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Literature, History and the Human Story as Manifested in the Culture

I recently heard a lecture as part of his Pontifex Univeristy class entitled The Bible and the Liturgy, given by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo, in which he explains how the Bible is primarily a liturgical document. This is an inspiring class that, for me, connects the whole educational ethos of Pontifex in the bible and the liturgy – in accord with the Catholic understanding of education – ultimately the role of our teachers is to direct all of us to the Teacher who offers divine wisdom.

The study of Scripture in the classroom is valuable, of course, but as the lecture explains, primarily it is to the degree that it deepens our reception of the Word in a liturgical setting. Through the readings and chants of the words of Scripture in the Mass, Divine Liturgy and Divine Office, we are evangelized and catechized most powerfully. We are formed for supernatural transformation through Christ, and as evangelists who carry the word out to the unevangelized and uncatechized in the world.

The sources Fr Carnazzo uses to support this idea are the writings of the Church Fathers, the descriptions of the historical and current practices of the Church, especially in Her worship, and Scripture itself, as well as two recent books, The Bible and the Liturgy, by Jean Danielou, and Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin Jensen.

There has been so much in this course that was worth highlighting, but I want focus particularly one aspect which I found enlightening, namely, the Biblical descriptions of evangelization. This is done through the description of salvation history as the part of the ongoing story of humanity in which we are protagonists right now.

Fr Sebastian described to us how at various times, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Saints of the early Church addressed the gathered people and told them their story. It would be modified according the assumed knowledge of those listening, sometimes starting with a description of the Creation, at others with Abraham. So, for example, we might think of Joshua talking to the Israelites before crossing the Jordan, or the martyr St Stephen addressing the Jews before he was stoned to death. The point was to make those listening, Jew or Gentile, understand that this is their story too, just as it is our story. The consummation of this story is in the reconciliation between God and man, through the Church, by the death of the old self – united to Christ crucified – in baptism; and by the rebirth of the new self – united to Christ’s resurrection and partaking of His divine nature – through Confirmation and the Eucharist.

The words of the liturgy and of scripture in the liturgy tell this story for us too, both prosaically and poetically, through the readings, the chanting of the psalms and canticles of the Church; they give us a mystagogical catechesis (one that deepens our grasp of the mysteries) so that we are prepared for that supernatural transformation in Christ that is available to us through the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. All of this is made easier for us to grasp of course, when the external forms of the liturgy – the way in which it is celebrated, the art, the music and the architecture for example – are in harmony with this end.

This approach to evangelization, engaging outside the church building with people who do not have Christ – the telling of the story which was used by the early Church – works because it appeals to something that is deep within us. Every one of us knows instinctively that this is what we are made for. The task for each of us is to reveal that grand story, so that the listener can place his own personal story into the drama that it describes. Quite how we do this in the many situations that we are likely to deal with in life is another matter, but each of us will be able to to do it, with God’s grace, to varying degrees according to our calling. But, here is the key thing, it seems to me: our actions and words must point to this story that is the preaching of “Christ crucified.” At the very least, having a clear idea of what it is we are going to say is the most important thing. Much has been written about this elsewhere in the context of, for example, the New Evangelization; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks on the subject here and here.

This principle also tells us the purpose of the study of the history and great works of the culture. Taking history as a subject first: all history, to be of any human value, must be a participation in salvation history, and so must be seen as an aspect of Christian history. Just as every person has a story, whether he has lived his life as a Christian up to a given point or not, one that has the potential for a happy ending through the Church; so also every natural association within society has a story that, in the context of a Christ-centered view of history, participates in salvation history. This is why we need stories that reinforce these natural associations in a way that appreciates the natural hierarchy of each, and places the Church as the highest in value. (I am not arguing here for political power for the Vatican by they way). Therefore, the study of history can be a history of all peoples and all times, but always seen in the light of this principle. It should focus especially on the history of the societies that the person being taught belongs to, his country, his local neighborhood and for us, Western culture as Christian culture.

Just as important as the teaching of the facts of this history, is the teaching of what history is, why it is being taught, so that the student always places what they are learning into this context. This gives us a sense of our place in the world and where we are going, and whether or not we are on the right path. It also stimulates our faculty for seeing things historically, so that when we are presented with the ultimate expression of our history – salvation history in the liturgy – we are able to respond more deeply for the glory of God.

Poetry and literature tell our story in another way, the story itself is the same. In a wonderful talk last year at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre spoke of the need for the reading of poetry, which preserves the collective memory of who we are. I was moved by what he said and agreed wholeheartedly, in principle. But I remember thinking at the time, this is fine for those who like poetry, but what about those like me who hate it. What was not said is that, like history, the teaching of poetry and the cultivation of an enjoyment of it ought to have an even higher end in mind. That end is the telling of my human story and the development of the faculty of responding poetically, so to speak, to the poetry in the liturgy and especially the psalms. What I now realize is that so much of the literature and poetry that I was taught years ago didn’t speak to me of my story, either because it wasn’t contained within it, or because I wasn’t taught how to see it. Whatever the reason, it was not pointing to the ultimate poetry that helps transform me and which, I now realize, I was longing for even before I found it in the liturgy of the Church prior to my conversion. Perhaps if it had been presented to me in this way, I might have responded differently.

