Association of priests meditation.
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Vol. XV, January 2009

St. Paul 6: Discernment
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

It is God’s manifest will and desire to share all He has with His friends. He delights to see His perfection, His beauty and goodness, His wisdom and happiness reflected in many creatures. We saw in the last letter, that He likes to raise creatures to a collaboration in His plans and requires that others accept them in their functions: “Behold, I send an angel before you, … Give heed to him and hearken to his voice” (Ex 23:20-21). Due to the rich splendor of creation, man, whose intellect was darkened as a consequence of Original Sin, stands in the danger of divinizing creatures as if they “were the gods that rule the world” (Wisd 13:2). A genuine devotion to the holy angels is evidently an antidote to this danger! “Worship God!” (Rev 22:9), this is the first preoccupation of every holy angel and the real goal and fruit of every angelic help for man.

1. The need for discernment

a) The basic teaching in Sacred Scripture
All Sacred Scripture witnesses to the fact that the good angels never accepted any form of divine veneration. So, “the angel of the LORD said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me, I will not eat of your food; but if you make ready a burnt offering, then offer it to the LORD’” (Judges 13:16). And the angel corrected the apostle: “I John…fell down to worship at the feet of the angel…but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God’” (Rev 22:8-9).

By contrast, the fallen angels are ever looking out for such honor; they are even willing to offer everything else in order to be considered “like God”: “The devil…showed (Jesus) all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if You will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9). Due to his natural greatness and splendor, we should not be surprised when St. John relates in his apocalyptic visions “a beast rising out of the sea…and they (men) worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’” (Rev 13:1,4).

b) Three reasons
St. Paul gives three reasons why man can commit such fundamental errors.
He is composed of body and soul or “in the flesh” (Phil 1:24), so that there are things “seen” by him and things that remain “unseen”, things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col 1:16). And, obviously, it is easy for man to err about things he cannot see.

A second reason follows as a consequence of sins which have a blinding effect. St. Paul teaches: “Although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Rom 1:21-23).

And finally, man has to deal with a multiple seductions, some of which, of course, come from the devil: There are “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2Cor 11:14-15). St. Paul puts it even more clearly: We do not only receive the help and assistance of the good angels, but have to reckon with meeting also the fallen ones, “for we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-12)

This leads to a very practical conclusion: God wants the devotion to the holy angels, our attention, love and even obedience (cf. Acts 5:19-21; 12:7-9) towards them, His servants. But, He also expects that we carefully discern the source before we act. God tells us through St. Paul: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.” (1Thess 5:19-22) And St. Peter points out: “[know] this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spoke from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20-21). That is to say, in all discernment, we owe our first allegiance and holy obedience to the Church.

2. St. Paul’s explicit reference to the devotion to the angels: Colossians 2:18

We have the grace to assist at one of St. Paul’s practical applications of discernment in his pastoral work. In the letter to the Colossians he mentions his preoccupation about the faithful he had won for Christ. He saw the danger that someone “may delude you with beguiling speech” (Col 2:4). St. Paul is certainly not one who is against knowledge. However, he wanted to instruct the Colossians about two ways in which the enemy tries to lead man away from God and Christ, the center of all real life.

a) Two deviations
He saw, on one side, a fixation on the material world and rubrics, on rituals which can easily lead to interior emptiness: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.… Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (2:8,16) or “regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines?” (vv. 21-22).

And there is, on the other side, an attractive “flight” into a spiritual world, related to or presented as “worship of angels”; it was purportedly accompanied with special graces as “visions” which St. Paul however calls “insisting on self-abasement…puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (v. 18).

b) One salvation
With regard to the first, St. Paul comments: “These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17). Concerning the second direction, he responds: They do not hold “fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (v. 19). “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (v. 23).

In both cases, St. Paul sees the deviation from Christ. The Father put “in him the whole fullness of deity…the fullness of life”. Consequently, Christ is even “the head of all the principalities and powers” (Col 2:10, according to the original Greek text), which indicate choirs of angels, as we discussed formerly (cf. Circular of Oct. 2008). Due to His reality as the Son of the Living God, “He [the Father] disarmed the principalities and powers, and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him [Christ]” (v. 15).

These doctrinal aberrations are not only a gross offense against God and Christ, but destroy also all that through His grace was built up in souls; they set the ego against God, which is the most essential criteria of discernment. St. Paul recalls:

“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (vv. 11-14)

Being this the state of a Christian, St. Paul sincerely asks: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations…” (v. 20), “not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body…grows with a growth that is from God” (v. 19). “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (3:1-3).

3. The criteria of discernment

St. Paul shows us in this text the need of discernment and the very first and principal criteria: Christ is the Head. He must be recognized as the Son of God and man (cf. 1 Jn 4:2). Are we faithful to the commitments we have made? And each individual’s answer is made manifest by their life, by the fruits of their belief and devotion. In the case of the unfaithful: “Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor 11:15). Here we may ask: Does St. Paul offer in his other letters more signs and criteria for this important act of discernment which calls for so much caution?

a) Discernment is a gift of God, therefore we have to pray for it: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and…to another the ability to distinguish between spirits” (1 Cor 12:8, 10).

b) All things must lead to love: Love reflects esteem, leads to devotion and to the desire of imitation. This will bring about a certain similarity and union with the angels in Christ, for we are all members of His body (cf. Eph 1:23).

c) On another occasion, St. Paul asked for obedience to rules; to strengthen his admonition he referred to the presence of the angels, as obedience is one of their characteristics. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality” (1Tim 5:21).

Then there is the division between the holy angels and the impure spirits. In the biblical context, holiness is other-worldliness; the holy angels wish to guide us to the heavenly kingdom, which is not of this world. The demons, on the other hand, have nothing to offer except the pleasures of this world, all sorts of sensuality and avarice. Accordingly, Paul’s categories of sins and opposing virtues offer yet another rule of discernment:

But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Gal 5:18-25; cf. e.g. Col 3:5-11).

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The teaching of St. Paul points not only to certain virtues, but more essentially to the central mystery, which is GOD and Christ. That is the reason why the Church in the Directory of Popular Piety gives not only gratitude, and serenity and confidence in facing difficult situations as signs of true “Devotion to the Holy Angels” (Directory on Popular Piety, 216), but says to make sure that man is not considered slave of even higher creatures, but free in Christ (cf. ibid., 217). May He grant us through the holy angels the grace of discernment and never lead a soul a way from Him.
Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC