Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religion, Observed

Written in the wake of his wife's death, it begins with the line "No one ever told me grief felt so like fear." Grief, for Lewis, isn't something that affects simply the emotions, nor is it a matter of the 'head and heart.' It is, rather, a whole-body affair, drawing the whole person into renegotiating the life after the loss of a loved one. It contains a raw exploration of the process of grief: one watches as a bereaved husband rages against the cosmos, cries out to the supposedly good good, and then collapses into the arms of his loving creator. It is not a how-to book about grief. Instead, it is the offer of a gift of companionship, made by one of the great Christians of the 20th century, to walk with someone through the process of grief and loss.

One little section that struck me:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.
As my first semester of teaching draws to a close, I think that the final sentence quoted above encapsulates the central message I have tried to impart to my students. More than likely, I have not been successful in my endeavor, but I should like to think that if I have accomplished anything, it is that for all the things that Christianity asks of us, being consoled is not one of them.

Flannery O'Connor's character The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" makes the theologically incisive remark that "Jesus thrown everything off balance." A true encounter with Jesus cannot but leave a person with a new orientation, a new set of values. Jesus turns our world on its head and challenges us to imagine how things could be, how things ought to be. The Christian religion is not meant to feel good about yourself. It means, rather, to confront us with a vision of what God intends for the world, it invites us to embark upon contributing to this vision, but it promises that if we commit ourselves to this project that we will suffer.
Or, as Father Canfield once put it, "You can't be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the cross."
Christianity is not, and must not, be Marx's 'opium of the people.' If Christianity does not ask you to do something, if it does not ask you to commit to something, if it does not ask you to move beyond yourself...then it's not Christianity. If Christianity does not demand that you take a long, honest look at the world and say, "Is this what God wills for creation?" then you're not taking Christianity seriously.
Christianity is not a consoling religion. It is, I would say, profoundly pessimistic. It confronts us with the fallenness and brokenness of the world. It calls us to enter into this chaos. It tells us that we will suffer and that, quite probably, we will be crushed underneath the weight of sin and oppression. It tells us that if we will probably die without seeing the full flourishing of our labors.
Christianity is eminently realistic: life is hard is, the world is broken, and if you have enough courage to re-imagine the world in accordance with the Kingdom of God as preached and lived by Jesus, you will be crushed.

So why bother?

Because of the Resurrection. Belief in the resurrection proclaims that death is not the final answer, that life will conquer death, and good will triumph over evil. Even if the seeds I sow with my blood and my life do not burst open in my lifetime, I can have confidence that they will bloom in God's time. The resurrection does not deny that pain and suffering and evil are erased or that they do not exist: the Risen Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and spear.

The deeper I enter into companionship with Jesus, the more I commit myself to the Kingdom, the more I am dis-eased. Christianity, far from consoling me, confounds me: am I really being called to enter into a broken and sinful world that will, more than likely, break me as it has broken so many before me? I cannot deny that this is my calling, that this is my burden, that this is my grace. No cheap grace is this. It requires everything one has and then calls for more. Body, mind, heart, soul....and one's life.

If I have communicated something of this, if I have shared that Christianity, that Catholicism, is not simply a system of doctrine but, rather, the living commitment of a human person to defy the wisdom of the world and embrace the dark grace of the cross...then I have been true to my vocation. If my students are more open, or willing, or inspired to step toward the crucifixion that is promised to each committed Christian, then I will rejoice. If I have dispelled from them the false notion that religion is meant to be consoling and that it offers us an infinite challenge, then I will know that I have invited them to partake in the adventure of living faith.

Perhaps, then, it is this that is consoling: having made God the center of one's life and committed oneself to the Kingdom preached by Jesus Christ, no matter what befalls you, you have the confidence and courage to live out your vocation. Consolation isn't a banalized 'feeling good' but, rather, having the confidence that one is supported and sustained by God's Spirit. Consolation is the light of the Resurrection, piercing the darkness of the cross that awaits each of us, inviting us to live our our callings courageously, joyfully, confidently, and faithfully.


Charlie Roy said...

What a profound and moving post. I'm glad I stumbled upon this on Sunday morning. As one who has been working with high school students for the past ten years you are certainly right that we won't always see the fruit of our labor. But thee is nothing more rewarding that seeing that something we said / did / modeled had an impact. Be well in Christ!

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Thanks, Charlie, for your kind words.

Gannet Girl said...

Terrific post, to which I've just linked.