I also think that I am not by inclination particularly literary or poetic (referring to written poetry) by nature. I respond much more to art and music. Therefore while I do now appreciate the value of introducing it to those who are naturally of a literary bent, we should not think only of the written or spoken word as ways of telling stories. In fact, the whole of the culture in some way ought to participate beautifully and gracefully in the telling of that story.

Art and music can do this through their beauty, not simply through the telling of a narrative, but through the cosmic beauty of form that can communicate truths beyond words. They can stimulate that deeply embedded faculty in our hearts that is receptive to the Word, the single encapsulation of whole of the story. In the end, by whichever route we get there, the goal is to be as literary as we can be in regard to scripture and the words of the literature. I feel no sense of guilt or lack in that I now rarely read a novel or poetry outside that context. I do pray the psalms daily and love them.

The images of the church should be directed to this end, in harmony with the liturgy, of course. This should be especially so in baptistries, where Christian initiation begins, along with the other rites of initiation from which it should not be separated in our minds (Confirmation and first Communion.)

This is a point that should be appreciated in designing an educational curriculum, I think. While all should be introduced to a canon of literature and poetry for reasons outlined, we should accept that not all will respond to it the same way, and not all will wish to spend their lives enjoying poetry. Part of the goal of such an education is to find those aspects of the culture to which we respond most readily and creatively, and through that door, stimulate our ability to know connaturally so that we can participate in the liturgy actively.

Connatural knowledge is sometimes also called synthetic or poetic knowledge (rather confusingly, I think, given that it is not about the means of communication of truth but about the form of knowing. This is not restricted to poetry or any written communication of the truth in the sense that the word is generally used today). Connatural knowledge is that intuitive grasp on the whole by which, for example, we know and love a person on meeting them, as one hopes to do when encountering Our Lord in the Eucharist.

This explains why the evangelization of the culture is so important. When the very fabric of our culture from top to bottom reflects aspects of this story it will be beautiful. Another speaker at the same conference last year, Roger Scruton, (who spoke on this occasion on the joys of wine) summed up the need for beauty in the culture succinctly in his book How to Be A Conservative: the beauty of the culture, he wrote, tells us we are “at home in the world.”

Here is one little piece of anecdotal evidence for the truth of this, taken from my own experience, something has happened since I first heard this and thought about it: I don’t think I have ever mentioned baptism when talking about the Christian life to non-Christians. This is something that I should mention, just as Philip mentioned it to the Ethiopian in Acts, as it will resonate with them in some way, appealing to their natural instincts. This is a bit of a preachy leap, for me but I resolved to look for opportunities…

With my brother, I have started a group here in the Berkeley, California area that meets weekly at St Jerome Catholic Church, and offers discernment of personal vocation. (We call it “The Vision for You.”) We aim especially to connect with people who are delving into New-Age spirituality and who are looking for a purpose in life. We present it as a series of spiritual exercises in the ‘Western mystical tradition’. While it is pretty obvious that what we do comes from Christianity, we do not demand the people become Christian in order to participate. Rather, using a sort of Pascal’s-wager approach, we suggest that if they are willing to try this, then they will feel the effects; this is precisely what was done to me nearly 30 years ago, and as a result I converted from atheism. The hope is that it will send people on that journey, just as it sent me; however, I tend to let people conclude for themselves what the source of the power that we have as a small group of people who are working their way through this.

At each workshop, those who have experience of the process share personal stories of working through it. I realize now that what we are doing is telling our stories and placing them in the context of our ultimate purpose as we see it. I do always mention that I became Catholic as a result. The last time I did so, I added something that I hadn’t before; I said that although I wasn’t Christian at all when I went through the discernment process, I am nevertheless very grateful to my parents for having had me baptized as an infant. I now believe, I said, that although I was unaware of why at the time, that this is what placed within me an additional facility for responding to God’s grace during the process, and this is why it was so life changing for me.

I could see some cringing a bit as I mentioned baptism and grace, but after the workshop was over someone approached me. He told me that he was ill with cancer and had never been baptized. He had assumed that it wasn’t worth it, but as a result of what I said, he was thinking that he might go through with it. I encouraged him to do so, of course.

This is just anecdotal and not definitive proof of anything, but it does help to convince me that this is something that I should try to include in any account of my story in future!

An ancient Ethiopian manuscript showing the first Ethiopian christian, baptised by St Philip, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

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