Evangelization Part Three: The Christological and Cruciform Nature of Evangelization.
I have spoken often of the need in our evangelizing to “flip the script” of modernity. And by that I mean to highlight the fact that the deep unbelief and de facto atheism at the heart of the modern project means that we must get beyond a form of apologetics that focuses on disputed topical questions on this or that Catholic doctrine in order to defend them, and to go much deeper to the very sources of modern unbelief which undergird such questions and form their immediate backdrop. We must acknowledge the “eclipse of God” (Pope Benedict), the nullification of the very question of God, and the consequent attenuation of the religious sense in modern people, before we can even begin to proceed to standard issue apologetics. To be sure, I am not saying that the latter are without value. But they are insufficient. Evangelization in the modern world must be far more radical and far more christological in a deep sense.
The script of modernity has been described in various ways by various thinkers, too numerous to discuss at length here. It is Charles Taylor’s “modernity as an immanent frame”, Berdyaev’s “cult of bourgeois well-being”, del Noce’s “religion of scientism” and its dogma, “today it is no longer possible to hold…”. It is Lewis’s dystopian technocracy of “the conditioners and the conditioned”, McCarraher’s “Enchantments of Mammon”, Bernanos’s “boredom”, Illich’s “institutionalized bureaucratization of the elites”, David Hart’s “Christ or Nothing”, Cavanaugh’s “modernity as a simulacrum of the Church”, and de Lubac’s “Drama of Atheist Humanism”, to name just a few.
Perhaps no thinker has done more to drive this point home than John Henry Newman who already saw as early as the 1830’s that the constitutive atheism at the heart of modernity represented a lethal and toxic existential threat to the Church. The theologian Cyril O’Regan, in an excellent and underappreciated essay, outlines Newman’s prescient and prophetic warning in a quote worthy of full citation:
The phenomenon of secular modernity is not another historical change for Newman. The way Newman sees it, it is nothing less than a complete change in the entire fabric of society and culture and of human beings as such. Newman is speaking to what pretentious postmoderns speak of as a change of mentalite or episteme. In our brave new, enlightened, and very clean world, … the concept of sin no longer rhymes; nor does justification; nor does the concept of holiness; nor even the concept of the Holy. … Such an idea becomes more or less incomprehensible; it does not compute and its not computing is a banishing far more absolute than a cadre of intellectuals arguing against it. Modernity is the world changed, in which it is not simply that we have different thoughts, but thinking itself has changed; what one can experience has changed and the way one experiences has changed. …Newman thinks that the irresistible expansion of secular modernity, its evacuation of the meaning of symbols and the attenuation of experience, makes it extraordinarily difficult to get to God’s glory - - even if not quite impossible.
The Church has a missionary orientation at its very origin, as can be seen in the great commission Christ gives to his disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to go into all the world and preach the good news (Mt 28:19). But this then raises the question of evangelization and its theological grounding in the light of Newman’s great insight. There are, of course, differing “strategies” for how to properly evangelize since there are going to be differing audiences with a multitude of differing preconceptions and cultural conditions. It should also be obvious that there has to be some kind of substantive didactic content to the message we share, complete with the rational arguments for why we hold such things to be true. It is important for the doctrines we hold to be clear, consistent, and in accord with Revelation, as this is interpreted by the magisterium of the Church. It is also important that we mount counter-arguments to the arguments against the faith produced by those openly opposed to it. In nothing of what follows therefore am I proposing a crude and shallow anti-intellectualism. Far from it and quite the opposite.
