“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


This is the text of Dr Cullinan's afternoon talk:
2. Looking Backwards

This morning we looked forwards to Lent and Easter. And tried to understand why we have to go through it. By looking back at human sinfulness. At Adam’s fall, Abraham’s faith, and Moses’s law. The Age of Nature and the Age of Law. And our own ages of nature and law as we grow up.

How we can want to do whatever we like, even when we know it isn’t right, even for ourselves. How we can see all rules and laws as somebody else interfering with our freedom. Or go to the opposite extreme and see goodness as just keeping a lot of rules, to please somebody else or pile up credit for our eternal profit.

We’ve seen the limits of fallen nature and of laws. Even good laws. Even God’s laws.

Perhaps we’ve seen why we need Lent and Easter, but we haven’t seen how to keep them. How to find a cure for our fallen nature better than anything law can come up with. How to find a better principle for our moral lives than keeping rules.

And to do this we’re going to look back. Not forward to Lent but back to Christmas.

But first we have to go a bit further back. Not as far as Adam this time. Just a few centuries before Christ. To ancient Greece. To Aristotle and virtue.

Because, as St Thomas Aquinas points out, there are four principles behind moral action: nature and law, yes. But also virtue and grace.

Grace is what we shall find at the manger, when we go back to Bethlehem. But grace acts on nature partly by giving us virtues, so we need to have a look at virtue first.

It wasn’t as easy for the Greeks as for the Jews. The Greeks didn’t have a Law to guide them as the Jews did. They had to think everything out for themselves.

They asked themselves what makes a person good. They asked what are the excellences of human character. They saw that a good person must be prudent, just, courageous, and temperate.

And that you can’t learn how to be prudent, just, courageous, and temperate from books. You can only learn from prudent, just, courageous, and temperate people. And only by practice.

It’s a bit like driving, or learning a language or a musical instrument. You learn from someone who can do it. And you learn it by doing it. And as you do it, it gets easier and more pleasurable. Practice makes perfect. Until it becomes second nature.

You can even understand what it is to be prudent, just, courageous, and temperate from driving. Courage is the accelerator. You won’t get anywhere without it. Temperance is the brake. You’ll get altogether too far without it. Justice is mirrors and indicators and good maintenance. You’ll be a menace to others without it. And prudence is the steering wheel and, maybe, the SatNav. You’ll be in a very bad place without it.

From the Jews we learn the goodness of the Law but also its limits. From the Greeks we learn virtue.

From the Greeks we can learn the goodness of nature. Or at least how to make our fallen nature better. How practising the virtues can make goodness second nature. At least up to a point.

Of course goodness is a lot harder than driving or learning a language or an instrument. Because human beings are such complicated creatures. We have intellects and wills. Angels have those too. But we also have passions. Emotions, if you like, but principally anger and sexual passion.

And we can’t easily control our passions. Not the way we can control most of our senses and the movements of our limbs.

So it’s easy to think that our passions are bad. Because they are dangerous and can overcome us. That’s what the ancient Stoics thought. Many of the Romans followed them. And so do too many British. Leading to an ideal of goodness that is cold, unfeeling, and insensitive.

Aristotle was wiser. He said our passions have to be managed. They can’t be controlled as we control our fingers and our faces. They have to be managed, like an appallingly surly and rebellious workforce. By negotiation not dictat. Democratically rather than dictatorially is the way Aristotle put it.

Because when they are managed they make our good actions better.

I’m not going to say much more about virtue. It would be a talk in itself. Like law it has its limits. The proud, self-sufficient pagan is not an adequate model of goodness for a Christian.

But virtue forces us to look beyond our actions to what kind of people we are. And what kind of people we are becoming. Because there’s an opposite to virtue. There are bad habits too. Vices and sins. Our behaviour can make us worse instead of better.

