The creation of a pearl is one of Mother Nature’s miracles and one of her prized secrets. Unlike other gems which are mined, pearls are made by live oysters (mollusks) far below the surface of the sea. Pearls are rare, beautiful, valuable, and purchased at a high price.
The life of a pearl begins as a grain of sand or external irritant which pierces an oyster’s shell and lodges itself within. It cannot be expelled. The oyster protects itself from the irritant by secreting nacre, a smooth, hard, crystalline substance, to encase the irritant, layer upon layer.
Nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is made up of millions of crystals, each aligned perfectly so that the light passing along the axis of one crystal is also reflected and refracted by the other crystals to produce a brilliant tapestry of light and color. The greater the pearl’s iridescence, the more precious its value. No human effort can recreate a pearl outside this biological phenomenon. It is Mother Nature’s sheer gift to us.
The Pearl in the New Testament
It is no wonder then that a pearl is mentioned in the New Testament as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. And faith is a precious jewel. When a merchant in search of fine pearls finds one of great price, he goes out and sells all that he has and buys it (Mt 13:45). He must have the pearl; nothing is too costly for him. In 1917, Morton Plant, the owner of the mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd St. in New York City, sold the building to Pierre Cartier, a New York jeweler, for $100 and a double strand of natural pearls admired by Plant’s wife, Mae. At the time, the pearls were valued at $1 million USD.
Avery Dulles (d 2008) and the Pearl of Great Price
For centuries, men and women have paid dearly for the pearl of great price. Avery Dulles was raised in the Presbyterian faith-tradition. His paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent Presbyterian ministers. Yet, in his young adulthood, he turned to a thorough-going agnosticism. Supernatural religion belonged to the realm of myth. However, at Harvard University, he read Plato, Aristotle, and Etienne Gilson. They liberated him from the pragmatism, relativism, and the subjectivism of modern philosophy” (Patrick Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., 26). Professor Paul Doolin, himself a convert to Catholicism and a committed intellectual, had a great influence on the student.
A random walk along the banks of the River Charles one day, a long look at the young buds on the branches of a tree, the awareness of an intelligence behind that tree, a silent utterance of the Our Father, an inward look into self and his own acceptance of the existence of God as something more like intuition–all these began to point in one direction—toward belief in God. After his religious experience at the River Charles, he resolved to read and meditate on at least one chapter from the New Testament every day. He could not get beyond his objection to Christ’s miracles, and most of all, his Resurrection. He also began attending Sunday services in various faith-traditions. Disillusioned with Protestant churches he frequented, he attended Mass one day, but instead of being attracted to it, he was repulsed by the elaborate ritual and bad statuary. Much time elapsed before he entered a Catholic Church and before he acquired an appreciation of the exceptional beauty of Catholic ceremonies. He began attending High Mass on Sundays, the Lenten services, and the liturgies of Holy Week. The decisive act of faith was still wanting due to the sugary sentimentalism of church art. But his encounter with Christ and a faith based on secure theological foundations took priority over statuary. He returned to primary sources: Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure as well as to Catholic philosophers, including Jacques Maritain, Fathers D’Arcy and C.C. Martindale, and Fulton Sheen.
Immediately after graduation, Avery began courses for a law degree at Harvard. For him, the act of faith still presented a stumbling block because of his firm skepticism. Because he valued intellectual honesty, he could not bring himself to surrender just yet what he valued most. It was necessary to put away every doubt and to commit oneself without reservation.
Avery had to face his family with the decision he was about to take. When he did, they registered a strong reaction. His family was not anti-Catholic, but they considered Catholicism at a lower social and intellectual level than the Presbyterian faith-tradition. For them, Avery was turning his back on a long family heritage and “entering a religious tradition they considered authoritarian and spiritually superficial” (Carey, 55).
Avery’s father, John Foster, a Princeton alumnus and the future Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, was practicing law in 1940 in the prestigious New York firm, Sullivan and Cromwell. Today, in the Princeton University Oral Archives, there is an important record of John Foster Dulles seeking advice from a colleague on a day that he describes as the worst day of his life. His son was on the verge of becoming a Catholic. John Foster held in his hand a letter intended for his son, telling him never to speak with him again and never to call him because this intolerable news meant that he was dead to his father. After several hours of pleading, the law partner persuaded John Foster not to send the letter. Though successful, John Foster never came to grips with his son’s conversion. After Avery’s baptism, he wrote: “That I did eventually make the act of faith is attributable solely to the grace of God. I could never have done so by my own power” (Testimonial to Grace, 60). The cost was great, but the pearl, even greater. His path to the Catholic Church was straight, but it was long and steep. Grace had built on nature, and unbelief was transformed into faith, a faith which led him to enter the Society of Jesus, to become a prominent theologian, and finally to be appointed as Cardinal, an honor which never affected his accessibility to students and faculty alike.
