By Fr. George Rutler
June 9, 2001
"If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
Your unworthy preacher comes to this paradisiacal valley by way of a part of New York City called "Hell's Kitchen." So I preach to you from a universal perspective. St. Thomas More said in Utopia that the way to heaven out of all places is of like length and distance. Our Lord spoke of the cross in Caesarea Philippi which is no closer to heaven than this College. But by force of logic we then have to admit, nor is it any closer to hell than this College.
That's the whole point of what he said to Peter and the apostles in words that Matthew and Mark use almost identically. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Do that and, as St. Teresa of Avila used to say, "You are already in heaven on earth." Don't do that and you are already in hell on earth.
Our Lord said this right after he had asked his apostles who they thought he was. Peter made his confession of faith, "You are the Christ." "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven." Christ here was using more than a rhetorical device but not less than a rhetorical device: "Blessed are you."
Cicero said the first object of a public orator is to make his audience well disposed. Christ who is Himself the living Word disposes his hearers to consider the mysterious realms of eternity. "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven."
In one of his Dublin lectures on university education, John Henry Newman said, "Neither Livy nor Tacitus nor Terence nor Seneca nor Pliny nor Quintilian is an adequate spokesman for the Imperial City. They write Latin. Cicero writes Roman." He means that Cicero spoke heart to heart. That was an expression of St. Francis de Sales. Cardinal Newman made that his Cardinalatial motto.
When Christ speaks to us, the Sacred Heart speaks heart-to-heart, and here then is the interplay of the Love that made all things with all things He has made. The Sacred Heart speaks of the cross. It has been said that the crucifixion of Christ is the only drama in history - not the greatest drama, but the only drama. All our great and little adventures define themselves and become tragic or divinely comic according to how they tie in with the cross. So He says we must take up our crosses, and they only become the way to heaven when we carry them through life along the path pointed out by Christ.
There is a jargon-term for rejecting the cross; it is "self-affirmation." Peter did not affirm himself, he affirmed Christ: "Thou art the Christ." Only then could he begin to grasp what he himself was. To deny the self is simply to reject the superficial estimation of who I am.
An old maxim holds that when you are all tied up in yourself, you become a very small package, very small. Such smallness is called mere existence. Denial of the self does not deny our existence. (There are some oriental religions that actually do that, and some forms of modern philosophy, too.) Self-denial means knowing we are all things with Christ and nothing without Him. Self-denial turns existence into life. St. Paul says, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Pope John Paul II says, "Become what you are." That is a paradox. But paradoxes exist because there is a heaven as well as an earth.
The noblest thinkers of the ancient pagans understood self-denial. It was the key to the life of the virtues and could be summed up in the timeless ideal of the Golden Mean. The seven sages of Greece understood how life is not lived without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. Horace praised those who loved well the Golden Mean, "Auream quisquis mediocritatem diligit."
This life of moderation is not what we popularly mean by moderation. The classical Golden Mean, which Christ transfigured into a life of holiness, is the choice of the good over the convenient and commitment to the true instead of to the plausible.
Liberal education is tutelage in that golden path. It is liberal by freeing the scholar from the slavery of the lowest common denominator. Any civilization so wrapped up in itself that it settles for the lowest common denominator quickly bottoms out and rarely rises again, and then only at a dreadful cost to souls. This self-absorption instead of self-denial is what William James scorned when he said, "Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities."
Virtue then is the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Courage is the mean between cowardice and bravado; magnificence, the mean between vulgarity and miserliness; noble pride, the mean between vanity and servility. In the 18th century, Bishop Berkeley called religion the mean between superstition and incredulity.
Like all gold, the Golden Mean is purified by fire. This is the meaning of the cross. St. John Vianney said, "The worst cross is to have no cross." Common place mediocrity is life without a cross, lukewarmness, and moral tepidity. And the Book of Revelation holds up the Laodiceans as examples of that. Check out your Bible commentaries, they will tell you that Laodicea was a prosperous commercial city southeast of Philadelphia. Anachronistic is he who supposes that means Atlantic City. It is not anachronistic for doctors of souls to spot the Laodicean disease in every modern city.
Mediocrity poses as inclusiveness, populism, condescension, tolerance, modesty, empathy with your pain, broad-mindedness, cheerfulness, and even charity. Mediocrity mumbles from the vapors of moral anesthesia that it does feel your suffering. And this is why modern secular humanism has been called charity without a cross. Mediocrity, that kind of mediocrity, is only the etiquette of sloth, a little road by Laodicea to indecision. And as a sadness of spirit, sloth is an offense against charity. Did the Romans crucify Christ? Did the Jews crucify Christ? No. Sloth crucified Christ.
Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas finally became friends when they saw in each other their mutual mediocrity. The encyclical Centesimus Annus names the Yalta Conference at the end of the second World War as a paramount symbol of deadly death-dealing compromise. The Pope of that encyclical grew up in a nation crucified because diplomats thought it diplomatically unwise to take up their own crosses.
Christ was crucified millions of times in the 20th Century. For every choice of the self over against the will of God is a crucifixion of some soul. When Christ looks back on the 20th Century and all its glorious inventions, inhumane advances notwithstanding, He surely says, "Get behind me Satan."
