Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Our Lady Help of Christians, Kindness and Douceur de Vivre
Saint of the Day, Tuesday, May 24, 1966
Today is such a great feast – Our Lady Help of Christians – that it almost eclipses the great feast of tomorrow, which is St. Gregory’s, pope and confessor.
I want to end the considerations about Our Lady Help of Christians with a note I think is very important.
There is something pervasive in today’s mentality and the socialist mentality that presents the social question in the following way: all men have certain rights. When a man is fully enjoying his rights, he has everything he needs. So, an act of kindness, caring, a completely gratuitous act of love has no reason to exist. Everything is charged for. I have rights, and I claim them like a bill of exchange. And when a person fulfills a need of need, it corresponds to my right, and I do not have to thank him. I just got what I was entitled to.
It is like, for example, I go to a bank, present a check, and get paid the amount stated in it. I may want to say “thank you” to the cashier, but just out of courtesy because it is well understood that I have no obligation to thank him. The check gives me an absolute right to the amount paid to me.
Accordingly, all human relationships would be reduced to a game of checks. A poor person, for example, has the right to eat, the right to freedom, the right to dignity, and the right to I-don’t-know-what else. If he has the right, he demands it, and others are doing him no favor by acknowledging it.
Thus, that old notion of charity, kindness, the act of rendering a service out of love or sympathy; granting an advantage that is not mandatory, which we give because we want to, this old notion disappears and everything is resolved strictly in a play of rights.
Even more, the idea of kindness and charity is over. They get in the way of concepts. We do not know what they mean. Someone could say: “Dr. Plinio, the idea of goodness would fit within this conception in that I see everything I am entitled to, but someone who values me gives me more than what I’m entitled to.” There is not much room for this conception because it means, “I give you what you’re entitled to. If you want more, deserve it. Now fend for yourself, make an effort, and obtain what you want. You are a useless fool, and I will not give it to you. Make an effort, jump into life’s competition and get it. Do not expect esteem. Do not expect pity. Do not expect charity; do not expect love.” This is accounting all the way down the line in all sorts of things that play into the game of claims, and these claims constitute human relationships. There is nothing but that.
People transpose this way of seeing things to the supernatural order. This transposition goes like this: I do not understand what the goodness of God wanted to do for me. If I do a good deed, let God reward me; if I do a bad act, let God hit me over the head. Since I did an evil deed, I do not understand nor ask Him to do anything for me because it does not make sense. Let him give it to me, and even more, I have a feeling that He wants to give it to me. And my head wants to be beaten because that is in the logic of things. Forget about charity or kindness! I did Him a bad thing, so what sense does it make for Him to come and smile and be kind to me? No sir! Give it to me because I do not even want to receive anything that is not this. Either I get what I am entitled to, or I do not want to get anything. I am based on my right and it’s over!
Hence modern man fails to understand a series of things that stood out a lot in ancient piety. At times, there is even a danger that this may seem laxity, which is not. On the contrary, it is a refinement of piety. First of all, we must understand that the relationships among men have something of what I have just said above but are not reduced to that. Our relationship with God also has something of that but is not even remotely reduced to that. In them, on the contrary, the goodness factor is paramount. Gratuitous kindness, the outpouring of mercy, pity, continual assistance, charity from God to us! And we, before God, are little, powerless, often sinners, but finding in our own littleness, in our own zero, and even in the very sin into which we have fallen, the reason to expect mercy.
In other words, this is a completely different order of ideas. It is an order of ideas based on three concepts:
First, the concept of Creation. We were nothing, and God took us out of nothing and gave us everything He gave us and is continually keeping us and maintaining us in being. So this fundamental and free benefit is being renewed in us at all times.
Second, the Redemption of mankind. We sinned in the person of Adam and in the person of Eve, fell under the effects of that sin, and became a cursed race enslaved to the devil. Therefore, we are conceived in sin and are already born slaves of the devil. Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, became incarnate and redeemed us, and because of that, we, so to speak, received the benefit of Creation a second time.
From a certain point of view, Redemption is a new creation more precious than the Creation itself. Because if I had not been created it would have been a great disgrace for me, but only in the sense that I would not have being, but would not be eternally unhappy. What would it be like without the Redemption? How would they open the gates of heaven for me? I would be in hell, something absolutely awful! So Redemption is a second benefit. These benefits were given to us without us deserving them. They were given to us out of pure love, and it is imperative that we reciprocate with love and love God selflessly; that we want to do good things for God as God did good things for us. So let us love Him and strive to dedicate ourselves to Him. As Saint Teresa of Jesus says, “I would love Thee even if there were no heaven; I would fear Thee even if there were no hell.” It is a disinterested love because He is He; because Our Lady is Our Lady. Thus, this bond is established for this reason.
That later repeats itself in the episodes of our life. In addition to our emptiness as creatures and then as children of sin, we commit other sins and gather new reasons to need forgiveness to which we are not entitled. And even when we do not sin – as Saint Therese the Little Flower aptly put it-- it is also a huge reason for gratitude because it was God who removed tremendous occasions of sin from our path, without which we would probably have sinned.
So we are under an accumulation of debts, debts which are not reduced to little checks. They must be paid in the only possible way: love is paid with love. Disinterested love is paid with disinterested love. And the first element in paying for love is accepting and humbly understanding that we need help as a child. In this sense, we must have a spirit of spiritual childhood toward Our Lord, not making huge accounts and seeking to be great men in the eyes of God but receiving everything, everything, everything with a kind of holy unceremoniousness, realizing that this is our condition.
So here comes the foundation of the idea of Our Lady Help of Christians. She helps us in that She is all the time giving us mercy, giving us favors to which we have no rights. She gives it all to us with an overabundance of love, with an overabundance of tenderness, with an overabundance of forgiving smiles, often going ahead of us by giving us what we did not ask for, giving us more than we asked for, giving us things that, at times, in our wickedness, we would not even want to receive.
So here you have the idea of Our Lady’s help. This idea is all bathed in the principle that relationships between man and God are not based only on strict justice – which naturally also enters into these relationships – but to a huge extent, are also made of mercy. This mercy is goodness given not out of justice but because goodness wanted to give, and that is it.
In earthly life, we find a reflection of this in our relationships with one another. Not everything is resolved by justice, although there is also justice. But there is this goodness whereby one is inflexible with a sinner hardened in his sin, which we call a fassur, like Judas Iscariot. A fassur is properly speaking, a sinner hardened in his sin who does not want to get out of it. I am not saying there is no mercy for him, but the note of justice is very tonic, high, and dynamic here. He is a man marked by the wrath of God, one who the Bagarre will catch if death does not catch him first. By contrast, an ultramontane who has the misfortune of committing some sin will see floods of mercy as long as he does not sin, intending to abuse mercy and continue to sin. If he truly wants to amend, correct himself and make progress—even if his will is weak or hesitant, Our Lady’s mercy is there for him.
This applies to our relationships with one another. Our convivium cannot be a continuous confrontation about rights because it would lead to an execrable, unbearable Calvinist coexistence. The outpouring of mercy and goodness is the foundation of that atmosphere in which civilization bathed before the French Revolution. That led the most intelligent and most squalid Talleyrand to say that famous phrase: “Whoever did not live before the Revolution did not know the douceur de vivre.” That sweetness of living then disappeared in such a way, and its remnants are disappearing in such a way that I do not even know if it’s still possible to speak of remnants.
I would like to emphasize something about this mercy, this douceur de vivre, and that is respect. Respect even for those who do not give many reasons to be respected. Gentlemanly respect, respect full of courtesy, consideration, respect out of kindness and generosity but in such a way that our dealings are always and always respectful.
This is a very important note in our relationships and represents a kind of permanent forgiveness. Permanent forgiveness – here the parable applies – is the condition for us also to be forgiven. Using the old formula, forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Here then is the idea of Our Lady Help of Christians: continual forgiveness, continual kindness. It is also the affirmation of this principle of the gratuity of favors, gratuity of forgiveness as a fundamental element of the relationship between God and us and between and our neighbors. And then the introduction of the all-important note of respect within that.
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I will just read the biography of St. Gregory VII. I would feel remorse if I did not read this note today about a saint so important to us and included in our special litany.
“Through his teaching and action, he affirmed and defended the pope’s rights over the Church and temporal society. An example of intransigence, courage, and confidence in supernatural means. His relic is venerated in our chapel. 11th century.”
This is taken from the Life of the Saints by Rohrbacher. It is an excerpt from a letter of St. Gregory VII to the Countess Saint Matilde.
“I remind you that, among the weapons which I give you with the help of God against the prince of this world, the main ones are to receive the Body of the Lord frequently and to have a stalwart and complete trust in his Holy Mother. Behold that St. Ambrose, in Book IV on the Sacraments, says: If we announce the Lord’s death, we announce the forgiveness of sins. If the Blood of the Lord is shed every time for the remission of sins, I must receive it so that my sins may always be forgiven. Sinning always, I must always take medicine. If there is daily bread, why do you receive it once a year as the Greeks in the East? Receive it each day so that each day may be profitable for you. Live in a way that you may deserve to receive it every day.
Dearest daughter of St. Peter, I wanted to write you these things to increase your confidence in receiving the Body of the Lord. For this is the treasure, these are the gifts not of gold or precious stones which your soul expects from me for the sake of your Father, the Sovereign of Heaven, although you may, according to your merits, better receive them from other pontiffs.
As for the Mother of the Lord, whom I have specially recommended to you and will not fail to do so until we are fortunate enough to see Her as we desire, what shall I say about Her? She, whom Heaven and Earth do not cease to praise although they cannot praise Her worthily? Doubt not that She is all the more elevated, better, and holier than any mother as She is gracious to and gentle with repentant sinners. So hate sin and weep prostrated before Her with a contrite and humbled heart. I promise you without hesitation that you will find Her readier than any carnal mother and more tender in loving you.”
“This letter from St. Gregory VII is quite remarkable. It shows us a wonder that the world no longer understands. That mighty genius who in a single glance encompassed all domains, benefits and ills of humanity, who attacked vices and disorders at the same time and everywhere, who feared no obstacle; who, to the men of his time, seemed firmer and more unbreakable than heaven and earth, this mighty genius had great piety, ardent devotion to the Holy Eucharist, filial confidence in the Blessed Virgin, and tender compassion for human weakness. See that he lived on this supernatural wisdom that strongly affects everything and sweetly disposes of everything.”
This comment is so splendid that it dispenses with side comments.