September 14, 2016, Wednesday — “Seek His Face Always,” Last Conversations with Pope Benedict, Letter #2
“Peter Seewald: When you find yourself before the Almighty, what will you say to Him?
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: I will ask Him to be indulgent with my wretchedness.”
—Passage in the first chapter of Ultime Conversazioni (“Last Conversations”), by Peter Seewald, a volume of previously unpublished conversations between Seewald, a German author, and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (p. 226). The date of one of the conversations is given as May 23, 2013 — more than three years ago — and Seewald in his introduction says the conversations occurred both before and just after Benedict’s resignation from the papacy in February 2013. The book appeared in Rome in German and Italian editions on September 9, five days ago. The English edition, to be entitled Last Testament, is expected in November
“Peter Seewald: The believer has trust that ‘eternal life’ will be a full life.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: Certainly, absolutely! It is the trust that then I will truly have come home.”
—Ultime Conversazioni (Last Conversations), p. 28.
“Peter Seewald: How do you think eternal life will be?
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: There are various levels. First, the theological level. Here the words of St. Augustine are a great consolation and a source of much reflection. In commenting on the Psalm ‘Seek His Face Always’ (Psalm 104), Augustine says: this ‘always’ also includes eternity. God is so great that we never finish coming to know Him. He is always new. Ours is a continuous and infinite motion, an ever-new discovery and joy…”
—from the same book, p. 28
Seeking to Understand Emeritus Pope Benedict
Children sometimes wonder what heaven might be like. They imagine it, perhaps, as a place where one will eat an infinity of ice cream cones, from morning until night, forever and ever…
And then, sometimes, a question arises in the child’s mind: But what if I grow tired of eating ice cream cones? What then?
And a sudden worry: perhaps heaven might become… boring!
Nothing new, endless repetition — like the myth of the eternal return…
In his new interview-book with German author Peter Seewald, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI deals with question of heaven in a startling way.
Seewald asks Benedict what Benedict thinks heaven will be like.
Benedict replies that he believes it will be a search for the face of God which will never end, but always grow more profound, more filled with mutual understanding, more filled with mutual love.
In short, heaven for Benedict is not a static place, not a place that could ever become old or boring, but a place that is active, filled with real life, and involving an ever-deepening, never-ending journey into the nature and person of God Himself…
The new interview-book, published on September 9 in German and Italian as Ultime Conversazioni (“Last Conversation”), seeks to catch a glimpse of the inner life of the former pontiff.
It is a fascinating journey into the mind of Benedict.
In my last letter, I began to explore the book. In this letter and several future ones, I continue that exploration.
Life in the monastery after being Pope
“Your great desire was to live dedicating yourself to meditation and prayer,” Seewald says to Benedict. “Are you able to, now (now that you are no longer acting as Pope)?”
“Not entirely,” Benedict replies. “First of all it isn’t possible due to the lack of psychic strength. I am not strong enough interiorly to dedicate myself constantly to divine and spiritual things.”
Benedict is telling us two things: that is takes great emotional, psychological, strength to undertake a life of continual prayer, and, that he feels he does not have that strength.
Here we are seeing Benedict’s humility in action, of course, but we are also learning something important: that he truly senses his own spiritual weakness in attempting to draw close to God in prayer, and to remain in that closeness.
Benedict continues: “But there are also external causes that prevent me: many visitors, for example.”
So we know that, despite living “hidden from the world,” Benedict has been visited by many people, or at least, in the first weeks and months after his resignation was being visited by many people.
“I think it is a positive thing to exchange views with the people who are leading the Church today, or who have a role in my life, remaining in this way anchored to the things of this world,” Benedict explains.
So we know that his visitors included Church leaders and old friends and relatives.
“Moreover, there is also my physical weakness, which does not allow me to remain in what we may term the ‘high country’ of the spirit,” Benedict adds. “In this sense, my wish has not been realized. But it is nevertheless true that I have much more interior freedom, and that has great value.”
In these lines, we glimpse the tension and complexity of Benedict’s personal life since his resignation, even in the quietness of the Vatican Gardens where he now lives.
He seeks communion with God through a total immersion in prayer, but he tells us he cannot fully accomplish it, due to his own interior psychological-spiritual weakness, due to the interruptions coming from many visitors (though he appreciates and values these visits), and due to his physical weakness stemming in part, one must suppose, from his advancing age.