But it would be a pity if we thought the only thing to look at this Lent was our actions. What sins we have committed since our last Confession. It would be a bad mistake if we thought that all that mattered in the moral life was isolated actions, rather than what kind of people we are. What kind of people we are becoming, through those isolated actions, perhaps.

So we need to look beyond law to virtue.

But we still haven’t seen the most important thing. The thing I’m going to spend the rest of the talk on.


It was the Jesuits who ruined grace, if you ask me. It used to be part of my subject, moral theology. It still is at sensible Dominican Universities. Because it is one of the principles of human moral action.

But then the Jesuits came along and moved it into dogmatic theology. Where it dried out into a desiccated discussion of various kinds of grace, like different fuel additives for spiritual locomotion.

It took until the twentieth century to get things back in perspective.

But it’s easy to understand what grace is. You simply have to look back. To Christmas. When God became man for us. For us all and for each one of us. God became present among us. Assuming our vesture of flesh. With its passions. And assuming a human soul with its intellect.

He came to us. To bring us to him. By his life among us, his death for us, and his resurrection and ascension. And by the sending of the Holy Spirit.

You’re lucky you don’t have to study all this academically. If you were in my fifth year at Maryvale you’d have to do an essay whose title begins, ‘What was visible in Christ has passed over into the sacraments’. It’s from a sermon of St Leo the Great on the Ascension.

I promised a trip back to Christmas. To see again the crib. The Holy Family. The shepherds and the kings. To ‘hail the dawn of redeeming grace.’ ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity.’

Christmas. A time of love and gifts. Of giving and receiving. Of looking back to our own childhood, when all we had to do was receive. Receive the gifts.

And the greatest gift? God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seen in the manger.

But not by us. Which is why there’s another carol. ‘Oh that we were there, oh that we were there.’

We weren’t there. But it doesn’t matter. Because of what St Leo said. ‘What was visible in Christ has passed over into the sacraments.’

The presence in the manger. The presence in the Jordan. The presence on the mount. The presence on the cross. And the presence at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit.

All have passed over into the sacraments. Baptism with its gifts of faith, hope, and charity. And other infused virtues. Given without effort or practice. Confirmation with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Mass with the gift of Our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. Marriage and Holy Orders to direct and sanctify our lives and those of others. And confession and anointing to renew within our fallen natures the healing of baptism.

Grace is really just God’s presence within us. His gift of Himself. When Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to make their home with us. That’s called uncreated grace, in the technical jargon.

Then there’s created grace.

Guests always cause trouble, you know. Even the nicest and most loved ones. They have an effect on us. On our homes and also on ourselves.

Created grace is just the effects God has on us. On our untidy and disorganized souls. Healing us and raising us up. Giving us good resolutions and inspirations.

It’s the work of a lifetime, of course. And maybe beyond. God comes to us to make us like Him. If we’ll let Him. But at His pace not ours.

Perhaps now we can look forward to Lent and Easter. To the repairing of our fallen natures. By virtue and law. But mainly by grace.

When St Thomas was asked whether the New Law of the gospel was a written law, he said that it was primarily the grace of the Holy Spirit and only secondarily a written law.

So we need to look forward to Lent and Easter not as proud and virtuous pagans, not as rule-bound Pharisees or rebels, but as mature in Christ, living by faith and grace.

Grace found in the sacraments. Grace found in prayer. And grace found in the ministry of others.

One of the bad things about sacraments is that since we realized that there are seven of them, only about a thousand years ago, we have tended to neglect all the other mysteries of grace. We call them sacramentals and relegate them to an appendix. Things like Holy Water and Scapulars. Rites like ministries and vows. All the different mysteries of grace.

Like the one we celebrated this morning.

The Council of War is really over now. All my complicated stuff about nature, law, and grace. For planning the Lenten campaign.

I want to end by saying a few words to you, Brother Robert. I don’t know you so I can’t be personal. And I don’t know enough about the Order to which you have pledged yourself to be very specific.

