Embracing Mystery

We must not fear the unknown in our faith, but rather embrace it. There is no reason to be ashamed by the inscrutable aspects of God. Instead, we should point to these very mysteries as proof of His Being, for only when we stand in mystical awe do we truly experience the One worthy of worship.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Our finest moments in life lie beyond words: the inward tremor at a piece of music, the awe at nature’s grandeur, the silent symphony stirred within us by a work of art, the wonder of holding a newborn child, the thrill from the touch of a lover’s hand. All this and more is beyond words, beyond reason or mechanistic explanations. They are in the realm, not of emotion, but of pure experience.

There are thin places where the numinous charges the material world and makes the mystical encounter with God possible. More: their utter irreducibility to mere language points directly to God. My own mystical experience is so far beyond the ability of words or reductionist explanations that I never even speak of it directly, and words are my living. There are things beyond knowing, beyond even feeling: things that the poet grasps better than the scientist, and which neither grasps fully.

Einstein wrote:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms–this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.

If the source of all that is had brought forth a world that could be grasped by our unaided intellect, he would be pretty poor deity. He dwells in absolute mystery, and we shall never grasp the essence of that mystery until we see face to face. Revelation can unveil Him only in part, and even then we can only know the depths of these mysteries by analogy. Since we know God is, and we know God cannot be grasped by unaided reason, the rest of the faith flows naturally. The evidence of our reason and sense, the gradual revelation by God himself, and the ultimate act, in which God shows us His face in the incarnation.

Only mystery draws us in, inviting us to a deeper relationship with the unknown and unknowable. A mystery only inspires and drives us forward until it is solved, after which is is filed away and forgotten. God dwells in everlasting mystery, and like the veiled lover, this is why we pursue Him.

The Hour of Trial is the Hour of Fidelity

His_Holiness_Pope_Pius_XII“He who remains firm in his faith and strong at heart knows that Christ the King is never so near as in the hour of trial, which is the hour for fidelity. With a heart torn by the sufferings and afflictions of so many of her sons, but with the courage and the stability that come from the promises of Our Lord, the Spouse of Christ goes to meet the gathering storms. This she knows, that the truth which she preaches, the charity which she teaches and practices, will be the indispensable counselors and aids to men of good will in the reconstruction of a new world based on justice and love, when mankind, weary from it course along the way of error, has tasted the bitter fruits of hate and violence.”

 

Ven. Pope Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus

They Have Drunk of The Everflowing Life

 There’s a paradox in martyrdom that we must accept even if we can’t reconcile ourselves to it: those being killed because of their faith in Christ are simultaneously tragic victims of injustice and barbarism, and glorious witnesses entering into everlasting life because of their sacrifice. Christ promised little more than this in the world, which would hate us because it hated him first.

In his Exhortation to Martyrdom, St. Cyprian praises those who die for the faith:

And lest anyone become frightened and disturbed at the difficulties and persecutions which we suffer in this world, it must be proved that it was formerly predicted that the world would hold us in hatred and would stir up persecutions against us, so that from the very fact that these things happen the faith of the divine promise is manifest in the benefits and the rewards to follow afterwards, and that whatever happens to Christians is nothing new, since from the beginning of the world the good have labored and the just have been oppressed and slain by the unjust.

The thing is, I don’t want to die for my faith. I don’t even want to suffer for it. I doubt very much that the Christians of Iraq do either. They want to be left alone in their homes in peace to live and love and worship as they choose. These aren’t airy abstractions and pious plaster saints: these are real men, women, and children being brutally murdered.

Antonio Ciseri's Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees

Antonio Ciseri’s Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees

Few saints sought martyrdom, though many embraced it when the time came. That’s why they’re saints. It’s not that many people have wanted to die for Christ, but that, when pushed to the point of decision, grace gave them strength to hold firm in faith and say, This far and no farther. The promise of something greater awaits.

Christians like to imagine what it would have been like to walk with Jesus in Jerusalem and sit at the Master’s feet. Given what we know of the times, the ministry of Jesus, and human nature, it’s more likely than not that most modern Christians would have been lining the via dolorosa and paying their “homage” not with bent knee and palm branches, but with jeers and spitting. His own friends and followers turned on and abandoned him. Do we think we’re any better?

If I am to be honest with myself, then I must assume that I would have been holding the scourge that drew flesh from His back or the hammer that drove in the nails. Anything more would be hubris. I know what it took for God to drag me back to the foot of the cross from the deeps where I was drowning. I have no illusions about what I would have done had the Master come along with his band of holy outcasts and said “Follow me.”

Likewise, Christians prefer to think we’d embrace that final cross if the time came. I certainly hope I would. I hope my faith would overcome my instinct for self-preservation. If  it did, it would only be by the grace of God, which is the most we can hope for when the time comes. We all die, and each only once. Only God can grant us the strength to die on our feet as Christians rather than on our knees as an apostates.

Far worse for the parent is the idea of watching your children not merely die for the faith, but be tortured for it. This is why the story of the mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7 was an important text for the Church fathers. St. Cyprian references it in his Exhortation, as do St Gregory Nazianzen, St Ambrose, St Augustine, and others in various texts.

The chapter depicts a mother and her seven sons who are tortured and executed by Antiochus for refusing to eat pork in violation of the Law. They are steadfast in their faith, and one after another the mother urges each to keep that faith even as her heart breaks to watch them die. One offers his hands and says

“I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”

The mother, “her woman’s reasoning [fired] with a man’s courage,” says to them

“I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

She urges her last child to “accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

As a late text which assumes the resurrection of the body as the reward for faith, 2 Maccabees offers a striking prelude to the gospel, and this was not lost on the Church Fathers when they used it for preaching. The youngest son even suggests that their sacrifice will be an expiation not merely for their own sins, but for the sins of the nation:

“For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. 37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

We are told in the final line that “last of all, the mother died, after her sons.” A mother would choose to die rather than watching her children killed before her eyes, so we have to wonder at the faith and courage she showed until the end.

She knew what every parent should know in our hearts: our primary goal is not to make our children smart, successful, or accomplished (although these are all worthy goals), but to get them to heaven. Again and again, seven times in all, the mother of Maccabees dashed herself against the ragged stones that were the heart of the king. She did not want fear of a “brief suffering” to keep her children from drinking of the everflowing life offered by God.

As the world continues to mint new martyrs, may we do everything in our power to protect their lives, but may we also pray for them to be strong the last, that faith may sustain them in the darkest hours and that, having suffered, they will attain a reward no army could ever take away.

We Broke The World

As I read about the horrors unfolding this week–capping weeks of inconceivable violence aimed at Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities–I found myself utterly unable to express anything about it in words. I’ve held off several posts on topics that seemed trite in the midst of such events, finally just Going For Cute as a respite from the unbroken gloom.

I wish I had something profound to add to the commentary my colleagues and others have been offering about the terrible events of the week, but all that comes to mind when I try to write is, “There are enough words out there already. Just shut up and pray.”As the world continues to mint new horrors that cry out to God, all we can do is cling to our faith in God and love for Him and our fellow man.

The danger we face in the west–from the comfort of our homes safely outside of zones of war and disease–is the tendency to let the Self intrude on these events: how we feel, how we react, what it means to us.

That’s natural. We only have our subjective reality and the horror experienced by another can only be understood in relation to our own understanding of horror.

However, I know that I will live and die without ever fearing that I might see my child decapitated before my eyes. This is the very stuff of the Book of Maccabees. They are things we hear about in history but never think we’ll live to witness. And then we do: in Serbia, Rwanda, Mosul. We have no real reference point, and so our attempts to understand it will always fall short.

Christians have one reference point that has to remain at the center of all our understanding: the cross. There’s a reason one hangs over every altar. It is the pivot point on which the world turns. Nothing, utterly nothing, makes sense without.

I finally watched Noah last night, and while it certainly has problematic elements, one thing it does exceptionally well is depict the world very close to the moment at which sin entered in.  As Noah says to Ham in the move, “We broke the world. We did this.” What we’re witnessing now is the fruit of that first sin.

The wood on which Christ hung was felled in Eden, by our hands. And after all this time, mankind still holds the ax at the root.

