Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday in Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold

The evangelical reformer John Wesley, although a married man, surprisingly believed that the gift of celibacy was offered to all Christians. On his view, the voice of the Scriptures was clear; all things being equal, the life of celibacy was a better way to pursue the things of the Lord than the married life, which even at its best left the heart divided. Yet, he could not imagine that God might not grant the same gifts to all. The notion that God might love some with gifts of a more excellent sort, which might be more likely to yield the hundredfold praised by our Lord in his parable, was intolerable. So, on his view, whoever found himself unable to maintain celibacy in charity must have, at some earlier point, rejected the grace which would have made it possible.

While Wesley's views here may seem a tad unusual to Catholic ears, to ears more attuned to a rich plurality of graces, his notion is not too far from how many of us experience our own lives with the Lord Jesus. Looking at the example of the apostles, the martyrs, the doctors of the Church, the virgins and confessors, we wonder why our own lives have not produced the heroic fruits that theirs did. We imagine that, somewhere, some time, we must have refused an offered grace, a gift which would have made us as patient as Anthony of Egypt, as passionate as Catherine of Siena, as gentle as Francis de Sales. In other words, we imagine that the generating force, the source of fruitfulness that is God's Word, must of its own nature always produce the same yield. Any variety, any disparity, must be the fault, not of the seed, but a defect in the soil.

Now, defects, to be sure, there are, and we cannot always absolve ourselves for the paltry, shriveled crop harvested from the bitter earth of our hearts. Yet, as any vintner will tell you, the quality of a crop is not merely the result of getting out of the way of the seed. It is not as though the seed ought always to produce fruit of the same flavor, if only the earth had not obscured its true taste. Rather, there is the terroir, that special character of the soil, of the precise proportions of sunlight and shade, of the microclimate of rain and dew, of the other plants in the region, of the centuries of growth — all of these, rather than impeding, make for a beautiful variety from the very same plant. This is, after all, why the French know their wines not by varietal, but by vineyard. It is the terroir, and not simply the grape, that marks the yield.

So, too, in our lives of faith, there is a spiritual terroir, a "ghostly earthiness" if you will, that yields a bountiful richness from the same holy Writ. From the same call to leave all things and follow Christ, we have the lives of hermits, of monks, of friars, and of active apostolates. From the same counsel to love of neighbor we have both Martin of Tours' heroic refusal of the sword and Louis of France's equally heroic death bearing the same. Where Elizabeth of Hungary set aside affairs of state for the sake of the Kingdom, Karl of Austria bravely led his people through a war he wanted desperately to end, and refused to set aside his imperial and royal claims to serve his people, even if he was forced to set aside the exercise of those sacred duties. For each of them, it was their heart's terroir, that combination of gifts and trials, within and without, all guided by the loving hand of Providence, which made all the difference.

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