Tag Archives: literature

Selfie Worship

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

The ubiquitous nature of the selfie has reached a point of becoming comedic. This summer during a baseball game, a number of young women took five or so minutes of selfies, not once looking up to see what was going on during the game. When traveling on planes, it has become normal to see a seatmate pull up her sweatshirt hood, purse her lips, and snap away. Thousands of tourists throughout Rome purchase the selfie stick so that they can take pictures of themselves in front of famous churches, sharing with the world that they were there (yet perhaps never really looking at the church in the first place, only at their own image).

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The comedy of the selfie, of course, became less comedic several weeks ago when a young women, Essena O’Neill, revealed the kind of idolatry that the practice had produced in her. O’Neill declared to her followers:

I’m quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Deleted over 2000 photos here today that served no real purpose other than self promotion. Without realising, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance…Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement. I was consumed by it.

The selfie, for Ms. O’Neill, was a form of self-worship, an adoration of an image that she could present to her online peers for their consumption. Rather than elicit happiness in her, Ms. O’Neill discovered again and again the surprising emptiness of a like, a favorite, a star. The heart longed for further likes, further adoration to take place. And the constant work of “creating the selfie” never ceased.

AcademicsTweetingIn fact, there is a sense in which much use of social media (whether employing imagery or not) is the creation of selfies for other’s adoration. Even photo-phobic academics tweet out their ideas, longing not simply to participate in conversations but to increase their followers, develop their brand, to be favorited and liked and re-tweeted for all the world to see (sometimes at the expense of the truth and charity alike). The person who tweets their wisdom to the world delights at being noticed by those with prominence, in some way becoming a more important self in the process. I matter because my thoughts have been recognized, acknowledged, taken up by others. I matter. This approach to social media gradually takes over one’s life such that every moment of one’s day is no longer an occasion for contemplation, for existence in the world, but a chance to tweet something out that will increase one’s self-image. The world becomes a house of idols.

This kind of selfie worship (whether of an image or thought) is ruining our capacity for liturgical prayer. In liturgy, we do not create a self before God, seeking to be recognized as beautiful, smart, talented, etc.; rather, we give up on the project of self-creation to begin with. We are to become selfless, which does not mean that we are to hate ourselves. Rather, we are to see the self as fully flourishing insofar as we adore the living God.

In this way, we must see liturgical worship as a form of “play,” which is radically distinct from selfie-worship. To create the selfie may look like play; but often enough the use of the selfie is really a conscious way of constructing a self-image for others to enjoy. Whereas in our celebration of the liturgy:

The practice of the liturgy means that by the help of grace, under the guidance of the Church, we grow into living works of art before God, with no other aim or purpose than that of living and existing in his sight; it means fulfilling God’s Word and ‘becoming as little children’; it means foregoing maturity with all its purposefulness, and confining oneself to play, as David did when he danced before the Ark…The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeless activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why’? and ‘wherefore’? It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God (Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 71-72).

IncenseThe goal of liturgy is not self-creation, self-formation, self-adoration but self-emptying love. It is to learn to be who we are before God–a redeemed sinner, still learning to utter truthful words of praise to the triune God, who is total gift.

Perhaps, here, the novelist David Foster Wallace in his work Infinite Jest is prescient. We seem to have entered a time in which the goal is not the presentation of a real image of ourselves, of who we are, but a product and a brand that others can admire.  It is only those in the house of recovery in Infinite Jest, who can see themselves truthfully. They are the ones capable of love, of giving up on the project of self-projection to begin with. In the midst of the recovering addict, who has given up the project of creating a unique self apart from all others, do you find the possibility of salvation.

The liturgical rites of the Church also offer this possibility. The goal of our prayer is a halfway house for the selfie-loving soul, moving us away from the kind of self-adoration that infects the present human condition. We stand before the living God and acknowledge not simply that we are a sinner but that our flourishing is only possible through the grace we receive at the holy altar. The liturgy forms us not to hate ourselves, to despise our bodies. But instead to stand before God as we are, to give up on the project of creating the perfect self. We play before the living God, offering words of lament and praise, words that we did not create, discovering in the process an identity that we did not know was ours to begin with. We see our restlessness for what it is. Not something to be stopped, ceased at all costs. But the very driver of desire, which enable us to recognize who we really are: creatures made to praise and adore the living God.

Follow Tim on Twitter (ironic in light of topic of article): @NDLiturgyCenter

 

Pondering the Sanctification of Our Ways (On Hobbit Day)

It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, hqdefaultI have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)

My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche andnativity_icon1-227x300 my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)

And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.

When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237).  As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:

  • A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
  • Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
  • Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
  • And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
  • Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.

(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)

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“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)

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Endearing, Pippin. But according to Tolkien, I can’t love you for the sake of second breakfast alone.

It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.

Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.

screen_shot_2014-10-16_at_4.23.10_pm__largeThe Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).

So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings  stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate  sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).

The_Hobbits_of_Hobbiton
“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”

The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:

“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—thetumblr_lg5u8beBEh1qgb6vio1_500ir paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).

It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.

Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.

For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. F7e19f0098d7cf5dd31615656e13915aaor like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).

Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.

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Luigi Santucci’s Tales of Grace

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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This morning, while walking to work, I had a chance to read Luigi Santucci’s Tales of Graces: Reflections on the Joyful Mysteries. A series of short meditative stories that revolve around the joyful mysteries of the rosary, this book is a feast for the religious imagination. Published in Italian in 1946, this translation by Demetrio S. Yocum is a gift to the English reader. Not only is the prose beautiful but it is illuminated by a series of icons by George Kordis, an occasional visiting professor of the University of Notre Dame.