We are doing what we can–albeit too little and too late–as civilized people to try to help those on the brink of annihilation, and this is as it should be. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we damn well better solve the problems we created, even if it means a 4 point drop in the popularity polls.

I find it interesting that the threatened slaughter of the Yazidi triggered US action, but our leaders could barely raise a voice in protest when Christians were being ground into dust. As I’ve said before, the hour is clear: it’s 64 AD, and whether Christianity is a new faith as it was then, or an old faith as it is now, the persecution is for the same reason: we threaten those who seek power as an end. We upset the narrative. We are an inconvenient reminder that mankind not only broke the world, but killed its maker, and did both things as actions of a free will.

Christendom is shattered, but its greatest strengths live on in the hearts and communities of believers. That’s all we’ve got, and really all we ever needed, despite the glories of our past. We must live as Christians, against all danger and threats. We must forgive, against all wrongs. We must hope, against all evidence. We must love, against all reason.

7 Quick Takes: Random Quotes Edition

You all keep a quote journal, right? If not, you should. I moved mine over to Evernote, which makes it easier to sort and search. Here are a few you might like:

–1–

“Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious––others will enter the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ” (Dorothy Sayers)

–2–

“If a man is not rising upwards to be an angel, depend upon it, he is sinking downwards to be a devil. He cannot stop at the beast. The most savage of men are not beasts; they are worse, a great deal worse.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

–3–

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” (C.S. Lewis)

–4–

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.” (Sherlock Holmes)

–5–

“The Church is not an association that wishes to promote a certain cause. It is not about a cause. It is about the person of Jesus Christ.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)

–6–

“You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.” (St. Vincent de Paul)

–7–

“The Jews would not willingly tread upon the smallest piece of paper in their way, but took it up; for possibly, said they, the name of God may be upon it. Though there was a little superstition in this, yet truly there is nothing but good religion in it if we apply it to man. Trample not on any; there may be some work of grace there, that thou knowest not of. The name of God may be written upon that soul thou treadest on; it may be a soul that Christ thought so much of as to give his precious blood for it; therefore, despise it not.” (Robert Leighton, via ST Coleridge)

Find more Quick Takes at Conversion Diary.

A Light Hidden in a Cave

The soul is a breath of God,
and has suffered a mixture
of heavenly and earthly,
a light hidden in a cave,
but, all the same,
divine and imperishable.
–Gregory of Naziansus–

The soul is the light of God, Who sparks matter into Being within each individual. In his Theological Poems (1.1.8, De Anima), Gregory of Nazianzus likens the soul to a light hidden in a cave. Whether it be flesh or the world or sin or mere matter, that cave is what we deal with here in our lifes. That cave is our present reality. And that light is our only guide, and our only hope.

Some of us bury it very deeply, or hide it well. It took a long time and a lot of digging for me to find that little light and, with the help of the Church, blow it into a brighter flame. My cave is still pretty dank and deep, and prone to flooding and cave-ins, but the light shines in that darkness, and by the grace of God, I will not allow that darkness to overcome it. I’ve learned to treasure it.

We can wander in to the dark places without hardly even knowing it. In The Hobbit, the company hides in a cave. It seems to be shelter and safety and warmth. In truth, however, this particular cave is just an entry to a darker cave, full of the foul things that writhe and breed in the depths.

And yet further below, unknown to even the goblins, is an even deeper cave, where Gollum is consumed by the ring and the dark. The ring: a present, incarnate evil; the dark: an absence of the good that allows us to resist that evil.

All color is light. All vision is reflection. It’s telling that the ring renders the wearer invisible. Someone who is invisible is not reflecting light so he may be seen. The evil of the ring is so powerful that even the light of the material world is absorbed and snuffed out.

But it cannot wholly snuff out the light within, which, in the words of St. Gregory, is “divine and imperishable.” The most unexpected thing of all happens in that darkness. Just when Bilbo is invisible and may kill Gollum with ease, he pauses. Gollum has fallen as far as man can fall; to the very depths of sin and the world. But mercy stays Bilbo’s hand. The ring that swallows light can’t snuff out of the light of the soul, which shines forth most in the mercy we show to others.

