The Catholic Thing

Yesterday night, we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the great celebration of Candlemas, “when,” as the Blessing of Candles in the Roman Ritual has it, “Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people.”

February 2nd marks forty days since the celebration of Christmas, and so it is the traditional end of the Christmas season (which to many of us already seems like a distant memory!) And here at Mt. Angel Abbey, it was celebrated in fine traditional fashion: gathering outside the abbey church in the dead of night, receiving the blessed candles, then the light, passed from brother to brother through the crowd, and finally processing into the darkened church for Mass, each of us contributing what little light we had until the whole church was awash in a mystical glow.

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Photo credit: Ace Tui, Diocese of Honolulu

As I sat in choir, I marvelled at what a beautiful Church this is. Not just this particular church, though it certainly is so, but this Church as a whole, the mystical body of Christ. I think I have ruminated before on this blog about what led me to convert to Catholicism. For a time, I characterized my conversion as a search for truth. More recently, I  might have said that in the Church I stumbled upon beauty and fell enraptured into her arms. In the candlelight, I say it is both.

In philosophy, we speak often of the transcendentals: the Good, the True, the Beautiful. It would be an injustice to try to sum up in a few words a subject on which so much ink has been spilled, but the idea is that they transcend (trans-scandere, “to climb beyond,” ascend, surpass) the world as we know it—for the world is limited, and the things of this world, our money and our laptops and our fancy coffee drinks and even Adele’s new single, are already passing away. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are imbued in the very fabric of this world, permeating it like the smell of baking cookies fills a home, but they go far beyond it too, because their source lies beyond its limits. We know because we can never get enough truth to satify; we are never glutted on too much beauty; we never have so much goodness that we cry out “no more! I couldn’t stand another good thing!” Cookies easily fill us up for a time and leave us wanting, but our hunger for the transcendentals is never satiated: we always long for more. We sense innately that there is more, far more than the straining bulging limits of this world could contain.

I think it was von Balthazar who said that we can know a true thing by its goodness and a good thing by its beauty. They intersect in beauty; one might even say they culminate, reach their highest pitch in beauty. So to say that I was searching for truth or hungering after beauty are to say almost the same thing, expressing different aspects of the very same desire, a deep thirst in the heart of every human being (though in a great many it languishes unrealized) for what is beyond this world, that which will not pass away.

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Photo credit: Matthew Lontz, Archdiocese of Seattle

And I found it, of course, in what Msgr. Kevin J. Irwin at a theological symposium last spring memorably called “the Catholic thing,” which is very viscerally the sacramental thing: earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, candles, ashes. Catholicism takes the world seriously, not just because God created it, but because He came into it and walked in it; she takes our bodies seriously because He became incarnate, enfleshed in our flesh!

I think many people see our beautiful faith from the outside and walk away bewildered because they fail to understand one or all of these things: that the world is good, or that it doesn’t last forever, or that something does. If we believe the world is not good, but still believe in the transcendental goods, we find ourselves mired in iconoclasm, Puritanism, Pharisaism, legalism. If we believe the world is good, but trick ourselves into believing that it’s all there is, then we wander into materialism, scientism. And if the world is not good, and we know it won’t last, but yet we fail to recognize the transcendental goods that will, we slip into nihilism and #YOLO.

But the world and the things of the world are good, and endowed with such dignity, in fact, that we use them to worship—and they, in turn, lead us into eternity, because in the beautiful and the true and good things of this world we taste the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness that are eternal.

So beautiful churches and Gregorian chant are not just nice to have. Candles in the darkness are not just pretty. The bread and wine we carry to the altar are not just a symbol. (“If it’s a symbol,” as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “then to hell with it.”) No—in these we taste eternity right now! In these, we remember who we are, and for we who have the joy of being baptized into the body of Christ, whose we are, and why. For Catholics, heaven is not a distant daydream. Heaven is perfect communion; heaven is the eternal present; we taste it every day in the breaking of the bread, we glimpse it in the candlelight and the faces of our icons, we hear echoes of it in our songs and the ringing of our bells, we feel the first hints of it in the warmth of our embraces.

