The Readings for the Feast of St Laurence
Qui amat animam suam, perdet eam; et qui odit animam suam in hoc mundo, in vitam aeternam custodit eam.
Ὁ φιλῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει αὐτήν · καὶ ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον φυλάξει αὐτήν .
He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
This is one of those places where English loses out to both Greek and Latin. Both of these languages have (at least) two words for “life” and the writers of the scriptures use them to mean different things. I’ve set them in bold in the verse above.
Animam (Latin) corresponds to the Greek ψυχὴν psyche and it means that common life we all have no matter who or what we are: the driving force that humanity shares with bovinity, broccolinity, and also amoebinity. Or, as Douglas Adams put it in Restaurant at the End of the Universe, “all lifekind”. Anything made of carbon (and maybe a few other elements) that we describe as “alive” is this.
Vitam in Latin, on the other hand, is the Greek ζωὴν zoe. This is what Humanity shares with all the other Spiritual creatures. For a human is a Spirit/Flesh hybrid. We are not only living matter, as are animals, nor are we only spiritual beings, as are demons, angles, etc. We are flesh and blood. And we are Spirit. We have choices to make regarding our Vitam and our Animam on a daily, or literally moment-by-moment basis.
It’s to be noted that the choice of “love” in English corresponds with φιλῶν philio in Greek, that sort of love we think of as friendship. God, in John’s Gospel, loves the world with agape or a divine charity. We can do the same thing. But friendship with the world is an entirely different thing all together. A friend, says Solomon in the book of Proverbs, loves at all times. That level of loyalty to the world is what we’re not supposed to be doing.
The gridiron has been an important religious symbol since the third century. Today’s Saint is the patron of my former Monastery. St Laurence is known for two things: his snarky martyrdom, and his use of the treasures of the church in what, today, would be called embezzlement.
When the elders of the Roman Church saw a persecution looming up on the horizon, they entrusted all the wealth to Laurence, a young deacon of the church, and urged him to safeguard it. But he knew the Gospel story. So when he was arrested he promised he would turn over the whole thing… and they sent him home to get his booty – which he promptly delivered into the hands of the poor as was his job. So he gave away everything that was in the church’s possession and returned to his jailers. He said the treasure would be delivered in the morning. And when all the poor of the city showed up on the doorstep, he said, These poor are the treasure of Christ’s church.
Even Church gold can be friendship with the world. And we must always be mindful of the sin of mammonolatry.
So Laurence was arrested and condemned to death for loving Christ’s treasures too much and the world’s too little. We’ll get to what that has to do with football in a minute.
Thomas Aquinas gathered these Christian elders into a Rabbinical sort of conversation on this passage:
Chrysostom. He loves his life in this world, who indulges its inordinate desires; he hates it, who resists them. It is not, who doth not yield to, but, who hates. For as we cannot bear to hear the voice or see the face of them whom we hate; so when the soul invites us to things contrary to God, we should turn her away from them with all our might.
Theophylact. It were harsh to say that a man should hate his soul; so He adds, in this world: i.e. for a particular time, not forever. And we shall gain in the end by so doing: shall keep it to life eternal.
Augustine. But think not for an instant, that by hating your soul, is meant that you may kill yourself. For wicked and perverse men have sometimes so mistaken it, and have burnt and strangled themselves, thrown themselves from precipices, and in other ways put an end to themselves. This did not Christ teach; nay, when the devil tempted Him to cast Himself down, He said, Get you hence, Satan. But when no other choice is given you; when the persecutor threatens death, and you must either disobey God’s law, or depart out of this life, then hate your life in this world, that you may keep it to life eternal.
Chrysostom. This present life is sweet to them who are given up to it. But he who looks heavenwards, and sees what good things are there, soon despises this life. When the better life appears, the worse is despised. This is Christ’s meaning, when He says, If any man serve Me, let him follow Me, i.e. imitate Me, both in My death, and life. For he who serves, should follow him whom he serves.
Augustine. But what is it to serve Christ? The very words explain. They serve Christ who seek not their own things, but the things of Jesus Christ, i.e. who follow Him, walk in His, not their own v ways, do all good works for Christ’s sake, not only works of mercy to men’s bodies, but all others, till at length they fulfill that great work of love, and lay down their lives for the brethren. But what fruit, what reward? you ask. The next words tell you: And where I am, there shall also My servant be. Love Him for His own sake, and think it a rich reward for your service, to be with Him.
Chrysostom. So then death will be followed by resurrection. Where I am, He says; for Christ was in heaven before His resurrection. Thither let us ascend in heart and in mind.
Aquinas: If any man serve Me, him will My Father honor. This must be understood as an explanation of the preceding. There also shall My servant be. For what greater honor can an adopted Son receive than to he where the Only Son is?
Chrysostom. He says, My Father will honor him, not, I will honor him; because they had not yet proper notions of His nature, and thought Him inferior to the Father.
A friend yields to the desires of his friend. A friend supports his friend in all actions. A friend will be loyal to the death. But yet might only on rare occasions correct or even chide. A friend is known by the company he keeps, really. And, to value one’s psyche over and above one’s Zoe is to cave in, far to many times, to the things of the world.
I find myself smiling when I see a priest using a smartphone to read his office or to navigate a litany without a book. But I had a coworker once who lost his job for using smartphones and tablets in the way one might in these latter days. And that same problem was mine in the monastery. So I worry, too. What else happens with phones pulled out in Mass? So, that, I think, is the line for friendship with the world – not the smartphone, but the misuses of it. And so pull that image out into an analogy. I know folks who pray before voting and who abstain from some races while voting in others – all to take part in the political process as they feel is their religious duty. But I know others who cave in on all issues in the name of a political defeat of “the enemy”, saying it is more important to get electoral victory than to hold on to their faith. In which case friendship with the world seems to have taken over.
That’s where we cross the line – or at least where I do. I find that it’s really easy to write the posts even nightly for a fortnight. And then still find myself caving in to concupiscence. Friendship with the world becomes addiction.
And we must begin, again, to say “We acknowledged that we were powerless over our friendship with the world and our lives had become unmanageable.”
Today, as schools return to session, many folks will be looking forward to games played on the gridiron. In some places, even clergy will get into the act, trying to be “cool” and “relevant” in their friendship with the world, seemingly unaware that anything that keeps their flock away from the altar on Sunday is the force of evil. Full stop. Anything at all that would be good, clean fun in most times, once it begins to override our connection with the Lord at Mass, is evil. And lest one think I am speaking only of our pornographic obsessions with team sports, I know a good few folks who get upset when the service takes them in to “overtime” as defined by the pot roast in the slow-cooker at home.
We must learn to say, with St Laurence, that even the world’s worst actions are not as bad as losing our Zoe, our common life with God. Tied to a large iron grid, and roasted over a flame… he rather famously said, “I’m done on that side. Turn me over.”
I want to imagine it said with a smile that angered his torturers and moved his friends to tears.
And so should we all be able to say if we’ve come to believe that a power higher than ourselves can restore us to sanity. God’s zoe is all that we need. It puts absolutely everything else in its proper place. Even football. Or that thing Americans play with the pointy ball.
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