Religious profession is seen as the renewal and deepening of baptism. And what you have done today is also a renewal and deepening of your baptism, all those years ago. That’s why the Holy Water is so appropriate. The habit you have received is a symbol of Christ’s coming to you, Christ who in becoming man for our salvation deigned to assume our vesture of flesh.

You put it on to obtain, through the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint John the Baptist, grace to protect you from every evil of mind or body.

I don’t know how often you have to put it on. It’s a bit like my collar. There was a time when clergy always dressed the part. There are now some who never dress the part. Our Spiritual Director in the seminary (he was a Jesuit!) said that he didn’t like those who couldn’t take the collar off and those who couldn’t put it on. So I’ve always been a bit of a half-and-halfer, myself.

I’m saying this because I know you won’t visibly wear a habit to the office. You’ll be a bit of a half and halfer, like me. And the thing we have to remember, then, is that wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, that habit or that collar is still part of what and who we are. And that’s not always easy.

Two last things. The first is the specific aspect of what you’ve done. While the East begins with the person, we in the West begin with nature. We like the general more than the specific. We like to generalize, for example about what a religious is, and we like to construct vast programmes of formation for baptism, ordination, profession or whatever. Big sausage machines for putting everyone into, whatever their specific gifts and needs. We talk of goodness in general terms, as if everyone were alike.

So it’s important sometimes to turn to the specific. You’ve taken a specific habit, made a specific promise, to a specific institution. Just as I belong to a specific diocese, and just as most people work out their salvation with a specific spouse.

It’s important to remember this amid all the generalities. You’ve directed your soul and your baptismal grace in a particular direction: that of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. And it’s through these specific life choices that we find our vocation and work out our salvation, perhaps with fear and trembling as St Paul puts it.

And this specific choice isn’t something abstract and idealistic either. Of course the Order, like any institution, isn’t simply the people in it at one time. But a choice of it necessarily includes a choice of those people, with all their particularities and weaknesses.

It was said of Charles de Gaulle that he loved France and hated Frenchman, because they never came up to his lofty ideals. Churchill was, I think, much better in this regard.

Too many of us have a touch of the De Gaulle. Of this idealizing tendency. We look at the Church idealistically, quite apart from the actual people, priests, bishops, dare I say even popes, that inhabit it. We join an institution hoping for an ideal, only to discover that it is full of people even stranger and weaker than we think we are ourselves.

We hope to be another De Gaulle, but it is much more likely that we shall simply become sad and frustrated, as indeed he did towards the end. But we aren’t intended to spend our lives sulking at Colombey Les Deux Eglises! So watch out for a touch of the De Gaulle. The truth is, of course, that God has called us to goodness and salvation not as individuals but along with others, specific, real others, with all their failings.

One last thing. You have made a promise of obedience. That’s a brave thing to do today. Ever since the defeat of the Nazis, and particularly since the 1960s, obedience has been a rather dirty word. We are so very conscious of how it was abused. And obedience is certainly directed to specific, real people with all their failings. So we’re right to be a little scared of it.

I would suggest one point that may help. The root of the word ‘obedience’ is to listen. To listen, in this case, for the voice of God. And this voice must always be one of truth and love. This voice of God can come to us from superiors, even when we hate what it seems to say, but it is only likely to come from a superior who is himself listening for that voice. And it always has to be a voice of truth and love.

St Paul talks about the obedience of faith. He is happy enough to speak of God’s love for us. And he exhorts us to love God and neighbour and so fulfil the whole of the law. But he knows how poor we are at loving. So he prefers to talk about our obedience of faith, as a sort of simplified introduction to love.

The obedience of faith. And living by grace. Really that’s all I’ve been trying to say today. To encourage us in our journey forward by looking back at the dawn of redeeming grace. To prepare us for the next Lenten campaign by looking back to Christmas.

And to prepare us for the rest of our natural moral lives by incitement to virtue and stirring up within us the New Law that is the grace of the Holy Spirit.