Nevertheless, there is a grave danger in our post Enlightenment age of hyper rationalism that what we mean by evangelization is reduced to apologetics, arguments, and the preaching of “proper doctrine”. There is an impersonal extrinsicism to evangelization when it is reduced in this way to arguments and doctrinal assertions, necessary as these are, since it quite often lacks the connatural empathy between persons that alone can give to our evangelization an air of human authenticity. Nor am I making a purely psychological point here about interpersonal dynamics. Rather, I am making a theological claim which is the extension of the claim of Balthasar, Guardini, Dorothy Day and others that our existence as Christians must be cruciform. And to put flesh on the bones of that assertion I would like to examine what it means for our evangelization to also be cruciform in a way that involves our own participation in the sufferings of Christ which, when viewed broadly, also means that we are implicated in, and must suffer through, the sins and doubts of our brothers and sisters in the world. In other words, evangelization is no mere “task” that I must accomplish but is even more deeply a christological reality and is an oblative action on our part out of love for the world. But what does it mean that our evangelization must be christologically grounded in an oblative and cruciform love?
To begin with we must affirm that evangelization is not a monological act wherein the initiative resides purely with the evangelizer while the other person is a merely passive recipient of little factoids of truth. Evangelization is a relational act between persons of equal dignity who are engaged in that most human of activities: a conversation. And a conversation is not the same as an argument, or a debate, wherein the evangelizer is trying to “win” in order to then thump his chest in triumph at having scored another “victory for Christ.” How many people actually come to the faith because they lost an argument with a Michael Voris type “evangelizer”? Contrast that with the numbers of people who come to the faith because they have established an open and honest relationship, even friendship, with a serious person of faith who was willing to engage them in the full depths of their humanity acknowledging the legitimacy of their doubts, their questions, and their reservations, even as they gently, softly-softly, share with them why it is that they believe. This is a process that can sometimes take years - - perhaps even a lifetime - - where true conversion to the faith is the fruit of the inner action of the Spirit working in and through the friendship established, and all in God’s good time. The initiative, in other words, is God’s, not ours, and God’s time is not our time, with the Spirit of God working not just through the words and life of the believer, but also in the mysterious depths of the non-believer’s soul. Sometimes, the moment comes quickly and does not take an extended effort over time, especially in moments of personal crisis. So prudence is required, of course.
But the true evangelist is one who very often watches and waits. We need, in other words, evangelizers with the depth of humanity required in order to discern, prudentially, when to speak and when to shut the up. Someone who can feel, connaturally, and with a spiritual instinct that is more art than science, when the soil is ready for planting and when it is not. Someone who is not too quick to rush in with ready-made “answers” that are trite and filled with the anodyne bromides of a spiritual ideologue who hasn’t bothered to empathetically enter into the questions of the “other”. Indeed, the triumphalistic and bombastic forms of evangelizing often seem to be solipsistic exercises wherein the so-called believer is trying to justify his own faith to himself, shouting into an echo chamber of doubts. This accounts for why this kind of “evangelizer” is often so keen on “winning” the debate, since losing is not an option as it calls into question the very faith of the evangelizer. In such a case the faith has ceased to be an interpersonal “proposal” and has morphed instead into an ideological superstructure of doctrines pressed into service as the identity marker for a rootless, bourgeois, self in search of the kind of rationalistic certitudes that the Enlightenment tells us are the only barometer of truth. Souls are indeed at stake. But whose soul?
By contrast, what true evangelization requires is the meeting of thresholds. Romano Guardini identifies the essence of what it means to be deeply and authentically human as the willingness to live in the no-man’s-land between heaven and earth, to live at the threshold of heaven even as we continue to live in the opaqueness of this life. The true spiritual seeker is one who can live in this tension and who feels both its joys and its melancholic sadness. To live in that threshold is to make one’s entire life a question mark in search of answers - - answers that conceal as much as they reveal since they are grounded in the deep mystery that is the Triune God. The faith does indeed give us answers, even ultimate ones, but never in a modality that precludes darkness - - a fact that the lives of many saints attests to. Guardini states:
There are those who experience profoundly the mystery of life at the threshold. They live decisively neither here nor there. They live in a no-man’s-land. They experience the restlessness that passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the restlessness of the man who perceives the closeness of the infinite - - who experiences at the same time blessing and threat. The meaning of man consists in being a living threshold, it consists in taking on this life at the threshold, and living it to the end. In this way he is rooted in reality; he is free from the enchantments of a false intimacy with God. The attitude that is most authentically human is the one influenced by the threshold, the only adequate to reality.
