The Personalist Project

Battle for the person

... the battle which each person—and particularly each Christian—fights for humanity and human values is the noblest of battles.  It is a frontline battle, and final victory is worth the risk of some losses.

Karol Wojtyla, The Way to Christ

There'll be no more gentiles, there'll be no more Jews, / And we'll all sit together in the same kind of pews.

                 --Bluegrass song from my early childhood, which was nothing if not eclectic

...Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.

                 --I Corinthians 2:9

There are only a few activities in life that are purely, solely, and inevitably about God and God only, and those are the activities many Christians enjoy least of all. 

                  --Matt Walsh

"You might not want to go to Heaven" is the title of blogger Matt Walsh's latest post. Let's start with what he gets right, which, credit where credit's due, is a lot.

  • Heaven is not "some kind of trinket" you win for playing the game. It's not a trophy for good behavior. You can't earn Heaven
  • Heaven is not the automatic consequence of "believing in Jesus." As Matt recalls "even the demons believe." Intellectual assent to the proposition "There is a God" won't get you there.

But then things get murkier. The more I read about what it means to desire Heaven, and how to "condition ourselves" into becoming the kind of person who does so, the more vexed I am by an inchoate dissatisfaction--a sense that this piece, though it seeks precisely to strip away the nonessentials, misses that whole point. 

Tell me if you think so too.

Here's what Matt says:

Heaven is...for those who truly wish to do nothing but love and serve Him for all eternity....We only want to go to Heaven if we want a life that is completely consumed by Christ and nothing else [emphasis added].

Here's where it starts to get interesting. God encompasses all goods--not as in pantheism, where He's dispersed throughout nature without transcending it--but in the sense that all creation is permeated by His goodness. Whatever exactly the promised "new heavens and new earth" means, it hints at the redemption and transformation of all earthly goods, not their annihilation. 

Take horses, for example. I remember eagerly asking my mother, as a horse-obsessed little Protestant child, "Will there be horses in Heaven?" She answered, "Well, you won't care about horses anymore, because you'll be with God."

I was crushed. When I reminded her about that conversation a few years ago she was horrified and very apologetic. She was a new convert at the time and had meant to teach me something true--that the charm of horses was nothing compared to the glory of God--but ended up leaving me thinking of Heaven as a stripped-down kind of place, carefully emptied of everything but the "religious stuff." (The song about sitting together "in the same kind of pews" hinted at the same fate: Sit in pews for all eternity? And like it? Was that what being "spiritual" was all about?)

I think what troubles me about Matt's piece is that he sets up the same kind of dichotomy: "the kinds of things you enjoy now" vs. "spiritual things." Here's what he says:

Many of us think we desire Heaven because we imagine it as a place of self-centered pleasure. We believe that the happiness of Heaven is much like the happiness we find on Earth. So, if we enjoy eating good food, watching movies, playing sports, whatever, we fantasize that Heaven will be like some sort of resort where we can eat all the cheesecake we want and have access to an infinite Netflix library.... And if this is the only kind of happiness we desire--a selfish, indulgent kind of happiness--then we clearly do not desire the happiness of Heaven.

He juxtaposes this "selfish happiness" with his preschool daughter's answer when he asked what she imagined she'd be doing in Heaven. "Hugging Jesus," she replied--an answer "far more profound, far more beautiful, and far, far more accurate than what you normally hear from adults" because we "love the pleasures of the world too much."

He's right, of course. So is his daughter. Heaven is about union with a Person; it's not an everlasting Netflix 'n chill binge. And yet...

What seems to be missing is the way God is present to us in our pleasures as well as in our duties and our sufferings. He's even present in our fun, if we let Him in. Pleasure and fun can be fatal distractions from the eternal welfare of our souls, but then again, they were created by God Himself--not only as temptations, but just because He loves us. It's revealing that Matt chose Netflix and cheesecake rather than, say, being immersed in a good book, or reunited with a beloved friend--because they fit the point so neatly. On the one hand, selfish indulgence; on the other, the Alpha and the Omega. A no-brainer.

But pleasures are not just for those who want to avoid God. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" and cannot be written off as His rival. There's more to the world than worldliness, and many pleasures are more noble than sinking into a cheesecake-fueled Netflix coma.

I'm not trying to cheat here! Matt's right: you really do have to choose between God and all else--between His will and yours--between pleasure and duty. But in the end He transforms it and gives it all back. 

Here I can't resist a quick account of Fr. Bouna Antonio, a Lebanese priest who heard God's call to enter the monastery but balked because he enjoyed raising chickens so much. He finally resolved to give up his chickens for love of God. When he stood at the monastery gate and announced his wish to enter, he was met by a man who welcomed him heartily and then announced, unprompted, "I'm putting you in charge of the chickens," Father ended up with a larger and more splendid flock of chickens than he'd ever had before.

I'm not saying it always works out so neatly! We really are called to give up everything, with no guarantees of obvious earthly reimbursement.  But Fr. Antonio's story is a better illustration of what God is like, what the whole "economy of salvation" is like, than a simple either-or predicament.

C. S. Lewis makes a point similar to Matt's about desire for Heaven: What sense does it make, he asks, to think that people who had no taste for spiritual things on earth desire Heaven, or would even enjoy it if they got there? In the end

There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "All right, then, have it your way."

Maybe that's what Matt had in mind when he wrote his conclusion. God will ask each of us what we want, and:

I fear that a great many of us will have no choice but to look back at Him and say, "Myself, Lord. Only myself." Yet I pray, and I have hope, that you and I will be able to answer, with gratitude and joy, "You, Lord. Only you." And no matter what answer we give, God's response will be the same: "So be it."

It's true: we have to make a real decision, with real consequences. But in Lewis' imaginative representations of Heaven, it's always "further up and further in!"--the beginning of the real adventure. It's not that God (or Aslan, or Maleldil) has stripped away all the "selfish" and "secular" stuff: Instead, He transfigures it in glorious and unimaginable ways. For Matt, it's a matter of developing a taste for worshipping and serving God--but what's oddly missing is the one thing you'd need to develop such a taste: knowing and loving Him as a person--and not as a means to the end of developing a taste for "religion" Does that make sense? As the old Baltimore Catechism has it, the knowing and the loving lead to the serving, and then it all leads to the everlasting happiness.

Matt quotes Cardinal Newman, who he says remarks that

we cannot expect to find happiness in Heaven if we detest going to church, praying, and reading the Bible. If we find religion to be a crashing bore, and are stimulated only by what is selfish and secular, how do we think we'll fare in a place where the only things we really love are obliterated, and the one thing we always avoid must now be the center of our existence forever?

The quibble I have is this: A person might very well find church a crashing bore if the church is aesthetically wanting and intellectually superficial. A person might take no pleasure in the Bible if he's reading a bad translation with no real guidance. A person might be bored during prayer for lots of reasons, including a misguided idea of what exactly he's supposed to be doing, saying, and expecting from it. That person might be just as horrified by the idea of doing "religious things" everlastingly as I was about "sitting in the same kinds of pews" and no longer caring about my beloved horses.

But it doesn't mean he's choosing Hell; it could mean he's as clueless about the nature of the real thing as I was. This is not the same thing as opting for self-indulgent enjoyment over the love of an all-merciful God who, after all, promises "pleasures at [His] right hand for evermore." 

Matt has a point. I don't exactly disagree with anything he says. But this is what made me uneasy about his post.

What do you think?

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It happened again this week. I heard a homily identifying love as self-giving and its opposite as selfishness. We in the congregation were piously exhorted to think of others, not ourselves, as if this were the central moral call of the Christian life—as if thinking of ourselves and our own wants and needs is sinful.

