On the World’s Most Beautiful Sermon

I.

A sermon is an essay or a treatise that is spoken. Classical sermons of Newman, or some of the great French preachers, could last for hours. Great Protestant divines were known for long and powerfully delivered sermons. We live in a world in which any sermon over eight minutes is considered an imposition on the ability of modern man to hold his attention that long. But a good sermon is no doubt a work of art. It is designed to move hearts, souls, and minds. Spoken words can do this, especially words that arise from the sources of revelation.

My candidate for the world’s most beautiful sermon, however, comes to me via Joseph Pieper’s little book with the catching title: Only the Lover Sings (Ignatius Press). This title is the English translation of a phrase in Augustine’s Sermon #34—Cantare, amantis est. This sermon is the second reading in the Breviary for Tuesday of the Third Week after Easter. It is a sermon about singing. It begins, indeed, as many good sermons do, with a passage from Scripture, here from Psalm 149:1: “Sing to the Lord a new song; his praise is in the assembly of the saints.” Singing implies an assembly not only of singers but of listeners.

Augustine tells us that we are to begin a new song as new men who have learned a new way. The new song, the new testament, the new law, and the new man belong together. The new song contains a new note that could not have been sung before. Something new had first to be given to us, something we could not conjure up by ourselves. A song, Augustine tells us, is a “thing of joy”. Joy, for its part, is not something that we seek. It is, as Pieper put it, a “by-product” of doing what ought to be done. No doubt something happens to words when they are sung. The very listening can be a joy, a delight.

It is here where Augustine adds that “more profoundly” to sing is “a thing of love.” To enter a new life, a new way, will thus result in learning a new song—we think of the Pange lingua and the Salve Regina. Love, for its part, is not self-seeking. Properly speaking, love is to will the good of another. It does not mean that we recognize no good in ourselves. The love of friend or neighbor is the second commandment. It too flows from God’s preserving love for what is not Himself.

Any love of another sooner or later confronts the fact that the one loved is also loved first by God with a greater love than we can offer. God’s love is what constitutes the initial bringing into being of both the lover and the beloved. This is why it is possible to love God by loving our neighbor. The “good” of another does not mean that the other self-defines his good. It means rather that an objective good constitutes the being of the one loved, a good that includes the other’s virtues.

This realization is why we can love even our enemies, and those who hate us. In them remains that good of being in which they were created. Even the being of the fallen angels and the damned remains good. Hell is constituted ultimately by our self-rejection of the good in which we were created, as it was intended to fructify in the love of God and our neighbor, not solely in ourselves.

II.

Everyone, even the lost and the damned, loves something. “The question is what to love.” The Psalms do not tell us “not to love.” They are concerned with what to love, midst the myriads of things known and available to us. They look to love’s object. Augustine then asks a remarkable question: “How can we choose unless we are first chosen?” We do not just sit out there in the universe. We are chosen to be there. Our very power of choice itself comes to us by the gift of our being what we are. Our faculties of mind, will, and sensing are themselves given to us. We do not design or create them. We find them already there for our use.

“We cannot love unless someone has loved us first.” The implications of this fact are profound. We exist indeed because of a man and a woman who are our father and mother. In the right order of things, each human being should be the gift that arises out of a marital love that, as such, did not foresee what was to come of that marital relationship. Parents know that children are possible. They have no idea that this child that turns out to be you, or me, is the one that will come to be in their care. A goodly part of human existence consists in repairing the damage when this initial relationship of proper marital love is flawed. This repair itself requires “a greater love.” Thus, Augustine cites John’s “We love him because he has first loved us.” We only know what love is by ourselves being loved. We did not invent it. We experienced it.

“The source of man’s love for God can only be found in the fact that God loved him first.” If we could love God on our own power, so to speak, we would ourselves already be God, which is clearly not the case. The whole theology of creation and its purpose is already contained in this one passage. The world was created in order that other intelligent beings, that were not God, could be invited to participate in God’s inner life. Both the ultimate object of our love, and its source, is God. This is why, in the discussions of freedom, we find that no created thing satisfies us. This realization is the source of Augustine’s famous passage in the Confessions about our restless hearts finding no final rest in anything that is not God. Augustine understood that anything that was, by nature, restless, was intended to find a place of rest—“in Thee”, as he put it.

III.

God has “given himself as the object of our love.” But knowing the “object” of our love is not enough. We must realize that its “source” is also this same God, who gives us a power beyond our nature. Indeed, we were, from the beginning, intended to achieve an end higher than our natural being. We are, by nature, “supernatural” beings, as Aquinas put it. No “natural” human beings have ever existed. All human beings have been created and destined to live the eternal life of the Godhead through the workings of Christ’s redemption. “This love is not something we generate by ourselves.” It comes “through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” In our very creation, we are already given more than our nature can expect.

We read in John’s Gospel that “God is love.” This truth is not something we think up by ourselves. It must first be explained to us by Him who knows. “Which of us would dare to pronounce the words of Scripture: God is love?” Augustine asks. The only person who could speak this truth would be one who knows what dwelling “in God” meant. “God offers to us a short route to the possession of himself.” It is up to us to take it. Our lives then are in large part realizing that we are already loved by a divine love that invites us to recognize its source, a source already within us by creation and grace.

We are to “listen” to the Holy Spirit who speaks through Christ. You are singing, and singing clearly, the Lord tells the new man. But a warning is added to remind us that illumination about what we are, our origins, is intended to alert us to our part of this love. “Be sure that your life does not contradict your words.” How do we go about singing this new song? “The answer is that his praises are in the assembly of the saints.” What does this mean? Praise “is in the singers themselves. If you desire to praise him, then live what you express. Live good lives, and you yourselves will be his praise.”

“Only the lover sings.” Love is to will the good of another. Joy is a by-product. A song is a thing of joy. “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” There is no one who does not love something. How can we choose unless we are first chosen? We cannot love unless someone has loved us first. Sing a new song to the Lord. Cantare, amantis est.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.

Comments

  1. Avatar Bernadette. Fakoory says:

    I believe Singing true praise to God occurs when we are liberated from concupisecence of the eyes and the flesh. When the eyes of our mind and soul sees by the light of the word of God substantiated in the depths of our souls. It is actually a real experience of the word of God becoming flesh in our thoughts words and deeds. This experience can only come when we have emptied ourselves and have been stripped of our egos and false impressions of ourselves and experience nothingthingness only to join God at his stage of his passion when He thirst and hungers for righteousness truth and eternal life.

    The problem is having a keen eye and a watchfulness for the utterance of the voice of the word and surrending to it and applying it promptly when we are call upon to be at the service of the word of God.

    This calls for strength determination and firm resolution to live in the will of God. Not easy. There is more to add but I would conclude here.

    Thank you.