Sunday, July 24, 2011

THE GESTALT OF CHRIST

FLANNERY O'CONNOR
WITH ONE OF HER BELOVED PEACOCKS
I had an editor once who took me to task for writing something like, "Christ never sat back and folded his arms and decided not to consort with anybody. He didn't let everyone into his inner circle, but he welcomed everyone, he acknowledged everyone who wanted to be acknowledged, he saw through to every person's deepest core." And the editor responded, "Best not to purport to know what went through Christ's mind."

I could not possibly disagree more. I think we are absolutely called to ponder what went on in Christ's mind, and his heart, and his soul. I think we are absolutely called to marvel at his knowledge of human nature, his sublime insight, his ability to cut to the heart of the matter, his capacity for vivid metaphor: the camel and the eye of a needle, the mustard seed, the pearl of great price. But most of all, we're called to ponder his weirdness. "Counter, original, spare, strange," Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in "Pied Beauty." That's Christ. 

From a talk given by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete in May, 2001, called "What Is Essential to Our Humanity?"

This is what we look for concerning Jesus, the weight of his presence when we read Sacred Scripture, when we interpret it. He calls it a “Christocentric Hermeneutic.” This powerful way of reading, that reveals more and more of the gestalt of Christ, is what should guide us, is what he calls what creates the canon of Sacred Scripture. Jesus Christ, His power of presence, is the interpretation of Scripture. As St. John says when Jesus says, “I Am the grammar of Moses.”

When I sent the article to my buddy Andrew Matt over at Magnificat, he wrote back: "Really good food for thought, and two excerpts from it brought to mind two analogous quotes from Flannery O’Connor:

Albacete: “While European nihilists just denied God, American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It's all good!”
Flannery O’Connor in 1955: “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”

Albacete: “Our view of how the Bible is the Word of God is a crucial symptom to look at to see what our view of the dominant culture is.”
Flannery O’Connor to a monk in 1963: “I don't think the state of American Catholic fiction is going to improve until our people become Bible-readers.”

MONSIGNOR LORENZO ALBACETE
Albacete also noted: 'For those of you who are intellectually or theologically inclined, I recommend an article in the last issue of Communio on the interpretation of the Bible according to Pope Benedict XVI.'”

The  Communio piece is entitled "Living Water: Reading Scripture in the Body of Christ with  Benedict XVI." In it, author Adrian J. Walker observes, "In his glorious freedom, Jesus shows himself to us as a one-of-a-kind original"....

I thought about this a lot on my retreat with St. Thérèse of Lisieux devotee Br. Joseph Schmidt, which I'll no doubt spend spend the coming week processing and writing about. How the heart of Christianity is to be found in the Gospels, in reading and pondering and letting the Gospels sink in and discovering and really falling in love with the utterly unique, stupendous Person of Christ. That is absolutely how I came to the Church myself. I started reading the Gospels, very eclectically, but if you are hungry and thirsty enough for the real and the true, he will reveal himself and he is so utterly original, of such utter integrity, intelligence, sensitivity, infinitely evolved love you simply KNOW he is it. He is the ground of everything.

THE SUN SETTING OVER ALBUQUERQUE
I think this is the defense, or one of them, against coming to follow one of these crackpot televangelist priests who turns out to have millions of dollars stashed away and a prostitute girlfriend. Anyone who has tasted the gestalt of Christ would see that such folks do not speak with authority, as Jesus did in the temple. Christ never spoke with hubris and he never spoke with obfuscation. He spoke in such a way that we are invited to ponder the deepest mysteries of ourselves, our daily lives, and the people around us. I mean is not Christ the original, ÜBER koan, and everything he said and did a koan? He is utterly transparent and utterly unfathomable. He revealed himself fully and he also said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" [John 16:12]. He was all secret and had no secrets. 

Christianity is not a set of rules: Christianity is an encounter, an invitation, a wondrous, staggering, ongoing event. Christ never said anything like, Pray seven Hail Marys on Tuesday and nine Glory Be's on Wednesday for 28.43 months in reparation for the cruel, CRUEL wounds I suffered for you. Christ never but never whined, reproached, guilt-tripped, called attention to his suffering, or displayed the remotest liking for wordy, formulaic, or superstitious prayer. He never but never encouraged us to believe that we (whoever "we" are) are "saved" and the other poos slobs (whoever they are) aren't. He never but never preached any "prosperity gospel."

