Father Michael's Number Seven Rule for the Interior Life: One Man's Meat Is Another Man's Poison.

Lessons from cycle II of the feria, according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite:

I Corinthians 8: 1-7, 11-13.
Psalm 139: 1-3, 13-14, 23-24.
Luke 6: 27-38.

The Twenty-Third Thursday of Ordinary Time.

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1:56 PM 9/11/2014 —

If one of you sees something unedifying and so much as goes on to pass it on and put it into the heart of another brother, in doing so you not only harm yourself but you harm your brother by putting one more little bit of knavery into his heart. Even if that brother has his mind set on prayer or some other noble activity, and the first arrives and furnishes him with something to prate about, he not only impedes what he ought to be doing, but brings a temptation to him (Dorotheos of Gaza, On the Fear of God).

     This little bit of homespun wisdom is from a very early saint of the Christian East I'm almost sure you've never heard of, Dorotheos of Gaza, who belongs to a group of saints known collectively as the Desert Fathers. In the West, we typically look to Saint Benedict as the founder of monasticism; but, the Desert Fathers were establishing monasteries all over the Middle East hundreds of years before Benedict was born, and a lot of them were prolific writers; and, even though this all happened long before the schism that separated the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, most Catholics today are woefully ignorant of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or even aware that they existed. The more significant sayings of the Desert Fathers can be found in a four-volume work which has become the keystone of spirituality in the Eastern Churches called the Philokalia, compiled by two post-schism Orthodox saints, St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos and St. Makarios of Corinth, who both lived from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century.
     And whenever I read the Desert Fathers—which is as often as I can—it amazes me how they not only knew so much about the ebbs and tides of the interior life, but seemed so adept at understanding human psychology, not because they studied it—because the science didn't exist at the time—but because living in the desert with their brother monks in the concentrated atmosphere of a monastic setting gave them these insights. Abba Dorotheos, which is how the Easterners refer to him, established two monasteries in the deserts of Gaza, both of them long since wiped off the face of the earth by the fighting that's been going on there between Palestinians and Jews for centuries. The passage I just read to you is from his treatise, On the Fear of God, and it relates directly to what St. Paul is talking about in today's first lesson from First Corinthians, with which we've been wrestling—which is exactly the right word—to glean from it some principles for our own interior life.
     Just so we're all on the same page, let's quickly review some of the background that brings us to Chapter Eight of this Epistle, and pick up from there:
     As a commercial crossroads, Corinth was a melting pot full of devotees of various pagan cults and was known to be a place of moral depravity not unusual in a great seaport. St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that Paul had some initial success among the Jewish merchants in Corinth, but not too much; he had much better success among the Gentiles there, with most of his converts being from the city's poor and underprivileged. When he left there in the Year of Our Lord 52, he was succeeded by a disciple named Apollos, a Jewish Christian from Alexandria, who seems to have had a little more success among the Jewish Corinthians, and St. Luke testifies to his preaching about how Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
     Some years later, during his third missionary journey, Paul had returned to Ephesus;—where he had left his friend Timothy in charge—and, while collecting his messages in Ephesus he got some disturbing news about Corinth. The Christians there had become divided into factions, with the members identifying themselves with individual Christians leaders, including Apollos. Some of them began to preach Christianity as a kind of elitist philosophy for the superior few. There was one prominent member of the Church there who was in an immoral relationship, and the Church seemed to lack the moral force to do anything about it. Some of the members of the Church had become embroiled in legal disputes in pagan courts, and some of them had still not ceased to participate in ritual sacrifices at pagan temples. A few of these difficulties we've already discussed.
     And there were liturgical aberrations as well: at this point in church history, the Eucharist was still celebrated in conjunction with an actual meal, and some people were getting drunk during this meal. There were also disputes about who could be allowed to preach, and whether women should be required to have their heads covered during Mass. There were even some serious doctrinal issues, as some members of the Church, despite their belief in the resurrection of Christ, were calling into question the Church's teaching about the resurrection of the body. All in all, the reports Paul was receiving was of a Church in complete disarray; so, he fires off this letter.
