Thursday of the First Week in Lent
Reformation & Revolution
It is the happy decision of the Church that brings us so much of the prophet Isaiah as we celebrate the time of expectation, the time of Advent. Isaiah was a prophet of hope in a time of social and religious and political upheaval. Clearly in the 21st century hope is exactly what we need, as it was what the Israelites of Isaiah needed, because the times are evil. The promise we just heard is clear: “Open the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps faith may enter in.” So hope is conditioned on faith and righteousness. If we are missing either, we will not enter into the kingdom. Jesus says the same way in another way: “Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” We will in a moment be saying “Lord hear our prayer.” Participating in worship, hearing God’s word, even taking communion are actions that are necessary for our salvation, but they are not sufficient. Our response to God’s invitation must also involve keeping His commandments, following the law that is engraved on our hearts. That’s the way to build our spiritual and moral lives on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ. That’s the way He wants for the Church, the way to the kingdom of God.
We’ve seen over the past three months how in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was a slow decline in European Catholics’ willingness to do the will of the Father. There were important factors out of their control–the Black Death, the return of atheistic philosophy, the decline of scholastic philosophy, the cynical Machiavellian politicians, the attacks of radical Islam and the Ottoman empire. But the factors in their control were terrible in their effects on all who nominally followed Christ–from popes and bishops to the people and armies. Christ’s law of love was being lived, yes, but by far too few of His baptized.
There’s an old saying, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.” At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were many leaders with one working eye, and they attracted followers. One was an Augustinian monk, Martin Luder. He later changed his spelling to “Luther.” He was bright and articulate and for his day well-learned. His father, Hans, was a silver mine operator who could afford to educate his eldest son. The relationship between the two was at least tense, perhaps even stormy. We get our idea about God the Father from His family representative, our human father, so that explains a lot about Luther’s early understanding of God, and his desire to not make God angry. Luther was sent to the town of Eisenach for schooling. There he lived with a family of his mother’s relatives, who embraced a Franciscan lifestyle. So he had to sing or beg for money from time to time, and it obviously irritated him to do so, for after he revolted, he often preached against mendicant religious orders. There he seems to have developed a piety that was quite feminine, and centered on the blessed Virgin Mary and St. Anne. From there he went on to university in Erfurt at age eighteen.
All students had to read philosophy, but it was not scholastic philosophy. Much of Europe had fallen under the influence of William of Ockham, whose philosophy eliminated categories and stressed basing every statement on empirical evidence. During that time he was in danger of dying twice–the first from an accidental injury and the second from a violent storm. After the injury, he invoked the Blessed Virgin and was miraculously healed. During the second, so he related later, he was so fearful that he vowed to St. Anne to save him and he would become a monk. He then joined the Augustinian monastery, a strict branch of that order, at the age of about twenty-two. He would be a priest and theologian, not a lawyer as his father wanted. That had to make worse their already tense relationship.
Clearly, he did not have a vocation to consecrated life. But he was bright and eager and obedient. Remarkably, he was ordained after only two years of religious life.
When I read this, I began to realize why the Council of Trent later acted to improve the education of priests and religious, and why discernment is a major part of any vocation to either state of life. It causes me to want to pray for our young religious and seminarians, for all of us will be judged on the basis of where we build–on the firm rock of obedience to God, or on shifting sand.