The implications of this for our view of what constitutes evangelization are far reaching. For starters it means that the interpersonal act of evangelizing is first and foremost an empathetic action wherein you attempt to understand how your interlocutor experiences life in the threshold Guardini describes. This is not an easy thing to do and not just because it is impossible to fully empathize with someone else’s subjectivity. It is also difficult because the temptation is always in the direction of understanding someone else’s experience of the threshold through the lens of your own.
Therefore, (and here is where folks might strongly disagree with me) it is necessary for the evangelist to be so deeply immersed in his or her own faith, so deeply convicted of its truth, so deeply formed by those truths, and so deeply educated in its spiritual pedagogy, that it then becomes possible to “bracket” or hold that faith in a kind of “suspension” in order to reinterrogate it all anew, and to rethink it all again in the repristinating light of all that one has learned in life. In so doing we can begin to see deeply into the full depth of human despair and doubt and thus are able to “stretch out” into solidarity with all doubters. Indeed, to be able to name their doubt for them better than they can name it themselves. Therefore, all true evangelization is the path of empathy, the path of entering into the internal logic of doubt and darkness, and to suffer it through to the end. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do and sometimes requires a lifetime of preparation, which is why “evangelization” in the full register of a robust encounter with the “other” is so very rare. It is precisely why the saints and their lives are the best evangelizers and also why the arrogant, “us vs them,” pile-driving pugilism of a Michael Voris is so risibly obtuse.
Finally, there is a need to ground this method theologically in order to go beyond its mere pedagogical soundness as an “effective” tool. The method I am describing is cruciform in its inner spiritual logic insofar as the attempt to enter empathetically into the dark night of doubt is an act of sacrificial “substitution” for the sake of the “other.” The true evangelizer must be a person of deep prayer and penance who seeks to take into his or her own soul the existential fractures of the “other” that cloud the mind and lead to doubt. The empathy I speak of then is more than a mere “feeling with” but also a true “taking on” as one adopts the doubt of the world, suffers through it, and thereby contributes to its conquest, its redemption. Evangelization therefore is more than a pedagogical act, but is also, and most profoundly, a penitential and soteriological act. Therefore, it is a form of discourse that absolutely requires prayer, penance, fasting, and deep contemplative study.
We are told by Saint Paul that in our sufferings we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24) This a deeply mysterious statement because what can possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? A key can be found in Paul’s statement that his afflictions make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings insofar as they are for the sake of the Church. In other words, we need to remember that the essence of Christ’s sufferings went far beyond his physical pain and reside even more deeply in his taking on the full weight of the implications of sin. But for the sake of our own entering into that salvation the Father also wills that we participate in its inner dynamic. This is what Christ means when he says that we too must take up our cross. He doesn’t just mean something trite like “you too will have bad things happen to you”. He means something far deeper and much more challenging. He is asking us to understand that “to whom much is given, much is expected” which means that “salvation” is not something I possess in an acquisitive manner, nor something I grasp at in order to somehow own. Rather, it is a gift in the form of an offer to participate in his own redemptive act for the sake of all others. To be a Christian, therefore, is to give a name to our threshold. And that name is “love as substitutionary sacrifice”.
