by Humbert of Romans
This week has been filled with tragedy, and preachers around the world stepped into the pulpit or on the ambo to preach to a world shaken by senselessness, to bring aid and comfort to the souls of Christ’s flock. As we approach the task, once again, of preaching on the Lord’s Nativity, we should take full account of what good preaching is (and what bad preaching consists of) and take every measure to assure our superior performance of this sacramental action.
XVIII. Conditions Favorable for Discharging This Office Well
Among the conditions favorable for preaching well, freedom from all other occupations must take first place. That is why the Apostles assigned the care of the table to the deacons, in order that they could devote themselves more freely to preaching, saying:
“It is not desirable that we should forsake the word of God and serve at tables” (Acts 6:2).
Our Lord said to a disciple who asked permission to go to bury his father:
“Leave the dead to bury their own dead: but do thou go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
St. Paul, for the same reason, stopped administering baptism, saying:
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (I Cor. 1:17).
When such holy men believe it their duty to give up these pious works to be more free to devote themselves to preaching, who much more willingly ought the preacher to put aside all other work so that he may be free from all distractions and have the liberty to serve the true sons of Abraham according to the spirit.
Another thing helpful to the preacher is a tranquility of soul, a freedom from all disturbance; for uneasiness is an obstacle to the work of the preacher, and St. Gregory remarks that it belongs to the tranquil and detached spirit to speak of God; for the tongue is carefully controlled in discourse, when the spirit rests in a perfect truth.
Also of advantage in this office, is a knowledge of all that the profane sciences have to offer for use for the composition of sermons. As a builder gathers from many sources whatever he needs for his edifice, so too the preacher has recourse to many sources for his material. The gloss applies the text of Paralipomenon:
“Then Josaphat came and all the people with him to take away the spoils of the dead” (II Par. 20:25),
to the holy doctors who gather from the enemies discourses, writings, and lectures on physics, ethics, logic, and so forth – spoils very useful to the Church. The result is that the vain knowledge of the enemies becomes for the faithful a rich treasure, and a most helpful means of sanctification. Far more profitable still are the arguments which Holy Scripture furnishes for every question. It is necessary, says St. Gregory, that anyone preparing to preach seek the first causes of things in the sacred Books in order to support what he says with divine authority and to establish his whole discourse upon this unshakable foundation. It will be no less advantageous to mingle prayer with work, for the power of prayer renders preaching more efficacious. St. Augustine says with good reason,
“Whoever speaks ought, as far as possible, to speak of just and holy matters, in order to be heard with pleasure, understanding, and docility; but if he is successful, he must not doubt that it is due to prayer more than to rhetoric; he ought to pray, therefore, both for himself and for his auditors, and he ought to be a man of prayer, before being a teacher.”
To strengthen this personal prayer, we should also obtain the prayers of others. That is why St. Paul, who was both a great teacher and preacher, putting all his trust in the prayers of others, said to the Christians of Thessalonica:
“In conclusion, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified even as among you (II Thess. 3:1).
From time to time the preacher should also renew his strength by rest. In the ordinary walks of life, indeed, men rest from their work, so that they may return to their employment with greater zest. The preacher should to the same in order to regain his strength, and so discharge his office more capably. Thus, the workers employed by Solomon to cut down the cedars of Lebanon, and who prefigured preachers, according to the gloss, took a rest of two months, resuming their work on the third month. The rest of the preacher, however, should not be one of complete idleness; but should be used for reading, study, and meditation, all of which will later benefit his preaching. This is the thought of St. Gregory who recommends to preachers to
“assimilate in contemplation what they will pass on to their neighbor, when the time comes to preach the word of God.”
It is still more important for the preacher to fortify himself beforehand against the danger of falling into certain faults easily committed in preaching. For just as a sailor would be culpable if he indulged his liking for fishing, and neglected to forearm himself against storms and other dangers which the sailors life causes him to risk; so the preacher would be foolhardy who exposed himself to the occasion of sin, while zealously working to save others. This is what prompted our Lord to utter those grave words:
“For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his own souls?” (Matt 16:26.)
It is also salutary after having preached, to make a thorough examination of conscience. For the prudent preacher, when he has returned home, has need of entering within himself and considering thoroughly all that he has just done, in order to purify himself from the stains he has contracted, and to repair the losses he has suffered, just as a traveler, arriving at an inn, cleans and repairs his shoes so that he may resume his journey under better conditions. For this reason the prophet Ezekiel, on his return from the fields, was told:
“Go and shut thyself up in the midst of they house” (Ezek. 3:24).
St. Gregory comments that after laboring in the fields of the Lord and having administered to his neighbor the grace of doctrine, the preacher is commanded to retire in order that he may enter within his conscience and examine it minutely.
Let us recommend again the observance of silence, after the example of Ezekiel who said:
“And I came to them of the captivity . . . and I sat where they sat: and I remained there seven days, mourning in the midst of them. And at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me” (Ezek. 3:15,16).
Note well, says St. Gregory, that the prophet had been sent by heaven to preach and, nevertheless, he remained silent for seven days, doing nothing but weeping; for he alone can speak according to the truth, who has known how to keep silence. The observance of silence is the nourishment of the word.
Let us also recommend sanctity; for according to Ecclesiasticus
“the soul of a holy man discovereth sometimes true things more than seven watchman that sit in a high place to watch” (Ecclus. 37:18).
This causes St. Gregory to say that the habitual practice of holy love will help preaching more than the knowledge acquired by experience.
In conclusion let us advise that great care and circumspection must precede the sermon, for in all things he who plans carefully beforehand what he wishes to do and know it is to be done produces the greater effect. The preacher should follow this example:
“And I went out by night,” says Esdras, “by the gate of the valley; and I viewed the wall of Jerusalem which was broken down, and the gates thereof which were consumed with fire” (II Esd. 2:13).
On this text the Venerable Bede observes that Esdras had encircled the ruins, in order to study carefully the best means of rebuilding them. In the same way spiritual teachers must keep watch during the night, while others are asleep, carefully examining the state of the Church and determining, on the other hand, how to repair the damage inflicted on themselves during combat with vice.
This is an excerpt from the Preachers Institute publication: