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St. Peter Damian, doctor of the Church, sounds eerily like he’s writing to us

PETER DAMIAN
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Some pre-Lenten thoughts at a time of spiritual crisis all around.

Recently we marked the annual memorial of St. Peter Damian, who was a monk, cardinal, and reformer. He is also considered a Doctor of the Church. I read a little from him in recent days and couldn’t help but think he was writing to us now: “When the manners of men are rough and harsh, it is useless to apply the bond of charity to them; for they soon spring apart from each other when they do not observe a balanced agreement of polite behavior.”

“You must therefore be smoothed by the discipline of spiritual labor and lined by the harmony of brotherly love,” he wrote. “This union cannot be one of perfect agreement unless … one man is set over the rest as Christ’s vicar. Unity brings about agreement among many men; it causes the wills of different men to be in accord in the bonds of charity and the unanimity of a common spirit.”

He continued:

Therefore, dearly beloved, if you desire to be at one with each other in the love of Christ, be more intent in your obedience in humbleness of heart to him who is set above you in Christ’s place … He who, despising the shepherd, seeks a hireling, who listens to the voices of strangers, who plays with the hammers of discord in the furnace of hatred and who divided the kingdom of Israel by sowing the seed of schism will have no place there. “We have no part in David,” he says, “neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse.”

As long as bees make honey together they remain under a single leader. And cranes, too, as long as they stay in line, and follow their leader never lose their orderly course. As soon as Rome was built, it became impossible for her to have two brothers as kings; and so the first walls of the rising structure were dedicated by fratricide. Jacob and Esau, when they were in the womb of Rebecca and had no clothing but their mother’s belly fought as if they were already dressed in armor.

Finally: “In this way therefore the shepherd and the sheep, the general and the soldiers, should be joined together in the single-minded practice of virtue; so that love, which is God, may rule them in undivided unity.”

Pope Francis was criticized for warning against a spirit of accusations at the opening of the abuse summit that happened recently in Rome. At other times, he is criticized for cautioning against a Pharisaical spirit.

I cannot know the mind or heart of Pope Francis other than what he gives us, and he has been nearly daily throughout his pontificate pointing to the life of the Trinity that Christians are called to live with love and spiritual rigor.

When he warns against threats to these things, he is warning against one important thing or another consuming us. I think that’s why he encouraged the U.S. bishops to go on retreat at the start of the year: See Christ. Be Christ. In the midst of this mess of evil that seems to be at every turn, be Christ. That’s for all believers.

The best of the Jesuits is the disciplines their founder St. Ignatius left in the Spiritual Exercises. Francis has been trying to share them as a Jesuit spiritual director of the world. That’s hard, not sexy stuff, though, so it doesn’t make headlines and it isn’t fodder for Twitter debates.

There’s real reform that needs to happen in Rome and throughout the Church. It’s not going to happen without a Church serious about prayer, repentance, and virtue. Getting our Church in order requires going deeper daily in prayer. I pray for the Southern Baptists who are having their own reckoning with scandal. The world needs us to go to Jesus with our sins and renew together. This isn’t just the pope’s crisis or a cardinal’s or the Southern Baptist Convention’s. There is sin in the world and until we weep in prayer with Christ and live radically conformed to the cross with love, our mission will not be accomplished.

Thinking about what Saint Damian had to say above, I can’t help but remember that just about the first thing Pope Francis said to the world was: Pray for me. Could it help us all if we did, and more?

Here’s a little more Damian:

Break the body with fasts, abstain from your own desires, submit yourself in very prompt devotion to the command of another’s order, let the modest judgment of silence check the impudent remarks of an insolent tongue, let the charms of droll speech not break out, let the rigor of severe continence tear out the illicit motions of the carnal passions, so that for you who die now with Christ of our free will, the heavier his cross is observed to be in your … life, the more fully the glory of his Resurrection will accrue to you.

We’re only moments away from Lent. Let’s take it more seriously than we ever have, as an act of love for God, for the Church, and for one another. How many news stories we’re following this week, last week, next week — no doubt — are miserable? There’s a lot in the air to repent for. And while we may not be individually culpable, what are we doing to counter it, to do reparation for it, and to beg for conversion and mercy? How are we light in this darkness?

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