Ed and Adam discuss the Sacraments at the Service of Communion by jumping into Holy Orders.
We have established that humanity, over and above the emus, has an innate sense of the spiritual realm, and this is demonstrated by the persistence of religion in human life, among other things. Against the naturalist, we see the impossibility that human life could have been purely physical, because of the ease with which humans engage in abstractions.
In other words, a single kiss from my daughter is the kiss of death for Naturalism. Requiescat in pace.
This frees us to advance: What do we know about the spiritual realm, anyway? What can we know?
Our difficulty is that the physical realm seems so…well, obvious, immediate.* When we want to say something about the physical realm – the sun is shining, the tree is blooming – these things are generally provable by observation. Humans broadly agree about the facts right in front of them, in this sense – we don’t argue with the weatherman about whether it’s raining, nor the traffic reporter, for that matter, who sees down the road and looks upon other roads.
The spiritual realm is not verifiable in the same way. It is not engaged with by means of the physical senses…though, it can be indirectly verified that way. Let us return to that another time.
For now, the grievance of the naturalist is more important than his arguments: If beliefs aren’t scientifically verifiable, then anyone can believe anything they like! How can this rise to the level of knowledge?
That’s true. That’s a good point.
One argument, which we have alluded to already, is that humans have a spiritual sense. It “looks” upon the world and detects certain abstractions, like good and evil, beauty, even truth. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga says we have a “sense of the divine” which justifies our belief in God.
For another argument, we derive from Plato the world of “forms,” which are abstract and ideal molds from which the physical instances are derived. Is there an ideal form of a chair? I don’t know, but there is something remarkable about the ability to make a chair without explicit instructions, as though the idea exists as a universally accessible concrete entity.
Let’s take a third. That is, the natural order appears to be governed by laws, which laws have no physical properties. These laws are often expressed by mathematics, which is the highest point of agreement between the naturalist and the supernaturalist – math works, is practically the most reliable form of knowing that there is.
Whereas the naturalist may agree that mathematics is the language of the Universe, the supernaturalist goes further and says that information does not simply occur, but is articulated by someone or something. Math is preceded by Logos, which gives the Universe structure and predictability and knowability.
And so, we can have knowledge of the spiritual realm by direct experience of it (the spiritual sense), by abstraction from the physical structures to a spiritual ideal, and by observing that the physical realm operates according to non-physical laws, which laws must have their own reality.
Any of these, arguably, is more reliable that the physical world itself as a deliverer of truth. You will find people who claim to have seen the spirit world in a vision or a near death experience. You will find others who hold to the Platonic view of the world. And still others construct reality on a foundation of abstractions – arguably, all of modern science, for a start – and build a monument of knowledge thereupon.
*Who stops to wonder – is this by design?
A basic biological creature – an emu, perhaps – only deals in the physical. Life is all hatching and growing and foraging and mating and running and dying. Often it’s not quite that good.
By the naturalist’s account, this ought to be everything for humanity, and we may as well enjoy it while it lasts.
It would be everything, except for that pesky “brain virus” that clings to religion, that continues to believe old fairy tales against all experience and evidence…or so they would have you believe.
I don’t notice the godless being all that critical about paganism. They will tell you this is because the pagans do not trouble them, but they are ignorant of history and human nature besides.
It is more a case of making allies with a common enemy. If modern religion disappeared, Paganism would immediately gain from it. We know this by looking back before Christianity emerged, and noting that human nature has not changed.
But Paganism is the bellwether of Naturalism’s demise – its miscarriage, really. If Naturalism could not dam up religion from the earliest days, it never had a chance.*
Why is this significant? The question is the answer.
That is, significance is the first handhold out of the physical realm. If physical objects can be imbued with meaning beyond their physical utility, then we are also engaging in a realm beyond physical activity.
Think of a flower, for instance. It has physical utility, a place in the natural order.
Now think of giving a flower. One is not offering the flower in order to pollinate another flower, or for ingestion, or for composting or anything else. Instead, the giver and the receiver both perceive an abstract (roughly, a spiritual) significance to the flower and the act of giving the flower.
This is what the naturalist could not prevent from happening, never could prevent from happening.
