Tag Archives: John Henry Newman

How Can This Be?

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown favor toward me and has bestowed blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

Original Sin

Five summers ago, I attended a writers conference for the first time in my life. My workshop was “Literary Essay”; each of the fifteen members wrote daily 500 word essays, which were submitted to colleagues for critique and (hopefully) helpful evaluation. My essays tended to praise the virtues of my dog and the Boston Red Sox, while frequently expressing struggles with faith, God, religion, and my own very human inadequacies. About halfway through the two-week conference, during a critique session when I and my most recent submission were on the hot seat, one of my colleagues said “You write so negatively about yourself in your essays. You seem like a really nice guy—why do you have such a negative self-image?” Other colleagues murmured their agreement.

My immediate reaction was not defensive—despite being supremely (perhaps over-) confident in some aspects of my life, my overall self-image is more negative than positive. My internal reaction instead was a quick realization that I might be the only person in the room who didn’t think he or she was pretty much okay. My fourteen colleagues were a diverse bunch, including a specialist in Chinese history, an archaeologist, a high school student, a vice president of an international banking firm, a local politician, a poet who just published her first collection of poems, several self-described “writers conference rats” (one was at this conference for the seventh straight year), and our workshop leader, a well-known essayist and columnist who had just published his third novel. And they were mildly uncomfortable with my being explicit about my self doubts and honest about my shortcomings and failures.

I was in the midst of some difficult internal stuff that summer, but I’ll bet many of my colleagues were too. I realize now that what really made me different from them is original sin—it has defined me for as long as I can remember, and they had never heard of it. I learned early on that I don’t measure up, that I’m not good enough, that “within me dwells no good thing.” And it’s not an exclusively Christian idea (although it sometimes feels as if it is); the Psalmist says “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” We’re all screwed from the start (thanks, Adam and Eve). Some make a bigger deal of this than others. Martin Luther, the guy responsible for Protestants, likened divine grace to a layer of freshly fallen snow covering a pile of shit. Grace doesn’t transform the pile—shit is still shit—but it covers it so that its smell is not quite as offensive and it doesn’t look quite as disgusting.

This is a wonderful foundation upon which to build a positive self-image, but it’s the engine that drives a lot of religious activity. I remember that several years ago the Catholic Dominican Matthew Fox was excommunicated for teaching, among other things, that the doctrine of original sin is wrong and for writing books with titles like Original Blessing. He became an Episcopal priest after his excommunication, which makes sense—we Episcopalians will take anyone as long as they appreciate good liturgy and have sufficiently liberal social and political commitments. And to be honest, after twenty years as a recovering Protestant involved in Catholic higher education, I’ve discovered that most Catholics I know take original sin far less seriously than the people I grew up with. Catholics pay lip service to the notion that human beings need divine help; my people meant it. They told me I deserved to go to hell and would undoubtedly end up there unless I was “right with Jesus.” And my colleagues wondered why I wrote negatively about myself.

Many groups of people, both religious and otherwise, speak as if they have a corner on feeling guilty and inadequate. I knew no Catholics when I was growing up, but now that I spend a large portion of my time with them professionally and have many Catholic friends, I know all about Catholic guilt, despite the fact that they don’t talk about original sin that much. I was surprised to find out that Catholics think that Catholic guilt is particularly debilitating, just as they were surprised to find out that I know all about it; I just call it Protestant guilt. I’ve even participated in good-natured debates about whose guilt is more paralyzing. Everyone knows about Jewish guilt, Irish guilt, and so on. We apparently don’t need religious doctrine to tell us that we are inadequate and flawed. We just need to be human beings. John Henry Newman wrote that just observing what’s going on around us with the slightest care reveals that humanity is afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” That’s a wonderfully British, urbane, nineteenth century way of saying “we’re really f–ked up.” It’s true. There’s something fundamentally wrong at our core, and we all know it. Many manage to cope with this by ignoring it, by refusing to include it in their vocabulary, by defining themselves in terms according to which they can be acceptable and successful. “I’m okay, you’re okay”—but as Emily Dickinson suggests, there’s still a “tooth that nibbles at the soul”—we’re not okay.

A few years ago, toward the end of a lovely lunch conversation, a new friend and colleague observed that “it’s hard being a person,” in the same factual tone of voice in which he might have said “these waffles are cold.” I said in response that what told me, years ago, that Simone Weil is my kind of woman was when I read in her notebooks that in her estimation, “human life is impossible.” So often, that’s where I begin. I’m not okay and I need help. And the first step forward has to be one of trust, of a hope that this can be better. Iris Murdoch writes that “God is a belief that at our deepest level we are known and loved, even to there the rays can penetrate.” Let it be so.