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Sunday, October 25th, 2020

‘Tela nequissimi exstinguere’: a Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

[I]n all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one (Ephesians 6, 16).

St Paul is a solicitous father; every syllable he has written proves it. And what every father wants is for his children to grow and prosper. Prospere procede et regna! With that in mind, I direct your attention to today’s epistle.

Now, no one in this church today needs convincing about the nature of the Catholic life: namely, that it is a combat; that there is such a thing as spiritual warfare. And therefore you do not need to be told that such beings as ‘principalities and powers, . . . rulers of the world of this darkness . . . spirits of wickedness in the high places’ are real.   

On the one hand, when St Paul reminds us that our struggling is not against flesh and blood, he identifies the scope of our combat: non est nobis colluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem. For the Christian life as it relates to Divine Providence is not a sectarian, partisan struggle. We are engaged in warfare that is not purely social, but cosmic. And so the battlefield is big, even if our place in it is small. 

But then St Paul goes on to say what sort of dispositions the fighting Catholic ought to have: that he ought to be able to resist and stand; that his loins are to be girt and his feet shod—and that it is by truth, justice, the Gospel, and faith that he will do this. And that is the central thing I should like to say—the ability to stand firm, and to ‘extinguish the fiery darts of the most wicked one’ is only too necessary in these troubled times.

Yet how to do this?   

As we just heard, St Paul refers to the enemy of our souls as nequissimus, ‘the most wicked one.’—Not simply ‘the wicked one,’ but ‘the most wicked one.’ This tells us that the activity and ploys of Satan will often be characterized by a darkness that is difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, it is essential for the mature Catholic, to the greatest extent possible, not to be scandalized or surprised by the evil he encounters on his way to God.   

For we know well enough that surprise leaves us in a tactical disadvantage in the spiritual life. As I see it, there are two dangers in store for us. First of all, surprise often makes it difficult to act; it can be stunning, and this leaves us open to harm. But there is a second danger, related to the first, but more fundamental. There are times when we encounter an evil so dark and abhorrent that we have difficulty believing it to be true. Dear friends, be on guard against this. —‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.’

You have heard it said that the greatest thing Satan ever did was to convince the world that he does not exist. Similarly, we may surmise that he is just as pleased when Catholics are inclined to dismiss his activity because it is just too difficult to accept as true.—But has the history of the twentieth century taught us nothing about the evils of which man is capable? Have the  recent examples of clerical sin taught us nothing? And do we not know ourselves well enough to realize that we might easily commit any sin, were it not for the dauntlessness of God’s mercy in us?   

Please make no mistake: I do not suggest that we take a jaundiced or suspicious view of reality; still less a cynical or pessimistic one. Surely this is not what our father St Paul is teaching us. Nor is it to say that we should not be repulsed by evil. But it is to say that in order to deal with the fiery darts and bullets of the most wicked one, it will do us and the Church immense harm to pretend that they are not being hurled in our direction.

For now, then, I would end where St Paul begins. Today’s epistle begins with the word confortamini—the second person plural imperative: be very comforted, encouraged,  consoled. You see the word fortis at the root of St Paul’s command. It is fair to say that Mother Church has many more confusing, seemingly improbable, and very dark things to encounter; the enemy and his forces in the world do not seem to be running low on ammunition. But the Catholic can and must take up his combat with serenity, poise, and the childlike abandonment which is all strength. For on account of divine grace, even in the face of great evil, we can be comforted.

And we do well to remember, that this is precisely the story that is told during the the prologue of St John’s Gospel, which we hear at the end of every Holy Mass: 

In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God: and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life: and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it.[2] 

 


[1] Psalm 44, 5.

[2] John 1, 1-5.

{Art credit: Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), mural, The Life of St Benedict (c 1505-1508), Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.}

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