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The gift of the text (from the perspective) of a liturgical theologian is that it stretches the very bounds of time itself, demonstrating that the mysteries of Christ’s life are not mere historical events, sealed now in the Biblical text. The joyful realities played out in the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of the Lord, and the Finding in the Temple are contemporary realities unfolding anew in the history of the world and the Church. And these events have transformed entirely what it means to be human, including the marking of time itself:

At night alone in your holy dwelling, Lord, I had a consoling thought: more and more humans forget you (or live as if they have forgotten you), but keep counting the years since your first coming. For this humanity that ignores or denies you, each reference to the year is an act of worship, a prostration in front of you: two thousand years ago our own destiny was created, Christ was incarnated and became man. Perhaps no other profession of faith is left for us than that: the more automatic and smoothed out by convention and habit, the more conspicuous and enduring. From the hasty bookkeeper’s key strokes on ledgers, to the certificates and licenses filed by office clerks, as well as headers and footers of dramatic love letters, this drop of your precious blood stands our unwaveringly and admonishingly like a tacitly eloquent blind prophet in his tunic, among a crowd of sinners and merchants” (34).

Indeed, what pulsates on every page of this text is a deep and abiding Christian humanism. It is not a humanism separate from Christianity, a kind of “liberal Christianity” that seeks to ignore those embarrassing Catholic particularities including the intercession of the Blessed Mother, the legends of the lives of the saints, and the stunning brilliance of the Church’s liturgy itself. Rather, it is a humanism that is grounded in the joy of the Gospel itself. After reading Santucci’s imaginative contemplation of the Visitation itself, it will be hard to pass over the wonder of these blessed pregnancies again:

Like two caravels on a placid sea, the pregnancies of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth proceeded quickly and smoothly. By the end of September, both their bellies were tight as a drumhead and arched, precisely like two sails.

The silence surrounding them was increasingly intense and rustling, almost as if the world, in a secretive and respectful cooperation, pretended to be asleep in order to uncover the mystery. Someone, I am sure, was constantly lending the ear to hear the hidden blending of fluids and liquids that generate life: the life of a man and the life of God. But the secret could be unveiled only by looking at the countenance of two mothers’ faces: the maiden-mother with her warm brown braid; and the elderly woman, whose pregnancy had restored in her an almost childlike smoothness of skin (44).

KordisVisitationNature is taken up and transformed in this moment; and as Santucci will show throughout the remainder of this chapter, all pregnancy, all life is transfigured by these two births.

It struck me upon reading this text that this kind of literary, humanistic, and well….lovely account of the Gospel is precisely what is needed in the context of the New Evangelization. What Santucci produced years ago is a vision of what a Christian culture of joy looks like. It is not one without sorrow, without any reference to the cross. It does not pass over any aspect of what it means to be human. Instead, these stories embody a hopeful, grace-filled existence, which could not help but attract one to the Gospel.

Perhaps, this is most true in the final chapter, which involves a dialogue at a college reunion between presumably the author of the book and a group of priests. The author argues against the priests that the heart of Christianity is not self-denial but a radical affirmation of the world. As the author argues against the priests,

“Epicurus and all the other pagan hedonists, those living two thousand years ago and the ones of today, bustle around, trying to distill joy from pleasant things, whereas Christ taught us to find it in everything, even in the most problematic and testing circumstances.”

“Like what?”

“Death, for example.”

At the conclusion of the chapter, one of the priests asks the author what he should do if he is not to focus upon the pain of self-denial:

“May we ask you for some advice?” he said, winking at his brothers after an enigmatic silence. “If this is how things are, tell me, what is there left for us priests to do? Are you suggesting that we should try to serve the Gospel of Christ with a renewed spirit?…”

“Grace has won the battle with the Law,” I replied. “There is no more need of officers of the Law, but of promoters of Grace. ‘Grace’ means to desire the things that the Law made us afraid of. Grace is about finding more pleasure in avoiding sin than committing it. More pleasure, do you understand? Preaching about pain to mankind is a waste of time because pain is a discredited myth. No threat will ever stop a sinner because strong than sin, stronger than hunger and sex, stronger than man and angels there is only joy”

“What should you do,” I added. “Dazzle us: arrange processions more beautiful than glittering dances on glimmering dance floors; forge bells more melodious than the music of Strauss, use incense more fragrant than the finest perfumes….”

The era of grace, the epoch presented by Christ is not meant to be a time of misery. The Church, if she is attract members to her fold, cannot employ misery or guilt alone. Rather, it is be-dazzlement that the Church offers. An aesthetic evangelization in which new possibilities are opened to the one who gives him or herself over to the joy of the Gospel.

This book, then, is not simply then pleasant reading for a summer’s walk (and it is that indeed). Rather, it presents a literary, meditative, and imaginative vision of a Church that does not spurn the cultural or the human. It is, itself, a program for evangelization.

Memories Need To Be Shared: The Giver and Liturgical Life

profileTRANS (1)Jon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

After finishing Seminary I have found myself reading fiction that I willfully ignored when I was younger and did not have time for during my years of study. While I am sure that this ignorance has caused me to miss out on a more literarily-robust childhood, a part of me thinks that reading children’s fiction this late in life means that I get far more out of each story than I would have if I had read them at the appropriate age.

TheGiverCase in point: I only recently finished reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I could not help but read the novel in light of many of my own life journeys. One journey in particular that The Giver continually brought to mind was my own journey into a liturgical tradition.

