Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same.
(Collect: Trinity VII)
If you spend time reading the Epistles of St. Paul carefully, you cannot help but come away with a sense of the Apostle’s uncanny ability to unite spiritual contraries to make his point. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of his momentous conversion, when, in a fit of zealous and rabid hot pursuit of Damascan Christians, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was thrown down from the high horse of his feverish pride onto the dry, dusty, and desolate road where, in all humility, he was best positioned to find Christ. Paul the zealot, Paul the judge, Paul the persecutor of Christians, endured an extreme turnabout and volte-face of his entire character. He was blinded, and was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. (Acts. ix 9) From the high perch of his passionate pursuit of the vibrant spiritual life, he was thrown down into startling and frightening spiritual blindness and death. Out of it, he became the man that he had never been before. And yet what we must understand is that he was meant to endure the contraries in order to feel the force of the salvation that God alone could bring into his life. St. Paul’s sight was restored by a certain Ananias, he was given food to eat, and spent three years in Damascus (Gal. i. 17, 18) In time the zeal with which he persecuted Christ was converted into a fiery passion for all men’s conversion. His alacrity and fervor became contagious because his mind was agile. Jesus intended to use him as [His] chosen instrument to proclaim [His] name to the Gentiles,… their kings,… and to the people of Israel. (Acts ix. 15)
Zeal is the virtue opposite to the vice of sloth. Sloth is a mortal sin, and it is to that sin that we must turn before considering the zeal that seeks out conversion and sanctification. You might think it odd that we must study sloth today since it neither characterizes St. Paul before or after his conversion, nor does it seem to find expression in today’s Gospel. In the Gospel, we read that a great multitude of people had been following Jesus for three days in the wilderness. (St. Mark viii. 2) With zeal, they had been pursuing the truth that they found in Christ and were hoping that it pointed to a reality of more than ephemeral and transitory meaning. They, like St. Paul, were zealously cleaving to Jesus, having forsaken the customary human haunts that had only ever brought them impermanent and fleeting joy. In fact, because of their diligent determination to follow and hear Him, an unpremeditated fast had ensued. Nothing in the text suggests that they were restless, irritable, or discontented because their spiritual journey had been bereft of food and drink. So intent were they upon the pursuit of their spiritual good that physical nutriment seemed a radical contrary or something only dangerously opposed to the singular demands of the spirit’s commands.
But Jesus, perceiving an imminent danger, says, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. (St. Mark viii. 2, 3) Jesus comes not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. He intends to bring to completion the good work which he has begun in them. (Phil. i. 6) They are in danger of fainting. To faint in Scripture means to fall by the wayside spiritually, to lose spiritual steam, to become weak, languid, exhausted, and feeble. To faint means to lose one’s zeal. Men are not pure spirits, the soul is embodied, and thus the whole man must be sustained. One who faints has a faith that is in danger of dying and whose pious zeal might wither and dry up because he has no deepness of spiritual earth. (St. Matthew xiii. 5) Jesus knows that danger that looms in the hearts of those who are pursuing Him with a zealous passion. The author of Proverbs says, if a man faint in the day of adversity, his strength is small. (Prov. xxiv. 10) The truth that Christ brings is threatened not by paranormal events but in the common drudgery of human life. Adversity here might be as basic as physical exhaustion, hunger, or thirst – the heat of the day. Should the soul’s good be pursued at the expense of the body, the earnest pilgrim might faint, fail, and fall away from Christ. He might be overwhelmed by sloth because his body has not been reconciled to his spiritual quest.
The Church Fathers tell us that the potential fainting that threatens those who have followed Jesus into the wilderness in this morning’s Gospel is a temptation to sloth. Sloth is one of the Seven Mortal or Deadly Sins. Most people identify it as laziness or indolence that leads to physical neglect through gluttony. The body’s vengeance upon spiritual asceticism – the imminent danger in this morning’s Gospel – certainly contributes to sloth. Physical hunger from fasting can generate a state that impedes continued spiritual progress. But the true nature of sloth is a far more debilitating and destructive mental condition. The fainting that Jesus seeks to combat most of all is spiritual sloth. He fears that the Word which He has planted in the hearts of His followers might die. In her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, Dorothy Sayers tells us that sloth is the sixth deadly sin. In this world it is called tolerance but in hell, it is called despair…It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for…It prevents men from thinking. Sloth persuades us that stupidity is not a sin but a misfortune. (An Address… October, 1941) Sloth is a deadly sin because it has ceased to reach out for the truth, beauty, and goodness that God longs to infuse into the human heart. Sloth cannot be bothered either by extreme goodness or exaggerated evil because it has lost its spiritual pluck! Because it cannot find joy in small victories, dejection, despair, and unbelief overwhelm it. It lacks the zeal and courage to pry out the good from the evil and to convince men of virtue’s new birth. Sloth convinces the soul that the spiritual life is too high to be sustained in a body, which seems alien and averse to continued sanctification. Its nature is to assert the body’s weakness against the soul’s potential strength.
Today Jesus desires that we faint not by the spiritual way. He knows, with St. Paul, that we are weak. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh and that ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness, and to iniquity unto iniquity. (Romans vi. 19) It will take time and hard work for weak sinners to be weaned from the customary repetition of habitual sin. But against spiritual sloth, St. Paul urges us to pursue zeal conscientiously. Yield your members servants to righteousness, unto holiness. (Romans vi. 19) His extreme zeal for the Gospel stands over and against the sinister and deleterious designs of sloth. He knows that sloth will kill the soul that both neglects the good and does evil.
Jesus fed the four thousand many years ago in order to overcome their temptation to sloth. He zealously longs to feed us today. Then He took seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and today He takes a small portion of bread and a cup of red wine. Now, as then, a small amount of earthly fare can be sufficient to conquer spiritual sloth. Now, as then, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah xxxvii. 32) St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that zeal arises from the intensity of love, because the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition and resistance. (ST i. ii. 28, 4) The zeal we seek to embrace comes to us first in God’s determined and diligent love of us in Jesus Christ. That zeal intends to eradicate any sloth that threatens to dampen our spiritual enthusiasm and quench our desire for Jesus’ work in our lives. If we begin to appreciate the advances and intentions of God’s love, the intensity or responsive love will grow stronger and stronger until it conquers all spiritual sloth in us. If we understand this Divine zeal and meet it with an equal passion and devotion, then with the four thousand we shall begin to apprehend, absorb, and appreciate its power to sanctify and save us. Its kindling fire will strengthen our faith, broaden our hope, and deepen our love for the Lord. It will enable us to seek…. first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…. (St. Matthew vi. 33) And like the four thousand, we shall take no thought of what we shall eat, and what we shall drink. For our Heavenly Father knoweth that we have need of such things. (Ibid, 31, 32) All these things shall be added unto us, as what strengthen the body that houses a soul bent on zeal. In the end what He gives will be just enough to perpetuate and enlarge our zeal for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) With Dr. Jenks we shall pray, O let us not spend our zeal and spirits for earthly but for heavenly things, not for our own lust and honor but for God’s blessed will and pleasure. (Jenks, 274) And with that we shall feel the effects that extreme Divine gift of God’s great zeal in our souls, which will graft in our hearts the love of His name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of [His] great mercy, keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (Collect: Trinity VII)