Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

Of Witches, Walburga, and Welcoming Spring

23 May

“We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.”
~ C.S. Lewis

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Nailed: Outrage, Consolation, and a Helpless God

2 Apr

“If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.”
G.K. Chesterton

Early in the first semester of nursing school, I teach a unit on mobility and range of motion. We talk about body mechanics and ergonomics, how to ensure proper positioning for ailing patients as well as proper nursing postures to avoid back injuries. I tell the students that mobility is a continuum: It begins with limited locomotion in infancy, progresses to maximum free movement in youth and adulthood (with occasional interruptions due to injury or illness), and then finally declines with the entropy of natural aging. When we care for patients suffering altered mobility, our job as caregivers is to move them back along that continuum toward their maximum potential – to restore, that is, their fullest possible functioning with regards to voluntary movement.

As a part of that module, we also talk about restraints, which are the exact opposite of promoting mobility. Under certain circumstances – namely for patient safety and/or the safety of the practitioners – physical restraints are warranted, but they’re never easy to implement. People typically choose nursing as a profession because they’re caring and compassionate, and it goes against the grain for nurses (especially students) to impose anything that, on the surface, defies the Golden Rule. “I wouldn’t want to be restrained,” our thinking goes – a notion that also applies to giving shots and inserting loathsome tubes. Still, for the greater good of the patient, for the advancement of his healing and recovery, we are obliged to do such things. And, yes, we’re even obliged to physically confine our patients’ freedom of movement when it is required to bring about a greater good.

This Lent, I’ve been dwelling on the idea of restraints with reference to the crucifixion. Ordinarily we focus on the crucifixion’s Cross and its wood, especially on Good Friday – and rightly so. All through the New Testament, there’s a repeated emphasis on crosses – the Cross that our Lord carried and upon which he died; the crosses that we ourselves take up and bear as followers of the Lord, as imitators of him. “Apart from the cross,” insists St. Rose of Lima, “there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC 618). These days, however, I’m more fixated on the nails – in fact, “fixate” is an especially appropriate descriptor here, because that’s exactly what nails do. They fix something in place: God, in this case.

Of the three or four Holy Nails that affixed our incarnate God to the Cross, there are few intact specimens with any substantial provenance. St. Helen is said to have discovered the originals along with the True Cross in the fourth century, but then their history gets a bit murky after that. Tradition has it that the nails are still around, or at least facsimiles with some kind of associative pedigree. You can view and venerate them – all 30 or more – at various sites and shrines around the world.

Years ago, I myself had the privilege of seeing one of them at the Roman Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and it’s a Holy Nail with an especially solid claim on authenticity. “The true nail, kept at Rome, in the church of the Holy Cross, has been manifestly filed,” notes Fr. Alban Butler and his associates, “and is now without a point, as may be seen in all pictures of it.” It’s in a side chapel containing other Holy Land treasures, including Pilate’s tri-lingual placard that declared Jesus the King of the Jews, a couple thorns from the Crown, and chunks off the True Cross.

As a relatively new Catholic at the time of my visit, I was especially taken with these relics of the Passion, and I recollect even then being particularly impressed with the Holy Nail on display. The wood of the True Cross, I knew, was scattered around the world in innumerable reliquaries, but here was one of the actual bolts that captured God – that restrained him, not for his own good, but for mine. “The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end…has remained in human history the strongest argument,” writes Pope St. John Paul II. “If the agony of the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” That agony was a function of the nails; that salvific demonstration of divine love was facilitated by a fettered restriction to which he subjected himself.

Nowadays, the Holy Nails come to our attention primarily when we’re making the Way of the Cross and come to the Eleventh Station – “Jesus is nailed to the Cross.” However, the reflections associated with that Station are usually directed to the physical pain that accompanied the nailing – the pounding of those spikes into our Savior’s limbs, the gush of blood, the agony, the terror. “These barbarians fastened Him with nails; and then, raising the cross, left Him to die with anguish on this infamous gibbet,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his familiar version of The Way. Then, in his meditation on this terrible event, Liguori requests of the Lord that he “nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there to love Thee, and never quit Thee again.” It’s a laudable sentiment and a worthy spiritual goal, but recently the Nails have come to mean something even more to me.

I was sharing with Jim, my ersatz godfather, about a delicate and complex problem I’d been contending with. “I feel powerless to do anything,” I told him with a sad sigh, “helpless.”

Jim listened, paused, and then made a simple, wise suggestion. “Sounds like you should spend more time in church looking at Christ nailed to the Cross.”

The moment he said it, I knew he was right, and the crucifix in my parish church lent itself well to Jim’s proposal. The corpus is outsized, those holy hands clearly visible from the pews, and the black tacks pinning the divine wrists jut out in clear relief. The nails defy, they taunt, they dismiss all entreaties. One can readily imagine the bound Messiah feebly commending his mother to St. John and vice versa – what else could he do? No gesture of affection, no caress of his mother’s brow, none of that. The extremities of the Lord were held fast.

