Monday, February 15th, 2021

‘Suffertis insipientes’: a Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday

Brethren: you gladly suffer the foolish: whereas you yourselves are wise (2 Corinthians 11, 19).

This Sunday, I am thinking of St Paul in his Roman prison. I wonder what thoughts occupied him as he waited for his execution. What sorts of memories came back to him? Did he think of his childhood in Tarsus; hear the gulls and feel the sea breezes spilling off the Mediterranean? Certainly today’s epistle recounts some of the memories he may have had in mind—

. . . five times did I receive forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea: in journeying often, in perils of waters . . .  

When I hear of St Paul’s dangers upon the waters I think of Noah, who appears this morning at Matins. The Church prayed ch 6 of Genesis, wherein God announces his plan to Noah; that the earth would be destroyed and that the ark would have to be this many cubits long and this many wide and this many tall. 

But it seems to me that neither St Paul nor Noah had any time to dwell upon the wickedness of the world that had brought them to where they found themselves. The point of Noah’s seagoing was the continuity of God’s Providence; the good God was writing a new chapter of human history. As for St Paul, beneath the memory of his suffering he saw glory—glory not for himself, but for God: Libenter igitur gloriabor. ‘Gladly will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ Words more precious than mountains of sapphires. Would that we heeded them.  

And then there is us. We are Catholics in a diocese of poor health; citizens in a country of a doubtful future; mothers and fathers and children of families with all manner of imperfection and weakness. And yet, woe to us if these things should occupy most of our waking attention. 

But at this point we are thrown back upon today’s epistle, and the opening sentence is especially intriguing: ‘Brethren, you gladly suffer the foolish: whereas you yourselves are wise.’ The context of this passages suggests that here ‘the foolish’ indicates other figures who seem to have been attempting to undermine St Paul’s preaching of the Gospel. Living in the media-saturated age that you and I have to suffer, we can well understand the kind of thing St Paul may be up against—a multitude of voices speak, especially within the Church, each with a competing optic on our current situation and the remedies we ought to employ.

And so, St Paul chides the Corinthians for their credulity and distraction; and his correction rightfully falls on us. But as he does this, he begins to declare his own foolishness and weakness. This is a strange, wonderful procedure. If we follow St Paul’s logic, the long list of his sufferings and privileges is apparently meant not to impress anyone, but to demonstrate how utterly reduced to nothing St Paul had become. ‘You are impressed with fools,’ he seems to say. ‘Then if you are impressed with fools, take a look at me; but as you do this, see what is beneath my foolishness and weakness!’ Which is to say, the grace of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. 

Friends, we are often distracted by fools and perhaps more than a little enamored of ourselves. And I wonder if all the things we suffer are meant to reduce us to something of the nothing that St Paul was, so that we can be soberly and deeply convinced of how primary grace is. That’s what today’s collect suggested when it spoke of having no confidence in anything we do. 

So I return to St Paul’s prison cell and the questions he might have put to himself in those dark hours. As it seems to me, he would not have asked himself the question how he got to where he was; that would have been perfectly obvious to him. But he may have asked himself why he was there. And that puts me in mind of a similar episode from the life of another saint, Bernard of Clairvaux. It is related that, whenever he encountered temptation and difficulty during his monastic life, he would ask himself the question: Bernarde, ad quem venisti? ‘Bernard, why did you come here?’—Why have you consented to the loss of all things? Why have you become as a dead man, entirely given over to the divine service?

A wise man always acts for an end; and there is only one end worthy of the Catholic Christian—charity. Thus, if we would heed St Paul’s gentle admonition to the Corinthians, we too must act out of the one end that makes sense. No ulterior motive will suit us during times of trial; we will not persevere—we shall perish for lack of roots—without the crystal clarity of knowing why we keep the faith. Dark and difficult hours require, not posturing and brooding, but the reaffirmation of our love. Anything less is for the fools. So we ask ourselves why we have come here. And our life depends upon the answer. 



{Art Credit: detail, The Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard, c 1655, Murillo; Museo del Prado}

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