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Vol. VII, April 2001

 

The Angel's 3rd Instruction, V:
"Prayer With Fasting and Alms" (Tob 12:8)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The counsel of St. Raphael, "Do what is good, and no evil can befall you!" showed us the power of the good in general. It is the means to overcome evil and keep it far from us. We did not yet expressly ask: in what does this good consist. Yet, it is a question which St. Raphael himself answers in the next phrase: "Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity" (Tob 12,8). Let us dwell a little on this theme.

1. In the eyes of the holy Angels only the positive, only that which really is, God and all that He wants to exist, counts. Hopefully, through last month’s meditations, they helped us come to a deeper understanding of this truth.

The life proper to the holy Angels in the light of God explains this to us, and we can never meditate enough on it. These holy persons are already definitively united with God; they serve God and sing praise to Him for ever before His throne in heaven: "I heard … the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads ..., ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, ‘To Him Who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’" (Rev 5:11-13). All creatures ought to join the angelic praise in heaven. Such a union of praise is their final goal as it was God’s first intention in creating them. The holy angels are fully conscious of this divine plan.

We should also add that their immense joy in the eternal bliss of the Holiness, the Beauty, and the Majesty of God, serves as an impulse to them to draw us upwards to the same Triune God! God so fills the spirit of the holy angels that not even for an instant do they divert their loving gaze from Him. For instance, they are aware of their fallen angelic brothers and of their decision against God, but in no way do they turn aside from their beloved God and loose one moment of their happiness because of these imprudent, disrespectful and proud rebels. This we see in St. Michael. He did not "pronounce a reviling judgment upon him (the devil), but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’" (Jude 9).

The happiness of the angels provokes an important question, which we could address to St. Raphael who lives under the influence of the Good God: What counsel about the "good" would you give us? His answer to this question is: "Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity."

2. We are all very familiar with this counsel. It has become the most fundamental rule of the Christian life, the program for renewal in the season of lent, and, we could say, of lay-spirituality in general. But that it is a direct counsel from an angel has escaped the minds of many. Recalling its angelic origins and trying to see it from this point of view might throw new light on it.

a) The angel always points first to God: Look at your Lord and God! Man should always have God before his eyes. Like unto the angel, he should live in the presence of God (cf. Gen 6:9; 17:1). God is always present everywhere; He is present truly, personally and actively. He should fill man’s heart to such an extent that he forgets more and more about creatures, and thinks more of God’s presence; he becomes more grateful, grows constantly in charity and so approaches the habit of constant prayer (cf. Lk 18:1), which could be compared to respiration for the angels who "always behold the face of My Father Who is in heaven" (Mt 18:11). With the help and guidance of the angels man grows towards an unceasing awe of God, glorifying and adoring Him, and surrendering all to Him. The angel’s call to prayer represents an elevation for man, who ought to "get out of himself", lift up his mind and transcend his limits through love.

b) "Fasting" is one of the first aids to such a program. Every creature has some positive quality, and a certain attractive power over man. For many people a created object can become so powerful, that they themselves become blind to everything else and even sacrifice God for the sake of that creature. However, the more man tries to collaborate with his angelic guide, the more he follows his inspirations, so much the more will creatures "fall away" like dry leaves from the tree. To sacrifice them for spiritual motives becomes easier and easier; such sacrifice can be considered our payment for the highest Good of all, namely God, and proof of our preferential love for Him. Once again the experience of all people receives confirmation: The more we look at something, be it God or a creature, the more powerfully it calls our attention, or in negative terms: What I do not know, does not interest me. Fasting, as emptying man from attachment to creatures, should help him see God; but it presupposes a certain knowledge of God. For this reason the angel first says: "Prayer"!

c) When man seeks God in prayer and strives for higher values, he renounces little creatures through fasting. He then begins to discover an interior freedom, satisfaction and joy, which stimulate him to give up what he already possesses. This is for him a chance to show gratitude for the greater gift he has received in knowing God, and a chance to imitate what God did with him - giving gratuitously to those who cannot reward him, as he himself cannot reward God (cf. Mt 5:46-48; 6:3-4).