It didn't help that I happen to know that this priest is an ex-Legionaire. He was formed in a messed up travesty of an order founded by a twisted predator of a priest. He's obviously devout and sincere in his faith, but when I hear him preach, I can't help noticing and resenting the half-truths being propagated along with the gospel. I can't help worrying about him, and wishing once again that all former Legionaires and Regnum Christi members were required to go through a program of spiritual and psychological detoxing before they're allowed to preach or teach in the Church. 

But I digress. I had meant to make a point about love.

Love involves self-giving, of course. And selfishness is one of its opposites. But there's much more to the mystery, and unless the rest is at least implicitly recognized in our preaching and teaching, we're offering a distortion—the kind that leads to or exacerbates serious dysfunction.

Let me come at it from another angle. 

Selfish, egotistical people might benefit from a stress on self-giving, but for the large portion of any given congregation who incline rather toward co-dependency, it's poison. In fact I doubt that even selfish types really benefit. In my experience, they usually find that such homilies tend to validate their impression that others aren't serving them selflessly enough.

Picture an ante-bellum white southerner who has recently whipped a slave for insubordination hearing the passage "slaves, obey your masters."  Does he receive it as a rebuke or a confirmation? Picture a domineering husband reading Ephesians 5. Is he likely to interpret it as challenging him to defer to his wife, or as ratifying his conviction that his wife isn't submissive enough?

And what is his wife going to think of homilies on such passages stressing that love is all about humility and self-giving? I'll tell you. If she's mired in co-dependency, she's going to think that the problem in her marriage is that she's too selfish; she's going to feel guilty and ashamed of not giving more. If she's begun to break free of dysfunction, though, she's going to think that Christianity is sick, and if she wants to get healthy, she'd better get out of her marriage and her religion.

Who can blamer her? In practical fact, what she's experiencing is that the Church is making her husband feel righteous about abusing her, at the same time it's making her feel guilty about standing up for herself.

These are maybe extreme examples. Maybe. Personally, I have come across many instances (between parent and child, husband and wife, teacher and student, boss and employee, rich and poor, black and white, priest and laity) that measure up. (Watch the movie Hidden Figures for a timely example.) In any case, lesser versions of the same dynamic are ubiquitous. We find it at play in practically all our bad acts and omissions. It menaces all our relationships and interactions with self and others.

Love has many opposites: hatred, contempt, indifference, egotism, manipulation, arrogance, violence...The most comprehensive—the most complete antithesis of the love that is the divine essence and the central mystery of every human life—is the master/slave relation.

Love isn't only self-giving. It's also other-receiving. It doesn't only pour out; it also stands back. It doesn't only humble, it also exalts. It lifts up the lowly, and sets the captive free. It raises up those who were bowed down.

Love is a reciprocal union and communion of persons. And among the love-deficits that afflict our relations are slavishness and co-dependence. In such cases, the concrete moral call might very well be to better self-care and more self-standing, even some non-violent resistance to someone else's habit of dominating us, however discretely or unwittingly.

John Paul II taught (though the point is underdeveloped in the popular teaching surrounding his thought) that persons must learn to assert themselves as persons, as unique and unrepeatable centers of experience and moral agency, of freedom and responsibility—individuals with rights and needs as well as duties. (This was the spiritual impetus behind the Soldiarity movement in Poland that brought down the Soviet Union.) Otherwise, love is impossible. Only a person who has herself can give herself. And very often, in order to have yourself, you have to first fight for yourself.

I might go so far as to say that for every person out there whose problem is selfishness is another whose problem is a too-weak sense of self—a person who has expended herself before she learned to gather herself, who has confused self-squandering with love. If you tell her she need to think of herself less and others more, you're adding to the problem.

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I snarked on Facebook earlier this week that everybody loves to talk about the shield of faith and the sword of the spirit, but we don't talk about the sandals of the gospel of peace. That's a shame, because it's the only item mentioned in that passage from Ephesians that has anything to do with active interactions with other people.

