The consolation of helping a world in distress
In the account that St Matthew gives us in his gospel (9:1-8) of the cure of the man sick with the palsy, it is a point of special significance that Our Blessed Lord forgave the sick man his sins before He cured him of his physical ailment. In other words, Our Lord emphasises here, as He did on other occasions, the fact that spiritual sickness is worse than physical and that the health of the soul is of far more importance than the health of the body.
Spiritual sickness is far worse than physical ailments
This is a truth that the world at large entirely ignores. Even professing Christians are often far more solicitous about obtaining material benefits than spiritual ones. Indeed there are some who will only give themselves to earnest prayer when they are threatened by some temporal calamity.
The death of the soul by mortal sin is an infinitely worse evil than the death of the body: one deprives of temporal life only, the other of eternal.
These are truths that we, as Catholic Christians, learnt in our earliest years. But we can test the strength of our belief in them by whether we pray at least just as fervently to avoid mortal sin, as we do when we are in danger of losing our life by sickness or misadventure. Or again, it may be put in this way: do we give at least as much – of course we ought to give more – attention and care to our souls as we do to our bodies?
There are people who spend time and money on keeping their body fit – clothing, feeding, adorning it (not always successfully); they become anxious when means fail to secure this end: they are much concerned if anything interferes with their temporal well-being: they will go to considerable trouble to rectify anything that is amiss in their worldly affairs: they will go almost to any lengths to secure comfort and ease and to see that their body does not suffer.
The death of the soul by mortal sin is an infinitely worse evil than the death of the body
But the point is that they or we, if we are in the same category, ought to be doing at least as much for the soul if we really believe that the soul is more than the body. Well, are we? Our Blessed Lord said,
“Seek first the kingdom of heaven and all these things will be added unto you.”[Mt 6:33]
But there are a great number of people who are seeking the other things – the material and temporal goods of this world – first, and concern themselves very little, if at all, with the kingdom of heaven. In other words, God does not take the first place in their lives. Indeed He may take no place at all. Practically He may not be taken into account in His own world and yet, inconsistently enough, He will be blamed because things are not to men’s liking.
Do we give at least as much – of course we ought to give more – attention and care to our souls as we do to our bodies?
It is precisely because men ignored God in the first instance and disregarded His will that everything went awry. It is because men have abused the freedom of will that God gave them and chose evil rather than good, that evil exists at all.
Evils of every kind – spiritual, material, physical – are of men’s own making, the consequence of sin, of desertion of God, of neglect of His will.
It is foolish to argue that if God were good He would have prevented all these evils. How could He prevent them and still leave men in the possession of their free-will? If you say that He should not have given men free will, then you take away all moral goodness, the highest possible good, the very splendour of rational created nature; and reduce men to the condition of mere automata or irrational animals.
Do we pray at least just as fervently to avoid mortal sin, as we do when we are in danger of losing our life by sickness or misadventure?
But that God is good and remains good is proved by the fact that when men abused his free-will and so sinned, bringing evil into the world, God in His merciful love at once brought a remedy for the evil and gave man the opportunity and the means of reestablishing himself in God’s favour.
The Incarnation – the life and death of Christ – is that remedy. It is the remedy that has made the first sin of man, in the words of the Church’s liturgy, a “felix culpa”, so that out of evil good has come, and God’s love has been the more clearly revealed in all its merciful understanding of our weakness and its ever constant and unceasing desire to work our ultimate good.
It is precisely because men ignored God in the first instance and disregarded His will that everything in the world went awry
Sin then is the absolute evil: sin is the barrier that stands between ourselves and God: sin the barrier that keeps men from true peace and happiness: but the effect of Christ’s redemptive work is to remove that barrier every time we come in sorrow for our share in its erection. Because sin is the greatest evil in the world, God can do us no greater favour than to forgive us our sins. In doing that He gives Himself back to us in the supernatural life of grace and in so giving Himself He gives us everything best worth having in this world and an earnest of that infinite happiness which He would have us enjoy in heaven.