We live today in a Western culture that is faithless. It is a world marked by doubt and is deeply fractured and on the brink of cultural collapse. All that remains, all that holds us together, is our wealth and our digital technocracy. It is a challenge unique and without parallel in the history of the Church. And so we face a choice. But one thing is certain in this choice, which Balthasar called the moment of the Ernstfall (critical moment of decision), and that is that we cannot remain in stasis. Not to choose is to choose. And we see the utter failure of “stasis Catholicism” everywhere: Ireland, Spain, and now Poland, once formerly deeply Catholic countries, all on the verge of becoming utterly secularized societies. And thus Ratzinger’s late sixties prediction that the Church will shrink and become small in the West is coming true. But the solution is not flight into a fortress of faith but engagement with the forces at play. All too often we interpret Christ’s words that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church in an overly defensive mode. Ancient cities were gated for their own protection. Therefore, the statement that the gates of Hell will not prevail is actually a statement that affirms that the Church exists to assault the walls of Mordor. And pardon the military metaphor which conveys a more pugilistic tone than I intend, but the point is that engagement and not flight is our evangelizing mandate.
But this will require a certain amount of valor on our part. It will require what Balthasar calls the “valor of the unshielded heart.” (A big thank you to my friend Cyrus Brewster for bringing this to my attention). links this christologically grounded valor to its premonitions in ancient Greek tragedy, which could only remain inchoate, shadowy, and unfulfilled until the advent of the sufferings of Christ’s Sacred Heart:
But … the situation in which this truth emerges is now that of suffering … which lays man bare in his vulnerability, forcibly exposing and humiliating him. Only a great and majestic human being is equal to this; he alone can bear such a burden, and only from him, when he is finally and necessarily broken apart, can there arise, like a fragrance, the pure essence of human kind, indeed, of being as such. What is unprecedented here is that the suffering is neither denied … nor is it shunned … , but rather the way of man to god and the revelation of the deep truth of existence passes directly through the most extreme form of suffering. That is the valor of the unshielded heart, which philosophy will lack, and which stands in a direct relation to Christ. (Theo-Drama IV, Ignatius Press, p. 103)
For Balthasar the Greek tragedians, unlike their philosophical contemporaries, viewed man’s dignity as mysteriously related to the “glory” that emanates from the realm of the gods. Balthasar puts it as follows: “In tragedy, man acts against the background of the god and man only reveals himself, emerging into the light of his own truth, because of the appearance of the god, even in wrath and concealment.” (pp. 102-103) In tragedy the existence of the gods is taken seriously and it is the final victory and glorification of the gods that forms the backdrop for the dramatic action that unfolds. Man’s true dignity, therefore, resides in accepting “fate,” even if it ultimately means suffering and death, for it is only in such acceptance that man too can participate in the glory of the divine realm and achieve a measure of calm serenity, even joy, as our sufferings are lifted up and bathed in the glory of the victory of the gods. Therein lies as well a kind of liberation as the valor of an unshielded heart approaches the gods with no bargaining or preconditions and allows itself to be broken open, revealing the soul’s true inner dignity as a liturgy of transformed suffering that also acts as the medium for the god’s epiphany.
What the Greeks lacked, of course, is the Revelation of the glory of Christ. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the most unshielded heart possible, and therefore after Him no tragedy in a high register is any longer possible. Greek tragic figures such as Oedipus and Antigone really were guilty of something and thus their sufferings are ultimately the result of divine justice but without any hope of reparation or restoration. Their unshielded hearts, therefore, had valor as they accepted their fate with a dignified moral resolve, but in the end their fate, though epiphanic, is a tragic one. And the inherent inscrutability of the world of the gods means that the question of man’s tragic fate is left hanging - - i.e. is human tragedy a merely penultimate reality awaiting a future resolution or is it our ultimate destiny? Is this wound which bleeds into us without ceasing ever to end or are we destined to suffer the futility of an endlessly repeating nightmare forever? Is the machinery of divine justice like a set of automatic gears in which we will all be ground-up and pulverized or will there be some sort of heuristic dénouement to the whole affair that speaks of mercy? The tragedians do not say, but the fact that the human characters show up at all speaks to the importance of their free choices in the unfolding drama - - a moral dimension - - that transcends mere fate.
