Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lessons and Surprises from The Lord

Romano Guardini’s The Lord is the best book I’ve ever read, or can imagine reading, about Jesus Christ. It is also endlessly surprising.

Ever finish a book and say to yourself, I want to read that again right away? Well, I am doing so. Without passing Go. I just sent a copy to an old friend from boarding school to continue a conversation about the Catholic Church. I’ve decided to write a post on each of the book’s 88 chapters, to begin immediately after Labor Day. Gosh, I’ve even added The Lord to my Goodreads list of favorites!

The work of Guardini (1885–1968), an Italian-born priest and theologian who wrote in German, has influenced many other Catholic priests and theologians, including most notably Josef Ratzinger. Here are just a few of the things that moved me about The Lord, which first appeared in English after World War II and has been in print ever since. It seems to have an answer to every question you could ever have about Jesus Christ, his life, teaching, and divinity.

You might not expect a work of exegesis to be poetic, but Guardini spins some beautiful lines. “One day all the loud things will be still,” he writes. He calls the Transfiguration “the summer lightning of the coming Resurrection.” The English translation by Elinor Castendyk Briefs is smooth, never out of tune or intrusive.

“Let nothing speak but the sacred record,” Guardini writes, and to tell the story of Christ’s life, his exegesis draws almost exclusively on the Gospels. To build his narrative he cuts seamlessly back and forth between evangelists, often answering questions left in the mind by the synoptics with a line from John. Sometimes we are perplexed by a contradiction between two evangelists. Sometimes our common sense is scandalized. You might expect a Catholic theologian to be dogmatic, but Guardini insists that we apply our reason to such instances:

“It is not good to suppress anything;” he advises; “if we try to, it only goes underground, becomes toxic, and reappears later in far more obnoxious form.” For one example, he notes that the Beatitudes confound our ordinary sense of things: “Our natural reaction to the Sermon on the Mount is one of distaste, and it is much better to face that distaste openly and try to overcome it . . . ”

Guardini is surprisingly open in another way, as well. While insisting on the uniqueness of Christ, he acknowledges the greatness of teachers from other traditions. Buddha, he says, “is a great mystery. . . . Perhaps Buddha will be the last religious genius to be explained by Christianity. . . . ”

But not just Buddha. “Perhaps Christ had not only one precursor, John, last of the prophets, but three: John the Baptist for the Chosen People, Socrates from the heart of antiquity, and Buddha, who spoke the ultimate word in Eastern religious cognition.” The perhaps means that Guardini is offering a personal opinion only.

In one case, Guardini tips his hat to Islam too: “It is a powerful idea of Islam’s this representing the presence of God in her mosques by a room stripped of image and implement.”

Yet always Christ stands apart: “Buddha is free; but his freedom is not that of Christ. Possibly Buddha’s freedom is only the ultimate and supremely liberating knowledge of the vanity of this fallen world.”

I was most struck by Guardini’s discussion of “the Kingdom of God,” which he defines as a state in which God is king and rules. He writes that it was Jesus’s intention to institute this Kingdom on earth, but “the Jewish people did not believe. They did not change their hearts, so the kingdom did not come as it was to have come. To this day it remains pending, straining toward us in a continual Advent.”

Guardini calls the failure of Jewish contemporaries to embrace Jesus as the Christ “the second fall.” As a result, “The kingdom did not arrive. The fullness of time was not allowed to crystallize into the unending moment; it still hovers in a state of becoming, now not only over Israel, but over the entire world.”

So Christ was forced to implement a sort of Plan B, redemption through his holy sacrifice: “‘The Anointed One’ becomes ‘the One who Perishes.’ . . . How moving it is that only now that he has resolutely turned his face toward Jerusalem, does Jesus speak openly of his intrinsic nature.”

Guardini gave me a renewed understanding and appreciation of the Apostles, as well. They were ordinary men, each flawed in his way, from Peter to Judas, and they never really understood, according to Guardini, until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For example, in the Garden of Gesthemane: “We must not think the disciples indifferent or selfish. [Watching with Jesus] was simply beyond their strength. They were not with him in the intimacy of understanding, but stood before him, helpless.”

Even at the moment of the Ascension they didn’t get it: “Still the same, uncomprehending disciples. While Jesus walked on earth they did not understand him, and even now, to the last, they fail to comprehend.”

Later: “The Lord was not privileged to live among people who understood him, who saw who he was and the goal before him. Again and again [we see] how utterly alone he remained in their midst. . . . [The Apostles] cling to the Messiah-conceptions of the day. . . .

“On the whole, we do the apostle no service by considering him a great religious personality. . . . What counts is that Jesus Christ has called him, pressed his seal upon him, and sent him forth. . . . Spiritually, the apostle is seldom more than a ‘little one’; precisely this guarantees the purity of his role of messenger.”

Guardini helped me better understand some other core ideas: 

Original sin and its centrality to Christian understanding — “Man must admit the general profundity of sin, must overcome his attitude of superficiality and cowardice, and earnestly attempt to face sin in whatever form he may encounter it. He must not make it a mere matter of judgment or of will, but must feel, and deeply, for its core. . . . Before all else, men must learn that they are sinners.” And later: “[Jesus] came to bring home the terrible fact that everything, great and small, noble and mean, the whole with all its parts—from the corporal to the spiritual, from the sexual to the highest creative urge of genius—is intrinsically corrupt. . . . Human existence in toto has fallen away from God. . . . He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction . . . Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless.”

Then this stunning line: “If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.”

Guardian angels — Guardini cites the Gospel passage about little children: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father.” Then he defines these (guardian) angels not as invisible helpers who keep us from tripping, but more importantly as “those protectors God has given man to watch over that which is holy in him.”

Meanwhile, we moderns have reduced angels to a caricature. In the Scriptures, he writes, the angel is a “powerful creature,” and “God’s earliest.” Today we have substituted an “ambigious picture-postcard figure” for the Biblical angel.

Childlikeness — Likewise this idea has suffered “terrible abuse.” When Jesus told us to become like little children, he was not endorsing “sentimentality, silliness, oppressiveness, [or] human and religious mediocrity . . . What is it then that Jesus praises in the child? . . . The child meets reality as it is, with simple acceptance. . . . In the child’s attitude toward life lies his humility . . . He does not drag his small ego into the foreground; his consciousness brims with objects, people, events—not himself. . . . The childlike mind is the one that sees the heavenly Father in everything that comes into his life. . . . To become a child in Christ’s sense is to reach Christian maturity.

The meaning of history—This is a repeated theme and one I need to study in more depth. Guardini  calls Jesus “strictly historical. . . . Salvation does not take place on the natural level . . . but on the level of history and historical development. And what is history but decisions of the hour made by individuals and valid for all men for all time?” Later the author calls “the fact that our salvation is grounded in actual history . . . the darkest of all incomprehensibilities”—making me feel better about my own incomprehension.

The end of the world, another concept over which modern reason rebels—“For those who take only the natural or historical order of things seriously, every word about the end of the world is utter nonsense. Nevertheless, it will come; and not of itself, but of God. To accept this and to live accordingly, that is faith.”

If The Lord had covered only the four Gospels, it would have been impressive enough. But in the final quarter of the book, Guardini takes on the Epistles and Revelation. My underlinings all but stopped in the chapters on St. Paul, indicating how little I understood. I cannot say I understood Guardini on the Apocalypse either, but I must say I have never felt closer to the Book of Revelation.

It is, he says, first and foremost, “a book of consolation,” written by John to the Christian churches of the late first century. By this time, “The Roman state had declared Christianity its enemy. Hostilities had long since followed one another.”

The Lord itself was a great consolation to me, bringing me closer to Jesus than any other book in my experience.


  1. It's a really amazing book to read, so serene, so well balanced, so full of insights.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Angel. Great to hear from you again! Also got word from a couple of NY/Philly friends that they plan to buy a copy of The Lord and follow along with my daily posts after Labor Day (Sept 3 in this country). Another Camino??

  3. The Lord is a wonderful book indeed. I recall your quote about the Buddha. I also recall that, although I also find really hard to understand or even appreciate the book of Revelation, Guardini gave me a sense of the extravagance the Lord mercy with his interpretation of it. We can truly hope for anything.

  4. I'm so glad to see The Lord on your blog (and that you'll be doing a series on the book!) It was a special favorite of my father's - he used it for Lenten reading on at least one year, and he gave each of us children a copy of the book. For the past 7 years I've been in a Catholic couples' book group (4 couples meet twice a month) and we have in-depth discussions about books. Our favorite book, hands down, was The Lord. We've also found Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed to be great food for thought and discussion. And I felt exactly the same way about the book: when I finished reading it I could have immediately started over again with the first chapter


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