The Countess and the Rock
Thou art Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church.
The Stately Home Murder is a mystery novel by Catherine Aird in which Inspector Sloan investigates a death in the great house of the Earl and Countess of Ornum. Sloan is a raised-right boy who becomes interested in the, to him unfamiliar, behavior of the aristocracy at home. At one important moment it has become clear that the murder cannot be blamed on anyone outside the family or outside the house. The Countess observed calmly, “It must be one of us,” in response to which Sloan muses, “Facing the facts must be part of being an aristocrat.”
Since aristocracy is not an economic but a moral condition, participating in that fact-facing company is open to every Christian, being as we are servants of the one who said, “I am the truth.” And the pillar of truth in time is Peter. When Peter professed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” the Lord looked at him and said, Peter, you are the recipient of a great grace for it is my Father who is in heaven, no man, who has revealed this to you. And since that day Peter by the gift of that grace has been the sheet anchor of the apostolic mission whose purpose it is to teach the world reality and by doing so to form that great aristocracy that is the Saints.
On this Sunday the readings lend themselves to reflections on the office of Peter and his successors, for the Gospel text includes Matthew 16:17 quoted in the superscript. When one considers the work of Peter’s successor in modern times there is much cause for gratitude. Since the French Revolution of the 1790s, which devastated the Church in Europe, and from which, despite the heroic efforts of the nineteenth-century Catholic Revival, the Church has never fully recovered, the Roman bishops have been exemplary, steadfast, saintly, and sometimes saints. They have taught truth and resisted “the world,” they have stood steadfast in the hope of holiness and the triumph of love. Given the Matthean text it should be easy to write this Sunday of the steadfastness of the Rock, but doing so is challenging now because the rock is surrounded by storm-waves that beat upon it.
So much good from Rome. The environment, our common home, is important, and an exacerbative challenging of gainsayers is not the best apology. The mercy of God is boundless and without it we surely will not see His face. But lying more deeply, the hope of souls is the cross, the faith that Jesus the Son of God and son of David offered himself for our sins and our healing on that cross and that we carry that cross daily.
The meaning and power of the cross is now often muted and dissipated by a confusion regarding the very meaning of love, which at its heart is not a sentiment but the divine charity. Love in Saint Paul’s inspired description has a face that is patient and kind, rejoicing in the right, bearing all things, believing all things (I Corinthians 13:4–8). But these gracious effects are rooted in a purifying flame, in the fire of the Holy Spirit whose gift it is to form us in Christ everlastingly and to shape us to His image, an image that will always bear the marks of the cross. In the great image of Revelation the Lamb standing on the throne, standing as though slain, still bears the marks of the cross, and the Church in the world and Christians in it bear those marks and preach that same cross.
In modern times barrels of ink and mountains of paper have been devoted to proving that Scripture and Tradition do not say what they plainly do say, and this is especially true in two matters that touch the moral environment of the twentieth first century, the premise of this revision being always the new definition of love. There has been the attempt to make right the sin called variously sodomy, then in the nineteenth century “the-sin-that-dare-not-speak-its-name,” then presently gayness, which someone pointed out will now not shut up, when in fact, disavowing sophisms, God destroyed the cities of the plain because of it and Paul says that this is the nadir of formlessness to which rebellion tends. The overt movement to justify this not uncommon folly began with the publication in 1970 of A Time for Consent by the Anglican Theologian Norman Pitttenger. As part of the moral devastation of the last half-century the notion that this behavior as a way of life accepted can be anything other than the devastation of souls has made its way to Rome.
And now comes the thought that a Christian may somehow, by some understanding, receive the body and blood of Christ while living in adultery. Because of the fall, the whole world is, as John the Evangelist says, full of weakness and wickedness. Persons are born into bad environments with psychological disadvantages, and the desire for pleasure is ever present. And then the person one marries in order in part to assuage the difficulties of life becomes himself or herself the difficulty, and the promise is abandoned. The annulment mill grinds ever faster until finally the pretense that the marriage bond is indissoluble is tacitly suppressed in favor of an accommodation that allows one to come to the altar cohabiting with one, married to another. This accommodation is related to the confusion that finds good in same-sex relations by way of the misdefintion of love as sentimentality and under the pressures of the conviction that the deprivation of sexual relationships is an intolerable and unjust burden, all this seconded by the belief that the attempt to attain purity of heart is futile.
To all this the Church says, “You can do better; take up your cross.” The flight from the marriage bond, the tacit semi-approval of the perverted lust that in fact deserves pity, this unwillingness to see sin for what it is; these are but examples of the desire for pleasure rather than form, for self-assertion rather than submission, for domination rather than service, for satisfaction of the senses to the detriment of the soul, for the escape from consciousness that drugs or drink can bring, for making careful plans to realize ambition to the disregard of others.
In the face of this common condition the Gospel says, “This collection of flaws and violences that you have made is not who you are; you are the person who once born exists forever, the person foreknown to God at the foundation of the world, baptized and joined to Christ. So fear God; take up your cross, deny yourself, deny that persistently craving, itching, grasping self that is always peeping around the corners of the soul, this self that Christ did not make in the beginning.” It is the great honor of Christianity always to offer hope, forgiveness in Baptism and life-mending confession, the power of the very life of Christ, the hope that every person may find fruition not desolation.
On the level of life lived, the teaching of Christ has no truck with the Manichaean doctrine that the human person, even after the catastrophe of the fall, is created by God with an inborn, irresistible weakness that defines one’s character and one’s moral possibilities or with the belief that struggle can be avoided or that the mere existence of the fight denotes a flawed character. Saint Paul’s account of the Christian life is an account of struggle, and battle against his own sins, his providential flaws, and against the powers in heavenly places that work tirelessly for the ruin of souls. To remove the cross from Christian life is not to give hope but to deny it, to turn the world grey, and to make repentance impossible because there is no sin to repent of. To teach is not to condemn, and to hold high the teaching of Christ that by grace the soul can be healed and renewed to the image given it by God is to bless. Every sinner is beloved of God, but every sin is hated by Him, and it is His gracious will not to ignore the sins and follies that keep us from Him but to heal them. And that healing begins with the recognition of truth.
But this is to be kept in mind. Christianity teaches a way of living but it is not a moralism. Because of the fact of the fall, conversion always begins with fear, but that fear is not intended to frighten into servility but to open the door upon the glorious and blessed destiny to which we are called. The Roman world knew what virtue was, that duty, piety, and restraint were the marks of a good man and why the perfecting of the soul is the paramount human task. If Epictetus had met Paul he might have found in Paul’s Gospel the fulfillment of his philosophy for they shared much. But philosophy lacked one thing; the power of informing love to make all things new by creating in us a new heart. As even the fictional Countess of Ormund knew, solving the crime begins with accepting the reality that the murderer is one of us. Of the natural tendency to avoid the truth our Lord said “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19).