08 February 2006

Defilement from within...

5th Week OT: 1 Kings 10.1-10; Mark 7.14-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Hear it!
Sin rises from our center, from our heart. Its seed is planted and nourished in the place of covenant, the place where we withdraw to rest in solitude with our Lord. Sin is the powerful enemy of holiness precisely because it sprouts so aggressively from “the dwelling-place where [we are], where [we] live”(CCC 2563). A heart choked with the weeds of sin beats less vigorously for righteousness, shrinks more quickly from the duties of mercy, and dies more quickly from one failure of charity after another.

Jesus teaches his students, “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery […] All these evils come from within and they defile.” He had just finished telling the disciples that defilement, impurity does not come from what we put into our bodies, but rather from what comes out! Parenthetically, literally “with parentheses,” the NAB notes: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” But this is not so much a declaration of freedom from the purity laws regarding food as it is a declaration of moral, spiritual adulthood for his followers. A declaration with serious responsibilities.

Please note what Jesus is not doing here: he is not freeing his disciples from the obligations of the heart, meaning, he is not removing from them the God-placed hook that relentlessly reels them back to the Father. He is not abandoning the very notion of sin itself as his ancestors understood it. Sin is still disobedience and rebellion against the divine and natural order, the habitual failure to listen to and to comply with those truths revealed to us by God and those known to us by reason. And, finally, Jesus is not teaching his disciples (and us!) that we may abandon the basic precepts of the Law in favor of some sort of merely affective notion of moral behavior, in favor of some sort of modern therapeutic fetishes like “integrity” or “wellness” or “maturity.”

What Jesus is voiding is the “traditions of men” that have attached themselves to the Law. The most basic goods revealed to us by God—the Law—had become layered with interpretation, thick with commentary, nearly suffocated with picayune hairsplitting and ritual observance. Jesus simply cuts to the quick, as he often did, with an earthquake, a thunderclap: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person […]” Boom! Layers of regulation slide away and the heart of the matter is left open and clean.

We are not made unclean from anything we can take in. Sin is the mindful disobedience of the mature heart, the unsettling, the dis-easing of the seat of our covenant by what we do and why. Sin is not accidental. It is not done in ignorance. Sin is the failure to grow in holiness, the failure to make the best use of our freedom by serving one another for the greater glory of God. Jesus is painfully clear in announcing the foundational tenet of his mature spirituality: “[…] the things that come from within are what defile.”

An adolescent spirituality demands the hard, mathematically precise laws of personal and public behavior. An adolescent spirituality will also demand, as a matter of “being an adult,” total freedom from any law. A mature spirituality will bring us to settle peacefully into an easily regulated life, a life aligned with the Goods God has revealed to us and the ends of our natural order. A mature spirituality will recognize the Law at its root, at its most basic as a definitive expression of the truth, goodness, and beauty that God Is. And that true cleanliness, to be clean, is to pursue holiness with abandon, with reckless surrender, to give over wholly and free our hearts and minds, our center, our souls to Christ.


  1. Father Mark Daniel, O.Cist.9:19 AM

    Brilliant, Father! Thank you.

  2. Father Mark Daniel, O.Cist.9:23 AM

    Given yesterday's Gospel, I took the old Votive Mass "For Repelling Evil Thoughts" — one of my favourites. Explained it to the folks (i.e. my Benedictine nuns and their guests) this way: "When Holy Father Benedict speaks of “falling frequently to prayer,” he is, I think, referring to very brief, ardent prayers shot like arrows into the heart of God. Obstinacy in evil thoughts is incompatible with ceaseless prayer. Either one will stop praying or stop thinking the thoughts that poison our hearts. At times the battle rages. We feel ourselves assaulted, battered, and powerless against our own thoughts. At such moments our prayer is reduced to its simplest expression: a cry of help and of confidence, a plea for mercy.
    The Roman liturgy - being so wonderfully in touch with human frailty - offers a remarkable set of Mass prayers entitled, “For Repelling Evil Thoughts.” We are in fact taking them for this Mass. What could be more appropriate to today's Gospel? The surest cleansing of our thoughts happens through participation in the Most Holy Eucharist.
    One of the Roman Missal's prayers in preparation for Mass has the priest say, “Let thy good Spirit enter my heart, there to utter its silent music; let speech be hushed while it proclaims the whole truth of these great mysteries . . . . Free my heart those unholy, idle, and hurtful thoughts which defile it.” Conversion of manners is the fruit of conversion of thoughts. Conversion of thoughts is the fruit of the uplifted heart. With good reason does the Church make the priest raise his voice from the altar day after day, singing, “Let our hearts be lifted high.” Hold your hearts before the Lord, and in the fire of the Eucharist, begin to think new thoughts."