Project Canterbury

The Holy Priest

by the Rt. Rev. Wm. E. McLaren, S.T.D.
Bishop of Chicago

Milwaukee, WI: The Young Churchman, 1899. 176 pp.

The Nature of Sanctity.

OUR first step must be to acquire a clear conception of that holiness without which no man shall see God. Many priests have made poor progress or none at all, because they have failed to grasp its essential principle, through indisposition to seek guidance, or, through that inertness and aversion to thoroughness which holds us all back in varying degrees, and often frustrates the sincerest purposes. We ought to dig down to the root of the matter; and if we have the courage to do that we shall discover of how little intrinsic value observances, and methods, and devotions, and offices are, in themselves; and, over against all our dependence upon external means and methods, we shall find the principle of charity vindicated as the source of all holiness and the virtue of all instruments.


AS to the nature of the divine standard of sanctity, let us consider in what it consists.

Religion binds man back to God—that is, it renews lost relations. It gives him back again that birthright which he bartered for a mess of pottage—that astonishing relation of oneness with God of which the characteristic feature was that God's life was ever passing over into the nature of man and ever upholding him in the possession of the Divine image.

This union with God was the predominant end He had in view in-man's creation, as it must be in man's restoration. We cannot too often recur to the words of S. Augustine, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and we shall seek for rest in vain until we find it in Thee." He is the soul's true home. The prodigal must return and be joined in blessed union with the Father once more.

In order to effect this restoration of relations, there must of necessity be a free and active cooperation of the divine and human wills, which co-operation implies: (1), upon the part of God's majesty, acts of condescension to our low estate; and (2), upon the part of man, the aspiration and actualized elevation of the soul to God.

Is there a principle of operation common to the divine and human wills which, when actively put forth, shall restore the lost union?

When we contemplate the primal conditions of man's estate as a being fresh from the hands of his benevolent creator, we perceive that the principle of union by which God and man were joined in one was love (charity), and that its operation was perfect as well in man as in God. In God it was pure complacency, or love for man growing in part out of admiration and approval. In man it was a perfect affection for God, a love of the whole heart, mind, and strength, without a strain of self-love. But that ideal estate suffered a change. Man lost union with God as the inevitable consequence of his loss of supreme love for God through the entrance of self-love. Consequently God could no longer look upon man with a love of complacency. He could not approve of the creature's preference for himself rather than for his Creator. We therefore infer that in order to the restoration of the original union of man with God, thus broken, it is necessary that the principle of union, which was love, should be the principle of its restoration.

The faculty of loving was not destroyed, though its supreme object was changed. It remained, for it is necessary to an intelligent being that it love something. Whether the object of our love be God, or creatures, or ourselves, we must love; for love, as well as intelligence, pertains to personality. Have we not felt its power from earliest years? How often has it drawn us to one thing, repelled us from another, and withheld us from a third. It is the determining force in us. "Good or bad loves make good or bad lives." "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."

The faculty of love, then, must be won back from its sad defection and replaced upon Him who is the only proper object of loyal affection. Since the loss of original union was occasioned by the loss of love for God, love is the key to restore relations. It unlocks the door of heaven to the condescension of the Father, and the door of the heart to the ascension of the child to His presence. "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity."


That God inclines to us is the one thought, sublime, uplifting, heart-melting, to which the whole race clings, by which the sorrows of the world are soothed, of the sweetness of which the heart loves to drink deeply. O, what would life be to the most abandoned of men did not this heavenly light at times penetrate the darkness of their souls?

But there is another side to think of. The consciousness that there is nothing in us upon which He can look with complacency, and that, on the contrary, our record is positively displeasing to Him who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, renders it difficult to maintain as a practical influence on life the conviction that God's affection for us is real. Nothing holds the world back from universal surrender to a love so astonishing, except the shadows cast on its reality by the doubts and fears which our sins beget. It is the misery of the pagan that he cannot see or believe that God is love. It is the triumph of religion when a soul passes out of suspicion of that love, and leans on it fearlessly, like a child.

Of course, it cannot be the love of complacency; for man, as he is, is precisely the opposite of the Creator's intention. He is the contradiction of Adam. Sin is so essentially hateful that if God did not abhor it He would not be God.

