One Thousand Words or So

Mysteries, Signs, and Silence

Last week, a friend of Luke’s mentioned that she thinks she has a problem with something other than lactose. Luke and I gave each other a knowing look. Perhaps misinterpreting it, she said, “No. Really. Even when I go an entire week with dairy, I still feel the same: kind of crappy.” I shot Luke another look, and he uttered what we were both thinking: “Gluten.” The friend replied, “I knew you’d say that.” I said, “But it’s true. It’s always gluten, because no human can fully digest it.”

That was it. That was the end of the conversation. We moved on to a different subject. There was nothing else to say, and we all knew it. At one time, things were different. Back then, I thought that if I said enough, or said exactly the right thing, maybe asked the right question, then the person I was trying to help would be convinced and would be ready to make a change in diet. Luke, on the other hand, learned early on from my failures and from the conclusions I shared once I finally got a clue.

I sometimes wish I could have back all the time I’ve wasted trying to make someone else come around to my way of seeing things. That’s a lot of books I could have read. I tend to be a hopeful person, so I’ll credit that tendency with making me tenacious.

I bring this up now because chapter twelve in The Religious Sense brought it to mind. In this chapter, Luigi Giussani spends a fair amount of time on freedom, stating that not only do humans need to be free to reach their own destiny, they need to be free to discover it, too. He writes:

One of the most noted neo-Marxists, Louis Althusser, recognized this* when he said that between the existence of God and Marxism the problem is not one of reason, but option. Certainly, there is an option that is according to nature, which brings our reason to the fore. And there is an option that is against nature, and it obscures reason. However, after all is said and done, the option is decisive. …

The human person, in fact, in his freedom, affirms what he has already secretly decided in the beginning. Freedom does not appear so much in the clamour of the choice. Rather, it is played out in the early, most subtle dawn of consciousness in its impact with the world. And here is the alternative in which man risks himself, even if almost unconsciously: either you face reality wide open, loyally, with the bright eyes of a child, calling a spade a spade, embracing its entire presence, even its meaning; either this, or you place yourself in front of reality, defend yourself against it, almost with your arms flung in front of your eyes to ward off unwelcomed and unexpected blows. You call reality to the tribunal of your opinion, and then potentially full of objections, having become too shrewd to accept its most gratuitous and surprising evidence and suggestions, you admit only what suits you.

I know that some would level at me a charge of not facing reality and admitting only what suits me. I know this because many have in the past: the ones who didn’t want to believe that eliminating foods that they love might make them healthier. I always understood this, but I was not always content to be misunderstood. Now I am. Right here and now, I could try and defend myself, but I won’t.

Giussani explains why in that excerpt up there. “The human person, in fact, in his freedom, affirms what he has already secretly decided in the beginning.” I can’t change that in any other person, so I don’t try. I say what I feel compelled to say and move on.

Jesus’ statement about why he speaks in parables has long intrigued me: “I speak in parables so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not hear.” Jesus is God. That means that He is omnipotent. He can do anything, so, surely, he could have spoken in such a way that all of his listeners understood him. He didn’t. Why not? Giussani says this:

“I speak in parables so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not hear.” In other words, “I speak in parables so that their freedom—what they have already decided in their hearts—might emerge.”

If you are “moral,” or another way of putting it, if you remain in the original attitude God gave you by creating you, this is to say, you are open to the real, then you understand, or at least you seek, that is, you ask. If, instead, you are not in that original position, that is to say, if you have been adulterated, corrupted, stalled by prejudice, then you are “immoral,” and you cannot understand. And this is the supreme drama of human life.

A little less than two years ago, Orthodox Christian priest Father Stephen Freeman wrote a blog post that slapped me in the face with its wisdom, and his words play well here, with all that Giussani has been proving in his book. From “Living the Apocalypse” at Glory to God for All Things, Father Freeman writes:

If we understood things correctly, we would understand that the whole of the Christian faith is apocalyptic. Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse. …

Note that after the resurrection, Christ does not show up in downtown Jerusalem and return to His public ministry. He does not drop by to visit the leaders of the Sanhedrin or revisit his conversation with Pontius Pilate. While hanging on the Cross he was taunted with jeers: “If you really are the Christ, the Son of God, then come down from the Cross and save yourself!” And, of course, the jeers were to the point. Had God wanted to be obvious about the gospel, such a stunt would have done the trick, as would publicly visible demonstrations of the Divine triumph after the resurrection. But, after every wonderful thing was said and done, what had happened in and through Jesus Christ, remained largely hidden. And for good reason. …

The commandments of Christ have “obvious” flaws. He commands us to “love our enemies,” to “do good to those who hate us,” to “not resist evil.” These are not obvious ways to get ahead, or even to make people like you. Many have protested over the centuries that such behaviors will leave evil unchecked and unmanaged. It is largely preferred to make such commandments to be somehow “ideal,” but not practical, and, therefore, only of a marginal, or, at best, a moral concern.

But such behaviors are precisely related to the hiddenness of the gospel of Christ. They are part of a “hidden” way of life, in which all of the markers and signposts are obscured from general observation. Only our actions “reveal them.” And even then, St. Paul says that what is being revealed is to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Our actions make Christ’s victory known to the demons!

The Christian way of life is grounded in our perception and witness of the risen Christ. Because we know the risen Christ, we are able to live in accordance with His life rather than in accordance with what seems obvious to others. This cannot be done in the same manner as an “obvious” life. We cannot weigh and measure, debate and decide. All of the normal criteria required for such a life are largely missing for the Christian. There are, of course, plenty of Christians who want to make Christianity an obvious thing, and they usually damage the gospel in the process.

Giussani, too, talks about signs:

Freedom is exercised in that playing field called sign.

Let us remember that the world demonstrates the existence of the ultimate quid, the ultimate something, the mystery, by means of the “sign.” The world “signals,” demonstrates God, in the way that a sign indicates what it represents. How does freedom play itself out within this field? The sign is an event to interpret and freedom is exercised in the interpretation of the sign. Interpretation is the technique of the game, and freedom operates within this technique.

Hey, I just realized that we’re talking about individuals again.


*Recognizing God is a matter of freedom.

1 thought on “Mysteries, Signs, and Silence

  1. Th end of that top quote by Giussani is eye opening, but all the quotes together make the point oh so beautifully. What a beautiful and amazing God who gives us such freedom.

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