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Summer 2002

On Holy Fidelity

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. (Lam 3:22-23) 

 

I. Introduction

A. Fidelity in General

In this conference we will discuss the last of the six characteristics to be fostered in the Work of the Holy Angels: fidelity. To begin our treatment of fidelity, let us quickly review some of the words that the sacred languages have used to express the concept of fidelity or faithfulness. The Hebrew root-word emet is the Hebrew word which is most often translated into our English word faithful. It is noteworthy that it is translated in the Septuagint Greek by using three words: pistis (faithful, trustworthy; which is translated into the Latin: fidelis from which we derive our English word fidelity), alhqeia (truth, truthful), and dikaiosunh (righteousness). It is important to note that this Hebrew word for fidelity, as well as the Greek and Latin words have the same root-word as faith.

In the Old Testament the words faith and fidelity are used in a way that makes them often practically interchangeable. In our common usage these two words have distinct meanings. Faith refers to an assent of the intellect to truths that are revealed. It signifies an act of believing in someone who we consider trustworthy. Whereas, fidelity is the moral quality of being truthful, righteous, and trustworthy in action. But it is important to see that these two concepts as expressed in the Hebrew language are not so very distinct. Faith is not simply an assent of the intellect but involves necessarily an assent of one’s whole person and a conformity of one’s whole life to the truth to which one assents. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the Jewish notion of faith saying that to the man of Israel "the idea of the nonexistence of God lies outside the realm of that which was conceivable by him." Faith for Israel was not a question of whether God exists. "That has never been doubted by Jacob’s soul. In proclaiming faith the soul only proclaimed that it put its trust in the everlasting God, that he would be present to the soul, as had been the experience of the patriarchs, and that it was entrusting itself to him who was present."

The life of Abraham our "father of faith" is the prototype of what it means to have faith. If one examines the story of Abraham’s faith, what is most striking is that the whole emphasis of the story is on the notion of testing. Abraham is given divine instructions without explanations and is expected to fulfill these instructions unquestioningly. This he does over and over despite the huge sacrifices that he is asked to make: leaving his homeland, his family, his inheritance, to go to a place where he must trust that God will provide a new homeland, a new family, and an new inheritance. He arrives in the "promised land" and almost immediately he has to leave due to a famine. He waits for a family, but his wife is barren. He finally has a child, and he is asked to sacrifice the child. Over and over again Abraham’s faith is tested, and he shows himself "faith-full." He is faithful because he binds himself by his belief that God is a faithful God; God is true, good, and trustworthy.

This is contrasted with the people of Israel who are lead through the desert to the promise land upon their liberation from Egypt. They, too, are given divine instructions through Moses. But they are again and again unfaithful. Their infidelity to God is rooted in the fact that they do not believe in the goodness of God, but rather they accuse Him of bringing them into the desert in order to kill them.

It is interesting to point out that members of the Church are referred to as the "faithful." This is indicative of the fact that not only are the members of the Church called to profess their faith in the teaching of the Church. But we are called, as was Abraham, to a faith which in the end makes us faith-full in our total response to God. But what is foundational to our faithfulness is the fidelity of God. As one Scripture scholar wrote: "The words ‘faith’ and ‘to believe’ heemin [in the Old Testament] … describe man taking refuge from his own frailty and instability in God who is firm and steadfast." Therefore, for us to grow in fidelity, we must grasp with ever-greater depth the fidelity of God towards us.  

II. The Fidelity of God and His Holy Angels

A. Fidelity of God

The fidelity of God is distinct from his immutability, although the two attributes are related. The fact that God is immutable or unchanging is necessarily the consequence of the fact that He is all-perfect. Since it is the case that for a thing to change, that thing must be lacking some perfection that it acquires through change. But since God possesses every possible perfection it follows that in Him there is no variation or shadow due to change. [cf. Jas 1:17] This stability of God is an ontological attribute. That is to say it indicates a perfection of God’s very being. Whereas, fidelity is what may be called a moral attribute, for it indicates the perfection of God’s doing. The Lord is truthful in all His words and faithful in all His deeds. Veracity and fidelity are attributes that speak of the fact that there is no shadow of deceit nor change in His dealings with us. Our God is a rock of refuge, a stronghold in whom we trust. But the reason why we can trust Him is not only due to the fact that He is not fickle towards us. But also his fidelity is a fidelity to mercy. The word for fidelity in Hebrew is very often used in conjunction with the word hesed, which is the word for mercy. 

