Monday, September 10, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 6, “Interim”

Dear old friend,

You know, don’t you, that I have no idea where this series of letters is leading us?!

When I set out a week ago, doing a post on each chapter, I thought that reading and thinking about Romano Guardini’s book The Lord together might lead us to a better mutual understanding—you from the Episcopalian side of things, I from the Catholic.

I had the ulterior motive, too, of stirring up memories of our time together at boarding school, especially as they relate to religion. That’s because, as you know, I am writing a memoir of my religious journey, from Episcopalian altar boy to New Age disciple (my “40 years in the wilderness”) to today’s happy, unapologetic Catholic. My wilderness years began at Exeter, where I met you.

But I have no plan for the 80-some chapters still ahead, except to respond to them honestly, as they come, from my perspective, keeping in mind our common experience in the late 1960s. Believe me, this series of posts is a pure improvisation—whether moved by the Holy Spirit or my own caprices, I can’t rightly tell you. Sometimes I worry that the whole thing will degenerate into empty repetition: “In this chapter Romano Guardini . . . In this chapter the author . . . ” 

Fortunately, Guardini has provided us a sort of breather with his sixth chapter, “Interim.” We can pause with Jesus in the period between his baptism and temptation and the beginning of his public ministry, with its signs, teaching, provocation—and we can rest for a spell.

Guardini imagines Jesus here on the borderland between private and public life as bursting with the Holy Spirit, which streamed into him at the Jordan. In this interim, Jesus attracts and calls his first Apostles, beginning with John and Andrew, who leave the fold of the Baptist to follow Him. Guardini’s description of these encounters is moving. In particular, I was struck by the passage from the first chapter of John in which Jesus calls Andrew’s brother Simon the Rock (Peter)—on first meeting him! He knew already!

“That is vision,” Guardini writes, “insight that sees and determines what is to come. And it is command. Vision and command that take their place in history, history-making as long as history will be made.”

As we read on, we need to watch this word history and how Guardini uses it.

The author also places the wedding-feast of Cana in this interim: “That this incident still belongs to the earliest period of his public activities, ‘hovering’ between family and public life, is evident from the opening lines: ‘And on the third day a marriage took place at Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.’” Guardini explains an apparent paradox—that Jesus tells Mary his time has not yet come and that, almost the next moment, Jesus performs his first public miracle, turning water into wine for the feast. Guardini calls the wine a “symbol of the divine abundance which streams from above, waiting to find its way into human hearts.”

But for me the most striking passage in this chapter comes near the opening. This “interim,” Guardini writes, is “a moment big with the unclouded purity of the present. . . . For a brief span it is as though Jesus were completely free.” And the author reminds us that those who heard him were free too. The turning against him of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders was not inevitable, not predestined: “Let us not be overbold . . . about formulating so-called necessities.”

Then comes the question that shatters: “Who dares to state that man is so antagonistic to things divine that any encounter between him and the incarnate God must bring God death? What if the masses had accepted him, if he had been allowed to continue to grow in wisdom and favor, through his fortieth, sixtieth, eightieth year—to ripest age—what mortal and immortal glory would have been the result?”

Playing a sort of game of alternative history, Guardini puts us present-day Christians in question: Would Jesus even have a chance today? Just how antagonistic is our culture to “things divine”? And how antagonistic were we 15-year-olds or was our school, which ended mandatory church-attendance at the beginning of our senior year? Of this change in school policy, of course, we can say simply, “Well, you know, it was the times we lived in.”

But then or now, what in you and me resists the divine? Will we only accept a God in our image, a God we’re comfortable with, a God “of our own understanding,” as some 12-step groups have it? And if that’s the sort of god we require, what do we get for gods?

Some in our generation, who came of age around the cusp of 1970, got some pretty unusual gods: Baba Ram Dass and Bubba Free John, the Maharishi and the Maharaji among them. We bowed to these guys, at least I did to some.

What if it had been otherwise? To put the question to myself, What if I had listened to my heart, which kept whispering to me, Become a minister! Instead, I became a searcher in the desert, until I stumbled upon the Church of Rome—by what miracle? what guiding light?—quite late in life.

You see, my friend? I have no plan here. I have wandered through this post as I did in that wilderness. Forgive me. And hope for tomorrow, and its chapter 7 titled “Beginnings.” We can begin again!

Your devoted friend from long ago,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 7.

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