The Golden Mean is the narrow gate to Jerusalem the Golden. Slothful mediocrity is self-indulgence: the choice of choice for the sake of the choosing. Mediocrity has no standard higher than self-justification. It screams the euphemism pro-choice to exhaust all moral argument. On such a bucolic day as this do not think me unmeasured when I say that mediocrity leads to death. Higher voices than mine have called this a culture of death. And that expression seems ridiculous only to the mediocre.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that the Nazi architect of so many horrors, Adolf Eichmann, incarnated the banality of evil. He did not look dramatically wicked. He did not speak with the decibels of deep darkness. He was a mediocrity. His system massaged the economic and philosophic conceits of his age.
That's what made him the tool of the prince of lies whose hell is the unholy hall of half-life where mediocrity is not a little way at all, it's the only way. The acid rejection of the Way, the Truth and the Life. And that is why the Lord said to Peter, "get behind me Satan." For it was Satan who moved Peter in his weak moment right after his exalted confession of faith. He analyzed Christ only according to his own standards of happiness and success. And Peter wanted to prevent Christ from taking up His cross. He was not denying himself, he was denying God.
The doleful days of our culture of death are distinguished in this. For all the words uttered, and never have there been so many, they are almost entirely forgettable. Our age of communication is not an age of communion. The rhetoric of cyberspace speaks heartlessly not heart to heart as our Lord spoke in Caesarea Philippi.
In the civil order, after years in public office, it is possible for political leaders to have said nothing lapidary, no phrase worthy of granite, no sentence to be cherished in the national memories valiant, not a maxim decent to great government, nary a motto with which any father could make a brave benediction over his sons or could serve a mother in delighting her daughters.
Surely our age has no lack of great events to inspire great declarations or grand challenges to provoke grander deeds. But the bold words and heroes of the words are few. The Golden Mean has been counterfeited by gilded meanness. Virtuous souls speak words worthy of great legacies-but souls that have bargained for less than virtue speak words that are sleek and not serene, spinning the truth but not telling the truth. Gandhi listed seven tragedies in such a gilded life: politics without principle, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without charity, commerce without morality, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.
The lazier people are, the more will they allow mediocrity to serve the government, the courts, the arts, and even the churches. Mediocrity is mellow, it's diction mellifluous. Mediocrity wants to be dazzled but not enlightened. It begs the consolations of power estranged from its obligations. It demands in every act the right to choose without the duty to choose life. It claims freedom to express the self but not to express things higher than the self. It marks no division between feeling good and being good. It prays for godliness without god and a temporal world without end. Mediocrity unwinds history and withers the drama of man, so that thousands of years after Moses heard the voice saying, "I am Who I am," compromised men ask what "is" is.
There are lesser and wrong forms of self-denial. There was for instance the pessimistic asceticism of the Gnostics, the Puritans, the Jansenists. It was summed up in that greatly misguided line from the film The African Queen when the missionary lady says "nature is what we are put on earth to overcome." And there is a dangerous tendency to that among many Catholics who consider themselves conservers of the Sacred Tradition. Sometimes the pessimism actually takes the form of suicide, sometimes cultic suicide, sometimes medical suicide.
A few years ago the Hemlock Society published a book on how to kill yourself called Final Exit. When that book was first published our nations largest chain of bookstores placed it in the section called Self-Improvement. There is also a wrong kind of social self-denial when the problems of society are analyzed without reference to the reality of evil at the root of all crime and injustice and despair. That was summed up in the words of the Mayor of one of our greatest cities who said, "The crime rate isn't so bad if you just don't count the murders."
Christ calls us to another kind of denial. It is summed up in the Easter Vigil, "Do you reject Satan?" At one Easter Vigil, and during the infelicities of a bad English translation, I was surprised to hear a priest ask the congregation, "Do you reject Satan, using option number one?" Well there is no option number two or three. There is only the option to live or die.
The Golden Mean is hard to find and to live it heroically is even harder; it is even impossible without the grace of God. While so great a man as Aristotle thought the greatest happiness could be found in a life of virtue, St. Thomas Aquinas and all the saints have known that blessed joy comes finally in union with God. For the Golden Mean truly is Christ Himself.
I suppose every college calls itself alma mater but not every college is like this in knowing what alma mater means. The beloved Mother teaches the art of living by teaching the art of dying to the self. Mothers save things and pass them on; mothers remember things and sing them to us, sometimes in cradle songs, sometimes in the greatest symphonies of culture.
After my mother died recently, I had the hard and also inspiring task of going through closets and finding what she had counted as treasures. But which were in a worldly sense nothing at all. She had not saved my doctoral diplomas but she did save the first words I ever wrote. Going through all those boxes I remembered once when we were in disagreement about something that should be done, and she said, "Remember, however old you are, I am still your mother." I regret to say that I replied starchily that Christ had said, "Who is my mother?" And she replied, "Well, I am sure He did not say it in that tone of voice."
Holy Mother Church passes on the word of God. In the Scriptures Jesus says, "Take up your cross." He meant a real cross but he did not say it crossly. His tone of voice was different from those voices which have rattled history from the lips of demagogues and tyrants. These are the words of love without which we cannot know much, however clever we may be. It is a love worth dying for so that we might live forever.
“I am so blessed and thankful to be in such a beautiful place, one that inspires me to inquire about, observe, and love God’s creation.”
– Michelle Lawless (’13)
“Thomas Aquinas is already the preeminent Catholic college in the country.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York