Thursday, September 11, 2014

Salvation: Why We Keep Getting It Wrong

On Facebook, Chestertonian Reilly Washburn has been busy quoting Chesterton.

"No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?"


"The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity." 

I can't quite explain how this fits in to the movie Calvary and to people's reaction to the movie Calvary.  I will try to explain anyway, for as a writer (to paraphrase Chesterton) you have to have enough pride to think you can explain the inexplicable and enough humility to realize you can't - along with enough foolhardy courage to make the attempt all the same.


One of the things that happens to adult converts, especially serious adult converts to the Catholic Faith, or at least one of the things that has happened to me, is struggling with the notion of control.  For people who don't regularly read Scripture, that generally means you try to be good and if the price you pay for being good includes some weird hang ups about things that other people are comfortable with, you simply pay that price - you get uptight about (say) sex and you stick out like a sore thumb in any group of normal people, but you pay that price because you really love God and you know how important it is to be good, and what is being good all about, if not a painful and eternally vigilant nit-picking kind of self-control?

But if you read Scripture regularly, you keep seeing that the moral life of a Christian is not really about proscriptions, and certainly not about weirdness.  It's much more comprehensive than simply becoming a prude or a prig, especially since those sorts of people were the folk who were consistently criticized by Jesus.  But it's also not about indulgence.  "Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." (Gal. 5:13)

Instead, it's about something much more radical.  It's about death and rebirth, death to your old sinful self and life to the Spirit of Christ operating in you.  But what on earth does that mean???

One of the things it means is seeing that you deserve to die.

This is where we Christians are most out of touch with the modern world.  But one of the most liberating of things is a recognition of your own worthlessness, and the worthlessness of every one around you - worthlessness in so far as we are not simply animals who seek their meat from God (as Chesterton said), but we are monstrosities.  In context, Chesterton seems to have meant by that that we are never at home in this world, our longings are never completely fulfilled here.

For men are homesick in their homes, 
and strangers under the sun

But we are monstrosities in more ways than being misfits.

We have a bush in front of our house that for some reason is teeming with birds - little starlings, dozens of them.  Yesterday I noticed a hawk sitting on that bush, then jumping off and walking around it, licking its beak, as it were.  The starlings were peeping like crazy, being stalked by a bigger bird who makes a habit of eating little birds.  To say that it's a dog-eat-dog world is simply to say we are animals who seek their meat from God and from the natural world God has provided.

But we're worse than animals.  We not only eat other men, the big ones eating up the little ones, we eat our own little men, we devour our babies.  We are deliberately cruel, we delight in horror.  We love darkness because our deeds are dark.  We are like the atheist medical technician in Calvary, taking a perverse delight in describing a three-year-old's terror in waking up after a botched anesthesia to being permanently deaf, dumb and blind and not knowing why, not knowing where his parents are or why they don't save him - a story relayed with a sick and diabolical grin.  We are not accidentally and naturally cruel like the animals, we are deliberately and spiritually cruel like the devils.

And yet - that's who we are.  We are men who cannot stand pure goodness among us.  If we find such a purely good man, we mock him at the least, crucify him at the worst.  And there's no way out of this fix.  No program will change it.  No system will switch it.  No repression or moral uptightness will allay it.

The only cure is death.  If the good man we so despise were to die for us, and to die in such a way that his death drew out of us all our sin the way a doctor draws pus out of an infected wound; if the good man were to be lifted up as a sign, to give himself out of love to us, to give himself in his death even as a kind of nourishment for our sake - and if the good man were in some sense everyman, every suffering victim in the history of the human race, if he suffered not only a sample of all sufferings, but the worst of all sufferings - betrayal by close friends, abandonment, torture, humiliation, false accusation, injustice, contempt, evil returned for good: and if such a good man suffered for our sake in such a way that people would tell of it and illustrate it for millennia to come, if such a good man suffering and dying in this way were also somehow God Himself, deigning, in a tremendous act of unthinkable humility, to show us by this very act what love is, what He (God) is ... then somehow we could participate in that, somehow we could die along with Him, and somehow (like the Son of Man) we could be reborn.

