Monday, September 24, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 20, “The Mission”

My dear old friend,*

When my daughter and I walked the Camino de Santiago this spring, we learned about the history of this traditional pilgrimage route, which opened for business near the end of the first millennium AD. For many centuries before the advent of motorized transport, millions of Christians walked hundreds, even thousands of miles through hard terrain, assaulted by brigands, plagued by disease, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, in order to visit the final resting place of an apostle of Jesus, St. James the Greater, in Spanish Santiago. Then they walked home again.

While walking (one way) myself, I was struck by a fact and by a question. A very small percentage of our fellow pilgrims in 2012 were walking the Camino with an overtly religious goal in mind; most were walking for health, as a vacation, as cultural adventurers, and/or for vague if personal spiritual benefits. This fact led to this question:

Is there any cause today, religious or otherwise, for which you and I—the average Westerner—would face dangers like those faced by Catholic pilgrims of the Middle Ages? Is there any mission we hold so dear?

Naturally, I thought of our fathers’ generation, who waged what may have been the last just war, against Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. Many made the ultimate sacrifice for a mission they held sacred. What about our generation? What was our mission when we were of military age? Or was our mission to avoid the mission? What is our mission today?

Assuming there were such a mission, what would we be willing to sacrifice for it?

This is a particularly beautiful chapter in Romano Guardini’s book. It raises several interconnected issues:

First, it explains the “sacred chain of vocations,” whereby Jesus, sent by the Father, sent his disciples whose mission and message are still in force today, thanks to the one holy catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed: “Every attempt to reach the Father directly ends in a generalized divinity. It is impossible to arrive at the ultimate mystery, the true Father, save through the Son, who does not speak for himself, but for his father.” A bit later RG adds: “Christ the Intermediary is a sacred living artery, through which divine purity and forgiveness flow; through the establishment of the Eucharist he becomes a permanent artery, supplying all generations with the superabundance of divine life.”

Second, the force of this “sacred chain” is vouchsafed to us by the Holy Spirit, working through the Apostles and the Church: “All giving and receiving of love takes place ‘in the Holy Spirit.’ . . . From Father to Son, from Son to the Holy Spirit, from the Holy Spirit to the apostles and thence to all nations—this is the course taken by divine love.” Hence the importance of Pentecost, when the Apostles, inflamed with the Spirit, finally got it and began passing it on.

Third, Christ’s sending of the disciples, both during his earthly life and after the Resurrection, mirrors something important about the way Christ was sent to us by the Father. God could have imposed his will on us. He could have come with a glory so powerful it overwhelmed humanity. Instead he “emptied himself and took the form of a slave,” according to St. Paul. In the same way, he told his disciples to take nothing but a walking stick with them when they evangelized the world—and to expect rejection. If people listened, fine; if not, the disciples were to move on and take the Spirit with them.

God left it all up to human freedom, to accept or reject the Word, the message and mission of the Church. “Faith then,” Guardini says, “requires not only the simple will to God’s truth, but also a certain responsiveness to precisely this ‘weakness’ of God.”

Then comes the line I love more than any in this chapter:

“[Faith] must possess that holy chivalry of the heart which flies to the defense of defenseless truth; that watchfulness of spirit which recognizes truth even in the dark; the sharp ear of love, and the intuitive strength of sacred desire. In truth’s very defenselessness must lie an unspeakable mystery of love.”

This is incredibly beautiful. Christianity, so unpopular in some quarters today, does not impose its will on anyone. It can’t, because God didn’t. Instead, it requires a response from us, and that response is faith: a “holy chivalry of the heart [in the] defense of defenseless truth.”

Is there anything at all for which you and I would muster such chivalry, such “sacred desire”?

I fear not.

Best always,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 21.

* This post continues a series of open letters to a real, live friend of mine from boarding school over forty years ago. Each letter focuses on a chapter in Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, about Jesus Christ.

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