The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom reminds Catholics to engage the culture and to embrace “Freedom for Mission” in 2017. The effort calls us to support religious liberty, pray, and witness to the Christian life.
The Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity
Growing in faith, hope, and charity can be challenging, especially when culture rejects the moral life and virtuous behavior. The theological virtues which imbue Christian moral activity are the virtues that transform the human heart by the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful.
1813 They are infused by infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being.
The human virtues “are rooted in the theological virtues” (CCC 1812), disposing us to relationship with God and with one another. Thus, the human virtues and the theological virtues enable us to participate in communion with God and one another—to the hope of the beatific vision. To realize the two-fold beatitude of humanity (the natural and supernatural), is to live a life directed toward fulfillment and flourishing as a human person who is invited to the divine life of God.
St. Thomas Aquinas and “Constant Beginnings”
St. Thomas Aquinas understood true “happiness” and enjoyment of the fullness of our human nature when the human nature (unity of body and soul) are harmoniously enjoined to the true good of our actions. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the “constant beginnings” and spiritual growth that reflects mystery. Walter Farrell O.P. paraphrases St. Thomas:
It is more than the perennial vigor of human hope that makes human life a long process of constant beginnings. A beginning never becomes a prosaic thing, though we see its counterparts on all sides every day; it is in itself glamorous, enticing, irresistible, for it is in itself mysterious. The feeble spark of young life in a mother’s womb, the first tentative plan of the architect, the first step of the infant, the first scribbled words of a book fascinate us. They swing open doors and we cannot resist straining our eyes to peer down the long corridors of the future they reveal to us. It is not an explanation of this attraction to say that this moment of beginning is tightly packed with love’s rewards, love’s labors and love’s hopes. It is all of this; but it is much more. It is that inexplicable thing that we call mystery, the thing that calls our minds out on the long road along whose winding way the explanation of the mystery may be found.
If human life is a long process of “constant beginnings,” our perspective on spiritual growth can hardly be as precise or as linear as we think it might be. More often, the mystery by which we move from beginning to beginning is a mysterious journey of prayer, contrition, grace, and trust in God. On the days when it seems that we make the same mistakes again and again, and our imperfections seem overwhelming, we are nearer to God than we often realize.
The holy ground of our struggles is where God meets us, if we are willing to receive Him. When the command to ‘love thy neighbor’ has a new dimension because our ‘neighbor’ acts uncharitably toward us, or we suffer a job loss, illness, or relational conflict, or any encounter which could bring hardness or sorrow to the heart—it seems in these instances that one’s spiritual progress is nearly halted. Moving forward feels less invigorating, and strangely, as though the striving and the steps toward virtue were barely perceptible. But it is the new “constant beginning” that we often don’t recognize—so we must always be prepared to will the next step with God’s help, even when our surroundings seem to falsely suggest that we made no spiritual progress (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discernment of spirits is helpful, and we celebrate him on July 31st).
Living in Freedom, Christian Joy
When our best efforts bring us to a place we did not anticipate, we can encounter suffering and the depths of discouragement. The theological virtues encourage us, however, on to a beginning with the “pledge and presence” of the action of the Holy Spirit. It is tempting to speak grandly of the theological virtues without really appreciating them as “pledge and presence”—as the promise of God. Wounded by sin, a human being must exercise faith and reason (the intellect and the will) to choose virtuous behavior and set one’s heart on God. To live a moral life and maintain moral balance (CCC 1811) is to desire to grow in virtue by the grace of the sacraments and to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. It is a choice to exercise interior freedom, fidelity, and the joy of true liberty of living as a son or daughter of God.
There are some saints whom the Church celebrates in the month of July who model courageous witness and love, such as St. Thomas More, St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Bonaventure, to name a few. July is a patriotic and festive month but it is spiritually delightful, also. The saints the Church venerates reveal something about courageous witness, true liberty gained by acknowledging the action of God in the soul, and the power of conversion of life.
Saint Mary Magdalene, ‘True Self’ and Conversion
One such saint, Saint Mary Magdalene, is celebrated on July 22nd. She reminds us that God loves humble, willing hearts. Much has been written about Mary Magdalene, the woman of “many sins”. She remained with Jesus in his suffering on the Cross. She is the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. She tells the apostles of the Resurrection of the Lord. Her great love for the Lord was unbounded. Her conversion reveals the depth of God’s grace at work in her soul, disposed to contrition and surrendered to God’s grace.
St. Mary Magdalene reveals to us that faith, hope and charity grow in hearts emptied of self-love and superficial concern with worldly conformity. She knew true liberty of heart in her encounter with the Lord Jesus and the forgiveness of her sin. We might think of her in such a moment as seeing her ‘true self’. She sees her profound dignity and encounters true freedom, as love and mercy itself looks upon her, in the gaze of Jesus.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen described how to encounter true freedom:
If true freedom is to be found within ourselves, the ego must yield itself to the birth of our true personality. But the seeming self is so familiar a companion to some persons that it cannot be easily dropped. Like a plaster cast, the false ego has to be cut away, pulled off, and this is a process that involves detachment, pain, and some indignity.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen (Lift Up Your Heart)
The superficial self will wear many masks, Sheen wrote. The superficial self is externalized and dependent upon the praises and approval of others. Sheen described such a person as so attached to the demands of the superficial self (the “ego”), that “they are not able to find peace”. Contrarily, St. Mary Magdalen surrendered herself as she was to God’s mercy and grace. In the many beautiful images painted of her, hers is a face touched by grace and mercy. God gives her back her life anew. In Sheen’s language, Magdalene’s “I”, the unique personality, created by God, shrouded in mystery and of incomparable dignity, is revealed to her in the surrender of the vanity of superficial “ego.”
The world may propose many ideas about discovering one’s ‘true self’ but it is St. Mary Magdalene who reminds us, if we are to know our ‘true self’, that we are to be conformed to Jesus Christ. As Sheen described in his book, the “I” seeks true inner freedom but the “ego” wants the vanity of the world to serve it and “interprets freedom as license”. The “I”, however, is “conscious of a mission and a vocation”.
Questioning the Self: Am I a Witness?
Pope John Paul II reaffirmed Sheen’s understanding and our own, as witnesses to God’s love:
Today Christ asks the baptized: ‘Are you my witnesses?’ And each one is invited to questions himself sincerely: ‘Do I live a strong, serene and joyful faith, or do I portray the image of a Christian life that is flagging, marred by compromises and easy conformity?’
(Message for 1996 World Missions Day, May 28, 1996)
In the month devoted to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, St. Mary Magdalene is a model of the power of conversion, the joy of authentic Christian living, and she offers a simple answer to worldly conformity, discouragement and sin—the power of faith, hope and charity in a heart detached from self-adulation and ego.
Love is contrite and penitential. Love is obedient. Love is faithful. Love is a miracle. Love forgives. Love calls human beings to beatitude. Love is the liberty to live in truth.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.
Saint Mary Magdalene,
woman of many sins, who by conversion
became the beloved of Jesus,
thank you for your witness
that Jesus forgives
through the miracle of love.
You, who already possess eternal happiness
in His glorious presence,
please intercede for me, so that some day
I may share in the same everlasting joy.