This natural process finds a corresponding and strong corroboration in the case of the holy angel. The angel has experienced the result of generosity towards God. He gave himself to God, and, what did he receive in response? Incomparably more! When he renounced the small horizon of the understanding of his own intellect, God let him see and understand with His eyes! When he renounced his own will, God let him share in His divine Will, with which he now loves God and all creatures. When he renounced the happiness of his own limited perception, God filled his existence with heavenly bliss, and allows it to grow in intensity with each soul that finds true happiness in God. This experience obliges the angel to teach us: Give, that you may receive! As we are seeing through the angel himself, the hierarchy must be: first prayer, then fasting, and thirdly almsgiving.

3. The new vision of this old spiritual rule that we gain through the angel is of an existential character: the purely spiritual nature of the angels leads us to the existential depth where always - with them and with us - the entire being is involved. The three elements of the angel’s guidance, "prayer with fasting and alms", form for the angel a unity. They also form a unity of three for man, and this explains the central importance they received in the Christian life.

Man is placed in a threefold relationship, with God, himself and the world around him: "God created man in his own image ... God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’" (Gen 1:27-28). Through this passage we see man’s right and obligation to practice religion, to rear his family and have his own property. Into this natural world of man entered the devil with the temptation in paradise. He tried to show Eve that "the tree was good to eat", and thereby awoke "disordered bodily desires", through which family harmony is attacked; he seduced Eve, showing how pleasing the fruit was to the eyes, and thereby awoke "the disordered desires of the eyes"; finally, the fruit "was enticing for the wisdom that it could give", with this the devil planted "pride" in man (Gen 3:6; cf. Mt 4,3-11 and 1 Jn 2,16). With his success, the devil disturbed the threefold relationship of man with God, himself and the world around him.

The counsel of St. Raphael reaches deep into this wound caused by original sin: by prayer and the necessary humility man will overcome pride; by fasting, disordered bodily desires; by almsgiving, the disordered desire of the eyes. These three counsels also prepare man for the graces that God’s Mercy has in store for him: through prayer man is disposed to receive the grace of faith; through the discipline of fasting, to receive the grace of hope in God; through alms, he practices the love which he receives and will receive even more abundantly from God.

This calls to mind what St. Raphael taught at first: "Do good, and no evil can befall you" (12:7)! But it means still more: "Do good", by praying to God, renouncing oneself and giving to others. In this way you overcome the "old Adam" and take on Christ. In Him you will find your true fulfillment.

4. Dear Brothers in the priesthood! From whatever angle we enter into contact with the holy angels, they teach us the one decisive truth: God is the universal key for life and existence.

Let us strive to overcome the old Adam: let us overcome our pride and stop grumbling against our bishops or superiors, and start praying for them instead; let us stop giving in to our weak inclinations which prevent us from becoming more spiritual; let us eliminate from our life-rhythm those occasions which repeatedly fasten us to material preoccupations and worldly interests.

Our prayer-life will then be renewed in intensity through due concentration and in quality through our living faith, sincere trust and generous love towards our Lord. Self-control can be checked and increased through a sincere effort to fast in a reasonable and efficacious manner. Our capacity to share with others, and to manifest God’s goodness towards them, can also be verified in our daily ministry.

Attending St. Raphael’s counsel we become more convinced: wherever we pray our holy angels are present; when we serve others through good works, they present them before the throne of God. May they help us to strengthen our faith and live more closely united for the benefit of holy Church.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks. You ask us to express our thanks by self-denial. We are to master our sinfulness and conquer our pride. We are to show to those in need your goodness to ourselves. Now, with all the saints and angels, we praise you forever: Holy, holy, holy ... (III. Preface of Lent).