Practicing Lent

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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This weekend, I traveled down to St. Meinrad Archabbey with eighteen undergraduates and a colleague from Notre Dame Vision. Staying with the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, IN, we rose early in the morning on Saturday to pray with the monks at 5:15 AM. As we entered into prayer that morning, we quickly found ourselves adopting the practices of the monks (liturgical practices very different than those engaged in at Notre Dame). Rather than measure the quality of participation by the volume of our voices, we prayed sotto voce with the monks. We did not sing with full heart and voice (as we are exhorted to at the Basilica) but instead let our voice blend together with our brother and sister next to us. We rose and bowed during the doxology (Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…).

As it turns out, we did not simply pray with the monks but entered into their practice of prayer. As we paid attention to the embodied liturgical practice of these monks, we began to notice how much of their life is formed by such practices. The daily praying of the psalms, never louder than your neighbor, is part of a life of unity that is to be practiced throughout the monastery. The welcoming of the pilgrim into prayer is embodied in a hospitality that infuses how they greet the stranger. The constant marking of time through prayer, interrupting  work, leads to a life that has become an offering to God. For the monks, this way of life is not taught through a series of intellectual propositions. Rather, it is lived out together. One learns this way of life, learns to practice monasticism.

Over the coming weeks at Oblation, we are going to focus on the celebration of Lent as a series of practices, which slowly transform our identities. In the Church today, there are often theories of discipleship that first require a radical change of life before Christian practice becomes meaningful. First (they argue), you have to really love Jesus before you go to Mass, or pray the rosary, or fast, or give alms. But, it is our contention (as those who have learned to be with the monks) that such embodied practices can actually form us toward love of Christ. Through praying the Scriptures and the Angelus, going to daily Mass and performing corporal works of mercy, sitting in silence before the blessed Sacrament and fasting on Fridays, we can start to live as a Christian might live. We practice what it means to be a disciple, and in the midst of this practice, we actually become one.

We will be attending to all sorts of practices. Praying the Scriptures and sitting before the blessed Sacrament. Fasting from technology and the rosary. Listening to music and burying the dead. Through attending to these practices, we hope to inspire a vision of Catholic identity and culture, which is not simply ideological. But one that enables each of us to become practicing Catholics.

Considering joining us in practicing Lent.

And the Nominees Are. . . The Imitation Game

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer

 

 

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Blood-Soaked Calculus

“Are you paying attention?”

After a bout of regular movie-going preview fare: poor Paddington bear being subjected to idiotic stunts and buffoonish mishaps; some robot threatening all of civilization and Hugh Jackman; and several hundred explosions caused by unidentified killing machines and American movie-going audiences’ incessant desire for brainless spectacle, Morten Tyldum’s moving, yet ultimately unsatisfying, The Imitation Game begins with the refreshing command for all of us to pay attention. After the barrage upon our senses of crass explosions and relentless moronic activity, the opening of the film is a palate-cleansing dose of subtlety, promising more mental activity than physical, and nary a single killer robot to be seen.

Yet, like a gangly teenager trying to Lindy Hop, the film’s footing falls askew from the very beginning. In a move that feels a little heavy-handed, we, the audience are put in the place of the sympathetic police investigator (Rory Kinnear), and commanded to listen carefully, and not to judge until the end. It’s over-used rhetoric, and registers as a little pompous and stilted. From the very beginning, there is a ring of self-importance to the film. Already, a division has been set up: we are to watch, observe, listen, and not interrupt. We stand outside of the story, outside of—to borrow the title phrase from an essay by C.S. Lewis—this “Inner Ring.”

In this essay, Lewis discusses mankind’s fascination with the small group of people who are really calling the shots; really making the decisions; sending out life or death sentences. We are fascinated with the idea of a secret, hidden few who are really in charge, and more than Cumberbatch’s fascinating (when is Benedict Cumberbatch not fascinating to watch?), but (dare I say it?) rather hackneyed portrayal of a socially maladroit genius, it is this air of falsity, this sense of secrecy that was, I found, the facet of The Imitation Game that captured me the most. In the film, we see this inner ring most poignantly depicted in the scenes in which the our little troupe of code-crackers decides which messages from Enigma to act upon, and which to ignore. In reality, these decisions were made by higher authorities in the British army, and thank God for that. What person would want their fate in the hands of a high-functioning mathematical genius and his merry men: the womanizer, the spy, and the boyish-silent-one with all the authoritative presence of a summer intern?

But what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.

The two moments in the film that were most deeply moving were, firstly, of course, the ending, in which Turing’s body has been reduced to a shaking shell by his court-mandated hormone treatment. His mental acumen is hidden inside a chemically castrated walking corpse, and any human with a shred of empathy will be moved by the film’s short, tragic coda.

The second was when poor Peter (Matthew Beard, oozing incompetent, doe-eyed chutzpah as the token boyish protégé in our motley code-cracking crew) learns that his brother is on a ship about to be taken down by a team of German U-Boats. Having just cracked Enigma, the Hut 8 team could, if acting in the next few minutes, save the lives of everyone on the ship. But just when they are about to dial up whichever commanding officer has the power to save these poor unfortunate souls. . .

Stop! commands Benedict Cumberbatch, authoritatively. He’s right, chirps up Keira Knightley, with a glimmer of understanding in her eye. They cannot save this convoy of ships, as the Germans would then know that they had cracked Enigma (excellent cinematography covers up a multitude of leaps of logic). They must bide their time, and let the people on board perish, for the sake of the greater good—for the sake of winning the war. Peter naturally tries to reach the phone to dial an authority who could save his brother, and he has to be physically restrained by the others. It is a rather violent moment, as though the violence they inflict on Peter is a physical manifestation of the violence being inflicted on innocent people a thousand miles away.

As I watched Peter cry over the inevitable loss of his beloved older brother, I found myself somewhat alienated from the film, which glosses over his loss with a noble shrug. Peter is (quite understandably and justifiably) angry at Alan for several scenes afterwards. In response to these snubs and cold-shoulders, Alan assumes a pained, sympathetic, “oh my dear lad, you’ll understand when you’re older” expression in reaction to Peter’s angered hurt. Peter’s loss, the loss of those lives, is simply the collateral damage of a Greater Mission to be carried out by the few who Truly Know.

What troubled me most about this moment is that the film decidedly and unquestioningly sides with Alan. Yet, the majority of human beings would naturally, instinctively, act as Peter would, throwing all concern for a theoretical, vague, long-term plan out the window in the momentary demand for action. While maybe not technically the smartest or best-calculated course of action, in moments when a person’s life is in danger, our hearts usually trump the “wisdom” of our heads. The pressing need of the moment to save lives in danger—and a family member’s life, no less—outweighs a yet non-existent goal to be achieved. But the film does not even cast a critical glance at the Turing’s decision in that moment.

This trial of Peter’s mirrors the ending scene of the film. It was, like that final scene, one of the most human moments of the entire biopic: a human in pain, wrestling with the fact that he is quite helpless under the unjust lot dealt to him by those in authority. It is a moment full of pathos, and it ought to break your heart. But, because Peter is not extraordinary, his input does not carry as much weight as Alan’s. Because Peter is not brilliant, but (comparatively) simple, because he feels ordinary human emotions, because he is the rule, not the exception, because he is not a part of the brilliant inner ring, his desired course of action must somehow be wrong. On the other hand, because Alan is the smartest one amongst us, he must be the wisest. He can do no wrong. Of course his actions must be the right course of action, because he is smarter than you are.

Are you paying attention?

This leap of logic is one that we make every single day. Often, we struggle to believe that someone we think of as honorable or good could ever do something wrong, based solely on the fact that we have known them to be honorable or good. In our desire for consistency, we are loathe to acknowledge that human beings act inconsistently. It is more pleasant to imagine that all geniuses are benevolent than to acknowledge that many times human beings who have the most power and the most knowledge can truly act the most selfishly. Or, an even more subtle distinction: a person can be a truly unselfish person, but can act in a selfish manner. None of us are immune from character flaws, and even those of us with sterling characters and golden pedigrees can make wrong decisions.

Despite the excellent acting, the beautiful production values, and the well-paced action, what I found to be ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying about the story is that many of the historical facts—which are (like most of real life) more nuanced, more complicated, and more interesting than slick Hollywood clichés—are eschewed for the sake of a rather well-trodden plot structure: Solitary Outsider Has Knowledge No One Else Has. Uses It To Save World. World Turns on Him. Nobody Understands Him.

It seems as though, perhaps, the producers and writers were dumbing things down for us—the audience—those of us outsiders who will just never understand. Thus, the movie was, I found, ultimately somewhat alienating. Instead of wrestling with the humanity of an eccentric, lively, and witty mathematical genius—an ordinary man, who happened to be equipped with an extraordinary mind—Benedict Cumberbatch re-creates his Sherlock schtick of a man rendered incapable of feeling and thinking like the rest of humanity by virtue of his god-like mental ability, thereby creating an impassable divide between Turing and anyone watching the film, between the enlightened few and the rest of us left outside in the darkness.