The entire passage is defensive in context--the breastplate, shield, helmet, etc. are protections meant, not to aid in conquering, but to help the Christian to "withstand" and "stand firm" against the evil one. But we are instructed to put on our feet "whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." 

Truth. Righteousness. Faith. Salvation. The Spirit and the Word of God. And the shoes of whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Whatever makes you ready.

What will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? We're not told, and perhaps that's because evangelization is always, as Cardinal Newman believed, a matter of heart speaking to heart. It is personal, and it requires you to be present to the person and the moment in a way that can't be scripted. 

So how do we prepare for this improvisation? We're told elsewhere: "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience" (1 Peter 3:15). And the passage about the armour of God in Ephesians ends with the reminder to "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints."

The world has never not been at war with itself, which means that martial imagery is not going to go away. It's rich ground for metaphor. But the metaphor of spiritual warfare stands the image of the battle between us and them on its head by placing both side of  the battle within the self.

I can't storm the enemy's front; I am the front. To fight the battle against evil within, I need truth, faith, the Word. All of these things so that I can stand firm. And when I walk among other people, I need to walk in whatever will make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions on the world. They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). 

—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”

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I've just come off one of the most harrowing and oddly rewarding weeks of my life, and I've discovered something surprising.

People are more important than truth.

In a certain sense, anyway.

My seven brothers and sisters and I have been taking turns helping my father care for my mother and her ever-worsening Alzheimer's. Personal contact with her has opened my eyes, but I've also been reading up on the disease. I was raised (by her) to believe that if you have a problem, then obviously you read--or possibly write--a book about it. I've devoured books on how to teach a child to swim, how to play the recorder, and plenty of other subjects to which a normal person would take a more hands-on approach. 

One piece of advice that struck me was this: If an Alzheimer's patient asks after someone who's died, you don't say, "He's dead." This author made an exception: if the person asks you straight out, "Is Uncle Joe dead?" you shouldn't lie. But evading the issue is OK. When my mother asked me the other day, "Should I go get my parents?" I just answered, "No, that's OK," and when she called out, "Dad?" I replied, with misleading accuracy, "He's not here right now."

Do I have qualms of conscience about these violations of truth? Not in the least.

There are other conversational techniques I've fallen into which are not exactly lies, but certainly don't correspond to reality the way words are normally supposed to. If my mother asks me, "Should I put the shibboleth on the counter?" I'll answer, "No, we don't need to right now." (I did make up that particular sentence, but it's very typical of my mother's remarks these days. She still has the vocabulary of an excellent writer.) When she laments, "I just need to find someplace to park my lizard," (this one is verbatim) I reply, "Maybe I can help you find a spot." 

On the other hand, sometimes she's disconcertingly literal. When my brother Joseph told her the other day, "I'm doing everything I can!", he says she replied, aghast, "Oh, not in here, I hope!"

So this is a pretty loose relationship with the truth for me, someone who's taken entire courses on epistemology, who's analyzed to death the correspondence theory and the consensus theory of truth, and all the rest. And who subscribes to a pretty literal reading of "Thou shalt not bear false witness." 

But Truth, it turns out, is not just about factual accuracy, and my departure from that accuracy, even my total disregard for it, is not in the service of evading the truth. Instead, it's about striving to connect, somehow, even the tiniest bit, with the truth of my mother. I've always thought "walking in the truth" meant performing good and honest actions--not just talking the talk--but maybe it means this, too. Words don't work as vehicles anymore, but they can serve as clues. And even when they can't, the truth about who my mother is something I can connect with despite the uselessness of words.

The only reason I can ever make some sense of the things my mother says these days is because I've known HER so long and so well. This means not merely that I can use her words to piece together what she's really trying to say--sometimes I can't--but that I can make contact with, be present to, the reality of my mother as a person, with or without the help (or hinderance) of words. It's not a question of factual accuracy at all, but of something deeper--that is, something personal.