But in Christ there is no such ambiguity, no tragic fate that is the result of a guilt incurred by his sins, and certainly no hint of a divine justice that is without mercy or reparative grace. Christ’s human soul is uniquely “unshielded” insofar as it is an utterly open soul to both his Father’s will (mission) and to those who have been entrusted to him (all of humanity). His entire existence can be defined as an unshielded “pro nobis,” a “man for others,” and whose mission is precisely to be completely broken open Eucharistically in order to bear the sins of the world through a mysterious exchange wherein he takes into his unshielded soul the full existential weight and consequences for our sins. What can this mean? Who can fathom its mysterious depths? St. Paul says that Christ “became” sin for our sakes which underscores the substitutionary nature of this exchange and, therefore, its reparative atonement. Again, what can this possibly mean in a purely deductive and narrowly rationalistic sense, which is to say a deeply attenuated sense of reason? Who can bear the weight of such thoughts? In the crucible of this question is modern sanctity is made and from this question and its resolution in Christ evangelization can proceed.
This view of the atonement is rooted in the unchanging and unconditional love of the God of the Covenant. There is no single view of the atonement that can adequately “pin down” in some kind of totalizing scheme the full depths of its mystery. Nevertheless, what is revealed as the central motif of the Gospel is that God is known to us as cruciform, kenotic, love. Love can and must also involve justice of course, otherwise it would not be a true love, but most certainly at the very least such a view of God precludes views of the atonement that turn the Father into a sky sadist seeking out his pound of flesh. Therefore, a full and proper view of the atonement must be rooted in the theological fact that God is this kind of strange and unfathomable love, and infinitely so. And so it is more in line with this fact to view the atonement as an exchange wherein Christ takes into his unshielded heart the full toxicity and poison that is sin in a mysterious mystical act and suffers it through to the end. And if the ultimate consequence of all sin is to make us distant from God, what it is that Christ suffers is the experience of that distance, of that dereliction, and of that crushing alienation in the dark night of the experience of the absence of God. And yet, despite it all, Christ continues to love even from the depths of darkness and offers to the Father on our behalf a perfect act of contrition. In other words, our “no” to God which our sins both represent and instantiate, is transformed into a definitive “yes.”
Furthermore, the entire dynamic of this event is a corporate one wherein the entirety of the human race is implicated within its action, which also means that salvation is a corporate event. Within the depths of the unshielded Sacred Heart the full eschatological horizon of humanity opens up. Heaven and Hell are, therefore, Christological states of being, both of which reside within the decision contained within that substitutionary exchange. But they are not symmetrical since Christ’s corporate action pro nobis directly implies the priority of the regime of grace and salvation over that of perdition. This is the basis of Balthasar’s claim that we can at least hope that all will be saved. Perhaps it is a false hope, but Balthasar is not speaking here of a psychological state but of a deep Christological reality.
The corporate nature of salvation also contains a gut-punch for our understanding of what it means to “be saved” and, therefore, what it means to be a Christian. Being saved means something far deeper and far more existentially gripping than the magical view of salvation that so many seem to assume. Those who are saved are now called to enter into Christ’s body which means that we are putting on the “new man.” But what does that mean? What is this “new man?” It is the pattern of Christ’s own humanity, including his atoning death. Christians therefore are called to emulate his existence pro nobis and to transform our own souls into unshielded hearts, allowing ourselves to be Eucharistically broken open in order to also suffer for the sins of the world. Ours is a substitutionary vocation where our entire life becomes a liturgy of intercession for the “others.” How often do we hear Catholics say of their sufferings that they are “offering them up” as an act of charity wherein whatever merits our suffering may have gained for ourselves are transferred to someone else? This implies that salvation is corporate and I am implicated in the lives of every other human being who has ever lived or who will live. Such intercession, far from being a pietistical puddle of saccharine syrup, is in reality the very warp and woof of our vocation as a priestly people. A priest is an intermediary who prays and intercedes on behalf of the people. And the priesthood of all of the baptized means that we are a “people set apart” for the express purpose of interceding for others. Therefore, this pattern of substitutionary intercession is not an ancillary element of our salvation, and by implication, our evangelization, but rather is its very essence.
