The Catholic Church, that imperishable handiwork of our all-merciful God, has for her immediate and natural purpose the saving of souls and securing our happiness in heaven. Yet, in regard to things temporal, she is the source of benefits as manifold and great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life. And, indeed, wherever the Church has set her foot she has straightway changed the face of things, and has attempered the moral tone of the people with a new civilization and with virtues before unknown. All nations which have yielded to her sway have become eminent by their gentleness, their sense of justice, and the glory of their high deeds.
– Leo XIII
Once upon a time I was reading a book about the English Civil War* and I came across the soldier’s prayer offered by Jacob Astley at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 “O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not forget me.” I thought this rather splendid and I read it out to a rather saintly individual who was on the other side of the room at the time. To my surprise she thought it a very wicked prayer. I know the Bible tells us to pray without ceasing, but we do cease and it seems reasonable to ask God that He not forget us when we do. Of St Dominic it is said he only ever spoke to God or of God, but he is a very great saint. My interlocutor is not a native English speaker so perhaps she gave ‘forget’ a stronger sense than one normally would. But then the psalmist does exclaim “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.” The repetition of the key word is uncomfortable in this context. Perhaps there is something inherently Protestant in Astley’s prayer, an implication that – human nature being entirely depraved – temporal activity is irreducibly secular. Perhaps, if there is not a holy joy in battle one ought not to be engaged in that battle.
As if in answer to Astley the preacher says, indeed “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” This is a worrying thought. One is reminded of the strange phenomenon whereby Christian civilisation in itself prevails over its rivals in the temporal sphere, but those whose good fortune it is to live within it and yet who do not believe, prosper temporally more than those who do believe because they pursue temporal glory with more singleness of mind. As Our Lord puts it “the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” Yet the Saviour also promises “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” It is venial sin that convinces us of a conflict between the temporal and the spiritual. The Kingdom of God is without frontier, it demands the whole person and every recess of our intellectual, moral, social and political existence must be subjected to it. As the Apostle teaches,
Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.
The ‘other things’ that come with the kingdom are not outwith its sovereignty and scope. They are entrusted to the laity not given over to be trampled upon by the gentiles. The religious show the way, the clergy maintain the crossing, but the laity must hold the bridge. As Blessed John Henry Newman insists,
…it is only in proportion as things that be are brought into this kingdom, and made subservient to it; it is only as kings and princes, nobles and rulers, men of business and men of letters, the craftsman, and the trader, and the labourer, humble themselves to Christ’s Church, and (in the language of the prophet Isaiah) ‘bow down to her with their faces toward the earth, and lick up the dust of her feet,’ that the world becomes living and spiritual, and a fit object of love and a resting-place to the Christian.
If our task is fitting then remembrance of the Lord should enflame us and spur us not distract us.
And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.
* Aka the British Civil War or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.