In describing mercy, the books of the Old Testament use two statements in particular, each having a different semantic nuance. First, there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of "goodness." When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment and, therefore, also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also means "grace" or "love," this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. The fact that the commitment in question has not only a moral character but almost a juridical one makes no difference. When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God’s part, a gift and a grace for Israel. Nevertheless, since, in harmony with the covenant entered into, God had made a commitment to respect it, hesed also acquired in a certain sense a legal content. The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.

This fidelity vis-à-vis the unfaithful "daughter of my people" (cf. Lam 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God’s part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent reoccurrence together of the two terms hesed weemet (grace and fidelity)…. "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name" (Ez 36:22). Therefore, Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God’s hesed on the basis of legal justice, yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the covenant is really "responsible for his love." The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, the reestablishment of the interior covenant. 

To illustrate this point, the Holy Father offers a commentary on the parable of the prodigal son. In this he says of the son’s father: "The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return… The father’s fidelity to himself--a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed--is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection." This is what St. Paul means when he writes: "if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself." The Father cannot deny his fatherhood even though we, his children, deny our filial dignity by sin. He remains faithful to his fatherhood, to his steadfast love. This is the basis of our own faithfulness. It not only gives us the perfect example, so that we can be "imitators of God" (Eph 5:1), but it also gives us the foundation for faith whereby we build upon the rock of God.  

B. Covenant

As our Holy Father points out, the term hesed, as also emet, are terms that are related to God’s desire to make a covenant with man. The nature of a covenant is distinct from any other contract or agreement by the fact that a covenant is founded not upon a simple exchange of promises. Rather, it is founded upon the swearing of oaths. Each party in a covenant binds himself by an oath made in the holy Name of God in order to convey the fact that just as God is immutable and faithful, so also is one’s promise. "I swear to God! I swear by the holy Name of God!" Such is the nature of a covenant. This is explained in the Letter to the Hebrews: 

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. Men indeed swear by a greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb 6:13-20) 

As Dr. Scott Hahn points out, "In oath swearing a promise is transformed by invoking God’s name for assistance or blessing (‘so help me God’). The oath-swearer places himself under divine judgment and a conditional self curse (‘I’ll be damned’). The oath is thus a much stronger and more sacred form of commitment."

What is also important to note is that the covenant is distinct from any other contract in that it does not involve the exchange of goods or services, but rather the exchange of persons. "I will be your God and you will be my people" is a frequent statement of the covenant. There is a personal relationship that is established, which involves a total self-giving. It is not a giving of a part. This is seen in an analogy that is used in Scripture: man may make a contract with a prostitute to give her money in exchange for her body, but this is obviously different from the man who makes a covenant with his wife which involves the mutual exchange of the whole of their persons to one another. The first demands no fidelity, whereas the second obviously does. The covenant made with God was not a bargaining of goods, but the establishment of the Family of God. The totality of self-giving on the part of God was brought to fulfillment in the fullness of time when God sent His only begotten son in the likeness of our flesh.  

C. Incarnation

The Incarnation of the Eternal Son of the Father is God’s irrevocable pledge of fidelity to the human race. God has bound Himself to us irreversibly. This is the foundation for the new and everlasting covenant. "The Lord has sworn an oath, and he will not retract, you are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek" (Ps 109:4). Jesus Christ is the priest after the order of Melchizedek by virtue of the Incarnation, for he is thereby the perfect mediator between God and man. "I will tell the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’" (Ps 2:7). Though Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, God calls all men to divine sonship.