If, then, the divine love cannot justify itself lay approval or admiration of man in his fallen estate, we must seek its ultimate reason in the immeasurable pity which God feels for His sinful creatures. It is not a love of complacency; it is a love of compassion.

But it is more. Its sources are deeper and have their spring in the very heart of God's heart. Love as mercy is wonderful enough, but more wonderful is the love of God as a love of consanguinity. He is the Father of the whole family of man, and we are His children, partakers of the blood royal, nearer to Him than the angels, united to Him not only by natural kinship, but also by the closer bond of our relation to His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And He loves us as He loves our Elder Brother.

"So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith He loves the Son,
Such is His love to me."

It was this love of consanguinity which marked out the path of the Son of God to Bethlehem, bore Him up in all the atoning sorrows of His life, gave Him victory on the cross and at the sepulchre, and put His humanity in the place of honor at God's right hand. There, by the consummate force of love, our human nature has entered into the closest fellowship with the divine, and through its perfection and power floods the world with the products of this mysterious but real bond of consanguinity.

Man has not retained the family resemblance, and has disgraced his descent, nor does he own the obligations which his kinship imposes upon him; but, in spite of his filial defection, the love of God does not wane, but rather waxes stronger, for is he not the child beloved, the object of infinite affection? Some one has said that the foundation of all religion is not that man, restored to union, should be madly in love with God, but that God is madly in love with man. We appreciate the poverty of language when we seek to describe the human affections; how, then, can we hope to define a love that passeth knowledge?

And the Father's amazing interest in man attests its reality in practical ways. We put much stress on the necessity of seeking God. Yes, it is necessary, for, if we do not seek, we shall not find. But it is a greater truth, and as necessary, that God is seeking us, that He pursues us in order that He may overtake and win us back to the paths of righteousness. He does not sit in passive majesty upon the throne of His glory, awaiting our approach; O, no! He comes down to our earthly level and mean paths, that He may find and bring home His lost children! All the secret monitions of conscience, the strivings of the Holy Spirit, the means of grace that hedge us about, reveal the passionate energies that would almost take possession of our wills and compel us to seek holiness. Yes, He takes the initiative! When there was no eye to pity, He pitied; when there was no arm to save, He brought salvation. It is He, not man, who is the first to seek. He followed the trail of the serpent in pursuit of His fascinated children, and He is pursuing them still. The first to seek, He is the last to forsake, and forsakes only when they have hopelessly forsaken Him.

It is the love of consanguinity, but it is more. There is a mystery in this love which no word can fathom. Sin is so much more offensive in His sight than in ours, so unjustifiable, so contrary to reason and the eternal fitness of things, that it seems as if it would be only justice should He condemn man to share with the fallen angels their sore penalties; but in His incomprehensible mercy He has interposed on man's behalf to the intent that he may become an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven; and this stupendous condescension has been accompanied by an act still more incomprehensible, in that He has illustrated His love by the supreme test of self-sacrifice. His identification with the human race was so profound that He could not but die to save His children from their fate. His love was red with the stain of blood. This is indeed the love that passeth knowledge!


The truth of God's love for us is the fire that kindles our love—"we love Him because He first loved us."

There are many motives for spiritual advancement, but none so potent as love. A priest may say, "I must," through fear of consequences; or, "I ought," from a sense of obligation; or, "I will," which is the response of love. Fear and obligation are natural virtues; man did not lose them in the fall. But the love of God was lost, and only God can restore it. We need not reject the natural virtues. Let fear do its perfect work. Let us obey the "categorical imperative" of conscience. But the holy priest ever seeks with importunate hunger to be fed with the manna of love which cometh down from heaven.

The inclination of the heart to God and its positive surrender to Him, by compulsion of love, is, as we have shown, the beginning and end of sanctity.

There is no other way of going to God, and He has no other way of coming to us. This is not a maxim of human wisdom—not the cream of the experience of the saints, merely; it is the golden precept both of the law and the gospel, as our Lord taught when the Pharisee put the question, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?"

