Recently I found myself reading a series of magazine articles on the life of Christ, and I found myself thinking, once again, what a wonderful thing it is that this story is so endlessly told, retold, analysed, celebrated and discussed.
The words of the Blessed Virgin's Canticle are relevant here: "My soul magnifies the Lord." (It's also translated "glorifies", but I personally prefer "magnifies".) I've always found these words thought-provoking. How can we magnify the Lord? How can we add anything to what is already perfect and infinite? Of course, we can't, in strict terms; but it's the great privilege of being in this earthly state that we can, in a sense, add to the glory of God, by praising him and seeking to serve Him.
We can even (to turn to my particular topic) "magnify the Lord" just by talking about Him, writing about Him, thinking about Him. I realise that I'm on shaky ground here and I am aware of all the warnings in Scripture about the dangers of pious lip service: "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven", and "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:17). I don't want to suggest that words or gestures are enough, or that words and gestures that are belied by unchristian behaviour are not scandalous.
I will, however, risk suggesting that talking about God and Christ and other sacred matters is a good thing in itself. As is writing about them, singing about them, painting pictures inspired by them, and so forth.
That's one defence I make for having this blog in the first place. I'm not a theologian, or a Scripture scholar, or a priest, or anything but an ordinarily-informed layman. I don't even think I'm a particularly good Catholic. But I think the sheer profusion of Catholic blogs is a good thing-- a wonderful thing, in fact. To regret the amount of Catholic blogs in cyberspace would be like regretting the number of daffodills in a meadow, or regretting the number of stars in the night sky.
And I do think the profusion of Catholic blogs (and other websites) is a form of evangelization in itself. If people take the trouble to write so many millions of words about the Faith-- unpaid, for the most part-- then doesn't that suggest to the casual browser through cyberspace that the Faith is a vibrant force today?
I am a contrarian by nature and I generally like doing exceptional and unusual things. And, in some ways, being a traditionally-minded Catholic in today's society is rather a contrarian stance. But, when it comes to the defence and proclamation of Catholicism, I have no desire to be unusual and every desire to be 'mainstream'. The more people there are agreeing with me in this regard, the better. I am always happy to hear someone is a faithful Catholic. And, if someone is not a faithful Catholic, if he or she disagrees with Church teaching in some way, but still considers himself or herself Catholic, I am happy for that much. And if a person does not call himself or herself a Catholic, but still goes by the name of a Christian, I am happy for that-- and so on, through all the degrees of Christianity, until we reach the atheist who respects Christ, as opposed to the atheist who derides him.
I would always rather hear the name of Christ invoked than not invoked. Many Christian shake their heads over televangelists and 'prosperity gospel' preachers like Joel Osteen, whose preaching seems 'Christian' only in the most tenuous and nominal way. Many people think it would be better if such preachers were to drop any pretence of Christianity at all. I can't agree. I might be wrong, and I am open to correction, but I tend to think it's better to have even the tiniest tincture of Christianity than no Christianity at all. I think nominal Christianity is better than no Christianity. Of course, I wish all Joel Osteen's admirers would drop him and take up a more serious form of Christianity; but I'd rather they went to a Joel Osteen service than to no religious service or (would-be-religious service)of any kind.
The same consideration applies to the arts. When I hear that some post-modernist artist has mounted some hideous and tasteless display (use your own imagination, or your own memory, to supply the details), and includes some form of Christian iconography, and further suggests that his work is informed by a deep Christian faith-- well, I regret the "art", and I regret the blasphemy if there is any, but I don't regret that he is inspired, in some way, by Christ. I am pleased that he is proclaiming Christ in some way.
I treasure the story-- not a famous story, though it should be-- from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography: “A solemn friend of my grandfather used to go for walks on Sunday carrying a prayer-book, without the least intention of going to church. And he calmly defended it by saying, with uplifted hand: ‘I do it, Chessie, as an example to others.’ " (If that story doesn't make you smile, I don't know what's the matter with you.)
It stirs my imagination, perhaps like nothing else, to think how deeply-- and how widely-- the story of Christ has influenced the human race. How many hymns? How many books? How many statues and murals and canvases? How many lectures? How many tracts? How many millions of homilies and sermons? How many today? How many this very moment?
We very often hear writers and speakers express the wish that we could rediscover the freshness of the Gospels, that we could encounter them as though for the first time, as though we knew nothing about them. I can understand why someone would wish this, but personally I feel blessed to be reading the Gospels through twenty centuries of what I might, without irreverence, call hype.
When I read the Gospels, I am always aware of the contrast between the matter-of-fact, sparse nature of the narratives themselves and the unthinkable number of commentaries that have been made upon them, lives that have been inspired by them, movements that have grown out of them, works of art that have drawn on them, debates that have raged around them, depths that have been discovered in them, doctrines that have been crystallized from them. That, to me, gives them a unique flavour, a unique atmosphere.
In my view, there are two valuable aspects to the vast amount of writing and speaking and other forms of reflection upon the Gospels (and, indeed, upon the whole Bible, and upon Christianity in general) that has filled the world since the Word was first proclaimed. The first and more obvious aspect is the analytical one. If a priest is delivering a homily upon the story of the Prodigal Son, and he points out to his congregation that the father goes out to meet the returning son, and this mirrors the way God actively seeks to reconcile us to Him rather than waiting for us to approach Him, this is a form of analysis. If a newspaper writer takes a particular story that happens to be in the news and reflects on it in the light of a New Testament passage, this is a form of analysis.
But the other aspect of any reflection upon the Gospel, and one that might not occur to us most of the time, is the contemplative or meditative side. While the priest is delivering the afore-mentioned homily on the Prodigial Son, and while our conscious minds are preocuppied with the point he is making, a deeper and less conscious part of our mind is contemplating the parable-- just holding it in our attention, letting it seep into our souls, immersing ourselves in it.
This is the principle upon which the rosary works. Contemplative prayer is difficult because our mind gets antsy and restless. It always wants to be doing something. The rosary gives us the individual prayers to focus our conscious minds upon, while the deeper part of our mind is meditating upon the Annunciation or the Descent of the Holy Spirit or whatever mystery we happen to be praying.
What exactly this meditation does is harder to describe. I suppose whole books could be written about that in itself. Speaking for myself, I would say that it gives a kind of glow to its subject. It plants it in our imaginations, in our souls.
For this reason, I think that even the dullest homily, the most pedestrian article in a Christian newspaper, or the most witless Catholic blog post has a positive value. They fix our attention, in some way and in some degree, upon Christ. And as St. Paul wrote: "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition...What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice."