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One of my Lay Dominican sisters gave me this wonderful little bitty book called The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP. It’s basically a brief outline of his larger works on the spiritual life. I highly recommend it! I find it very easy to read and to understand, but also challenging and inspiring.
I thought I would share a couple of excerpts that have stood out to me and pertain to things I have been pondering lately.
Such are the inexhaustible riches of the spirit that they can be the property of all and yet satisfy the desires of each. Indeed, only then do we possess a truth completely when we teach it to others, when we make others share our contemplation; only then do we truly love a virtue when we wish others to love it also; only then do we wholly love God when we desire to make him loved by all. Give money away, or spend it, and it is no longer yours. But give God to others, and you possess Him more fully for yourself. (pg. 2)
I find this passage to be an excellent reminder of how important it is to evangelize. To not keep God and our faith hidden away, but to proclaim them joyfully, passionately, and unabashedly. I know how difficult it can be. Being an evangelist is not a popular thing in our society. We don’t want to offend anybody or hurt anybody’s feelings. We don’t want to be unpopular. But if we truly love and believe in our Lord and our faith–how can we hide it away and deny it? How does that make us better people? How does it serve our fellow man? How does it testify to the enlightenment and civility of our culture? How does it give God the honor He deserves?
I’m sorry if my love of God and Church upsets anybody–sorry not because it’s my problem, but because it’s such a shame that there is such immaturity and inability to live harmoniously in this pluralistic society of ours. Oddly enough, I manage to get by just fine, without throwing any hissy fits, whenever I find myself bombarded by the evangelization efforts of the many different belief systems that exist in this country. I’m cool with it. I may argue against some of the ideas, but I have no problem with people expressing them. I expect the same courtesy in return.
But whether I get that courtesy or not, I must evangelize. Not only because I’m a Dominican with a special charism of preaching and the motto about sharing with others the fruit of my contemplation. No, I must evangelize above all because I love God and the faith, because they enrich my entire life and being, and because I have no right not to share them freely with others. We mustn’t hoard nor waste these riches of the spirit. We must share them generously and gratuitously, just as God shares Himself with us. It is the duty of every Catholic, no matter what their state or walk of life.
Here’s another excerpt, from the introduction of the book:
… [We] are apt to forget that the most sublime and most vital truths are precisely elementary truths, deeply studied, prayerfully considered and made the object of supernatural contemplation.
[The footnote here reads:] The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, which we shall quote often in thesepages, is a case in point. Read at the age of twenty or twenty-five, it may fail to bring home the doctrine which it expounds, seeming, as it does, to emphasize only elementary truths and making little appeal to the sensibility and the imagination. But when it is read at a later age, and with a maturer judgment, it is seen that the elementary truths which it contains are expounded in a manner which is very profound and sublime, and at the same time with great sobriety. (pg. x-xi)
This struck me in the context of a discussion I had with my theologian friend, Mark Armitage, about what theology is all about and what it really means to be a theologian. (Mark shares some thoughts on the topic here and here.) I was complaining that today people think that all there is to being a theologian is earning a degree from a school, and that theology is just another academic discipline. All too often, these paper-based theologians are quick to dismiss all previous theologians–including the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, and all the many canonized theologians–because we know so much more now than they did then. Which I guess you would think if you only regard theology as an academic thing. But what of the intense spiritual lives of those Saint-theologians? What about the prayer, the devotion, the meditation, the contemplation, the discipline and obedience, the striving for Truth and personal sanctity? What about these sources of knowledge and understanding? If the aim of theology is knowledge of God, how can theology be merely academic? How can one be a true theologian without a strong interior life?
Mark shared with me Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s distinction between “theology on the knees” and “theology at the desk.” I think that is a great way of summarizing the difference between many of today’s theologians and those whom they dismiss. This dismissive attitude also has to do with the academic milieu, in which careers are built upon novelty and innovation. And it has to do with the general “hermeneutic of rupture” we find almost everywhere these days–it’s simply fashionable to break with the past and with tradition. Whereas we used to think it good to stand on the shoulders of giants, today it is considered better to slay the giants and be some sort of rebel hero.
Getting back to that little excerpt from Father G-L, I think he makes the point that in order to really grasp the truths of God and our faith, we have to be willing to dwell upon them, to patiently ponder them, and to pray over them, to ask for supernatural guidance and understanding. We must not look upon even the most elementary truths with arrogance–we must never imagine that we have already exhausted them, or that they are boring and out-dated, or that we are too sophisticated for them. To do so indicates intellectual and spiritual immaturity, and we will never arrive at those “most sublime and most vital truths.” Instead, we will go running around with sledgehammers, tearing down those truths in desperate search of the Next Big Thing… which, in reality, will usually be merely the latest re-hashing of some very ancient error.
Instead of going broader in our pursuit of Truth, we need to go deeper. And we do that by living out our faith and growing more intimate in our relationship with God. Theology is not just something to study, it is something to live out.
As I was praying The Liturgy of the Hours this morning, I had a moment of great joy: I am not alone right now, I thought to myself. This isn’t just me, alone in my apartment, on May 14, 2008, in Dallas, Texas, reading bits of ancient texts.
Around the country and around the world, there were innumerable other Catholics performing this same action, reading and praying these same words: bishops and priests, consecrated religious, laypeople like me. And it wasn’t only a shared action across space, but also across time: hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia. Times and places I cannot even imagine.
The Psalms take us back further than the time of Christ, long before a human mind or heart could comprehend or even conceive of so strange and marvelous an idea as God Incarnate or the Holy Trinity–ideas Christians often take for granted. And yet the Psalmist’s prayers touch and move and resonate with even the most modern soul. We understand them. They are our prayers too.
The Psalms and other scriptures, the praying of The Liturgy of the Hours–these are just a couple of examples of where Catholics encounter the timelessness of our faith tradition. This timelessness, this being “ever ancient, ever new” to borrow one of my favorite phrases from St. Augustine, is one of the most important and appealing things to me about Catholicism. It is one of the things that keeps me safely moored in the world around me, anchored to some of the things that are truly most important.
That’s why I tend to cringe when I hear or read somebody say that the Church is “out of touch” or “outdated” or “irrelevant,” or that the Church “needs to get with the times”–by which they really mean, “get with the modern secular world.” Such sentiments seem to be a symptom of the modernist snobbery that presumes that the present modern age is the best and most enlightened age that ever has been and ever shall be. It presumes superiority and–even more bafflingly–permanence where there is none to be had, as if the present can be isolated from the past and the future, held apart, and judged on its own merits! The reality is that the secular world, with each successive “modern time,” is impermanent and ever-changing. Any alleged superiority of today will most likely be sneered at, or at least shrugged at, tomorrow. What will future generations say about our world and our modern time? The answer to that question is: What do we say about the past? So maybe we’d better watch our tongues.
I don’t see how any sane person can deny any of that. So why on earth, then, should anybody want to take something so timeless as the Church and try to conform it, to confine it, to our own little spot upon the vast expanse of history? The Church has overcome much worse times than ours, and she has also seen much better–and she will do both again and again until time finally ends. And people will still be praying the Liturgy of the Hours and being stirred by the Psalms and doing all the same things Catholics have done for nearly 2000 years now, and probably much in the same fashion. Thus, we are part of the future, as well as the past.