There is a charming expression in Martin Luther’s writing; he refers to Junker Fleisch. The word Junker means something like “little lord,” or in Luther’s usage, “petty tyrant.” So then Luther regards our carnal nature as Little Lord Flesh. One of the functions of a Lenten Discipline is to uncover the nature and dominance, the petty lordship, of our carnal nature. If you set a goal of any significant abstinence for Lent it may well uncover the underlying drive that your choice of abstinence reflects. In other words we establish a law of self-control and have some difficulty keeping it if we try to keep it our own strength. It’s not unusual for an alcoholic to pledge not to drink for the forty days of Lent, only to begin drinking on the 39th day because that’s close enough. That is unless he discovers that Sundays are feast days, and chooses to drink his feast.
No one recognizes the old man, unless he first understands and consents to the Law. But if the Law is recognized, then also the old man, so to speak, becomes alive….that is, we now recognize this subjection. Without the Law we would not know that sin has dominion over us. But if the old man is dead, then we also are dead to the Law. It can no longer subject us to sin, but has lost its power over us.[i]
It’s as though God says to us, “Don’t do that!” and we become alive to the possibility and say,” I hadn’t thought of it, but now that You mention it, it has a certain attraction for me.”
Luther gives the following helpful illustration:
As an analogy I might refer to the heat in lime. No one knows that lime has heat until he pours water upon it. Then the heat has occasion to show itself. The water did not create the heat in the lime, but it has made it manifest.[ii]
That is why the righteous must live by faith in the forgiveness and grace of God. If you try to fulfill the Law in your own strength, even a law that you set for yourself, you ultimately cannot succeed. If you trust that God Himself will not only forgive you, but also cover your sins, you are free from the condemnation of the Law.
Theresa of Avila, who certainly would not desire to be classed in the same group with Martin Luther, is in substantial agreement with Luther when she says of God that “He gilds my faults.”
As miserable and imperfect as my deeds were, this Lord of mine improved and perfected them and gave them value, and the evils and sins He then hid. His Majesty even permitted the eyes of those who saw these sins to be blinded, and He removed these sins from their memory. He gilds my faults; the Lord makes a virtue shine that He places in me—almost forcing me to have it. [iii]
It is not that sin is any less sin, but sin must be seen through the eyes of grace. Never underestimate your sin, nor the work of grace in your life. God Himself almost forces us to live by grace, rather than by self-accusation.
Catherine of Genoa observes,
“I then saw others who were fighting against their evil inclinations and forcing themselves to resist them. But I saw that the more they struggled against them, the more they committed them . . . You cannot defend yourself and I cannot defend myself. The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self.” [iv]
The psalmist says, “Protect my life from the fear of the enemy.”[v] There is a common thread. Fear and compulsive flight from sin don’t help. Let Him gild your faults. Rely on grace, not only for the past, but also for the present. You cannot defend yourself. Relax into His hands. Catherine also speaks of the gradual unfolding of self-awareness. We are only shown what we need to see, and are accepted even with our imperfections and limited self-knowledge. He protects us from complete self-knowledge, which is more than we can bear.
Luther reminds us that,
The saints are at the same time sinners while they are righteous. They are righteous, because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them. But they are sinners, inasmuch as they do not fulfill the Law¸ and still have sinful lusts.[vi]
We are called upon to accept the miracle of grace that has been poured into our lives through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. While we are yet sinners God covers our sin and considers us righteous in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We are in a continuing battle with our own carnal nature and St. Benedict tells us that the way through is the way of obedience.
“To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.”[vii]
Benedict’s understanding of obedience is not in the least abstract. When he recommends obedience, in his context, he means a specific obedience, obedience to the Abbot. There is a direct application for us as Oblates. Our obedience is to be given to those in direct authority over us. Paul says, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people pleasers, but with sincerity of heart fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”[viii] This is not always comfortable advice, particularly in a culture that was defined originally by rebellion against England, justified or not, or in the South where Johnny Reb died by the thousands seeking independence. A suspicion of authority is deep within American culture.
Benedict tells us that we are not alone in our struggle with self-discipline and self-control. He advises us,
“Let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.”[ix]
When Benedict talks of obedience he does so with a remarkable balance that is instructive. One of my favourite passages in the Rule is Chapter 68.
If a Brother is Commanded to do Impossible Things
“If it happens that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority with all meekness and obedience. But if he sees that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the limit of his strength, let him submit the reasons for his inability to the one who is over him in a quiet way and at an opportune time, without pride, resistance, or contradiction.
And if after these representations the Superior still persists in his decision and command, let the subject know that this is for his good, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the help of God”[x]
The connection between doing battle against our carnal nature with the “bright weapons of obedience,” is the simple reality that unless we have a healthy relationship with authority in our everyday, work-a-day lives and in our churches, it is unlikely that we will respect the authority of the Lord Christ. The spiritual principle is the same as principle that the Apostle John notes in regard to love, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”[xi]
The second thing is the advice of Catherine of Genoa. She says, and Luther would agree, that “The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self.”[xii] Justification by faith is not a passive thing, but an active thing, and the offer of grace needs to be met with our surrender.
A classic prayer of Charles de Foucauld gives voice to this surrender.
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.[xiii]
Self-surrender, abandonment, is not in the final analysis a joyless state, but plunges us into the very depths of God whom we adore. Therèsé of Liesieux speaks of this self-abandonment in her poetry.
But over the Seraphim, you have the advantage
You can be pure, and you can suffer.
I would like to give him both my blood and my tears…
Obtain for me to taste, on the foreign shore
That perfect abandonment, the sweet fruit of love.[xiv]
In abandonment she says,
No, nothing worries me.
Nothing can trouble me.
My soul knows how to fly
Higher than the lark.
Non, rien ne m’inquiète,
Rien ne peut troubler.
Plus haut que l’alouette
Mon âme sait voler.[xv]
[i]Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), p. 109
[ii] Ibid. p. 111
[iii] Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. One, The Book of Her Life, (Washington: ICS Publications) 1987, p. 69
[iv] Catherine of Genoa [“Life and Teachings”, ed. Foster, Devotional Classics, p. 213
[v] Psalm 64:1b
[vi] Luther, Romans, p. 115
[vii] St. Benedict’s Rule For Monasteries, trans. Leonard J. Doyle, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1935), p. 1
[viii] Colossians 3:22-23
[ix] Ibid. p.5
[x] The Rule. Chapter 68
[xi] I John 4:20b
[xii] Catherine of Genoa, ibid.
[xiv] Therèsé of Liesieux, Saint Cécile, trans. Robin P. Smith
[xv] The Poetry of Saint Therèsé of Liesieux, trans. Donald Kinnery, (Washington: ICS Publications, 1996), p. 208 & 319