That light can’t be destroyed by anything of our making. Nothing we see produces its own light. Even the flame consumes matter in order to illuminate, and when the matter is gone, so is the flame. The flame of the soul, like the light of Christ, creates its own light, and does not consume as it does so. In fact, it can kindle other flames and spread the fire of the Spirit over the world.

Life is an exploration of that cave, and the life of the Christian is a daily struggle to bring that light up from the deep places within ourselves and bring it to the dark places of the world.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

–2 Corinthians 4:6–

“It’s Not Complicated” (And a Note of Thanks)

Just a brief note of gratitude to everyone who offered prayers or left comments here and on various social media outlets and other blogs. My friends and colleagues and total strangers all reached out with sympathy and kindness. The grind of the past few weeks wore us all down, but it all finished in glory with a beautiful mass said by two priests who knew him and spoke movingly about him.

I won’t remember the exact words of Msgr. Ken Tuzeneu’s homily, but I remember the theme: “It’s not complicated.” He spoke of his own generation’s habit of questioning everything from authority to God to the meaning of life, and then spoke of my father and his generation. They realized instinctually what many of us only learned in middle age. Serve God (my dad went to mass, said grace, and was an usher), serve your fellow man (he worked every week at the soup kitchen and was a volunteer fireman), serve your country (at age 19, he quite his job and–only a few months after graduating from high-school–joined the Army Air Force), and serve your family (he ground himself down with hard work providing for his family).

In other words: just do the right things and stop over-thinking it. We know the right things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (the first three commandments) and love your neighbor as yourself (the last seven). Jesus boiled 613 mitzvot into two, and said “Go and sin no more.”

It really isn’t that hard, is it?

Oh, and one more thing. Fr. John Basil, who concelebrated and also spoke at the mass, said that he wished he’d known my father longer, and that more people could have known him. Even when he was older and physically compromised in how he could serve, he found those things he could do and did them. Fr. Basil talked about his stories and his example, and said it was our job as those who knew him to make him known to others: to share this life.

About 10,000 people have read this post. I call that a fair start.

I’ll leave you with some images from the week that was hereabouts.

My father’s holy medal. I don’t recognize the image or know if it’s tied to a particular devotion.

Dad said the only thing that disappointed him was not seeing my kids become adults. I told him he’d see them because he’d be looking down on them. He replied with a shrug, “Or up.”

The things we save tell us what matters, even when it’s a letter from a nun to the War Department saying a red-headed trouble-maker nick-named Satan is a good boy.

Watches found among my father’s things. Sense a theme?

 

My son lowers his grandfather’s flag to half-staff.

People are good: the fine folks of Patheos sent a plant, neighbors sent some awesome food gifts, people watched kids and wrote notes and sent mass cards, and humanity once again proved we’re pretty damn good.

The diner where we ate between the afternoon and evening wakes served Shit on a Shingle, which was actually called “SOS” on the menu. I had to order it since it was favorite of dad’s even though he ate a ton of it during the war. It was wonderful.

Ending where we always end: at the foot of the cross, but with a promise of resurrection.

Happy National Atheist Day!

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”–Thomas Nagel

Go ahead and hug an atheist today. They need it. They live lives of sad desperation caught in a meaningless universe and protest that they’re happy because they see things “as they really are” and are free to enjoy life as it is, and then disappear into the dust and relieve an already overcrowded world of yet another sentient meatbag.

Evangelical atheists are funny little people, ain’t they? They claim to be the sole heirs to true “reason,” while promoting a mechanistic model of the the universe that is more faith-based than that of theists. I believe the origin of the universe in the big bang (a theory originated by Fr. Georges Lemaître) has a theistic cause, and I have the proof of my own senses and reason, as well as the perfectly sound logical point that all causes must trace themselves back to a First Cause. They also believe that the universe has an origin point, and that their faith-based view of science will find the solely natural cause for that origin annnnny day now. Just give it time. Top Men are working on it right now. Top! Men!

Of course, once that cause is found, it still doesn’t rule out a theistic answer to the origin and nature of the universe any more than understanding why a rose is red and smells nice renders Shakespeare meaningless.

