Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blessed Reginald of Orléans, Confessor, Order of Preachers

Ecclesiasticus 31:8-11 / Luke 12:35-40

... he could have sinned but did not, could have done evil but would not, so that his possessions are secure in the Lord, and the assembly of the Saints shall recount his alms.

Reginald of Orléans was, by any ordinary estimation, doing very well for himself when he took the habit of the Order of Preachers. A young canon lawyer of great fame, Reginald enjoyed that prosperity that comes from a highly esteemed employment well lived. Indeed, there was nothing suspicious, nothing inappropriate, nothing demeaning of his life in Christ in the life he led before he was struck so terribly ill, and in that illness encouraged without by St Dominic himself, and within by the Blessed Mother, to take up the habit of the Order. It was perhaps in light of these circumstances that Matthew, his brother in religion, a man who had known him during his days of prosperity in the world, asked Reginald whether he ever regretted putting on the habit. To this, Reginald replied: I very much doubt if there is any merit in it for me, because I have always found so much pleasure in the Order.

There is a kind of moral rigorism which, while surely absent from our Brother Reginald, often makes his words its own. Pleasure, it seems to say, is a sure sign of wickedness. Where there is enjoyment, there must be a demon crouching in wait in the reeds, under every sweet smelling petal a deadly thorn, behind every moment of playfulness a well-oiled slope sure to send us plummetting to the depths of indulgence. Virtue, on this view, is hard work, and where there is no toil, no sweat, no grief of loss, then surely there can be no merit. Unlike the happy man of Ecclesiasticus, the man who seeks pleasure will have been tested by gold and come off, not safe, but seriously imperilled.

Yet, there is clearly something wrong here. Is the symphony spun from the deepest threads of a muscian's heart less worthy because in composing he finds life most delightful? Should we rather applaud the tortured composer who would rather do anything than harmonize another line, but in grim necessity sets his mind to the task? Is a mother's care for her child less lovely because she finds them delightful? Would we rather have it that she should prefer not to be a mother and love them regardless? Is this what we mean by virtue and merit? Do we imagine, after all, that the Virgin's happy acceptance, her glad Fiat, less worthy of praise, less meritorious, because it filled her with a joy beyond all telling?

Pleasure is, after all, the proper flowering of something rightly done. If we find ourselves distracted by pleasures from doing what we know must be done, surely this is no fault of pleasure itself. The delights of reading a richly textured novel, the pleasures of spending time in the company of a friend who cannot just now return our kindnesses, the thrill of sitting quietly in a dimly lit chapel, even with no petition to make and no message to hear, but to be at prayer with the One who loved us deeped than we will ever know from the gently hardness and pitiless mercy of the Cross — these are, to be sure, acquired tastes, and ones that do not come so readily as sweet chocolate on the tongue or a nice, hot shower. However, it is no good to hope that we will never find such things pleasurable. To be the sort of person who takes no pleasure in the things of God is no longer to be a friend of God. It is, for the sake of a mistaken sense of moral rightness, to have cast oneself willingly outside the sweet, savory feast where God would have us sup.

Is there merit in enjoying the things of God? This we know for sure. There is no merit is becoming so flinty and hard that the Gospel brings no delight. God redeemed us that we might have life. Do we imagine that, for those whom he has loved, he has intended that life to be dreaded or endured? Dare we hope that, like Blessed Reginald, even in the hardest tasks placed before us, we will find such pleasure in it, we will wonder if there was any merit in it at all?

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