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“Salus animarum supemus lex esto” — the salvation of souls … must be the supreme law in the Church.” Canon Law (1752)

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A Commentary in Passing:

upon excerpts from

Introduction to Christianity

by Pope Benedict XVI

Part V:

Fastened to the Unfastened Cross:

Dubiety and Sanctity


In a poignant and deeply disconcerting vignette, Pope Benedict stirs us from the naiveté to which we have clung in our often desperate effort to maintain belief in the face of all that contradicts our enunciations of faith. He could not have chosen a more apposite figure — one that, to the contemporary Catholic, epitomizes, as it embraces the sublimity of faith — while it contends no less rigorously with an utterly depredating depth of doubt. The figure he invokes is St. Therese of Lisieux.

To some degree all hagiography — inasmuch as it is authentically biographical of a Saint — suffers from models of piety that, at least to some extent, enforce a counterfeit vision of sanctity that, given our fallen human nature, is unattainable. We wish to indemnify our Saints from their humanity, failing to realize that it is precisely in light of the fragility of this humanity, that sanctity alone becomes not just possible, but even attainable. I suppose that. for the querulous, I ought add, "of course, through the grace and predilection of God"— so I here add it, albeit unnecessarily.

We tend to sanitize our Saints much as we clean the marble or plaster in which we mold them — lifeless, unmoving, cool, and unblemished surfaces are contoured according to prevailing aesthetic canons resulting in an image as historically immutable as the as the composition of the stone from which it is hewn.

It is not the image that is struggling to emerge in final form that captivates us, but the finished form. The countless strokes of grace that brought the form to perfection, the often shattering blows that seemed to diminish the form as even as it defined it, the buffets and blows which alone uncovered, revealed, made possible the beauty inherent within it — and all, each and every one, wrought by the hand of God — all these are dismissed as unworthy of our Saints, whom God only polished but never struck.

Like children before their parents, we are reluctant to believe anything short of perfection from the Saints. It is painful to us. It makes them like unto us. Or what is more frightening still, it makes us more like unto them — and this prospect frightens us because it means that we can be like them ... but are not — at least not yet. We wish to be! ... but if we are honest we wish only to be polished ... not struck!

We reach out and touch the outstretched hand, the inviting fingers of the statues, and instinctively recoil that they are not supple, but hard, unmoving, unyielding, without suffering — ensconced in some empyreal world to which cold matter only attests but does not reveal.

Pope Benedict, in a bold stroke that shakes us from our naiveté, pulls aside the finely textured curtain of hagiography and reveals — not polished marbled, but buffeted flesh! And of a sudden we come face to face with real sanctity, and are thunderstruck! It resembles us! It is shattered and scoured — but breathlessly more beautiful than the statue, than the counterfeit notion of sanctity to which we have politely, and eagerly, accustomed ourselves.

Pope Benedict XVI, in admirable forthrightness, reveals to us another vision altogether:

"That loveable St. Therese of Lisieux who looks so naive and unproblematical, had grown 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 had become not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be almost a tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking.

To her, "religion" really was a self-evident supposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives. Yet this very Saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions which her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and which have now only come to light in the verbatim editions. She says, for example, "I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism". Everything has become questionable, everything is dark. She feels tempted to take only the sheer void for granted. 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. All that can be seen is the bottomless depths of the void into which one is also staring."

Introduction to Christianity, Chapter I

Quite suddenly the "immediacy" of faith, of belief, becomes not a matter merely of enculturation, still less of doctrinal profession, but a deeply painful, even ulcerating expression of the human condition from which it either emerges — or fails to emerge — much like the graceful figure inherent, latent, possible, within the quarry stone, but not yet defined, elicited, by the Sculptor.

In effect, the very formation of genuine Faith presumes the presence of doubt against which it articulates itself — not by abolishing doubt, for we cannot — nor by "reconciling" doubt with faith, for this is contradictory — but by acknowledging the reality of doubt, a doubt engendered, seemingly authenticated, by compelling realities to which we cannot reasonably remain aloof. Faith is not a fait accompli. It is not given and it is not received as something indefeasible against which the world of experience cannot possibly contend. Rather, faith is enacted — it is the incessant, the perpetual enactment, day by day, hour by hour, of an affirmation that is elicited through its contention with doubt. Doubt is not an imposter. It is real. It is shattering. It is ex-cruciating. But only against, even through, doubt, does faith articulate itself — by emerging from, and not descending into, the void. And the void is real.

The doubt of St. Therese is not a scandal. But for doubt she would not be a Saint. And because the doubt was great, the Saint was great. Sanctity, we find, is elicited from doubt — not by vanquishing doubt.

The Saint is "Fastened to the Cross — with the Cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. the last analysis, he knows that this wood is stronger than the void which seethes beneath him and which remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day-life."

Understanding this, we begin to see something far more beautiful, far more exquisite than polished and unblemished marble — we begin to see the human heart beneath the grace of God ... and with astonishment come to realize that it is so much like our own! Would we have known the beauty of Jesus Christ ... had He not become one of us ...?



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End of Commentary


Go Back to Part IV: The Oppressive Power of Unbelief: A Hell of a Situation

Go back to Part III: Beating a Dead Horse: And the Dialectic that Didn't

Go back to Part II: Of Benedict and Balaam - of Horses and Asses

Go back to Part I: The Horse in St. Peter's Square


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