Darren Aronofsky's latest film “Mother!” has certainly stirred up a storm, and no wonder. It features murder, point-blank executions, incinerations, and the killing and devouring of a child. I know: pleasant evening at the movies. “Mother!” will seem just deeply weird unless you see it as a fairly straightforward allegory. Once you crack the code, it will make a certain sense, though the message it is trying to convey is, at best, pretty ambiguous. The film opens with a couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, living in isolation and security, in a beautiful country home that they are in the process of renovating. There seems to be a symbiotic connection between the Lawrence character and the house itself: pressing her hands against a wall, she senses the presence of a beating heart within. Their bucolic serenity is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of another couple – played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer – who are seeking a place to stay. Though Bardem's character is more than open to their staying, his wife is deeply suspicious. In time, the intruding pair become more and more disturbing and annoying, upsetting the rhythm and peace of the house. Then, to the infinite surprise of Lawrence's character, their two grown sons arrive and commence immediately to quarrel. In short order, their fight turns murderous, as the older brother kills the younger. In his angst, the murderer cuts himself on the forehead with a shard of glass and staggers away from the house. Filled with sympathy, Bardem's character's invites friends and family of the troubled couple to come to the home and mourn. Quickly, things turn chaotic, as more and more people invade the private rooms of the house. The husband finally loses patience when the original visitors break a precious heirloom in his room, and, in a thundering voice, he expels them from the place. So the allegory is fairly clear: Bardem's character is the God of the Old Testament, his wife (and by extension the house) is Mother Nature, the mysterious visitors are Adam and Eve, and their warring sons are Cain (who bears a mark on his forehead) and Abel. The message – at this point, Biblical enough – seems to be that sin has produced not only a conflict among human beings, but also a conflict between human beings and the natural world. In their selfishness and violence, sinful people indeed ride roughshod over nature, ruining her beauty and offending her integrity. After the intruders have all been dismissed from the house, a period of peace prevails. Lawrence's character becomes pregnant and Bardem's character finds his muse and recommences his writing career. As the child gestates in his mother's womb, a work of literature emerges through the energies of the father. When the book is finished, it is met with immediate and universal acclaim. Soon, armies of admirers descend upon the lovely house, once again muddying it, then doing damage to it. They want to commune with the author, to take a piece of his life home with them, and in the process they overwhelm the place that he and his wife have striven to restore. They cover the walls with images of their hero; they chant and mark themselves in ritual ceremonies. They eventually come in such numbers and with such fervor that conflicts break out, and these escalate into outright war. All hell then breaks loose: gunshots, missile attacks, fires, executions. Though the woman shrieks in horror, Bardem's character only revels in the attention he is receiving. If the first part of the story allegorizes the Old Testament, this second part allegorizes the New. The husband emerges here as a sort of Christ-figure, and his devotees are exhibiting all of the fanaticism, conflict, and violence that have sometimes dogged Christianity across the ages. Then things get truly weird. During a lull in the chaos, the woman gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, and she holds him tight, refusing to allow his father even to hold him. But while she sleeps, the Bardem character steals the child and shows him to the crowds who then take him, kill him, rip him to pieces, and proceed to eat his body. Beside herself with rage, the mother retreats to the basement and sets off an explosion that brings the whole place down. The filmmaker seems to be gesturing toward the sacrificial death of Jesus and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Now if the Old Testament associations were at least in the ballpark, these are just off the farm. First, the true God does not need the adulation of his followers and does not remain indifferent to their moral outrages. Moreover, Jesus is not taken and sacrificed by the people in the manner of a pagan offering; rather, he gives himself away as a free act of love. Finally, the dying and rising of Jesus is construed by the New Testament as not simply beneficial to human beings, but indeed as the salvation of nature itself, as a healing of the wounds of creation. Thus to set the Bardem character and the sacrificed child over and against the good of mother earth is just not Biblical. Though it rather clearly reflects the anti-Scriptural prejudice of the cultural elite today, “Mother!” might actually serve to prompt a re-examination of the deeply ecological themes that run right through the Biblical narrative and the great theological tradition. The God of the Bible does indeed love the human race and does indeed act as an indulgent father in the face of humanity's sins. But at the same time, the God of the Bible loves mother earth. As the book of Genesis tells us with an almost obsessive insistence, he found everything he had made – from the stars and planets to the animals and insects that creep upon the earth – very good. In the minds of the authors of the Scriptures, there is no tension between these two great loves.
I have long been an ardent fan of Martin Scorsese’s films. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The Last Waltz, Casino, etc. are among the defining movies of the last forty years. And The Departed, Scorsese’s 2007 crime drama, was the subject matter of the first YouTube commentary that I ever did. It is certainly the case, furthermore, that the director’s Catholicism, however mitigated and conflicted, comes through in most of his work. His most recent offering, the much-anticipated Silence, based upon the Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, is a worthy addition to the Scorsese oeuvre. Like so many of his other films, it is marked by gorgeous cinematography, outstanding performances from both lead and supporting actors, a gripping narrative, and enough thematic complexity to keep you thinking for the foreseeable future. The story is set in mid-seventeenth century Japan, where a fierce persecution of the Catholic faith is underway. To this dangerous country come two young Jesuit priests (played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield), spiritual descendants of St. Francis Xavier, sent to find Fr. Ferreira, their mentor and seminary professor who, rumor has it, had apostatized under torture and actually gone over to the other side. Immediately upon arriving onshore, they are met by a small group of Japanese Christians who had been maintaining their faith underground for many years. Due to the extreme danger, the young priests are forced into hiding during the day, but they are able to engage in clandestine ministry at night: baptizing, catechizing, confessing, celebrating the Mass. In rather short order, however, the authorities get wind of their presence, and suspected Christians are rounded up and tortured in the hopes of luring the priests out into the open. The single most memorable scene in the film, at least for me, was the sea-side crucifixion of four of these courageous lay believers. Tied to crosses by the shore, they are, in the course of several days, buffeted by the incoming tide until they drown. Afterwards, their bodies are placed on pyres of straw and they are burned to ashes, appearing for all the world like holocausts offered to the Lord. In time, the priests are captured and subjected to a unique and terrible form of psychological torture. The film focuses on the struggles of Fr. Rodrigues. As Japanese Christians, men and women who had risked their lives to protect him, are tortured in his presence, he is invited to renounce his faith and thereby put an end to their torment. If only he would trample on a Christian image, even as a mere external sign, an empty formality, he would free his colleagues from their pain. A good warrior, he refuses. Even when a Japanese Christian is beheaded, he doesn’t give in. Finally, and it is the most devastating scene in the movie, he is brought to Fr. Ferreira, the mentor whom he had been seeking since his arrival in Japan. All the rumors are true: this former master of the Christian life, this Jesuit hero, has renounced his faith, taken a Japanese wife, and is living as a sort of philosopher under the protection of the state. Using a variety of arguments, the disgraced priest tries to convince his former student to give up the quest to evangelize Japan, which he characterized as a “swamp” where the seed of Christianity can never take root. The next day, in the presence of Christians being horrifically tortured, hung upside down inside a pit filled with excrement, he is given the opportunity, once more, to step on a depiction of the face of Christ. At the height of his anguish, resisting from the depth of his heart, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself, finally breaking the divine silence, telling him to trample on the image. When he does so, a cock crows in the distance. In the wake of his apostasy, he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, becoming a ward of the state, a well-fed, well-provided for philosopher, regularly called upon to step on a Christian image and formally renounce his Christian faith. He takes a Japanese name and a Japanese wife and lives out many long years in Japan before his death at the age of 64 and his burial in a Buddhist ceremony. What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors? My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright. Revisit Ferreira’s speech to Rodrigues about the supposedly simplistic Christianity of the Japanese laity if you doubt me on this score. I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives. Whereas the specially trained Ferreira and Rodrigues became paid lackeys of a tyrannical government, those simple folk remained a thorn in the side of the tyranny. I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless. So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.
Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, inspired two silent movies in the early decades of the twentieth century and the magnificent 1959 film starring Charlton Heston in the lead role. Almost everyone agrees that Heston was born to play the part, and who can forget the drama and excitement of the chariot race with which the movie comes to its climax? Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have produced a new instantiation of the story, a streamlined version of the 1959 film. Like its predecessor, this one features a charismatic actor (Jack Huston) as Ben-Hur, plenty of visual grandeur, and yes, a stunning chariot race, depicted this time with the most up to date camera technology and CGI virtuosity. But what principally differentiates it from the Heston Ben-Hur is its greater stress on the strange power of Christ to bring about forgiveness—an emphasis, I must say, much needed in the cultural context of the present moment. I suppose that most of us know the basic story rather well. Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish nobleman living with his aristocratic family in an elegant home in Roman-occupied Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Messala is a young Roman whom the family adopted and who has become, effectively, a brother to Judah. In the recent version, Messala pursues a career as a Roman soldier, fighting in some of the most distant outposts of the empire. Upon his return, he reunites with his family, but when it appears that they have been harboring a Zealot opponent of the empire, he turns on them brutally, sending most to prison and sentencing Judah to the hellish life of a Roman galley slave. During five excruciating years chained to oars in imperial ships, Judah cultivates an exquisite hatred for Messala and a passionate desire for revenge. In the wake of a terrible sea-battle, Judah escapes from his chains and he drifts ashore, only to be found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy merchant who moonlights as a sponsor of a fine team of chariot horses. After training the former galley slave in the fine art of chariot racing, the Sheik sets Judah up for a confrontation with Messala in the Jerusalem arena. It is precisely at this climactic point that the major differences between the new film and the Heston version emerge. In both films, of course, Judah manages, after a titanic struggle, to defeat Messala, and in both films, Messala endures a terrible injury. But whereas in the earlier incarnation, the Roman dies, having breathed his last words in anger and frustration, in this film, Judah forgives his brother, and the two embrace once again. Moreover, Messala survives his injuries, and the final scene shows the erstwhile mortal enemies riding together in friendship. Now what made this reconciliation possible? How is it even imaginable that someone who had been so cruelly mistreated could become friends again with the man who had abused him? If the history of human conflict teaches us anything it is that the lex talionis (eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth), the measured answering of pain with a comparable pain, is actually the best that we can expect. In the normal course of affairs, injustice and violence are, in fact, met with a disproportionately greater injustice and violence. To see these dynamics at work, all you have to do is read the paper or watch the news any day of the week. So how could the reconciliation of Judah and Messala be anything but sentimentalizing and wish-fulfilling fantasy? It is imperative at this point that we recall that all of the Ben-Hur films are grounded in a book whose subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ.” Even though he is on film for only a few brief scenes, Jesus is indeed the key to the entire drama. Having met Jesus in a fleeting way prior to his exile and enslavement, Judah, upon his return to Jerusalem, is drawn to the site of the crucifixion. He stares up at the crucified Christ who speaks a word of forgiveness even as he is tortured to death. With that Judah grasps something in his heart and releases a stone (evocative of his revenge) which he had been clenching in his hand. He comprehends what stands at the very center of Christianity, namely, the terrible act by which God took upon himself the cruelty, violence, injustice, hatred, and stupidity of the world and, after a bitter struggle, swallowed them up in the ever greater divine mercy. He understood God’s forgiveness of the sins of all of humanity, and he thereby found the grace to become a vehicle of forgiveness to someone who had harmed him so awfully: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” From a purely human standpoint, this sort of forgiveness is impossible; but with God all things are possible. To tell a tale of Christ is to tell a tale of grace. This, I believe, is what Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who have emerged as two of the more effective evangelists in the world today, wanted us to see in this updated Ben-Hur.