This is why every single character in Calvary, described as contemptible by some of my Devout Catholic friends on Facebook - this is why every single character in Calvary, and in this world which is always a kind of Calvary, is on the verge of turning toward this same Son of Man and being healed by Him.  The priest, the main character in that movie, knows that, and loves them for that, loves them despite how they treat each other and how they treat him, knows that love always includes sacrifice and that a Christian is not a Christian if he will not carry his cross and follow Christ up that dreadful and barren hill, up that place called Calvary, that Place of the Skull, where God Himself gives up Himself for our sake.

To see the awful state of the human soul - to know the wickedness in our own breast and in the breasts of others - to see that we are monstrosities, brings a kind of "Christian optimism", in Chesterton's words.  The characters in the movie Calvary are not offered God's grace because they are worthy of it.  They most certainly are not.  They come to be worthy of God's grace after they'be been offered it.  Their cooperation with that grace kicks in only after it's been freely and gratuitously offered them out of love.  As I said yesterday, quoting St. Paul ...

Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-8)

... and, as Chesterton said ...

There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast,' that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. 

And so, what I'm trying to say is this.

Every attempt we make to control our own sinfulness with repression or some sort of program or system is doomed to failure, doomed to Unreality.  There is only one thing that can save us, and that is love.  And God is love (1 John 4:8).  Love comes to us freely, which is why we call it grace.  It brings with it suffering and death, joy and rebirth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7).  Love turns the barren mound of Calvary, a place of torture and death, humiliation and abandonment, jeering and fear, into a garden, into a New Eden, a New Jerusalem.

The mistake I keep making, and the mistake most Devout Catholics seem to be making, is short-circuiting God's grace, blocking off the flow of love, being untrue to our relationships, with both our friends and our enemies; the mistake is assuming that it's all about us, thinking that our cooperation with grace precedes grace (which obviously it can't), thinking that salvation consists of the Old Adam simply learning how to be more of a tight ass about life, thinking that if we just shut our eyes and ears like those see no evil, hear no evil monkeys, we'll stop being monstrosities and turn into men.  But that ain't it at all.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - for he who has died is freed from sin.  (Rom. 6:6-7)

The change God wants to work in us is a far deeper change than most of us Devout Catholics are willing to admit.


Drusilla Barron said...

Thank you! This is exquisite.

We are all reaching for the same salvation and can only do so because He is calling and reaching for us.

Christian LeBlanc said...

I will have to see the movie.

"We are men who cannot stand pure goodness among us." I was teaching this about Abel and Jesus a just couple of nights ago in catechism class.

Anonymous said...

Saw Calvary yesterday.
I don't see the film as being about a Good Priest. Sure, he's doing the Lord's work in a horrible situation, but he has serious flaws: his judgments are often rash and lacking in compassion; he's an alcoholic; his behavior could arguably be described as suicidal. His end comes across as almost having a certain justice to it. He accuses his vicar of having "no integrity," but he himself is divided in a not wholly dissimilar way. It made me think of Micah 2:4, a verse so crucial to the theology of salvation: "the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live."
The end is ambiguous, to say the least, because the trauma of being a "good priest" amid the smoldering remains of the Irish Church, although quite real and poignantly depicted, doesn't justify the callous "dissociation" of the shepherd from his sheep. However, there is a last little glimmer of hope that the priest's suffering, reflected in his survivor's eyes, will give the abuse survivor a way out of the prison of his self-righteousness and into forgiveness.
Salvation is present in this film, but only en creux, which is perhaps the best that art can do.

Kevin O'Brien said...

It's one thing to use a French phrase to put down a film for being shallow. It's another to do so without signing your comment. If you're going to be smug and pretentious, you can at least have what the French call a nom de plume.

Commenters, please read my instructions for commenting ... "Anonymous commenters, please sign your posts with a name, even a made-up one, so that other commenters can refer back to what you said without confusing you with other folks who are Anonymous."

Kevin O'Brien said...

In fact, I've decided that if people flout such a simple rule, I just won't let them play ... "Comments not signed with at least a pseudonym will be deleted."