Yet, in reading more about the man who inspired this film, I have discovered that Alan Turing was not Sherlock-in-wartime-tweeds, but rather a unique, undefinable individual: sexual, witty, personable, alive, and very, very human. Perhaps The Imitation Game could have listened to its own mantra and hold up these more human qualities in Turing, thus creating a more relatable protagonist: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The people who no one imagines anything of. In other words, ordinary people; people who are not necessarily part of “the inner ring”; people like the suburban mother, like the math nerd who doesn’t play sports, like the put-upon office secretary, like the schoolboy in love with his best friend,  like you, like me.

And the Nominees Are. . . Selma

Susan Bigelow ReynoldsSusan Bigelow Reynolds
Ph.D. Student, Theology and Education, Boston College

 

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Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

In the first of five appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on April 17, 1960, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked,

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.

King continued:

“Any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ and it fails to be a true witness.”

Five years later, King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Selma, Alabama to raise public consciousness surrounding the widespread and systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens throughout the South. The passions, deaths, and resurrections that followed are the subject of Selma, arguably the most theologically rich and spiritually rousing Best Picture nominee of the year. As Lent approaches, I want to suggest that one might view the film as a lament that invites an examination of conscience surrounding issues of racial injustice that persist in ways both obvious and insidious within church and society.

Theologically speaking, a lament can be understood as an act of truth-telling that evokes public moral consciousness and opens a space for compassionate, transformative action. To lament is to name—and in naming protest—conditions of suffering and injustice and to envision a future of justice and restored relationship in light of a hope-filled vision of the Kingdom of God. Mourning in its least sanitized, most visceral and honest forms occasions sustained presence to that which should not be—it allows us, perhaps even forces us, to be interrupted by reality.

Selma interrupts us. We are interrupted by the murder of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who is shot at close range by a state trooper while participating in a peaceful night march and dies in the arms of his mother. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, King (depicted brilliantly by David Oyelowo) approaches Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), Jimmie’s grandfather, and with tears in his eyes tells him, “There are no words to soothe you, Mr. Lee… But I can tell you one thing for certain: God was the first to cry for your boy.”

As marchers make their first attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery, we are interrupted, as they are, by state troopers. Mounted on horseback and armed with billy clubs and tear gas, police brutalize marchers as they attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; crowds of white onlookers cheer on the troopers as though watching a football game. The bruised and bleeding marchers retreat to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which serves as the staging ground for the protests. The makeshift triage unit assembled outside the church calls to mind comparisons to Pope Francis’ evocative image of the Church as a field hospital in a wounded world.

In response to the massacre that would become known as Bloody Sunday, King issues a nationwide call for supporters to travel to Selma to join the march. Clergy and laypersons from around the country, including many non-blacks, heed the call—acts of solidarity which cost several, including Boston minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) and Detroit wife and mother Viola Luizzo (Tara Ochs), their lives at the hands of the KKK.

In the second march, King—to the astonishment of the thousands who have gathered to join him—abruptly turns around after kneeling down to pray. The literal about-face is a jarring, disorienting moment, a seeming interruption of the momentum occasioned by such a powerful show of solidarity. But King discerns that the march would likely end in disaster without a court order of protection. After receiving such an order, and following on the heels of President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to a joint session of Congress introducing the Voting Rights Act, King and roughly 8,000 fellow marchers finally, joyfully complete the five-day journey from Selma to Montgomery.

The film concludes as King delivers his now-famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. The speech, rewritten in the screenplay, does not include the iconic “How long? Not long!” line from the original. Instead, Selma’s King cites another eschatological refrain: “When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because no lie can live forever.”

Selma offers us many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to be interrupted by a more nuanced and arguably more authentic portrayal of King than the benign, storybook characterizations to which we have become accustomed. Much of this good work must be credited to director Ava DuVernay, with regard to whom I would join the chorus of critics and viewers dismayed by her lack of nomination in the Best Director category. DuVernay has been critiqued for her arguably unfair portrayal of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In Selma, Johnson is an advocate for the cause of racial justice but an initial adversary to the proposal of the Voting Rights Act based on its politically inconvenient timing. In reality, those once close to Johnson have countered, Johnson pushed hard for the bill and ultimately considered it the greatest legislative achievement of his administration.

If Selma were a documentary, such factual tensions might present themselves as more of an issue (not to mention the fact that, as Caroline Siede points out in this AV Club review, virtually all historical dramas—including others lauded this awards season—take degrees of liberty with historical events without inciting the kind of vitriol DuVernay has). But like all such dramas, Selma is a work of interpretation. And in this case, the film can be viewed as a challenge to a largely-white entertainment industry uncomfortable with and unaccustomed to stories about race that do not require the well-intentioned intervention of a proverbial white savior in order for black subjects to triumph.

How can we as Catholics and Americans invite Selma to interrupt us this Lenten season? Fourteen years after the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and passage of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979), its most developed (and most recent) pastoral letter on racism and Catholic teaching. In it, the Bishops denounced racism as “not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world” (387).

Though the document offers a thorough and self-critical examination of racism in the Church and society, the relatively little attention it received at the time of its publication and its meager legacy today testify to the appallingly low priority placed upon racism as a social justice issue. Only a decade after its publication, the Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics lamented diocesan responses to the letter’s call to action as “pathetic” and “anemic.” Today, the document and the teaching it represents remain virtually unknown amongst Catholics. Indeed, as theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale observes, despite the Bishops’ forceful condemnation of racism as a radical evil, “perhaps the most remarkable thing to note concerning U.S. Catholic social teaching on racism is how little there is to note.”[1]

A half-century after protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Selma urges us to recognize that racial injustice is not a vestige of some distant, ignorant past but rather a shameful reality that continues to be reflected in the majority of our parishes, schools, and communities. (For a powerful expression of this connection, listen to “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated original song from the film performed by John Legend and Common). The terrible irony persists that the hour in which we gather to celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in liturgy remains for many of us, just as King observed in 1960, the hour in which we least image the diversity of Christ’s Body. Such a realization is indeed cause for lament.

But Selma’s vision, like that of all laments, is ultimately a hopeful one—it is a vision that urges us to be propelled forward in prayer and action by what King termed the “fierce urgency of now.” As we contemplate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the next forty days, may we have the courage to see, name, and stand against systems of social sin complicit in sanctioning the crucifying forces of racial oppression. 

Recommended Lenten Reading:
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013)
Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2009)
Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2012)
USCCB, Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979)

[1] Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 43.

Why Study God?: The Role of Theology at a Catholic University

JohnCavadiniJohn C. Cavadini, Ph.D.

McGrath-Cavadini Director, Institute for Church Life

Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This article first appeared in Commonweal on October 11, 2013.  

Why does Notre Dame require all undergraduate students to complete theology courses and why do other Catholic universities and colleges sometimes have similar requirements? What is theology, anyway? How does it benefit students? How does the university benefit from having a faculty of theology? What benefit, in turn, does such a university offer the world of higher education? The presence of a theology department is unique to religiously affiliated colleges and universities, though certainly far from ubiquitous there, and even at Catholic schools theology requirements have dwindled over the years, and are often challenged to justify their existence. What does it mean to accept a faculty of theology as an academic unit in a university community? Its presence implies something about the whole academic community because other academic communities exclude such departments. Secular universities and colleges do not even recognize theology as an academic discipline. What, then, does the fact that a Catholic university welcomes theology tell us?
NotreDameDome“By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism.” This passage from John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides a characterization of the distinctiveness of a Catholic university. It is, he says, a kind of “witness.” This term can sound somewhat strange in an academic context, and I draw attention to it, in part, for that reason. Witness is not a category that one finds applied to secular universities very often, if ever, though I imagine that even secular universities would count themselves as bearing witness in some way to values such as social justice, equality, and inclusiveness. According to Ex corde, however, the witness of a Catholic university is connected to the church’s work of evangelization, and that seems to up the ante. A Catholic university, though proceeding “from the heart of the church,” is still not the same as the church itself, and its witness can’t take exactly the same form as the witness of a parish or a diocese. So what would that witness be—”so vitally important,” as the pope says, “in cultures,” such as our own, “marked by secularism”? Of course, this witness may take many forms in various campus activities, but here I am looking for the “institutional” witness, the witness that must be encoded into the very thing that makes a university a university—namely, its intellectual life, its mode of intellectual inquiry. Here, we find a crucial connection to theology as a discipline.
Theology is the “study of God” (Theos-logos). That sounds weird and pretty subjective. After all, God seems rather reclusive, not normally offering the divine self as an object of study. How could God be studied? How could one ever control such study? How could one keep it from becoming hopelessly subjective and fanciful? The study of God (as opposed to the study of religion) might sound like the study of an illusion of our own making. Unless, of course, one believes that God has in fact presented the divine self to us. It is God’s self-presentation, God’s “revelation,” that is the subject of theological study. Theology begins from faith in God’s self-revelation and moves toward “understanding” what God has revealed. It is in that way the study of God—or, as St. Anselm famously put it, “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is the only discipline that has as its proper object God’s revelation.