This, then, is the nature of that sanctity to which every priest is pledged—union with God by charity—the love of God for man, and man's for God and man; and it is this which lights the way to all other theological virtues, and to perseverance in the same unto the end. For he who loves God must love the will of God. Love is the very spring and motive of obedience, and obedience is the test and measure of holiness. With love, the graces of sanctification are assured. It puts virtue into the means of grace, lifts them out of the slough of the mere sign, and transfigures them with the graces signified. And the deeper, truer, more tender our love for Him, the more entire our abandonment to His will. With pure love, there is a dying to self-will. Without love, religion loses unity and coherence through lack of an animating principle; its doctrines have no formative power on the soul, its forms generate hypocrisy or superstition, its sacraments minister condemnation, and its atmosphere is naturalistic and worldly. Without love, there can be no true philanthropy, for the heart must be full of love for God before it can overflow and bless man. Without love, holiness is an unintelligible dream.


The holy priest, seeking holy gifts from God, by the way of love, distinguishes between what is to be loved absolutely for its OWTI sake, and what is to be loved relatively for God's sake. This is a heaven-wide difference, as we shall see.

An old writer gives a short definition of virtue, viz: that it is an ordered love (ordo est amoris) or a love of things according to their order and value; by which we understand our Lord's words ("this is the first and great commandment") to signify that, as God only is man's proper end and aim, we should educate the heart to love Him supremely, to prefer Him to every other lawful object of affection, to precede all philanthropy with the love of Him, as well as to suffuse all religion with it, and, indeed, to bring to bear upon the conscience constantly the truth that only as we first love God can we truly love ourselves and others. Self-love, that is, selfishness in our relations to one's self, is not love at all, but a base and low passion, a spurious imitation of that virtue which, in its genuine form, is an imitation of God. Self-love is in reality self's enemy, as its final outcome shows, and when it takes on relations to one's neighbour, it is not love, but "bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil-speaking, with all malice." "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar." The love of neighbour and the love of self, then, are pure, noble, sanctifying, saving, only as they flow from and resemble the love we bear to God by which we love Him purely, without reference to our interests. Not to love such a Being as He reveals Himself to be to those who press towards the higher knowledge, would impede, if not arrest, spiritual growth, and involve the soul in grave perils. To expect nothing strengthens rather than impairs this pure love, nor would it stagger should God refuse to bestow comforts and seem to treat it with indifference. Perfect love is blind to everything but its perfect Object.

In order to aim at and diligently to seek the highest sanctity, the holy priest will therefore be governed by the order of love held forth in the commandment. God is the only being in existence who contains within Himself all the reasons or motives why He should be loved, and therefore the only being who may be loved supremely. If any other object of affection secure the primary place, such love is practical idolatry. Horrible, in the light of this truth, is the guilt of one who loves himself more than God. It were odious enough to prefer to Him some one dearer to us than life, but ten times more hatefully bad to give one's own wretched self the first place! God's claim upon us is not an arbitrary fiat of His will. The commandment rests on the love-worthy qualities of the Thrice Blessed and Holy One who permits us to call Him "Father," and who is to us at once father and mother. It were a prostitution of every thing which we call by the sacred name of love not to perceive His claim, by right of what He is, to the first place in our hearts. The love we bear to anything else finds its orderly place at a lower level. It is love only as it gets its motive from the higher, for nothing else can truly be loved except as it is loved in and tor God. He is the Heart of our heart.


A certain keenness of discernment, the fruit of humility and courage, tells the earnest priest that the acquirement of sincere love for God is a development, an education. In its first stages, the heart is able only to lisp its ABC, and many are the lessons to be learned before its honesty can look the dear Lord in the face and say, "Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." The priest perceives that the obligation of sanctity does not justify those who cleave to imperfect beginnings and find false peace in the remembrance of former attainments; indeed, he feels that it is a question how far they ought to be regarded as genuine if the heart desires not the increase of charity, for it is a recognized fact in the spiritual life that "not to gain is to lose; and not to advance is to fall back." "I consider it impossible for love to stand still," said S. Teresa. It is not wise, therefore, to faint by the way because one has not already attained, nor will the holy priest draw back from the pains of growth, the mortification of the flesh, the discipline of the will, and the struggles of the soul when in darkness and apparently unaided. On the contrary, he finds in the rudimentary lessons which have been taught him of the Holy Spirit, so much present joy, that had he no reason to expect more, he could spend his days in songs of gratitude for his present knowledge. He will not depreciate possessed blessings through desire for greater, but will use them out of love for the giver, and use them to best advantage as incentives of righteousness, "abounding yet more and more in all knowledge."

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