Advent

Note: This post is from the old Opus Publicum; it is being put back up by request. It was originally posted on December 8, 2013.

With The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart has composed a mesmerizing, challenging, and indeed beautiful work that will likely, in these times of philosophical ignorance and theological philistinism, be ignored, misunderstood, or reviled. Had I the proper grammar and vocabulary at my immediate disposal, I would do my best to write what I could about that book. Maybe another time. It’s the sort of book I would have very much wanted to read in my early 20s, not because I was in a position to properly understand it, but because I was desperate to know something — anything — of the God I had, for reasons both frivolous and immature, rejected several years earlier. When I later read Leo Strauss’s Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors and his 1965 “Preface to the English Translation” of his 1930 work, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, I started to understand something about my former atheism — an atheism “from probity” — which, upon closer inspection, was an atheism of convenience bolstered by ex post justifications that lost all force in the face of experience. It was Strauss who reminded me that no argument against the existence of God or the possibility of revelation could be complete without a philosophical account of the whole, and though the absence of such an account is not in any sense proof of the divine, its nonexistence casts a long shadow of doubt over the easygoing manner in which a few too many in my generation (and the one now emerging) confidently stand on this thing called “reason” — warped as it often is by an artificial moralism — in order to proclaim noble independence from what we so painfully fail to comprehend. To return, to come back to what we do not know, is not — or is not for me — a preset pathway traversed safely by making meticulous use of established materials — intellectual, emotive, or anecdotal. Terror isn’t quite enough either, though I will not deny that this most primeval of human emotions lends more assistance in the course of living than almost all of that “common sense” which remains, paradoxically, elusive for the great bulk of us. Experience, in the end, is foundational; and I have no mechanism, verbal or written, by which to convey mine. Call it a defect rooted in my own lack of “exercise with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.” It is not a defect I am inclined to remedy.

During childhood I occasionally attended school Mass at St. Alphonsus, an old Redemptorist parish in Grand Rapids, which, like so many of the churches in the city, had been the victim of aesthetic rape in the wake of Vatican II. The parish’s full-colored, lifelike Crucifix, with a bloodied and exhausted Christ hanging limply, had been transferred from above the High Altar to the entranceway. If the intention was to greet regulars and visitors alike with a sobering reminder of why they were there, it would have been praiseworthy. I suspect that the old priests simply felt too guilty to deposit it in the dumpster. I knew very little of such things back then; I only had what was before me: an agonizing image of this man who, I was told, is, always was, and ever shall be God, treated with such immense cruelty not because others had sinned, but because I had sinned. For years I would reject the Catholic Church, then Christianity, and then all belief in God, but I could not reject that image of Christ Crucified: a stumbling block to the more “heroic” life I thought I could live, and a pure sign of my foolishness for even trying.

As I leaned against the hood of my totaled Cutlass Ciera just after midnight on my 23rd birthday during an unseasonable ice storm in April, I surveyed the pileup in which I had become an unwilling participant and muttered, “The wages of sin . . .” One of my coworkers at the bookstore I had just left wondered what I was talking about just after she assured one of the attending police officers that her rickety van could get me to the ER to have a dozen stiches put in my forehead. No ambulance would be necessary. I can’t recall even trying to explain to her why I said what I said, probably because I never bothered to reflect on why I continually said it every time some tragedy, petty or great, befell me during that deeply problematic period which ran from roughly my 19th year to the middle of my 23rd. The “funny” thing about it was that I never finished the statement; I knew what it was, but death was nothing I dared to consider despite being face-to-face with it on more than one occasion. There are profound limits to the introspection of unbelievers.

A hectic summer and the 2005 autumn semester of graduate school for my wife and I delayed our honeymoon in Greece until December. By that time my wife was two months into her pregnancy with our first child. One evening, when we were staying in a small town in the Peloponnesus, blood appeared. I sat on the edge of the bed watching my wife touch her stomach and whisper, “Stay with us, little baby.” The next morning I walked to the small local church, and many others thereafter during our journey, and asked God and the Virgin Mary to watch over my nascent family. The anguish of the moment far outweighed the medical reality, but there was no telling two young and nervous yet-to-be parents that. I can’t say that intervention from above was necessary for our child in hindsight, but I can say that in those moments, alone in dark churches with only the fragility of life in my thoughts, peace was restored. We didn’t know then that our child would be a son. Upon learning that fact some months later, Jonah had to be his name; for there is no greater testament in the Scriptures of the power of God’s mercy and grace to not only transcend, but flow through, obstinacy. If my progeny should be so unfortunate as to retain my worst traits, I fear bullheadedness may be one of them. I trust, however, that God will overcome that as well.

On my knees in front an altar of the Blessed Virgin in October 2012 a prayer was answered in a manner I have not fully come to grips with. Before a dozen closed tabernacles, Christ’s prison of love, I have sought escapes I am anything but entitled to. The memory of a Crucifix at St. Alphonsus too often fails to be at the forefront of my mind; nails of sin and a spear of guilt which ought to pierce my heart and soul daily are dulled by spirits of sloth, despondency, lust for power, and idle talk. The spirit of doubt has passed me by, at least for now. I am too weak for that. So many of us are. And so now I pray, Parce mihi ut rideam antequam vadam et non subsistam. At each moment of my life this prayer, whether uttered by me or the Angel who guards my soul, is answered. It is answered and then reiterated by every Feast of the Church, by every hug from my children, by the love of my wife, and the unfathomable confidence I undeservedly hold that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration.”