Heaven is not something other, some abstract “x” we cannot know until we get there. Heaven consists in the things we already know in this world, beauty, truth, goodness, and most of all love—but the fullness of those things. When C.S. Lewis talks about Heaven in the Great Divorce, he talks not of something ephemeral, where saints and angels float about on wispy clouds, but of something realer, more solid than the earth! Those people who talk about being bored by eternal life, then, show a very grave lack of imagination. Eternity is by definition the eternal satisfaction of all those desires which cannot in this life be satisfied, but our taste for them only whetted.

It was with all of this percolating in my mind that I came upon the following meme on Facebook last night:


To which someone very dear to me quite sensibly responded, in part: “There has always been something about that saying that doesn’t quite sit right with me … I believe that in a life long search for a better/deeper relationship with God, a better understanding of truth can be attained, as opposed to the theory [that] if I do what I’m ‘supposed’ to do, I get the prize at the end of the game. Granted, that prize is pretty big, right? But to me it is in the questioning, the searching, the effort to find God that the real prize is attained during this lifetime, in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God, and those around us with whom we share this miracle called life.”

I’m sympathetic to that. It’s a gross mischaracterization of Christianity to say that we simply have to do what we’re “supposed to do” and voila, we get the “prize” of eternal life—as if the universe were one of those arcade machines with the mechanical claw, in which all you have to do to grab eternity is put in enough quarters and not screw up the controls, or (a darker picture) as if God were a perpetually demanding parent, dangling eternity over our heads as a reward just out of reach, but attainable, as long as we can live up to his high standards. Then again, this is the Christianity most people encounter in popular culture and, yes, Facebook memes.

His comment goes on: “That promise of eternal life seems so ‘out of reach’ and so vast as to be unimaginable, and unattainable … The promise does not inspire me to continue my search for understanding, love, and truth in God. I don’t want to believe in God because if I don’t I might go to hell.” (The infamous stick to Christianity’s carrot.)

The fact of the matter is, though he might be surprised to hear it, what this non-Catholic friend of mine is saying is far closer to “the Catholic thing” than is the view of Christianity he sketches out. The idea that “it is in the questioning, the searching, the effort to find God that the real prize is attained” is a Catholic idea down to the marrow, and a beautifully expressed one at that. It reminds me of nothing so much as St. Augustine when, in the opening lines of his Confessions, he describes his own years of questioning and searching for God, and the moment he accidentally found Him:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Of course, it is another common misconception of Catholicism seen from without that it is all a bit mechanistic: agree to these articles of faith, sign on the dotted line, say your Hail Marys, do good works, and reap your reward. That the Catholic Church is primarily about keeping your head down and doing what you’re told. On the contrary, say I: we are talking about the Church that produced scholastic philosophy and the scientific method, the mystics and Mozart! I have spoken already of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—how can we know Truth if we don’t seek her passionately, Beauty if we don’t pursue her ardently, Goodness if we don’t strive after her constantly?

The Catholic faith is a quest, it is a journey; it is a Church in pursuit, on pilgrimage. It’s not about following the rules to get a prize. It is about loving what is eternal because that is our destiny, as adopted sons and daughters of Love Himself, and setting aside what is passing away. And the Catholic vision of eternity is by no means unimaginable, unattainable, or “out of reach.” We see glimpses of it every day, because this world is God’s creation and He utterly fills it up, because “in Him all things live and move and have their being.” The Catholic thing is “loving the things that are above”—not, again, in the sense of things that are lofty, beyond our reach, but that penetrate the world and rise above it.

At the same time, the Catholic thing is not simply “searching for understanding, love, and truth in God,” nor simply trying to attain “a better understanding of truth,” nor even “a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God and those around us”—though all those things are caught up in the Catholic thing—because for Catholics, Love and Truth and Beauty and Goodness are all, in fact, synonymous with God. He is Love. He is Truth. He is Beauty. He is Goodness. Outside of Him there is no such thing! When we pursue these things in the world, then, when we long for them and seek after them all our days, what we are seeking after is God, always God, ever God.

The Catholic thing is love: loving God—that is to say, loving Love—that is to say, loving Truth, loving Goodness, loving Beauty—and as it must follow, loving one another.

As Our Lord answered the Pharisee in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Or as St. Augustine said in a famous sermon: “Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

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