As Jonas slowly discovered his gift of “seeing beyond” the black and white world of “sameness,” I found myself thinking back to my earliest experience of being moved by a prayer written in a century long before my own. It was so different from what I knew, yet it had a familiar quality. It was new, but not alien to my experience as a human. As Jonas experienced his first “longings” I was reminded of the feeling I could not shake after leaving my first ever Ash Wednesday service. I had attended the service by myself but did not leave alone; I was visibly marked as a member of a community I did not create. This was a new experience, one that left me wanting more.

Neither of these experiences would have amounted to much by themselves. Without an embodied guide along the way, my longing for our colorful past and a sense of belonging to the whole church would have remained just that—a longing and a sense.

Jonas was twelve when it was revealed to him that he would be given one such guide. He had been chosen to bear the memories of human history on behalf of his community, and he would be guided along the way by an older, wiser Giver of memories. The memory of his community’s past were incredibly painful to bear at times. The sterilized environment of his youth was free of war and an understanding of death. He had no framework for understanding the horrors or level of loss he experienced through the memories. Other memories brought him pleasure beyond what he could have ever imagined. He received memories of basking in sunlight, sledding down a hill, and familial love that he had previously never experienced.

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” The Giver

These memories did not appear all at once. They were transmitted to him by an older, wiser Giver. I was an adult when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of Dallas. My wife and I had taken the Canterbury Trail confirmation class together, and I decided that though I had much to learn, I was ready to commit to worshiping as a Christian in the Anglican tradition. Thomas Howard’s opening lines of his (quite helpful) book The Liturgy Explained described my feelings well:

“We are all beginners at the liturgy, really. All of us—from the first-time visitor who finds himself paging helplessly through the Prayer Book wondering what is happening, to the aged priest who has known it all by heart for half a century—are really only on the lower slopes of worship.”

I suspect that I felt this sense of being a beginner more than most. But I take great comfort in knowing that I too have been given guides along the way of exploring a liturgical life.

Reading the Church Fathers has shown me that while so many of these liturgical experiences are new to me, they are not new to Christ’s church. The Book of Common Prayer reminds me that I am not the only one fumbling through the Daily Office, confused at times about what I should be reading and when. The Eucharist—perhaps the greatest of all guides—serves as a memory that is more BookofCommonPrayerthan a memory.

But like all disciples of Jesus, I find that while I myself am being guided by Givers of all varieties, I am also called to be a Giver myself. My wife, who faithfully followed me into this tradition, and our daughter, who was baptized on the day before the first Sunday of Advent 2013, both need me to guide them along this path of discipleship, just as I need them.

So as I think about my role in the liturgy in light of Jonas’ journey in The Giver, I am reminded of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1,

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

This path of discipleship is one that calls us all to be both givers and receivers of the Good News of God in Christ.

The Praise of Lament

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Yesterday, Religion and Literature at the University of Notre Dame hosted a lecture entitled “The Pace of Praise: Might Theology Walk Together with Literature?” by Prof. Robin Kirkpatrick. The lecture was characterized by the perfect marriage of form and content, as Prof. Kirkpatrick explored the relationship between theology and literature through attending to themes of praise (both human and divine) particularly in the work of Dante and Chaucer. The lecture was equal parts brilliant (relative to textual criticism) and poetic (using words to describe narratives that had the audience riveted). Leaving, one had a sense that literature has a unique role in renewing the theological imagination insofar as literature forms us to speak about God in the first place.

At the conclusion, a question was asked by a graduate student about the role of divine praise in the midst of not simply literary tragedy (Macbeth, for example) but real, human suffering. The kind of “tragic” situation in which any attempt to offer praise cracks under the pressure of unspeakable sorrow. In such moments, can we really join our voices to the psalmist crying out:

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,/the moon and stars that You set in place,/what is man that You have been mindful of him,/mortal man that You have taken note of him,/that You have made him little less than divine…(Psalm 8:4-6).

As we watch someone die far too young, can we utter these words of praise? As we turn our gaze to the horrors of war unfolding throughout the world, do we really see creation as infused with divine glory?

The reality is that when we hear about true tragedy, true sorrow, it is exceedingly difficult to find any meaning at all. Literature captures this moment all too well, even in a flawed protagonist like Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time,/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing (Macbeth V.5.18-27).

The “tragedy” of the world presents itself to us in such a way that weMacbeth - Poster become forgotten actors upon the stage of a history told by an idiot. Meaning fades into the background. We are creatures who have lied to ourselves about some grand narrative, some director that guides human life. Faced now with the truth, we must have the courage to see that life itself is devoid of meaning, having no direction at all. What is there left to praise?

Of course, there are alternatives to Macbeth’s lament. The psalms do not deny that life is full of those radical contrast experiences that tempt us to give up the search for meaning in the first place. But, the psalmist does not succumb to this temptation entirely. Instead, the suffering of the world is directed toward God in the form of lament:

“How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever?/How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?/How long will my enemy have the upper hand?/Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God!” (Psalm 13:1-4).

God is held accountable for forgetting, for refusing to act. We cry out, not passing over our sorrow, but presenting it before the very face of God. To do this, of course, is itself an act of praise. The one who has given up all hope, who sees the world as meaningless, no longer cries out in sorrow. To blame God for not acting, to lament, is itself a form of praise precisely because we believe that God cares enough to listen. Psalms (like the one above) end in praise not as a way to butter up God. Instead, they reveal that lament itself is a form of praise: “But I trust in your faithfulness,/my heart will exult in your deliverance./I will sing to the Lord,/for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:6).

