What humans can do that angels can’t
Hint: Our very vulnerability gives us something angels can only admire but never achieve
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” said Alexander Pope, thereby proving that he understood more about men than he did about angels. Angels cannot fear anything because they cannot be harmed by anything. They are not vulnerable; that is to say, angels are not woundable—unlike human persons. We can do what angels cannot—we can be afraid because we can be wounded; but because we can be afraid, we can be brave. Because we can fear, we can exercise the virtue of bravery by not allowing ourselves to be overcome by our fears. This is a Christian paradox: the pain of our losses and humiliation of our fears can become the roots of noble bravery that angels can only admire but never achieve. Humans can suffer wounds and losses. Our bodies can be injured, our fortunes seized, our reputations destroyed. The brave Christian is able to surrender these very real but lesser goods by refusing to yield the greatest good, which is fidelity to God. The brave Christian is willing to suffer pain, loss and even death because of Who God is and because of who we are to God. The truth about God and about us, as well as the meaning of pain and the merits of bravery, is revealed by Jesus. Thomas Merton, in his “No Man Is an Island,” notes: “Suffering is consecrated to God by faith — not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God… Suffering has no power and no value of its own… The effect of suffering upon us depends on what we love. If we love only ourselves, suffering is merely hateful… If we love God and love others in him, we will be glad to let suffering destroy anything in us that God is pleased to let it destroy, because we know that all it destroys is unimportant. We will prefer to let the accidental trash of life be consumed by suffering in order that his glory may come out clean in everything we do.”
Merton makes clear that for the love of God and for the love of neighbor commanded by God, we must act courageously against sin and evil, starting with the sin that resides in our own hearts. I will begin my campaign against sin by first looking in the mirror. I suggest that you do the same. Such active courage is holy defiance, a disposition to resist evil.
Courage also requires endurance, which is a stubborn and patient unwillingness to relinquish a greater good for a lesser good. Hildegard of Bingen said that “patience is the pillar that nothing can soften.” I add that endurance is the willingness to remain steadfast even in the face of what is dreadful. How different courage is from the illusion of fearlessness! The fearless are either the foolhardy or the fooled. The foolhardy do not understand the risks and plunge ahead thoughtlessly, courting danger unnecessarily. The fooled trust in their own strength—right up to the moment of the time of trial, when their unjustified trust fails them.
How shall we seek after holiness, and become strong in the strength of the Lord so as to fight actively against evil, and, if need be, resist evil to our last breath and drop of blood? Let’s keep it simple.
As one wit once asked, “Do you think Our Lady came to Fatima just to be a tourist?” At Fatima, Our Lady urged upon us penance and the Rosary. We would do well to start there. We pray the Rosary not because it’s a talisman and its prayers a magic formula. We pray the Rosary because it unites us with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary—two wounded hearts triumphant over evil!
At the same time, we must unite ourselves with our Eucharistic Lord, both inside and outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI said: “Kneeling before the Eucharist is a profession of freedom: those who bow to Jesus cannot and must not prostrate themselves before any earthly authority…” My gloss on Benedict is this: If we stand at the altar of the Lord with incense, we are less likely to offer a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar—the idol of tyranny. Or the altar of Mammon—the idol of riches. Or the altar of Baal—the idol demanding the blood of children. Or the altar of public opinion—the idol that makes promises it cannot keep.
Prayer, Penance, Eucharist: taken together they are the foundation upon which the virtue of truly Christian bravery can grow. They will allow us to answer the summons of Sacred Scripture: “Let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior’!” (Joel 3:10)
When I write next, I will speak of the link between beauty and worship. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.