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Catholic Flourishing in the Dark Valley

In the beloved Psalm 23, there are the stirring, familiar phrases: “The Lord is my shepherd”; “By restful waters he leads me”; “He refreshes my soul”; “even though I walk through the dark valley”; and much more besides. These words come from an inspired text and describe the life of a faithful person.

Perhaps in our forced viral mitigation, some of us could step back from the funk induced by the scandals and unease about Pope Francis and the other issues troubling the Church. Instead, thanks to the Cross of Christ, let’s spend time with some of the rich flourishing life that the Lord brings us, even in today’s complicated and messy crisis. The Lord is our daily focus or should be. After all, with the Lord, “I lack nothing.” That covers a lot!

We are baptized. We are confirmed. And we seek the Mass and spiritual Communion weekly or maybe daily, even as we are limited to participate via streaming. Despite limitations, the “Lord makes known to us the unseen wonders of his love so that man may learn to give thanks to his Creator.” (Baptism Rite)

That may happen through Scripture reading, or the Liturgy of the Hours, or through light from the baptized people around us. This is flourishing in real terms. Catholic terms. It is the constant receiving of gifts and graces. We “walk in his light.” (Baptism) The kicker is that “you are asked to trust in his wisdom” not in the wisdom of the secular world.

Baptism brings us into trusting the Lord. In his sphere, we “may live always by his saving power.” It is handed to us in the sacrament.

Ultimately, we hope our salvation lies in union with God. But in fact, all day every day, we experience the closeness of God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Mass Preface) But God does not just hold us in existence, rather “each day we feel the effects of his love.” We just have to look. Where it happens will surprise us.

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The sacrament of Confirmation gives more pointers on what genuine flourishing looks like. The bishop says: “the gift of the Holy Spirit. . .make[s] you more like Christ and more perfect members of his Church.” This is living. People live with the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of right judgment and courage, the Spirit of knowledge and reverence, . . .wonder and awe in your presence.”

A rounded set of gifts from the Spirit. They purify and enhance all the different aspects of our minds and hearts. This is essential because in human beings, because of sin, our “reason is deprived of its order to the true, there is the wound of ignorance.” (Thomas Aquinas) We do not know what we do not know. So, unless someone points out our ignorance we might just be blundering along.

And concerning the will: as far as it is “deprived of its order of good [by sin], there is the wound of malice.” (Aquinas again)

The grace of the sacraments and our prayers free the intellect and the will from the ravages of sin. This gives a whole new way of flourishing in the world. People know better and choose better. These improvements are received gratefully by those around them.

But none of the wisdom, the judgement, the wonder is aimless or merely this-worldly. Otherwise we will confuse Christian wisdom with the wisdom of celebrities, who often become famous and earn fortunes reading words that someone else has written. People might come to confuse Christian wonder with amazement at someone’s possessions or personality.

In fact, real wisdom, judgement and wonder come from the God “who has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:6)

Our world, as closed as it sometimes – and especially so now, to be sure – and as inexorable and grinding as it can appear to be, opens out into “the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.”

Glory is a wondrous name for all that is divine. God is the fullness of life, the fullness of joy, the fullness of loving understanding.

Saint Paul, however, puts us on notice in words with special current relevance that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (II Corinthians 4:7-9)

The gift of the vision of the glory of God overflows even our limitations that come from being made from the clay of the earth. Recognizing and fully living according to this vision is flourishing in the deepest possible sense, a flourishing that not even a global crisis can prevent.

 

*Image: The Descent of the Holy Spirit by Anthony van Dyck,  [Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany]

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.