When I arrived in Kraków for the 2016 World Youth Day, I was pretty exhausted, having left Los Angeles some fifteen hours earlier and having had to change planes in Munich. But I was enthused as I approached my first appointment right in the heart of the Old City. Through the good ministrations of George Weigel, the world’s leading expert on John Paul II, I was one of a group of bishops and priests invited to spend time with the original youth group of Fr. Karol Wojty?a. These were men and women, now in their seventies and eighties, whom the young Fr. Karol had called together at St. Florian’s Church, the parish that still serves the university community in Kraków. He gave them the moniker of ?rodowisko (meaning milieu or environment), and he took them on camping and kayaking trips in the countryside surrounding Kraków, sharing their lives and subtly training them in Catholic philosophy, theology, and spirituality. This was, to be sure, an act of subversion at a time when the government was attempting to impose a dreary atheism on the Polish people. Over the decades, these young people stayed with Wojty?a (whom they called Wujek or Uncle), and he officiated at their weddings and baptized their children and grandchildren. During his years as Pope, they continued to associate with him, often joining him for get-togethers at Castel Gandolfo and for skiing adventures in the mountains of Italy. We gathered at a long wooden dining table in a cozy room where, we were told, Fr. Wojty?a had once celebrated Mass. With me were, among others, Cardinal Dolan of New York, Bishop Conley of Lincoln, Neb., and Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. We spoke of many things: when they first met John Paul, what it was like to be with him, his preferred method of kayaking, the constant warfare with Communist spies and informers, his manner of prayer, etc. While we talked, I kept looking across the room at a bookshelf on which rested a framed photograph of the young Fr. Wojty?a in profile. He had that characteristically warm grin that the whole world would in time come to know, and he wore a pair of what would now be considered pretty hipster glasses. He must have looked like that when he was working with these now elderly men and women—and I just felt his presence there palpably. As the evening wore on, we commenced to hear the cries and songs of the young people who had gathered for World Youth Day coming in through the open windows. How wonderful, I thought, that we were with the core group from which eventually grew this phenomenon. Cardinal Dolan remarked that our friends around that table knew John Paul II long before he was Pope, long before he was Cardinal Wojty?a; they knew him as their parish priest. Never underestimate, he said, the power of a pastor, and never forget the great Gospel principle of the mustard seed. The next morning, I was taken to a parish on the outskirts of Kraków for a catechesis session with several hundred young people, and that evening I had, I must say, one of the greatest experiences in my thirty years as a priest. At the invitation of the Knights of Columbus, I came to a giant indoor arena on the edge of Kraków, dubbed “The Mercy Center.” I had been asked to lead a Eucharistic procession and benediction and to give a short reflection, but nothing prepared me for what I would see and feel. The place was filled, floor to rafters, with about 25,000 young people, and when the Blessed Sacrament was carried into the arena, everyone knelt down. Then, as the Lord was brought slowly up and down the aisles of the ground floor of the stadium, the music swelled, and young people wept, called, stretched out their hands, and prostrated themselves. Walking right behind the Sacrament, I had a privileged vantage point, and I thought, “This is just what it must have been like when Jesus entered a town or when he processed into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Hanging from the rafters, far over our heads, were banners featuring portraits of the great Polish twentieth-century martyrs, Bl. Jerzy Popie?uszko and St. Maximilian Kolbe, stark reminders that following Jesus is always a journey, one way or another, to the cross. I can’t remember another time in the last thirty years when I felt the presence of the Lord more vividly. The hotel where I stayed during the week, along with most of the other American bishops, was just across the Vistula river from the great Wawel Hill, where the palace of the Polish kings and the cathedral of the Archbishop of Kraków stand. From my window, I could plainly see the bridge over which young Karol Wojty?a ran on the morning of September 1, 1939, when Nazi bombs began to rain over the city. He had been assigned to serve Mass that morning at the Cathedral, and he was frantic to check on the safety of the priest. That awful day, of course, signaled the commencement of Poland’s (and Wojty?a’s) decades-long nightmare of tyranny, persecution, and death. But what young Karol carried in his heart that day was the story of a young visionary nun from Kraków called Faustina Kowalska, who had died just a year before and whose convent was just a few miles from that bridge. It was a tale of the divine mercy. During the terrible night of Nazism and Communism, Wojty?a carried that word in his heart, cultivating like a seed. And when he became Pope, he offered it to the world. Alongside the portraits of the martyrs in the Mercy Center hung a portrait of St. Faustina, and it was her message of mercy that Pope Francis has made central to his own pontificate. We are passing through a particularly dark moment in the world’s history. But in the wizened faces of the members of Wojty?a’s ?rodowisko, in the enraptured cries of 25,000 young people in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, in the serene witness of Poland’s martyrs, and in the mercy, within mercy, within mercy proclaimed by Faustina, I found much ground for hope.
I would like to continue reflecting on Fleming Rutledge’s extraordinary book The Crucifixion, which I consider one of the most insightful theological books of the decade. In a previous article, I drew attention to Rutledge’s bracing insistence on the awfulness and shame of the crucifixion. In the ancient world, there was no punishment more painful, terrifying, and de-humanizing than the cross. It is not simply that Jesus died or even that he was put to death by corrupt people; it was that he endured the death reserved only for the lowest and most despised. In the light of the resurrection, the first Christians looked back on this horrific event and saw in it something commensurate with the weight of sin. Somehow, on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the Son of God was addressing what could not be adequately addressed in any other way; he was paying the requisite price. Now Rutledge knows that to recover this dimension of the cross of Jesus is to bring us close to the thought of one of the most influential and controversial theologians of the Christian tradition, namely, Anselm of Canterbury. As even casual students of theology know, Anselm is the author of the so-called “satisfaction” theory, according to which Jesus’ death was a sacrifice sufficient to satisfy the just demand of God the Father vis-à-vis the sinful human race. Because Jesus was fully human, he could act as representative of fallen men and women, and because he was fully divine, he could assuage the infinite anger of the Father. This is why, according to the neat logic of Anselm, the Son of God became human: Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man) is the title of Anselm's treatise in which this theory is laid out. Critiques of this theory emerged even during Anselm’s lifetime, and they have become especially pointed in our time. I remember attending a high-level meeting of theologians many years ago and hearing a paper that pilloried Anselm as the proponent of “cosmic child-abuse,” since he held that the Father took delight in the suffering of his Son. Others have complained that Anselm’s God is like a pathetic tin-pot dictator whose offended honor has to be restored, or like a raging alcoholic parent whose anger has to be quieted at all costs. Rutledge is especially good at answering these objections and also in showing that the facile turning away from Anselm in much of contemporary theology has produced superficial interpretations of the cross. Let’s deal with the difficulties first. Like all of his medieval colleagues, Anselm was convinced that God is immutable. This means, of course, that God does not pass in and out of emotional states, moving from anger to serenity or from offended pride to self-satisfaction. Further, Anselm knew perfectly well what is articulated in the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…” The Incarnation was not prompted by a desire for retribution, and the cross does not result in the restoration of a disturbed divine psyche. Rather, from beginning to end, God’s activity in Christ was marked, through and through, by love. Another way to put this is that the Father and the Son acted always in unison, indeed in the unity of the Holy Spirit, even when they seemed, on the cross of Jesus, most alienated from one another. So any talk of alcoholic fathers and divine child abuse is beyond silly and deeply unfair to Anselm. So what exactly is happening on the cross? Rutledge draws attention to Anselm’s interlocutor in Cur Deus Homo, a fellow monk named Boso, who plaintively asks the master why God could not simply have pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven and dispensed with all of the blood and horror of the crucifixion. Anselm replies, “You have not considered the weight of sin.” On a Biblical reading, sin is not simply a series of peccadillos that can be dealt with through earnest repentance or political reform or psychological manipulation. Sin is rather like a disease or an addiction, a state in which we find ourselves stuck. In point of fact, our thrashing around will serve only to make the situation worse, which can be seen over and again in human history. A power must come from outside of sin but at the same time, it must enter into sin, battling it, reversing it, breaking it from the inside. Work has to be done; a war has to be won; a price has to be paid—again, not to satisfy God, but to set things right for us. Indeed, Anselm specifies that the Son of God went all the way to the bottom of the muck of human dysfunction in order to recover the diamond (the image of God in us) and polish it to a shine. A mere word of forgiveness, uttered from the safety of heaven, would never have affected such a transformation. On that terrible cross, Jesus took upon himself the worst of humanity and swallowed it up in the ever greater divine mercy. Please read Fleming Rutledge’s treatment of St. Anselm, or better yet, plow through the still compelling text of the Cur Deus Homo, or best of all, spend some time in contemplation of the cross of Jesus. See in that awful event the work of love that God performed on our behalf.
Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion is one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking books of theology that I have read in the past ten years. Both an academic and a well-regarded preacher in the Episcopal tradition, Rutledge has an extraordinary knack of cutting to the heart of the matter. Her book on the central reality of the Christian faith is supremely illuminating, a delight for the inquiring mind—and man, will it ever preach. There is so much of value in this text that I have decided to dedicate a number of articles to analyzing it. For the purposes of this initial interpretive foray, allow me to focus simply on two themes that run through the entire book and that ought to shape any Christian’s understanding of the cross: the sheer strangeness of the crucifixion and the weight of sin. Rutledge indicates a New Testament text that most Christians pass over without noticing how deeply peculiar it is, namely, Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for the Jew fist and then Greek.” It would be hard to imagine the Buddha or Mohammed or Confucius implying that his doctrine is something that might appear shameful to people. But this is precisely what the Apostle Paul insinuates about what he calls his gospel (good news). Why would anyone think that good news might be a matter of shame? Well, because this good news centers around someone who had been put to death on a Roman cross—and it would be difficult to imagine anything in the ancient Mediterranean world that was more horrific than dying in such a manner. The problem, of course, is that we are the inheritors of centuries of artwork and piety that present the cross as a moving, or even saccharine, religious symbol. We wear it as jewelry, and we hang it on the walls of our homes as a harmless decoration. But for the men and women of Jesus’ time, death by crucifixion was not only painful; it was brutally de-humanizing, humiliating, and shaming. A person condemned to this manner of execution would be stripped naked (the loin cloths on most depictions of the crucified Jesus are not historically accurate), nailed or tied to a cross-bar fitted into a stake, and then left for hours, or in many cases days, to suffer the excruciating (ex cruce, literally from the cross) pain of very slowly asphyxiating while rocking up and down on wounded hands and feet in order to respirate. The mocking of the crucified, which is frankly described in the Gospels, was part and parcel of the execution. The pathetic figure pinioned to his instrument of torture and exposed in the most brutal and demeaning manner; he was meant to be insulted. When at long last the tortured criminal died, his body was allowed to remain on the cross for days, permitting animals to pick over his remains. Jesus’ rapid burial was exceptional, a favor specially offered to Joseph of Arimathea, a high-ranking Jewish official. We can clearly see why Cicero referred to crucifixion, with admirable laconicism, as thesummum suplicium (the unsurpassable punishment). To be sure, the Gospel proclaimed by the first Christians involves the glorious resurrection, but those initial evangelists never let their hearers forget that the one who had been raised was none other than the one who had been crucified. Paul goes so far as to tell the Corinthians, who had perhaps given in to too much realized eschatology, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” So the question was—and remains—why would God’s salvation of the human race have to include something as horrifying as crucifixion? Why would the Son of God have to endure not only death, but as Paul eloquently specifies, “death on a cross”? The question neatly conduces to the second of Rutledge’s points that I should like to explore, namely, the seriousness of sin. We live in a time when the human predicament is regularly denied, explained away, or ignored. “I’m okay and you’re okay,” we tell one another, and we bask in the culture's reassurance that “I am beautiful in every single way.” Despite the massive counter-evidence from the moral disasters of the last century, we are still beguiled by the myth of progress: with just enough technical advancement, psychological insight, and personal liberation, we will solve our problems. On such a reading of the human condition, all we need is a good teacher, a guru with brilliant spiritual insights, or a stirring moral exemplar to stir us to self-actualization. And if things go wrong, a blithe word of forgiveness should set them right. But with this sort of stupidity and superficiality the Bible has no truck. The Scriptural authors understand sin not so much as a series of acts, but as a condition in which we are stuck, something akin to an addiction or a contagious disease. No amount of merely human effort could possibly solve the problem. Rather, some power has to come from outside of us in order to clean up the mess; something awful has to be done on our behalf in order to offset the awfulness of sin. With this Biblical realism in mind, we can begin to comprehend why the crucifixion of the Son of God was necessary. The just rapport between God and human beings could not be re-established either through our moral effort or with simply a word of forgiveness. Something had to be done—and God alone could do it. With this line of thought, Rutledge comes close to the much maligned speculation of St. Anselm of Canterbury, and I should like to make her brilliant recovery of Anselm the subject of my next article. In the meantime, I can’t urge you more strongly to pick up her book and read it with care. Image: Jan Hammershaug via Flickr. Filter added. (CC BY 2.0)
There is, in many quarters, increasing concern about the hyper-charged political correctness that has gripped our campuses and other forums of public conversation. Even great works of literature and philosophy—from Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness to, believe it or not, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—are now regularly accompanied by “trigger warnings” that alert prospective readers to the racism, sexism, homophobia, or classism contained therein. And popping up more and more at our colleges and universities are “safe spaces” where exquisitely sensitive students can retreat in the wake of jarring confrontations with points of view with which they don’t sympathize. My favorite example of this was at Brown University where school administrators provided retreat centers with play-doh, crayons, and videos of frolicking puppies to calm the nerves of their studentseven before a controversial debate commenced! Apparently even the prospect of public argument sent these students to an updated version of daycare. Of course a paradoxical concomitant of this exaggerated sensitivity to giving offense is a proclivity to aggressiveness and verbal violence; for once authentic debate has been ruled out of court, the only recourse contesting parties have is to some form of censorship or bullying. There is obviously much that can and should be mocked in all of this, but I won’t go down that road. Instead, I would like to revisit a time when people knew how to have a public argument about the most hotly-contested matters. Though it might come as a surprise to many, I’m talking about the High Middle Ages, when the university system was born. And to illustrate the medieval method of disciplined conversation there is no better candidate than St. Thomas Aquinas. The principal means of teaching in the medieval university was not the classroom lecture, which became prominent only in the 19th century German system of education; rather, it was the quaestio disputata (disputed question), which was a lively, sometimes raucous, and very public intellectual exchange. Though the written texts of Aquinas can strike us today as a tad turgid, we have to recall that they are grounded in these disciplined but decidedly energetic conversations. If we consult Aquinas’s masterpiece, the Summa theologiae, we find that he poses literally thousands of questions and that not even the most sacred issues are off the table, the best evidence of which is article three of question two of the first part of the Summa: “utrum Deus sit?” (whether there is a God). If a Dominican priest is permitted to ask even that question, everything is fair game; nothing is too dangerous to talk about. After stating the issue, Thomas then entertains a series of objections to the position that he will eventually take. In many cases, these represent a distillation of real counter-claims and queries that Aquinas would have heard during quaestiones disputatae. But for our purposes, the point to emphasize is that Thomas presents these objections in their most convincing form, often stating them better and more pithily than their advocates could. In proof of this, we note that during the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophes would sometimes take Thomistic objections and use them to bolster their own anti-religious positions. To give just one example, consider Aquinas’s devastatingly convincing formulation of the argument from evil against the existence of God: “if one of two contraries were infinite, the other would be destroyed…but God is called the infinite good. Therefore, if God exists, there would be no evil.” Thomas indeed provides a telling response, but, as stated, that is a darn good argument. Might I suggest that it would help our public discourse immensely if all parties would be willing to formulate their opponents positions as respectfully and convincingly as possible. Having articulated the objections, Thomas then offers his own magisterial resolution of the matter: “Respondeo dicendum quod… (I respond that it must be said…). One of the more regrettable marks of the postmodern mind is a tendency endlessly to postpone the answer to a question. Take a look at Jacques Derrida’s work for a master class in this technique. And sadly, many today, who want so desperately to avoid offending anyone, find refuge in just this sort of permanent irresolution. But Thomas knew what Chesterton knew, namely that an open mind is like an open mouth, that is, designed to close finally on something solid and nourishing. Finally, having offered his Respondeo, Aquinas returns to the objections and, in light of his resolution, answers them. It is notable that a typical Thomas technique is to find something right in the objector’s position and to use that to correct what he deems to be errant in it. Throughout this process, in the objections, Respondeos, and answers to objections, Thomas draws on a wide range of sources: the Bible and the Church Fathers of course, but also the classical philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, and the Islamic masters Averroes, Avicenna, and Aviceberon. And he consistently invokes these figures with supreme respect, characterizing Aristotle, for example, as simply “the Philosopher” and referring to Maimonides as “Rabbi Moyses.” It is fair to say that, in substantial ways, Thomas Aquinas disagrees with all of these figures, and yet he is more than willing to listen to them, to engage them, to take their arguments seriously. What this Thomistic method produces is, in its own way, a “safe space” for conversation, but it is a safe space for adults and not timorous children. Might I modestly suggest that it wouldn’t be a bad model for our present discussion of serious things. Image: St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes by Giovanni di Paolo via Wikicommons (CC-0)
I had the enormous privilege last week of addressing English-speaking priests from around the world who had gathered in Rome for a special Jubilee celebration of the Year of Mercy. I met fathers from the States, Canada, Australia, Latvia, Ghana, Cameroon, Ireland, Nigeria, and many other countries. During the communion at the Mass which followed my talk, I saw hundreds of priests in their albs coming to the altar to receive the Lord, and I thought of the passage from the book of Revelation concerning the white-robed army gathered around the throne of the Lamb. As a basis for my presentation, I used the wonderful story from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel concerning Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. From this encounter, I derived four principles regarding the divine mercy. First, I argued, God’s mercy is relentless. Customarily, pious Jews of the first century would have assiduously avoided Samaria, a nation, in their minds, of apostates and half-breeds. Yet Jesus, journeying from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, moves right through Samaria. Moreover, he speaks to a woman in public (something that men simply didn’t do) and he consorts with someone known to be a sinner. In all of this, Jesus embodies the love of God, which crosses barriers, mocks taboos, and overcomes all of the boundaries that we set for it. Thomas Merton spoke of the Promethean problem in religion, by which he meant the stubborn assumption that God is a distant rival, jealous and protective of his prerogatives. In point of fact, the true God is filled with hesed (tender mercy) and delights in lifting up human beings: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” And this conduces neatly to my second point, namely, that the divine mercy is divinizing. At times, we have the impression that God’s mercy serves a reparative or healing purpose alone, that it solely binds up the wounds of our sin and suffering. That God’s love heals is obviously true, but this tells but part of the story. Jesus asks the woman at the well for a drink, thereby inviting her to generosity. When she balks, citing the customary taboos, Jesus says, “If you knew who was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would give you living water.” This, I told the priests in Rome, is a pithy expression of the central principle of spiritual physics, what St. John Paul II called “the law of the gift.” As St. Augustine knew, we are all wired for God, hungry for absolute reality. But God, as St. John knew, is love. Therefore, to be filled with God is to be filled with love, which is to say, self-emptying. The moment we receive something of the divine grace, we should make of it a gift and then we will receive more of the divine grace. In a word, our being will increase in the measure that we give it away. This is the “water welling up to eternal life” that Jesus speaks of. God wants not merely to bind up our wounds; he wants to marry us, to make us “partakers of the divine nature.” The third principle I identified is that the divine