Recently, Dr. Larry Chapp wrote an article entitled “Rejecting the ‘low-bar Thomism’ of revisionist moral theologians.” Typically, I find that Dr. Chapp’s articles are insightful and well-written. This article is a follow-up to his recent reviews of the republication of Henri de Lubac’s book, The Church, Paradox and Mystery, and in it he focuses on “part of the text that moved me greatly. And that was de Lubac’s insistence that the only real reform of the Church happens when God raises up saints appropriate to the age.” Dr. Chapp studies several points De Lubac made describing the kind of person God chooses to raise up as the saints in each age of the Church. He then applies them to the present age and state of the Church.

Being cloistered, of course I am not up to date on many of the things Dr. Chapp discussed. I just read along until I was brought to a standstill as if I had hit a stone wall.

About a third of the way through his article, Dr. Chapp uses the incident of the “rich young man” in the Gospels to illustrate the points he is making.[1] I am very familiar with the passage of Mark’s Gospel that tells of the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man. After years of religious life, I have lost track of how many conferences, homilies and courses I have heard that mention it. It is a staple of retreat-masters preaching to men and women religious. The reason for this is the detailed call to an advanced discipleship. The call to the rich young man to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, … then come, follow me” goes beyond the call of common discipleship, the “Come, follow me” said to every believer. When he calls the young man to “sell what you own,” Jesus is obviously not just telling the young man to make a donation to help the poor. If that were the case, there would be no reason for the young man to “go away sad.” Jesus is calling him to give all that he has, to divest himself of his possessions, to accept to depend solely on Jesus for his sustenance. The young man realizes this, and it is more than he can accept. He turns and goes away sad.

This call to a total dependence on God is recognized by the Church as a special call. It is usually equated with the vocation to a religious consecration, since religious men and women profess the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, or equivalent promises. My vow of poverty means that I willingly give up not only my possessions but also the right to possession. I can no longer own anything, though I can ask for the use of what I need. We speak of “our” cell, “our” sandals, “our” office, or breviary or apron. (There are limits. I wear “my” glasses because if anyone else tried them it would probably ruin their vision for life!)

This teaching on the rich young man as receiving a call to further discipleship has been part of Church writings for centuries. I am very puzzled that Dr. Chapp chose this passage as an example of the call to ordinary discipleship. The Church has never demanded that all believers give away all they possess in order to be good Catholics. In fact, in his Introduction to The Devout Life, St Francis de Sales writes: “Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income…? Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable?”[2]

The call of discipleship to the rich young man is clearly a call to a total discipleship, a call that is not made to all Catholics. Therefore, I was very surprised that Dr. Chapp used it for his example of the high bar for all of those called to follow Jesus. I wonder if Dr. Chapp was so intent in finding an example for the point he was trying to make that he didn’t stop to check out if what he wrote was suitable. In any case, if it did happen that he wrote what was in his mind without checking it, then I must say that he is in good company. Excellent company, in fact. In “The Steps of Humility” by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, written about 1127, the text begins with a “Retractatio.” It states: “In the course of this essay, in order to confirm and strengthen some statement, I quoted from the gospel the Lord’s saying that he did not know the day of the last judgment. But I carelessly wrote what, as I found later, is not in the gospel. For while the text has simply Neither does the Son know, I, not deceitfully but myself deceived, forgetting the words but not the meaning, say, ‘Nor does the Son of Man himself know.’ This became my premise, and I tried to prove the truth of my thesis from this false quotation. I discovered this error of mine long after the book had been published. Since I could not overtake a falsehood now scattered through so many copies, I have thought it necessary to take refuge in confession.”[3] For myself, I find this “confession” to be the best teaching on humility of the whole treatise. Humble pie is a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Still, though Dr. Chapp’s use of the incident of the rich young man is not a good example of the high bar of discipleship, the questions raised by his article are still valid. What is the basic discipleship to which all Catholics are called? When I was growing up, it was to be found in the Ten Commandments plus the Six Commandments of the Church. These were printed in most missals and were considered at the time to be the minimum requirement of every faithful Catholic.

But that was before the Second Vatican Council. The bar has been raised back again to its original height. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. “In Jesus, the same Word of God, that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: ‘You have heard that it was said to the men of old…. But I say to you….’”[4] The Beatitudes are the new call to discipleship, “for the way of Christ is summed up in the beatitudes, the only path that leads to the eternal beatitude for which the human heart longs.”[5]

This raises the bar far above the earlier level, where keeping the Ten Commandments and the Six Commandments of the Church was considered adequate. It also raises the question about those of us who fall short. What about those of us who try to be pure of heart, but realize that we are continually failing badly? What about those of us who want to be poor in spirit but who cling to our security in money? What about those of us who can’t manage to hunger and thirst for righteousness without falling far short of being peacemakers? The bar of the Beatitudes is high indeed. No wonder the Bible says, “[the righteous] fall seven times.”[6]

I’ve never tried doing the high jump, let alone pole-vaulting, but as with most sports, it seems to me that there are three possible outcomes: you can try it and succeed; you can try it and fail; you can refuse to try it. It is the same with discipleship. Those who refuse to try correspond to those in mortal sin. They do not make any effort to live as disciples. They do what goes against the commandment of love, they know that this is the case, and they choose to do it. Those are the three criteria of a mortal sin.[7]

For the rest of us, we can try to live up to our call to live the Beatitudes, and sometimes, thanks to God’s grace and our cooperation with it, we actually succeed. Most of the time we will fall short, even very far short. But the difference between the first two results and the third is that we keep trying. The full quote of Proverbs 24:16a is “for though they fall seven times, they will rise again.”

For those who fall and struggle back up to try again, in a recent article, “Blessed Are the Weak,” I quoted St. Therese’s advice to one of her novices: “You make me think of a little child that is learning to stand but does not yet know how to walk. In his desire to reach the top of the stairs to find his mother, he lifts his little foot to climb the first step. It is all in vain, and at each renewed effort he falls. Well, be like that little child. Always keep lifting your foot to climb the ladder of holiness, and do not imagine that you can mount even the first step. All God asks of you is good will… But should you cease to raise your foot, you will be left for long on the earth.”[8]

“Accompaniment” seems to be a bad word in certain Catholic circles at present. Yet no one becomes a successful pole vaulter without a coach. Those of us who want to keep lifting our foot to reach the first step to holiness are very grateful for those who accompany us in our attempts, who coach us in our misguided efforts and who continually encourage us to keep trying. It is very encouraging to hear that “all God asks of you is good will.” Sometimes that is all that we have to get us to keep trying.

Notes

[1] Mk 10, 17-22

[2] Liturgy  of the Hours, Vol III, p.1318

[3] “The Steps of Humility,” St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Harvard University Press, 1940, p. 119

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church,” # 581

[5] CCC, #1697

[6] Prov. 24,16

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #1857

[8]  Counsels and Reminiscences of Soeur Thérèse, the Little Flower of Jesus


Photo by Włodzimierz Jaworski on Unsplash


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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

The high bar of holiness
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