Text, Tone and Tension

I recently had a conversation with a Calvinist regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As most of you know, That’s the Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation, a doctrine held by the entire Christian world until the advent of Protestantism in 1517. Even then, one major Protestant figure, Martin Luther, was not content to jettison the doctrine. He created a variation of it in which the bread and wine still changed to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Another major player in Protestantism, John Calvin, created an entirely new concept where the bread and wine were mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

The purpose of this blog is not to argue the merits of the three (or more) possibilities. I just wanted to relay how that conversation, between two guys who promised not to offend and to be civil, went straight down a rabbit hole.

Although the Church believes in Sacred Tradition, I find it fun to debate with Protestants using only Scripture. I spent thirty seven years as a devout Protestant so, although I’m no theologian, I can find my way around a Bible.

We were debating the sixth chapter of John, a chapter where Jesus clearly defines and introduces the doctrine of transubstantiation. My Calvinist friend, running from the clear Scriptural truth, insisted that it could not be. It didn’t make sense.

The beauty of the Gospel is that NOTHING makes sense. Would God become a human and be born of a virgin? Could a bit of bread and several fishes feed thousands? Could a man once dead be commanded to walk from a grave? Could the Son of God do the same? It’s all ludicrously true.

He then cited an early philosopher, honestly mistaking his work with that of Clement of Rome, to show that the influential Clement did not hold to the Real Presence. I gently pointed out the case of mistaken identity and he became angry, calling the conversation off, because I was too “emotionally invested” in Catholic doctrine to see the truth. We had a conversation that lasted over the course of several days that ultimately went down in flames because we failed to understand each other.

There’s a great example I like which points out how careful you need to be when putting your own inflection to someone else’s written word. I heard it, I think, from Charles Swindoll. It has always stuck with me. It’s the simple sentence, “I didn’t say you were stupid.”

There’s no inflection in writing except where the reader places it. Let’s conquer that by using capitals. Please trust that I am not shouting. Take “I” didn’t say you were stupid, with emphasis on the first word.  It’s possible that you are stupid. It’s possible people are talking about it. But, I haven’t said it.

I DIDN’T say you were stupid is a straight up denial. Sort of. It doesn’t rule out the possibility I may say it in the future.

I didn’t SAY you were stupid. I thought it. I’ve accepted it as common knowledge. I just didn’t verbalize it.

I didn’t say YOU were stupid. It’s your mother who is the real dummy.

I didn’t say you WERE stupid. It’s an oncoming thing. No way is your stupidity relegated to the past. It isn’t that you were stupid. It’s that you are stupid right at this very moment.

I didn’t say you were STUPID. But, let me tell you, being stupid would be the least of your problems. Your big problem is that you are ugly. Oh, and you smell really bad. But I didn’t say you were stupid.

Facebook is often hard for me because I frequently misread the intent of a post. I will admit that, for me, joy is fleeting and gloom is permanent. And, because of that, I often place a negative reading on an innocuous comment. I hope you don’t do that too.

It’s important for me to remember, for my Calvinist friend to realize and maybe for you to remember also, that only the reader and not the writer can control how a sentence is read.

Let’s read each others words with the best intent.

Beauty, Poetry, and Restless Hearts

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520

by Ross Decker Sr

A few weeks ago, my priest began his homily by reading a poem aloud. As he read it, I realized I was having a personal epiphany regarding my reasons for converting to the Church after spending very nearly 40 years meandering in a Protestant desert. For the very first time I began to think that I may have been drawn to the Catholic Church because it was a religion of poetry. A religion of art. A religion of beauty.

When I first began to consider entering the Roman Catholic Church, I encountered Bishop (then Father) Robert Barron. My wife Liz and I had just seen Midnight in Paris and loved it. While googling about the film the next day, she came across  Father Barron’s review of the movie along with a series of other reviews he’d done. “Look, Honey. A priest who reviews movies!”

I’ll admit that I thought it was going to be silly. After all, what kind of out of touch reviews would a priest write? I imagined that they would all be stilted works, not really capable of grasping worldly art. But I was wrong. I learned that Father Barron had a fine grasp upon the real world. He reviewed movies from the point of view of someone who loved them, who appreciated them and who understood them. He wrote a fantastic piece using Dante’s Inferno to describe the Christian life. He spoke of Lennon and Dylan as though they were artists, not as though they were silly sinners creating nothing worthwhile. I had been taught that in my previous experience, but Robert Barron seemed to see no art as secular, all art as divine.

St. Augustine famously said that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, of course it would have to be that all art is God’s art, all poetry and prose stems from God. Now, some of this may come from an anti-God position, but even that art exists to examine man’s struggle to make sense of God nonetheless. Whether in confrontation or communion, our restless hearts sing of God.

Over the last few hundred years there has been a movement which has attempted to separate artistic culture from religion. I grew up in that school of thought. It’s a movement that might hold that modern culture cannot speak to the Church, that modern culture should be shunned. Avoided. It’s also a movement that has sought to strip religious art, both old and new, from religion. A movement seeking almost to deny the yearning of man for God. It’s a movement that has turned beer halls and school auditoriums into churches and have turned churches into stark, soulless meeting halls. We’ve seen altars converted into stages and windows viewed things that must be covered with drawn shades. It was a movement that, for me, was lacking. I could no longer separate the two cultures. I wanted the art. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the poetry.

The history of the Church reads like the history of art itself. Through the ages the Church commissioned artistic works. The Church was a patron of the arts. Artists created canvas upon canvas of Biblical theme. They sought to explain, to glorify and to define God through their work. They left to us breathtaking art that glorified God. The Ghent Altarpiece is stunning, there was Caravaggio, who at the dawn of the 17th century was called the most famous painter in Rome. That’s certainly saying quite a bit. Last year at this time, I walked the streets of Rome to see church after church, each with amazingly beautiful artwork. The church architecture was breathtaking in itself. Walking through the Vatican Museum I was surrounded by so much beauty it made me want to just stand still and sob. And, of course, in the midst of all that is the Sistine Chapel. God reaches out there to touch mankind. Painted by Michelangelo, I see it as the pinnacle of religious art. I’m confident that I’m not alone in that opinion.

So, Robert Barron’s position that art is the language of the Church resonated with me. The vesting of the Priests, the sensory awakening of incense, the beautiful ringing of bells to signify the epiclesis, the windows, the statues, the altar, all illustrate to me a respect and deference to our God that just isn’t found elsewhere.

I was drawn to the Catholic Church by art. It wasn’t the reason I converted, of course. I converted because of the doctrine. But I never would have heard the doctrine if I hadn’t come for the poetry.

It reminds me that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.