This spiritual conference makes no claim to originality. In fact, I am deliberately relying on the wisdom of others better qualified than I am. You know that for worldly qualifications, people have letters to put after their name; I have a little set myself. In the subject matter of a spiritual conference, however, what matters is the letters someone has before their name: St or Bl, indicating that the Church has judged that they have heroic virtue and that God has confirmed this by a miracle.
So I am going to follow the path of the saintly spiritual writers of the Church in looking briefly at some of the most fundamental themes of the spiritual life. I will try to apply them specifically to engaged and married couples so you know that those comments are probably more “original” and therefore less to be trusted.
St Ignatius Loyola was famous for many things, not least the “spiritual exercises”. These were conducted over a thirty day period for those who seriously wanted to be converted and to live a good and holy life. The result was phenomenal in the work of St Peter Canisius, St Francis Xavier, and our own St Edmund Campion among many others. As a result of their conversion of life, they respectively rebuilt the Church in Germany after the devastation of the Reformation, took the gospel to the ends of the earth, and suffered martyrdom heroically in the darkest persecution of Catholics that England has known.
The spiritual exercises essentially teach us to reflect on some of the principal truths of our faith prayerfully in order to firm up our resolve to live well in the light of those truths. In fact, I will use the scheme of St Francis de Sales. Although he was a very different character from St Ignatius, he followed essentially the same path in instructing those who wished to live a devout life. If you want to read his meditations in full, they can be found in his book Introduction to the Devout Life.
First of all, we recall that we were created. Only a few years ago we did not exist at all. In a few years, we will be gone. Our parents co-operated with almighty God in our creation. Their love provided the human means by which our body began to exist as a single celled embryo. At the very instant that we were formed physically, God gave us a spiritual and immortal soul which makes us to be human, capable of knowing and loving.
We did nothing whatever of ourselves to bring about our existence as human persons: we owe this entirely to the free creative will of God. That we exist at all is the first thing for which we give Him thanks.
The end for which we were created
One of the classic questions of the penny catechism runs:
Why did God make you?We are created out of nothing solely in order to know, love and serve God and to share eternal happiness with Him. God made us to be blissfully happy in the sight of his face for all eternity. He gave us free will and gives us His grace so that we can enjoy happiness not as cat purring on a sofa, or a dog running to catch a sponge ball and bring it back, but as people who can love with the heart, enjoying God’s kindness beyond all imagining and for all eternity.
God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Yet consider how little thought we give to this. Our daily priorities often have nothing to do with knowing, loving and serving God and everything to do with satisfying our own desires for earthly things instead. As each of us knows to our shame, we even sin against God, flouting His commandments as though He had no claim to our loyalty.
Before the Lord, then, I invite you – the Lord Himself invites you – to come humbly before Him and ask His pardon. Promise Him that in your love for each other and for your children that you will try to know Him, love Him and serve Him so that you and they may be happy with Him forever.
Thanksgiving to God
We have so much to thank God for. We may at times worry about money or other problems. Yet consider for a moment the poor people of Haiti struggling to gather together the bare necessities of life, the people of the Sudan fearing a new and terrible civil war, countless people across the world who do not have running water, a warm house, a variety of food, clean clothes, the safety of a society with a working police force. We have much to thank God for.
Spiritually the gifts that God has given us are even greater. We have, through our parents or through other good influences, come to the knowledge of the Catholic faith. We have been baptised, given sanctifying grace, strengthened in Confirmation. We have been fed by the greatest possible spiritual food that there can be: the living presence of Jesus Christ Himself in Holy Communion. He comes to dwell in us even though we are unworthy to receive Him. You have also been given the great blessing of the sacrament of marriage (or are about to receive this.)
When I was young, the APF box used to carry a quotation from Pope Pius XI:
“There are none so poor as those who lack the knowledge and the grace of God.”God has seen fit to give us that knowledge and grace. How do we thank Him? Do we even stop to thank Him at all? Do we somehow think that these things are our right? In all the debates about diversity and equality, proclamation and dialogue and respect for the beliefs of others, we should remember that we, unworthy as we are, have been entrusted by God with these great spiritual gifts.
In the case of marriage, we see in our own country countless couples who, for one reason or another, have been deprived of this grace. Perhaps they fear divorce, perhaps they think that marriage is just a bit of paper. One way or another, they have been misled into thinking that marriage would not be a great blessing for them. How much there is to thank God for, and how little we thank Him!
Four last things
I said that in a few years we would be gone. There is a traditional prayer that I always say after a burial or cremation:
Grant, O God that while we lament the departure of this your servant, we may always remember that we are most certainly to follow him. Give us the grace to prepare for that last hour by a good life, that we may not be surprised by a sudden and unprovided death but be ever watching, that when you call, we may enter into eternal glory. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.In fact, within a few minutes, we have forgotten that we are most certainly to follow him. We do not know when this will happen. It may be in hospital when we are old, we may have the presence of a priest and the last sacraments, the opportunity to make a good confession and to compose ourselves to meet our creator. Or we may not. We do not know when, where or how we will die. If you are rich enough and have a good enough accountant, you can even avoid paying tax. There is no equivalent professional who can prevent your death happening sooner or later.
Then we shall be judged on what we have done. We will realise then more clearly than ever that those few decades that we have lived on earth were given to us to know, love and serve God. At that moment, that will be the only thing that matters. How wretched and foolish we will surely feel. All of the vain, frivolous and superfluous things on which we spent our time and energy will be of no use whatsoever. Our half-hearted sorrow for our sins, our superficial prayers, our good works undertaken with so little generosity: these will be an immense consolation to us because of the infinite generosity of our Father who receives them as an earthly father does the little efforts of his children.
He will receive them well because He loves us; but we will regret bitterly that we did not do more for Him, that we left so much undone that we could have done, that we spent so little effort in our prayers and devotional exercises.
At that time we will see the full horror of those who have deliberately turned their back on almighty God and now have to live for eternity in His absence. We will see the unimaginable delight of the saints who will spend eternity in blissful happiness in His presence. And we will go gladly to purgatory, please God, longing for that purification that will make us saints and fit for heaven, thanking God with all our hearts that He is so merciful to us.
We will understand how easy it would have been to undertake that purification on earth by our prayers, our penances and our works of charity. We will see more clearly the bitterness and emptiness of every one of our sins, and the joy that we could have had even on earth by living as Christ taught us.
Choice of devout life
So now put these thoughts to good use. Come before the Lord full of both thanksgiving for His goodness and sorrow for having offended Him. If our sorrow is based on the consideration of His great goodness to us and our ingratitude, that will be what the theologians call “perfect contrition”. Such contrition looks forward to, and is intimately bound up with the sacramental absolution which we receive in Confession. Resolve to make a good and sincere confession so as to receive from Almighty God all the graces that He wishes to give us.
Adore the Lord in simplicity; come before him singing for joy in your heart at His great goodness, aware of the mercy which He has given to us to allow us more time to know Him, love Him and serve Him better.
In your marriage all of these things find a privileged place in the sight of God. Pope John Paul II reminded us eloquently of how the communion of persons in marriage is a reflection of the Holy Trinity. Turning together towards the Lord is a powerful way of drawing closer to each other in the love of your marriage.
Repentance for sin of course has a place at the heart of every relationship and therefore also in marriage. Many of our venial sins are committed against those we love the most on earth. All of them are committed against God who loves us with an infinite love. By drawing closer to Almighty God in repentance for sin and thanksgiving for His goodness, we inevitably enrich our relationships with one another.
Nowhere is this more true than in marriage. God is never a rival to a spouse – as St Francis de Sales explains, it would be absurd for a Bishop to try to live as a Carthusian, or for those who are married to try to own nothing as the Franciscans do. We draw closer to God and live more devoutly by fulfilling the vocation God has given us, not some other vocation. Therefore prayer, penance and charity are lived in and as a part of married life, not as an adjunct to it or a distraction from it.
Drawing apart for a little time with Christ in an evening such as this, we are given the opportunity to refresh our souls and to experience the kindly words of Christ:
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11.28-30)Addressed to married couples, these words of Christ may be seen as His encouragement in the great vocation that He has given to you with all its joys and sorrows. He invites you together to His Sacred Heart because your marriage was blessed by Him and he never withdraws that blessing.