“The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs” (Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P., My Way of Life).
St. Leo the Great must surely have felt the truth of this as he walked out unarmed to halt the impending hordes of Attila the Hun. Attila had rampaged through Northern Italy and would soon have proceeded to pillage Rome, had not the Pope, with no defense save the grace of Christ, turned him back.
“Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts” (Farrell).
Even when he was not confronting invading barbarians, St. Leo had to defend a Church pressured by errors on every side. In the West, some Pelagian clergy, thinking that God’s activity threatens our free will, excluded God from the beginning of man’s quest for God. In the East, some fell into the error of Eutyches, thinking that the supreme power of Christ’s divinity must smother His humanity into one nature. Even in Rome itself, Manichaeism was looting souls by pitting matter against spirit as the domains of two eternal antagonists.
Against all these attacks, St. Leo boldly proclaimed the person of Jesus Christ, who is “true God born in the undiminished and perfect nature of a true man, complete in what is his and complete in what is ours” (Tome of Leo).
“The great truths that must flood the mind of man with light are the limitless perfection of God and the perfectibility of man. The enticements that must captivate the heart of man are the divine goodness of God and man’s gratuitously given capacity to share that divine life, to begin to possess that divine goodness even as he walks among the things of earth. The truths are not less certain because they are too clear for our eyes. The task before our heart is not to hold a fickle lover, but to spend itself” (Farrell).
All the errors Leo faced were attempts to dim the light of mystery, to make Christ, true God and true man, all too visible to our understanding. Thus they reduced the living God to a “fickle lover” who must be impressed by our good deeds, a bully who drives out what is authentically human, or an aloof spirit who could have nothing to do with flesh. But in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, we see both the blinding “perfection of God and the perfectibility of man.” In Jesus we see the God who does not need to compete with His creatures but rather invites them to cooperate with Him. In Jesus we see a man who reveals to man the heights to which he can be drawn.
“If man begins life with wisdom lent by God, he ends by possessing that wisdom; if he guides his steps by a light that is not his own along a road too high and hard for his feet, he ends united to that eternal Light, and at home forever in a world that is God’s” (Farrell).
Image: Raphael, The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila