Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
I exist. My life is real. At least once-a-month, I come anew to what may seem like a rather unsophisticated insight. After all, the “realness” of a life seems obvious to the observer. I breathe. I eat. I encounter other human beings. I get up in the morning, go to the gym and then to the office. I come home at the end of the day and eat dinner with my wife. I read a book, and then I go to bed.
But, there is more to living than physicality; more than simply fulfilling the tasks that come my way each day. The insight regarding the reality of my life is one in which I awaken to the fact that I exist here and now. I am in this place, in this time, in relationships with other people who are also very real. And everything that I do each day has a tangible effect upon a world, a world that is not imaginary. The life I live is not merely a phantasy, a postmodern universe of simulacra. I am really here, right now!
This summer, I had the privilege of watching over sixty undergraduate students come to an analogous insight. These undergraduates, mentors-in-faith with the Notre Dame Vision program, ministered to 1200 high school students around the country. Through their witness, they guided those younger than them to perceive that there is a God who calls, one who revealed the depths of divine love in Jesus Christ, and who has called each of us to live according to this logic of self-giving love through the Spirit. That is our vocation. And over the course of the summer, the mentors-in-faith lived in a community in which they practiced dwelling together according to this logic of love. They saw that the Christian life is not an idea or a series of moralistic maxims. It is love unto to the end. And as they practiced such love over the course of six weeks, they began to see that this love is the reality of the cosmos. Self-giving love is reality.
Of course, now their summer together has come to an end. They have departed campus and returned to the “world”. And the recurring question as they left: how can I live this way, how can I love like this once I get back to the “real” world?
Most of what we mean by the real world is in fact a series of falsehoods:
- In the real world, the covers of magazines tell me what constitutes true beauty, true happiness; to be beautiful, to be worth anything, I must look like that.
- In the real world, complete happiness is only possible when I achieve the career of my dreams, becoming famous and rich in the process.
- In the real world, only those who are important to the function of society of matter; everyone else is relatively expendable, to be “used” as long as they provide some benefit to me.
- In the real world, politics operate according to a hidden violence, whereby candidates do whatever it takes to not only remain in office, but to remain entrenched there.
Christians, including these mentors-in-faith, know that this “supposed” real world is false. A lie. The true simulacra. Creation is no accident but the “logic” of a God, who loves unto the end, who creates humanity in the image and likeness of God. Our “imaging” of God is not a matter of power, of prestige, of transcendence, but of humility, of self-emptying, of love. Of learning to dwell according to the order of gift, rather than the economy of exchange. And true happiness is only possible once we have given ourselves away in love in imitation of the Triune God.
This self-gift is the real world. It is the meaning of creation. Of the covenant in the Old Testament. Of the prophets’ call for Israel to return to the Lord, our God. Of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross on Calvary. The biblical narrative purifies our imaginations so that we can look at reality clearly, developing the proper vision for judging the created order.
The problem with the supposed “real” world is that it rejects such self-giving love as naïve, intellectually unsophisticated, as revealing weakness that will be taken advantage of by the strong. Quoting John 3:16-21:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God (Jn. 3:15-21).
In the Gospel of John, to believe in the only-begotten Son is to believe that he is the Word made flesh, the Incarnate logos, the fashioner of all creation now become human. And his presence is the manifestation of God’s own love for the world, a light that shines into the darkness of the world, exposing our half-truths. In Christ, the very reasoning behind reality takes flesh and shows us that love is the meaning of existence. And his resurrection is a sign that love (despite all signs to the contrary) does conquer death, light does shine into the darkness of the world. But the source of the light’s strength is precisely, to use Paul’s own language, the weakness and foolishness of God. It is Jesus Christ himself:
The living body that achieves this is the world’s supreme work of art and love; in it, the ugliest side of our history, in all of its realism, is transformed from within into what is most beautiful: bearing, forgiving, and transforming Love, and it is therefore proper that this memorial is made over to us forever in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It would not be what it is if our own dying were not also taken up in it and transformed into an achievement of theanthropic love. We drink the blood that was shed by us, yet, on a deeper level, for us. And if we are afraid of dying because we do not know how to do this: to consent to being swept away as a whole, then we should not forget that someone was able to do it for us beforehand, someone who did not die as some individual next to us, but who, dying and suffering, already bore our death in himself (Hans urs von Balthasar, Life Out of Death: Meditations on the Paschal Mystery, 37-38).
To practice living then “a real life” involves giving ourselves up to death, to carry out the Eucharistic vocation of each Christian to love unto the end. The supposed “real” world will reject such love, precisely because of the effects of sin that are still quite real. The Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” encounters the graceful love of the Grandmother, and he’ll react to such love the only way that sin knows how to: through violence. The darkness is afraid of the light; the light threatens it. But even as the Christian encounters such rejection, he or she responds with the same self-giving love of Christ himself. For Christian love is bearing, forgiving, transforming. It is the love of God incarnate in the world.
And slowly, one will notice a transformation of the supposed “real” world. Those who live in the truth of self-giving love, who choose gratitude above greed, are the source of creation’s transfiguration. As our vision is reformed, enlightened, purified, we begin to gaze upon creation and ourselves in the proper light and see reality as it is. We become saints, soberly gazing upon all of creation in love; and where there is darkness, we do not respond with violence, with anger, but the gift of ourselves.
So to those mentors (and all those who return from summer retreats), who are concerned about being a faithful Christian in the “real” world. Let the reality of self-giving love that you have experienced come to shape your vision, your dwelling within the world. Only then can you dare to call the world real.