The Valor of the Unshielded Heart: A Lenten Meditation
“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 (declared to be only apparent and philosophically reduced), nor is it shunned for the sake of an unattainable eudaimonia, 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.”
(Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord IV, p. 103)
In the quote above Balthasar is tracing the metaphysics of classical antiquity and in a penetrating analysis notes that 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 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 “pro nobis,” a “man for others,” and whose mission is precisely to be completely broken open 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.
But how does it atone? Is it because Christ has taken on the punishments due to sin in order to appease an “offended” God who will not forgive his wayward creatures until he gets his pound of flesh? How could Christ’s tortured and murderous death “please” God? Sin does indeed require some form of retributive punishment, but all too often our take on the atonement is vulgar and involves a monstrous portrayal of God as a “sky sadist.” It can also be anti-Semitic since all too often in such schemes the God of the Old Testament is described as a God of law, judgment, and wrath (the Father) whose avenging justice is satiated by the brutal death, at the hands of Jews, of His Son – – a death that ushers in a now “changed” God of love. Or, as in the case of the Gnostic Marcion, a different God altogether, which really amounts to the same thing as the “changed” God. And then, in the name of this “love” we decided to persecute the Jews for their alleged deicide, burn heretics at the stake, and to turn the engine of the State into an instrument of an often brutal coercion. There is an inner logic to all of that since a view of God the Father as a vengeful sadist has a nasty habit of legitimating our own violence in His name. And ultimately, Christ too is transformed from a pantocrator who is, for all eternity, the lamb who was slain, into a kick-ass pantocrator who, when he comes back a second time, will be pissed.
A better 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 – – a mystery that is ultimately unknowable by us since the atonement is an act of the Trinity ad intra before it is ad extra, and even in the Revelation of God in Christ the mystery that is God in His divine essence remains. Nevertheless, what is revealed as the central motif of all of Scripture is that God is 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 the sky sadist described above. Therefore, a full and proper view of the atonement must be rooted in that theological fact. 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.” We too must appropriate that “yes” and make it our own – – our salvation being anything but automatic – – but we are now relieved of the anxiety that our faith can never be “good enough” to “merit” the Father’s forgiveness.
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 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. Evangelicals are fond of asking “are you saved?” But what does it mean to be “saved?” Salvation cannot be viewed as an atomized and individualistic endeavor where my conversion is viewed as a possession of mine that I have “acquired” like some object that I purchase and now “own.” Baptism is our entry into the Church but it isn’t a “get out of jail free” card or a free ticket on the express tram to heaven. Nor does being saved mean that I believe in the proper doctrines or even that I believe Jesus is the Son of God. As St. Paul observes, faith is useless without charity. Indeed, he implies that such a faith is just an empty “noise” devoid of meaning. And as such faith without charity can actually be a dangerous illusion that fosters the notion that salvation is something that I possess simply in virtue of some magical action on my part. Thus, central to our salvation are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, identified as the very heart of the Gospel by Dorothy Day. As St. Augustine noted, there are only two “cities” – – the City of God which is comprised of all those whose lives are oriented to the love of God and neighbor, and the City of Man which is characterized by the libido dominandi. And many there are who, though “in the Church,” are actually citizens of the City of Man.
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 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 priests. 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 but rather is its very essence. There is a reason why St. Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered nun, is the patron saint of missionaries. Her quiet life of intercession, her “little way,” is nothing short of the very meaning of the Gospel. Which is why she is also a doctor of the Church. Furthermore, the deepest purpose behind “converting those others” is so that they too can become part of this corporate body of intercessors, thus elevating their own suffering, which may have seemed existentially meaningless to them before their conversion, into the “glory” of Christ’s paschal action.
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 existence without it and we cannot be “saved” if we are parsimonious in its application. Thus does Christ respond to Peter, who had asked Jesus how many times we are required to forgive, by telling the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though his own debts had been forgiven (and he thus was saved in his eyes!), he then turned around and refused to forgive others. (Matthew, 18:21-35). Christ is not just giving a pithy little sermon here on the importance of forgiveness. He is laying down the very law of the Gospel and makes it clear that no “disciple” of his can be “saved” unless that salvation is a shared one.
There is a wonderful scene in the Russian movie “The Island” ( a great movie which can be found for free on YouTube here) where the main character of the story, a saintly monk, is shown at prayer. The scene begins with the monastery’s abbot and another monk praying in their respective cells the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner”). In other words, they are praying for themselves. The scene then shifts to the prayer of the saintly monk who is standing outside looking over the sea coast and who prays “Lord Jesus Christ I pray for all the dead that they may be forgiven their sins.” Of course, both sets of prayers are perfectly legitimate and holy in their own way (I too pray the Jesus prayer as does the saintly monk early in the action), but the movie wants to highlight that the saintly monk’s sanctity goes further than the Jesus prayer and is precisely constituted by his unshielded heart, broken open for the sake of the world.
But this view of salvation has deep connotations for the Church as a whole as well. Can we say that a Church bureaucracy larded with lawyers on retainer and liability insurance is a Church with an unshielded heart? A Church grown fat with Mammon and comfortable with Moloch 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 portrayed as the enemy at the gates. The Church does indeed have enemies, but I highly doubt the most dangerous ones are outside of her gates. I would start with the quislings at the USCCB and work out from there. I say this fully aware that some may view that last statement as overheated rhetoric. But I say it and mean it quite literally. Our bishops are, with some noteworthy exceptions, cowards and dullards, wolves in wolf’s clothing, not even bothering to hide their managerial class predation on any Catholic, priest or lay, who actually believes, has a pulse, and dares to rise above the Church’s Vape shop mediocrity. These are not men characterized by the valor of the unshielded heart, not men of mission or zeal, not men of faith, not men of intercession, and the only substitutionary endeavor they usually engage in is when they upgrade to First Class from Business Class on their flight to Rome. 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 holographic charity.
Ours is a Church concerned with saving the appearances. It is a childish Church of fantasy make-believe that talks to its invisible friend called “healthy parish life” as if such a thing is real. 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?? That views salvation as an intercessory task for the sake of others rather than as a tired Totem of magical pieties? A parish that refuses to play CYO sports on Sunday mornings (what is wrong with you malcontents?!… there is a vigil Mass you know… the Sabbath is for suckers…). Enough illusions! Enough accommodationism! Basta!
Sincere Catholics who want to serve the Lord in His Church are currently undergoing a deep crisis of demoralization. Catholics I have known for decades have suddenly stopped going to Church, and not because they have “lost the faith” but rather because the Church has. People of faith, who seek to meet the world with unshielded hearts, find in the bourgeois Church of today nothing but shields. Thick ones. They are tired of being called “fundamentalists” and “fanatics” just because they can no longer stomach the moldering stench of the rot of it all. And many of them have retreated into a domestic preservation of the faith, like the Japanese Catholics during their time of oppression, until such time as the Church comes to its senses again. I am not condoning this, merely describing it, and sympathizing with its reasons.
In a famous lecture given at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with the Archbishop in attendance, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, an agnostic, excoriated the Church for turning the meaning of Christ’s messianic action into a reduced and domesticated story fit for instilling “civic virtues” in the citizenry, but not much else. He noted that in the early years of the Church Christians viewed themselves as “sojourners” in this life who lived within the eschatological horizon of “messianic time.” They payed attention to their civic duties since they understood that the “ultimate things” come to us through penultimate things. But that doesn’t change the fact that the penultimate must remain so and therefore the true Christian understood that his or her true home is elsewhere. But all of that changed, said Agamben, with the revolution in the Church wrought by Constantine. Suddenly, Christians went from being sojourners to citizens and the focus shifted from the ultimate to the penultimate with an attenuation of the eschatological dimension of messianic time as the result.
A Church now overly fixated on penultimate things becomes, through an inexorable spiritual logic, a Church of worldly compromises. Because the penultimate, when it becomes a substitute for the ultimate, inevitably devolves into a drab and suffocating ordo of utilitarian casuistries. As the Gaelic language would put it, there were now shields “galore.” And a Church of shields, both figural and literal, is not a Church in spiritual and pastoral solidarity with the primary Christological act of substitutionary atonement.
Today is the beginning of Lent for us Latin Catholics. And it really does seem as if the contemporary Church is undergoing a long delayed pruning in the midst of the gravest crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation. And I don’t just mean the sex abuse crisis, but the whole, damn, crisis of faithlessness in the Church that is demoralizing and alienating her base. And the answer to which I am pointing in this post is not in the direction of some program of reform, some “scheme,” or some kind of moral revolution in the Church. It is rather a simple call to recover what is most basic about being a Christian. To recover what it truly means “to be saved,” which would require us to remove the shields from our hearts for the sake of the world. To love our enemies and to pray for them. To suffer for them. To die for them. As did our Master before us.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.