One might wonder whether there’s really a need for a special discipline to study God’s revelation. Can’t we just read it in the Bible and leave it at that? For Catholics, though, “revelation” is not only what is in Scripture; it is also contained in the apostolic tradition of the church. There was no New Testament around when Jesus lived, died, and rose. The church preceded the New Testament and only gradually accepted its writings as Scripture, just as Israel preceded the Hebrew Bible, and only gradually ratified it as Scripture. The church’s struggle over how and (even) whether to accept the Hebrew Bible as Scripture was itself complex. There is no book that dropped out of heaven with a self-verifying label reading “FROM: GOD; TO: WORLD; CONTENTS: CERTIFIED INSPIRED SCRIPTURE.” Whether the Book of Revelation is Scripture was contested until the fifth century in some churches, and in fact Christians still disagree about what constitutes inspired Scripture. The Bible is “the church’s book,” and Catholics have always valued the oral traditions and the living liturgical practices in which it was used. Not every practice or homily is as valuable as every other, and the magisterium of the church—its teaching authority—is there to clarify what is and what isn’t authentic tradition, as well as what is and what isn’t an acceptable interpretation of Scripture.
Studying God’s self-revelation is therefore not equivalent to studying Scripture. But even if it were, one encounters problems in the scriptural texts—what St. Augustine called quaestiones in his sermons. Many of these problems or questions are posed by the learned disciplines, the arts and sciences, which one finds at any university. To take a simple example, if according to science the earth seems much older than the six thousand years or so the Bible reports, then we have a problem. Do we give up faith in revelation, or do we “seek understanding”? Are we so sure we understand what Scripture is saying, or how it is saying it?

IconofCreationNor are these questions limited to the modern period. Sophisticated intellectuals both Jewish and Christian have for the past two millennia wondered about difficulties in the Book of Genesis: What kind of God creates supposedly precious human creatures and then loses track of them in the garden, having to walk around calling out and asking where they are? For that matter, what kind of a God walks around in a garden at all? One doesn’t have to be a Scripture scholar to notice that, in the first few verses of Genesis, God divides the light from the darkness and calls the light day and the darkness night, but the sun and the moon are not created until a few verses later. Where was the light coming from? We moderns think
we are the only ones burdened with such questions, but learned Jews and Christians of the first, second, and third centuries were possibly more troubled than we are by these passages, and yet they pressed on, “seeking understanding.” What was the “day” created before the sun and the moon that define our days, and what was the “light” that preceded these heavenly bodies? Was it the light of created intelligence (the rational incorporeal spirit, not mentioned anywhere else in the narrative)? Was it the light of understanding, which pervades the text as a whole? Is God’s creation of the first “day” a way of saying that God created time and that time is older than the sun and the moon?

No matter how they answered these particular questions, theologians of the early centuries agreed that the most important truths contained in these scriptural texts were that the origin of the world is God’s creative act and that creation is not simply a matter of mechanical origin but of God’s “speaking.” God doesn’t just create the world as the first in a series of mechanical causes. Rather, he creates it in his “word,” or intention, which continues to sustain the world ever after. Another crucial truth: Everything God created is good—indeed, the whole of creation is “very good.” And one more truth: Human beings have the special dignity of being created in the “image and likeness” of God. Have we fully understood the “goodness” of the cosmos and all that is in it? Or what it means to be in the “image and likeness of God?” Of course not, but the “seeking” never stops because, for one thing, the questions never stop. Today we have, in addition to biblical texts, the benefit of this tradition of consensus, built up from the earliest centuries, about the central meaning of these texts, and we can study that consensus, along with the texts themselves, as we attempt to further our “understanding” in light of modern versions of the ancient questions.

How, then, can we square the texts of Genesis with what science tells us? We can do so primarily by noticing that the elements that the traditional consensus finds central—the dependence of the world on God, the goodness of the world, and the dignity of human beings as God’s “image and likeness”—are none of them measurable or empirically observable. In other words, Genesis is not a scientific text at all, primitive or otherwise, and cannot in principle be replaced by one. Science cannot determine or measure the goodness of anything, no matter how sophisticated the instruments of detection. These are not statements proposed for scientific verification, but truths proclaimed unto faith, in the context of the rest of revelation. One responds to them by faith and by seeking, in turn, to understand what one has come to believe, not by observing and testing and verifying the hypothesis of goodness, as would be appropriate for a scientific theory. Faith in the goodness of creation proceeding from God’s love is precisely that—faith. And if our faith is challenged by the obvious presence of evil in the world, that is grounds for working to understand further what is meant by the “goodness” we believe in and how the doctrine of creation fits into the broader revelation of God’s love.

Once we stop thinking of the text as some kind of primitive science, we might glimpse how self-consciously it proclaims that its subject is a mystery too great for words. The six-day creation scheme is obviously a construct intended to underscore that very fact. No one can have observed the creative “speech” of God. Isn’t that the point of reserving the creation of the only possible observer until the sixth “day,” after all the speaking is done? The fact that the framework of “days” precedes the creation of the sun and moon is the text’s way of telling us that the six-day scheme is a construct, used to direct our attention past the text to the ineffable mystery it proclaims. The text makes itself a vessel containing the great light of a mystery that can shine through it, casting the very words of the text as its shadow. The six-day scheme, oriented toward the seventh day of rest, is of course a liturgical construct, which proclaims that creation itself is oriented toward rest—that is, toward the praise of God’s goodness. No science can prove, disprove, or even observe this mystery. It transcends scientific questions without denying their validity.

It is important to observe that science is affirmed in this example, even as its results inspire questions pointing to something beyond science. In this way, science itself becomes oriented toward an integration of knowledge transcending science. One learns to recognize that some concepts, such as “creation,” are irreducibly theological: they can’t be reduced or translated into scientific categories because they arise from mysteries, such as the goodness of the cosmos, that are proclaimed to, and apprehended only by, faith. Language of “transcending” science is not meant as an insult to science, but only as a way of affirming it in its own methodology. A culture of “faith seeking understanding” is not a culture that holds that there is a Catholic or Christian science or that faith alone offers a sufficient answer to all questions. The very point of theology is to engage the truths of faith in a “dialogue with reason”—that is, with all the other disciplines that arise from the questioning human spirit and our observation of the world. Theology affirms the truths of other disciplines even as it integrates them into a discourse that transcends their methodologies. This discourse generates a kind of thick intellectual culture, in which faith generates new questions about what we learn through scientific research rather than replacing or preempting such research.

Nor does this apply only to the natural sciences. If research into LiberalArtsother cultures of the world discovers religious teachings of undeniable and exquisite beauty, these results are left standing, but they also occasion new questions. How can we understand their truth relative to revelation? “Faith seeking understanding” can afford to acknowledge truth wherever it may be found without fearing that the universal significance of God’s self-revelation in Christ is somehow threatened. Truth cannot be threatened by truth. Seeking in this case means deepening our own understanding of revelation even as we deepen our own thinking about other religions. Now we can see why a university community that accepts in its midst a theology department is not different simply because it accepts one more discipline than secular universities do. In accepting that discipline, a university isn’t just adding another element to the paradigm already in place at secular universities; it is accepting an altogether different paradigm of the intellectual life—a paradigm of intellectual culture as a dialectic between faith and reason, to use the traditional expression. Having a theology department means accepting a commitment to the intellectual life as oriented toward an “understanding” of something that integrates and transcends all the disciplines. Such an understanding keeps each discipline from closing in on itself and proceeding as if the truths it discovers were incommensurable with the truths discovered by other disciplines. It means openness to a conversation that necessarily transcends each discipline but is not merely “interdisciplinary.” If the disciplines converge at some point, it must be at a point “above” them all, in a discipline that has as its explicit object of study the mystery that transcends all other objects of study. Otherwise one must either force nondisciplinary solutions of questions onto the disciplines (e.g., claiming that faith is an adequate answer to scientific questions), or declare that knowledge is hopelessly fragmented into incommensurate disciplinary truths.

The task of seeking an integration of knowledge has been called a “sapiential task”— sapiential because it is a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life. The Catholic intellectual life is never finished or settled. It is, as John Paul II put it, a quest: “Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete.” This quest tends toward wisdom, and so the Catholic intellectual life, in its open-endedness, can be thought of as a wisdom tradition.

