Let’s Begin at the Beginning . . .

Note: Something quite special today. Our colleague Mary Eberstadt just published The Last Homily, a book of conversations she had with the great Fr. Arne Panula, director of the Catholic Information Center, while he was in hospice and dying of cancer last year. Fr. Arne was spiritual director and friend to many, prominent and not, Catholic and not, over many years in Washington D.C. His influence – his saintliness – were powerful, as can be seen even in this excerpt, but even more so in the rest of the book, which you can order here. And just a brief reminder: we don’t fundraise on Sundays at The Catholic Thing, but our end-of-year drive is currently underway. Many thanks to those of you who have already made your contribution to our work; but we’re only on Day Three and still need much more reader participation to keep TCT going. Please, don’t delay. Donate today. – Robert Royal

Fr. Arne, we’ve spoken of the hope that these last reflections of yours will reach secular as well as religious readers. So let’s start with a couple of questions that are bound to be on the minds of people outside church circles. Why do you believe in God? 

Fr. Arne: Often people say, you only believe all that because you’re Catholic. My response is, no, I’m Catholic because I believe all that. Begin with the human hunger to drill into reality. It’s a constant of our lives. As you dig, you uncover different paradigms.

Which fits best with all that you know about the world, about people, about life itself? Or to switch metaphors: coming to belief is like going to an ophthalmologist and trying different lenses on your eyes. You know that feeling of bingo! when the right one fits. When you couple the experience of life with the right rendering, you find what fits.

This is one reason why I read the New Testament a little, every day, and have been for fifty years. Every day, I find new things in the faith. Every day, the picture gets sharper. Now obviously, there’s a “gifted-ness” to all these experiences. It’s not as if I’ve done this all by myself – or even could. The grace needed to stick with the project is also God-given. Believing in God is a collaboration. God doesn’t force us to do it. But that’s what makes faith an adventure. Emeritus Pope Benedict has said: we believe in someone, not something.

Thomas Aquinas says similarly in the Summa theologica that the object of our belief is not a dogma, but a person. That’s what makes faith fascinating. All the adventure, all the mystery of any and every interpersonal encounter is there.

Are you always equally aware of the other person?

Fr. Arne: Definitely not. The awareness comes and goes. That’s why doctrine is so important. It gives you something to hold onto when the sense of the interpersonal isn’t as present.

By nature we are solipsistic. It’s easy to get sucked into avoiding God. This is as true for priests as for everyone else. St. Josemaría Escrivá tells a story about sitting in the confessional during the mornings. Every day, he’d hear the church door bang open, then the clanging of cans, then another slamming shut of the doors. Curious, he stationed himself one morning on the church steps and came face-to-face at the appointed hour with a milkman, carrying his cans into the church. He asked the man what he was doing, and the milkman answered: “Father, every day I come here, open the door, and say ‘Hello, Jesus! Here’s  John the milkman.’”

The priest was speechless. He spent the rest of the day asking in prayer for the faith of John the milkman.

There’s a story in similar spirit that a friend relayed a few years ago. A priest in Ohio walked into his church and saw a lone man on his knees in the pews. The priest recognized him as a famous football player – one of the best known in the NFL, in town for a game that day. Unable to resist, the priest approached and said, “Aren’t you so-and-so?” To which the athlete looked up and corrected him with, “Father, I’m praying.”

Fr. Arne: Yes, the point of both stories is the tangible faith in the presence of God, and how easy it is to get distracted from that.

Even so, and even when the interpersonal nature of faith ebbs and flows, grace abounds, and its presence has an effect on faith all its own. To see grace at work, as I have for forty-four years of priestly spiritual direction, is remarkable. My faith is affirmed constantly by those observations alone.

Especially for nonreligious readers: what’s meant by grace, and where does it show itself?

