By Jonathan B. Coe, October 29, 2018
In a recent essay in this magazine, I explored the parallels between the story about the children of Israel dancing around the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) and what’s happening among priests and prelates in the American Catholic Church. The article, with an assist from Aquinas, scrutinized their idolatry through the prisms of wealth, pleasure, power, and fame.
The laity can say such things, because at Baptism, we received a prophetic mantle (along with kingly and priestly gifts) that calls each one of us, when we have compelling evidence, to confront ecclesial corruption and depravity, just as Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah did under the old covenant and contemporary Catholics do today.
You see, dancing around the Golden Calf has never really gone out of style though the time, place, vestments, liturgy, and ecclesiastical structure have changed. And, though Moses is approximately 3,500 years removed from us, his example of sanctity amidst idolatry still speaks to us in our present crisis.
“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). A strong case can be made that humility is the greatest of all the virtues because it precedes, undergirds, and infuses all the other virtues.
St. Vincent de Paul called humility “the guardian of all virtues” and the Angelic Doctor said: “Acquired humility is, in a certain sense, the greatest good.” Augustine shared similar sentiments: “Humility is the foundation of all the virtues; therefore, in a soul where it does not exist there can be no true virtue, but the mere appearance only.”
When others are dancing around the Golden Calf, humility tells the orthodox Catholic, “Except for the grace of God there go I.” Satan is more than happy to have us not dance around the Golden Calf if we grow proud in our separation.
Humility leads us not to groveling and self-flagellation but to the objective truth concerning our situation: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Our awareness of our own weakness apart from god leads us to a radical, moment-by-moment dependence on him.
Meekness becomes the gateway for us in accessing all the divine resources we will need to resist the seduction of the Golden Calf. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”
The lowly submit to a divine metanarrative (Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium) rather than the enticing voice of the Zeitgeist. We resonate with ancient Hebrew wisdom: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).
Humility also leads us, like Moses, to spend time in the Real Presence of God. His Holy Hour became 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai that renewed him morally and spiritually just as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament became the linchpin of the ministry of Fulton J. Sheen and kept him free from the disease of Modernism that is very much a part of our present, ecclesial landscape.
It preceded and became the foundation of all that Moses did when he came down off the mountain. As Fr. John Hardon said, “During our Holy Hour our souls are fed in two faculties of the spirit—our Mind and the Will. In the Mind we need light; in the Will we need strength.”
We all know how being in the presence of others can change our behavior. When you see the police car in your rear-view mirror, you are now motivated to obey all the traffic laws with great alacrity.
Malcolm Muggeridge was received into the Catholic Church late in life primarily through spending a lot of time with Mother Teresa. It wasn’t what was taught so much as what was caught: her sanctity moved him.
When we spend time in the Presence of the Wholly Other God and we brush up against the infinite qualitative difference—a difference of kind and not of degree—between the Creator and the creature, our sinfulness is revealed. This is what happened to Isaiah during his commission as a prophet: “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Is. 6:5).
At the calling of our first pontiff, after there was a miraculous catch of fish, he fell at Jesus’s knees and said, “Go away from me, LORD; I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). As Louis Brandeis said in a different context: “Light is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
However, exposure of our sin is not the end of the story, for, in coming into the Real Presence, we are also coming to a Throne of Grace: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). This is what happened to Isaiah when the seraphim took an ember from the altar and touched the prophet’s lips with it making him clean.
The Throne of Grace is where our resources end, our “self-effort fuel,” and divine resources begin. It is where we run out of wine and Our Lady asks her Son to give us a grace-filled life.
This process is not as mysterious or ethereal as some people think. It’s common for practicing Catholics to go through phases where they feel tight-fisted with their time, talent, and treasure.
Money is tight; time is constrained; we aren’t in the mood to give our gifts for the benefit of others. But then in our morning devotional time, we read the story of “The Widow’s Mite” in the Gospel reading for the day; the responsorial Psalm has a strong emphasis on “offering sacrifices”; and, it’s Friday and the Rosary is focused on the Sorrowful Mysteries which highlight Christ’s self-donation.
We are being changed in the presence of God just as Moses was: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18). We are being “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2) as we humbly interact with the Gospel reading, responsorial Psalm, and the Rosary.
This devotional experience is absolutely necessary in the decadent times we find ourselves in and acts as a medium where the Light of the World can truly be the best disinfectant. The surrounding culture is adversarial to our values and many of our priests and prelates are Zeitgeist puppets who are dancing around the Golden Calf.
Modernism is flowering in many precincts in the Church but is destined to end up on the dung-heap of history. In contrast, as Blessed John Paul II says in referring to those who practice the Holy Hour, “The future belongs to those who worship God in silence.”
If you’re like me, your work schedule makes it very difficult to make it to Adoration as often as you like. Fr. Edward Looney has some encouraging insights coming from St. Faustina’s diary:
What a discovery I found in her diary! Her times of adoration were both in the convent chapel before Our Lord in the Eucharist and “in private,” in her room and even on her sick bed. God knows we can have very good reasons for not visiting him [in] a church or chapel. Family responsibilities, job, health, distance from the church, and so on. But … we can do “spiritual adoration”—anywhere, anytime. (Including setting up our own “adoration chapel”—if only a designated corner or chair—at home!)
What I do at home is not the same as Adoration at my local parish—one is being in the presence of God, the other is being in the Presence of God—but the sanctifying and salutary effects of my own “adoration chapel” cannot be denied. Such a chapel provides a launching pad for the necessary actions that must take place that day, just as it did for Moses in coming down off the mountain to the sound of revelry.
Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has written for Catholic Exchange and The Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.