But as I said above, this is a gut-punch because it means unshielding our hearts in a raw and radical conversion to a form of spiritual empathy that requires us to rid ourselves of any notion of entitlement with the endless demands for our own rights that entitlement brings. We are to be divested people, poured out, and profligate in our forgiveness. And this is especially true when we ourselves endure sufferings caused by injustices committed against us. The commandment to love and mercy found in the Sermon on the Mount is not so much a prescription for an earthly social order as it is an eschatological summons to lessen the full range of sin’s regime. For when we forgive those who harm us, we lessen the effect of those sins thus reducing the offender’s guilt, which means that forgiveness is much more than a psychological movement of emotions but is also a demand of charity. There can be no true Christian evangelization without it and we cannot be “saved” if we are parsimonious in its application. There is a form of faith, one which is devoid of charity, that falls under both a Dominical and Pauline condemnation. And my claim here is that evangelization devoid of empathic relationality and a deep charity falls under the same condemnation. This is the dividing line between true evangelization and an inauthentic and alienating proselytizing and explains why the latter is almost always a fruitless enterprise of winning arguments. A classic example of Pyrrhic victories.
This view of salvation has deep connotations for the Church as a whole. Can we say that a Church bureaucracy larded with lawyers on retainer and liability insurance owing to the deep sins and felonious crimes of too many of its clerics and the intentional covering up of the same by its bishops, is a Church with an unshielded heart? A Church grown fat with Mammon is certainly not the Church of substitutionary intercession, but is rather a Church of possessors and owners, overly concerned with protecting its unfettered “right” to maintain its fortress of sacramental solitude vis-à-vis a dominant culture that is rightly perceived as inimical to the faith. The Church does indeed have enemies, but I highly doubt the most dangerous ones are outside of her gates. Not without reason did Jesus warn us that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Because you cannot offer your unshielded heart up as a sacrifice for the cankerous wound that afflicts the world all the while clinging, like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s parable, to the rotted onion of our merely holographic charity.
Ours is a Church concerned with saving the appearances. It is all too often a Church of fantasy make-believe that has convinced itself that the status quo Catholicism of bourgeois mediocrity and lukewarmness can remain in its current stasis without ill-effect. But if salvation is corporate and if our central role is to be priestly intercessors for the pain of the world and our chief actions are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, then this mentality should predominate the landscape of our parishes. Does it? You tell me. I get emails every day from distraught Catholics from all over the country and they all ask variations of the same questions: where can I find a parish that isn’t beige? Where can I find a parish that embodies the valor of the unshielded heart? Where can I find a parish that embodies a faith worth dying for and that views salvation as an intercessory task for the sake of others grounded in a participation in Christ’s vicarious death for all, rather than as the soteriological equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket?
What this amounts to is a claim that we can only flip the script by “Making Sanity Great Again” (MSGA hats not included) by living sanely in whatever state in life we find ourselves. Here we see the outlines of the kind of saint we need today. We need saints whose sanctity displays and is deeply characterize by sanity. I speak here of a kind of authenticity that is the fruit of a love that actually shows that it gives a damn about people, including those who oppose us. But there is also something else, something critical, something absolutely indispensable. We must be educated and intelligent. Here is what I say to average lay folk who write to me with the endless question of what they can do: Learn things darn it. Become voraciously interested in all kinds of things. Read. Converse with others outside of your balkanized box of discourse. Pray. Meditate. Contemplate. Read some more. Read still more. Be brutally honest with yourself in an act of prayerful contemplation over your own intellect and its ideas. Think deeply about why it is you most truly think as you do and not about what it is you are “supposed” to think. And do not submerge doubts but entertain them. Not in the sense of allowing them to destroy your faith. But in the sense that you take those doubts to dinner with you and plumb their depths. Do not hide. Seek. Think doubts through to the other end until the doubt becomes a catalyst for an even deeper faith. Think deeply about why other people think as they do. And listen to them first, talk to them second. And when they speak do not be thinking about how to respond to them before they have even finished speaking. Nobody is ever wholly evil and nobody is ever wholly our enemy. There is a freshness deep down things and that includes everyone we meet. Love the people you meet. Know them. Because the greatest apologia of all is friendship.