It is inescapably theological because it grows out of faith in the God of revelation, and because theology performs the essential integrative function. Philosophy is a partner to theology in the integration of the intellectual life, since it, too, asks questions that transcend the disciplines—questions about the nature of knowledge itself, for instance, or of language, or of meaning, or even, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, of God. Still, philosophy does not in the end have as its defining object of study God’s self-revelation and everything as seen in the light of God’s self-revelation, as Thomas also points out in the first article of the Summa Theologiae. Philosophy can remain philosophy without asking the question of the relation of its own results to revelation; and if that question is asked, it cannot be answered without theology. Further,
much contemporary philosophy does not even concern itself with questions of transcendence or ultimate meaning, and yet it remains philosophy. But if theology ceases to address itself to God’s self-revelation, it ceases to be theology.

Yet theology achieves no understanding apart from the other disciplines (because, as John Paul II puts it, “reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons,” because “faith and reason mutually support each other; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding”). Thus, the Catholic intellectual life, as a theologically integrated wisdom tradition, provides a middle ground between secularism and sectarianism. This is the “witness,”
specific to a university, that a Catholic university can—and does—provide in our culture.

What benefit does this witness offer to the American academy in general? Without this witness, the intellectual culture in our country will remain dominated by, and limited to, the increasingly sterile polarity between aggressive secularization and aggressive anti-intellectual fideisms. These two poles are equally unattractive, and they tend to perpetuate each other. Seven years ago, Stephen Pinker famously observed that “universities are about reason, pure and simple,” and that “faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution” (Harvard Crimson, October 27, 2006), by which he meant a church, synagogue, mosque, or the like. Such a caricature of faith is itself anti-intellectual, but persons of faith may be tempted to respond to such hostility by turning to a self-isolating fundamentalist position that finds in faith an intellectual world sufficient unto itself. But that position is so narrow and anti-intellectual that it prompts a kind of intellectual revulsion, and so feeds the growth of the opposite position—secularization, which at least seems open to all questions (if not all answers). Part of the Catholic university’s mission is to provide an alternative to these two extremes, to heal an intellectual imagination wounded by the antagonism between secularism and sectarianism, where
these are understood as the only two options. The “witness” of a Catholic university involves offering another option.

FatherJenkinsPopeFrancisIt should be noted that this witness may appear to “pinch” both faith and reason. It will appear to pinch reason because of its commitment to faith in God’s self-revelation as entrusted to the church. This requires links to the church. Without these links, the intellectual culture of the university will, beyond any doubt, be secularized. Apart from the community of believers, no one will care whether faith seeks understanding or not. In a way, the church protects this intellectual environment. On the other hand, the dialectic between faith and reason has to be free enough that real thinking is possible, and so to some this freedom will seem to pinch faith. Academic credibility is a sine qua non of any witness appropriate to a university, while fidelity is a sine qua non of any real witness to the church’s distinctive intellectual culture. The question for a Catholic university is: Are its connections to the church accidental and occasional or programmatic and consistent? Is its project rooted in the church, linked to ecclesial persons, and accountable in some way to authority in the church? Is dissent the default mode of its theological culture? Or is refusal to tolerate critical reflection in the public domain on various magisterial positions the default mode? If the answer to either of these last two questions is yes, then the appropriate balance has not been struck.

Now we are in a position to answer the other questions this article began with. Why should undergraduates be required to take courses in theology? An undergraduate course in theology
is essentially different from, say, an undergraduate course in history. Even if both courses use some of the same texts, they will use them in different ways. The history course will examine the circumstances of their production, the culture behind them, the social situation for which they provide evidence. But the point of a theology course is to find out about God, in and through the properly disciplined study of these texts. If a student asks a question about God in a history class, the instructor is free to answer, “That’s not a relevant question in this class” (or, as it was put to me somewhat indecorously in a class at the non-Catholic institution where I studied as an undergraduate, “Please leave your theological baggage at the door”). But for a theology instructor to reply in the same way would be to violate the very identity of one’s discipline. Students are right to ask about God, and all matters related to God, in a theology class, where the question is not finally “What influences were operating in Julian of Norwich’s social setting that caused her to have visions?” or “What did Thomas Aquinas think about God?”—though such questions are certainly and necessarily involved—but rather “How has this study helped me think about God and God’s self-revelation?”

From theology classes, students can also learn that faith in revelation isn’t something that has to remain purely private, a matter of individualistic piety without reference to the intellectual life. Rather, faith—the very faith that connects them to all believers, learned and unlearned—can acquire a level of “understanding” as sophisticated as that of any other discipline of study in the university. I find that this is the single most important benefit of the study of theology for undergraduates: the discovery of the sophistication of the “science of God,” of the perspective of faith. It comes to many of them almost as a shock. If anything is likely to bind them more fully to their faith—or, if they are not believers, to make them take the faith of others more seriously—it is this discovery, and not unchallenging courses that seem to replace teaching with preaching. I intend here no devaluation of preaching, but the special witness of the university takes place in the context of a classroom. The witness of a university is not the same as that of a parish or a diocese, where preaching is the proper modus operandi.

Through required courses in theology, students are exposed to a mode of inquiry that belies the false dichotomy between secularization and sectarianism, a mode of inquiry in which faith is not excluded as irrelevant to reason but is itself the opening to a rich intellectual world. What Augustine calls the initium fidei, the starting point of faith, drives this inquiry rather than cutting it short. Nor are we talking about faith in the abstract, but a specific faith: the basic doctrines or mysteries of the Catholic faith, considered as part of a living tradition and not an artifact of the past. Basic knowledge of these teachings, and exposure to a mode of inquiry that neither opposes faith to reason, nor reduces faith to reason, is a benefit to any student no matter what his or her own particular “starting point” may be.

As students come to understand the sophistication of the Catholic theological tradition, I find that their sympathy for it increases. They see riches where before they saw only old, irrelevant texts. They come to appreciate that there were difficult challenges in the church long before our own time, controversies much more heated than some of those we observe today. They discover a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity. They find out that Scripture is not as “primitive” as they had thought. They learn that, while not reducible to reason, faith has its own logic. They learn to distinguish between what is reasonable and what is provable. They learn some of the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith, not as doors that close off all questioning, but as openings to lifelong reflection on the ultimately ineffable mystery of God’s love, which is the ultimate referent of all doctrine. It is the formation of an intellectual life continually engaged with this mystery that is the principle benefit of theology as a field of study.

Thus a Catholic university that welcomes a theology department and requires theology courses for its undergraduates endorses an academic approach that is essentially integrative. Even without any specific integrating programming, the university thereby identifies its whole intellectual project as distinctive. In such a university, the other disciplines remain themselves; their different disciplinary methodologies are not erased or homogenized. But each disciplinary conversation is experienced as part of a larger whole. Since one part of the curriculum is explicitly oriented toward understanding the mystery of God’s self-revelation, the whole is thereby implicitly oriented toward such understanding. The kind of integration such an approach makes possible is never complete, always a work in progress. It is the character of a conversation, rather than a settled intellectual accomplishment
or system.

Let me offer a small example of how the integrative potential of the conversation might be actualized in a specific way. Contrary to popular belief, the “preferential option for the poor” is first and foremost a doctrine about God, and not about the poor. In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes, “The ultimate basis of God’s preference for the poor is to be found in God’s own goodness and not in any analysis of society or in human compassion, however pertinent these reasons may be.” If the poor and the “little ones” are “the privileged addressees of revelation,” this is “the result not primarily of moral or spiritual dispositions, but of a human situation in which God undertakes self-revelation by acting and overturning values and criteria. The scorned of this world are those whom the God of love prefers.”

GustavoAll good universities want to be committed to social service of some kind, and the Catholic university most of all. But it is important to note here that, from a Catholic point of view, the reason for such service is first and foremost found in God’s manner of self-revelation. We are, in the first place, confronted with a mystery of God’s transcendent love that cannot be reduced to human reason, because it is a “preference” based in God’s “goodness.” It cannot be derived from any notion of justice based on human reason
alone, on the supposed merits exhibited by the poor (or lack thereof). Theology is a contemplative discourse that is defined by its attempt to understand this goodness as well as it can be understood, and to arrive at a notion of justice that flows from it. The language appropriate to theology, according to Gutierrez, is the union of the contemplative and prophetic, of the contemplation of God’s love and the “overturning” it implies in its very mode of revelation. Isn’t this language—which could only arise in a department oriented by definition to the mystery of God’s self-revelation—itself an example of the integration required of a Catholic university? Other disciplines can then contribute to an understanding of this language of contemplation and of justice, spoken as it must be in a world of science, technology, law, literature, social studies, and art. A Catholic university might even offer clusters of linked courses, each speaking its own disciplinary language, but all integrated theologically into the language of contemplation
and prophecy.

Thus does the mere presence of a theology department orient a university, quietly and almost imperceptibly, toward the transcendent mystery of God’s solidarity with the “little ones,” the mystery of the Cross. Is there a better way to prepare students for a lifetime of active, conscious immersion
in the mystery of God’s love?

