Solemnity of St. Louis IX, King of France
Today we are celebrating the Solemnity of St. Louis, who is the patron saint of our beautiful city. King Louis IX, among other accomplishments, brought the crown of thorns to France where he built one of the most gorgeous chapels ever created called the Sainte Chapelle in order to house the relic. When Pierre Laclede first landed here on the west side of the Mississippi and founded a trading post, he dedicated it to St. Louis, for whom he had a particular devotion.
Louis wanted his kingdom to continue to be governed with justice and charity after his death, so he wrote his son a letter giving him advice. He begins with perhaps the best advice a father could ever give to a son. He writes, “My dear son, in the first place I teach you that you must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your strength; unless you do so you cannot be saved. You must guard yourself from everything that you know is displeasing to God, that is to say, from all mortal sin. You must be ready to undergo every kind of martyrdom rather than commit one mortal sin.”
If you were given a choice, to come suddenly to the end of your earthly life or to commit a single mortal sin and live on, which would you choose? I have to admit, I’d be sorely tempted to go ahead and sin, because I know full well that the confessional is always available, that God always forgives. Louis would not be happy with that answer, though! For one thing, it pridefully presumes mercy on God’s part, taking advantage of his promises and care for us. Second, it completely misunderstands the relationship of the human soul to its destiny. The human being is made for one purpose, to know and love God. When we align ourselves with that purpose we truly live, when we depart from it we slip into a sort of degraded version of life and eventually into eternal death. Louis is quite clear, if you must give your life up in order to avoid a mortal sin, by all means give it up! Why? Because a mortal sin causes the death of the soul, it removes us from the love of God, and we find that we have abandoned the very source of our being. The body will be resurrected, and preserving the soul for that day is far more important than trying to save the body here and now.
Again, that’s a tall order.
I suppose the real question is – How does the love of God change a person?
The very first piece of advice Louis offers is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” This is also the first and most important command of God to the Israelites, and the summary of all the law that Our Lord provides. This divine virtue is at the heart of the human soul.
The Church teaches that love is a virtue, meaning that it is an act of the will. We choose to love, and our choice to do so is connected intimately with our personhood. In the natural world, we are able to love, sometimes very well. But because it’s an act of the will, the choice to do so is often imperfect or wavering, it takes a certain amount of willpower that we lack. Most of us feel this lack and worry it, which because it also concerns the human soul causes a crisis of identity – we forget why we were created and that our happiness lies in resting in God’s love. My theology teacher in seminary tells a story about years ago when he was an atheist and his wife was expecting their first child. He was riding home with her on the subway, looking at her, and suddenly realized that he didn’t have enough love within himself to love his son the way his son truly deserved to be loved. So who would love him? There must be some other, perfect love out there – that love is God.
That love is God. His grace completes our incompleteness and perfects us where we fall short. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses into us the ability to love not only according to our natural capacity but also in a supernatural capacity. With God’s help, we are able to love to an infinite degree. We are given the strength to love those around us, even when we don’t want to, to forgive, to overlook faults, and even make sacrifices on behalf of others.
How does the love of God change a person?
To have God’s love imprinted onto your heart is a soul-shaping event. Pope Benedict XVI says, “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This is true religion, an encounter with Christ, and once you have met him you are never the same.
St. Peter sees it in a flash of insight. This is the Son of the living God. From that moment on his life is turned upside down. St. Louis saw it, and he was so upended that he came to consider death a better option than to betray even for a moment that love which had made its home within him. Religion is an encounter with Christ, to have his love buried deeply within you, to feel the living pulse of all Creation, so that the old person passes away and you are re-made from the inside out. Suddenly, we live for heaven and not for earth. The only choice is to seek what is above and scorn what is below, and the miracle of it all is that God places that love which we strive to attain within our very hearts.
O Lord, your love is eternal.