By Guest Blogger and Colleague, Dr. Chris Baglow
In a very famous passage, C.S. Lewis describes finding faith in Jesus Christ on a drive to the Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Sometimes, faith sneaks in unawares. And sometimes, it sneaks back out.
Just one hour south of that zoo, in July 2003, I strolled through downtown London with my father, all but certain I had lost my faith. Joseph Ratzinger, not yet our beloved Benedict XVI, helped me find it again two weeks later in the little living room of our first house, a red 1500 square foot Acadian in Mandeville, LA. In this my final post of the series, let me honor him one last time by telling the story and sharing the quote that ended my crisis and began my passion for the theology of Joseph Ratzinger.
I had to go to give a paper at the Medieval Congress in Leeds on July 17. I brought my father along because, although both his parents were from Great Britain, he had never been there. We started in London and made our way to the North, then back via Oxford – one week of travel. I still feel that my father never really experienced England, however, because our trip coincided with what is now known as the 2003 European heat wave.
The wave is considered the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. It felt like Southeastern Louisiana for the ENTIRE trip, including a sizzler of 91.4 degrees. We had expected a break from the heat and had packed jackets for nighttime. I don’t think we ever used them. We suffered.
The Londoners, by contrast, were ecstatic. Instead of having to travel to Orlando or the Bahamas for fun in the sun, it had come to them. The streets were packed, not with the usual tourists like ourselves, but with city residents basking, skating, biking, frolicking in the warmth. The magnificent churches we visited were empty but the streets were full, and on our second afternoon I received the only chill of the trip as it dawned on me that for all I could tell these happy people were almost all post-Christian, post-God. They weren’t atheists, who still believe enough to have to trouble themselves with arguments. Faith didn’t even seem to be significant enough for them to take the trouble to reject it. And they were happy, loving life and laughing.
I turned my mind to prayer and for the first time in my adult life it felt utterly futile, like trying to lift with a broken collarbone. I was afraid to pray again – it was like the fear I felt as a teenager when my friends and I found a broken cemetery vault in uptown New Orleans and were daring each other to look inside. I didn’t want to pray because I didn’t want to see what seemed entirely certain to me: that my faith was proven wrong, dead, forever to be silent. I looked into the faces of those happy British people and felt that were I to address them with the Gospel, I myself would disappear from their sight like a shimmering shade. My faith and so myself were ephemeral; they were solid, real.
This was surprising to me. As a theologian, queries of faith were and are part of my daily schedule. As the mathematician deals in probabilities or the gunslinger in lead, so I deal in the unanswered questions, the new challenges, that the human experience of reality presents to the Word from beyond the world. Always the Catholic Faith had presented itself to me as the better answer, the delightful clarity of light, the “both/and” holistic way, as the Truth. But I had never had the very foundations shaken like they were in the miraculous (miracu-less?) London heat.
Proof of the depth of my crisis: I didn’t tell my Dad. Better proof: when I got home, I didn’t tell Christine. As a person who doesn’t have an unspoken thought, my crisis of faith had even brought me a new virtue – discretion – which almost seemed like a grim confirmation that I would never recover, because there was nothing to recover to.
What could I do? I couldn’t do anything but go forward. So I got back to my summer reading list as if I could still be a theologian. Next book on the list: Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger.
At this point in my life I had only read Ratzinger once, in a doctoral course at Duquesne University where Eschatology had been assigned. I found an interesting argument about Plato’s metaphysics there, but that was all I could remember about it. He wasn’t on my Top 25 list of theologians to read; actually I had developed a soft avoidance because a) he was a German thinker, b) he was a German thinker, and c) he was a German thinker. When people would laud him I would smile and nod. If they asked what my favorite Ratzinger work was, I would answer: Eschatology. That usually seemed to suffice. But I really didn’t know him.
Might I suggest that far too many of the enthusiastic throngs who cheered wildly when he became pope also didn’t know him? That they had heard the derogatory God’s Rottweiler media epithet and just turned it into German Shepherd because they wanted a bully to hide behind? The last days of the John Paul II’s life had a different feel than the first days of Benedict’s papacy, which brought out some ugliness. The same people who gave up Palm Sunday cheers, I suspect, were the same people who gave up Good Friday shouts when they found out that he was still a daring, creative theologian, still ready to be surprised by Divine Truth and not a reactionary anti-modernist. Unlike themselves.
But I digress. Eight pages into Introduction to Christianity I was on my knees shedding tears of gratitude, because I discovered there that he understood. He had stared into the same sarcophagus and had not dissolved into thin air. He had gone through the darkness and found solid ground. These were the words I read that made me forever a Ratzingerian. He broke through my choking solitude, my icy numbness and horror, and his calm presence became the vehicle through which the Presence returned. I offer them here almost certain that I will never receive new words from him again:
…the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him. A few examples will help to make this clear. That lovable Saint Therese of Lisieux, who looks so naive and unproblematical, grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions that her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and that have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. She says, for example, “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism”. Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished; she feels that she is now “in sinners’ shoes.” In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking–even for her under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise—the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession—all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.
Paul Claudel has depicted this situation in a most convincing way in the great opening scene of the Soulier de Satin. A Jesuit missionary is shown as the survivor of a shipwreck. His ship has been sunk by pirates; he himself has been lashed to a mast from the sunken ship, and he is now drifting on this piece of wood through the raging waters of the ocean. The play opens with his last monologue:
“Lord, I thank thee for bending me down like this. It sometimes happened that I found thy commands laborious and my will at a loss and jibbing at thy dispensation. Yet now I could not be bound to thee more closely than I am, and however violently my limbs move they cannot get one inch away from thee. So I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not Fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.”
Fastened to the cross–with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively, described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably, and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void that seethes beneath it and that remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day life.
There is much more to be quoted. But at that moment in 2003, this is where I stopped. I end here because I hope that my reader can see the moment of resolution – “he knows that the wood is stronger than the void.”
Benedict XVI, pope emeritus, knew that the wood is stronger the day he became pope. He knew it the day he resigned. He knew it in the 1960′s when he wrote these words. He knows it today. And thanks to him, the world can know it as well.
Well said! Viva il Papa! Hooray for Ratzinger!