Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 15, “Possibility and Impossibility”

Dear friend,*

I have been called, but will I be chosen? That’s the question many Christians ask themselves.

I asked myself the same question on a recent morning as I sat in the waiting room of the oldest regularly operating courthouse in the United States. Designed by Charles Bulfinch (architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, Boston’s statehouse, and the Massachusetts General Hospital), the Superior Courthouse in Newburyport, Massachusetts, opened in 1805. A young John Quincy Adams handled his first cases here, and 207 years later I sat waiting in the same courtroom.

Called for jury duty, would I be chosen to sit?

I looked around at the jury pool and counted at least 50, though a total of 75 had been called. About two dozen failed to respond to the summons. Those present were given random numbers. My ticket read, “Bull, Webster L., 51, Newburyport Superior Courthouse” and the report date. I figured my number might be a good omen. I was born in 1951.

I had brought along some reading material—Guardini, chapter 15, in which he asks, “Is it possible to be virtuous?” The Sermon on the Mount asks for virtue, therefore it must be possible, he reasons. But how? Jesus answers in Matthew 19: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

“Here it is apparently question of the very essence of Christian existence,” RG writes, “and the individual is shaken to hear that no one is exempt from the general impossibility of its realization.” We need God’s grace. Effectively, we must be chosen.

We moved into the courtroom and the selection process began. First the judge asked a number of questions. A raised hand, a yes answer to any of these—such as what did we think of medical malpractice suits—implied possible prejudice. I did not raise my hand once. I was prejudice-free and felt quite virtuous. But then I saw that the selection process was not in my hands! The clerk began to read the random juror numbers—in order from 1—and I was 50 away from being chosen. I wanted to be chosen, I could see that now, but I was a camel on the wrong side of the needle’s eye. The jury box was filling, and we weren’t even past number 20. I figured I’d be heading home soon. Out of luck.

Guardini notes an apparent paradox in the Gospels. Although man is incapable of saving himself, although he needs grace, Jesus keeps talking about saving the lost sheep. “This sounds quite different,” Guardini says, “from the word about the few who are chosen. . . . Both are true. . . . If we understand correctly, what Scripture asks is this: How do you know that you are not among the chosen?

It turns out I did not know. After the first twelve jurors were selected, we were not halfway to my number, 51. But then the peremptory challenges began. Three jurors were asked to step down; several more new ones were dismissed by the judge as he reviewed their yes answers; three more were seated; and three more were challenged! As we entered the high 40s, there were still three open seats in the jury box. . . . And then the clerk announced, Number 51, Webster L. Bull. Present! Please take your seat.

I watched carefully now as attorneys for both plaintiff and defendant eyed me, Juror #12, and examined my data sheet. White married male, age 61 . . . I figured someone would see something to challenge. . . . But no. One more juror, number 53, was seated to fill a vacancy after me; the challenges ended; and the judge announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a jury!”

Guardini lets us swing in the balance between possibility and impossibility. In fact, this paradoxical position is our human position. We need grace and we need to respond to God’s call. Faith and works, faith and works.

Guardini explains some of the ways one can get lost here:

“There is a Christianity which stresses the hardness of Christ’s demands. It says: everything or nothing and brands the slightest consideration of human weakness as apostasy. The result is that it is forced to conclude either that only very few indeed are capable of following Christ’s trail (to the eternal damnation of all others), or it declares that man can do nothing at all by himself and therefore the only course open to him is to accept the consequences and fling himself upon the mercy of God. In both cases the Church must appear a human institution—worse, apostate.”

Guardini’s approach—the Catholic Church’s approach—is gentler, though this may surprise the Church’s critics. “What the Sermon on the Mount demands,” he writes, “is not everything or nothing, but a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and plodding on after every fall.”

I do not know if heaven works like jury selection, but I learned a couple of things about salvation in Newburyport Superior Courthouse. One, you have to show up. Two, you have to hang in there.  

This post was written a few days ago. It is posting on Wednesday, September 19, the day we hear final arguments and enter deliberations. I’ll give you plenty more details when the verdict is in.

Your friend as ever,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 16.

* This post continues a series on Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, framed as open letters to a real, live friend from days long ago.

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