Evils of every kind – spiritual, material, physical – are of men’s own making, the consequence of sin
All this is disclosed in the cure of the sick man, with which we began this conference. Because sickness of the soul is so much worse than that of the body, Our Lord by His divine power first forgives the sins of the repentant man before He works, as a vindication of His divinity, the lesser miracle of curing him of His palsy.
When man abused his God-given free will and sinned, bringing evil into this world, God in His merciful love sent His only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus
The bodily palsy of the man in the gospel may be regarded as a symbol of the material and physical evils of the world to-day, in which we all to a greater or lesser degree have a share. If these miseries are to be removed, the world must first be cured of its pernicious and destructive spiritual palsy, the palsy engendered by sin, by denial of God and His claims, by neglect of His commandments and laws.
It is not only those who are the avowed enemies of God and are bent upon the utter destruction of religion – it is not only they who are suffering from this spiritual palsy. But alas only too many others, who would range themselves on God’s side, and advocate the cause of Jesus Christ, are themselves infected, even though to a lesser extent, with the same malady.
It is futile for such to hope to have God on their side, to restore His law and order on this earth, if in their endeavours they are not seeking first the kingdom of heaven but rather the goods of this world and the success of their own material aspirations.
“The spiritual palsy”
We, as Catholics, have a great part to play in the regeneration of the world and in the destruction of all those atheistical agencies which are chiefly responsible for such widespread unrest and misery. But if our efforts are to be effective, we must begin by being cured of our own spiritual palsy in whatever degree we suffer from it.
We must first be purged from our own sins, be they great or small, and in our thoughts and in our actions God must be paramount: religion and its constant practice must be our first care: the eternal must take precedence at all times over the temporal and transitory. If we come to Him in right dispositions the tenderhearted Saviour of the world will say to us too, as He said to the man in the gospel,
“Be of good heart, your sins are forgiven you” [Mt 9:2b]
And it is then, and only then, when sins are deplored and forgiven, that we may confidently hope that the sufferings and afflictions, which sin has brought about, will be removed, or to some degree at least mitigated, and that the world will be cleared of the chief horrors in which it is now plunged.
We, as Catholics, have a great part to play in the regeneration of the world
It is when we have demonstrated to pagan and irreligious men, not by our words but by our loving example, that we are sincere in making God’s cause ours, and that it is His claims and not our own worldly ones that we are seeking to vindicate; that we are seeking, not for ourselves only but for all men, the peace and happiness that only the true service of God can secure; it is when, in short, our own lives are in complete accord with our protestations that we can hope to bring conviction to so many darkened souls and to make them sharers with us in a new world, brightened, gladdened and refreshed by the true reign of Christ in our midst.
Our living example
Everyone, whoever he be, can have part, and a large part, in this consoling work of helping a distressed world. Not everyone can take an active part in such external works as “The Sword of the Spirit” and “The Catholic Evidence Guild,” admirable as they are, but there is no Catholic who cannot live a life in close union with God and by the holiness of his, or her, example, perhaps even more efficaciously promote the Cause of Christ.
Promoting the Cause of Christ by the holiness of our daily day example
There are many who live hidden lives in religious cloisters but whose earnest prayers are ever ascending to God in supplication for the sore and painful needs of the world. There are others who are bedridden with some painful and protracted disease, but by the exercise of patience and resignation to God’s holy will are helping, in greater measure than we can guess, to the conversion of the ungodly and sinful.
A world brightened, gladdened and refreshed by the true reign of Christ in our midst
There are many too old to take part in active apostolic work, but they can offer up to God the inevitable ailments and distresses of their declining years, and find a true consolation in doing so, by the thought that they too are contributing to the regeneration and true welfare of this distressed world. [see also Col 1:24]
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J. [headings and brackets added], The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949