The person really is a deeper reality than the correspondence of words with things. Concern for accuracy divorced from personal subjects who walk in the truth is a superficial, abstract, and even insignificant thing. And whatever it means, exactly, that God "is" Truth, it means something deeper than word-thing correspondence--unless, maybe, we also take "Word" in its full, mysterious, Biblical meaning.

Does this make any sense? As the uneasily aging daughter and granddaughter of women who've succumbed to this awful sickness, I don't always trust my own brain these days. Still, when my mother handed me a napkin yesterday and said, "Here, maybe you can look at it and get some wisdom," I answered without hesitation: "OK, I'll try!"

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An interesting note on the punctuation of "Mother's Day" caught my eye this week while reading about the founding of the holiday. The founder of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, was apparently very particular about the apostrophe coming before the s, making a singular possessive rather than a plural. The story I read attributed this to Jarvis's desire that this be a day "for each family to honour their [own] mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world." 

This is more than merely a grammatical note--though I am happy to have it settled in my mind which is the correct punctuation! Reading more about Jarvis, it's rapidly clear that the founding of Mother's Day was very much about one daughter's devotion to her mother, and her desire that others should honour their own mothers, both living and deceased. 

Jarvis declared the white carnation the official flower of Mother’s Day, and she urged sons and daughters to visit their mothers or, at the very least, to write home on Mother’s Day. “Live this day as your mother would have you live it,” Jarvis instructed in her letters. Her vision for the day was domestic — focusing on a mother’s role within the home — and highly sentimental. It was to be celebrated “in honor of the best mother who ever lived — your own.”

Jarvis herself grew increasingly agitated over the commercialization of "her" holiday. Undoubtably there was pride mixed up in this as the idea outgrew its founder and took on a life of its own. Jarvis developed a reputation for peevishness and eccentricity, and at one point had multiple lawsuits pending to defend the name and emblems of "Mother's Day" from things she thought of as abuses: sales, fundraisers, even charity causes.

 Antolini says Jarvis didn’t trust charities’ allocation of funds, but she especially hated the notion that charitable causes were transforming Mother’s Day into an occasion where mothers were to be pitied more than honored. “You honor them regardless of how rich or how poor or what color or creed,” Antolini says. “That, to me, makes sense. She has some valid complaints about how her day was being used.”

Anna Jarvis was never able to put the genie of Mother's Day back in the bottle. This weekend, mothers everywhere will get store-bought cards and flowers, bought on sale or as fundraisers. There will be encomiums delivered at pulpits and from stages about the ideal of motherhood and what it means to us. Whether or not the apostrophe lands in front of the s, the day itself has become plural: a day when journalists and commentators sit at their keyboards to talk about motherhood in general and what it means today.

But I still think there is something for each of us to take away from the story of Anna Jarvis and her insistence on the singular possessive form of "Mother's Day." Love gains in strength and becomes concrete, becomes realized, when it is personal. We can love motherhood in general--smile benevolently at it, talk about how it is good and how it needs to be cherished and valued. But we can only cherish and value mothers individually, as the people they are. 

Personal relationships are messier than are general ideals. They require repentance and forgiveness, forbearance and boundary-setting. They can be wounded or broken. We don't know very much about the relationship Anna Jarvis had with her mother during her mother's life. Mother's Day came from Jarvis's grief, from the empty space left by the loss of her mother. 

But the only way we can love anything or anyone at all is in the messiness of what is real in them and in us. 

Perhaps, this weekend, we can take the time to see the reality of the women who have birthed, raised, nurtured, or mentored us. The mothers, biological or otherwise, in each of our lives. And in the messiness, perhaps we can take Anna Jarvis's advice and find a few words of love or acknowledgement to write that come, not from a Hallmark card, but from the particular realities of the people we are to one another. 

This year, I want to celebrate Mother's Day in the singular possessive.

Image: a picture of my mother, taken last summer.

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