Noblesse Oblige: Honor-Bound
The priest frequently draws the attention of writers, even that of those who are outsiders to the Church’s ranks, perhaps because he remains the only mysterious personage left in modern society: the man of the supernatural, the one vowed to guard secrets unto death, committed to celibacy, with a tradition going back two thousand years – here is an enigma, here is something different! The following is the description of a priest by the novelist, Willa Cather:
“One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico……The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree. Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man, – it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth – brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.” (Willa Cather, Death comes for the Archbishop)
Catholics also expect to find in the priest someone different. They want to see a leader, because like soldiers they want to feel proud of their officers. But as a leader in the Church, the institution that says it is of God, the people, both Catholic and non-Catholic scrutinize and judge him more rigorously for “spots on a garment are more visible, the more beautiful the garment.” St.Gregory Nazianzen, Orat.31. “What did you see?” they asked the man who had gone to see the Curé d’Ars. “God in a man,” he replied. That is exactly what the priest should be, said Charles de Foucauld, “a monstrance, whose task is to show Jesus. He must disappear and allow only Jesus to be seen”.
By first impressions you will be judged: the way you look, your words, gestures and gaze. And rightly so because the people need to know if they can trust you. After all, are they not thinking of entrusting their souls to you, of telling you the innermost secrets of their conscience, of following your guidance in matters of eternal salvation? Are they not about to give you one of the two noblest titles of the human race: “Father”? And in a world of so many dysfunctional fathers, they hope that you will be a real father and if you are then you will show it externally in a thousand ways for “the visible is a shadow cast by the invisible” (Plato)
As mediator, leader, father, constantly sanctifying, ruling, teaching as the triple dimension of your sacramental character requires, you are no longer a private but a public person. You are a man for others who at all times must be conscious of his responsibility. “The priest”, said St. John Vianney “ is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you”. There are no off-times – all must be in accord with your identity, helping and never hindering your mission. “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” ( 1 Cor 9:22?). Begin acting now like a true officer devoted to his soldiers -“Your men first always, Yourself last always” (British army officers cadets training manual).
In this you pattern your social presence on that of your point of reference: the perfect man, Jesus Christ, whose human virtues you will discover by reading the Gospel as if for the first time. Just as in Jesus Christ his social virtues were the expression of his perfect manhood, so in the priest his manners, gestures, clothing should reflect the nature of his priesthood.
“Undoubtedly he was a man. There was nothing of the stained-glass window about him. The Master was still flesh and he showed that he was; he wept, he suffered agony, he was stirred by anger, enthusiasm or dismay.” (Grandmaison).
The ultimate reason for the chivalric personality of the priest is the awe-inspiring reality of the divine indwelling: “Know you not that you are the temple of the God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”( 1 Cor 3:16)
The Goal of Chivalric Self-Conquest: Rugged Man of Chivalric Character, Basis for “the New Man in Christ”
The brightest stars in the constellations of mankind’s great ones are the saints: they radiate a new type of courage, wisdom, goodness, determination brought about by grace ennobling their human qualities: Augustine, Leo the Great, Patrick, Francis Xavier, Vincent de Paul, Maximilian Kolbe. These were the men who cooperated with with sanctifying grace to “be filled with the utter fullness of God” thus fulfilling God’s plan for men since God’s purpose in giving us a participation in his own life –grace – is nothing less than our transformation to divine glory! “For the Glory of God is man alive and the life of man is the vision of God.” (St.Irenaeus). “The Word became man so that we might become gods” (St.Athanasius, The Incarnation,n.54). For
Grace undoubtedly played its role in forging the grandeur of these Christian heroes but grace insists on man’s cooperation and in all of these great men, without exception, this cooperation involved self-conquest. They were all men of self-conquest! Indeed it was their self-conquest that cleared away the obstacles allowing grace to enter and perfect their thoroughbred qualities. Did the brilliant intellect of Augustine penetrate the mysteries of Christianity before or after he began disciplining his lust for pleasure? Did St.John Vianney “rock” France before or after he resolutely determined to channel all his energies to the conversion of Ars? The saints understood that self-conquest ( asceticism) was the bodyguard of their life, their divine life. They recognized self-conquest as the austere but gentle teacher who like a father raises you to manhood.
Hence, the motivation for self-conquest is looking-ahead to its consequences: like pilgrims remembering their destination, like mountain-climbers looking towards the summit, like soldiers in war imagining victory, keep looking ahead down the road at what you will become if you keep walking: a new man. One day when the anaesthetic fog which we call “life” fades away, you will find underneath all the appearances of your present reality – if you have fought the good fight – something impossible to imagine: a real Man, an ageless son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy. Because Jesus Christ in his resurrection ,re-ascending from his great dive into the depths of our human nature through the Incarnation and especially his Passion and Death, is bringing up human nature with him . Where He goes, it goes too. It, you , will be made like him.