*The usual line is that humanity has sufficiently advanced, or will inevitably advance, such that religion will be seen for the fraud it is. They believe we will see Christianity like we now see Roman paganism.
As a matter of fact, the sword has another edge – if the Stoics and the Enlightenment could not free the world from the grip of religion, it is doubtful that anything else could. Rather, one religion comes to dominate another at any given point in time.
What one must immediately see is that the spiritual and the physical are completely different. And we have always seen this.
They are parallel lines, running together but never crossing. If we were mere physical creatures – like the lower animals – a “spiritual realm” would never occur to us. Even among men, we are dismayed at those who are singularly focused on the physical – a woman obsessed with her looks, a man with his riches.
Just so, the spiritually obsessed are often mocked, detached as they are from the most basic and necessary elements of living on a physical planet. The ditz, the new age believer – we instinctively understand that they enjoy a disposition supported by those who daily reckon with the elemental – dirt and steel and sweat and disappointment.
But the spiritual is more real, the foundation of the physical. God spoke the Universe into existence, and not the other way around.
So, why not detach from the physical? Why not all be esoterics?
Surely you’ve thought of that. And what came of it?
You’re here, reading today – surely you’ve thought of forsaking the world completely, praying all night, perhaps, as Jesus did, or else fostering such piety that you might levitate while in an ecstatic vision of the Almighty. Are you familiar with the Stigmata?
And you did not wonder, at least for a moment, what that would be like?
That, my friend, is exactly what forsaking the physical looks like. It looks like holes through your hands and blood and water flowing from your side. It is a coronation with thorns, because they are no better or worse than gold.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” No joke, that.
My friends, it is dreadfully painful to forsake the world, because you just are a physical being. Your very being responds to the environment, to the stimuli impressed upon you. There is the objective quality about it, that if you are shot through the heart, you will suffer and die, no matter what you believe or how you live.
Yet, some do forsake the world. Not absolutely, but – shall we say? – in spirit.
Now, how are we to resolve this paradox? We exist as physical and spiritual beings, and while the spiritual is more fundamental, we can be destroyed by physical means. The two do not intersect, and yet we cannot ignore either of them.
How do parallel lines cross and remain parallel?
They do so, if you view them from a third angle, another dimension.
“The condition of human nature … is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible.” – St. Thomas Aquinas
As always, St. Thomas has not only arrived where we want to go centuries in advance, but he has done so with precision and the poet’s flourish.
Still, every generation must grapple with the world as they find it.
The contemporary search for proof of God’s existence often runs through the sciences, namely physics, though the atheists fancy that biology can do their work for them. Neither is necessary to show that God exists, nor can either possibly show that He doesn’t exist.
Rather, what grew out of that search, for me, were the ready analogies that physics offers for spiritual phenomena. I learned, for example, that the very laws of physics break down as one approaches the first instant of creation, the Big Bang. Seeing the Universe issuing forth from the command of God, I found it remarkable that there was nothing but the spiritual realm, when all of the sudden laws, mathematics, particles, energy, space and time came “screaming” into existence. The abstract realities – laws, mathematics – reached terminal velocity, like a satellite re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, and the resulting fire and fury resulted in forces, space, time, and matter, immediately and inexorably falling into order.
That analogy is not exactly what I mean, but a bridge to it.
That spiritual realm persists – it has to – even while our physical world lives and grows, fights and loves, and decays and dies into the matter that forms new life. And how do we know the spiritual realm exists? The first analogy…
It would be odd for any creature to have a sense which senses falsely. Biologically speaking, this would be extra baggage, more body to protect and feed. There are even instances of fish which had sight, when a group of them came to be effectively trapped in a a cave for many years. In order to save energy, they evolved the loss of their eyes.
In other words, there was first light, and so the eyes developed and were useful. Then there was no light, and the eyes were not useful, and soon they atrophied away.
Now when many billions of people around the planet claim experience or evidence of the spiritual realm, are they like fish with eyes and no light? Why haven’t we evolved the loss of this spiritual sense?
What if, instead, the organ (the soul) survives because there is something that it detects, which proves useful for living in a physical reality?
There is much here; we will explore it.
