Celebrating Priesthood: Fr Gerald Vann OP
I think the reason why The Divine Pity touches me and so many others so deeply is that it reflects the struggles of a man who felt compelled to speak the truth about how we as Christians should be, and how we all too often act. Fr Gerald seems to have had a particular hatred for selfishness and indifference, two things that he thinks are the most deadly for the life of charity within the soul. With great flair he managed to write a book of just under 200 pages within which so much practical Christian wisdom and teaching is contained that it could almost be seen as a course in the spiritual life. Again and again he points out the potential pitfalls of emphasising any particular aspect of the virtuous life out of proportion so that it becomes a distortion and is not in fact virtue at all. The book takes as its structure the beatitudes and indeed the subtitle of it is ‘A Study in the Social Implications of the Beatitudes’.
Fr Gerald begins his exploration of the beatitudes with the importance of our teleological end, namely: God made us to know Him, love Him, serve Him and so to be happy. He follows his brother St. Thomas in this approach. Making clear that Christian virtue is related to but distinct from how it was understood by the Greeks, he points out that in the labour required to gain the habits of prudence, justice et al there is the same self-mastery that we find in the Greeks, but that this is only half the picture. For the Christian, the human being is to be a master but also a child. For virtue to be a part of religion it must genuinely be an act of worship, an act offered for God, to God, and with God and not have the human being himself as the focus.
In the first chapter, where his approach to the beatitudes is introduced, Fr Gerald first mentions one of the core concepts of the book: that to be a happy and holy Christian is not primarily a question of doing but of being. The virtues lived perfectly are not something that we do but something by which we are possessed. In an age where the fear of what doing nothing might bring pushes almost everyone to embrace a culture of activism, it is such a relief to read that all we really have to do is to let God take over. The anxieties and neuroses that are the product of a semi-Pelagian attitude must be left behind, says Fr Gerald. The feeling that we must make everything happen has no place here, it is not a Christian approach.
Fr Gerald sees poverty of spirit as a child-like dependence on God. It is the opposite of pride which attempts to be autonomous, which wills to be its own master. The book was published in 1945 at the end of the Second World War when the world had just seen the utter failure and horror of a system that put Man at the centre. He sees this failure as inevitable since we cannot just be human. Either we accept the gift that God wishes to give us and become more than human, or we reject it and therefore become less than human. For Christ is the key to understanding true humanity.
This true humanity requires purity of heart and it is this purity that enables us to see God. Fr Gerald quotes St. Thomas who says that the life of vision is not in the first half of the beatitudes, which are the conditions required for happiness, for the life of vision is not a means to happiness but happiness itself. He sees temperateness as a central aspect of this beatitude since it concerns how to enjoy people, animals and things for themselves and not as a means to an end. A metaphor for temperateness can be the reverence with which a connoisseur treats a rare and expensive wine. This is the reverence that the Christian should have for all things. Temperateness is not restricted to the use of food and alcohol and it is not a restrictive, negative quality but a positive creative trait which is essential if we wish to love. As we genuflect when we pass the Blessed Sacrament, are we to ignore the presence of God in those who have just received him at the altar? If we learn to see things rightly by seeing God within them, then we learn to make our whole lives a unity. Instead of an agglomerate of unconnected interests, we become a single and all-inclusive fire.
It is this holy fire of divine love, which as it consumes us makes us into itself, that I found in this book and which has been such an inspiration to me. Since I first read The Divine Pity I have retained a great love for this work and a great admiration for Fr Gerald Vann. I wish that I could have met him in this life, but please God I shall meet him in the next.