Monday, April 4, 2016

Fix Your Gaze on the Supernatural, Part I

During the nine years since my conversion (how time flies!), I have always returned to One Big Idea: the pre-eminence of the supernatural over the natural; or the notion that the real action, the real narrative of our lives takes place at the supernatural level.  This idea flies in the face of contemporary wisdom.  Whereas the Catholic Faith was once at the center of how people understood their world (with concepts like grace, sin, providence, intercession, atonement), it has been surrendered to the margins.  We now go about our lives in our ordinary way, feeding the demands of the body and skimming the surface of life.  Meanwhile God seems to play the good Deist, rarely intervening from his hidden heaven, though he might show up when there's a crisis or at death.

It's very easy to slide into the naturalist trap, reducing life to the things of the senses, riding the great carnival of modern life.  I was once a doggedly naturalist doctoral student whose guiding light was the materialist and skeptic, David Hume. My dissertation was an attempt to vindicate David Hume's "evolutionary" account of the purely natural origins of justice by examining how norms of convict justice (the "convict code") developed in prison.  That's a complicated way of saying that I didn't think we needed God for anything, not even a grounding in ethics!  Yet only God's grace could turn a die-hard naturalist into a zealot for the unseen kingdom of God, and this is a lovely joke to God and a soar-spot to demons.

In point of fact, there can never be a purely natural account of human affairs since our lives are drenched in the supernatural: we have eternal souls that are simultaneously distorted by original sin and yet hard-wired to seek God or at least shadowy idols.  Every day we experience both divine grace and demonic temptation.  Some of us are transformed by grace going from "strength to strength" while others fall into a labyrinth of the Devil's own making.  Since it's easier to see with the eyes of the body than the eyes of faith, we miss these truths because God has us work out our salvation amidst the noisy, humdrum world.  Yet it is God's genius that he bestows his grace in the contours of our material lives, along a subtle providence that is often missed.

Grace is everywhere, if you look for it.

Even after my conversion, I clung to some naturalist prejudices.  Naturalism dies hard.  Actually, it brings death with it. Many religious orders have now died or are dying because they took a naturalist turn some fifty years ago.  They came out of the cloister, became more "active", ignored their Divine Office and prayer (since the effects of prayer are usually unseen), they focused on socio-economic/structural causes of human misery instead of personal sin, etc.  They told classic naturalist stories like re-interpreting the feeding of the five thousand as a "miracle of sharing" rather than a miraculous multiplication of food by the Incarnate Word.  They stopped using supernatural words like "sin", and spoke of how "values" change (they usually meant sexual ethics) as conditions change and people come to a "greater understanding".  The Jesuit order has been typical of the "naturalist turn", and their order has been cut in half in the last fifty years.  Meanwhile, those Jesuits who remain average somewhere between 65-70 years of age.  By contrast, read this sermon from a growing religious order full of remarkable young men.  It might be the best sermon I've ever read, and it's a clarion call for living the faith with "supernatural glasses".  It also captures how street evangelists feel while walking a post-Christian city: "We are the Lord's gentle spies!"

Grace is Everywhere

Those with faith know that without God we can do nothing.  Take the other day for example.  While walking the streets in my tunic, a street-wise young black man approached me and said, somewhat embarrassed, "Hey, I know you don't know me and all, but can you pray for me?  I really need help with some things right now."  He told me his name was 'Merlin'. Now I believe that it was grace that gave Merlin the courage to stop and talk to me.  Why?  Because there were all sorts of natural barriers to dissuade him from making such a request.  Men don't like to ask other men for help--especially strangers.  Moreover, there is still an uneasy racial divide in this country, and it often leads to social discomfort or even suspicion. Finally, his request was an acknowledgment of weakness, a confession that "I can't handle my life right now". Nobody likes to ask a stranger for that kind of help!  Bless young Merlin for responding to God's prompting, and may he go from grace to grace.

I witnessed another work of grace during the Mass of the Lord's Supper, on Holy Thursday.  I have a 13 month old baby boy, Gabriel, who loves to watch people, but he is shy and doesn't like to be held or touched by "strangers".  He even used to wail in fright whenever the poor priest would reach out his hand in a blessing.  After I received communion on Holy Thursday he wanted to see the Good Shepherd statue in the back of the church.  I lifted him up for a look, and he stretched out in delight, grasping the hand of Jesus.  Then he leaned in three times and kissed the hand.  My wife and I were stupefied.  But little Gabriel wasn't done yet.  Then he stretched further up and kissed the face of Jesus several more times.  Finally, he brought us back down to earth by moving over to the lamb on Jesus' shoulder and declaring, "Kitty cat."  He thinks all animals are kitty cats, and it's one of the few words he can say.  While not everything "out of the mouth of babes" is reliable, Gabriel gave us a lesson in child-like wisdom and tenderness.

He greeted Jesus with a kiss of love

Sometimes grace can be painful.  Take the example of my recently deceased grandmother.  Before her sudden death, God gave her two important graces to try to win a repentance of heart.  You see, Grandma (and Grandpa) was not a lovely person.  She was estranged from both of her children for decades.  She rarely had a generous word for others, and liked to say things like, "I LOVE money.  I simply love money."  She could be a bold sinner. A few months ago I mailed her a relic card of St. Charbel blessed in holy oil from a recent tour of his relics.  She gave back the card with a tart remark, "I don't like beards."  You get the idea.  Yet God pursued her to the end, as He always does.  First, he arranged that their wallet was stolen or lost when a furnace repairman visited the house.  This sent my grandparents into bizarre, paranoid fantasies that the repairman was going to return to the house to finish the job: stealing their car, jewelry, mink coats and more.  Things got worse when I reported the lost wallet to the furnace company.  Now they imagined the repairman would return and burn their house down out of vengeance, or "throw acid" in my grandmother's face. Somewhere in this terrible farce was a great grace: God was letting my grandparents stew in the effects of their grave sin.  He was asking them: "Do you really want to spend eternity like this?  In paroxysms of anxiety, alienation, recrimination, hatred and terror?  That is what Hell is like, and that's what you have chosen so far."  Grandma eventually got the idea and began to take stock of things.  Then she was given another grace: her sister (who also worshipped mammon) unexpectedly died.  This shook her again, leading to another round of soul-searching.  Finally, she also died unexpectedly, though we all assumed she would live another 15 years.  God had gone out of his way to win her back, even though she didn't deserve it.  Grace is like that.  Love is like that.

To be continued...