Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 30, “Not Peace but the Sword”

Dear friend,*

I go to Mass every morning, or almost. Let me tell you why.

In Romano Guardini’s chapter “Not Peace but the Sword,” we find Christ telling would-be disciples that following him is harder than they can imagine. A man wants to say farewell to his family before following the Lord, but Jesus says: “No one, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Another wants to bury his father, but Christ tells him to let the dead do that: “Do thou go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” These are “harsh demands,” Guardini notes, and they get harsher. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Guardini writes: “Here one might ask, But, Lord, you said you had come to bring peace!… How can you bring man into such conflict with himself and his whole existence? Christ anticipated the question: ‘Do you think that I came to give peace upon the earth? No, I tell you, but division.’” Christ came to bring “not peace but the sword.”

As you recall, my friend, there came a time in my life when I dropped everything to follow, well, not Christ but let’s call him, for lack of a better term, a guru, a spiritual teacher. You and other friends of ours were stunned to see me leave school and head “east.” We were sophomores at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country by this time. Recently, you told me that you admired my courage in doing so, over forty years ago, though you worried about me too.

But it was easy then. I was single. I had no children, no house, no career. My parents were indulgent, and they let me drop out temporarily. Maybe they knew that eventually I would get back to school and make a career for myself and buy a house and father a family. All of which I have done.

Then five years ago, I became a Catholic. I did so because I had rediscovered something precious—the Christianity of my childhood, right here in the West, and in its most concentrated, original, traditional form. I felt that I had come home at last, a prodigal son welcome to supper.

You would have thought this would bring peace. In fact, it was a sword. I was “the man in the field” described by Guardini, who “lives in his own little world: his land, his plough and his harvest, his cottage and the life it shelters. His existence runs its own course, complete in itself and at peace. Suddenly his plough strikes against the pot of gold, and the world he has known is shattered.”

Becoming a Catholic upended my world in ways too personal to write about here. It caused a change in my friendships. It even led to divisions within my extended family. Some of my siblings found my decision concerning. I alienated social friends of long standing. And I hadn’t done anything special. I was a Catholic, and pretty green at it.

This chapter reminds me that Christ is asking for something special from those of us whose ploughs run up against Him, especially later in life. “This ‘greater’ and ‘more precious’ are not simply higher rungs on a ladder of already existing values,” Guardini writes, “they are incomparably higher than everything else, yet simultaneously at cross-purposes with the worldly values above which they tower—hence, the conflict.”

Later: “We cannot practice love in Christ’s sense and at the same time accept the natural standards of honor and dishonor, self-respect and bourgeois estimation. On the contrary, we must realize how egocentric, fallen and profoundly untrue those standards are.”

But surely Christ is not telling me to give it all up? To leave my family? My home? All my possessions? No. And yet: “To be a Christian owner is anything but easy. St. Paul’s possessing ‘as though not possessing’ when really applied and not used as a pious embellishment to a life of comfort, is possible only . . . ”

So what can we do? “First of all, pray: ‘Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!‘

It’s here that I hear Guardini talking directly to me: “At first we understand very little. But if we put that little into practice, our comprehension grows, and from our increased comprehension springs ever greater and more perfect action. . . . Essential values become clear only through practice.”

My plough has struck gold and I am “on the qui vive for a sign from the other side,” as Guardini puts it beautifully. “That is the ‘praying without ceasing’ that is always heard.”

That’s why I go to Mass every day, or almost. It is as close as I practically come to praying without ceasing. Putting the little I know into practice. Staying on the qui vive. Responding as fully as possible to this new call.

RG concludes the chapter: “He who performs my will, says the Lord, will understand my will. We have only to begin here and now, to experience personally the blissful spiral of doing, knowing, high-doing.”

I don’t know about the high-doing part. My doing is fairly routine, still now after nearly five years. But I do experience a certain bliss in returning to Mass each morning, and in following Christ as fully as I am able—an oldish man “in his own little world” of land, plough, harvest, cottage, and “the life it shelters.”

Stay on the qui vive, my dear old friend,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 31.

* This post continues a series of meditations on The Lord by Romano Guardini framed as open letters to a very real friend of my boarding-school and early college years. 


  1. Webster,
    Thanks for the post. It was especially meaningful to me because of the Mass readings this week and I've been thinking about how trying to live my life as a follower of Christ has cost me ridicule and difficulties. Yet, the thought of eternity with Christ is worth any tempory troubles in this life. I too have come to realize this week how much I need to pray to stay faithful to Christ. I don't "feel" like I am doing much, and sometimes I don't even have peace, but Peter's words resound in my heart, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

    I also like the picture of the ploughman. Can you tell me more about it? Where can i get a copy?

  2. In truth, I googled ploughman and grabbed the nicest pic I saw! Thanks for your comments and for reading.


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