It is good to remember, from the outset, that attributes applied to men are fundamentally transformed when they are applied to God.
You may call a man “holy,” and get a picture of a radiant presence, even a halo. You might imagine him self-possessed, patient and long-suffering, with a peaceful magnetism.
When we call God “holy,” we mean a furnace of holiness, a star going supernova, a light so bright it puts out your eyes. It is a blast unrelenting, rendering all else to dust and incinerating even the dust, so all that remains is the perfect purity of His Spirit.
One is the vessel, the other is the source. One is derived, the other is the original.
Holiness is a fitting introduction to jealousy. The holiness of God dictates that nothing else could exist, unless He permitted it to be so. And His holiness requires that there be very good reasons for anything else to exist.
What could those reasons be?
We advance: The Christian faith teaches that these reasons are rooted in God’s great love. The creation of the Universe, the creation of man, the endurance of sin, the suffering and redeeming work of the Savior – these are all effects of the cause, that God is a loving God.
Now when is it that a man becomes jealous? It is when he desires something very much, to the extent of claiming possession.
This should not be reduced to contractual ownership, the way I might own a car (which I might also desire very much). That is an economic relationship. We are discussing covenantal relationships, which include a spiritual dimension, something real but non-material.
You could not pay me enough to possess me as a husband, there is no material consideration great enough to earn you – from any man – the limitless gift-of-self required.
Likewise for he who is the bridegroom of the Church. Could you have paid Jesus Christ any consideration for his passion and death which would have adequately compensated him? What sum would represent an equal exchange?
It is absurd to ask. Likewise for the husband and wife. (This is truly why prostitution is regarded as sinful – it infinitely devalues a person’s worth, manifest in her body).
Now, that which is possessed – what if it is threatened, stolen, or seduced away?
We see this in Hosea, where the prophet is compelled to marry a prostitute, who subsequently commits adultery. Predictable, but no less painful.
God selects this as the metaphor for His relationship to Israel, and there is no compulsion except for His own will. He is compelled, in fact, by His love.
What does love have to do with it?
He made them. He conceived and created them from nothing. They were something much less and much more than a flight of fancy, so little did He require their existence and so much did He desire it.
And He saw His image in them, and said it was very good.
Then, over and over, Israel His bride was unfaithful to Him, worshipping other gods and disobeying his laws. Their desire to be fulfilled – which would find ultimate satisfaction in God alone – was gorged with vapid, vulgar imitations. They were seduced, deceived, and led astray.
There is a touching sequence in certain stories of a husband who goes astray, and finds himself in ruin until his wife comes to rescue him. She will often be forced to defy his “friends,” those who have participated in his downfall and desire for the party to continue. She rightly sees that what he wanted was not good for him, and she quite literally fights to protect him from it. There is sometimes a parental thread within the fabric of a marriage.
Likewise, Hosea loves Gomer for what she is, and it is not good for her to be a prostitute. When she reverts to that darker life, he goes after her. It is a cause for shame, it is humiliating and painful – but it is virtuous and true. Here in Hosea 3:3, we begin to see how love and jealousy lose their distinction:
“You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.”
Which is this? Love? Jealousy? Love expressed as Jealousy?
Far from competing, this jealousy – jealous for the good of the other, jealous in protecting from evil – is the manifestation of love. If Hosea wasn’t jealous, we would have to wonder if he loved Gomer at all.
It is much harder, deeper, and sheerer with God. To be unfaithful to Him is to invite destruction into your life. To love Him in return is to embrace everlasting life.
If those are the stakes, no wonder God would be jealous for us. If He did not thunder from Heaven and flood the Earth and punish sins, we would have to wonder if He loved us at all.
In our time, Christmas is a lovely thing. It is universally observed as a time for giving, family, good works. Only a little more narrowly, it is the great holy day, brought out as something better than any heirloom or treasure, recognized as the arrival of a singular hero, God Himself.
The comfort of family and traditions veils the shock. Consider the infant!
A baby in the room will elicit warm smiles, soft coos, sure hands to cradle her. The infant receives and cannot offer, cries but cannot articulate, trusts but cannot protect herself from harm.