The goal, as I said before, is to understand the thought world of the unbeliever better than the unbeliever does, which is entirely possible since belief is the more expansive explanatory framework capable of assimilating and transposing divergent and even incongruent data points into a heuristic vision with much greater facility than can the truncated and attenuated theoretical apparatus of non-belief. Thus can the believer take non-belief into himself and suffer it through to the end in order to truly comprehend it and, thus, to “encompass” it and to thereby transform it into a new kind of “believing”: Belief as fulfilled and transposed unbelief, which the convert will bear within himself just as the risen Christ bore the wounds of his crucifixion. It will be a glorified and risen unbelief now made complete via faith in its truest home, the Kingdom of Divine Love. And the effective teacher of the faith can do this for the unbeliever and genuinely flip the script of lies that have choked off faith, and to replace it with the new script of a Christological Kingdom logic, which can now be unveiled with full force.
But a Church of hidden, double life secrets is a Church incapable of this kind of deeply empathic evangelization of vicarious suffering-through. And in such a Church we end up with a kind of play-acting, ersatz “fellowship” modeled after the cheap, therapeutic moralisms of people like Poperah Winfrey. And, if I might be permitted a bit of a related digression – our eucharistic liturgies have failed to gain traction, failed to bite, failed to give us a spiritual binding address, precisely because of this lack of a genuine, organic connectivity with the heart of the world from the center of the Church. People are not stupid and the ersatz quality of so many liturgies is not lost on most. For example, the common practice of “introducing” yourself to the slob next to you at Mass at the beginning: “Hi, my name is Larry. I love you.”; or the “expressiveness” of liturgical dancing with maladroit octogenarians in diaphanous dresses (the women are even worse) - - is thoroughly contrived, artificial, and inauthentic. A parish I once attended replaced the holy water during Lent with a cactus in the font. Smart. The DRE responsible smelled of Jasmine incense and Pot. I liked her, but she was really obtuse.
And I think as well that our interminable debates over the liturgy are all too often reflective of a deep inauthenticity that ignores the true depth of the crisis at hand. There is such a thing as “good” liturgy and “bad” liturgy objectively speaking, but any liturgy that is sought after for its political utility as a talisman of support for, or opposition to, Vatican II, is a liturgy interrupted. There can be valid sacraments of course absent faith (thank God), but a Church that is deeply sacramental in its essence, but lacks faith, falls under not a few Dominical denunciations. It becomes a Church of lies and secrets, on both sides of the ecclesial political divide, and no amount of “fine liturgy” can change that, no matter the language, be it Latin, or English or some kind of click dialect. Lace surplices under Fiddleback chasubles can hide things just as well as denim Disney vestments over your Nehru jacket.
Finally, and returning to my main theme, I will end with the analysis of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, where what I mean by the valor of the unshielded heart in evangelization becomes clearer by way of contrast with what the current milieu proposes. Ratzinger, commenting on the fact that even Saint Therese of Lisieux suffered powerful temptations to atheism, states in his “Introduction to Christianity”:
“Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished. … In other words… someone here catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking … under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession – all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.” (p. 43)
And Ratzinger notes that as we float over the abyss below, like the shipwrecked Jesuit in Claudel’s Soulier de Satin, all we have to cling to is a wooden plank – a plank which symbolizes the cross of Christ – and it is that plank that is for us today our deepest metric of truth, and, therefore, of our evangelization. That thin arboreal presence upon which hung the savior the world. Our only savior.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.