Fr. Arne: Grace is visible, first, in the transformation that takes place over time in an individual first coming to belief. As people begin to practice the faith, to pray, to meditate on its truths, they change visibly. I’ve seen it constantly. People actually practicing the faith find themselves growing in patience and in wonder. Another singular fact one notices is the expansion of their capacity for joy. It’s not that they become mystical, or otherwise vanish into the religious ether. It’s quite the opposite: their energy becomes much more focused.

Another manifestation of grace is that people on the religious road also grow in interest and concern for others. Their selflessness increases. I see this, too, all the time. It’s more evidence of the transformative power of grace.

Here’s another question asked often by people who aren’t yet on that road. What’s the importance of going to church, as opposed to “just being spiritual”?

Fr. Arne: When people talk about being “spiritual” as opposed to religious, they’re talking about their personal experience of God period.

But God created us as social animals. We need to be connected to one another.

The early Christian community, on being told to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus, developed rituals. These were practiced in community. There’s a great book by Brant Pitre called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, showing how Mass developed out of the Sabbath. And there is also St. John Paul II’s wonderful 1998 Apostolic Letter – Dies Domini(The Day of the Lord): On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy, which draws a thread through the Day of Creation, to the Day of Redemption in Christ, to the Day of the Church, to the Day of Eternity.

The idea that there’s a special day to rest, worship, be with family and in community, isn’t just some arbitrary quirk; it conforms to human nature – it’s something that human beings repeatedly reveal themselves to want. Similarly, the whole idea of the Liturgy of the Word is drawn from Jewish tradition.

We don’t exist as social isolates, but as beings who live in community and who practice things that only make sense in community. Worship is one of them.

In his History of Christianity, twentieth-century Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette makes a similar point about community. He asks how the faith could possibly have spread in just a few hundred years from a handful of bedraggled followers into a religion that would spread as far as Central Asia, India and Ceylon, north to Ireland, and the rest of the map of its flourishing. Some assume the answer is that Emperor Constantine adopted the faith, and everyone else fell into line. But as Latourette points out, that can’t be so; Christianity had already spread across the Roman Empire without political help, indeed, despite centuries of persecution by the state itself. Latourette argues instead that Christianity delivered what people were looking for better than its rivals did. In particular, its strict moral code set the religion apart, and gave people a stringent standard to which to aspire; and its extraordinary degree of fellowship made it stand out. This was manifest not only in the martyrs who went peacefully to their deaths, certain of their places in the Christian community; but also of the traditions established early on for taking care of the sick, the weak, the aged, the helpless. The bottom line would appear to be: no community, no Christianity.

Fr. Arne: We aren’t meant to be atomized creatures. We want to share our beliefs, our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes. This is especially true of our deepest, most cherished convictions – our beliefs about what’s most important. Being in St. Peter’s Square, whether for Mass or anything else, is so very different from hearing the Beatles in Central Park. Both are obviously venues for large numbers of people, united by something. But in St. Peter’s Square, what’s uniting people is a hub; and not just any hub, but one that transcends the merely human. When people feel transcendence, they want to share it with others; they want to be with others.

I like to compare the faith to a game of galactic tag. Someone who’s “it” touches another, and then the other has “it” too, and goes on to touch others. You can’t play tag alone.

Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that there can be no such thing as a private language, because language requires community – even presupposes it. The very idea of “private” religion seems logically impossible as well. 

Fr. Arne: This is why the popular notion of being “just spiritual” is ultimately unsustainable. Yet still, Millennials especially are drawn to it – in part because atomization is so characteristic of their age.

I was just reading a reflection by Peter Lawler in “Public Discourse,” meditating thirty years later on Allan Bloom’s thesis in Closing of the American Mind. He’s illuminating on exactly this point about the atomization of today’s world, especially among the young, and how unnatural it is.

Lawler uses the phrase “social solitaries” to describe the children of today’s secularized elite – the next generation from the one described by Bloom. He writes: “They think of themselves as self-sufficient wholes. How can an individual be a whole? Only by being without the longing for relational love and by being unmoved by the invincible fact of personal extinction.”

That nails it, I think.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.