You are each of you…so generous,
that you will always exceed your income.
~ Mr. Bennet
The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer, The Paschal Mystery
It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala, The Imitation of Mary
Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.
That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.
At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:
‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’
‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’
‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’
Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!
Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.
Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.
That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”
Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:
Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.
Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!
Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.
It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.
So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.
It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.
“Something strange is happening….”
~ Bp. Melito of Sardis
This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic – Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name – “Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas” – and then celebrate with him afterwards.
And he was hardly nervous – way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday – that life will get harder, not easier – and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed – or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.
Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia – again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts – those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings – the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.
Yet even that foolhardy conversio – that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying – is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.
For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil – to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.
He came up on the subway and sat in the way back – it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night – he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended – but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s presence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.
The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim – “What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door – the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado – most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers – a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.
Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward – are backward glances still appropriate?
It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title – “And the Healing Has Begun” – and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.
Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove – then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing – maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.
A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait – what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”
At Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in yesterday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection – returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!” – an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter – the “Rock” – who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame – wouldn’t you?
Anyway, that’s me for sure – that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better – I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still…this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.
There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
So, Easter looks forward and backward – it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future – everything in his path.
We dare not duck.
A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.
“I don’t want to belong to any club
that would accept me as one of its members.”
~ Groucho Marx
We’ve already grown accustomed to it – almost come to expect it. Pope Francis travels overseas, and at some point in his informal chats with journalists, he drops a verbal bombshell that screams across headlines the next day. We grin, shake our heads, and wait for the inevitable spin.
The most recent example took place on the Holy Father’s flight back to Rome from Mexico. His visit there included a stop at the U.S. border and a call for greater hospitality toward immigrants, which gave rise to some pointed criticism from presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Holy Father, speaking to reporters on his plane, alluded to Trump’s policy proposal to build an impenetrable fence along the border and suggested that those who prefer building walls to building bridges are not Christian.
That’s the part that played in the press, and the Pope’s follow-up comment that he gives such people the “benefit of the doubt” was lost in the shuffle. Unsurprisingly, Trump shot back that it’s outrageous for any religious leader to judge the faith of an individual believer, and his supporters seemed to agree, for Trump’s campaign, far from being damaged by Francis’s remark, took a bump in the polls. The negative fallout fell primarily on the Pope’s defenders who had to expend a bunch of effort squaring what the Holy Father seemed to say with what he apparently meant to say.
And what did he mean to say? From everything I’ve read, Pope Francis was merely attempting a commonsense observation that those who call themselves Christians don’t always act accordingly. In this case, the Holy Father also seemed to assert that a particular approach to solving highly complex issues of immigration and human rights, law and economics is required of those who claim to be Christian – at least Catholic Christians, anyway – and he implied that Trump was falling short.
That might be, but does that make Trump any less a Christian than you or me? The record is clear that the Republican front-runner grew up and was confirmed in the Presbyterian Church, and it’s a faith tradition he still identifies with. Consequently, Trump is unquestionably a baptized and professed member of the Body of Christ, and, by definition, my brother in the Lord – and yours.
Perhaps that makes you squirm – you’re not alone! Candidate Trump (not to mention Private Citizen Trump) has flouted commonly accepted Gospel values in word and deed so many times and in so many ways that it would be nigh impossible to catalog them all. Large sectors of the electorate find it unthinkable that this man might become President – as it’s unthinkable, for some of us, that any of the remaining candidates from either party might achieve that goal – but that’s beside the point.
Of greater interest to me is the Trump phenomenon as a case study in our understanding of Christianity itself – of who’s in and who’s out. Consider these words of Msgr. Romano Guardini: “The great revolution of faith is not a lump of reality fallen ready-made from heaven into our laps,” he wrote. “It is a constant act of my individual heart and strength.” That is, for Trump, for you, for me, Christianity is a religion of constant conversion that commences with our baptismal grafting into the vine of Christ, but which recurs daily, constantly, every moment even. There’s no resting on our laurels, no plateaus. Once we think we’ve finally “arrived” is precisely the moment we’ve essentially removed ourselves from the taproot of grace. Either we’re growing in Christ, or we’re dying – maybe even dead.
The worst-case scenario is when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are growing when we’re not – that we’re very much alive when we’re actually on the way out. Here, too, Guardini offers insight:
Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” – possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation.
Ours is an “already/not yet” religion – both fixed and fluid. When we formally embrace the faith through sacrament and interior assent, we can “already” legitimately call ourselves Christians. However, that’s only the beginning, and we’re compelled by the knowledge that we’re “not yet” saints to continually conform ourselves to Jesus.
Your parish’s candidates and catechumens are learning about this in their Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes. They’re very much looking forward to receiving Easter sacraments and making their profession of faith on Holy Saturday – at which point they’ll “already” be Catholics – but they’re also anticipating an ongoing formation and deepening of understanding that will follow. It’s called the “post-baptismal catechesis,” or mystagogy – a reference to the further unveiling of those “mysteries” of grace that the new Christians (“neophytes”) will have received on Easter. “This is a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery,” the RCIA reads, “and in making it part of their lives.”
Now, for those neophytes, mystagogy instruction will last until Pentecost or thereabouts, but will they be done then? No, of course not – no more than you and I are ever “done” with regards to our own Christian walks. In that sense, all of us are perpetually in the mystagogy period of faith.
And that includes Donald Trump – along with most of the slate of presidential candidates. If you’re like me, you’ve just about had it with all the vitriol and carping that goes on in the news and on the internet regarding this election. Next time you heave an exasperated sigh as you switch off whatever gizmo had been feeding you Trump’s latest outrage, say a prayer for the guy – it can’t hurt, right?
If Pope Francis can give him the benefit of the doubt, so can I. In any case, I certainly hope that same benefit applies to me.