Summary: We humans think that we can be happiest when there is no struggle, when we can just coast. . .But that is not the state of society when there are still many who have not accepted and begun to live the call of Christ.
Thursday of the 6th Week in Course 2019
St. Peter Damian
Life after original sin came into the human family is a continual struggle. The story of a great flood is found in more than one culture. Here in our first reading we see God establishing a covenant after the flood between Himself, Noah and the human family, and even the earth. This is the aftermath of God’s sending the waters of the flood to destroy His own creation, because of the evil state into which human culture had descended. But the rainbow, the story adds, is established after the rainstorm as a promise that never again would God destroy all the earth with a flood. In other words, this is seen as God’s new creation, where He again tells man to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” This scene is evoked in every Easter vigil, and at every baptism.
The scene from Mark’s Gospel shortens what is probably the original version of the story of St. Peter’s testimony, which we find in St. Matthew. In that Gospel, Peter testifies that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God, and Jesus responds by making Peter the leader of the apostles: upon this Rock, Jesus will build His assembly, His Church. Mark’s version emphasizes the struggle that will follow the Jews realizing that Jesus is acting as the Messiah. This battle will end in Christ being murdered, but rising to new life on the third day. It is this victory that gives the Church life, that gives all humans hope of ultimate union with God.
We humans think that we can be happiest when there is no struggle, when we can just coast through life fat and happy, blessed by God and living in peace and prosperity. Isn’t that what every politician promises? But that is not the state of society when there are still many who have not accepted and begun to live the call of Christ. Both inside and outside of the Church there are those who live lives of self-centeredness and sin, who take advantage of others for their own self-aggrandizement. And it’s been like that throughout the history of the Church.
The eleventh century in Europe was a time of global warming, a period that lasted for almost another three hundred years. Growing seasons extended, permafrost receded, and the Scandinavians were even growing grapes as far north as Trondheim. These people, called Vikings and Normans (“Northmen”) extended their influence all around Europe, even into Sicily and Italy. Populations increased in many places and human health improved. So there were a lot of wealthy people living fat and happy. There were bishops and priests, too, who were living luxurious lifestyles, overlooking their vow of chastity and obedience, looking for power and property more than for the kingdom of God.
Into this culture was born in Ravenna, in the year 988, Peter Damian. His noble parents died when he was young, and he was adopted by an elder brother who treated him like a combination of Cinderella and the prodigal son. He even had to care for the pigs. But another brother, who was a priest, “ had pity on him and took him away to be educated.” So he even became a teacher himself.
In his forties, Peter turned his back on the world and joined a Benedictine hermitage. He was rather extreme in his self-discipline, but rose within a few years to become abbot. His dynamic leadership attracted attention. Moreover, his attention to the matters of the Church led him to become one of the great reforming clergymen of that century. “About 1050, during the pontificate of Pope Leo IX, he wrote a scathing treatise on the vices of the clergy, including sexual abuse of minors and actions by church superiors to hide the crimes.” His publication was titled The Book of Gomorrah. Our beloved contemporary, “Pope Benedict XVI described him as "one of the most significant figures of the 11th century ... a lover of solitude and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform.”
His influence extended into the papacy, and the royal courts of Europe. He got involved in many of the controversies of the day, but continued his life of prayer and penance. Perhaps the best thing we can say about Peter Damian, apart from his heroic pursuit of virtue, is that he made all the right enemies, and supported all the right friends. Compromise may be helpful in politics, but compromise with evil is always a bad idea leading to evil consequences. Today we need the intercession of this saint, so we pray “Saint Peter Damian, pray for us.”