29 August 2017

Glittering gold, burdensome lead

St. Augustine
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Painting a vivid picture of their woe, Dante consigns Hypocrites to the Eighth Circle of Hell: “Down here, a people of elaborate design/perambulated at a mournful pace;/their attitude was hollow and resigned.//The lurid cloaks in which that are encased/had monkish cowls made in the Cluny mode,/obscuring almost all the upper face.//Without was dazzling filigree of gold;/within was lead, of such a density/that Frederick's copes were lighter sevenfold.//O weary mantle for eternity!”* Hypocrisy is not only a “weary mantle for eternity”; it is also a burdensome disguise for any Christian in the here and now, most especially the Christian minister, or those aspiring to become Christian ministers. In Dante's Hell, sinners live-out their principal sins. . .forever. Because they have chosen to be in Hell, sinners cannot leave their punishments behind. They made their eternal choices while alive on Earth. And now, God honors – forever – their choice to be separated from Him. For the hypocrite, he lived his life on Earth glittering in gold on the outside, while carrying his sin like lead on the inside. His spiritual progress on Earth is mirrored in Hell – he walks in circles, going nowhere, slowly. 
Our Lords says to the scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, you hypocrites. You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” The spiritual leader who practices hypocrisy lives that sort of life that, in word and deed, glitters like gold on the outside but rots on the inside; and, in effect, locks the door to heaven, forbidding entrance not only to those whom he leads but to himself as well. A life lived in hypocrisy is an inauthentic life, a life where the freedom of the Child of God is shoved into a joyless, merciless spiritual straitjacket, and its misery is spread with the rule of a father's authority. Our Lord condemns the scribes and Pharisees to eternal woe b/c they deprive themselves and others of the Father's freely offered mercy, burying His offer in mounds of religious acrobatics – hoops to leap, walls to climb, moats to swim. Where these men should be bridges to God, they are instead obstacle courses. Where they should be teachers, they are scolds. Where they should be preachers, they are haranguers. And b/c they are hypocrites for money, they are triply-damned. “Woe be to you” (x3).

This all sounds severe. Maybe even terrifying. And it should. As ministers and aspiring ministers of the Gospel, we are doubly responsible to Christ the Judge for how we carry out his work. We are responsible for ourselves and those we are charged to serve. How do we avoid hypocrisy? Dante's infernal punishment of the hypocrite is our answer. Everything that glitters gold on the outside must be matched and even surpassed by the glittering gold on the inside. This doesn't mean constant moral purity! It means that we first receive the Gospel, teach and preach the Gospel, live out the Gospel, and then spend ourselves doing everything possible to lift up those who look to us for help. We unlock doors of mercy. We build bridges to Christ. We knock down walls around forgiveness. And we go to God – in the end – confident that we have done His work, bearing witness to His truth in love. 

*Inferno, Canto XXIII (trans. Carson)

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