“The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed , if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (C.S.Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Self-conquest (asceticism) is therefore ultimately not destruction but construction. “Wounded by a progressing love, the person ‘lives by dying until love, in killing him, makes him life the life of love, transforming him in love.(St. John of the Cross)
This is the plan of God; this is what the Ignatian strives to grasp and make his own.
Chivalric Asceticism in order to Cut the Diamond Character
When an artisan attempts to cut a diamond, his goal is to make the best use of light; for when a diamond is cut to good proportions with the facets placed in precise symmetry, light is refracted from one facet to another and then dispersed through the top creating maximum brilliance.
This is analogously what must occur in your self-formation as a priest: in order for the light of sanctifying grace to transform you into the most Christlike character possible, you must cut the intellectual, human and social facets proportionally in order to create a harmonious whole so that grace may radiate with maximum brilliance.
Now the difference lies in the cutting: a well cut diamond – regardless of its shape – shimmers and flames with the greatest light; if a stone is cut faultily, it will lack brilliance and therefore beauty.
Although normally a larger diamond should be more valuable, it can be worth less if cut poorly whereas a smaller diamond, cut by a skilled artisan who has a higher level of knowledge and skill, is worth more. Likewise with priests: all other things being equal, the priest who engages in self-conquest (asceticism), even if he is not as naturally gifted as some of his fellow priests or seminarians, nevertheless can become one of those small diamonds achieving amazing results with souls.
However just as the extracting of the diamond from the surrounding stone is difficult and demanding (each stone loses on average 50% of its original weight) the cutting of the priestly character is also at times painful in which a lot of “personality dust” will have to be left lying there.
But don’t forget: its dust, just dust! What do you lose by leaving aside impatience, tendencies to greed, anger, lust, laziness, self-centered ambition? Nothing! And you gain everything as a man – and for eternity! “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose no thing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free…” (Benedict XVI)
It is this self-conquest, this “cutting of the diamond” that produces heroes. After all what is the essence of heroism except self-sacrifice, the renunciation of a good -not an evil – for the sake of a higher good.The heroism of the renunciation is not principally something external to the hero – wife, children, and possessions – but rather something internal: his very self which he conquers out of love for the higher good.
This is why heroes move us, make our hearts beat, inspire our imagination, make us want to follow them.
Self-Discipline of Gravitas
The fruit of self-discipline is what the Romans called gravitas or dignitas or honestas and it has been widely recognized by men of all times as an appropriate virtue for individuals with special responsibility for others such as army officers and political leaders.
It is the responsibility for the eternal life of souls which gives the priest his special character, his gravitas.
In this multi-faceted virtue, a man has self-knowledge , knowledge of the world around him, the virtue of wise decision-making ( prudence), the virtue of tenacious courage under pressure ( fortitude) because like the athlete he has trained long and hard to win self-mastery.
This self-possession or to use a classical term for it – meekness – is a virtue of the strong. Such a man is not easily provoked. He has the strength and power of a wild horse totally alien to any type of restraint but once captured by a warrior and gradually “broken in”, he has become a disciplined steed willing to take direction but still keeping all of his energy, power and vigor.
In such a man the fruits of the presence of the Holy Spirit are tangible: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, faith, courtesy, temperateness, purity’ (Gal 5:22). When his head aches, his body is tired, his heart is discouraged, his face remains serene, his words remain encouraging, his pace stays steady. He is a man you would follow into battle.
“Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.” ( J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion)
In synthesis, he has the character idealized in the ideal of chivalry, born from the sacred liturgy of the Church, an ideal that remains partly alive in the modern idea of the gentleman:
“It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. […] He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best.
He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice.
He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.
He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.” ( John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University)
As St. Francis of Assisi remarked regarding the courtesy of a host:
“That gentleman certainly would make a good member of our order: he is so grateful to God, so kind to his neighbour, so generous to the poor, and so cheerful and courteous to guests. For, dear brother, courtesy is one of the qualities of God, who courteously gives his sun and his rain and everything to the just and to the unjust. And courtesy is a sister of charity. It extinguishes hatred and keeps love alive.” (Little Flowers, I: 37).
Saint John Vianney of Ars radiated so much gentlemanliness and courtesy in the confessional that a young nobleman thought the the priest –born of peasant stock – was also of noble birth.
“Thus it is in every way fitting that clergy who have been called to the service of the Lord should so order their lives and habits that in their dress, gestures, gait, conversation and all other matter they show nothing that is not grave, controlled, and full of religious feeling; and let them also avoid minor faults which in them would be very great, so that their actions may receive the respect of all.” (Council of Trent, Session 22, Decree on Reform, Ch.1)
A Vir Dei: “Only a man can be a priest, let him, therefore, as a priest be a man: virile in manner and speech and in his general relationship with society.” (Josef Sellmair, The Priest in the World) He moulds his soul and body according to the distinctly masculine mode of the virtues of energy, decisiveness, tenacity in standing for the truth.