And the Nominees Are. . . Boyhood

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

As Time Goes By

Few, if any, of this year’s Oscar nominees have received such an enthusiastic reception as Boyhood. The film, shot in 4-5 day sequences over course of 12 years, has earned its director Richard Linklater accolades for his daring innovation, the blending of genres, and the beauty of capturing life’s hidden arcs and curves. New York Times film critic, Manohla Dargis, raved that Boyhood “exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being slavishly indebted to either tradition. It’s a model of cinematic realism.”  Declaring the film a “masterpiece,” Dargis wrote that it embraced time “in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty.” A.O. Scott gave the film the number one ranking in his review of the top 10 movies of 2014, lauding “the ingenuity of Richard Linklater’s idea and the artistry of his methods.” Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday gushed, “As a film that dares to honor small moments and the life they add up to, Boyhood isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.” You get the picture. In short, the film has garnered near-perfect reviews.

A very few critics have complained that nothing happens in Boyhood. On a very practical level, this assertion is clearly false. The film threads together a myriad of scenes throughout Mason’s childhood and adolescence. We see his father, Mason Sr., and his mother, Olivia, pursue other relationships. She pursues a master’s degree and teaching career. He pursues a bohemian existence. We see Mason Sr. swoop in and out of his kids’ lives. We hear Olivia curse at her children. We hear her read them bedtime stories and tell themdownload she loves them. We hear her ask her daughter, “Do you want to be a cooperative person, who is compassionate and helps people out? Or do you want to be a self-centered narcissist?” We see domestic violence. We see Mason, his sister Samantha, and their father at a Houston Astros game. We see Olivia and her children move. We see the children fight in the back of the car. We see underage drinking. We see the paying of bills, the fights, the laughter, the trudging of this family through life, but there isn’t any more than this. It is the film’s mere materiality that has caused some to observe that nothing happens in the film or that it lacks a plot. But things do happen, and the film does have a plot, a plot which is both irreducibly simple and most complex: the unfolding of a life. The problem isn’t a lack of action; rather, it is the soft nihilism that pervades the film.

Personally, I can only compare watching this film to enduring the interminable South Bend winter—the perpetual greyness, the hope 54ad7b63353c8.imagefor a snow day that never comes, the slogging through blackened
slush, passing hundreds of people bundled up against the wind, but unable to quite make out their faces, the crushing feeling in mid-March (or two hours into the film) that this really may never end.

In short, we see the “small moments and the life they add up to,” the overlooked, the precarious. The film could have been moving, even beautiful. Life, the film strives to demonstrate, is not a series of momentous events, but it is lived out in the ordinary, in the hidden. In the end, however, Boyhood is bereft of vision. The ordinary is not only not transfigured, but the film asserts that it is untransfigurable. To continue the image of a South Bend winter, making out the characters in the film was for me akin to trying to decipher whether the person hidden under the layers of coats, scarves, and hats is someone you know or a total stranger. In Boyhood, Linklater and hisst_thereselaundry actors never quite allow us to encounter the mystery of the human person, the person who becomes all the more mysterious the more keenly we see him. Instead, we encounter layers of obfuscation, which deflect meaning and obscure mystery. This is the “progress report on our spiritual condition,” as A.O. Scott remarks in his praise of the film. Neither its characters, nor the dozens of “small moments and the life,” nor the arc of the film, offer anything more than existential immediacy. In the end, Boyhood struck me as an incurving of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” – all of the littleness and none of the horizon, none of the “way.”

The film opens with a six-year-old Mason lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head, gazing up to the sky, watching clouds drift overhead. Even as a child, Mason’s gaze expresses something 20148190_1_IMG_FIX_700x700
less than wonder. Instead, he seems to stare up at the sky in lonely resignation. The film’s logic lies concealed in this opening scene, and is only fully manifested in the final dialogue. The child, who in the opening scene watches the clouds float past, becomes a young adult gazing out over a gorgeous mountainsunset, content to watch life’s moments seize him and drift past. His last words in the film observe the fleeting banality of life: “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just…it’s like always right now, you know?” “Yeah,” says the girl sitting next to him. They smile at each other, and the screen fades. Thus, Boyhood concludes with a kind of immature hubris. Indeed, the eighteen-year-old Mason is a kind of cipher for the entire film. He grasps at profundity but comes up empty.

Bookended by these listless, and in some sense solitary, scenes of resignation, Mason’s final exchange with each of his parents lay bare the film as a project in unsaying meaning.

In the final scene with his father, Mason finds himself precariously wedged between the crushing failure of his first relationship and the moderate success of placing in a state-wide photography contest. He asks his father, “So what’s the point?” In a response that shows he’s entirely missed the depth of the question, Mason Sr. asks, “Of what?” “I don’t know, any of this. Everything,” his son replies. The film cavalierly registers its claim as Mason Sr. answers, “Everything? What’s the point? I mean I sure as s**t don’t know. I mean, but, neither does anybody else. Okay, we’re all just winging it, you know? I mean the good news is you’re feeling stuff. You know? And you got to hold onto that. You do.”

In another final scene and in another valence, Olivia presents the film’s logic. Tearfully packing Mason up for college, she confesses to her 18-year-old son: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time that we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced AGAIN, getting my master’s degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending YOU off the college… You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f**kin’ funeral! [She pauses for a beat.] I just thought there would be more.” Olivia’s disappointed conclusion (these are the last words she speaks in the film), registers the characters’ inability to see meaning, to see life as anything more than a series of events. In the end, the film refuses to allow that life is anything other than the irreducibly pedestrian and the mundane.

And the Nominees Are. . . Whiplash

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance


Editors’ Note:

In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Harmed in the Making: Whiplash and the Ethics of Art

Whiplash is a story about choices. Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls as a freshman in fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City to study jazz drumming. The movie opens with the lights on Andrew, practicing in an otherwise dark room at the end of a hallway.

Faculty conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) covertly listens to Andrew, emerges from the dark hallway and chooses him to join his advanced ensemble. When Andrew comes for the first rehearsal, Fletcher replaces the upperclassmen lead drummer with Andrew. Fletcher encourages him, “The key is — relax. Don’t worry about the numbers or what the other players think. You’re here for a reason. You believe that, don’t you?”

Not for long. Within minutes, Fletcherwhiplash-scream has thrown a chair at Andrew and violently slapped him. He abuses his band, curses them out, makes them weep, sweat and bleed. Because of Fletcher, a former student commits suicide.

As the movie continues, it becomes clear why he does what he does.

The one thing he wants is to make someone into a “great.” Throughout the movie he and Andrew cite how conductor Jo Jones motivated saxophonist Charlie Parker by hurling a cymbal at him. Fletcher explains to Andrew:

Young kid, pretty good on the sax, goes up to play his solo in a cutting session, f***s up — and Jones comes this close to slicing his head off for it. He’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And practices and practices. With one goal in mind: that he never ever be laughed off-stage again. A year later he goes back . . . and he plays the best motherf***ing solo the world had ever heard.

In the same scene Fletcher articulates his philosophy, a moral imperative about talent:

Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is an absolute necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next [Louis] Armstrong. Its next Parker.

Fletcher’s violent pedagogy points out a dilemma. You can have Whiplash1healthy humans, ones whose hands aren’t bleeding from hours of practice, or you can have really good art.

Can we blame Fletcher for implicitly raising this thorny issue? Fletcher’s position shows that human goods often conflict and compete. Practicing the amount it takes to become an expert means giving things up.

At the beginning of college, Andrew still attends the movies weekly with his loyal father, a struggling writer. Not long after he starts in the new band, he ends the practice.

Andrew then forsakes his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet Fordham freshman who works at the movie theater.  After barely a date or two Andrew explains to Nicole why they can’t stay together. He wants to be great. He will keep practicing more, she’ll be upset with him for not spending time with her, so he’ll start resenting her. It’ll become a ball of hate and fall apart. So he ends it.

Nicole is one the filmWhiplash-6206.cr2’s few images of tenderness. She presents a hope that Andrew might hold back from subsuming his humanity in his art. She represents human-ness, a light in which Andrew could see himself first as a person, then an artist. But he can’t see this. She’s standing in front of his greatness.

As the movie continues, Andrew’s pride and obsession with drumming grow together. Fletcher continues his verbal, physical and emotional abuse, eventually gaining a psychological hold on Andrew. Andrew wants Fletcher’s favor, for which it turns out he is willing almost to die.

But what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.

“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie.  Whiplash sScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.39.16 PMhows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.

Why does Fletcher think this is his duty? The viewer learns little about him, except for a hint that he is estranged from his wife and daughter. Even without this estrangement, it’s not hard to imagine how art could overtake his worldview. Beauty’s power, sensibly more immediate than truth or goodness, charms the susceptible heart.

This heart can easily go astray. Beauty can soothe the savage breast or incite a new one. Art away from its human context won’t destroy people. But if people accept contextless art, they can destroy themselves with it.