mercy is demanding. I told the fathers gathered in Rome that we tend to understand the proclamation of the divine mercy according to a zero-sum logic, whereby the more we say about mercy, the less we should say about moral demand, and vice versa. But this is repugnant to the peculiar both/and logic of the Christian gospel. As Chesterton saw so clearly, the Church loves “red and white and has always had a healthy hatred of pink!” It likes both colors strongly expressed side by side, and it has an abhorrence of compromises and half-way measures. Thus, you can’t overstate the power of the divine mercy, and you can’t overstate the demand that it makes upon us. Jesus tells the woman that she comes daily to the well and gets thirsty again, but that he wants to give her the water that will permanently quench her thirst. St. Augustine accordingly saw the well as expressive of concupiscent or errant desire, the manner in which we seek to satisfy the deepest hunger of the heart with creaturely goods, with wealth and power, pleasure and honor. But such a strategy leads only to frustration and addiction and hence must be challenged. Indeed, Jesus shows that the woman exhibits this obsessive, addictive quality of desire in regard to her relationships: when she says that she has no husband, Jesus bluntly states, “yes, you’ve had five, and the one you have now is not your husband.” This is not the voice of a wishy-washy relativist, an anything-goes peddler of pseudo-mercy and cheap grace. Rather, it is the commanding voice of one who knows that extreme mercy awakens extreme demand. Finally, the divine mercy, I told the priests, is a summons to mission. As soon as she realizes who Jesus is and what he means, the woman puts down the water jar and goes into town to proclaim the Lord. The jar symbolizes the rhythm of concupiscent desire, her daily return to worldly goods in a vain attempt to assuage her spiritual hunger. How wonderful that, having met the source of living water, she is able to set aside her addictions and to become, herself, a vehicle of healing for others. The very best definition of evangelization that I’ve heard is this: one starving person telling another starving person where to find bread. We will be ineffective in our evangelizing work if we simply talk, however correctly, about Jesus in the abstract. Our words of proclamation will catch fire precisely in the measure that we have been liberated and transformed by Christ. Could I ask all who read these words to pray for the priests who gathered in Rome this past week? Beg the Lord that we might all become bearers of the divine mercy. Image: Martha Calderón/CNA
With his latest film, Last Days in the Desert, Rodrigo Garcia has accomplished something truly remarkable. He has taken a portion of the life of the single most compelling person who has ever lived and turned it into a colossally boring movie. As I watched Last Days in the Desert, I was reminded of many films that I saw in Paris as a doctoral student: lots of uninterrupted shots of natural scenes, many views of people walking around and saying nothing, endless close-ups of serious faces looking blankly into the middle distance. At times I thought that all of this meditative build-up would result in a spectacular payoff, but no—just more walking around and looking. What made the film so tedious, however, was not simply its cinematic style. It was the fact that, like dozens of similar movies over the past fifty years, it portrayed Jesus simply as a human being, one spiritual searcher among many. I will confess to being amused by the breathless advertising around Last Days in the Desert, announcing that this movie is “reckless” and “daring” in its presentation of a more human Christ. Give me a break! What would be truly dramatic and eye-opening would be a film that compellingly shows that the carpenter from Nazareth is also God. In Ewan McGregor’s characterization, we see Jesus as a good, decent, honest man who is earnestly seeking his path. There is nothing miraculous, distinctive, or particularly supernatural about him. He is like any other religious founder, indeed like any spiritually alert person you might run into at church. Fine, but so what? Why, one wonders, should we pay any attention to him? Why would this figure be remembered after 2,000 years? Why would much of Western civilization be grounded in him? Now please don’t misunderstand me: a clear affirmation of the humanity of Jesus is part and parcel of Christian orthodoxy. In the language of the council of Chalcedon, Christ is “truly human and truly divine,” the two natures inhering in the unity of one person and coming together “without mixing, mingling, or confusion.” According to the Church, Jesus is not quasi-divine and quasi-human, in the manner of Achilles or Hercules, but rather completely human and completely divine. There has been indeed, throughout Christian history, the temptation toward a monophysite reading, according to which Jesus has only one nature, namely divine. On this interpretation, the Lord’s humanity is a simulacrum of a real human nature, as though God were merely donning the appearance of a human being. The orthodox Christian tradition has always stood athwart such a view. In fact, during the eighth century monothelite (one will) controversy, the Church held that Jesus has a fully-constituted human nature, endowed with a human mind and human will. Therefore, it is perfectly permissible to speak of real development within Jesus’ human nature, as does the Gospel of Luke: “and Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” It is even appropriate to speak, as the letter to the Hebrews does, of Jesus being “tempted in every way that we are.” Thus Last Days in the Desert is certainly justified in portraying the Lord as subject to temptation and discouragement. So far, so orthodox. But if Jesus is merely human, the heck with him. What makes him compelling, fascinating, and strange is the play between his humanity and his very real divinity. In point of fact, all of the poetry and drama of Christianity—on display in Chartres Cathedral, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Aquinas’s Summa, John Henry Newman’s sermons, Chesterton’s essays, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila, and the ministry of Mother Teresa—is a function of this juxtaposition. To reduce Jesus to the human level alone is to render an altogether prosaic Jesus, which is precisely what we have in Last Days in the Desert. There is a distinction between the Bible and practically all other spiritualities, religions, and philosophies of the world. Whereas those last three can articulate very well the dynamics of our search for God, the former is not primarily interested in that story. It tells, rather, of God’s search for us. Mind you, that first story is a darned good one, and it’s told over and again in spiritual literature from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars. It has beguiled the minds of some of the great figures in human history: Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Newton, and James Joyce. In a very real sense, the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell was right: in all of the cultures of the world, one great song is sung and one great monomyth is repeated. But the Bible is not one more iteration of the monomyth. It is the deeply disorienting account of how the creator of the universe hunts us down, finally coming after us personally in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is not one more man looking for God; he is God in the flesh, searching for his people: “It is not you who have chosen me; it is I who have chosen you.” Would that a filmmaker might come forward to tell that story. Image credit: Broad Green Pictures.
Last week the world marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest writer in the English language and one of the three or four most significant artists the human race has produced. William Shakespeare simply contains so much. In the manner of Dante, Homer, Michelangelo, James Joyce, and Aquinas, he seems to encompass the whole: every texture of feeling, every nuance of thought, the tragedy of sin, the most exquisite longings of the soul, the most confounding confusions, heaven, hell, and everything in between. It is, of course, this very capaciousness that has made possible such a variety of readings of his work. Kenneth Clark, relying perhaps on the darkest of Macbeth’s soliloquies—“Life’s but a walking shadow/ a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”—read Shakespeare as the harbinger of post-religious nihilism; Freud saw, especially in “Hamlet,” a foreshadowing of his psychological theories; Rene Girard appreciated “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Othello” as anticipations of his own musings on mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism. Some feminists love Shakespeare and others can’t stand him; he has been portrayed as the ultimate defender of the status quo and as an explicit revolutionary; there are Catholic and Protestant and even atheist construals of the Bard. My former colleague, the late, great Fr. Edward Oakes, an ardent Bardophile, always argued that Shakespeare himself remains permanently elusive, smiling like the Cheshire cat behind the vividness of his characters and the energy of his dramaturgy. Though I have been impressed by much of the recent scholarship purporting to show that Shakespeare was in fact a canny and clandestine Catholic, prudently making his way through the ideological minefields of Elizabethan England, I don’t want to pursue that analysis here. Mindful that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (2016) almost exactly coincides with the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation (2017), I want to make a related though simpler claim, namely, that, whatever his personal religious commitments, the great poet, throughout his work, was indeed mourning the fading of an integrated Catholic milieu. I might suggest we begin with the beloved sonnet number 73, in which Shakespeare remarks the passing of his own life: “That time of year thou mayest in me behold/ when yellow leaves or none or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/ Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” He has come to the autumn of his years, the last stage before the lifelessness of winter. Shifting metaphors, he speaks of a flame dying down: “In me thou seest the glowing of such fire/ That on the ashes of his youth doth lie/ As the death bed whereon it must expire.” But it is not simply his own existence that he sees passing away, and the clue is found in that lyrical reference to “bare ruined choirs.” Those are indeed the naked branches from which the summer birds have long fled, but they are also the choir stalls of the monasteries, wrecked by Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for reformation and need for quick financing. The sweet-singing monks, chased away and in hiding, are representative of a Catholic culture, marked by beauty and majestic liturgy, that was, by Shakespeare’s time, fast evanescing. In many of his greatest plays, Shakespeare shows the giving-way of an old order through the efforts of puritanical, even fanatic, revolutionaries. In “Julius Caesar,” the grand old man is done to death by a band of conspirators who see themselves as the agents of liberation: “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” they shout as they stand around Caesar’s body, and as they bathe in Caesar’s blood, they exult: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” That Shakespeare is unsympathetic with the murderers becomes clear in his crafting of Antony’s oration and also in his contrivance of the haunting of Brutus and Cassius by Caesar’s ghost. But it is equally clear that Caesar is not without guilt. His physical deafness is evocative of a psychological and spiritual deafness to the needs of his people and the intensity of the opposition party, and his egoism and self-satisfaction are on almost constant display. Just one example among many: “I could well be moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the Northern Star.” If the conspirators symbolize the reformers, then might Caesar represent a Catholic establishment that was majestic indeed, but also smug and insensitive to the need for change? As Owen Chadwick, the great historian of the Reformation, put it: “Anyone who mattered at the beginning of the sixteenth century, thought that the Church stood in need of reform.” This included Erasmus as well as the saintly and fiercely Catholic Thomas More. Was Shakespeare subtly suggesting that the very violence of the Reformation was, to a degree, the product of a certain deafness and pride on the part of the Catholic leadership? We find something very similar in the late play “Antony and Cleopatra.” Shakespeare portrays the famous lovers as sensuous, funny, volatile, romantic, larger than life, and deeply dysfunctional. And their great opponent, Caesar Augustus, who eventually overwhelms them, is depicted as stark, rational, unbending, legalistic, and humorless. To be sure, Antony and Cleopatra are hardly saints, and to a degree they gave rise to Augustus’s opposition. But Shakespeare rather obviously mourns their passing and that of the entire world they represent. Are star-crossed Antony and Cleopatra the doomed Catholic culture that is fading away under the pressure from an efficient, rationalistic Protestant movement? And might the tension between the two worlds be best summed up in Shakespeare’s greatest and most fully-imagined character? Prince Hamlet is identified as a student in Luther’s University of Wittenberg and yet he confronts the ghost of his father visiting him from Purgatory, a place explicitly denied by Protestant theology! Are the very madness and suicidal depression of Hamlet not the symbolic expressions of the deep psychological anxiety produced by the clash between two ways of life, one fading and the other only beginning to emerge? And is the ghost of Hamlet’s father perhaps the spirit of the old Catholicism still haunting the minds of Protestant Englishmen? I don’t intend this article to be an exercise in Catholic triumphalism. As I’ve suggested, Shakespeare finds plenty to criticize on both sides of the Reformation divide. But I wonder whether everyone can agree that Shakespeare was indeed mourning the loss of something that came apart in the sixteenth century—something beautiful and something worth putting back together. Image credit: Everett Art via www.shutterstock.com.
In my capacity as regional bishop of the Santa Barbara pastoral region, which covers two entire counties north of Los Angeles, I am obliged to spend a good deal of time in the car. To make the long trips a bit easier, I have gotten back into the habit of listening to audio books. Just recently, I followed, with rapt attention, a book that I had read many years ago but which I had, I confess, largely forgotten: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The inspiration for this theological fantasy is the medieval idea of the refrigerium, the refreshment or vacation from Hell granted to some of the souls abiding there. So Lewis’ narrator leaves the dreary streets of the underworld and, with a coterie of other ghosts, journeys by flying bus to a lovely land that he comes to realize is the forecourt of Heaven. In that enchanted place, the ghosts meet a number of denizens from the heavenly world, who attempt to lure the poor souls out of their misery. Lewis was that rare sort of genius, able to combine high theological insight with vivid imagination, and it is precisely this coming-together that makes his writing so memorable. I would like to rehearse a number of motifs from this story that struck me as being of particular spiritual significance. The first has to do with the paradox of the grandeur and nothingness of Hell. Lewis’s narrator tells us that the streets and residences of Hell stretch out so far that it requires centuries of travel to get from one end of the city to the other. This immensity is due to the fact that the citizens of that awful place just want to get as far away from one another as possible. Further, when the bus travels from Hell to Heaven, it seems to go far up into the air and to cover an enormous distance. However, when the narrator, in dialogue with a heavenly spirit, wonders where precisely Hell is in relation to the heavenly realm, the spirit bends down, pulls a single blade of grass and uses its tip to indicate a tiny, barely perceptible, fissure in the ground. “That’s where you came in,” he explains. All of Hell, which seemed so immense to the narrator, would fit into a practically microscopic space in Heaven. Lewis is illustrating here the Augustinian principle that sin is the state of being incurvatus in se (curved in around oneself). It is the reduction of reality to the infinitely small space of the ego’s concerns and preoccupations. Love, on the contrary, which is the very life of Heaven, is the opening to reality in its fullness; it amounts to a breaking through of the buffered and claustrophobic self; it is the activity of the magna anima (the great soul). We think our own little ego-centric worlds are so impressive, but to those who are truly open to reality, they are less than nothing. One of the sad ghosts that Lewis describes carries on his shoulder a rather loathsome reptile who whispers suggestions in companion’s ear. It is eminently clear—even to the ghost himself—that this creature is doing nothing but harm. An angel approaches and places his hands around the lizard and calmly asks the ghost, “May I kill it?” At this, the fallen spirit recoils and commences to make excuses for the thing on his shoulder. “May I kill it?” the angel solemnly asks once again. The ghost balks and becomes uneasy. “May I kill it?” inquires the angel. Finally, the ghost acquiesces and the angel crushes the life out of the reptile, at which point the ghost begins to harden into something greater and more substantial. And the lizard, thought to be dead, begins to metamorphose into a stately stallion. When both ghost and reptile have been thoroughly transformed, the man mounts the horse and the two ride off together with brio and purpose. The creepy and insinuating reptile is symbolic, it becomes clear, of lust, that vice which continually suggests self-destructive courses of action. Yet not even an angel of God can kill it without the conscious permission of the will. Once killed, however, it can rise into what it originally was meant to be: the erotic desire which is a source of tremendous energy, indeed a stallion which the soul can gleefully ride. What I especially appreciate in this episode is Lewis’ spot-on representation of how the soul clings desperately to what is actually killing it, preferring, in W.H. Auden’s phrase, “to be ruined rather than changed.” A final image is one of the most beautiful in the book. The narrator spots a stately procession making its way toward him. A woman is being carried, in the manner of a queen, with great reverence, and all around her people are offering tokens of respect and admiration. So impressed is he that the narrator turns to one of the heavenly citizens and wonders whether this might be the Blessed Virgin Mary. “No,” says his interlocutor, “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith.” It turns out that this one so highly honored in Heaven was a very ordinary person during her earthly life. But through her love, she became a spiritual mother to hundreds, indeed to every person she met. Even the lowly animals were embraced by her affection and came more to life. The point is that what is honored on earth is by no means the same as what is honored by God and the saints. Here below, we hold up achievements in education, business, finance, entertainment, the military, etc. But none of this matters in the grand scheme of things. What matters, what, in St. Paul’s language, lasts, is love. We recall the Lord’s words: “Don’t store up treasures for yourself on earth…but store up treasure in heaven.” The relevant spiritual questions suggested by this scene: Whom do we honor? How and by whom do we want to be honored? These sketches give you but a hint of the riches contained in this little but powerful book. May they inspire you to pick up The Great Divorce and savor it.
The most recent issue of Time Magazine features a fascinating and deeply troubling article on the prevalence of pornography in our culture. The focus of the piece is on the generation of young men now coming of age, the first generation who grew up with unlimited access to hardcore pornography on the Internet. The statistics on this score are absolutely startling. Most young men commence their pornography use at the age of eleven; there are approximately 107 million monthly visitors to adult websites in this country; twelve million hours a day are spent watching porn globally on the adult-video site Pornhub; 40% of boys in Great Britain say that they regularly consume pornography—and on and on. All of this wanton viewing of live-action pornography has produced, many are arguing, an army of young men who are incapable of normal and satisfying sexual activity with real human beings. Many twenty-somethings are testifying that when they have the opportunity for sexual relations with their wives or girlfriends, they cannot perform. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is not a physiological issue, which is proved by the fact that they can still become aroused easily by images on a computer screen. The sad truth is that for these young men, sexual stimulation is associated not with flesh and blood human beings, but with flickering pictures of physically perfect people in virtual reality. Moreover, since they start so young, they have been compelled, as they get older, to turn to ever more bizarre and violent pornography in order to get the thrill that they desire. And this in turn makes them incapable of finding conventional, non-exotic sex even vaguely interesting. This state of affairs has led a number of men from the affected generation to lead the charge to disenthrall their contemporaries from the curse of pornography. Following the example of various anti-addiction programs, they are setting up support groups, speaking out about the dangers of porn, advocating for restrictions on adult websites, getting addicts into contact with sponsors who will challenge them, etc. And all of this, it seems to me, is to the good. But what really struck me in the Time article is that neither the author nor anyone that he interviewed or referenced ever spoke of pornography use as something morally objectionable. It has apparently come to the culture’s attention only because it has resulted in erectile dysfunction! The Catholic Church—and indeed all of decent society until about forty years ago—sees pornography as, first and foremost, an ethical violation, a deep distortion of human sexuality, an unconscionable objectification of persons who should never be treated as anything less than subjects. That this ethical distortion results in myriad problems, both physical and psychological, goes without saying, but the Catholic conviction is that those secondary consequences will not be adequately addressed unless the underlying issue be dealt with. It is precisely on this point that we come up against a cultural block. Though Freud’s psychological theorizing has been largely discredited, a fundamental assumption of Freudianism remains an absolute bedrock of our culture. I’m referring to the conviction that most of our psychological suffering follows as a consequence from the suppression of our sexual desires. Once we have been liberated from old taboos regarding sex, this line of argument runs, we will overcome the neuroses and psychoses that so bedevil us. What was once the peculiar philosophy of a Viennese psychiatrist came to flower in the 1960’s, at least in the West, and then made its way into practically every nook and cranny of the culture. How often have we heard some version of this argument: as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to do whatever pleases you in the sexual arena. What the Time article articulates in regard to the specific issue of pornography has been, in point of fact, glaringly obvious for quite some time: Freud was wrong. Complete sexual freedom has not made us psychologically healthier, just the contrary. It has deeply sickened our society. The valorization of unrestricted freedom in regard to sex—precisely because it is morally corrupt—proves psychologically debilitating as well. Whereas Freud, in the manner of most modern thinkers, principally valorized freedom, the Church valorizes love, which is to say, willing the good of the other. Just as moderns tend to reduce everything to freedom, the Church reduces everything to love, by which I mean, it puts all things in relation to love. Sex is, on the Biblical reading, good indeed, but its goodness is a function of its subordination to the demand of love. When it loses that mooring—as it necessarily does when freedom is reverenced as the supreme value—it turns into something other than what it is meant to be. The laws governing sexual behavior, which the Freudian can read only as “taboos” and invitations to repression, are in fact the manner in which the relation between sex and love is maintained. And upon the maintenance of that relation depends our psychological and even physical health as well. That to me is the deepest lesson of the Time article.