More and more I see what Christ meant when he said the secrets are revealed to the simple and childlike. To be simply and childlike is not to be stupid, nor wilfully gullible, nor sentimental, nor to fail or refuse to bring every last bit of your intelligence to bear. It does mean, among other things, that Christ reveals himself to people based not on their intelligence level but on their openness of heart. It does mean that he makes himself available equally to the just and the unjust, the good and the bad, and thank God for that. In fact, he makes himself especially available to sinners, the broken, the weak, the out-of-ideas, the poor.

That he makes himself so available, that he allows us to get so close to him, is his very genius, the mark of his authenticity. Years ago, an old friend was dying of cirrhosis and I flew back to New England to say goodbye. In "real life," this guy had been restless, flighty, evasive, tormented (also, as is so often true of alcoholics, charismatic, talented, funny, and smart). He was lying in a hospital bed and I could hardly believe he was alone and the snow was falling gently and that for once I could sit quietly by his side. People who are dying lie still and are approachable in a way that live, well people almost never are. Christ allowed himself to be that poor--Flannery O'Connor entitled one of her stories "You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead"--and in the dying he allows us to sit with him, to talk to him, to pray with him, to touch him, and of course in the end, to eat him.

Now THAT is a gestalt! THAT is a one-of-a-kind original. That is a gestalt to ponder all our lives...

A WOMAN IN THE SUN
EDWARD HOPPER 1961

17 comments:

  1. Heather - You are on fire! Every post since you have been on retreat has left me stunned, haunted with imagery (particularly the article about your grandmother, your mom, you, your unborn kids), and thinking, thinking, thinking. But mostly, I come away thanking God for his mercy and love. Thank you for being such a wonderful messenger! Can not wait for the next post. ~ Marijo

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  2. Over the years since my conversion, I have immersed myself in traditional Catholic writings that promote reparation for the many offenses that an unbelieving world inflicts on Jesus Christ. Now, there is some truth to all of this, in that such acts of reparation are appropriate in light of the Divine Majesty of the Son of God. On the other hand, these traditional devotions also have the effect of turning our attention, in a Pharisaical spirit, to "those people" who (we presume to think) don't know and love Jesus like we do. This is obviously the very opposite of approaching Our Lord with the attitude of a child.

    Good food for thought, as always, Heather. God bless!

    David

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  3. Pondering what was in the Heart of Christ during His time on earth and now, and always asking: WHY?

    Safe travels.

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  4. Hi Heather,
    I guess your old editor would take me to task too for my habit of purporting to ponder on Jesus' human personality.I think that if it is good to ponder on the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in receiving the Eucharest, there should be no harm in thinking of His personality: His goodness,His compassion, His beauty, His wisdom; did he smile? We know he wept. Did he tease his Mom. Did he have any time to be silly...
    When I consume Him, I not only consume his suffering, I consume his joy, His all.

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  5. Thought-provoking post... I've been thinking lately how we get to know Christ through the Word but hopefully without us reading it in a way that prevents Him from being fully human and of his culture, while also not erroring on the other side and seeing Him only in terms of ours. The alternative first reading on the feast of St. Mary Magdalen goes: "even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer." Stop clinging to me, Jesus said, wanting her to know Christ not just in the flesh but in his new creation. An old pastor once said that you could read "flesh" in St. Paul's writings as "the culture" and so I wonder if sometimes I likewise try to read Jesus according to the flesh, either my culture or his, when he and we are now a new creation.

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  6. I had a Christian friend (I say had, not because he is no longer my friend, but because he is no longer Christian), who tended to over-intellectualise everything. If he couldn't logically connect every single dot, then it was false to him. We discussed the need for faith, for being able to take those occasional leaps, when the path of dots seems to be pointing in a certain way, but won't take you all the way. He replied, "Faith does not work on the Gestalt principle!"