Here’s the glorious truth for them: time, space, and matter have an origin point outside of time, space, and matter, and this everyone understands to be God. It’s really not that hard, and if the next question is, “Well, then where does God come from?” the answer is right there in that complex, brilliant, poetic, vexing, and infinitely wise thing we call scripture, formulated long before the idea of contingent being: “God is.”

What, you wanted something more than that? Maybe a calculation or a formula or a paper in Nature? An answer that reduces the infinite wonder of a totally non-contingent being responsible for all existence into something you can store in that bag of gray mush in your noggin? Tough crap. That’s all you’re getting: YHWH. It’s all you need. Embrace that one mystery, and all else makes sense.

I’m not sure what clinging to an irrational vision of reality gives to atheists. Belief in a transcendent order is a fundamental element of the human psyche, which would mean that it is, in itself, natural. These are the same people who argue that homosexuals are “born with” their sexuality and loudly berate the idea of gay people “going straight” or attempting conversion therapy. However, they seem to think it’s perfectly fine for a human animal born with an innate religious impulse to repress or deny that impulse in favor of … what? A Reason Rally? An upvote on a meme at Reddit? The approval of Sam Harris? Interesting bunch of hypocrites, these evangelical atheists.

But that’s okay, since they don’t really believe it anyway. As Andrew Ferguson writes in the best essay of the year, “Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived…. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.”

You can’t believe the universe is without purpose or meaning, wave your hands around a lot, and then arrive at a moral order for behavior based upon vagaries like social contracts. That’s not even good nonsense.

And so today, April 1st, American Catholic is urging us to celebrate National Atheist Day. Go ahead, reach out to an atheist. Be prepared to offer a reason for your belief.

Honestly, most average disbelievers are really spiritual seekers, and not at all like the evangelical atheists we have here on Patheos, or those hauting Reddit and comboxes. It gets hard to separate the loud Ministers for the Church of Unbelief from the merely hurting, normal people. Usually we only hear from the likes of American Atheists, “Friendly” Atheists, Dawkins, Meyers, etc: the Sturmabteilung of modern militant atheism. Forget about those jerks: they’re the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jack Chicks of modern disbelief: really loud and really dumb.

The average person who doubts or denies the existence of God often does so for solid reasons, and they want answers, not polemics. I imagine many don’t really want to be atheists. Even many “atheists” don’t really believe in atheism. Some people fall into disbelief because they’ve seen an ugly side of religion and religious people. They’ve suffered. They’ve lost. They’ve grieved. They’ve been lied to. They’ve be wounded. They’ve been poorly catechized. They’re just plain ole sinners in a fallen world that exalts the self.

What they need isn’t atheism. What they need is what atheism can never offer. Charity. Faith. Hope.

Not the charity that merely seeks to serve the other (which is a good and noble thing), but a true caritas that is willing to immolate itself on the altar of the world out of pure love of God: a surrender to the love which moves the sun and other stars.

And not the faith that merely believes a thing because it’s reasonable or good or useful, but a faith that consumes the individual with a certainty of Truth.

And not merely a hope that looks to a better tomorrow, but a tendency of the soul towards the ultimate end in beatitude, which is the final happiness. A hope that looks forward in faith and love to the resurrection.

Atheists offer people an attractive lie: the world all there is, so you might as well just enjoy it. In other words, they look at a broken world, say it can be no product of a loving and omnipotent God, and therefore urge people to just embrace it as is.

By contrast, we look at a world broken by our sins, and see the creation of a loving father of who set his children free to fall, and then urged them to lift themselves up again. As a father does. As I did when my children fell. And in learning to stand, we learn to live, and in time, to yearn for the world beyond the world. We long for a return to the home we lost, and which was reclaimed for us on barren hilltop 2000 years ago. We travel a road of faith, hope, and love back to the kingdom we left.

It’s much more than merely an appealing alternative to the grim determinism of atheism, and it has one benefit above all others.

It happens to be true.

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”–C.S. Lewis

 

Why I Am Catholic

Patheos has asked bloggers to finish the sentence: Why I Am A

They’re giving us 200 words to answer. I don’t need 200 words to tell you why I am Catholic. I only need four:

Because Catholicism is true.