As any apologist worth his/her salt will tell you, the great objection to the proposition that God exists is the fact of innocent suffering. If you want a particularly vivid presentation of this complaint, go on YouTube and look up Stephen Fry’s disquisition on why he doesn’t believe in God. (Then right afterward, please, do look at my answer to Fry). But the anguished question of an army of non-believers remains: how could an all-loving and all-powerful God possibly allow the horrific suffering endured by those who simply don’t deserve it? Say all you want, these critics hold, about God’s plan and good coming from evil, but the disproportion between evil and the benefits that might flow from it simply rules out the plausibility of religious faith. The skilled and experienced apologist will also tell you that, in the face of this problem, there is no single, unequivocal “answer,” no clinching argument that will leave the doubter stunned into acquiescence. The best approach is to walk slowly around the issue, in the manner of the phenomenologists, illuminating now this aspect, now that. It is precisely this method that is on display in the surprisingly thoughtful and affecting film Miracles from Heaven. The true story revolves around the devout Beam family from Burleson, Texas: Christy, Kevin, and their three daughters. At the age of ten, their middle child, Annabelle, develops a devastating disease whereby her intestines are no longer able to process food. After consulting local physicians and surgeons to no avail, Christy and her mother make their way to Boston to see a nationally renowned children’s doctor. But after many more months of treatment, her condition remains grave. During this horrific ordeal, Christy’s faith in God is seriously shaken, since her ardent prayers have remained, it appears, unanswered. In fact, she explicitly voices to her pastor the confounding puzzle referenced above: how can a loving God permit this innocent and God-fearing child to suffer? When it seems that things cannot get any worse, Annabelle suffers a freak accident, falling headlong down the trunk of a hollowed-out tree. When she comes around after being unconscious for many hours, she is, against all expectations, cured. Unable to account for the sudden improvement, the Boston specialist declares that she is in “complete remission,” just the medical way, he says, of explaining what cannot be explained. Annabelle herself, however, tells of an out of the body experience, a journey to heaven, and God’s assurance that she would be fine. I would like simply to explore a few of the aspects of the problem of suffering—theodicy, to give it its formal title—that are illuminated in the course of this film. First, miracles are rare. As the etymology of the word itself suggests—mirari (to be amazed)—miracles don’t happen everyday, for if they did, we wouldn’t “wonder” at or be amazed by them. Indeed, Annabelle’s hospital roommate, a little girl suffering from cancer and deeply loved by her father, does not receive a miracle. So we shouldn’t expect God to intervene anytime someone experiences pain or tragedy. Secondly, God customarily delights in working through secondary causes. To give just one example from the film, the Boston specialist, Dr. Nurko, is portrayed as a man who is not only medically skilled, but profoundly compassionate as well. The incomparable good that he does for dozens of children should be construed as an expression of God’s loving care, as the vehicle through which God operates. Why would God not act directly? Thomas Aquinas answered that the supreme cause is pleased to involve us in his causality, giving us, as it were, the joy and privilege of sharing his work. A third lesson is that believers in the God of the Bible should not expect that they will be free of pain, just the contrary. It is actually a bit of a puzzle that so many readers of the Bible seem to think that the love of God is incompatible with suffering, when every major figure in the Scriptures—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Peter, James, and John—goes through periods of enormous suffering. And this puzzlement only deepens when we recall that the central person in the Bible is typically displayed to us nailed to a cross and in the throes of death. What becomes clear in the course of Miracles from Heaven is that the agony of the Beam family is not meaningless, but rather a participation in the salvific agony of Christ. A fourth and final insight is that suffering tends to give rise to love. Frequently throughout the film, people perform acts of kindness toward Annabelle and her family, precisely because the girl’s ordeal has awakened compassion in them. In a word, the girl’s pain had a saving effect on those around her; she was, to use the language of the Bible, suffering on their behalf (Col 1:24). As Charles Williams pointed out, coinherence—being with and for others—is the master dynamic of the Christian life. Our triumphs and joys are never utterly our own; they are for the sake of others. And the same is true of our tragedies. Does this film “solve” the problem of innocent suffering? Obviously not. But does it shed light in a creative way on key aspects of it? Yes indeed.
On a spring day about five years ago, when I was rector of Mundelein Seminary, Francis Cardinal George spoke to the assembled student body. He congratulated those proudly orthodox seminarians for their devotion to the dogmatic and moral truths proposed by the Church, but he also offered some pointed pastoral advice. He said that it is insufficient simply to drop the truth on people and then smugly walk away. Rather, he insisted, you must accompany those you have instructed, committing yourself to helping them integrate the truth that you have shared. I thought of this intervention by the late Cardinal often as I was reading Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. If I might make bold to summarize a complex 264-page document, I would say that Pope Francis wants the truths regarding marriage, sexuality, and family to be unambiguously declared, but that he also wants the Church’s ministers to reach out in mercy and compassion to those who struggle to incarnate those truths in their lives. In regard to the moral objectivities of marriage, the Pope is bracingly clear. He unhesitatingly puts forward the Church’s understanding that authentic marriage is between a man and a woman, who have committed themselves to one another in permanent fidelity, expressing their mutual love and openness to children, and abiding as a sacrament of Christ’s love for his Church (52, 71). He bemoans any number of threats to this ideal, including moral relativism, a pervasive cultural narcissism, the ideology of self-invention, pornography, the “throwaway” society, etc. He explicitly calls to our attention the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae regarding the essential connection between the unitive and the procreative dimensions of conjugal love (80). Moreover, he approvingly cites the consensus of the recent Synod on the Family that homosexual relationships cannot be considered even vaguely analogous to what the Church means by marriage (251). He is especially strong in his condemnation of ideologies that dictate that gender is merely a social construct and can be changed or manipulated according to our choice (56). Such moves are tantamount, he argues, to forgetting the right relationship between creature and Creator. Finally, any doubt regarding the Pope’s attitude toward the permanence of marriage is dispelled as clearly and directly as possible: “The indissolubility of marriage—‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6) —should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage...” (62). In a particularly affecting section of the exhortation, Pope Francis interprets the famous hymn to love in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (90-119). Following the great missionary Apostle, he argues that love is not primarily a feeling (94), but rather a commitment of the will to do some pretty definite and challenging things: to be patient, to bear with one another, to put away envy and rivalry, ceaselessly to hope. In the tones of grandfatherly pastor, Francis instructs couples entering into marriage that love, in this dense and demanding sense of the term, must be at the heart of their relationship. I frankly think that this portion ofAmoris Laetitia should be required reading for those in pre-Cana other similar marriage preparation programs in the Catholic Church. Now Francis says much more regarding the beauty and integrity of marriage, but you get my point: there is no watering down or compromising of the ideal in this text. However, the Pope also honestly admits that many, many people fall short of the ideal, failing fully to integrate all of the dimensions of what the Church means by matrimony. What is the proper attitude to them? Like Cardinal George, the Pope has a visceral reaction against a strategy of simple condemnation, for the Church, he says, is a field hospital, designed to care precisely for the wounded (292). Accordingly, he recommends two fundamental moves. First, we can recognize, even in irregular or objectively imperfect unions, certain positive elements that participate, as it were, in the fullness of married love. Thus for example, a couple living together without benefit of marriage might be marked by mutual fidelity, deep love, the presence of children, etc. Appealing to these positive marks, the Church might, according to a “law of gradualness,” move that couple toward authentic and fully-integrated matrimony (295). This is not to say that living together is permitted or in accord with the will of God; it is to say that the Church can perhaps find a more winsome way to move people in such a situation to conversion. The second move—and here we come to what will undoubtedly be the most controverted part of the exhortation—is to employ the Church’s classical distinction between the objective quality of a moral act and the subjective responsibility that the moral agent bears for committing that act (302). The Pope observes that many people in civil marriages following upon a divorce find themselves in a nearly impossible bind. If their second marriage has proven faithful, life-giving, and fruitful, how can they simply walk out on it without in fact incurring more sin and producing more sadness? This is, of course, not to insinuate that their second marriage is not objectively disordered, but it is to say that the pressures, difficulties, and dilemmas might mitigate their culpability. Here is how Pope Francis applies the distinction: “Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (301). Could the Church’s minister, therefore, not help such people, in the privacy of the rectory parlor or the confessional, to discern their degree of moral responsibility? Once again, this is not to embrace a breezy “anything-goes” mentality, nor to deny that a civil marriage after a divorce is objectively irregular; it is to find, perhaps, for someone in great pain, a way forward. Will Amoris Laetitia end all debate on these matters? Hardly. But it does indeed represent a deft and impressive balancing of the many and often contradictory interventions at the two Synods on the Family. As such, it will be of great service to many suffering souls who come to the Field Hospital.
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the be-all and the end-all of the Christian faith. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, all bishops, priests, and Christian ministers should go home and get honest jobs, and all the Christian faithful should leave their churches immediately. As Paul himself put it: “If Jesus is not raised from the dead, our preaching is in vain and we are the most pitiable of men.” It’s no good, of course, trying to explain the resurrection away or rationalize it as a myth, a symbol, or an inner subjective experience. None of that does justice to the novelty and sheer strangeness of the Biblical message. It comes down finally to this: if Jesus was not raised from death, Christianity is a fraud and a joke; if he did rise from death, then Christianity is the fullness of God’s revelation, and Jesus must be the absolute center of our lives. There is no third option. I want to explore, very briefly, a handful of lessons that follow from the disquieting fact of the Resurrection. First, this world is not it. What I mean is that this world is not all that there is. We live our lives with the reasonable assumption that the natural world as we’ve come to know it through the sciences and discern it through common sense is the final framework of our lives and activities. Everything (quite literally, everything) takes place within the theater of our ordinary experience. And one of the most powerful and frightening features of the common-sense world is death. Every living thing dies and stays dead. Indeed, everything in the universe, scientists tell us, comes into being and then fades away permanently. But what if this is not in fact the case? What if the laws of nature are not as iron-clad as we thought? What if death and dissolution did not have the final say? What if, through God’s power and according to his providence, a “new heavens and a new earth” were being born? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead shows as definitively as possible that God is up to something greater than we had imagined or thought possible. And therefore we don’t have to live as though death were our master and as though nihilism were the only coherent point of view. After he had encountered the risen Christ, Paul could even taunt death: “Where is your sting?” In light of the resurrection, we can, in fact, begin to see this world as a place of gestation, growth and maturation toward something higher, more permanent, more splendid. Here’s a second lesson derived from the resurrection: the tyrants know that their time is up. Remember that the cross was Rome’s way of asserting its authority. Roman authorities declared that if you run afoul of our system, we will torture you to death in the most excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) way possible and then we will leave your body to waste away be devoured by the beasts of the field. The threat of violence is how tyrants up and down the centuries have always asserted their authority. Might makes right. The crucified Jesus appeared to anyone who was witnessing the awful events on Calvary to be one more affirmation of this principle: Caesar always wins in the end. But when Jesus was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians knew that Caesar’s days were numbered. Jesus had taken the worst that the world could throw at him and he returned, alive and triumphant. They knew that the Lord of the world was no longer Caesar, but rather someone whom Caesar had killed but whom God had raised from death. This is why the risen Christ has been the inspiration for resistance movements up and down the centuries. In our own time we saw how deftly John Paul II wielded the power of the cross in Communist Poland. Though he had no nuclear weapons or tanks or mighty armies, John Paul had the power of the resurrection, and that proved strong enough to bring down one of the most imposing empires in the history of the world. Once again, the faculty lounge interpretation of resurrection as a subjective event or a mere symbol is exactly what the tyrants of the world want, for it poses no real threat to them. The third great lesson of the resurrection is that the path of salvation has been opened to everyone. Paul told us that “though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of slave…accepting even death, death on a cross.” In a word, Jesus went all the way down, journeying into pain, despair, alienation, even godforsakenness. He went as far as you can go away from the Father. Why? In order to reach all of those who had wandered from God. Then, in light of the resurrection, the first Christians came to know that, even as we run as fast as we can away from the Father, all the way to godforsakenness, we are running into the arms of the Son. The opening up of the divine life allows everyone free access to the divine mercy. And this is why the Lord himself could say, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself,” and why Paul could assert in 1 Corinthians, “When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” The resurrection shows that Christ can gather back to the Father everyone whom he has embraced through his suffering love. So on Easter Sunday, let us not domesticate the still stunning and disturbing message of resurrection. Rather, let us allow it to unnerve us, change us, set us on fire.
