The Beginning of the Quest…
In which we set out on a quest which will occupy many coming emails: the quest for Jesus. Starting with a moving passage from the “best book of the summer” — G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man
By Robert Moynihan
The Center of the Matter
The center of the matter — the central concern of Christians, always and everywhere — is not Christopher West and his vision of the goodness of the human body and human pleasure, or his compassion for human frustration with the impediments — personal, societal and doctrinal — to that pleasure.
Nor is the central concern even Pope John Paul II’s philosophical and theological vision of men and women as “acting persons,” called to live out their human dignity fully in the light of Christ.
Nor is the central concern whether Joseph Ratzinger wished, humbly, to end his career in Rome as the Vatican Librarian, or whether his upcoming trip to Scotland and England will go well or badly.
Such matters were the subjects of my recent “newsflashes,” but the center of the matter is not any of these things, not anything “fresh,” “new” or anything the world of journalism prizes as controversial, challenging, critical, compelling or fascinating.
No, the center of the matter, the heart of the matter, is simply Jesus Christ himself.
Was Christ, is Christ, as Christians claim, God, that is, the ultimate power and reality in the universe?
Could such a thing be possible? And what would it mean, really?
And if it were possible, is it actually so?
And if it is so, how can we know it?
And if we can know it, why is it evidently so hard to know, why has it always been so hard to know, and will it always be so?
Christ is the heart of the matter; yet many mysteries surround this heart.
And, because there is a questioner who asks such questions, we have a second central “matter” of concern: the one who questions. The pilgrim. The wayfarer. The castaway on the island of this world, this present age, this reality. You. Me.
What, in fact, is a man, or a woman?
What is our nature? Our true end? Our true joy?
And how does that true end and true joy relate to these bodies we have, and this world we live in, and the many decisions we have to make, as long as we are here?
What is the final meaning of this brief life? Is it to become wealthy and powerful? To enjoy as many pleasures as possible, as intensely as possible? What, in fact (as we often say), is it really all about?
And so we have the two terms, Christ — whom Christians believe rose bodily from the grave, conquering death itself, to die no more — and all other human beings, all mortals, born to live, but briefly, and then to die.
We come to the “heart of the heart” of the matter when we ask: How can men and women form a connection, a contact, a link, a bond, a union or a communion, between Christ and themselves — between Christ and their individual souls? How can they find him and know him and be with him?
Most theologians and saints would quickly remind us that human beings don’t by themselves effect a union with Christ.
No. All men and women can do is to cooperate with the grace of God, and through that grace Christ forms a bond with them. He finds them. This is the mystery.
We think we are seeking him, but that very search of ours is already his seeking of us.
Now, by simply raising the question of how we enter into a union or relationship with Christ, we immediately see that the primary question does not concern a “theology of the body,” no matter how insightful or liberating or deceiving or enslaving that theology may be, but rather… a “theology of the soul.”
We are more in need, today, of a profound and persuasive and true “theology of the soul” than of any “theology of the body” whatsoever.
As Jesus said: “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
The peculiar predicament of contemporary man is that he no longer understands whether he is a body, or a soul, or a mixture of the two, nor cares to understand.
This complicates our quest.
The Catholic faith teaches that Christ is God. It further teaches that, because he is God — the supreme being, the ultimate reality, the highest good of all goods — therefore he himself is the ultimate meaning of the being of each human person, he himself is the end of the search of every person for truth and goodness and happiness.
The end comes simply in meeting Christ, encountering Christ, being with Christ, loving Christ, and in this way we are in union with with the “one who saves” from everything that threatens us — above all, from sin, from meaninglessness, from death.
The function of the Church is nothing other than to bring human souls into communion with the living Christ.
But is that what the Church is doing today?
Is it not rather too often obscuring the central question and focusing on peripheral ones?
Turning over such questions in my mind, I ask myself, once again, about Jesus. I ask: How do modern commentators advise us to come to grips with the truth about Jesus, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, and with the truth about the essential relationship of men and women to Jesus?
This letter is a preliminary account of my reading and thinking as I seek clarity and understanding. It will be the first of several letters.
I do not know whether this effort of mine will end up being a prayer, or a quest, or merely a scholarly exercise, but I invite you to join me on the journey.
My chief focus will be on Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, in an effort to understand clearly what Benedict is saying about Jesus.
What Benedict seems to be saying — to tell you the end of the story at the very beginning — is that Jesus is the key to everything, the answer to all our ultimate questions, the source of all our ultimate hope.
Brief special note: If you would like to travel with Inside the Vatican for several days in Italy and the Vatican during the next year, we are still taking requests for our Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 pilgrimages. These will include visits to Assisi, Norcia, Rome, and into Vatican City itself, with special meetings at each stop along the way. The group will be limited to less than 20 people. We have conducted two of these pilgrimages, and many have told us their experience far exceeded their expectations for a visit to Italy, the Vatican, and the tomb of St. Peter. If you would like information about these trips, email us at: [email protected]
An Attempt to Recover the Body
But before turning to the Pope’s book, I want to visit an old friend. He is a very large man, with an immense, warm heart, and an eloquence with the English language which generations of seekers have been delighted by and learned from.
His name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton (photo), or “G.K.” for short, and he died almost 75 years ago, just before the Second World War. (His dates are May 29, 1874 to June 14, 1936.)
I came to know him when I was a teenager, and I read his books with the same enjoyment that I read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, for Chesterton made old things seems new and seemingly sterile doctrinal matters seem rich with life and drama. And he was never dull.
And this is what Chesterton says about Jesus and his death and the fate of his body:
“All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins.”
It reminds me of our world today, with all the greatness of our technological prowess, as our computers compute ever more speedily, and our communications traverse the world instantaneously. Externally, we (mankind) seem at our strongest. But there are also simmering wars, and stockpiled weapons, and rumors of imminent attacks, and the growing fear of a loss of individual freedom to an omnipresent surveillance apparatus. More and more of us sense a vague foreboding. Has our own “moment of inmost weakness” begun to descend upon us?
Chesterton then turns to discuss the moment of Christ’s condemnation to death:
“The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.”
I am reminded that democracy cuts both ways: when the crowd is right, its will can bring about good, certainly; but when it is wrong, it can bring about great evil. Thus, we have to be ready, sometimes, to oppose a majority, because what is good and true cannot be settled by a vote. As Chesterton reminds us here, the “vote” of this majority, misled by its leaders, this “democratic” vote, was to crucify Christ.
Chesterton writes of Christ’s death on the cross:
“There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech… And if there can be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.”
Chesterton then speaks of the burial of Christ’s body, and what it meant:
“They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there be some riot and attempt to recover the body.
“There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient sepulture and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern, the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried.
“The History that Was Merely Human”
“It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.
“On the third day, the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night.
“What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in the semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn.”
Thus Chesterton vividly sets the stage for the drama which we have all entered upon, the stage for the drama of world history in the time after Christ, our stage, until the very end of the drama, and the curtain’s final fall.
But what are the necessary things that men and women should strive to accomplish before that fall?
That is a question whose answer we will seek during this quest we are now embarking upon.
(Note: If you are interested in more writing of this type, and if you would like to support our work, please consider subscribing to the magazine Inside the Vatican, or even sending a friend or family member a gift subscription. We very much appreciate new subscribers. They are critical to our continued existence! —Robert Moynihan)“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)Best-Seller: A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan about the “Old Mass” on CD
Unexpectedly, this little talk has become a minor “best-seller.”We have now produced more than 5,000 of these CDs, and they are still running out every few days. Why?Evidently, people really like this talk!It is called: “The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”
In this talk, Dr. Moynihan gives a 2,000-year history of the Mass in 60 minutes which is clear and easy to understand. The talk covers questions like:
— Does the motu proprio overcome some of the liturgical confusion since Vatican II?
— Who was Annibale Bugnini?— The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the liturgy?Special note: Three years ago, we participated in a concert in Rome (on March 29, 2007) in which a Russian choir and orchestra, flying in from Moscow, performed a new version of The Passion According to St. Matthew composed a few months before by the young Russian Orthodox bishop (now Metropolitan and “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev).That moving concert, in which one or two of the exhausted women singers fainted on stage and had to be carried off, was broadcast live worldwide via a Vatican Television Center feed by EWTN.No DVD or CD was ever made of that concert — until a few months ago. After several years, we have produced the DVD and CD of that historic concert, and they are now available for sale.I believe the sound of this music, and the sight of the performance, especially during Holy Week, when we recall Christ’s Passion, will bring tears to your eyes.The DVD and CD of this historic concert are now available on at website at the following link: http://www.insidethevatican.
com/products/concerts-dvd-cd. htmOther Gift Ideas:
Christmas Oratorio (Russian Concert) on DVD
On December 17, 2007, a leading Russian orchestra performed an exceptional “world premiere” concert of Russian Christmas music at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Now you can order your copy of the concert on DVD, which includes English sub-titles.
The music is a completely new composition by a young Russian Orthodox Archbishop, Hilarion Alfeyev, 43. At the time, he was the Russian Orthodox bishop for all of central Europe, based in Vienna, Austria. He is now a Metropolitan and the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.Makes a wonderful gift. Order one for yourself, one for a loved one and one for a friend… at three copies, the price is less! Click here to orderTo subscribe to the print edition of Inside the Vatican, click hereThe newsflash is free, but there are costs associated with producing it. To support this writing, you may call our toll-free number in the USA, 1-800-789-9494, or click hereThese reports are archived at www.themoynihanreport.com. To go there, click on the image below:Special note: We would be happy to receive feedback from our readers about these newsflashes. This newsflash is currently being sent to 17,100 people around the world. We hope it meets with your approval, and we will be happy to try to improve it according to your suggestions and needs.“Inside the Vatican is a magazine I read cover to cover. I find it balanced and informative. I especially appreciate its coverage of art and architecture. It is not only an important magazine, it is also a beautiful one.” —Prof. Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard University Law School, former United States Ambassador to the Holy See