What We Cannot See

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, Texas on Sunday, January 10, 2021 – The Baptism of Our Lord

(Mark 1:7-11)

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1946 that argues strongly that people need to read old books. He didn’t believe all modern books were bad, but rather that old books have a corrective power that new books don’t have. Lewis said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He argues that even those who are sworn enemies in their own time are formed in the same cultural waters and therefore make the same errors that neither one of them can see, but which become glaringly obvious in the long arc of history.

Lewis is right that we never quite manage to see the errors of our own age. It’s the water we swim in. If you were a particularly intelligent fish, perhaps you could determine which side of the bowl you prefer to be on, the side that faces the wall or the side that faces the window. You might even be able to make a good argument to your fellow fish. “The window side is clearly superior! It’s warmer and there’s so much more light.” But would you even notice the water? Probably not anymore than as humans we notice the air we breathe. Of course, you’d probably notice if the water suddenly went from crystal clear to a murky brown. But would you notice if that change happened more gradually, with the water getting just a little bit dirtier and a little harder to swim in every year? Or would it be imperceptible to you until one day you look up and suddenly realize that you’ve been choking?

This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. Like so many Americans, I watched with shock and horror on Wednesday as protesters broke through a police line and attacked the U.S. Capitol building, threatening elected leaders and their staff, causing the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer, and in the words of President Trump in his statement on Friday, “defiling the seat of American democracy.” It was an unthinkable display, like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it seemed to shake a lot of people out of complacency, including some members of Congress who were huddled under their desks as the assault was carried out. How did we get here? How did we become so utterly divided as a nation that violence has become a legitimate means, in the eyes of some, for overturning an election and overthrowing the rule of law?

The situation we find ourselves in isn’t going to get fixed by debate. It’s not going to go away because of a new presentation of facts that’s going to change anybody’s mind. This isn’t actually about that. Yes, we have serious questions that need to be debated, and serious issues that pull us apart culturally and politically, but the reason we’re now at a place where we’re ready to tear out each other’s throats isn’t because we disagree about issues. It’s the stuff that we can’t see that’s killing us. It’s the water that we swim in. It didn’t get polluted all at once; it’s been happening slowly but steadily, over a long period of time. We’ve adopted, little by little, without even realizing it, a whole new moral structure, a whole new way of seeing the world that would be indecipherable to our ancestors. That new morality is shaped less by books, as in Lewis’ time, than by Twitter and YouTube and Tiktok and cable news, by technology that we were told would connect us and make our lives better but instead isolates us and transforms us from people into products. It’s a worldview that’s developed right along with time-saving appliances, televisions with Netflix subscriptions, and wristwatches that keep you connected to your work email even in the middle of the night. 

Whether or not you use any of that stuff, all of it has been shaping us and changing us for a long period of time. And I can’t tell you exactly how. I wish I could. I can’t see the whole board, because I’m on it. I’m not some impartial observer. I’m swimming in this dirty water, just like you. It’ll probably be many years before our great grandchildren look back at this period with the clarity of history and put together exactly what happened to us. But from where we sit today, none of us are going to be able to diagnose the problem fully. And yet, friends, there is an answer.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Baptism is an antidote to sin. It washes away the pollution of our hearts and minds. Jesus didn’t need any of that. There was no sin in Him that needed to be forgiven, no pollution that needed to be washed away. So why did He wade out into the waters of the Jordan and allow John to baptize Him? Because He came into the world to change the waters that we swim in. Throughout His life, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince anyone of anything. He made moral pronouncements that completely baffled the people of His day, but He refused to argue about them. When one group or another tried to bait Him into taking sides on a contentious issue, He would tell them a story that they didn’t understand that revealed the foolishness of the entire debate. The water didn’t change Jesus; Jesus changed the water. He doesn’t convince us to join Him by laying out the facts. He convinces us to join Him by joining us, by jumping into the water with us and taking all the pollution out of it and into Himself so that we no longer have to suffer from it.

Old books are helpful, to be sure, but Jesus is the only long term solution for what has us ripped apart. Yet even in the Church today, we often seem more interested in swimming in our own water than in His. We take our petty squabbles into the Church with us, forming different factions, following the latest dilettante who tells us what we want to hear, even if that means throwing out the pope and the magisterium to get there. If we try to bring our polluted water with us into the Church, that’s a surefire recipe for drowning. We need to swim in water that’s been purified by Jesus, to let go of our pet peeves and our need to be seen as holier than the person in the next pew. Jesus is the only way out of this mess. We must put everything else aside and focus our minds and our hearts only on Him: obeying His words, imitating Him, and allowing Him to pour into us the grace that can change us from the inside out.

A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).