Of course, not all psalms of lament end in praise. The lecture yesterday started with the particularly tragic psalm, Psalm 137. It begins with Israel situated upon the banks of Babylon, the temple destroyed, the captors mocking Israel by demanding the broken people to “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalms 137:3). Israel, at least upon initial reading, responds not by addressing God but the city of Jerusalem: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,/let my right hand wither;/let me tongue stick to my palate/if I cease to think of you,/if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory/even at my happiest hour” (Psalm 137:5-6). Yet, Jerusalem is no mere city akin to New York or Scranton. It is the city where God once dwelled in the Temple, a city that (at least to the initial writer(s) of the psalm) may never exist again. All that is left is the desire for revenge against those who have inflicted this darkness upon Israel, who have emptied the Temple of God’s presence:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites/the day of Jerusalem’s fall;/how they cried, ‘Strip her, strip her/to her very foundations!’/Fair Babylon, you predator,/a blessing on him who repays you in kind/what you have inflicted on us;/a blessing on him who seizes your babies/and dashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137:7-9).

BabylonianCaptivityAnd thus, this psalm of lament comes crashing to an end. Israel wants the tragedy that she knows so well inflicted upon Babylon. She praises God now, not because of God’s deep abiding goodness. But in the hope that Babylon will know the very suffering that has so deeply wounded her.

Can we say that this psalm is also a psalm of praise? If we only look at the historical situation of this psalm, then no. But we must recognize that this psalm is not being prayed only by those situated on the banks of Babylon’s rivers. This psalm that offers no comfort but that of a violent revenge against one’s captors exists now in the context of the psalms as a whole–a book for divine worship, of praise itself. Even this moment of sorrow, the desire for violence against the enemy, becomes an offering of praise to God. It is offered by the tongues of Jews and Christians throughout the world (except in the Liturgy of the Hours, which decided that imprecatory verses from psalms should be eliminated).

Of course, for Christians, the praise of lament is most evident upon that cross. Christ himself cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Indeed, Christ is truly forsaken. He does not hear the voice of his Father. He is not rescued by angels or apostles from the tragic death that he must undergo. He is alone and mocked, entering into the darkness of sin and death. Yet, his cry of sorrow is still directed to the Father. The suffering servant heaps upon himself all that is tragic about the human condition.

And yet that he cries out, that he reveals the tragic sorrow of the moment, is itself redemptive. None of us as human beings are spared from the tragedy of death. We too will know what it is like to cry out Christto a God who seems so absent in history. Good literature, to return to the question that guided the lecture, demands that we attend to the reality of this suffering, to the real sorrows of what it means to be human. But using the psalms of lament in worship forms us gradually to continue to cry out to God, to praise God not through harp and timbrel but in the pained cry of distress that is part and parcel of what it means to be human. As long as we do not let our voices go silent, as long as we continue to offer our voices to the Father, we carry out a praise that is not Pollyannish. But one that acknowledges that we, despite the tragedies that inflict our lives, remain creatures of a God who loved unto the end. Praise him. 

J.R.R. Tolkien, Grace, and the Shape of a Eucharistic Life

HopeBoettner Hope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

 

 

 

 

“Why was I chosen?” (Frodo, reflecting on his role as ring-bearer) “Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”

gandalf_frodo_moria_aicn

If we could sum it up, I think this quote would encompass a theology of grace according to Tolkien. We have been chosen. God has not created, redeemed, or chosen us in love because we can “earn” it, any more than Frodo earned his role of ring-bearer. Understanding God’s grace involves much more than performing mere business transactions with God! As one of my professors recently commented, it is not as if we go to the God’s Grace ATM, Inc. and withdraw some help in the form of grace coins whenever we need it. The whole “God’s grace and understanding how we participate in that” issue is much more complicated, nuanced, and (honestly) more beautiful than that.*We simply cannot—or cannot simply earn grace.

Nevertheless, we see that Tolkien stresses that we ought to use our abilities and gifts for the right purposes, even if those gifts are not why we were initially chosen. To highlight this, Gandalf says to Frodo at a different point in The Fellowship of the Ring: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” If we use Tolkien’s vision here as an example in our lives of faith, we learn we are chosen or called, and then we decide. We act. It seems that in the Christian life, the simple reality of being given grace necessitates both a) its overflow into action and b) a response of thankfulness to the Giver.

How does that play out in our lives? God’s grace in our lives can come through and in the process of discerning, exploring, and deciding upon our future vocations and callings (fellow college seniors, I’m looking at you). God’s grace profoundly reached down to become flesh and dwell among us in Jesus. God communicates grace and love to our human nature in the form and matter of the sacraments. God’s grace allows us to participate in liturgy, and through the liturgy in the life of the Trinity. God’s grace is present in the reality and challenge of being chosen or asked to do something we did not expect. Finally, we ought to remember that in the simple fact of being made in God’s image and likeness–and thus called to live in relationship with Him, we have automatically been chosen and called by God for something. Our existences in and of themselves are further examples of grace!

There are many examples above, but they do not even begin to express the myriad of ways God conveys and allows us to share in His life and reality or in ways that we can decide, “what to do with the time given us.” (Thankfully God’s creativity is much greater and farther reaching than mine!) But the point is fairly simple: God’s grace is present in our lives, in the fact of our existence, in the mundaneness of daily life, in the exciting, in the scary, and in anything and everything in between. If recognizing the gifts of the Giver and acting is part “A” of this journey according to a Tolkienien theology of grace, and if part “B” is gratitude toward the Giver, what might that look like?