    I thought of that statement when I read your article, and remembered replying, "That's exactly what faith IS!"

    The thing that makes Christ most real to me is precisely that I can't pin Him down with a list of abstract, dogmatic formulations. As a Thomist and a lover of systematic theology, I find those dogmatic formulations very useful, and even comforting. But Jesus Himself goes beyond all of that, and reminds me--forces me, really, to acknowledge that all these truths merely point to the Greater Truth that is the Mystery of His Person. And just as being able to rattle off a list of propositional facts about my wife would never cause you to know my wife, so, too, the Dogmas may help us recognise Jesus when we meet Him, but He invites us further up and further in, as C.S. Lewis would say. I often think that the whole of our faith life is a bit of like Hide and Seek. Christ was "It" first, and He came and found us in our sinfulness; and now, He invites us to be "It", and seek Him. Another Koan, perhaps? That Jesus remains always hidden, but always findable for those who seek Him sincerely.

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  7. Gregory, your friend sounds like my 19 year old son.

    My 16 year old son asks similar questions, although fortunately he has not abandoned the Faith -- indeed he takes offense when I express concern on that point.

    My sons have in common the (frustrated) desire for a kind of sense-certainty that Jesus / God is with them. My younger son, unlike his older brother, BELIEVES that Jesus is in heaven, but he rejects the idea that we can have a "relationship" with Jesus in the here and now.

    David

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  8. I should add that my younger son accepts that Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist (he does not deny or doubt the dogmas of the Faith), yet he firmly rejects the notion that we're having a "relationship" with Jesus when we receive him in Communion. I haven't talked with my son about Eucharistic Adoration, but I'm pretty sure that he'll say that there's not any "relationship" going on there, either. I mention this having seen Gregory's discussion of Adoration on his blog.

    David

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  9. From Dan C.: "I've been thinking lately how we get to know Christ through the Word but hopefully without us reading it in a way that prevents Him from being fully human and of his culture, while also not erroring on the other side and seeing Him only in terms of ours."

    I think being co-opted by the culture is one of the major things the "gestalt of Christ" guards against. The gestalt of Christ is how we are able to gauge, the lens through which we are given to see, our culture: all in it that is shallow and death-dealing and false, but also anything in it that is good and true. And instead of resisting and bemoaning and complaining about all that is false, we get to go about about our business--which is the profoundly interesting and absorbing discovery of Christ--in some basic kind of joy. I think the deeply vitriolic tone of so much of contemporary Catholic "discourse" is the surest possible sign that we are NOT "on to" Christ. Because if you're on to him at all, in my experience, you're simply way too INTERESTED to bother too much about what other people are doing or believing or saying.

    Of course you notice, of course you have an opinion, of course doctrine is important, but above, beyond, and first, first, first, we have to know that we are loved. Otherwise the dogma becomes nothing more than a rigid set of rules, lived out of fear, and generating judgment and condemnation of ourselves and others....

    With all his genius and intellect, to me the greatest "achievement" of St. Thomas Aquinas was when Christ appeared to him in a vision and said (I'm paraphrasing), Good job, my beloved son! What would you wish in return? What would you have? And St. Thomas replied, "Nothing but Thee"...

    Also, THANK YOU MARIJO!! Believe me, I'm still thinking, thinking, pondering, too. And there was something very deep in that "circle"....

    Thanks in fact to everyone...

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  10. I think the deeply vitriolic tone of so much of contemporary Catholic "discourse" is the surest possible sign that we are NOT "on to" Christ.

    That's the story of my life as a Catholic blogger from 2006 until the very recent past.

    This is one of the few Catholic blogs that I visit anymore. Lately I spend more time at poetry blogs and forums, where the politeness, patience, and charity exhibited by non-believers is an embarrassing contrast to the Trad Catholic blogs where I used to spend all of my time.

    David

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  11. yes, how very sad to realize that the 'cruel, CRUEL wounds Christ suffers' are inflicted by *** us*** (as opposed to "them" only), and still his bloody arms are stretched wide in forgiveness. A humanity and Divinity I long to be in deeper and deeper relationship with.

