The Catholic Thing
O, Altitudo! Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 12 July 2009

A few weeks ago, I was in Colorado and hiked a trail in the Rockies that John Paul II hiked way back in 1993 before Denver World Youth Day. Yesterday, I hiked a similar trail in the High Tatras mountains, a Rockies-like chain on the border between Poland and Slovakia, much loved by JPII. Both trails follow alongside clear, fast flowing mountain streams like the one described near the beginning of the pope’s poem Roman Triptych:

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams....
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up, against the current,
tear through, seek, don't give up,
you know it must be somewhere here.
Where are you, source? Where are you, source?!

Perhaps not the greatest poetry, at least in translation, but he continues on, drawing spiritual and philosophical truths from these images of mountains, woods, and streams (Coloradans like to tell you he’s describing theirs). It’s a natural enough thing to do, or at least it was when we used to still have some sense of nature as a reflection of the Creator, or of something larger than ourselves worth attending to, that we cannot do without.

When the future JPII was still a philosophy professor in Poland, he had a colleague who claimed to be an atheist at sea level, but a believer when he went up into the mountains. I’ve always thought it odd that the experience of the heights did not eventually spill down into the plains for this reflective, philosophical man. It must say something unfortunate about human nature.

It’s a further oddity that in Latin height and depth can be expressed by the same word. When JPII wanted to invite the whole world to “put out into the deep” in anticipation of the third Christian millennium, he cited Jesus’ remark to Peter in Luke, duc in altum. The Latin altus means not only the deep, it is also the root for our English altitude.

Why are all these notions of height and depth still so significant for us? In the old astronomy, as we are often told by debunkers, the Earth was the center of the universe. Human beings arrogantly claimed a central place for themselves, when in fact we are the mere dust of burned out stars. C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, like everything he wrote, elegantly puts these matters straight. Earth was not the center, but the bottom of the old picture. When people looked up into the night sky in those days, they saw another world that rose unimaginably high above them, rank upon rank, ultimately passing beyond our world into true reality, God’s kingdom.

Our science shows a universe of dispersion. So why do we still imagine important spiritual matters in terms of height and depth?

I can’t help thinking it’s because we retain a sense that what lies high above us or deep in the foundations below does not subordinate or abase us, as some believe. It actually enlarges everyday human life along a different and essential axis. There’s a related insight in the ways the Eastern Christian tradition looks at the Cross. Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, says the Cross is the place where the horizontal dimension of our daily existence and the vertical dimension of the spiritual life are in perfect balance.

A lot of what has become insipid in the Church over the last few decades traces it origin to the transfer of modern ideas about social equality, which are crucial for a just political order, into the spiritual order. In the latter realm, the flatness of human equality is not only of no use, it’s simply false. There we see everything human, the little and the great, the rascals and the saints, as they truly are, high and low.

To make a sharp descent from these heights, I see that the other day Kathleen Kennedy Townsend remarked in Newsweek that President Obama represents the beliefs of most American Catholics better than Benedict XVI does. She did not seem to think it odd to define Catholic belief by opinion polls or, even more to the point, that it’s outright dangerous in addition to being absurd. We used to talk about extreme conservatives as more Catholic than the pope. Now plain social justice types are?

Our president has said in an interview that he cannot console his own daughters with belief in an afterlife – a candid admission, but hardly one that would seem to make him more Catholic than the pope. What, then, are Jesus’ Incarnation and Redemption, and the outstretched arms of the Cross for? Presumably, social equity, a real good in its way. But is this Christianity? Or could it ever be enough to satisfy what Cardinal Newman called the “wild living intellect of man?”

I can’t believe it is or could be. We see in the sad history of the twentieth century what happens when the heights and depths of human aspiration are shunted into the shallow waterways of political projects. They destroy everything and give rise to tyrannies and totalitarianisms of a depressing flatness.

There is an odd group of Psalms, numbers 120-134, all beginning with the words, “A Song of Ascents.” The first one starts in the old King James version, “I lift my eyes unto the Hills from whence cometh my Deliverance.” Our time is allergic to almost all claims of higher and lower. We think there should be no hierarchies, which is to say that we believe in a hierarchy of truths wherein equality is the highest value. But if it’s true deliverance you want, or even simple consistency, you need height and depth, because the things that are high above us and deep within are what, in the end, keep us human.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (8)Add Comment
Eracez l\'infame
written by Willie, July 13, 2009
Professor Royal, a profound piece indeed, and no easy task for a slow mind to digest on a summer morning. Has man become so egocentric and arrogant that he can no longer see how the heavens may proclaim the glory of God? Pehaps God is dead and the only truths are those dictated by the arbiters of social justice. Yes this hubris of the elite and powerful has reared its ugly head before and produced nihilism and terror. No hierarchies means no absolute truth. No absolute truth means God is dead!
written by John Kasaian, July 13, 2009
"..President Obama represents the beliefs of most American Catholics better than Pope Benedict XVI does"
Another day, another lie, unless "American Caltholics" are niether "Catholic" nor proponents of the Natural Law on which the founding fathers laid as the foundation for being "American."
Scary stuff!
written by Achilles, July 13, 2009
Excellent article Mr. Royal. It is quite disturbing that seemingly intelligent or purportedly educated people can compare Obama to the Holy Father. It is mysterious and frightening. Using the notion of equality to interpret the world is akin to stuffing and elephant into a thimble. Thanks for everyday TCT.
written by Joe, July 13, 2009
It seems that first generation stars have to die to make heavier elements. Whole star ages had to pass before the dust was suitably rich to make us. The cost of a human life and thereby the worth is nearly infininte. Equality of worth before the Creator is obvious - or should be. Equality of opportunity is an excellent goal for society. Equality of outcome is impossible. Only fools and deceivers could propose it. There are plenty of both at center stage these days. An unhappy ending is assured.
written by Bevil Bramwell, July 13, 2009
Great piece. However I am not sure where Townsend's ideas fit because they are so off the wall. As a social indicator they do help us rectify Catholic education - I hope. But beyond that they are so disconnected from what the Church actually is that one can do little more than feel sorrow for her. To belong without belonging; to sit on the fence and to be complacent and superior in such an existence must be a life of vapid emptiness. Shallowness means one hits bottom very quickly.
beautiful reflection
written by debby, July 14, 2009
when my girls were small, they tried to make Rock-birds. they loved nature but couldn't Make Nature. only their Father could. And He stole their hearts quite young thru His marvels.
Mozart, Monet, Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Capernicus, Augustine, Tony Melendez, that brand newborn, you & i cannot fathom the Abyss of Love Who is our heart's Home. we try to express Him with us, always fall short but soar at the effort--how wonderful to ascend the Mountain of God...
thank you for the hike, RR!
written by Dan Deeny, July 19, 2009
I think Ms. Kennedy-Townsend is saying that most Catholics, i.e. as they identify themselves, have pretty much the same beliefs as our president. I think she may be right. But then, as you rightly suggest, this puts most American Catholics outside orthodox Catholic teaching. Perhaps we will see, slowly but surely, a new "American Catholic Church".
written by Michael, July 20, 2009
"Perhaps we will see, slowly but surely, a new American Catholic Church".

This wouldn’t be truly Catholic but just another schismatic group. If this interests you, then seek out the ‘Old Catholic Church’, they’ve been heretics for a long time and embrace all of the “progressive” agenda that Ms. Townsend so approves of. Or if that’s not progressive enough join the Episcopal Church. Even better the Unitarians. You don’t even have to believe in God to be a Unitarian. Anything goes there!

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters