Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

‘Quam terribilia sunt’: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Octave of Easter

“How terrible are your works, O Lord” (Psalm 95, 3)!

In recent weeks, the world has provided us with yet more assurances that it looks on us with malevolent eyes. Yet it is with that in mind that I make the following claim: only Catholics who meditate will be saved in time of trial.

By meditate I mean a reverent pondering over the mysteries of the Faith. I mean thinking about what they mean; perceiving how they relate to one another; developing an intellectual familiarity of mind with them; and assaying what graces they contain for us. Meditation feeds supernatural faith. On the other hand, it is an atrophied spiritual life which merely recites the Credo without thinking about it. Whereas the spiritual life is strong which both liturgically celebrates and privately meditates upon the mysteries of the liturgical year.

The versicle of today’s introit puts all this in mind: “How terrible are your works, O Lord!” Quam terribilia sunt. In early Latin, terribilis was used to describe terror and dread. Later, the word comes to mean awe and reverential fear. And it is in this latter sense that we use it most often.

Another instance of its use comes from Genesis 28:

And when he was come to a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same place.And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and thy seed all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said. And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.1 

The introit for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church begins with this terrible line from Genesis.–Terribilis est locus iste! Note well that the Lord is leaning upon the ladder: one thinks of Christ leaning from the wood of the Holy Cross. Moreover, the Church sees herself reflected in the vision of Jacob’s ladder: for the Church is the ladder whereby divine goods descend to us and our poor sacrifices and suffrages are offered up.

There is a sacred terror associated with the spiritual life, a wondering awe–and it is this sacred, wondering fear which makes the spiritual life strong. Our meditation gives us this wonder. Without supernatural faith, the Catholic life becomes simply a party spirit or sectarianism. And without meditating on the content of this supernatural faith, the spiritual life is immature and weak. Therein lies the connection: meditation brings us to see the beautiful terror and inner logic of the Catholic faith. And this sense of awe makes us strong in the midst of temptation and confusion.


[1] Genesis 28, 11-17.

{Art Credit: Breton Woman at Prayer, Marc-Aurele de Foy Suzor-Cote; private collection}

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