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  12. Want to comment in greater depth than this, but my thoughts haven't gelled. Let me just say "Brava!" for now, and ponder what you've written more deeply.

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  13. One of my favorite stories about Aquinas is how, at the end of his life, he had a vision of heaven or God, and he said that all that he had written seemed to be straw. When I first heard this story, it was sort of told as a further testimony to Aquinas' genius. It was sort of like saying, "Aquinas who was head and shoulders above the rest of us, topped it all off by realizing that all of his mental feats were really nothing; that he could have done better." And the rest of us are left to wonder in even greater amazement at his final vision.

    But now, I have a different view of that story. It seems that, in fact, Aquinas had some serious gaps in his "summa of all theology". And while he was definitely a genius among geniuses, we are now starting to see those gaps in vivid detail. They're no longer relegated to the realm of "mystery". It's about time, too. It's taken us about 600 years to finally get it!

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  14. David, I'm honoured you read my blog! Thanks for stopping by. I'll keep your kids in my prayers.

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  15. Just wanted to clarify about the cruel, cruel wounds: They WERE cruel--beyond cruel. I was simply saying that I personally don't respond to the prayers that purport to have "heard" Jesus ASKING us and in effect guilt-tripping us or reproaching us into praying for his, say cruel, CRUEL wounds.

    I'm sure all prayer in fact does help his wounds, and any prayer that goes directly toward his wounds is lovely, and I have gone to several novena services lately.

    I'm just saying the Christ I have "met" in the Gospels (and another part of his genius is that even though he stays the same, everyone "meets" his or her own Jesus) never spoke in that way, never guilt-tripped or reproached or drew attention to his suffering. He said, "Sit with me for an hour"...in effect, so he could be with us in OUR suffering....

    And David, God bless your sons!...

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  16. Greetings everyone!

    There’s a great meditation by Fr. Richard Rohr somewhere on Jesus and victimhood. He points out that it can be a form of power over others. We are hurt by someone and we hang on to it as a badge of honor that we use to guilt-trip others. But Jesus is the only truly innocent victim. And unlike us, he transformed the pain precisely by not lording it over us. He does not “blame” us or pass on the suffering to us. He just opens his arms wide to it all. Here’s a great poem by R.H. Benson that expresses the idea:

    Let me tell you how I made His acquaintance.
    I had heard much of Him, but took no heed.
    He sent daily gifts and presents, but I never thanked Him.
    He often seemed to want my friendship, but I remained cold.
    I was homeless, and wretched, and starving and in peril every hour; and He offered me shelter and comfort and food and safety; but I was ungrateful still.
    At last He crossed my path and with tears in His eyes He besought me saying, Come and abide with me.

    Let me tell you how he treats me now.
    He supplies all my wants.
    He gives me more than I dare ask.
    He anticipates my every need.
    He begs me to ask for more.
    He never reminds me of my past ingratitude.
    He never rebukes me for my past follies.

    Let me tell you further what I think of Him.
    He is as good as He is great.
    His love is as ardent as it is true.
    He is as lavish of His promises as He is faithful in keeping them.
    He is as jealous of my love as He is deserving of it.
    I am in all things His debtor, but He bids me call Him Friend.

    On the other hand, I think he does invite us to suffer with him. By looking at his cruel, cruel, wounds, we can be moved to WANT to suffer with him. It’s not a guilt-trip thing. It’s just that, in this life, there seems to be a connection between suffering and love. And Jesus knows that and wants the best for us. And he knows that we must suffer with him if we are going to love with him. It’s all part of the redemptive process. Also, not all suffering seems to be the same. The good kind is redemptive and healing. The bad kind is destructive.

    Ultimately, I think this issue is another one of those paradoxes, which is why, as Heather said, Jesus seems one way to some and another way to others. To some, he is a source of comfort and a teacher of acceptance. To others, he reproaches and asks for amends (he does reproach sometimes – he even reproached his Father (“My God, My God, why hast thou…”). Everyone gets what they need.

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  17. Heather,

    If you've ever read (or ever do) the diary of St. Faustina, I'd be interested to see what you think of how Christ speaks to her there.

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I WELCOME your comments!!!