We call the dispensation of grace consequent upon the Incarnation the "New Testament" or the New Covenant. It is interesting to note that there is only one place where Christ himself makes explicit reference to a new covenant. Where? When he says, "Take this all of you and drink from it, this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new covenant" (cf. Mat 26: 27-8; 1 Cor 11: 25). It is with the institution of the Most Blessed Sacrament that Christ teaches most clearly about His intention to make a new covenant. This is very significant. For as we have said, a covenant consists in the mutual exchange of oaths, which involves the mutual giving of persons.

In 112 AD Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan the text of which is preserve until today. In this letter, among other things, Pliny reported that in an interrogation was made of a captured Christian. The captive was forced to reveal what it is that the Christians do in their secret meetings. The captive stated that when Christians gathered they "se sacramento obstringere," (to bind themselves by oath). That may strike us as odd. Is that what we do when we gather together? Yes! This refers to the Eucharistic sacrifice which was spoken of already in the first century as a sacramentum (from which we derive the word sacrament). The Latin word sacramentum at the time of the early Christian Church referred to a soldier’s oath of loyalty to the Roman Emperor. Therefore, the early Christians understood the Eucharist in terms of a means to make an oath of loyalty to Jesus Christ, the king of kings, whose reign transcended the Roman Empire. This was no doubt partly at the basis of the Roman persecution of Christians. The Roman imperial officials took a dim view of their subjects swearing oaths of loyalty to anyone other than the emperor. This oath of loyalty did not seek to politically unseat the Roman Emperor. Nevertheless, it was not merely in the spiritual realm either. As one scholar puts it: 

This submission occurred not merely at the intangible "spiritual" level or simply at the "liturgical" level--both of which Rome would probably have tolerated--but at the tangible level of ethics and values finding statement in the social realm of interpersonal relationships… In other words, few Christians in those early centuries could have consumed the [Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist] unless they also really and tangibly became constituted as Christ’s body in the world. 

The mutual exchange of persons is evident in the act of Holy Communion, in which Christ says to the individual faithful, "take this, and eat it, this is my body," and the faithful responds by giving his body and soul to be the body of Christ in the world. What is said here about the Eucharist is true of all the Sacraments. Each in turn involves an oath from God and a response from man. The baptismal vows, the renewal of the same at confirmation, the marriage vows, the act of contrition which contains the promise: I firmly resolve to sin no more, etc. All these are serious promises made to God in response to his promise to make us His children.  

D. Fidelity of the Holy Angels

We may briefly consider the fidelity of the good angels of God who already enjoy the security of belonging completely to God. They are faithful in that they are fixed upon the face of God, the source of all stability. St. Augustine explains in the following passage which speaks of the blessed angels:  

There is no changeable good but the one, true, blessed God. The things which He made are indeed good because from Him, yet mutable because they are not made out of Him, but out of nothing. Although, therefore, they are not the supreme good, for God is a greater good, yet those mutable things which can adhere to the immutable good, and so be blessed, are very good…. And since this is so, then in this nature which has been created so excellent, that though it be mutable itself, it can yet secure its blessedness by adhering to the immutable good the supreme God; and since it is not satisfied unless it be perfectly blessed, and cannot be thus blessed save in God--in this nature, I say, not to adhere to God is manifestly a fault.

The angels in turn are to us a revelation of God’s fidelity and steadfast love for us. St. Thomas asks the question about whether the guardian angel ever abandons the man whom protects. He answers: 

The guardianship of the angels is an effect of Divine providence in regard to man. Now it is evident that neither man, nor anything at all is entirely withdrawn from the providence of God: for in as far as a thing participates being, so far is it subject to the providence that extends over all being. God indeed is said to forsake man, according to the ordering of his providence, but only in so far as He allows man to suffer some defect of punishment or of fault. In like manner it must be said that the angel guardian never forsakes a man entirely, but sometimes he leaves him in some particular, for instance by not preventing him from being subject to some trouble, or even from falling into sin, according to the ordering of Divine judgments. 

