“The only worthwhile striving is after the highest ideals: If you aim for an easy target, your standard will inevitably decline, and no progress is ever made, except through real effort and real suffering.” - Servant of God Fra' Andrew Bertie                                                                                                                                                 "Work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God" - Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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FIRST CONFERENCE - DORCHESTER DAY OF RECOLLECTION


ON THE TRUE DUTIES OF THE CHRISTIAN AND OF THE KNIGHT

Every Christian who takes his or her religion seriously should seek to live in the shadow of the Cross and to embrace the vicissitudes of life implied by that metaphor with equanimity and even abandonment. This acceptance of the reality of human weakness and capacity for error is not just blind faith. It is grounded in our complete confidence that a benevolent power immensely greater than our own guides our destinies. It also derives fundamentally from the knowledge through God’s own revelation that the evils and adversities that assail us are not positive energies but are the negative consequences of original sin. This means that we have a divinely-sanctioned explanation for all that is arbitrary and discordant in human nature. At the same time, the biblical wisdom which helps us to understand the source of human folly and its effects also reveals its remedy. Secular wisdom does not understand either the poisonous consequences of sin and the pain it causes or their antidote. As a consequence, humanists offer seductive and at times very convincing therapies and treatments for the alleviation of suffering and the anxiety resulting from it. None of us is immune from the temptation to credit such worldly solutions to the problems which beset us and we delude ourselves greatly if we think that we are. In our age, global misfortune combines with global communication to produce a consensus among many of the developed nations of the world contradicting the wisdom of faith in favour of expediency and utility. We stand against this trend. As members of a Catholic religious Order, we must be clear that our tradition and raison d’etre is always to place the supremacy of God at the heart of every strategy for the alleviation of human suffering.

Facing the problems and setbacks of every kind in life, frequently seen by stoics and spiritual writers as spurs to deeper self-knowledge, is not an experience that is exclusive to religious people. It is a challenge that is common to all. It is precisely how misfortune is explained and dealt with by different sets of people that fundamentally distinguishes traditional Christianity from other religious movements and from the world of agnosticism and atheism. Even within the context of Christianity there are often varieties of theories regarding right and wrong, good and bad that are attractive to the unwary and easily masquerade as authentic. They frequently offer what appear to the proud intellect as more rational and convenient answers, ruling out apparently old-fashioned notions of sin, guilt and responsibility. Awkward biblical references and even the explicit testimony of the words of our Lord Himself are set aside in an effort to render everything acceptable to contemporary ignorance and to a European and Western society which has largely distanced itself from the religious concepts of obedience, honesty, fidelity, shame and –most seriously- life after death. There are soit-disant Catholics who sadly embrace in part many of these erroneous opinions, imagining themselves to be at the cutting edge of a modern approach to religion which they believe speaks more directly to the enlightened times in which we live. Even more regrettably, they seek to mislead the young with these false notions of free-range interpretations of our Faith, thus disabling them spiritually from being able combat their own understandable weaknesses or to defend their faith convincingly against the rising tide of assault upon the Church and its teaching. Dear confreres, our Order is in places affected by this malaise and we must neither be blind to it or indifferent to it. Our duty is to oppose it. That does not and cannot mean that in doing so we depart from all charity and lose all sense of chivalry and confraternity. On the contrary we must recognise falsehood where it exists but challenge it with the example of Christ and His Saints before us. The weapons of choice in this conflict must be personal integrity, public charity and private intercession for unity and concord.

No badge or emblem is more appropriate to our unique character of militant charity as the Cross. Its white colour, signifying purity; its eight-pointed shape, recalling the Beatitudes, and its position when worn above our hearts are all reminders that the honour we both exhibit and that is conferred upon us is rooted in the humble dedication of our bodies and our wills to the service of Christ in His poor and in obedience to the Church. We not only live in the shadow of the Cross which is the vocation of every Christian, we also undertake to be its champions. If this means what it should, we must learn the lesson of total resignation to the will of our Heavenly Father, in union with Christ, His Son and in acceptance of whatever His will shall ask of us or wherever it may lead us. In such a vocation, there is no room for self-promotion or self-interest. There must also be a positive attitude to the apparent promotion of others against what may be lack of recognition of our own abilities. This has got to be one of the most difficult of burdens for all who labour voluntarily in the service of Christ and the Church. Resentment of favour shown to others impairs initiative and corrupts charitable endeavour. We should harbour no envy or jealousy. We should desire no greater good than that of others whom we serve and no greater glory than that of Almighty God. These and other virtues that we should aspire to possess are only attainable through co-operation with the grace of God. Persistent and regular recourse to prayer, spiritual direction, reflection and the use of the Sacraments of Penance and the Most Holy Eucharist are indispensible. The prayer should be both official, personal (in the sense of the common heritage of Catholic prayers in daily use) and as far as possible at regular hours. We seek to create as it were a spiritual fortress in our lives to which we may retreat for rest and recuperation from the heat of battle. In his marvellous book on the Spirituality and Formation of Members, the late Mgr Dimech, proposes that there are “Three bastions for Perseverance”. They are: Meditation upon The Crucifix; Mass & Holy Communion and prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. No one who aspires to be a Knight of Malta in the true sense of that vocation should be under any illusion that anyone who neglects to meditate upon and take part in any of these essential spiritual activities is inadequately armed.

As the cross is the symbol of all that is Christian so its real manifestation in earthly sorrows are an inevitable and necessary part of discipleship. Some of the crosses which come to us are largely of our own making. We need to be able to distinguish between those and other trials which are entirely heaven-sent. The Lord permits us sometimes to be weak in some way (as He did with St Paul in his mysterious “thorn in the flesh” and St Peter in his tendency to evade responsibility), so that we may not be tempted to attribute our good deeds to our own virtue. Nevertheless, the cross of our own moral weaknesses is just as valuable in teaching us humility and reliance upon the grace of God as the major disability of sudden ill-health or unexpected misfortune where we had anticipated success and benefit. Apart from meditating at convenient moments upon the crucifix and its impact upon our lives, each time we place the Cross of the Order around our necks, we should think of it as the yoke which both links us to Christ as well as to the whole army of Hospitallers, both living and dead, of which we are privileged to be members. Those who wear the scapular as part of their habit are encouraged to regard that in much the same way. For all of us, the cross we wear is a light and easily-worn sign. Yet the cross has behind it weight of generations of piety, service and witness which –if we are wearing it in the correct spirit of religion- ought to be seen as vastly more significant than a badge of nobility or an award for good behaviour. It is a direct call to arms; a commission which can only be taken on with absolute faith in God and a total belief in His power to effect more than we can hope for or imagine. Lastly, and just as importantly, it should only be worn and rest above the hearts of those who are motivated to serve not for reasons of human respect or pride, but by an abiding love to do good to all, so that they and the knight himself may all be inexorably drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the fount of all charity and goodness.