At Christmas, we are not often reminded that the world is still enemy territory. Christmas is the time when it feels as though the world could be otherwise – perhaps there could be peace on Earth.
But that is not the pretense for the Incarnation. The pretense is that the world is fallen, is in need of redemption. The pretense, as Christ later says, is that men are wicked, this generation is faithless. They cannot grapple with the mess they’re in. It will destroy them.
Now, if you had all power and determined to fight and win this conflict, would you begin by emptying yourself of all that power and appearing as an infant behind enemy lines? This is the paradox that would destroy all reality: That God made Himself utterly vulnerable to death.
That baby in the manger is everything. And he has nothing, can say nothing, can protect nothing.
We with finite powers may begin to answer this: If we had all power, we might storm the earth, take the holy innocents trapped behind enemy lines, and speed them to Paradise. And then, if we had the stomach for it – and we would, being holy – we would destroy whatever remained in water and fire, and begin again.
But who, exactly, would you have rescued?
All are under the grip of sin. None are innocent. You would return to Heaven empty-handed, and turn around and destroy all those you meant to save.
Do you see the predicament? We are willing captives. We choose this every time we sin. Meanwhile, God loves us and wishes to redeem us to unimaginable glory.
If He comes in force, we are likely as not to resist! Our guards go up, and all of the things we value more than we should, all of the priorities we have placed above Him – these things we cling to in defiance of Him.
Not you? Do it now, then. Go where He has been calling you. Give up the sins, give up even the good things which nevertheless stand in your way. Leave all things behind – do not look back – and follow Him.
See it now? You are the enemy’s territory. Your heart is behind enemy lines. God cannot rescue you by destroying you.
Make no mistake. There is evil, and it must ultimately be destroyed. Violently, with a permanence so profound you will not remember it existed.
Yet you are redeemable, and one of the ways you can observe this is by your response to an infant. Do you offer a smile? Does your hope awaken? Would you protect the baby from harm?
It was a master stroke, wasn’t it? God almighty, appearing as an infant invader?
He had to come claim your heart, first. Only then could He lead you out.
Our Mother is patient and kind.
The first joyful mystery is the Annunciation. This, of course, refers to the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Son of God Most High.
One often reflects on the magnitude of this announcement. From then-Cardinal Ratzinger:
The salutation to Mary (Lk 1:28-32) is modeled closely on Zephaniah 3: 14-17: Mary is the daughter Zion addressed there, summoned to ” rejoice”, in formed [sic] that the Lord is coming to her. Her fear is removed, since the Lord is in her midst to save her. Laurentin makes the very beautiful remark on this text: “… As so often, the word of God proves to be a mustard seed…. One understands why Mary was so frightened by this message (Lk 1:29). Her fear comes not from lack of understanding nor from that small-hearted anxiety to which some would like to reduce it. It comes from the trepidation of that encounter with God, that immeasurable joy which can make the most hardened natures quake.”
Now see: Could more than a day have passed since Mary prayed to God to send His Messiah?
Oh, how God answers prayers.
This thought has appeared elsewhere, but it warrants repeating: The first Glorious Mystery is the Resurrection.
That’s the first mystery of glory. A man rising from the dead.
And then there’s more…
My reflections during the Rosary are often in words, concepts. But once, when I arrived at the Crucifixion of our Lord, words failed me, even within my mind.
Yet I had an image of Christ on the cross, so I just looked at Him.
The Luminous mysteries are unique in that they contain “The Proclamation of the Kingdom.” But this is not a story proper – there is no clear thing happening, but a man speaking.
Still, it had to be done – Jesus had to announce the purpose for which He had come. In that, I suppose the story, as it were, is as much about us hearing the proclamation as it was for anyone, in any time.
In other words, the Kingdom is always arriving. What will you do with this?
“Joyful” mystery – finding of Jesus in the Temple. Personally, I am struck by the interpretation of this event which says this is the nearest Mary came to experiencing sin, which is a loss of intimacy with God. She, for a period of a few days, felt His absence most acutely.
The second Sorrowful Mystery – I am shaken by the fortitude of Christ at the pillar, being cut to ribbons by the centurions’ whips.