The angels are sent to help us to be faithful as they are faithful. "For are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation" (Heb 1:14). As St. Thomas points out, however, they serve us not only by freeing us from trials, but also by allowing us to enter into the trials that we need in order to prove our faithfulness. Not only do the angels come to rescue as they did for Lot and his family to save them from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; but they also are sent to test as they did Abraham and the other righteous men of the Old Testament. This is how they serve us in our obtaining of salvation. The trials of fidelity may occur even when we are not unfaithful to God. This is expressed in Psalm 44 :

You make us the taunt of our neighbors, the laughing stock of all who are near. Among the nations, you make us a byword, among the peoples a thing of derision.  All day long my disgrace is before me: my face is covered with shameat the voice of the taunter, the scoffer,at the sight of the foe and avenger. This befell us though we had not forgotten you; though we had not been false to your covenant, though we had not withdrawn our hearts; though our feet had not strayed from your path. Yet you have crushed us in a place of sorrows and covered us with the shadow of death.  "Make vows to God and keep them…"

Man’s proper response to the fidelity of God is to be faithful. As said earlier, man seeks refuge in the security of God’s immutability and fidelity. This is expressed in the beautiful prayer attributed to St. Patrick which begins with the words: "I bind unto myself this day the power of God to hold and lead… I bind unto myself this day the Name, the strong Name of the Trinity."

Apart from the fulfillment of the vows of the Sacraments, the lover seeks to find a thousand ways to bind himself to the beloved. This is well expressed in some writing of G. K. Chesterton in which he discusses the nature and importance of vows. He writes particularly to reveal the fallacies of what he calls "modern decadent" who denies the beauty of making a binding commitment. He writes: 

The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that he himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea. In other words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common but hideously significant phrase, another man. Now, it is this horrible fairy tale of a man constantly changing into other men that is the soul of the decadence. That John Paterson should, with apparent calm, look forward to being a certain General Barker on Monday, Dr. Macgregor on Tuesday, Sir Walter Carstairs on Wednesday, and Sam Slugg on Thursday, may seem a nightmare; but to that nightmare we give the name of modern culture. 

This first point that G.K. Chesterton makes is very important. What he calls the "hideously significant phrase [of becoming] another man…the horrible fairy tale of a man constantly changing into other men." He is putting forth, in his typically humorous way, the reoccurring theme of Sacred Scripture. As written in the first Psalm, the just man is like a tree planted by streams of water, whereas the wicked man is not so, but is like the chaff that is driven away. As was mentioned above, the "just" man is the one who has faith: he is faithful for he does not doubt. For as St. James wrote: The one who doubts is one who is "like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind" (Jas 1:6). Repeatedly, we see in revelation the counter-poise of the stability of the just man who builds his house upon the solid rock, or who is rooted like a tree; as opposed to the wicked who is unstable in all his ways, built upon sand, who will be blown away like chaff. This is what Chesterton reaffirms as the soul of decadence. The fear that we cannot bind ourselves with a good and noble resolution for fear that we may be not be so good and noble tomorrow. It is one thing to recognize one’s own weakness in carrying out resolutions. What Chesterton is speaking of is something else. What is so horrifying is the exaltation of the man who changes like a chameleon, the modern hero who succeeds because he has no enduring principles, no binding commitments, no roots. Such a man avoids the common human shame involved in failure to perfectly fulfill a resolution. But he does this by glorying in the far greater shame of never having made a serious resolution. This is what Chesterton goes on to explain.  

And the end of all this is that maddening horror of unreality which descends upon the decadents, and compared with which physical pain itself would have the freshness of a youthful thing. The one hell which imagination must conceive as most hellish is to be eternally acting a play without even the narrowest and dirtiest greenroom in which to be human. And this is the condition of the decadent, of the free-lover. To be everlastingly passing through dangers which we know cannot scare us, to be taking oaths which we know cannot bind us, to defying enemies who we know cannot conquer us–this is the grinning tyranny of decadence which is called freedom.  

As he points out, we need a clear stage on which to act out our lives, however narrow and dirty it may be. There must be the clear limits, otherwise our freedom becomes a tyranny of decadence, the nausea of Sartre and other formless existentialists. St. Peter described this decadence in his Second Letter where he describes the wicked as being "like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed… They are blots and blemishes, revealing in their dissipation… These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom has been reserved" (2 Pt 2:12-17).

Chesterton then goes on to describe the greatness of the man who is willing to make a vow; the one who wishes to bind himself to fidelity.  

