Feast of Saints Philip and James at Mississippi Abbey
Saints Philip and James represent a blending of the practical and the meaningful that is emphasized in the gospel when Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Philip represents the practical: when Jesus asked how they were going to feed the five thousand, Philip responded in terms of the money it would cost. When Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through Him, Philip wanted Him to produce the Father then and there.
James represents the meaningful. His letter is a beautiful piece of wisdom literature in which he shows how the meaningful guides the practical. He counsels us that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19). The remainder of the letter shows how these lead us to God’s way of life.
The meaningful guides the practical. That is wisdom, the art of living well. The meaningful answers the two questions: “What is my good, my greatest good?” and “How do I achieve it?” The gospel tells us God is our greatest good. To help us know God we have been given two long-standing characteristics.
The first is that we take ourselves seriously. Taking ourselves seriously means we are not prepared to take ourselves just as we come. We critique ourselves because we want our thoughts, feelings, choices, and behavior to make sense. We put a lot of work into this!
The second characteristic is that we long to get it right. We need to direct ourselves, or believe we are directing ourselves, in thoughtful conformity to some norm, some way of life. We want to know what goals to pursue, what limits to respect. We want to be clear about what counts as good reasons to make particular choices. It is important to us to know what is important to us! This is why St. Benedict gave us a Rule of Life.
God gave us this ability to take ourselves seriously and to want to get it right so that we will see the importance of what we care about.
Then, He gave us Jesus Christ, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The conformity between self and reality that is Truth is found in the heart, in what we care about most. Jesus, the Sacred Heart, shows us what about ourselves to take seriously: It is that we are made in the likeness of God. As the Way and the Life, He shows us how to get it right; how to recover that likeness.
The Way is Love. Love is a Life that is ordered by two desires: a desire for the good of the beloved and a desire for union with the beloved. These distinguish our Trinitarian God. If we are to take our likeness to Him seriously, these desires must distinguish us. To “get it right” both desires must drive us and truth must guide us.
But there is a hitch: As I recall, it is one of the marks of bad character that, as it develops, one becomes progressively less able to understand where he went wrong. It is important, then, to have resources for making right judgments and taking right actions; resources for explaining how we fail and how we can do better. We need practically usable answers to the questions, “What is my good?” and “How can I achieve it?” In short, we need a story that tells us what the greatest good is that we may organize our lives around it. And it must be the truth; the ultimate truth. The gospel is that story. We need the power to live by it. It is said that “truth hurts.” It can’t be shoved down one’s throat. Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it for yourself. Truth’s power comes from our recognition of it and from our consent to it.