Topic: St. Paul

Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

You Only Live Once

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In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul "chooses" life over death, because he -- and we -- may be of service to others while alive.

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Br. Christopher Wetzel, O.P.'s picture

The Mercy of God

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In this preaching from Sunday Vespers on September 15, 2013, I ask what made St. Paul such a great preacher, as part of a reflection on 1 Timothy 1:12-17.

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Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Run So As To Win

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Br. Michael James' reflection on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, for Vespers on March 11, 2012.

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Foolish Necessity of the Gospel

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Preached at Vespers, Feb 2nd, 2012, St. Albert's Priory

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.  For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.  What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.  For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

With less than three months to go until I make solemn profession in the Order of Preachers, I have a confession to make.  I have no idea what I am doing.  I do not know and cannot explain the paths my life took which led me to enter the novitiate of the Western Province in 2006.  I do not know and cannot explain why I, among pretty much all my friends and companions in the world, was given a particular experience of Our Lord that led me to abandon otherwise normal pursuits, and desire to renounce marriage, property, and that self-determining path which the vow of obedience undercuts.  I do not know and cannot explain why I, after joining the Western Province, have been given the grace to pesevere until now.  And yet, here I am.  And it is worth it.

We are all by now familiar with the famous Via Negativa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he appropriates from Pseudo-Dionysius.  The Mystery of God’s Character is so far-reaching and beyond anything we could come up with in our finite little heads, that even our accurate and true ideas of Him fall infinitely short of the full reality.  As with God, similarly with God’s wise Providence, which has overseen and guided and fashioned the course of history, and each of our very lives, up until this day.  We can, as it were, observe the effects of Providence, but its inner-workings remain a sublime mystery. 

Each of us in our own vocations may have encountered great difficulties: difficulties in our prayer life, difficulties in our life of study, difficulties in learning the art of preaching or in doggedly sticking to some ministry while it stretches us so thin we begin to run on fumes; difficulties too in common life, where our personal temperaments and habits mix together in the cauldron of every other man called to this life, sometimes with various boiling and steaming effects.  Yet for all this, here we are.  Why?

To ordinary human eyes – I confess, to myself, apart from faith – this way of life contains a good deal of absurdity: we give up marriage, property, and ordinary human pursuits to dress in white robes, sing together several times a day, study abstract philosophy and theology from centuries past, and have as our mission telling the world about a Divine Human Being who walked on earth a long time ago but wants to be in relationship with us today.  He is invisible but we claim to be able to speak to him, even on a daily basis; he is still around today but he looks like bread, which we all eat in a daily ritual service.  This picture, to eyes without faith, is absurd;  it is also what St. Paul calls the foolishness of the Cross; and each of our vocations shares to some extent in this foolishness; the vital thread is that underneath the appearance of this foolishness lies the very power and mystery of God; for which it is worth sacrificing everything.

The mystery of Christian vocation, and perhaps in a special way a vocation to the Order of Preachers, indeed finds its archetype in the the Great Apostle Paul’s vocation.  We may have come into the Order for any number of various reasons, some more or less exciting, some more or less noble: yet each of us somehow has felt in the depths of his conscience and life with God the urgency and necessity of preaching: “Necessity is laid upon me,” says St. Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.”  The first and greatest missionary of the Church felt himself to be simultaneously a slave to Christ Jesus and slave to all men: the one giving him his commission to preach after encountering him on the road to Damascus and rooting him in the Christian community, the others, those to whom Paul is sent, Paul feels an obligation of debt so strong he is willing to throw off and renounce anything and everything that gets in the way of bringing the truth and power of the Gospel to them.  “To the Jews I became as  a Jew, in order to win Jews...To those outside the law (i.e. Gentiles) I became as one outside the law to win them. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

Paul’s language in our reading today is charged with his characteristic emotional intensity.  The grammar of the passage actually breaks up at points in the Greek, revealing his hard-to-control enthusiasm for spreading the gospel.  “Necessity” is laid upon him.  He is a “slave”; he works “free of charge”; he “renounces his ordinary rights” to comfort and pay.  And what is his reward?  Simply, he tells us, that he is able to preach, since he knows God the Lord saves souls through him.

My Domican brothers, whatever precise path the Lord has paved to see each of us here at this moment, we too share in the foolishness and the glory of the Cross of Christ which St. Paul knew so well.  I personally have no ultimate explanation for why I am here other than the mystery of the grace of God in my life; I could point to any number of books I read, people I met, experiences I had, but somehow they would all be insufficient.  In the end, the only sufficient answer is the grace, the sheer grace, of our God.  And maybe it’s a good thing that that is the only explanation I, or we, can ultimately give.  In any case, like St. Paul, we friars preachers are also “charged with a commission”: the reward of this commission is not that we live comfortable and easy lives, not that we are accepted and praised by the world and by people, not even – dare I say to the student brothers, including myself – that we get a class and formation schedule exactly to our liking; our only ultimate reward for the commission, the only ultimate consolation we’ve been given is, of course, that we have served and labored well for the Father, who desires to save souls through us.  For that, it is worth sacrificing everything.

Pope Honorius III’s letter to St. Dominic in 1221 at the founding of the order rings as true down the centuries for us here now as it did in the 13th century to St. Dominic and his band of early preachers.  We may envision afresh our fundamental identity in the picture Honorius paints, a picture St. Paul would have been quite pleased with:

“He who never ceases to make his church fruitful through new offspring wishes to make these modern times the equal of former days and to spread the Catholic faith. So he inspired you with a holy desire to embrace poverty, profess the regular life and commit yourselves to the proclamation of the word of God, preaching everywhere the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In God’s ineffable and wonderful Providence we too have been called to do just this; I, none of us, at a certain point, can fully grasp why God has chosen us for this task; yet he has, and here we are: “Necessity is,” as it were, “laid upon us,” in our hearts and in our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit: “Woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel!” Countless blessings in God our Father and his Son Jesus Christ as together we do.