Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 40, “Mystery and Revelation”

Dear friend,*

Let me break with my usual in-the-good-old-days format for these posts on Romano Guardini’s The Lord and offer some short takes on some long ideas in this great chapter. In “Mystery and Revelation,” Guardini takes off from a single parable in John, about the rich man and the other Lazarus, the poor man, one of whom goes to hell and the other heaven.

Here are a few of the points he makes, with some personal reaction:

Old-fashioned stuff about heaven “Eternity is being prepared now, in time. In these fleeting days of our worldly existence we are deciding our eternal existence.” Whatever you think of Christian ideas about the afterlife—a fairy-tale, a super fairy–tale, religion’s medieval way of keeping us all in line—you have to admit this: If we lived as though there were a hereafter, a heaven and a hell, it would change everything. Because without eternal consequences, our actions have only short-term ones. And we start bargaining.

I want to hear directly from God . . . [Instead] “Specific revelation of reality and God’s will comes to me only through people.” The skeptic and atheist demand that God show himself or shut up. Fact is, He did show up, two thousand years ago, and the folks with him then weren’t much more receptive than folks today. Since then, the deal has been, we get witnesses to Jesus, not Jesus himself. It was witnesses (saints) who convinced me about Jesus and the Catholic Church five years ago.

I could bear hearing directly from God . . . We don’t want or think we need intermediaries any more. The Protestant Reformation said the Church was unnecessary. Five centuries years later, twelve-step programs say that we can be satisfied with “the God of our understanding.” And of course the New Age tells us God is right here, in my heart, so what’s the big deal? Guardini blasts this notion: “The idea that everyone is strong enough to bear immediate contact with God is false, and conceivable only by an age that has forgotten what it means to standing in the direct ray of divine power.” Right. Moses did not see God, only a burning bush. And the Jews would not even say his name. How did we all get so smart? Or brave?

We all want nirvana, “sensational religious ‘experience,’” an overwhelming enthusiasm that convinces us once and for all . . . Sorry, not gonna work. “It is erroneous to think that immediate enthusiasm can replace the real essentials of faith: obedience, effort, responsibility.” Wasn’t that the mistake of an entire generation, namely ours? The desire for a single “transformative” experience? The idea that an acid trip would show us something we could hold on to? That’s not the way the world’s wired. Guardini adds that even the person “swept” to Jesus, “would have to stand his test later. The unavoidable hour would surely come in which he would be forced to a fresh decision . . . ” The morning always dawns, and we have to put on our big-boy pants again. Obedience, effort, responsibility = religion? Yup.

God is both revealed and veiled in the Incarnation. “How difficult it is to accept as God’s living messenger, as the long-awaited Messiah, this Son of Man whom we see eating, drinking, walking the streets, who is threatened by countless enemies, who suffers. . . . Precisely here lies our chief difficulty, in his humanity. God cannot be so! we protest. His flesh and blood is simultaneously revelation and veil.”

It is is easy to suspect that the vitality has gone out of Christianity, and that the Church is irreversibly corrupted. Guardini spins this idea by 180 degrees. Admitting that “the sacred word has been worked over and over by the centuries, and not without endless controversy and hatred and resistance,” he goes on to say: “On the other hand, it is a help to know that so many have given their minds and lives to it; that two thousand years of history have lived in it; that so much humanity vibrates in the divine tidings.” For me, and for anyone thinking about the Catholic Church, it seems to come down to a choice. Do I focus on the bad times, the corruption of the late middle ages, the recent scandals? Or do I focus on “so much humanity” in the form of Augustine, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, John Paul II? There are witnesses enough for both sides, plaintiff and defendant. Each of us has to be judge and jury. That’s the trial of faith.

In the end, Guardini says, we’re pretty much in the same situation as those living around the Sea of Galilee at the time of Jesus’s ministry: “Always both are present: what reveals and what veils. Always the demands remain the same: that our desire for salvation meet the desire for our salvation voiced in the sacred word. . . . Fundamentally, there is but one essential requirement: readiness on the part of the hearer to receive revelation. Something in him must keep constant watch, listening, straining for the reply to his unceasing qui vive?

Best always,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 41.

* This post continues a series of mediations on Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, framed as open letters to an old friend.

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