Yet, despite these limitations, he has “much more” interior freedom than he had while he was Pope.
This is, arguably, extraordinary. Benedict is telling us, by implication, that, as Pope from 2005 to 2013, he had much less “interior freedom” than he has had since resigning the papacy.
Various reflections could emerge from this admission. One seems worth mentioning now.
How can the exercise of the papal office, focused on the proclamation of the “good news” of Christ’s victory over sin and death, be re-shaped or re-designed so that a holder of that office, like Benedict, does not experience a lack of interior freedom?
Perhaps the answer would be to reform the work of the office so that difficult tasks, including travels, are delegated to others, allowing more time and energy for the successor of Peter to devote himself to that communion with God in prayer that Benedict says is his true heart’s desire.
Clearly, Benedict saw his task as a theologian, and then as a bishop in Munich, a carrdinal in Rome, and as Pope, as preaching Christ to all, near and far off.
And this was right.
In the end, the most important action any man or woman can undertake for others, the greatest insight or “news” any man or woman can transmit to others, is an action, an insight, that bears witness to (“confesses”) the existence, the reality, of the Logos; that is, that bears witness to the fact that Logos (a Greek noun that means “word,” but which can also be translated as “meaning”) underlies, permeates, renders “meaningful,” the entire universe — renders meaningful reality itself.
And the action Emeritus Pope Benedict takes, the insights he shares, in this book of conversations with Seewald, are a sort of “confession” of his faith in Christ — even when he reveals his own personal weaknesses.
Benedict tells us in this little book that reality is not senseless, chaotic, that it does, in the end, have “meaning.”
And as one would expect of a man who served as Pope, and led the Church, he proclaims Christ, telling us that the Logos (meaning) of the universe, as St. John long ago told us, became visible and lived on earth, in Jesus Christ, who was the Word (Logos) and the Meaning (Logos), of God. (Gospel of John, Chapter 1)
And Benedict explains that, because Christ is the meaning of God, bearing witness to Christ offers the most important thing — Logos, meaning — to the world of often weary and disoriented men and women.
Bearing witness to Christ, he tells us — as he told us during his pontificate — informs and nourishes and orients the inner lives of men and women.
And he explains that this is the reason it is a noble thing to be “called” to bear this witness to Christ — because bearing this witness to Christ offers meaning to a world which would otherwise be Logos-less, that is, senseless, without sense — meaningless.
“Seek His Face Always”
Seewald is at pains to know more about Benedict’s faith, about his personal relationship with Christ, “the Logos of God,” especially since he has resigned the papacy.
Every human mind, by nature capable of conceiving of the infinite, but not of grasping it, while inhabiting time — this present life — seeks “gropingly,” as St. Paul tells us, for epiphanies of the eternal Logos in order to find some reliable fixed point, some “lasting habitation” in which to dwell, beyond the flux and change of temporal things.
St. Augustine describes this quest when he writes that “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” (Confessions, Book 1)
The hearts, the souls, of men and women have a built-in compass which points toward the eternal divinity. That being or reality surpasses human understanding because that being, as St. Anselm said, “is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (Anselm argued that this being must exist in the mind; even in the mind of the person who denies the existence of God; and he suggests that, if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality.)
It is his realtionship with that being that Benedict reveals to Seewald.
Seewald asks Benedict if he will continue to write books.
“No!” Benedict replies. “No, no. After Christmas (Note: evidently he is referring to Christmas of 2012, two months before his resignation) I knew that the hour of my nunc dimittis had arrived: I had already completed my life’s (written) work.”
(Note: The famous words “nunc dimittis” are from the so-called “Song of Simeon” in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. They mean “now you may dismiss.” They were spoken by an old man, Simeon, addressing God. They mean that Simeon, God’s servant, is now willing for God to dismiss him from the tasks of life, that is, to allow him to pass away. Simeon speaks these words after Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. Simeon, a devout Jew, had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the ceremony of consecration of the firstborn son (not for circumcision, but rather after the time of Mary’s purification: at least 40 days after the birth), Simeon was there. Seeing Jesus, and believing the prophecy was fulfilled, he took Jesus into his arms and uttered the words cited above by Benedict.)
Seewald then asks if Benedict kept diaries or journals during his papacy.
“Diaries, no,” Benedict replies. “But from time to time I wrote down some reflections that I have in mind to destroy.”
When Seewald asks him why he will throw away the notes, Benedict replies, smiling: “Because they are too personal.”
Seewald then presses Benedict, noting that the former Pope’s books have sold millions of copies worldwide, and asking him if it isn’t difficult for him to renounce further writing.
“Not at all,” Benedict replies. “I prepare each week my homilies for Sunday Mass, so I still have a spiritual task to perform: I must find the words to interpret the text.”
But he cannot write anything more substantial, he says, because more substantial writings require “a methodical work” which he says he is no longer physically strong enough to carry out.
So we have a glimpse into the exegetical work Benedict continues to carry out after his resignation: he spends an entire week preparing his Sunday homilies.
But who does he deliver the homilies to?
Ever deeper into the Psalms
“You write homilies for four or five people?” Seewald asks, seemingly perplexed.
“Why not,” Benedict replies, and Seewald tells us that he was laughing. “Certainly! If there are only three or twenty or one thousand people, the Word of God must always reach the hearer.”
Seewald then asks how Benedict lives out his life of prayer and meditation, and whether he follows any special “spiritual exercises” that he finds valuable.
Benedict replies that he uses the Breviary, which is filled with passages from the Psalms and from the Church Fathers, “immersing” himself in the Psalms and the Fathers. And he reiterates his focus on his weekly homily.
“For the entire week, I allow my thoughts to drawn closer to the argument, so that, very slowly, they mature and I can explore a text in its different parts,” Benedict says. “What does it say to me? What does it say to the people here in the monastery? This is the new thing, if I may say: the fact that I can explore the Psalms with still more tranquility, that I can enter into ever greater familiarity with them. And in this way the texts of the liturgy, especially of the Sunday liturgy, accompany me throughout the entire week.”
Seewald asks Benedict if he has a favorite prayer.
Benedict says yes, and more than one.
First, he says, the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyal which begins: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty…”
Here is the entire prayer:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Second, Benedict says, the prayer of St. Francis Xavier which contains words to this effect: “I love you not because you may grant me Paradise or condemn me to hell, but because you are my God. I love you because You are You.”
Here is the entire prayer:
Prayer of St. Francis Xavier
My God, I love thee;
not because I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally.
Thou, O my Jesus,
thou didst me upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace.
And griefs and torments numberless and sweat of agony;
even death itself,
and all for one Who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ
should I not love thee well?
not for the hope of winning heaven,
or of escaping hell.
not with the hope of gaining aught,
nor seeking a reward,
but as thyself has lovèd me,
O ever-loving Lord!
Even so I love thee, and will love
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God,
and my eternal king.
Third, the prayer of St. Nicholas of Flue, which includes “Take me as I am.”
Fourth, the General Prayer composed in German by St. Peter Canisius, which begins: “Almighty and eternal God, Lord, heavenly Father. Look with the eyes of your gratuitous mercy at our sorrow, misery and distress; have mercy on all Christian believers.”
Benedict, who knew and admired Father Romano Guardini, tells Seewald that he agrees with an affirmation Guardini made: “In old age, it does not get easier, but more difficult.”
“There is something true in it,” Benedict says. “On the one hand, in old age you are more deeply practiced, so to speak. Life has taken its shape. The fundamental decisions have been made.”
But at the same time, Benedict says, “One feels the difficulties of life’s questions more deeply; one feels the weight of today’s godlessness, the weight of the absence of faith, which goes deep into the Church. But then one also feels the greatness of Jesus Christ’s words, which evade interpretation more often than before.”
Seewald asks him is this means that he feels God has withdrawn from the modern world.
Benedict replies that he recognizes how “the depths of the word (of God) are never fully plumbed.”
And Benedict adds: “And precisely some words that express the wrath, the rejection, the threat of judgment (by God) become more disturbing, grave and awesome than before.”
“One imagines that the Pope,” Seewald says, “ought to have a relationship of particular closeness and intimacy with the Lord…”
Benedict replies: “Yes, it ought to be so, and it is not that I have the feeling that He is far away. I can always speak to Him in my most intimate being. But I am nevertheless a small, wretched creature who does not always manage to arrive at His side.”
Because Benedict has said this, Seewald then asks Benedict if he has ever experienced a “dark night” of the soul, as many saints have experienced…
(to be continued)
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What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.