This is, at least by my lights, what continues happening to Andrew. What is Whiplash‘s position on the problem of art and human life? Despite director Damien Chazelle’s remarks that the movie is a condemnation of abusive art training, Whiplash seems at best ambivalent about the apparent conflict:

Fletcher is fired from Shaffer for abuse, in part because of a report by Andrew’s father. In the scene where Fletcher explains his philosophy he also tricks Andrew into joining a new band for a major 356140951gig. It’s a retaliatory setup. He gives Andrew the wrong music so Andrew can make a fool of himself in front of New York. Andrew doesn’t take this quietly, but turns it into an opportunity to show up Fletcher. He interrupts his conductor and begins a solo.

Fletcher in turn doesn’t take this lightly, but begins to play Andrew’s game. Fletcher approaches the drum set and uses his prowess, knowledge, and psychological power over Andrew to elicit a remarkable solo, giving Andrew specific verbal and physical cues about how to perform. The result is exhilarating.

The screen blacks at the end of the solo. As at the beginning, the lights are focused on Andrew. But in the last shot, he’s now soaked in brilliant stage light and applauded by all the New Yorkers whose opinions matter. The light radiates on him. It’s glory. But it’s sickening glory, won only because Fletcher used his power to wrench greatness from Andrew. The film doesn’t seem to mind that cost.

whip-6

The soundtrack — crisp, blazing, big band jazz — is one of Whiplash’s major highlights. Hours and years of hard practice produced that skill musicianship. In light of the movie’s questions, this music should make us wonder. A great soundtrack. At what cost?

And the Nominees Are. . . The Theory of Everything

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Every year, similarities among the Best Picture nominees seem to emerge. This year, no less than HALF of the nominated films are biopics: Selma, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. Reviewing a biopic poses an interesting challenge—the temptation arises to review the person and not the film. In the case of The Theory of Everything, a biopic portraying the life of world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking, this temptation becomes all the more significant, given the project of this series to review these films through a theological lens.

As a theological subject, Stephen Hawking is, shall we say, problematic. In an interview following the release of his most recent book, The Grand Design (2010), he stated that, while “science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist,” it does “[make] God unnecessary.” While Hawking’s atheism is not the central subject of The Theory of Everything, within the film’s context, it serves as the undercurrent that carries him through his initial research, and it grows stronger as his career progresses. Hawking’s belief that there is no God, no eternal horizon beyond the temporal universe, fuels his search for the one elegant theory that will explain absolutely everything in the known world. If there is no God, if everything is just physics, then everything can be known, and Hawking is determined to “know everything.” The seeming boundlessness of such a pursuit—the desire to know everything—is in reality a limited vision that does not allow for mystery. Such a vision enables a person to marvel at the created world, but not to stand in wonder before it as a great mystery unto itself. Such a vision enables a person to look at the stars and the planets with a penetrating gaze and see into the heart of their movements and mechanics, but not to gaze lovingly into the soul of another human person and see the mystery that resides within them. Again, Hawking’s atheism only comes to the surface in key moments of the film, but it is always operative in the background, filtering his every experience and interaction. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in his relationship with his wife, Jane, and it is this relationship that provides the central subject of the film. We see in these two people two distinct ways of seeing which inform the way they each encounter the world, one another, and all of the challenges that confront them as a result of Stephen’s illness. Stephen’s vision is informed by that which he can empirically know and grasp; Jane’s vision is informed by that which she believes, knows to be true as a person of faith.

From their awkwardly endearing first meeting (Stephen: “Science?” Jane: “Arts.”), it is clear that Stephen and Jane have about as much compatibility as oil and water. Stephen immediately identifies himself as an “intelligent atheist,” and Jane reveals that she belongs to the “C. of E. — Church of England.” As they get to know one another, Stephen first views Jane’s religious beliefs not with disdain but with bemusement; later on, there is a moment where he is visibly moved by her deeply-rooted faith when she recites the beginning of the book of Genesis as they stare up at a brilliantly starry sky. Despite their differences, a mutual fascination grows into a deep love: Jane is in awe of Stephen’s view of the natural, scientific world, and Stephen is drawn to Jane’s wide-eyed joy, her thirst for life.

It is Jane’s thirst for life and her unbounded love for Stephen that sustains him when he receives a devastating diagnosis of motor-neuron (Lou Gehrig’s) disease. Confronted with a mystery he cannot explain away, a disease that has no treatment or cure, Stephen withdraws into a deep depression, and initially pushes Jane away. Even his father tries to get her to move on. Undeterred, Jane replies as resolve wells up within her, “I know—I know what you must all think. That I don’t look like a terribly strong person. But I love him. And he loves me.” Heedless of the doctor’s two-year prognosis and undaunted by the Hawking family’s defeatism, Jane is carried along by the undercurrent of the mysterious love for Stephen that has grown within her heart, and she convinces him that the mystery of love is stronger than any incurable illness. Moved by this love to seize whatever time they have left together, the two wed, and Stephen soon surpasses the two-year prognosis. A child is born, and another, and a third. Stephen continues working, developing paradigm-shifting theories of black holes with enormous implications for the scientific community’s understanding of spacetime. Yet, while his mind remains sharp as ever, his body begins to betray him as his illness progresses. First he must use one walking stick. Then two. Then he reluctantly gives in to the inevitable wheelchair. His speech devolves from a crisp British lilt to the slur of someone who has had too much to drink, until only those who know him well can interpret his words for others. Eventually, an emergency tracheotomy renders Stephen voiceless—trapped inside his own body—with only a letter-filled board to allow him to communicate with others, one painstaking letter at a time. Although Stephen is later able to “speak” with the assistance of a computer program, it’s not his voice. It’s not even a British voice, as Jane disappointedly observes upon first hearing it, “It’s American! . . . Are there any other voices?” (Because if Love, Actually taught us anything, it’s that most British accents > all American accents.)

Throughout this deterioration, Stephen’s body appears to collapse inward on itself, like a dying star. Yet the love of his wife, family, and friends, and his insatiable desire to know prevent him from disappearing completely into the proverbial black hole of despair. For Jane, however, Stephen’s atheism—particularly its growing prominence in his research—becomes a greater source of unspoken tension between them, and although she finds solace in her faith, Jane is human nevertheless, struggling with the daily demands of caring for her immobile husband and their all-too-mobile children. She finds help and support in Jonathan, her church choir director, and although their friendship begins as platonic, a deep intimacy grows between them, and they eventually have an affair. Jane’s fidelity to her faith manifests itself in her decision to stay with Stephen and end her relationship with Jonathan. Jane suffers a great deal as a result of this decision; without Jonathan, her life seems lonelier than ever, and her relationship with Stephen seems to become more strained with each passing day.

The tension grows yet more with the arrival of Elaine Mason, Stephen’s new nurse, with whom he shares a budding emotional connection. As Jane looks with sadness and resentment on at the growing intimacy between her husband and his nurse, it looks as though she, too, might collapse inward on herself from the weight of her physical and emotional burdens; after all, she has been caring for Stephen for nearly twenty years. Yet, even in the midst of these complications, it is clear that Jane’s faith continues to inform her approach to the daily duties of life, as evidenced by a key scene toward the end of the film. Jane discovers a draft of Stephen’s seminal work, A Brief History of Time, in which he states that the discovery of humanity’s identity and reason for being would be the “ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.” She initially mistakes this as Stephen “acknowledging” God, and in that brief moment—when she believes that she and her husband might finally see the world with a vision informed by faith—she is happier than she has been for quite some time. The moment fades when Stephen reveals that he has not had an actual change of heart as far as God is concerned, but he has had one as far as Jane herself is concerned. As Stephen announces his plan to travel to America with Elaine Mason to receive an award, Jane’s fleeting happiness proves to be but the residual brilliance of the explosion caused by the death of their marriage, which is finally collapsing in on itself.

By the end of this visually lovely, exquisitely acted, yet poignantly sad film, it seems as though the complexities of quantum theory, thermodynamics, and relativity are nothing compared to the complexities of human relationships. On the one hand, Stephen’s leaving Jane could be interpreted as a selfless action on his part—he frees her from having to continue to care for him and even opens up the possibility that she herself will find love elsewhere (ultimately, she reunited with Jonathan and the two eventually married). On the other hand, Stephen’s actions may have been motivated by the same wonderless search for answers that characterized his quest to “know everything” by discovering the one equation to rule them all.

Yet, Hawking’s quest to explain the cosmos and his insistence that this can be done on the basis of scientific reason, through “human endeavor” alone, leaves no room for mystery, and it is mystery that lies at the heart of every human person and (though Hawking would argue otherwise) at the heart of the universe. Indeed, it is this search for a theory which, for Hawking, necessitates putting the possibility of a Creator God on the shelf in favor of a completely rational approach, that renders him incapable of seeing the truth: that the one theory isn’t a theory at all, but a reality, and that this reality isn’t expressed in an equation, but in a communion of Persons—a relationship of love.

