In 2008, during a Holy Week RCIA retreat, I led a reflection on The Last Things — death, judgment, heaven and hell. Rather than diving right into a discussion of things ultimate, I decided to provide some context, and some of that context came from C.S. Lewis. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis observes that “we are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
One of the hot-button issues of our time is: Should Holy Communion be given to political candidates who publicly favor abortion? Many Catholic Americans have a tendency to frame this question in a merely legal or disciplinary way. Very few seem to ask the sacramental and theological question: “What does receiving the Eucharist express?” Once I frame the question in this way, I can hardly say that the Bible is silent on the matter. Saint Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 11. And I think the tradition is clear that receiving Communion expresses a communion with Christ and with his Body—a union of heart and mind on essential matters.
When a Catholic serving in public office clearly opposes the Church’s teaching, he makes himself incapable of receiving the Eucharist for what it is—a life-giving union with Christ’s body, a giving and a receiving that one participates in without reserve. For such a Catholic, receiving the Eucharist could be considered a kind of spiritual contraception. He engages in the act without intending to express the very meaning of the act. In effect, he uses Christ’s Body rather than receiving that Body for all that it is.
It’s common knowledge that those who reject the Church’s teaching authority often do so as a result of the Church’s teaching about artificial contraception. It seems to me that this is no accident. Contraception is an act by which we give ourselves permission not to respect the other, but instead to use the other in the service of our own interests. It might be a mutually agreed-upon use of each other, but it is use nonetheless. When we contracept in married life, holding back our fertility or rejecting the fertility of our spouse, it damages marital communion, because it interferes with our vocation to be a gift to our spouse and to receive our spouse as a gift in all the dimensions of their being. And when we engage in spiritual contraception by receiving Communion unworthily, holding back our assent to the deposit of faith preserved by the Church, it damages our communion with Christ’s body. We begin to relate to the Church simply in terms of how She might benefit us, and we cease to pay attention to how we might serve Her.
A public servant who is Catholic is just that—a servant. It’s a noble calling and a beautiful witness when lived authentically. The more deeply I come to appreciate the faith, the more I recognize that the service of the common good is sustained and nourished by a vibrant Catholic faith. It is the Church who fosters the awareness that in every person we discover an image of Christ, that Christ gave His very life for every human being, and that we are called to revere every life even when it costs us dearly to do so. We must not cease to remind ourselves that our leader in the faith sacrificed His very life for the well-being and redemption of every human life.
Our true adherence to the Church does not make us partisan in our attitudes, as though we had joined some club which only respects its own members. Rather, our life in the heart of the Church opens our heart to every human person, regardless of creed, ethnicity or any other distinguishing characteristic.
To be Catholic is to love and to defend humanity as such: Children on either side of the birth canal are truly human. The lives of our African-American brothers and sisters are truly human. The lives of undocumented immigrants are truly human, as are the lives of displaced Uighur Muslims in China. The lives of forgotten elderly and the homeless in our own neighborhoods are truly human. The lives of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are truly human. The disabled in mind and body are truly human. The lives of our enemies and those with whom we engage on Facebook are truly human. Rioters are truly human, as are police and politicians and drug lords and money launderers. And our own life also is truly human, in all of its beauty and its brokenness.
Failing to see the humanity and the dignity of other people diminishes our own humanity, because it robs us of the beauty both of being a gift to others and of receiving others as gift. A kind of blindness can set in.
The gift of the Eucharist can help restore our vision as it is a sacrament not only of communion with God, but also of communion with our neighbor. Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the interplay of the two dimensions of communion eloquently in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est. Here’s an extended passage from that letter:
Love of neighbor… in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus… consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
Part of the miracle of the Eucharist, when I consider it personally, is the astonishing fact that it reveals that even I have been invited into the embrace of the love that made the universe. Who am I to receive such a gift? And who am I to hesitate even a moment in desiring to share that unmerited gift with others?
C.S. Lewis says it succinctly in the final words of his essay The Weight of Glory:
…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
Before this great mystery, let all mortal flesh keep silence.
Fifteen years after my first foray into podcasting, I’m re-launching my audio podcast today. When I first started, I just recorded all kinds of talks and events, and having a podcast feed was a simple way of keeping them organized. There wasn’t any organizing theme, at least none that was explicitly intended.
This time around, I’ve decided that each episode will relate, in some way, to my favorite essay by C.S. Lewis: The Weight of Glory.
It seems fitting to dedicate my inaugural episode of the podcast to the Lewis essay itself, so I’ve made an audio recording of the essay. I’m posting it on the 78th anniversary of C.S. Lewis delivering the words in a sermon at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England (June 8, 1942).
I hope to produce a couple of episodes each month, which should be easier to achieve now that I have deleted my Facebook account and am a bit less distracted.
For those who might be unfamiliar with The Weight of Glory as an essay, here’s a teaser, which I produced ten years ago upon the conclusion of one of my favorite TV shows, LOST:
For your Easter meditation, here are a couple of excerpts from an RCIA Hollywood podcast on The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell/Purgatory…
the Christian life: comfort by way of upset
It would be interesting to take a survey, asking people two questions:
“What is the most comforting religion in the world?”
“What is the most upsetting religion in the world?”
It would be interesting to know what people would say to these two questions.
I think that the most comforting religion in the world would be Christianity, without question. And as far as what would be the most upsetting religion in the world, I think it also would be Christianity. I think it’s both. It is the most upsetting, and the most comforting, because of original sin. There’s just no way back to the Garden except through the experience of death.
Our life, right now, as we live it, in all of its comfort — in its native form for us… I don’t think we always want to leave this comfort nest, even if there’s something better, because we don’t know that something better.
Our life has really been turned upside-down by the Fall, and to turn it upside-right, we had better be ready for an upset. Imagine a boat sitting in Paradise on the waters of creation. Then imagine the boat being capsized. That’s what original sin has done to our existence. We’ve gotten very used to being in that tipped-over boat. That’s become our native home, that’s what we understand, that’s what we know: the experience of sin and of fear. And so now Christ comes, and He wants to right the boat again, but how do we receive that? We’re afraid, we’re threatened, we’re challenged by that. How dare he turn this boat over? How dare he upset our life? In fact, he’s righting the boat, but we experience it as an upset.
So the idea of Christianity is really that comfort comes by way of upset. We just don’t know it yet. When it’s all upset in our life, I think we discover the truth that finally the boat is being righted, and what we had become so familiar with was in fact just the pilgrim state of this valley of tears, and now we are discovering our true home in the Father’s house….
Evaluating one’s life in the light of the Last Things
I think it’s good to make an annual self-evaluation during Holy Week.
Here’s a reflection on the last things, which I’ve based on Dr. Peter Kreeft’s discussion in his book Fundamentals of the Faith. He has a chapter on each of the Last Things. From those essays, I’ve constructed a self-interview of sorts. It’s an opportunity to make an evaluation of our lives in light of things ultimate.
The first question is about death:
What death am I facing — whether little or large — and how can I meet it with Christ? It might be worthwhile to re-visit that question in a year and see if there has been any resurrection in this area or not.
The second question has to do with judgment:
The experience of judgment is the experience of being laid bare… everything is revealed. So the question is: What most needs to be laid bare in me or seen through the eyes of justice… (That’s what justice does… it sees everything)… for the sake of living more justly now, and so that Christ can touch and heal it? Christ is the divine Physician, but unless we show Him our wounds…. It’s not that He doesn’t know the wounds are there, but He needs us to relax enough so that He can actually tend to them.
The third question has to do with heaven:
The question is: What are my false heavens? Or what is my counterfeit paradise? Maybe I have several: maybe it’s the weekend; maybe it’s my job; maybe it’s a relationship. What are those things in my life which are not Paradise but for which I am happy to stop along the way because I’ve found this counterfeit? What keeps me from remembering that this is not a place of rest? I mean, the sabbath is, but other than that? We’re on pilgrimage. What will I do to keep a sense of pilgrimage alive? What will I do to keep my heart alive to the true goal of my existence? So we’re moving from a kind of examination to a resolution: What are we going to do about this?
Then lastly, hell:
What are the areas of drift or complacency in my life? Because I think for those of us who have decided to become Christians… to be baptized and to follow Christ and so forth… we have sort of set out on pilgrimage. It isn’t a question of whether or not I have heaven as a goal for me, but what will keep me from that is if I drift, if I get lax, if I get complacent. Where am I kind of drifting? And what am I going to do about that?
So give yourself some time this week to ask yourself these questions. It has been interesting for me to complete this exercise each year since a Triduum retreat in 2007; it’s been a grace to go back over it each year and to notice that I need to revisit some of them, but with others there really has been grace active in my life.
Blessed Easter! May the Resurrection of Christ transfigure every corner of your existence. May your every tear be joy-stained; behind every upset, may you experience the joy of being discovered by the One who has upset it all, for love of you.
On a day like this, it can feel like everything has been turned upside down… or like the boat you’ve been traveling in has just capsized.
Well, that’s not always a bad thing.