St. Thomas Aquinas gave me the tools I needed to understand my experience of God

It’s that simple. It’s not a matter of “belief.” Belief presumes that there’s some option: that I have a choice in my favored model of reality.

No such choice exists. (I would have chosen … something else.) As I tell my students: this is Truth. You either accept Truth, or you reject Truth. What you want to “believe” is wholly beside the point.

My whole life I looked for truth. I shed this faith as soon as I was able, along with what I saw to be its silliness, emptiness, and illogic. I thought I found a better model for reality in the god of the philosophers, but it did not suffice. Fifteen years after I lapsed, I was given a profound experience of the living God.

I doubted it. I resisted it. I applied reason and logic to understanding it, and reason and logic are what allowed me to come back. I was given the gift of a conversion experience through Christ, and the church gave me the tools to test it. And in testing it, I found my way home again.

St. Augustine’s Medicine For Doubt

I broke this discussion into two posts because I didn’t want Augustine’s greater point to get lost in his fit of pique. Instead, I want to draw your focus back to the first paragraph of the passage I cite from City of God Book 2:

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith,  effected a cure!

I’ve encountered that passage many times in my experience with City of God, but blew right by it without understanding that it was actually about me. (Look, it’s a thousand pages long: you can’t grasp the whole thing at one go.)

I returned to the faith after a undeniable encounter with the living God that broke through my doubt and drew me back, as though with Waugh‘s unseen hook and invisible line. But when I came back, I didn’t really believe it all. I fought my way back (or, rather, was dragged back) to Catholicism in stages, through mere theism (requiring deep reading in atheism and philosophy), scripture, Christianity (deep reading in apologetics), and finally Catholicism (lots of St. Thomas, Kreeft, Ratzinger, and catechism).

When I made that final leap to return to the faith of my youth, I didn’t believe everything Catholicism taught. I had mental reservations on a few contentious points, but I found everything else so balanced and perfect and right that I simply decided to submit my will and intellect on the rest. It was an act of humility, and not a pleasant one at first, but I saw that the collective wisdom of good and admirable and wise people, working for millennia on the deepest and most relevant questions of human existence, had yielded undeniable wisdom and clarity. If I was unable to mentally or emotionally grasp the last 5% that continued to give me trouble, whose fault was that?

And so, in what Augustine calls my “feeble condition,” I performed an act of faith, and submitted to the “the restorative medicine of sound teaching.” I let go, and put God in charge. As though one with the father of the possessed child in Mark 9:24, I said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” And in that act of submission, belief came.

I had to throw away a lot of carefully constructed dogma of my own invention, but once I shed it, I was overwhelmed with an immense sense of relief. I allowed my belief system to be stripped down to ground level: everything was on the table. In doing so, I shed a lot of modernist nonsense, as well as emotional and intellectual bias that clouded my thinking, and let myself be fill up with the simple and good things of God.

That’s an act of will leading to pure sacrifice. Submission of the will and intellect is what the Church calls for on its central elements of dogma. Modern ears hear that as simple tyranny, because, of course, in our few decades of life experience we know far better than the inherited wisdom of ages as guided by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity working through the Church. You don’t really know much until you grasp the enormity of all you do not–indeed, all you cannot–know as one mortal living a circumscribed and brief life. That’s the great lie of the modern world: I am my own man! I am self-invented! I can figure it all out! I took a class!

Hogwash. We are the product of billions of decisions made long before sperm met egg in a mother’s womb. We perch upon the accumulated wisdom of ages–trial and error, revelation and understanding, deep study in the things of God and man–and imagine we heaped up that mountain all on our own. At least, I did.

And from up there on my perch, it was impossible to tell whether that mountain is made of diamond or dung. I just knew it gave me a grand view of what I perceived to be reality. And it helped me look down on those who scratch out their lives on smaller mountains built of simple and sturdy faith.

Until I leveled that mountain, I may have known a lot of things, but a final and abiding Truth wasn’t among them. It was only in humility, and only by taking Augustine’s “restorative medicine” of simple faith, that I could find it.

It was only then that God could say, in effect, “Okay, let us begin.”