea that I can be wrong.  When Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed, “Not my will but Thine be done” as He was faced with all the sufferings to come, He was strengthened by obedience.  Even in the extreme agony and fear of that moment, fear powerful enough to cause Him to sweat blood, He said yes to the Will of His Father. When faced with any difficulties, we can share in His strength when we fall on the strong supporting arms of obedience, as the saints did before us.

I often thought my constitution would never endure the work I had to do, (but) the Lord said to me: “Daughter, obedience gives strength.”
–-St. Teresa of Avila

Obedience is not only for religious and priests who have taken a vow, it is for every member of the Church.  Lucifer’s rebellion against God’s plan of salvation, his refusal to serve the Only Begotten Son born of the Virgin Mary, resulted in his expulsion from heaven, a third of the angels being cast down with him to earth.  Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Church resulted in millions of souls being dragged away from the bosom of Christ.  That fracture in the unity of Christ’s Body is still happening today, attested to by the thousands of denominations which have splintered off from Lutheranism since its founding.  The Kingdom of God is built by obedience to the Father’s Will.  It brings life, it brings fruitfulness, it brings joy.  Follow the path first walked by Our Lord will bear these fruits, and many more besides. Like the saints, all of us who are called to holiness can respond with eagerness and joy to this task.  Lucifer’s rebellion, and all those who follow in his footsteps, tear at the Kingdom of God by pride, disobedience, and rebellion.  These are the tools he used to tempt our first parents, for which they lost paradise and we inherited original sin and concupiscence.  The pattern of the saints, as modeled by Our Lord, is to embrace littleness and trust in our Heavenly Father, to give generously and completely of ourselves, whatever our vocation.  If the Kingdom of Heaven is built of Divine Love and the self-less love which brings union, then it was rebellion, pride and disunity that made hell.

”All that is done by obedience is meritorious . . . It is obedience, which, by the light of Faith, puts self-will to death, and causes the obedient man to despise his own will and throw himself into the arms of his superior . . . Placed in the bark of obedience, he passes happily through the stormy sea of this life, in peace of soul and tranquility of heart. Obedience and faith disperse darkness; he is strong because he has no longer any weakness or fears, for self-will, which is the cause of inordinate fear and weakness, has been destroyed.”
–Saint Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church

The two-thousand year history of the Church is filled with characters, saints and sinners, those we honor, and those we’d rather forget.  Since the time the Apostles were first called by Jesus there have been rebels and betrayers sitting alongside the faithful in the Church, just look at his chosen twelve and we find Judas.  The Church is divine; Her members are not.  And so there is always the constant expansion and contraction, the tendency to excess and the need for reform.  St. Francis of Assisi is often contrasted with Martin Luther.  He reformed the Church from within, in obedience and without tearing apart the Bride of Christ.  His deep prayer and union with God made his efforts so fruitful they set the world alight with love and devotion at a difficult time in the Church’s history.  And there are so many others who also sought to heal the sores they saw festering within the Church, healing them with the balm of obedience and holiness, with austerity and prayer, not by hacking at the limbs of Christ’s Bride in rebellion and disobedience.  Had Martin Luther reformed authentically, from within the Church, rather than rebelling against Her, we might be celebrating him as another saint, along with St. Boniface, St. Clare of Montefalco, St Rita of Cascia, and the many other saints and blessed of the Augustinian family.

He who follows his own ideas in opposition to the direction of his superiors needs no devil to tempt him, for he is a devil to himself.
–Saint John Climacus

Free will is the greatest gift God has given to mankind, the gift to choose whether we will serve God or self with our thoughts, words and actions.  It is this gift which makes our love authentic, for without the freedom to choose to act in love we would be no more than slaves of God, loving Him without choice. The panoply of saints shows us how every life is unique, and every path laid before our feet by God is unique.  Some saints loved God faithfully from an early age, some not till the end of their lives.  Some saints retained their baptismal innocence all their lives, and some were mired in the darkest of sin before their conversion.  The truth is that all of them, just like us, were faced at every moment with the opportunity to choose for God or for self, to serve God and build His Kingdom, or to tear it down through pride and selfishness.  What separates us from the saints is not the choices they were faced with, for they are the same choices we face each day, but the choices they made.  May each of the saints, those known to us and those we will only meet in heaven, pray for us, that like them, we, too, may one day behold God face to face in the Eternal Day.