This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me (Mk 7:6; Is 29:13)
The ritual purifications of the law were only ever meant to be symbolic. They were an outward sign of the human need to be clean before God, to be reconciled with him, to be in communion with him. The Old Testament is perfectly clear, though, that what matters is not the external rituals, but the heart. If our heart is far from God, then our outward religious observances are worthless. All the Scribes and Pharisees knew that, and believed it. Yet here they were, obsessively concerned with external rituals, which could not effect the purity they symbolised. And they were in the presence of the one who alone can truly and effectively purify us. Jesus came to wash us clean from our sins in his blood, to reconcile us with God, to make us holy. And he was himself the God with whom we must be reconciled. Yet the Pharisees were rejecting him. So they well merited the condemnation of their own law, quoted against them by Jesus.
What though of us, who believe in Jesus, and have been baptised into his death? Yes, we’ve been washed clean: but unfortunately the legacy of original sin still endures within us. As G. K. Chesterton once remarked, Original Sin is the only Catholic doctrine that can really be proved. So we remain subject to temptations of every sort: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mk 7:23). The Christian knows, then, that he is a sinner. Even after his baptism he prays without ceasing: “Lord have mercy on me”. And he knows that his Baptism confers on him a task, which is to live in conformity with its grace, that is, to live the moral and ascetical and spiritual life, purifying his heart from every sin.
No one ever said that this would be easy. Temptations lie ever before us; sin beckons us: even though we know that it’s slavery, and degradation, and separation from God, and spiritual death. St. Antony the first monk went into the desert in order to be with God, to pray, to purify his heart. But for years he was violently assaulted by every form of horrible imagining, hideous blasphemy, vile suggestions from the devil. Antony endured that, but gave the consent of his will to none of it. By the grace of the Holy Spirit he won the victory, and emerged from the combat a Saint, a model Christian, and a model monk for all future ages.
Monks have always been very much given to ritual observances. We live according to a very detailed timetable every single day. We wear special clothes. We never eat without grace before and after our meals. We get through large numbers of ritualised prayers at set times, in set order, every single day. But none of this is point: it’s all only a means to an end. The end, or aim of monks is defined for us by John Cassian in his first Conference. What a monk aims for above all, what all his observances are designed to facilitate, says Cassian, is purity of heart. Blessed are the pure of heart, said the Lord, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8). Following Cassian, St. Benedict prescribes plenty of external monastic observances. When he speak of prayer, he insists strongly on quantity. Monks have to sing lots of Psalms, and St. Benedict devotes eleven Chapters of his Rule to the details of their performance. But then in Chapter 20 he reminds us of what it’s all for. “God does not hear us for our many words”, he says, “but for our purity of heart, and our tears of compunction”.
Another word for purity of heart suggested by Cassian is love: love of God and love of neighbour. This is the height of Christian virtue, and the object of our striving. Pure love, that is, inspired by the Holy Spirit: not moral uprightness. The pagan philosophers were morally upright, as were the Pharisees. Moral uprightness of itself is good, of course, and necessary: but it’s not enough. And it can easily induce a sense of superiority, and hardness or coldness of heart, and a censorious attitude, and pride: which is the truly diabolical sin, the one sin that most effectively separates us from God. So the Saints loved, but they were not proud, nor did they ever consider themselves superior to anyone else at all.
These days we are reeling from further and devastating revelations of moral wickedness amongst Catholic clergy. Into full public view has been brought not only sexual perversion, but also cynical hypocrisy, double standards, and external forms of religion which conceal festering rottenness in the heart. Surely we should take this as a clarion reminder that purity of heart, holiness of life, death to self, authentic love of God and neighbour are always essential and irreplaceable. The alternative is corruption and just condemnation.
Let us imagine a person, let us say a Priest, who is tempted: let us say, by illicit attraction to a child or vulnerable adult. What should he do? We know the answer. He must fight against his temptations. He should manifest his thoughts to a spiritual father. He should go to confession frequently, mentioning any willing assent to evil thoughts, however momentary, even though no sinful action follows. He should take other positive action. He will increase the time given each day to prayer. He will meditate on Christ’s Passion, and get into the habit of denying himself, mortifying his flesh, especially regarding food, drink, comfort, and legitimate relaxation. He will intensify his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and constantly invoke her Immaculate Heart. He will firmly resolve to die rather than to sin, and he will beg the Lord to strike him down, rather than allow him to commit the abominable crimes that allure him.
This is the path taken and taught by all the Saints, and it applies in some way to all of us. Yet in the past 50 years or so it has been much undervalued in the Church, not taught, and even derided, or regarded as somehow suspect. We see the fruits of that attitude in the present crisis. We urgently need to recover the ascetic tradition, rooted in good theology, that is wisdom, and common sense, and our birthright.
Our holy faith teaches that by God’s grace we never have to sin. While life lasts, conversion is possible, and purity of heart attainable. And if we find ourselves losing courage or even hope in face of this task, then we look to Jesus, and we find him not so much sternly driving us on, as drawing us lovingly to himself. And we come to him because we want to, beyond anything else in life: since he’s so attractive, so beautiful, so much more desirable than anything else whatever. And if we ask him, he will preserve us in the midst of all our temptations, and deliver us from evil.