Last week, during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I had the enormous privilege of sharing a breakfast with Fr. Robert Spitzer, the inter-galactically smart Jesuit, who once served as president of Gonzaga University and who now directs the Magis Center on matters of faith, reason, and science. I had just finished Spitzer’s latest book entitled “The Soul’s Upward Yearning” and delighted in discussing it in some detail with him. This text is, in my judgment, the best challenge to what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “buffered self,” that is to say, a self isolated from any sense of the transcendent. Taylor observes that, prior to 1500, almost everyone believed in God and held that life would be meaningless apart from some reference to goods lying beyond our ordinary experience. But today, at least in the West, one can find armies of people who both deny God and affirm that the goods of this world are sufficient to make us happy. This buffered existence makes evangelization nearly impossible, for it closes a listener to the proposal that true fulfillment and God are tightly linked together. Spitzer’s strategy is to show from literature, philosophy, the popular arts, theoretical physics, and epistemology that the human soul yearns for and is in fact already linked to a transcendent or transphysical dimension. By the sheer accumulation of evidence from this wide variety of sources, he punches hole after hole in the buffer that surrounds the modern self. There is a brilliant idea on practically every page of “The Soul’s Upward Yearning,” but I will focus simply on three. First, Spitzer draws our attention to the remarkably universal sense of the transcendent described by philosophers, mystics, and seekers across time and cultures. Limiting ourselves to some key Western figures, Rudolf Otto, for example, speaks of the experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the mystery at the same time fearsome and compelling). This numinous reality overwhelms us and simultaneously draws us into itself, and in its presence we intuit that we are more than physical, that there is a dimension of ourselves that links us to the realm where this mysterious reality dwells. We can find echoes of Otto’s speculation in Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern” and in Karl Rahner’s “absolute mystery” and in C.S. Lewis’s “longing for joy.” Now we might imagine the skeptic wondering whether this is just so much fantasy and subjective projection. Spitzer’s answer is that the properly numinous puts us in touch with the good and the true and the holy in their unconditioned form, and this implies that the experience cannot be sequestered within subjectivity alone, for such an experience would be ipso facto a conditioned one. A second major connection to the transcendent is in the very dynamic of human knowing, an idea articulated by myriad philosophers across the centuries—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Newman, etc.—but given particularly clear expression by the twentieth century Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan maintained that each particular act of knowing takes place within the heuristic context of what can be further known. In any field of intellectual endeavor, every answered question gives rise to a dozen more questions, precisely because the mind is never satisfied with anything less than total knowledge. It wants, in Lonergan’s language, “to know everything about everything.” This means, Spitzer explains, that the mind is always already in possession of an, at least, inchoate awareness of what is completely and radically intelligible, that which, in itself, provides answers to every possible question. But this is none other than the unconditioned reality, that which is utterly real, for a conditioned thing, by definition, would beg the question of its own existence and hence would not be utterly intelligible. All of this is to argue, in a word, that the mind is ordered to God, or as Thomas Aquinas put it, “in every particular act of knowing, God’s existence is implicitly co-known.” If these last two arguments seem too abstract, consider a third route of access that Spitzer presents, namely, the phenomenon of near death experience. Such experiences have been studied carefully for the past forty years, and most of us are well aware of their characteristics: moving out of the body and seeing its surroundings clearly, passing through walls and ceilings, following a tunnel toward a bright light radiating love and compassion, often meeting deceased loved ones along the way. Those who have had such experiences usually swear by them and remain utterly convinced that there is a dimension of the self that survives physical death. Nevertheless, as Spitzer acknowledges, critics have emerged, arguing that these can be explained as hallucinations produced by the brain as it is deprived of oxygen, or the fruit of endorphins released by the dying brain. But how can such reductive accounts begin to explain the fact that those who have exited their bodies can describe their environments with such remarkable accuracy? Indeed, in one extraordinary case, a woman left her body on the operating table, travelled through a variety of corridors in the hospital, left the building on the far side of the operating room and saw a single tennis shoe on the ledge. Afterward, the shoe was found, just as she had described it. And how can the physicalist theories possibly explain how people, blind from birth, correctly see objects and colors in the environs of the sites where they died? Is it not far more likely, Spitzer speculates, that these experiences demonstrate the existence of a transphysical dimension to the self? As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, I would enthusiastically endorse Fr. Spitzer’s book. And I might suggest that, after you’ve read it, you pass it along to a bright young person who has soaked too long in the acids of postmodern skepticism and materialism and who has lived too long in the musty confines of the buffered self.
Just a few days ago, I had the enormous privilege of performing my first confirmation as a bishop. It took place at Holy Cross Parish in Moor Park, California, a large, bustling, and bi-lingual parish in my pastoral region. I told the confirmandi—and I meant it—that I would keep them in my heart for the rest of my life, for we were connected by an unbreakable bond. In preparation for this moment, I was, of course, obliged to craft a homily, and that exercise compelled me to do some serious studying and praying around the meaning of this great Sacrament. It is sometimes said that Confirmation is a sacrament in search of a theology. It is indeed true that most Catholics could probably give at least a decent account of the significance of Baptism, Eucharist, Confession, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick, but they might balk when asked to explain the meaning of Confirmation. Perhaps they would be tempted to say it is the Catholic version of a Bar Mitzvah, but this would not even come close to an accurate theological description. A survey of the most recent theologizing about Confirmation—the Documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, etc.—reveals that this is the sacrament of strengthening, as the term itself (“confirmare” in Latin) suggests. First, it strengthens baptized people in their relationship with the Lord Jesus and then it further strengthens them in their capacity to defend and spread the faith. The roots of it, of course, are in the great day of Pentecost when, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, eleven timorous and largely uneducated men became fearless evangelists, ready and able to spread the Gospel far and wide. Keep in mind that to proclaim Jesus publicly in that time and place was to take one’s life in one’s hand—and the disciples knew it. And yet, on the very day of Pentecost, they spoke out in the Temple and in the public squares of Jerusalem. With the exception of John, they all went to their deaths boldly announcing the Word. I told those I confirmed that they are, in a certain sense, successors of those first men upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and that they have the same fundamental task. Their Confirmation, I further explained, is therefore not really for them; it is for the Church and the wider world. Now what makes this transformation possible is the third person of the Holy Trinity, who comes bearing a variety of powers, which the Church calls the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These include wisdom, knowledge, understanding, fortitude, counsel, piety, and fear of the Lord. In order to understand these more fully, we must keep in mind their relationship to evangelization and apologetics, to spreading and defending the faith. As I have argued often, a dumbed-down, simplified Catholicism is not evangelically compelling. We have a smart tradition, marked by two thousand years of serious theologizing by some of the masters of Western thought: Origen, Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Joseph Ratzinger. If one is going to defend the Catholic faith, especially at a time when it is under assault by many in the secular culture, one had better possess (and cooperate with) the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. In order to be an effective evangelist, one also needs the spiritual gift of fortitude or courage. Will the defense of the faith stir up opposition? Watch the news, read the papers, and above all surf the Internet, and the question answers itself. It would be tempting indeed to withdraw from the arena and cultivate one’s faith privately, but confirmed people, endowed with fortitude, are meant to be soldiers of Christ, engaged in the fight. Some folks suggest that this phrase should not be used as it evokes the terrors of religious violence. However, the struggle of a soldier of Christ is to resist violence, not with the weapons of worldliness but with the weapons of the Spirit—peace, patience, kindness, and forgiveness. Does evangelization put the evangelizer in harm’s way? Just ask Peter, Paul, Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe, and Charles Lwanga. But also consult anyone who has been insulted, joked about, mocked, or excluded because of his faith in Christ. The gift of fortitude empowers the confirmandi to stay in the arena. Those who would spread and defend the faith also require the gift of counsel, which is the capacity to discern right from wrong, to know what God wants us to do in any given situation. As we move through the day, we perform hundreds of acts. Are we motivated primarily by the worldly desires for wealth, pleasure, power, self-protection, and honor; or are we motivated by a desire to please God? Counsel enables one to make the right moral decisions for the right reason. It is precisely this holiness, this consistent option to follow the will of God, that makes a person radiant and compelling to others—and hence evangelically persuasive. Finally, the confirmed evangelizer needs the spiritual gifts of piety and fear of the Lord. Though these terms carry a somewhat fussy connotation, they in fact name something strong and bracing. They designate the capacity to place God at the absolute center of one’s life, to worship God alone. The person of piety and genuine fear of the Lord (respect for God), does not run after every passing fancy, or devote herself to a variety of worldly goods; rather, her heart is set upon God alone, and every other passion or interest in her life is related to that central value. This right ordering of the self conduces toward integrity, and integrity of life makes a person saintly and deeply attractive. I reminded those I confirmed that their Confirmation was meant to set them on fire with the Holy Spirit, precisely so that they in turn can set the world on fire. Once again, the gifts that they received were not for them.
*Contains spoilers* Alejandro Iñárritu’s new film “The Revenant” is one of the most talked about movies, and for good reason. The opening twenty minutes, which feature a frighteningly realistic Indian attack and a horrifically vivid mauling by a grizzly bear, are absolutely compelling viewing. And the remainder of the film is so involving that this viewer at least felt physically sick as he followed the sufferings of the main character. The story revolves around a fur trapper from the early 19th century named Hugh Glass (very convincingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio). After being nearly killed by a bear protecting its cubs (in the mauling referenced above), Glass is bandaged up and then carried on a crudely constructed litter through miles and miles of rugged country in the middle of winter. So sick is he and such an encumbrance to his colleagues that many in the party wonder whether it might be better simply to kill him. But Glass’s son, a half-white, half-Indian teenager named Hawk, vigorously defends his father. Eventually, however, Fitzgerald, one of the strongest advocates for eliminating Glass, makes his move, murdering Hawk in cold blood and placing Glass in a shallow grave, convinced that the profoundly injured man would never manage to extricate himself. But in the first of a number of resurrection/re-birth scenes, Glass crawls out of his grave and despite his appalling injuries manages to make his way. What follows is like something out of Dante’s Inferno or the book of Job. When he tries to take a drink, the water runs out of the wounds in his neck; when he seeks shelter in a cave, Indians find him and he is compelled to escape down a fast-flowing stream while arrows whiz by his head; when we think he is relatively safe, he is attacked again and forced to escape on horseback right over a steep cliff, killing the animal and leaving himself even more grievously injured; exposed to lethal cold, he eviscerates the horse and sleeps in the confines of the carcass, etc., etc. What is driving him during this entire ordeal is a burning desire for vengeance against Fitzgerald, the man who killed his son and left Glass himself for dead. He will face down every obstacle and withstand any assault so that he might bring this wicked person to justice. In this, he comes to imitate the bear with whom he had grappled to the death. Throughout the central section of the film, Glass is clad head to toe in furs, shuffles and grunts his way through the wilderness, eats animals and fish raw. He has become the grizzly, roused to fury because of an attack on his offspring. The pivotal moment of the film occurs when, at the end of his strength, Glass encounters a Pawnee warrior who feeds him and shelters him during a ferocious storm. In conversation afterward, Glass learns that his benefactor had himself lost his entire family at the hands of the Sioux tribe. Filled understandably with rage and a desire for vengeance, the Indian concluded, nevertheless, that “vengeance is best left to the Creator.” In a dream/fantasy sequence just after this conversation, Glass finds himself in the midst of the ruins of a Christian church, where he spies and embraces Hawk, reaching out, as it were, across the divide to a transcendent world, where the Creator rules. Without giving away too much more of the plot, suffice it to say that Glass tracks down Fitzgerald and engages in mano a mano combat with him until he remembers what the Pawnee had said and allows his wounded counterpart to drift down the river. The film carries a crucially important message, especially for our secularist time, namely, that, as Evelyn Waugh put it in Brideshead Revisited, “the supernatural is the real.” “The Revenant” is unremittingly honest in its portrayal of people caught in the awful reality of this fallen world, which is marked through and through by violence, suspicion, hatred, revenge, and the constant struggle to survive in the context of an indifferent nature. For the denizens of this universe, the correct mottos are indeed “kill or be killed” and “love your friends but hate your enemies” and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” If there is no God, as Fitzgerald suggests to one of his underlings, survival at any cost, the law of the jungle, is the supreme law. But if there is a dimension that transcends nature, if there is a God who provides a moral compass and presides over human affairs, then one can let go of vengeance and seek a higher justice. The film ends just as this consciousness of God dawns on Glass. How much of human history has been dominated by revenge which produces an endless cycle of violence? And how present is this dynamic in the struggles of today: Muslim factionalism in the Middle East, anti-Christian violence in Africa, terrorism everywhere? Nothing within fallen nature will ever break us free of these cycles. Only an openness to the transcendent God, a higher power to whom we can entrust our thirst for justice, will solve the problem that most bedevils the human heart. The slowly-dawning awareness of this truth is the greatest re-birth undergone by Hugh Glass, and watching it happen is a very good reason to see “The Revenant.”
Like so many others around the world, I was overjoyed to hear of the recent decision of the Vatican to canonize Mother Teresa, a woman generally recognized, during her lifetime, to be a “living saint.” Mother Teresa first came to my attention through Malcolm Muggeridge’s film and attendant book Something Beautiful for God. Of course Muggeridge showed Mother’s work with the dying and the poorest of the poor on the streets of Kolkata, but what moved me the most were the images of the saint’s smile amidst so much squalor and suffering. She was a very bright light shining in exceptionally thick darkness. Mother’s life reveals so many aspects and profiles of holiness, but I would like to focus on three of them. First, she shows something remarkable about love, which is not a sentiment but rather willing the good of the other. I think it is fair to say that Mother Teresa went to extremes in demonstrating love in this proper sense. She renounced practically everything that, in the opinion of the world, makes life pleasant—wealth, material goods, power, comforts, luxuries—in order to be of service to those in need. Further, for decades, she personally reached out to the most vulnerable in one of the worst slums in the world and sent her sisters to some of the most disagreeable places on the planet. Most of us, I imagine, manage to love to a degree, but few ever express this theological virtue more dramatically and radically than she did. This is not simply admirable, it constitutes a crucial witness to the nature of love. Unlike the other virtues, both natural and theological, love has no limit. Justice, limitlessly expressed, excludes all mercy; too much temperance becomes a fussy puritanism; exaggerated courage is rashness; unlimited faith is credulity; infinite hope devolves into presumption. But there can never be too much love; there is never a time when love is inappropriate, for love is what God is, and love constitutes the very life of heaven. Mind you, in heaven there is no need for faith and hope fades away. But in that supremely holy place, love remains in all of its infinite intensity and radicality. Mother Teresa’s way of life, accordingly, is an icon of the love that will obtain in heaven, when we are drawn utterly into the very life of God. A second feature of Mother’s holiness is her dedication to prayer. When I visited the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata some years ago, what impressed me most was a life-size statue of Mother Teresa in the very back of the chapel, in the attitude she customarily assumed when she prayed: legs folded under her, palms facing upward, head bowed. From the very beginning of her community, Mother insisted that her sisters should engage in substantial amounts of prayer every day; and in time, she established a branch of her order dedicated exclusively to contemplative prayer. She understood something that is essential to the Christian spiritual life, namely, that the kind of love she and her sisters endeavored to practice could come only through the grace of God, only as a sheer gift. To get that gift, it was necessary to ask, to ask again, to beg one’s whole life long. Without this explicit connection to God and his purposes, their work, she knew, would turn into mere do-goodism, and the egos of her sisters would inevitably assert themselves. Saints, those who embody the love that God is, are necessarily beggars. I remarked above that Mother Teresa struck me as a light in the shadows. How mysterious, therefore, that she herself once said, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be a saint of darkness.” She was referring to something that only a handful of people knew in her lifetime, that for upwards of fifty years, Mother Teresa experienced the pain of the absence of God. The living saint often felt abandoned by God or even that God does not exist. Once a visiting bishop was kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament with Mother and her nuns. A note was passed to him from the saintly foundress, which read, to his infinite surprise, “Where is Jesus?” That she lived through this crucible for decades, even as people routinely saw her as the very paragon of holiness, shows forth a third dimension of her saintliness. To be a saint is to allow Christ to live his life in you. Indeed, St. Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;” and this means the whole Christ. Jesus was a person of service to the poor and needy, and Mother certainly embodied this aspect of his life; Jesus was a person who prayed intently and for long periods of time, and Mother participated in this dimension of his existence. But Jesus was also the crucified Lord, who said, at the limit of his suffering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To allow Christ to live his life in you is, therefore, necessarily to experience, to one degree or another, the absence of God, to undergo the agony of the crucifixion in all of its dimensions. St. John of the Cross, the greatest mystical theologian in the Church’s history said, quite simply, that there is no path to holiness that does not lead through the cross. Though it is a high paradox, the fifty-year darkness that Mother endured is, therefore, one of the surest indicators of her saintliness. Saints exist for the Church, for in them we see the very raison d’etre of the Church, and this is why canonizations are always joyful affairs. So let us rejoice in this new saint whose love, prayer, and very darkness, are light for us.
The readings for the third Sunday of Advent put me in mind of one of the most significant themes in Catholic theology, namely, the play between nature and grace. St. Luke tells us that people came to John the Baptist, asking what they should do to reform their lives. John responds with good and very pointed moral advice. To the tax collectors he says, “Don’t take more money than you ought” and to the soldiers he urges, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone; be content with your pay.” In so saying, he was addressing very common practices of that time and place. Tax collectors regularly demanded more money than was just and skimmed the surplus for themselves—which helps to explain why they were so unpopular. And soldiers—young men with weapons and too much time on their hands—predictably acted as bully-boys, extorting money through threats of violence. John the Baptist is, quite sensibly, calling such people to decency and justice. As such, he stands with great philosophers, poets, social reformers, and religious figures. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all summoned people to be just, “to render to each his due,” in Plato’s pithy formula. In point of fact, John, often called the last of the prophets, echoes his prophetic forebears—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, etc.—all of whom urged Israel to walk the path of justice and care for the marginalized and poor. So far, so natural. But then John adds something, which should take our breath away: “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals,” that is to say, perform a task that was considered too demeaning even for a slave. We just couldn’t imagine Isaiah saying such a thing about Jeremiah, or Amos about Hosea, or Plato about Aristotle. What John the Baptist is signaling is the qualitative difference between himself (and the entire prophetic tradition that he represents) and the coming Christ Jesus. John was baptizing with water, but the one he announces will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Notice how the emphasis has shifted from the active to the passive. John told his audience that there were certain very definite things that they could do. But the one who is coming will not so much call for action on our part; rather, he will accomplish something that we, even in principle, could never accomplish for ourselves. He will dip us (baptizein) in the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the love that obtains between the Father and the Son, the love that God is. It is with this very love that he will set us on fire. This passivity is signaled as well in the second great image that John employs, one that might be opaque to us but that was eminently clear to the Baptist’s first century audience: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor.” When farmers in the ancient world wanted to separate wheat from chaff, they would place stalks of wheat on a flat surface and then, using a kind of rake or pitchfork (the winnowing fan), toss the grain in the air and allow the wind to blow the light and insubstantial chaff away. The one whom John heralds will in a similar way separate out what is life-enhancing in us from what is life-denying. Again, he will not so much expect us to accomplish this work; he will do it in us and for us. None of this, of course, is to gainsay the significance of John’s own teaching; but it is indeed to say that that teaching is inadequate. To put this in terms of the Church’s classical theology, nature is not negated by grace but is rather completed and perfected by grace. Grace (gratia in Latin; charis in Greek) is, quite simply, gift, something offered and freely accepted. At the end of all our striving, we surrender to a power that, as Paul said, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” After many years of tying our own belts and going where we want to go, someone else (the Holy Spirit) will tie us up and take us where we could never go on our own. Now what does this look like on the ground? What, to use William James’s language, is its “cash value?” If, as we saw, this new life is an immersion in the very essence of God, it will look like love in the truly radical sense. Since God has no need whatsoever, he can never operate in a self-interested way. Hence, authentic love, the love that is the nature of God, is not indirect egotism: I will be kind to you that you might be kind to me. Rather, it is willing the good of the other as other, acting for the benefit of another, even when such action is in no way beneficial to us. Now think of Mother Teresa caring for the poorest of the poor in the worst slum in the world; now think of Junipero Serra going to the ends of the world to share the Gospel; now think of Rose Hawthorne taking cancer patients into her own apartment to care for them when no-one else would. Such love is a consequence of grace, of the Adventus of Christ, of being dipped into the fire of the Holy Spirit. To welcome this grace that transfigures nature, to pray for it with all our heart, is what the season of Advent is finally about.