     If you set aside for the moment the fact that this letter is part of Holy Writ and therefore the Word of God, from a purely historical perspective it raises more questions than answers since, as I explained to you a few days ago, we're only looking at one side of the correspondence: Paul is answering questions and handing down decisions, but we don't have the actual questions before us. Even so, this First Epistle to the Corinthians gives us more insight into what life was like in the Early Church than any other book in the New Testament.
     But, as Holy Scripture, the letter provides us with some of the most important doctrines regarding Christian life: among them questions concerning marriage, conscience, the proximity of Christ's Second Coming, the nature of the Resurrection, and—as discussed by the Apostle in today's lesson—even whether it was lawful to eat meat which had been previously sacrificed to idols in pagan rituals; and, it's buried in this last, odd-sounding topic that we will find Father Michael's Number Seven Rule for the Interior Life, to which I have given an equally odd title: one man's meat is another man's poison.
     The problem, basically, was this: when you're poor, you tend to buy your meat from the cheapest source, and the cheapest source in Corinth was a place that sold what was—for lack of a better term—“used” meat, that is, meat that had been used in some ritual sacrifice in a pagan temple, but which was now for sale at a discount. Some of the Christians were taking advantage of this discount, while others were claiming that, because this meat had been used in a pagan ritual, it was not suitable for consumption by Christians. Paul's decision is a compromise: he says that, since the pagan religions are all false and their rituals empty, there is no moral implication to a Christian eating that meat; but, if by eating it, scandal is given to Christians who are not intelligent enough to understand this, it is better not to eat it than to give scandal. In other words, there's nothing wrong with eating the meat unless it offends someone; and, if it's going to offend someone and give scandal, then, even though there's nothing wrong with it, the charitable Christian will make the added sacrifice for the sake of his brother or sister. Refer back to the quote from Abba Dorotheos with which I opened today.
     But what's important to keep in mind is that this peculiar sounding complaint may have been brought by some of the wealthy Jewish Christians converted by Apollos, who were uncomfortable at having to share the Eucharist with the lower-class, much poorer Gentile Christians converted previously by Paul, and who would have been most likely to have taken advantage of the less expensive meat discarded by the pagan temples following its use in a ritual. Another, perhaps more legitimate, interpretation may be that this "second hand" meat was being sold by the temples themselves as a kind of fund-raiser, so that buying it could be interpreted as a financial contribution to a pagan temple. In any case, there is no way St. Paul, far away in Ephesus, could have known which of these two concerns—one based on prejudice and the other based on a real religious concern—was the real motivation for the complaint; thus, he crafts a compromise solution which addresses the religious concern without giving any legitimacy to those who may have been motivated by a class-based bigotry. Paul's remark, therefore, that those who are strong should be patient with the scruples of those who are weak, could be interpreted as an underhanded put-down to those making the complaint.
     It's a minor issue compared to some of the other topics he addresses, which is probably why he doesn't want to get too involved in it; nevertheless, it raises an interesting point, which follows naturally from our Number Six Rule which was: don't be a lone ranger. We are all at different places in our desire to follow our Lord. Some of us can pray for hours, while others can barely muster the attention span to say a single Hail Mary once a day; some can pray the Holy Mass in Church with attention and devotion, while some find it difficult to remain focused and find the time spent in church difficult to endure; some people struggle with moral issues and temptations every waking moment of the day, while others are not bothered at all. It's analogous to the people who can't seem to loose any weight no matter how severely they starve themselves compared to those who can eat all they want and never put on an inch. We're all individuals, and so the Christian life comes more easily to some than to others.
     The principle behind the Apostle's point is that none of us can succeed in living a Christian life unless we help one another, and one of the ways we do this is by being patient and understanding with those who may not be at the same level we are. It doesn't mean we take a relativistic approach to Christian living; it does mean that we position ourselves to help rather than scold.
     I don't feel guilty about this homily being so long because I gave you the day off yesterday; but it has to end now, so I'm going to leave you with this:
     Before becoming a priest I had experimented with the monastic life myself, and had spent some time with the Carthusian Monks, a group of hermits founded by St. Bruno in France, one of the few monastic orders left in the Church which still observes a eremitical or hermit-like life, with the monastery being a collection of little houses because each monk lives alone, coming together only for Mass and once a day for prayers;—they don't even eat together, not unlike how most of the Desert Fathers lived centuries before in the East—and, in the rule he wrote for them in the year 1050 he has this wonderful counsel about judging others, where he says: Whenever you see a brother doing anything that is ordinarily forbidden, always assume he has permission.