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On Priorities in this Life
“Seek first the kingdom of God and His
and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Next month, September,
is dedicated to the Holy Cross of our Lord. And the 14th of September, is
the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In monasteries of men and
women, this day marks the beginning of what is called the “monastic Lent.”
That means that the monks and nuns observe fasting and abstinence according
to the traditional Lenten practice. They will begin now in order to be
spiritually prepared for the coming Easter—with only a break or two for the
major feasts like Christmas and the Epiphany.
We can understand why
the monks undertake such a rigid fast, and understand our own Lenten fast, a
little bit better if we examine today's scripture readings.
We should understand,
first of all, that the custom in our Lord's time was to emphasize a point by
means of “hyperbole”—which means, in essence, making the point by
exaggeration. The Semitic languages lacked “superlatives” like “good,
better, best, bad, worse, and worst.” Saint Paul is not telling us that
physical things are bad in themselves, and our Lord is not telling us that
we should quit our jobs and go around dressed like the lilies of the field.
They are making use of this “hyperbole” to tell us something about setting
our priorities in life—so that no one could fail to distinguish “the best”
from “the worst.”
Saint Paul tells us
about the abuse of material things. He is not telling us that they are bad
in themselves. The love of man and woman is good, ordained by God at
The Psalmist tells us that “bread [is] to strengthen man's heart, and wine
to gladden his soul.” “Cattle and herbs [are] for the service of men." Oil
[is] to make his face shine.
These things are positively good in themselves—and necessary to keep body
and soul together.
But when love is
twisted into lust, uncleanness, and immodesty—or when the bread and the
cattle and the herbs of the earth are taken in riotous gluttony—or when wine
serves to annihilate the mind rather than to gladden the soul—when we cause
things like this happen, God's good gifts begin to work for evil rather than
Saint Paul demonstrates
that the misuse of material things often brings its own penalty. And he is
also telling us that if, on the other hand, we are prudent with our use of
material things, we will begin to reap the rewards of spiritual things:
charity, joy, modesty, chastity, peace, and so on.
Our Lord is telling us
very much the same thing. Instead of being preoccupied with material
things—with the piling up of wealth, and provisions, and clothing, and so
on—we should be devoting more of our time to the spiritual side of our
Not that we should
ignore our material needs, but that by focusing on the spiritual reality of
the kingdom of heaven, we will be able to make use of God's material gifts
in a way that is in accord with our nature—and we will be able to have those
spiritual gifts Saint Paul speaks about.
This is the reason for
Christian practices like fasting, and abstinence, and observing seasons like
Lent. For we know that often our wills are weak. We know that it is easy
to slide back to the pagan practices Saint Paul describes. Regular fasting
and abstinence—whether it be just Fridays and Ember days, or entire seasons
like Lent—helps us to learn discipline over our selves. It enables us to
think clearly in setting our priorities, so our mind is focused more on the
kingdom of heaven than on the cares of this world.
Next month—in just a
few days—we will observe the feast of the Holy Cross. Probably none of us
will begin to observe anything like the “monastic fast,” resembling Lent.
But it is a good time to begin thinking about what is important in life. A
good time to renew our efforts at self-discipline.
A good time, as St.
Paul says, to “join Christ in crucifying our vices.” Recognizing that He
freely gave up His life for us on the Cross, we should recognize the need to
emulate His mortification in our lives on earth, so that we can join Him in
the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is a good time to
begin seeking “the kingdom of God and His justice,” so that we may have all
that is good for us, both in heaven and on earth.