Liturgy Abroad: The Gift of Language

MichaelInfantineMichael Infantine

University of Notre Dame, 2016

Program of Liberal Studies and Theology

There have been few times in my life when I have actually been speechless. The past few weeks, however, have been made up almost entirely of that feeling. This semester, I am lucky enough to be studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, and while this beautiful medieval city has many things to offer, an abundance of English speakers is not among them. During my time here in Spain, I also have the blessing of living with a kind Spanish host family, and while my Spanish is improving each day, I have no doubt that there are toddlers who make themselves better understood. For example, the other day at dinner, we had a lovely twenty-minute conversation in which my host family tried to describe to me what shallots were. No one should ever have a twenty-minute conversation about shallots.

Among the many firsts I’ve had in my first few weeks in Spain, I ToledoCathedral
attended a Spanish-language Mass for the first time a few Sundays ago. In the midst of all of the newness of my study abroad experience, I yearned for something I recognized, and eagerly awaited attending a comfortably familiar Mass. The church was of a modern build, and in many ways it reminded me of my own parish back home. It was quite spacious, and the pews wrapped around the altar in a crescent moon shape. The music was contemporary sounding, with a single guitarist accompanying the congregation. One of the altar boys, no more than seven or eight years old, spent a significant part of the Mass playing with his fingers, twisting his arms into pretzel shapes. A baby cried in the back of the church. But despite all of these little familiarities, there was one thing about this Mass that was, of course, quite different from every Mass I had attended before. It was in Spanish.

As Mass began, I quickly realized I could not participate verbally with the rest of the congregation. With every response, my mouth would twitch with the desire to participate, but I couldn’t form any words. I simply didn’t know the responses. At minimum, I thought I would be able to listen quietly and absorb the liturgy, but even this seemed an impossible task for my rudimentary Spanish. The readings came and went, and I wasn’t able to identify any of them. The priest gave a long homily that I’m sure was excellent, but I could hardly make it out. This Mass was a far cry from the way my host family and my professors at school slow down, enunciate, and repeat themselves for me.

As I sat in my pew, the full realization of my situation sank in. I couldn’t understand anything that was being said, and I was utterly unable to lift my voice to join in the Mass. I felt distanced and cut off from the liturgy, like I wasn’t participating in the Mass so much as I was peeking at it lamely from the other side of the language barrier. Thanks to my poor Spanish, I was rendered, I thought, a completely inadequate worshiper. My inability to participate fully in the Mass suggested to me that I wasn’t receiving the full richness of the liturgy, and I felt like I was doing something wrong, like I wasn’t doing a good enough job, and like my being there was pointless. Unable to listen or speak, I sank down in my pew feeling totally detached. This Mass, I had thought, was a total failure.

ChristhteWordWords are powerful things, and they always have been throughout the history of the Church. When God revealed his name, YHW, to the Israelites, he allowed them thus to speak to Him. Jesus, in teaching the apostles the Lord’s Prayer, gave them the words to speak to the Father. The Evangelists, too, pass on to us the gift of Christ’s words in the Gospels. The bestowal of words and language offers us a gateway to the divine, and allows us to better know and love God. Christ himself, the Logos, the Word, was sent to us, and is continually offered to us in the Eucharist. And it is through words that we in turn, by participating in the liturgy, offer ourselves Eucharistically in the Mass to the Word who spoke to us and loved us first.

It is a humbling experience not to be able to speak or communicate well, or at all. And is easy to take even the basic gift of language and communication for granted. At that Spanish Mass, I had to realize that every part of my life is gift. Even just talking. But I also had to recognize that even when I fail to offer that gift back to God, even when I struggle to speak and listen in Mass, God’s love for me is greater than my smallness and weakness. Being unable to participate verbally in the Mass, I saw myself as I really am, weak and incapable. But this vision also helped me to see God’s love in the full – as something not earned by saying all of the right words, but as free gift. The celebration of the Mass is not so much about what we do as it is about what God did, and continues to do anew each day in our lives. This is why it is such a beautiful mystery that the healing nourishment of the Eucharist does not disappear if we are unable to say or remember all of the exact words of the Mass.

Now here it must be said that, of course, it is intrinsically good to give ourselves over fully to the celebration of the mass. I’m not advocating for half-hearted liturgies. We ought to put our full minds and hearts to the task of participating as best we can in the liturgy, for this is the only proper response to the great gift that the Mass is. But should we stumble and fall, God’s abiding love is offered to us all the same. I am no less loved and nourished in the Eucharist because I don’t (Yet..here’s to hoping.) speak Spanish. I realize now, as I try to see with eyes of faith, that maybe my experience of feeling distanced from God in the Mass was actually when I was being held most tenderly in His hands, and that God might well have been using that distance to actually pull me deeper into my faith. As Henri Nouwen explains:

One of the most rewarding aspects of living in a strange land is the experience of being loved not for what we can do, but for who we are. When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak.

My experience at Mass has helped me to see that I receive God’s love, not for what I can do, and certainly not for my proficiency in Spanish, but simply for who I am – a child of God. And it has helped me to understand that the mass, always, in any language, is pure gift.

Meet Mary: An Experience of Sacred Art

Danielle PetersDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Ever since I had heard about the exhibit “Meet Mary” hosted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), Meet Mary1I decided to add this event to my itinerary when going to Washington for the Right for Life March. And I am very glad I did!

The encounter with Mary took place in a most beautiful setting; a 78,810-square-foot Washington landmark, formerly a Masonic Temple, near the White House. Refurbished in 1983 in accordance with the highest design, museum, and security standards, NMWA truly offers an ambience fitting to the most honored woman throughout history.

Already from afar, the banner covering the façade of the museum with an image of Our Lady and the large letters “Meet Mary” immediately caught my eye. It awakened sentiments of joy and expectation to be able to actually encounter the Mother of God in our nation’s capital! And indeed, immersing myself into the sacred and uplifting atmosphere of this special encounter fared like an oasis for body and soul amidst the busy and noisy traffic I left behind.

While it is difficult to convey the beauty and elegance of the exhibit, I would like to highlight some aspects which uniquely facilitate a personal encounter with Our Lady. Before viewing the exhibit on the second floor of the museum, there is the possibility of a virtual tour that explores the concept of womanhood within the social and sacred functions Mary’s image has influenced through time. This comprehensive view featuring global representations of Mary, including the Virgin of Guadalupe and Black Madonnas from Europe and the Caribbean, is accessible online and I highly recommend it: http://nmwa.org/global-icon.

Encountering Mary in paintings, on vestments, in a statue made of Chinese porcelain, in Indian manuscripts, or in Latin American representations, stretches our imagination regarding both her person and mission. The featured works of both female and male artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras accentuate Mary as an approachable person, as for example in a marble relief showing Mary as a nursing mother who is tickling her laughing baby boy; or as a woman who interacts with her extended family and later with Jesus’ disciples. Prior to the Renaissance, most artists depicted Mary “above the clouds,” as a person who is somewhat removed from the life and realities of the common folk. Partly encouraged by religious orders at that time, the conceptualization of Mary between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries encouraged artists to emphasize Christ’s human sensibility, and, in turn, to depict his mother in more down-to-earth terms. Thus the more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and textiles from the Vatican Museums, Musée du Louvre, Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, as well as other public and private collections—some exhibited for the first time in the United States—create a unique encounter with Mary who is both servant and Queen; virgin, mother, and wife; daughter and friend. Each of these roles need to be pondered in the religious and social environment at “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4)

The spacious display areas provide a conducive ambience to consider six aspects related to Our Lady: Madonna and Child; Woman and Mother; Mother of the Crucified; A Singular Life; Mary as Idea; and Mary in the Life of Believers. Prayers, hymns, the Litany of Loreto, or poems written in large letters on a wall near or opposite the works of art contribute to a personal encounter with Mary of Nazareth. Since most of the artwork and explanations can be viewed online, I would like to highlight several pieces which greatly enriched my meeting with Mary.

Meet Mary2To begin with, I was taken in by this cosmic presentation of the Annunciation with Six Prophets by an unknown Artist (Flanders, late 16th c.), which was hitherto never shown in the U.S. It is said that heaven and earth stopped breathing to await the Virgin’s response to the angel. This print by Cornelis Cort of a fresco by Federico Zuccari in Santa Maria Annunziata al Collegio Romani (which was destroyed mid-17th century), captures well the breathtaking moment. Above Mary and the angel, we are allowed to take a glimpse into eternity, where the Father takes the highest place; beneath Him, the Dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is ready to overshadow Mary. The space between the Holy Spirit and the Annunciation scene is illumined by the bright light of the Sun, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Hovering above the clouds is a multitude of angels; all focused either on God Father or on the dialogue between the angel and Mary. Flanking her and Gabriel are six Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ’s birth.

