Saturday, February 29, 2020

Crazy talk

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Salvador Dali
The prayers fly by pretty fast at Mass, and only with the ones that recur are you likely to be familiar enough to call to mind the words or reflect on their meaning.  Even for me, who have the printed text in front of me and give them voice, they can be completely fleeting.  But the texts of the Mass are almost as important a statement of our faith as is the Sacred Scripture itself; and as in the Bible, the turns of phrase can be most instructive.   
As we solemnly offer the annual sacrifice for the beginning of Lent, we entreat you, O Lord, that through works of penance and charity, we may turn away from harmful pleasures and, cleansed from our sins, may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of your Son.  Who lives and reigns forever and ever.
This text is from Ash Wednesday, the Prayer Over the Offerings, which the priest says after he has placed the offerings on the altar, washed his hands, and said: Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours…, and the people have responded, May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…  It contains a term so shocking to modern sensibility, and so essential to the task and purpose of Lent, that I wanted to bring it to your attention for consideration.  
Did you catch it?  Harmful pleasures.  In our time when what gives a person pleasure is equated to what is good, and therefore must be a right, this simple phrase is shocking (noxiis voluptatibus in the original Latin).  
Sometimes we intentionally put aside authentic goods.  I have emphasized to you before that what we “give up” for Lent, we put aside because it is good, not because it is bad or sinful; we give up lesser goods in order to focus on greater goods, and realize how much more we need them.
But harmful pleasures would be even more dangerous than authentic goods that are less good than God and the good He wants for us.  Harmful pleasures stoke our vices and reduce our inclination for authentic goods.  Harmful pleasures tickle our most base fancies and most selfish appetites.  Harmful pleasures enslave us to pleasure.  
In a similar vein is the Preface II of Lent, which you know comes right before the Holy Holy Holy; it is one of four options during this season, chosen by the priest celebrant:  
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.  For you have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.  
We pray to be freed from disordered affections (ab inordinatis affectibus expedita).  That, I think, would outrage our contemporaries even more than turning away from harmful pleasures.  Disordered is such a loaded word!  Can’t you just hear it now in Father Nick’s best “offended New Yorker” voice?  Who you callin’ “disordered?”
Bacchanale, 16th c., engraved by Enea Vico, after Marcantonio Raimundi
But we know that disordered has a specific meaning: out of proper order, or ordered toward the wrong thing.  Again, a desire or affection can be out of proper order if we place a lesser good before a greater one – say, the winning of a contest, over the safety of our family.  That’s disordered.  Similarly, an affection can be disordered if its goal or objective is objectively opposed to what is truly good, that is, what God has shown us to be good.  
God has spent a great deal of time, effort, and patience to teach us (mankind) that what is truly good is often very different from what we, in our foolishness, would desire or choose for ourselves.  Even when God has warned us against something, consideration and study can lead some among us to conclude that it is nonetheless good; history has shown over and over again that this results in great grief for individuals and societies, as the consequences invisible to intelligent man but clearly revealed by God are obtained by those who choose against His Word.   
Because of these two irrefutable realities, that God desires our good for us even more than we do ourselves, and that left to our own devices we can be very bad at figuring out what is good, we do not despair, but rather we pray.  And especially in Lent, we ask over and over again that our benevolent Father use our works of penance and charity to turn(us) away from harmful pleasures and free (us) from disordered affection.  Let these prayers fly!  
Monsignor Smith