Catholics on the Hot Seat
For years, critics and talk show hosts have interviewed famous Catholics from Evelyn Waugh to Ross Douthat and Newt Gingrich. Implicit in their questions: why do you stay; why have you come in?
Conversion is the most fundamental of human options. Some prospective converts who were on the verge of becoming Catholics, for example, have not been able to take that final step. And, many former Catholics have left with no intention of returning or of belonging to the Church. Perhaps people leave because of a “teaching which runs counter to their patterns of behavior. It may be an intellectual or emotional difficulty which calls for resolution.” (Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, 250). We cannot know why people leave the Church and whether they have found other pearls of great price.
Today, we hear that people are Christian-ish, but not sectarian. Doing good to others—the horizontal relationships of society, locates transcendence for them solely in the present. The vertical relationship, the encounter with God in prayer is not considered so that prayer leads to service or others, and service leads back to prayer. Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey belong to this syncretic Christianity, civic, flexible, and easygoing. A doctrine challenged by science can be easily abandoned. (Ross Douthat, “Ideas from a Manger,” NY Times, Dec 21, 2013). This stance is attractive because one can claim to be a generic Christian without being affiliated with any one faith-tradition.
Recently, Bill Moyers interviewed Thomas Cahill, author of the series, “The Hinges of History.” Moyers was interested in the author’s views of the Jesuit Pope Francis as well as some insights into Cahill’s latest in the series: Heroes and Heretics. A brilliant writer trained by the Jesuits, Cahill was himself a member of the Society of Jesus for several years. Heroes and Heretics is not popular history, as advertised, but hugely entertaining rhetoric – high-class gossip suited to a cocktail party where the author holds forth on selective historical figures. Pages on Boccaccio, a nod to Dante! For Catholic clergy, he conveys a tone of vindictiveness painting them in dark sinister colors against a backdrop of eroticism. His sharpest derision however is reserved for St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, without ever mentioning how grace transforms nature and sublimates its negative qualities. Absent is Providence, expressed in the dictum that God writes straight with crooked lines. The book is diatribe.
The Bill Moyers’ interview, abbreviated here, went as follows:
Moyers: Is this pope a hero or a heretic?
Cahill: Well, in the book that I just wrote, most of the heretics are heroes, and most of the heroes are heretics. So it’s a little hard to tell . . . .
Moyers: It’s too soon.
Cahill: . . . I would say that the last several popes have been largely surprises.
Moyers: John Paul, Benedict?
Cahill: Well, let’s go back to John XXIII. The people who elected him thought that he would be an interim. He was a fat, old man. And he was very pleasant. And they thought he would just be pleasant. Well, they made a big mistake because John XXIII changed the Catholic Church and would’ve changed it a lot more, in my opinion, had he lasted a little bit longer. Then you got John Paul II [who] was elected because they thought he was a liberal. . . . Benedict, to tell the truth, mostly liked to sit at his piano and play Mozart, which is a nice thing to do. But it’s not very helpful to the papacy. . . . In his exhortation, Francis constantly speaks of Christians. He never talks about Catholics. He says [that] Christians have to go out and take care of the poor. Well, he’s talking to everyone. He’s not just talking to Catholics. He’s passing that by. Which is to me, extremely refreshing.
Moyers: So where do you place yourself? Are you a believing Christian but not a practicing Catholic?
Cahill: I am a believing Christian who is equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually every church.
Moyers: Why is that?
Cahill: I just don’t think that it matters that much. I think that . . . in the 16th and 17th centuries, we killed one another over doctrine. . . . Is it really necessary to kill one another? Couldn’t we just disagree? And then you have the beginning of a new era. And it’s time that we got past the largely silly divisions, theological divisions which really don’t count … because people don’t care about these things anymore.
Moyers: What do you think they care about? Or what do you care about?
Cahill: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. That’s Christianity. The rest of it isn’t worth a hill of beans.
The enigmatic workings of the human heart are not ours to probe, and we can never know what is going on there. We are all vision-impaired, and even with the eyes of faith, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).