Pondering this dramatic portrayal, God’s faithfulness to His covenant with humanity comes to mind. Knowing our fickleness like no one else, God takes the initiative one more time, asking a teenager for her consent to cooperate in the mystery of Christ. From a purely natural point of view, God’s message appears to be an unreasonable request for an adolescent. Yet, the drama picturing the fullness of time tells us that Mary is not just the girl of Nazareth. Her countenance, her name—full of grace—her fiat, everything is placed in the rays of the Sun. She is the new Eve, virgin and mother, completely ready, entirely surrendered, and through her free consent she is intimately interwoven in God’s plans, like no other human being ever was or will be. Her answer, given with the obedience of faith, teaches us that God in a way makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on us. He waits for our answer of love and surrender before actualizing His salvific plan. There are many possibilities to say “Yes: to God in life or to refuse Him. Adam and Eve, imprisoned in the left and right upper corners of the picture, are a reminder that we all play a part in the drama of salvation.

Meet Mary3In the section Mary in the Life of Believers we come across the work of one of the three women artists featured in the exhibit. About Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625) the museum guide explains:

[She] was the first known woman artist to achieve international fame. At a time when women were discouraged from rendering theological subjects (because they were thought to be too challenging for their intellect), Sofonisba depicted herself painting the Madonna and Child in a particularly affectionate pose.

Completed in 1556, the Self-Portrait at the Easel draws attention to the artist’s skill of using implied or actual lines to attract the viewer into the scene. Named after Hannibal’s granddaughter, who was known for her beauty and charm, Sofonisba created equally beautiful and charming work, “likely inspired by St. Luke who, according to legend, painted the Virgin from life.”

Meet Mary4The image of Mary presented in the Gospel of St. Luke contributed to the popular tradition that the evangelist not only painted her literary image but also produced a visual representation  of her life. In the section Madonna and Child we find such a rendering. St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (ca. 1625) was painted by another female artist featured in the exhibit, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676). An Ursuline sister, Caccia, who “ran a bustling painting studio in her convent in northern Italy, is represented by six paintings in the exhibition, the largest number of her works ever to have been exhibited in the United States. Her large-scale Marian compositions are highly animated, packed with architectural details, still life elements, and myriad figures that expand imaginatively upon Mary’s life.” Unique to the picture on the left is Caccia’s depiction of St. Luke not only as a painter but also as a sculptor of Mary and Child. The open and closed books on the shelf behind St. Luke, the ox, and the angels, symbolize the writing and person of the evangelist, while the painting of a town’s silhouette, as well as the flowers on the ground and table, point to Mary’s origin and virtue.

Encountering Mary through the lens of these two female artists reminds us that each one of us holds an image of Mary in his or her heart. We are invited to carve this image within ourselves and to allow it to radiate through our being and acting.

Meet Mary5Finally, since we are looking forward to Pope Francis’ coming to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, let us meet Mary as wife and mother of the Holy Family and as a member of her extended family. The exhibit features a number of nativity illustrations. An ornate example is the enamel on copper Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1490–1500) from the Limoges Workshop in France.   Mary takes center stage and wears an expensive blue and gold cloak. Her crown is similar to that of the Magi, symbolizing her royal status. The jeweled flowers at the edge of the image enhance the eminence of this woman. St. Joseph’s raised arms seem to indicate his astonishment about the majestic guests visiting his humble abode. While he is puzzled by their appearance and extraordinary gifts, the infant Jesus on Mary’s lap eagerly accepts the gold from the king kneeling before him.

Meet Mary6My personal favorite among the representations of the Holy Family is the Nativity by Sister Orsola Maddalena Caccia. The explanation of the painting reads: “As if to avoid waking the sleeping infant Jesus, Mary leans forward in her chair to gently place him on a pillow, perhaps just having nursed him. This otherwise quaint domestic scene is attended by heavenly angels and the young Saint John the Baptist, who looks out at the viewer and gestures for silence.” St. Joseph, in a rather young portrayal of Jesus’ foster father, watches on; yet it is the mischievous look of Jesus’ cousin which adds to the charm of this idyllic family harmony. The cross he holds in his small hands is nevertheless a clear foreboding of the future of the newborn while the young John may be still unaware of his own mission as precursor.

The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John is a print by Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665). In her short life Sirani, who was trained by her father in the School of Bologna, produced more than two hundred paintings, drawings and etchings. The print on the left shows Mary and her relative Elizabeth together with their two sons, while St. Joseph is seen in the background holding his carpentry tools.

Conspicuous to all three images of Mary’s family is the rather remote position of St. Joseph. Yet, even while standing in the background, he is silently waiting, observing, pondering the mystery and his role therein.

In contrast, the painting by Federico Barocci (Urbino, ca. 1535–1612) picturing the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1570–73), focuses on the father-child relationship. Known for thoughtful and sentimental images of the young Holy Family, Barocci presents Mary as a peasant woman in a relaxed position. She has removed her straw hat and rests her bare feet as she gathers water. It appears as if Joseph wanted to allow his wife time to refresh herself with the water from the wellspring. Meanwhile he distracted his baby boy with cherries from the huge tree in whose shadow the Holy Family can find some respite amidst their worries about the unknown future. The painting illustrates the importance of the father in the family and recalls Pope Francis’ encouragement to fathers to spend time playing with their children, thereby developing a personal and lasting relationship.

Iconic and devotional, but also laden with social and political meaning, my meeting with Mary was greatly enhanced through the depictions of all the artists, among them Botticelli, Dürer, Michelangelo, Pontorm, and Rembrandt. The invitation to meet Mary in our nation’s capital is still possible until April 12, 2015. For me it was time well spent.

“Undeservedly Justified”: The Gift of God’s Justice

Jessica Mannen Kimmet
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

 

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Editorial Note: This reflection was originally delivered as a sermon for Vespers on Tuesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to post it here.

The justice of God has been manifested apart from the law, even though both law and prophets bear witness to it—
that justice of God which works through faith in Jesus Christ
for all who believe. All men have sinned and are deprived
of the glory of God. All men are now undeservedly justified
by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought
in Christ Jesus.
Through his blood, God made him the means
of expiation for all who believe. He did so to manifest
his own justice, for the sake of remitting sins committed
in the past—
to manifest his justice in the present,
by way of forbearance,
so that he might be just
and might justify those who believe in Jesus. (Rom 3:21–26)

To prepare for this reflection, I’ve done all of things you’re supposed to do to give a reflection on Scripture. I’ve read and re-read this text for over a week. I’ve waded through the syntax and even mentally diagrammed the sentences to try to make sense of the translation. I’ve compared multiple translations, consulted commentaries and old class notes, and given each word my attention in turn.

Fortunately, I also remembered to pray with this text, and when I did, most of it seemed to fall away. Only two words stood out to my consciousness, two words which summarize not only this reading but nearly the whole of Christian life: undeservedly justified.

Now I, for one, am not very comfortable with the idea of receiving something I don’t deserve. When I was in high school, I would sometimes hear my mom talk to her friends about how much she had done to get me to where I was. My internal reaction, although usually politely disguised, was always something like, “What the heck, Mom?” I felt that I had done the work to get whatever honors came my way, and I felt that at that point in my life there really wasn’t that much Mom was doing for me any more.

I suspect that many of us are the same way. In this academic setting, we are well trained not to take credit that is not ours. We scrupulously cite our sources, and we strive for originality. Outside the academy, too, justice is thought of as something ultra-rational. The word “justice” makes us think of legal responsibilities, of the limits on our behavior that make peaceful living possible. Even in the ancient world, Lady Justice balanced scales. She personified this view of justice as related to some sort of equation. When something is taken from here, something has to be given over there. It’s very simple math.

In spiritual life, this is dangerous, because the logic of it can become an idol. It would be comforting to believe that we can earn the love of God. It would be nice to receive a set of minimum guidelines that would guarantee our salvation. But this is not the sort of justice by which God operates. We could never deserve to be created, to be beloved, to be redeemed. We could never earn the incredible superabundance of life and love that God offers us. God’s justice is a language of utter and absolute gift. God’s justice would absolutely shatter any scales on which we tried to weigh it.

Our role in our salvation is only ever response to God’s initiative. God has already saved us, and this can be a heavy gift. The realization of our powerlessness can be paralyzing. But we are called to respond. We are called to respond with gratitude; we are called to respond with generosity. We are called to grow in our awareness of how undeservedly beloved we are. And we are called to pass on that same love to others who in our eyes don’t seem to deserve it.

This task of realizing and responding to our undeserved belovedness takes more than a lifetime to achieve. It can seem overwhelming, but I take some comfort in noticing that the late-twenties me can see much more clearly than sassy teenaged me that I do owe an incredible amount to my parents. How much more do we owe to God. How blessed we are to be given the capacity to respond with our own self-gift.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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