We were made – my God, You made us – with nerve endings that would give us awareness of the world around us, and also of our physical condition. When something is harmful to our bodies, it hurts.
Here, after centuries of perfecting the art of torture, we see the full exploitation of this ostensibly useful feature: Those nerves, down to the tenderest tissue, are slashed and ripped away from the Body. What the body simply is, is torn away. It is painful even in the abstract.
And for love of all the world, He does not quit, or complain, or break.
The crown of thorns represents the full ignorance of man. You could not capture it more perfectly.
The Transfiguration sometimes strikes me – if one may speak this way – as one of the most important stories in all of Scripture. It is the pre-resurrection assurance of glory. It is one thing to have a voice from Heaven at the baptism – and that is enough! – but to have the same voice, and then to see the Man, resplendent in light.
It is everything short of rising from the dead. It is a stone’s throw away from creating ex nihilo.
And finally, for now, the assumption of Mary. By this point all of the mysteries have been lived out, before her eyes, except those which elevated her to her final glory.
She has seen the culmination and climax of salvation history, the entire hope of the whole history of her people. The Lord Himself now dwells on earth as Holy Ghost, setting the world on fire. There is no more doubt about the course of history.
What of her, then? Was that enough, to live through all of this?
It might be enough. And yet, all of that – all of it – points to something more. Something higher.
So Mary will not descend to the grave, but is lifted to Heaven. What a love our Lord has for her! How she carries His original hope for all of mankind!
And I cannot begin to fathom the celebration that occurs at her coronation…
Let us add a little depth to the metaphor.
The human being – and the human race, by expansion – possesses two drives which we in the modern world call “Progressive” and “Reactionary.”
Left and Right, or “To subdue the earth” and “To heed the natural order.”
Now, the metaphor is that of Cthulhu, swimming. The current pulls everything to the right, toward the natural order, terminating in a sheer fall – certain death. Therefore, Cthulhu swims left, to escape the turbulence and danger of the natural order.
The further he swims left, the less imminent the danger. He might finally relax in the water, even become playful. Yet, dangers still exist, and since he knows everything to the right becomes more threatening, he swims left.
And now the water is much calmer, still pulling but requiring very little effort to resist. Cthulhu might begin to impose his own design on the river, building a place to be seated by the bank or small dams to break the water. He will lose the exercise of those muscles which preserved him in the rapids, in favor of skills that enhance his pleasure and comfort in these less troubled waters.
New dangers await. Stagnant water harbors bacteria. His muscles have atrophied – if he wanders too far down river, he will surely drown. Other creatures compete for food, and even as the apex predator he can be overwhelmed by a mass of them. Moreover, there is an indescribable sense of discomfort, of not quite fitting in one’s environment, which the great beast cannot understand. That, quite simply, is that he was made to rule in stronger waters, to challenge himself, to conquer mighty forces.
Proceeding left has always brought him pleasure and comfort – progress – and so he swims further left.
The metaphor can continue, but it will become complicated, even convoluted – if it has not already, for your tastes. Let us look and see something.
There is a sense of melancholy about this metaphor, I think. That is, Cthulhu – the complete body of a human society – is never finally satisfied and safe. And someday he will die, his body carried along, ever more rapidly over the edge.
The human restlessness is such that it will want to challenge the rapids at times, but not for long. Wanting for some activity to challenge his mind and body, imagining even that his survival still depends on it, man swims ever Left, requiring that he impose his will more and more completely on reality.
Somewhere up the river, he thinks, is Utopia. Then he will be happy.
Now, “up” is correct, but the river is two-dimensional. The way out of the river is not upstream, but up, out-of-stream.
If this seems like nonsense, or incredible, or the perfect answer – welcome to religion. Religion is the pull of humanity up out of the river of this world. It is the third dimension, which might elicit these varied responses from two-dimensional creatures. One’s subjective response does not render it void.
Indeed, a properly ordered religion must position itself up, out of the river, and from that height throw down a rope. If Cthulhu – a human society – will grab it, he will be saved both from the dangers of the Left and Right. And it must be a strong rope, held up by a mighty arm.
We come to some paradoxes then.
If leftism is subjugation of the earth – the drive toward civilization, away from natural order – then isn’t more leftism equivalent to more civilized institutions and behavior?