Yet it needn’t have been so – by Jesus’ own admission. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father,” he told his disciples, “and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” And yet he acquiesced and stayed on the Cross, allowing the nails to pin him fast. I’m reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lordly Aslan, a Christlike servant-king, submits to a humiliating, tortuous spectacle:

The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others…rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh.

As I gaze in silence at the nails on my parish’s imposing crucifix, and I contemplate how they briefly and mysteriously confined the Word made flesh, the principle of God’s creative force in the universe, I realize a peace with regards to my own intractable situation. I can do nothing, nothing – just like the One who bowed to a cross and its bondage. There’s only endurance and waiting, abandonment and hope, and I take comfort in the knowledge that he knows every dimension of my human pain, including the pain of limitation.

His immobility beckons me to imitate his acceptance and perseverance. He beckons; I hesitate. He beckons; I pray. He beckons….

This reflection also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Best Violent Movie You’ve Never Seen

4 Mar

“The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.”
~ Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

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Of Hitchcock, Heaven, and the Thrill of the Chase

11 Jan


“In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah, how you will delight the angels!”
~ Fillipa, “Babette’s Feast

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Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov


“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

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Three Protestants Who Helped Me Become Catholic

14 Mar


My dear friend, consider: I am not persuading you to leave or change your religion, but to follow after that fear and love of God without which all religion is vain.
~ John Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic

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Love in Hell

28 Feb


All that are in Hell, choose it.
~ C.S. Lewis

Getting ready for work one day last week, I was bantering with Katharine, my 9-year-old, who snuggled under the covers and tried to focus on her book. She had a snow day; I didn’t. My tongue-in-cheek resentment gave rise to a steady stream of playful paternal pestering.

At one point, it became clear that she wasn’t listening at all. “Go ahead and ignore me – I’ll still love you,” I pouted. “I’ll still love you till the day I die.”

Without looking up from her book, Kath idly responded, “Even if you die, you better keep loving me in heaven.” Then, as a hedge, she added, “Or in hell.”

In that brief statement, Katharine skirted the edges of some weighty theology – the Four Last Things, for instance. Note the prominence of the word “or” with reference to my ultimate destination. Kath takes it for granted that there’s a final stop for us all after death – that everybody, including her dad, will wind up spending eternity in paradise or the pits. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,” is how the Catechism puts it, “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven…or immediate and everlasting damnation.”

Note, too, the assumption that her own pop could very well be damned – a loaded comment perhaps? Was my daughter implying that her dad was falling short in the sanctifying grace department? I imagine not, for she never looked up from her book, and when I jested back that I hoped to love her from heaven, she took it in stride.

Even so, it was a comment that reflects reality, for nobody should take the state of ones soul for granted. Yes, we can be confident in the salvation that Christ won for us through his life, death, and Resurrection, and, yes, we can be sure of the Church’s ministration of that salvation to us through the Sacraments and her very existence – “the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men” (CCC 780).

Nonetheless, our appropriation of salvific grace requires our assent – and that’s not a one-shot deal. Yeah, it’d be nice if we totally embraced Jesus once and for all, but it doesn’t work that way. Every day requires conversion, every moment requires turning toward God and away from sin. Over and over we stumble, fall, and get up again, slouch forward and stumble some more – no turning back! No giving up! Why, it’s built into the system itself – we have the Sacrament of Penance after all.

OK, so there’s all that orthodoxy embedded in Katharine’s minor aside, but what of her contention that I’d better keep loving her even if I end up permanently down below? It was a provocative idea that came back to me later in the week at Mass. The Gospel on Thursday was the story of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus, with its stark divesrepresentation of ultimate reversal of fortune based on earthly human conduct. The rich man paid no heed to the destitute Lazarus as his doorstep; after death, the condemned Dives still seemed to treat the now glorified Lazarus as a nonentity who ought to do his bidding – that is, the rich guy still had no clue and evidently no hope.

Yet, there’s that incongruous entreaty of Dives on behalf of his family near the parable’s end:

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’

Jerome Kodell writes of the rich man’s plea that it’s “the first sign we have that he is concerned about others.” Although it’s too little, too late, could it be a tantalizing Biblical hint that even the accursed retain some tenuous link to charity? Will damned dads, in other words, be able to keep loving their daughters as Kath presumed? And, if so, could that lend credence to the idea of an empty hell?

Maybe – maybe not.

What’s certain is this: My young girl is apparently so trusting of my ongoing fatherly affection and solicitude that she can’t conceive of a circumstance in which they’d go wanting – not even endless perdition. That’s a boost to my confidence, for sure, but also a spur to my pursuit of holiness. Regardless of what’s possible in hell, I have no doubt that I’d be able to keep loving her from heaven, and I’ve got a reputation to live up to.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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