How would it play itself out in our lives? We can, of course, pray in gratitude at any moment, thanking God for the gifts and graces we have been given. I think that is just a starting point– although it is an important one. What if we bring the sacrament of the Eucharist into play here? The Greek root for Eucharist in and of itself is “eucharistia.” Its direct translation is “gratitude” or “thanksgiving.” Could it be then, that the sacraments belong not just in some weekend ritual, but rather have the capacity to form us for an entire posture and way of living? The classic line from the Catechism, quoting Lumen Gentium, states that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” It is particularly poignant here, because if we a) recognize the grace present in our lives and act as we b) continually give thanks to the Giver, we will naturally be reflecting a eucharistic attitude. We will be living a “eucharistic” life. We will recognize the grace; we will act; we will give thanks. The sacrament of Eucharist will, at such a point, not merely be thought of as a grace pellet that we receive on Sundays, but rather as a culmination of an entire attitude of and reflection upon grace. Grace leads us to action. It leads us to thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, grace feeds and nourishes us to go out and continue the process anew. So let’s both live a Eucharistic attitude and use our “strength and hearts and wits” as Gandalf once exhorted a very small hobbit to do. Our power or our wisdom may not be WHY God chose us for our given tasks, work, and vocations in life. But nevertheless, our talents are further graces we will need along the way. If in an existential funk we at times question why we were chosen for something or ask, “Why me, God?!?” we might receive a fairly simple response: “Everything is grace.”

saint-therese-of-lisieux-12

(St. Therese of Lisieux)

And as a final reflection on a Eucharistic attitude, we might think of a favorite quote of mine from GK Chesterton: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

*The relationship between grace and works is also MUCH MUCH more nuanced than one can address in a single blog post! The Reformation (you might have heard of it…..) happened in part because of disputes over grace/works.

Inklings of a New Evangelization: Escape and the Good Catastrophe

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Inside the Song

A Word on Wonder

A Word on Tooks
Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths

In my last post, I discussed fantasy and recovery by way of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.”  Here, I will wrap up this brief exploration of his essay, even though “wrapping up” is an inadequate way of saying that it’s merely the beginning of more discussion.

 “You shouldn’t read all that fantasy stuff…you’re just trying to escape from real life.”

I have heard this criticism lobbed a number of times at readers of the fantasy genre.  Now, I will certainly *not* claim that fantasy is never used to dodge reality and responsibilities.  It can be – and has been – used to that end.  But Tolkien makes the important distinction between “The Escape of the Prisoner” and “The Flight of the Deserter.” “Why,” Tolkien asks, “should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”  And if “real life” has become the four walls of a dim and clammy prison, there is no shame in reading stories as one might read a map – to help him navigate uncertain and unfriendly lands.

To take Tolkien’s ideas a little further, the prisoner is more focused on running towards, while the deserter is more fixated on running away.  If there is to be any running in the Christian life, it should always be towards holiness: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2).

Tolkien notes that we cannot ignore what he calls “the Great Escape.”  It is the thing that most of us worry about or fear above all else: death.  The escape from death is as common a storybook feature as true love’s kiss or the quest to defeat that pesky neighborhood dragon.  To pick a contemporary example which might help illustrate this point: the arch-villain of the Harry Potter series is named “Voldemort.”  If we look at the name more closely, we can read vol / de / mort, which is French for “flight from death” or even “stealing” from death.  His very name points to his obsession with cheating death.  He believes himself the most powerful wizard in the world, but he is in fact weakest where it matters most.  He is so determined not to die that he fails miserably when it comes to living.

But just as Tolkien is talking about these solemn matters, he brings to the forefront the governing principle and purpose behind his bothering to put any ink to paper to begin with, bringing the entire essay “On Fairy-Stories” to a sublime point.  And here, the reader steps onto holy ground.  For this is the culmination of every good story we have ever read, which has made our hearts race and our imaginations run wild with sacred marvels and miracles.  This is where real life truly becomes *real*.  It is no mere escapism.  It is the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.”  And we’ve heard it so many times, we might forget that it means anything at all:  “and they lived happily ever after.”  These six words have far more significance than, say, a king and queen living in a kind of sleepy harmony, surrounded by puppies, butterflies and perpetual rainbows traced across the sky.

Tolkien suggests that the highest form of drama is Tragedy, and that the opposite would be true of the fairy story.  But what is the opposite of Tragedy?  It’s not quite comedy.  Tolkien, being a philologist after all, coined his own term, which he thought suitably captured the essence of a well-ordered fantasy:  Eucatastrophe.  It comes down to those two little letters of the Greek prefix “eu” transforming disaster into a good catastrophe.  It does not, Tolkien insists,

“deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure…it [does deny] universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Tolkien is an honest writer, and is unafraid to include suffering and death in his own works.  To avoid the familiar grim-ness of life would be to diminish the pure delight which comes with beholding how the radiance of goodness disperses the shadows.  No one will believe a world where it is always day; we are a people closely acquainted with the night, which is why our songs and poetry can speak so well – and so often – about the dawn.

And Tolkien is drawn to one dawn in particular:  that of Easter morning.  For the Resurrection is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe of all time: the God who dies and rises from the dead.  Not just for His own sake (God is not “showing off”), but for the sake of every single person who has ever and will ever live.  Even when taken at face value, without considering the far-reaching effects of such an event, this mysterious and splendid overturning of death and sin has all the makings of a fantastic story.

For remember that Tolkien firmly believed that a good fairy story could give the reader a glimpse into an underlying reality or truth…for example, a hideous hag unexpectedly changing into a golden-haired princess, which gently reminds us that externals do not tell us everything there is to know about a person.  Now imagine discovering a beautiful and moving story that wasn’t simply borrowing elements from the primary world in order to create a compelling secondary world.  Imagine your reaction upon learning that such a narrative wasn’t just pointing or nudging towards to the truth – what if it actually was true?  All of it, mind you…not just bits and pieces, here and there. The Gospel reaches into the very depths of the world, answering all the innermost questions, fulfilling every aching desire.  Not even the best of stories and most convincing of secondary worlds could accomplish such things and convert so many stubborn hearts.  And this is what the Gloria is, according to Tolkien: the Christian joy at the turn of history, when all seemed darkest and hope itself appeared to have been buried deep in the ground.  But no tomb could hold Love captive, nor would the Enemy enjoy the last word – indeed, I highly doubt he knows how to properly enjoy anything at all.

