Isaiah 26:1-6; 55:6; Matthew 7:21, 24-27
In the 12th century the people of Pisa, Italy could say like Judah in the first reading, A strong city have we (Isaiah 26:1). A military, political, and economic force, they had recently triumphed over Palermo in Sicily and returned home with the fortunes of war – millions in booty and a shipload of soil from Golgotha in the Holy Land. Eager to show off their wealth, the people set aside a large plot of land called the Field of Miracles and in it filled a new cemetery with the sacred soil, built a majestic cathedral and baptistery, and set to work on what was to be the largest bell tower in the world – 200 feet high.
Unfortunately, Pisa could also say that the Lord humbles those in high places (Isaiah 26:5). Before it had risen 3 floors it was obvious the tower was leaning. Perhaps they forgot that the word Pisa is Greek for marshy land, its ground too soft to support such a structure. Construction stopped and started for centuries as different architects tried different things, all with the same result: Fixed on one side, the tower would lean the other. By 1990 it leaned so badly that it had to be closed to the public. Finally, after millions in repairs it reopened, still leaning. As one expert said, “Sandy and soggy ground is definitely not ideal for tall, heavy towers unless they have rock solid foundations.”
As we begin a new Church year in these early days of Advent let us consider our own spiritual foundation. Like ancient Pisa we have been given so much. We are a strong city – the City of God. Strong walls and ramparts protect us – the four walls of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We have neither the marshland of Pisa nor the dirt of Golgotha but something infinitely better: The Father, the eternal Rock (Isaiah 26:4), his Only Son who died on Golgotha giving birth to the Church, and the Holy Spirit sent by them to guide her into all truth. And we have every tool needed to build our faith: Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching authority vested by Christ in his Church.
But all of that goes for nothing if we build our faith on the sand of ourselves and not on the rock foundation of God. How do we do that? By reading Scripture with our own mind rather than the mind of the Church; failing to give the assent of faith to Church teachings we find difficult; following whatever preaching tickles our ear; taking for granted or ignoring the Sacraments as the means of receiving sanctifying grace; and failing to see all people, especially those we don’t like, as made in the image and likeness of God and loved infinitely by him as we are.
These and many more are like the soft, marshy soil below the tower of Pisa. Like that tower, a faith built on human weakness will lean and no amount of stopping and starting, tinkering and refining will fix it. It must be torn to the ground and rebuilt on the foundation of Christ and his Church, for we must take the faith as it is, not as we would like it to be.
This is painful but growth often is; to be fertile and capable of bearing fruit, soil must be dug into, plowed, upturned and weeded. It’s no different in the spiritual life; we must go deep into our minds and hearts, tear them open if need be, do all that we can to prepare them for the foundation of Christ. This will require that we come to him by repenting, admitting our weaknesses and failings, and resolving to amend our lives; trusting in God and all that he has revealed, whether we fully understand it or not.
These first two weeks of Advent are a time set aside by the Church for exactly this. Now is the time! As the gospel acclamation says, call to him while he is still near (Isaiah 55:6). In the end each of us will stand before him from one of two places: A tower of faith built solidly on the rock of Christ or one built on sand. The Master Builder has already given us his advice; we find it in Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
In other words, remember the tower of Pisa: When we lean on our own understanding, we simply lean.