If rightism is respect for the natural order, then isn’t more rightism a drive toward primitive living, before industry, science, and all the rest?
They seem quite the opposite.
That is, conservatives seem to prefer everything that happened in America from 1776 through the 1950’s, give or take a few years. Conservatives love ‘murica – liberals aren’t accused of that.
They prefer industry, they prefer making the most of all potent energy resources, they prefer capitalism and business, they prefer social traditions (very orderly, structured).
Liberals, for their part, are more closely associated with the back to earth movement, to doing what one feels, to giving the benefit of the doubt where certain practices go against the cultural grain.
They have been marching since the 1960’s, starting with the sexual revolution and gradually conquering the media, education, and politics. In many cases, they have undone what existed, rather than build new institutions. (Same-sex marriage is not a new institution – it is the loosening of an old one).
If this big idea is correct about leftism and rightism, we have already alluded to the next layer: Whatever leftism established a generation ago, rightism is now defending. Whatever leftism is pushing, no one wished for a generation ago.
There is yet another layer.
In America there is a Christian tradition, one inextricable from its founding. The Christian religion is properly ordered, so that it forms tight institutions, bright lines, and produces many goods on Earth.
For any progress to be made – and we are in the age of the Progressive – these institutions, this Christian grip on the structure of society, must be undone. The work of leftism, in this case, is to erase whatever may be attributed to the natural order, or to God, in favor of what man might do for himself.
It is, indeed, a push to subdue the earth. And men.
Meanwhile, modern rightism looks like a paradox, because it ought to be a drive toward the natural order – but it looks like a drive toward anachronistic technology and social structure, and filthy fossil fuels, and unjust wages.
Think of someone who is not conservative, if you want a true sense of rightism. Think of a reactionary.
Here is someone who quite seriously would reinstitute a monarchy (with all of its quirks and flaws) and restrict the vote, and champion the formation of socio-economic classes because …
That is what happens in the natural order. In nature, the fittest survive. The powerful get what they want first, and the weak receive the crumbs. If anything.
The natural order, you understand, is not about equality. The liberal push for equality is necessarily a synthetic effort, because men are not equal. And men are not equal to women in the natural order. And no beast is equal to a human in the natural order…and so on.
The conservative is only defending what your forebears installed. The reactionary looks at at fixed point further in the past, and identifies that as the true balance in human affairs.*
Christians will no doubt have observed something here: Original sin is a move to the Left. That is, the original disobedience of God was a play for power on the part of humans. Humans wished to subdue reality, and know it. Know it for what purpose?
“…then your eyes will be open, and ye will be as gods.”
It is enough to shudder. But!
As punishment, God brought down the natural order on humanity – hard. Women would suffer in childbirth, and man would raise produce only by the sweat of his brow. And all would die.
Natural death is the far end of rightism.
So, it is correct to say that the Old Testament is story upon story of humanity in dissonance with the natural order, and suffering greatly because of it. And God, by grace, and mercy and love, saving them.
The New Testament is widely seen – if not in these terms – as a move to the Left, and all of Christianity is sometimes mocked because of this transition.
But they should not spurn the transition so quickly. By Christ’s sacrifice, God gave humanity an escape from the extreme Right, which was NOT the extreme Left. It was neither, and both. Step back and see:
If you were a two dimensional creature, how could we begin to explain the third dimension to you? You would necessarily flatten all of our words and actions, so that you could understand them in your two dimensions. We could not really explain it at all.
And you would be right, and wrong. Mostly wrong.
That’s the role of Catholicism. At its best, and its core, it says to all the world – “Yes, but none of this is quite right. Look – you are going to live forever. Forever. Now, how does that change things here on Earth?”
It might make you more of a rightist. And more of a leftist.
But mostly, it would make a resurrectionist, with your eyes cast above you, which neither the left nor the right can comprehend.
* And again, chronology is not critical in and of itself – it is something of a tape measure, to let us know how far left we’ve come. The Reactionary might also push for things that are in the spirit of a monarchy, but have not ever existed. In that sense, if he is successful, the Reactionary is looking toward the future, through the past. Chronology is not strictly useful.