If, as we have just noted, the greatest story of all time has already been written, then what (you might be wondering) is the point of writing any more stories at all?  Won’t they all seem ostensibly trivial before the majesty of divine revelation?  Won’t the characters all seem minor and petty and the scenery washed out and dull?   While there is no doubt that Christ is the final revelation of God, that doesn’t mean we should stop giving it any thought.  Indeed, we can serve as instruments assisting in the continuous unveiling of this revelation to the world, as there are still so many people who have heard scarcely more than a whisper of the true name of Christ.  And there is no need to worry about originality, either (“ah, well, he says it better than I ever could, so I won’t bother trying…”).  There is plenty of room for everyone in this Story.  Lewis wrote his Chronicles of Narnia, but someone could always pen the Chronicles of Main Street.  From parallel worlds with talking animals to grocery stores with long lines of silent customers, it all fits into the Story which tells how Love sprung up from the grave, unlocked the gates of heaven, and has never since stopped inviting and drawing us in.

The Worshipful Leisure of Sabbath Rest

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Gn. 2:1-3).

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.  Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.  Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.  Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me.  You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. No one shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor (Ex. 23:9-16).

Today, on this national holiday of Labor Day, Americans will feast upon grilled meats as a formal acknowledgment of the close of summer.  Of course, Labor Day is not simply the end of summer (nor an opportunity to increase the profit of the grilled meats industry).  Rather, this holiday is a formal acknowledgment of the ways that organized labor have shaped just policies on a national level for workers; as well, as an opportunity to express gratitude for the work performed by these laborers.

This latter function of Labor Day is an intriguing one, particularly in contemporary society.  To bestow gratitude to those who work the fields, run factories, deliver mail, answer the office phones, work for airlines (a particularly difficult task), and on and on.  And the tangible way that such gratitude is bestowed is a holiday, a national cessation of work for at least a day, a secular Sabbath.

Nonetheless, we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans (and those living in the United States seeking a better way of life), who will perform back-breaking labor today.  Who work every day of the week, without one moment of vacation, simply to provide for their family.  Who endure the harshest conditions, afraid to speak up against such injustice, because if they did, then they’d have no job, no income, no way to support a family.  Such workers have their very dignity taken away from them, becoming objects to be used to increase profit at all costs.

The problem of the American treatment of labor is not the concern of unions and politicians alone.  It is a biblical injustice.  For written into the very order of creation is Sabbath itself, leisure, an act of love by a God, who created out of delight.  On the seventh day, God rests.  For those of us reared in American leisure practices (work hard, play hard), we may not immediately perceive the importance of the Sabbath orientation of creation.  Divine rest is not simply a pause in the work week, a chance to catch one’s breath before the pursuit of profit continues, to frequent shopping malls and to watch the NFL.  Divine rest, the Sabbath, means that at the heart of creation is humanity’s free worship of God.  Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) writes in his homilies on the doctrine of creation, “Creation is designed in such a way that it is oriented to worship.  It fulfills its purpose and assumes its significance when it is lived, ever new, with a view to worship.  Creation exists for the sake of worship” (In the Beginning, 29-30).

And this freedom to worship, to rest in God, is a tangible reminder that no human being has the source of his or her dignity through work alone; for the basis of human dignity is our creation in the image and likeness of God, in freedom and in love.  Ratzinger writes:

In the creation account the sabbath is depicted as the day when the human being, in the freedom of worship, participates in God’s freedom, in God’s rest, and thus in God’s peace. To celebrate the sabbath means to celebrate the covenant.  It means to return to the source and to sweep away all the defilement that our work has brought with it.  It also means going forth into a new world in which there will no longer be slaves and masters but only free children of God–into a world in which humans and animals and earth itself will share together as kin in God’s peace and freedom (30-31).

For too often, the way we conceive of work is forgetful of human dignity, of all humanity’s orientation toward God.  We demand immediate service.  We set up a hierarchy in which those employed in “menial labor” are less important to society than those persons working in fields requiring rare intellectual and physical talents.  These are societal constructs, falsehoods, idols that do not allow us to perceive the world as it is.

The covenant, the Sabbath itself, implodes these constructs.  For every human being, no matter his or her form of labor, is to keep the rest.  Every human being, at the very root of his or her identity, is made for the same vocation:  to worship in love.  And woe to those, who do let the fields be fallow.  Woe to those, who see the resident alien as an object for exploitation.  Woe to those, who let work itself, the pursuit of profit, become an idol to be adored above that of God.  For such practices, cover over the glory of God manifested in each and every human being, every creature made for freedom and love.

For in Christianity (and thus Judaism), our treatment of the worker is not simply a consequence of divine worship; it is a form of worship itself.  For Christians in particular, our love of the worker is a visible and tangible expression of Eucharistic gratitude.  It is our confession of faith that the logic of the universe is not power and prestige; fame and fortune; consumption and destruction; but an outpouring of love itself.  And that one day, no matter the supposed importance of our job, our position, our title, it will all be burned away in the purifying fires of God’s Sabbath love.

There are no doctorates in heaven.  No professional athletes.  No “undocumented” workers.  No graduates of top business schools.  There are only those who were created to praise and adore God, to participate in worship itself.

