By: Christopher Hauser ’14
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours…” – C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
This past weekend, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit Fr. Maciek, a former chaplain of Aquinas House during my freshman year and a man who has had a profound impact on my faith. Fr. Maciek is now a college chaplain for the university in Krakow, where he continues to inspire, teach, and laugh with we who are young, not just in age but also in faith. Besides showing me the wonders of Krakow’s Old City, taking me to visit Czestochowa (the spiritual heart of Poland), and regaling me with stories of Polish saints and heroes, Fr. Maciek invited me to participate in his ministry’s discussion groups. One group was discussing, as Fr. Maciek put it in one of his lovely not-entirely-proper-English expressions, “the truth and the love,” and the balance between them.
I’d be lying if I said that I understood much of what was discussed, as it was in Polish, and despite a student volunteer translator’s best efforts, it just simply isn’t feasible to translate and keep up with a freewheeling discussion. But between her translated efforts and my conversation with Fr. Maciek afterwards, I think I know something of the heart of matter, and what a difficult yet important matter that is! Put most simply, it is the matter of how to tell someone he or she is doing something wrong, whether it involve extramarital sex, cohabitation, abortion, or something else. It is the matter of how to share the truthful teachings of our Catholic Faith without judging another for failing to adhere to them and without making him feel judged. How to share what is not mere opinion but objective truth, and yet how to share what is not an objective judgment but a friend’s love.
We live in a modern world where Tolerance is hailed as the highest virtue of civilized society, and the spirit in which the great technological and cultural achievements, the Progress of humanity, is supposed to be born. Often it is called “Freedom,” but such an appellation doesn’t properly belong to this value, for, as both Gospel and ancient philosophy holds, it is only the truth which sets us free. Nevertheless, our culture demands that all respect this “freedom” and not interfere with others’ ability to choose their own destiny. Only one rule of virtue remains, and indeed it can hardly be called a rule, for it is rather the principle of moral anarchy: the only objective wrong is to tell someone else they are doing wrong (i.e. to be “Intolerant”). Ironically, the principle that is meant to break all confinements and liberate us, to allow us to be whoever we would like to be, results in tremendous unfreedom, the chains of the popular and culturally relevant. It is, as Pope Benedict XVI writes in On Conscience, this world in which we suppose ourselves to be most tolerant, most respecting of the absolute and inalienable “freedom” (which really ought to be called “license”) of subjective conscience, wherein, ironically, we end up most unfree, tied by the limited perspective our culture, conforming to the demagoguery of the now. As G. K. Chesterton writes in the poetic prose of Orthodoxy, “A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of skepticism, but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design.”
The problem is that the modern secular world takes a narrow view of man. Even when not tumbling off the cliff of scientific reductionism and eliminative materialism (wherein man is reduced to a mere animal psychology, or worse yet to the mere collisions and interactions of tiny, invisible particles), our culture prods us to walk a different plank, the plank of self-creation, wherein we make ourselves, wherein we choose who we are and what we want to do, a decision that all others must respect, lest they fall into “intolerance.” And yet, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). The wisdom of the ages, from Socrates down to John Paul II, have affirmed that we do not determine the deepest desire of our own hearts; for man’s deepest desire is to know and love the truth, and not just any truth, but eternal Truth, truth about the highest things, truth about himself and about the one who “formed and knew him in the womb” (Jeremiah 1:5). And what is the truth about ourselves, the truth not of who we make ourselves to be but of who God made us to be? Man, though animal, is much more than animal. As Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny – all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no preeminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had preeminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.” For as Genesis tells us, every individual human person is made in the image and likeness of God, however that resemblance might be marred by our sins. Even more miraculously, as Catholics, guided by the truth passed down in Scripture and Tradition, truth guarded by the Saints of ages long past and now preserved in the sacred vaults cared for by the Magisterium, we know that not only is man made in the image of God, but that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, became Incarnate, and chose to dwell among us as Man.
Herein begins the drama of human existence, a drama captured in the beautiful lines of C.S. Lewis with which this post began. “There are no ordinary people.” The dignity of humanity and of every individual person swells to the point of bursting in light of the truth of Christianity. But so does the adventure, the risk, the stakes. Modern culture thinks highly of itself, imagining itself to have discovered the adventure of humanity when it proclaims the freedom of man to make himself in whatsoever image he choose, but what meager stakes these are, compared to the Christian man who walks the thin road towards eternal salvation, eyes fixed on the God whom he dares to hope to one day see more clearly in the Beatific Vision, even though now, all the while, he teeters over the fearsome abyss of eternal damnation. Should we find it odd that the Christian should turn to his brother or sister and reprove or praise her, that a Christian woman should steady her brother lest he fall, that she should lean out over the precipice to grab with sweating hand one who has stumbled? There is no pride in such actions, only a kind of holy fear and awe, fear lest one’s best friend become an immortal horror, awe that one’s best friend might shine with a brightness blinding imagination.
And yet, as Christians, we know well that there is truth in the oft-quoted biblical phrase, “Thou shalt not judge, lest ye be judged,” a phrase often hurled in the face of Christians who would speak against abortion, euthanasia, extramarital sex, or other sins. Indeed, Saint Augustine affirms the impossibility of perfect human judgment in The City of God, for only God can truly be the judge of man, for only he knows what is innermost in any individual man or woman, only he knows what has gone on in the secret recesses of heart and mind. And so, though we admonish one another, we cannot judge or condemn each other; indeed, whilst hating the sin more than any secular society ever could, we must also love the person more than any secular society ever could. Such love no one ever said would be easy. Indeed, Christ said it would be easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle.
Often, we need to assess the time and place, considering whether proclaiming the truth might be more harmful, for the truth can often be twisted by ears not disposed to hear, especially when we know that we ourselves hardly understand it. It is difficult, even for parents, to rebuke or admonish, whilst still communicating genuine love. Moreover, we, though guided by and confident of the truth of what our Faith teaches, are further handicapped by our own ignorance, and indeed perhaps no greater harm can be done to the Church than by one who tries to speak on behalf of Her, and yet speaks falsely, hurtfully, or pridefully. As I finish these reflections, I wish to return to Fr. Maciek’s words, keeping two things in mind: the Truth and the Love. Truth can only be truth if it stirs up love within us, and love can only be love if it is directed towards the truth, the truth of ourselves, the truth of others, the truth of the world, and ultimately the truth of God. Let us pray that this always guides our actions.