Let us turn, on the other hand, to the maker of vows. The man who made a vow, however wild, gave a healthy and natural statement to the greatness of a great moment. He vowed, for example, to chain two mountains together, perhaps a symbol of some great relief of love, or aspiration. Short as the moment of his resolve might be, it was, like all great moments, a moment of immortality… 

Chesterton is indicating that man immortalizes the moment and gives it significance and greatness when he is willing to bind oneself by a vow. As true as this is on the level of nature, how much more is it in the realm of the binding commitment to God whereby the immortal soul is eternally bound to the Creator. This is contrasted once more with the modern notion of freedom: 

The modern aesthetic man would, of course, easily see the emotional opportunity; he would vow to chain two mountains together. But, then, he would quite as cheerfully vow to chain the earth to the moon. And the withering consciousness that he did not mean what he said, that he was, in truth, saying nothing of any great import, would take from him exactly that sense of daring actuality which is the excitement of a vow.

[Modern men] appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words–‘free-love’–as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favored grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants. 

Chesterton offers in his typically profound, insightful, and yet playful remarks with regard to the nature of love, the essence of holy fidelity. As the Holy Father said with regard to hesed, it is true love which demands fidelity, which calls for a permanent bond. He recognizes that vows are something that give man true dignity. The constancy and immutability that comes from fidelity to a vow makes man to be god-like. It fixes him, establishing him on the foundation of the Rock. As the angels are blessed because they are united to the immutable God, so they seek the same blessedness in the midst of transitory things of this changing world. It is only through the vow that man can avoid the disaster which will befall the one who constructs his house on sand. In another place Chesterton says a similar thing: 

However trivial, however imbecile, however vulgar or vapid or stereotyped the imagery of such things might be, it would always involve one idea, the same idea that makes lovers laboriously chip their initials on a tree or a rock, in a sort of monogram of monogamy… There is a very permanent truth in the fact that two free persons deliberately tie themselves to a log of wood. And it is the idea of tying oneself to something that runs through all this old amorous allegory like a pattern of fetters. There is always the notion of hearts chained together, or skewered together, or in some manner secured; there is a security that can only be called captivity. That it frequently fails to secure itself has nothing to do with the present point. The point is that every philosophy of [love] must fail, which does not account for its ambition of fixity, as well as for its experience of failure. There is nothing to make [the lover] commit himself on the sworn evidence of the nearest tree. He is not bound to be bound; he is under constraint, but nobody constrains him to be under constraint.  

What Chesterton says of earthly lovers holds true all the more of those who love God. They desire to give testimony of their love for Him. They are constrained to bind themselves ever more to him in commitments. They want to be his slave. Such is the language of the saints and all who are true lovers. For example, we see the prayer of Total Consecration to Jesus, the Incarnate Wisdom, through the Blessed Virgin Mary:

The danger is the superficiality of those who would like to have made the exterior statements of a lover without having the interior convictions of a lover. Those who lack this interior conviction collect consecrations like children collect baseball-cards. The faithful must be working to be truly faithful to all his commitments to God. The desire to make more commitments is driven by the unfailing prudence of love. Just as we would be loath to disappoint the beloved by make promises that we had no intention to fulfill, so also with God. It is good to make vows to God, but as Scripture says: "when you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it…" (Eccles 5:5). 

E. Final Perseverance

We strive to practice fidelity in the little things of daily life: fidelity to our duties of state, fidelity to commitments and promises. In this way we prepare ourselves for the ultimate grace of fidelity which is called final perseverance. We know that "he who endures to the end will be saved" (Mt 24:13). Christ says to the Church: "I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God" (Rev 3:12). St. Paul: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (15:58).

The grace of final perseverance is a grace, a gift, that we cannot merit but which we can dispose ourselves to receive. "Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you; and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you, so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints" (1 Thess 3: 11-13).

Based upon the confidence we have in God’s hesed, His steadfast love, we can say with confidence with St. Paul: "I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6). We labor while there is the light of day, so that one day we may hear the words of our loving Lord and God: "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord!" (Mt 25:21,23; Lk 16:10-17).

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