So Labor Day, for the Christian, is not simply a day to promote just laws for workers (though it is this); it is not simply a day to enjoy rest with family, before we re-orient ourselves toward increased work that comes with the end of summer (though it is this); it is a tangible, even sacramental, reminder that all human beings are created for the worshipful leisure of Sabbath rest.  A Sabbath that is coming fully into existence as human history marches toward its final moment of union in God.  A Sabbath in which our capacity to worship is not measured by the prestige of our job title but the love of God that dwells in our hearts.  It is an opportunity to “cultivate” in our work a spirit of worship itself, a spirit of gratitude for each human being, who passes before us on a daily basis.  To do penance for those times in which we have been ungrateful, treating workers as objects.

And thus, on Labor Day, let us consider the revelation received by Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin in the short story Revelation:

A visionary light settled in her eyes.  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.   Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives…and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.   Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house.  In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.

May this Labor Day be a time of rest, in which the loving God of Sabbath rest might burn our virtues away, destroy our idolatry, and teach us again to participate in the Eucharistic gratitude that is the grammar of creation itself–the worshipful leisure of Sabbath rest.

 

Inklings of a New Evangelization: A Word on Wonder

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

Other columns in series:

The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Inside the Song

With my previous posts, I offered a few thoughts on how the principle of sub-creation (by which I mean everything from painting to music to story-telling to equation-solving) is part of the hard-wiring in each human person, and why such activity remains significant and sanctifying, across the eras and the continents.

Now I’d like to go “further up and further in” (to borrow from Lewis’ “Narnia”). And what I’m about to discuss here is something that has been exquisitely dealt with by far better writers, but I believe that it’s too important to evangelization just to gloss over with a casual reference. I am talking about wonder…the recovery of which could be one of the keys to the exhilarating adventure of evangelization in our world today.

With each generation of technology, and with all the advancements towards high-definition, true-color, perfect-audio, it’s getting increasingly difficult to hold the attention of young people today. They expect – on some level – to be entertained. It’s as though they’ve “seen it all”. If a young man of 19 thinks “he’s seen it all”, how does that affect the way he’ll live his life? One dangerous scenario is that he will start trying things which deviate radically from the knowledge, experiences and skills he believes he has already mastered. It might be new levels of violence in video games, new drugs, risky sexual escapades, or other hazardous actions which have very unfortunate consequences.

But you try to tell him that he should instead become “like a little child” and he will no doubt laugh. Try to tell him that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the meekest, and he might think you’re just borrowing lines from a medieval school book for prospective monks. And I cannot think of a more intimidating task than handing a disillusioned teenager a book of fairy tales, with the hope that he’ll return to his senses by way of a compelling morality tale. I’m also not proposing that you should necessarily do any of these things, at least not without a little context and explanation.

By asking us to become like little children, Christ did not mean that we should be naïve, foolish or childish (in the sense of “immaturity”). Certainly there are a great many mysterious things that He meant when He spoke those words to his disciples, but one thing I take away for the purpose of this column is that we must recover the sense of wonder which makes childhood so distinct from the “elder years”. You know: the time in life when the smell of incense, the sound of the ocean, and the presents on Christmas morning were all minor miracles.

Now, imagine for a moment that you came across these words in a book:

“Farmer Smith awoke abruptly the next day. “Too early” was his first thought, and “is it really day already?” his second. But he glanced out the window and his spirits could only lift at the majestic sight of the green sun, nudging its way higher and higher into the sky, announcing the new morning.”
Of course (hopefully?) you’ve noticed that there’s something curious about this brief passage. Our sun is not green. It’s yellow. The suggestion of a non-yellow sun might ruffle a few of our feathers, even unconsciously. But reading about a green sun only makes us think harder about the yellowness of our own sun. Perhaps that is something we might not have given a thought to since we were on a playground, when we noticed how the clouds rolled in and stole away the light. The grownups thought of an impending rainstorm, but the children thought of eclipses and magic. The strange depiction of something so familiar might stir in us the yearning to take a step back and say: good heavens, our sun really is a blinding sort of yellow.

Another step back might reveal how red and velvety those flowers in the neighbor’s window are, even though you’ve been walking past them for a solid week now. A few steps more, and that friend or spouse or sibling now has that glow of a recovered treasure which has been buried underground for years, and is only now tasting the light of day. They’re tall! They’re kind! They’re loud! They’re generous! They’re beautiful! We are starting to get the hint as to why playing around with adjectives is a big part of storytelling – they yield the power to awaken something inside of us, and inspire us to do such things as jumping to the defense of our own sun.

But I return to our young man, who is now playing Angry Birds, texting and listening to music all at the same time, while you are gesticulating wildly in order to direct his attention to the fiery sunset just outside his window. There was a time, years ago, when he could have associated the dramatic colors of a sunset with the story of the dragon who guarded his enchanted treasure from would-be-looters by breathing fire from great heights. But our friend doesn’t need to believe in dragons to delight in the sunset. Delight requires only a certain measure of wonder, with a dash of enthusiasm. It also means looking up from time to time, whether it be from our computers and newspapers or from our personal (and perhaps rather fixed) intellectual regimens.

There are so many to choose from, but for now, I give you this quote from G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”:

“we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door….these tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…”

The wide-eyed look of wonder, then, doesn’t always mean the person is clueless. I should say rather that he or she may be clued in to something good, something new. Something which may have lain forgotten while we “got on with life”. It is also worth clarifying that qualities such as humility and innocence – things so closely connected to the heart of a child – do not necessarily translate into uncritical wonder. In fact, Chesterton would argue that children are blessed with a pronounced sense of realism. They won’t believe just everything and anything. Their conclusions about the world have a certain internal consistency (they might be mistaken, but that would be primarily because the data is distorted). When we grow older (and unfortunately, children are growing older so very quickly these days) we often exchange wonder for mastery. We congratulate ourselves on our ability to analyze situations and surroundings, when in fact, we have not stepped away from them long enough to have much of a credible opinion about them at all. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then distance – by defining that which is other to ourselves – makes the heart grow in wonder.

We should not be afraid to invest our energy in becoming like little children, just as Christ asks us to. For it is the heart of a child which is open enough to be mesmerized by the world beyond her shadow. Goodness, truth, love, courage…it is no small marvel that this chaotic world is still full of such virtues, and a faithful spirit of wonder may very well bring these virtues back to life in the hearts of many; in those hearts where things have perhaps gone quiet, still, and stale.

Happy, Happy Friday: Where Judas Fell (June 1, 2012)

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

Contact Author

 

PRELUDIO: In the words of the great British television “programme”, “And now for something completely different.”:

Someone told me that they must play this organ piece on repeat in Heaven, but if it’s not your style then here’s this to brighten the glory of FRIDAY:

Anyhoo, HAPPY FRIDAY, PEOPLE!!!

HOLA, PEOPLES!!!,

So even though we’ve figured out how silent monks sing the Hallelujah chorus, so many pivotal questions about the universe remain. A few of the most deeply troubling include:

  • Why do psychics have to ask your name? And why do they need TV commercials: can’t they just tell you their hotline number telepathically?
  • Why is all dryer lint a whitish-bluish-gray even though the clothes in the dryer are a bunch of different colors? Where do all of the other colors go, the washer? Narnia?
  • Why do people dress up to go to fancy receptions when they could just accomplish the same thing (conversation) by dressing in sweatpants and sitting around on couches at home and eating raw cookie dough instead of weird little appetizers with caviar?
  • Why do some dogs bark at the doors that ONLY family members ever use (like the door from the garage or the door from the backyard? Really? Does the pizza guy EVER go through there?)
  • Why do small dogs act like they’re Rottweilers and Rottweilers don’t care how huge they are (or forget about it completely when they greet you at the door and enthusiastically plow you down)?
  • Why don’t sheep shrink when it rains and yet the cotton shirt you just bought shrinks so much that you could put it on a hand puppet? How is this justice, people?
  • Was God just feeling really whimsical when He invented the platypus, the puffer-fish, and that one lizard that shoots blood out of its eyes as a defense mechanism? And what was He thinking when He invented leeches, ticks, and those bugs with too many legs that hang out in the upper corner of your bathroom for a week? We’ll just have to trust that He has a plan there.

And now that we’ve taken time to thoughtfully reflect on these questions, we can keep moving along 😉

THE HEART OF THE EMAIL: Or, Where Judas Fell

Youtube clip of the week:

So people, we know how Judas Iscariot’s story ends: he betrays Christ, and when he tries to give the blood money back to the temple priests, they scorn the offer. And then Judas takes his own life. But what killed Judas Iscariot? We see greed at work in his heart, but greed will also make a man fight to stay alive at any cost. So why does Judas die (or rather, why does he decide that he can’t continue living?)

In the novel Sophia House, a priest says that Judas didn’t believe in forgiveness. Specifically, Judas believed that he had done something unforgivable, and when he believed so completely in the lies spun by his despair, he decided that anything was better than life, even death. Judas had given up all hope.

OK, so this Heart has begun on a heavy note, but it doesn’t end there. Just keep going, folks.

Hope in God’s mercy is a door leading out of a prison cell. Judas felt that God had permanently given up on him, when in reality God gives us as many chances as we need. And God doesn’t dole out these chances grudgingly, as though He expected better and has been disappointed by our weakness. I can imagine that instead, God says, “At least they know I haven’t given up on them. At least they still hope enough to ask for forgiveness.” And every new beginning, every gift of mercy is a reminder to us that God never will give up on us, not even in the dark times when we feel like giving up on ourselves. If we close a door, God finds a window: if we close a window, God comes in through a hole in the basement, and so on as long as we are living. He will always offer us freedom from our darkness.

We don’t know what it was like to be in Judas’ position of betrayer, but Saint Peter does. The same door was offered to both of them, and Peter chose the door leading out of despair even though he might have crawled through it on his knees. His repentance found strength in God’s mercy. He chose to believe that perfect love not only casts out fear, but also despair. Peter believed in forgiveness and trusted that there is no wound of sin in us that God’s mercy cannot heal. Do we choose the door of hope that leads into our freedom? Do we ask God to help us love and know ourselves as He does, and when He shows us something broken but beautiful, do we trust that He sees the truth? Do we know that He loves us?

Sophia House describes each of us as an icon that reflects Jesus Christ, and that though we are sullied and scratched, the master painter can restore us to our full beauty. Christ has told us to be perfect and that nothing is impossible for God: we have to remember that the command and the promise go together, because the first without the second will only lead us into despair and the two in union with one another form the door that leads into life. God offers help, healing, and freedom: we only have to trust that He has shown us the way out of our shadowlands into His marvelous light. We have to place our hope in His promise of divine forgiveness that never fails.

Friends, in our faith God shows us the path to all true joy: we just have to believe it with our will even when we feel nothing in our hearts. Trust that even in times of darkness and doubt, our way out is through hope. And I send along to each of you, as ever, my

Love, prayers, JOOOYYY!!! And a HAPPY HAPPY (and most blessed) FRIDAY!!! HOODAALALLYYY!!!