Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

‘Totum quod est optimum:’ A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Saint Ambrose makes the following point about today’s Gospel. Referring to the miraculous distribution of bread and fish, he says:  

But note to whom distribution was made. Not to the idle, not to those in the city, that is, the Jews or those attached to earthly affairs, but to such as sought Christ in the desert. [1]

In some manner, the Church is always in the desert: that is, always in a place of seclusion and struggle. The desert is where only the essentials have any place. Remember what our Lord said when speaking of St John the Baptist, how he asked the crowds who it was that they went out to see. Soft garments, he said, are for those in palaces—not for those in the desert. [2]  

We are not in palaces; we are in the desert. No soft garments for us. It may not appear so, because—thanks be to God—we yet have the necessities of life; and, despite everything, we still enjoy a certain security. That may be fading quickly. But if our natural comforts and securities are lost, it will only reveal to us something fundamental: mystically speaking, the Catholic is always in the desert. 

This is why the images of the Apocalypse of Saint John are so striking: “And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” [3]

The city is later; the desert is now.  

Thus, we have to adjust our way of living to that of the desert. Of course there are any number of ways we do this; but in light of today’s collect, one necessity comes to mind. 

Remember that every collect calls upon God under a certain title; today is no different. The Church sang—Deus virtutum cuyus est totum quod est optimum. “O God of virtues, to whom belongs every thing that is best.” On first hearing, that is hardly controversial. And yet, for those whose faith is weak, trust in the divine goodness is often the first thing to suffer in times of trial. How many times have we heard others doubt or deny God’s existence or goodness because of suffering?

But for the Catholic, who is with Christ in the desert, trust in the divine goodness must be instinctual. As the collect prays, everything best pertains to God. On the other hand, to doubt whether God is good is to doubt that He exists at all. And many Catholics have given up the faith by traveling down that road. Similarly, imagine how many saints and martyrs we would not have if in their suffering they doubted Christ’s goodness. 

The descent goes something like this. “Why am I being made to suffer this way? Why isn’t God taking it from me? It must be because he cannot; or if he can, then he will not. And if he will not, then he must not love me; and if He does not love me, then He must not be good.”—And the next step is spiritual ruin. 

Something similar happens with regard to the Church. The weakness and infidelity among the clergy has led more than a few souls to doubt the entire validity and infallibility of the Church. But even in this case, a denial of the goodness of God usually comes first. After all, if God were so good (the reasoning goes) then why would he permit such things to happen? God cannot be good if His Church is so bad.  

We heard the disciples ask Christ a fundamental question of human existence: “From whence can anyone fill them here with bread in the wilderness?” Indeed, who can give us bread in the wilderness? Christ can, and Christ does: gives us this bread of the wilderness, the Most Blessed Eucharist. Or is that a small thing to us? But God Himself is good—and the only thing that can light up the prison of our sufferings is unwavering confidence in the divine goodness. In other words, an unassailable faith that to God belongs all that is best. Totum quod est optimum. Only in that way can we survive in the desert.  

Be very cautious, dearly beloved. Be very cautious about how you let suffering and confusion affect you. Never allow the suffering of the desert to lead you to doubt the goodness of God. 

[1] Quoted in Pius Parsch, The Church’s Year of Grace, vol 4, p 74.

[2] Cf Luke 7, 25.

[3] Apocalypse 21, 2.

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