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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John of the Cross’

photo (73)The Dictator and the Doubter

Travel has its surprises, and certainly one of the biggest for me happened on a trip to Albania three  years ago.  Our small group had come to Albania more as an afterthought than as a destination, and it did not fall short of our expectations.  Albania may have been a vibrant place once upon a time, but Communist dictator Enver Hoxha had taken care of that.  In his forty-year reign he had convinced his citizens that their country was the envy of the world, and he left the countryside dotted with pillboxes and airfields to defend against invaders coming from every direction.  He also left the country impoverished and dispirited.  But during his rule the isolated citizens knew no better, and the cult of his personality allowed for no other domestic or foreign gods.

Sewing a gathering of folios

Sewing a gathering of folios

When our guide announced a visit to the National Museum, we balked.  There we’d see an exhibit on “the most famous Albanian of all time,” she promised.  We expected the worst, and we steeled ourselves for a half-hour of mindless  propaganda.  You can imagine our shock when we entered the galleries, and there, staring down at us, was a portrait of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, “the most famous Albanian of all time.”  Our guide smiled.  Behind that smile was an unspoken joy and pride.  Plus, she had fooled us, royally.

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Mother Theresa came to mind on the second Sunday of Easter, when we read the gospel of the doubting Thomas.  It’s the story of the one apostle who remained unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus.  Unless he could touch the wounds of Jesus and see for himself, he would not believe.  Until then, he would remain a skeptic.

It seems a bit blasphemous to put Mother Theresa in the category of a serious doubter of the divine.  She who did so much to help the poorest of the poor — could she have ever doubted? Of course she did.  And she said as much in her diary.

Italian leather for binding

Italian leather for binding

When her diary appeared in print it caused a major sensation.  After all, if anyone was a true believer, it had to be Mother Theresa.  To question her faith seemed disrespectful, to say the least.  But in those pages, in her own words, she wrote of the years when God seemed to be not just distant, but entirely absent.  Could there possibly be a God in the midst of such grinding poverty and meaningless death?  If there was a God, where in the world might that God be?

This certainly has been the experience of many a saint, including John of the Cross, whose Dark Night of the Soul details his own suffering at the absence of God.  And it certainly was the experience of many Jews in the Holocaust, who wondered in their hearts why any God would allow a people to suffer so.  Mother Theresa was scarcely unique in her experience, and a truckload of biographies will attest to that.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us should find ourselves kindred spirits with her and with all the other notorious skeptics who have gone before us.

Religious doubt afflicts the best of believers, sooner or later.  And it does so because of a lively mind.  Who hasn’t thought about all the evil in the world and wanted to despair?  Who hasn’t felt lonely and wondered if there was no one out there who cared?  Who hasn’t felt just a bit worthless and insignificant as we gaze at the expanse of the universe?  Who hasn’t succumbed to the material allure of the world, in the belief that such things give us meaning?

photo (83)Saint Thomas Aquinas once included among the attributes of God the good, the true and the beautiful.  And it strikes me that once we know what to look for, then it is a little easier to push our doubts aside and forge ahead in faith.  Have you ever seen someone do a random bit of kindness that somehow renewed your faith in humanity?  Have you ever seen beauty and innocence in the eyes of a child?  Have you ever marveled at the structure of the universe?  Have you ever surprised yourself by the urge to love or help someone in need? If so, you’ve been privileged to glimpse the face of God in the faces of those around you.  What you’ve come to see, in them and in yourself, is nothing less than the presence of God.

It’s natural to doubt, because we have critical minds that God has given us to use.  But if doubt produces a life-time of fence-sitting, then we’ve made a poor choice indeed.  If we conclude that doubt equals disbelief in God, then our reasoning is a little off.  Doubt is healthy, but it doesn’t take us off the hook from responsibility for our lives.  If we opt for materialism or the quest for power or nihilism, so be it.  But from my vantage point those are choices that ultimately yield neither personal meaning nor much of a return.  As for me, as much as I may have my own personal doubts, I see the irresistible logic of throwing in my lot with the good, the true and the beautiful.  If they prove illusory, I’ve really lost nothing at all.  If they prove to be that glimpse into the eternal, then I could very well be the big winner, both now and in eternity.

photo (84)Meanwhile, I remain amused by the contrast between those two Albanian icons.  Together, in fact, they are almost allegorical in their meaning.  Enver Hoxha convinced everyone in Albania that they were wealthy and the envy of the world.  He was a skilled marketer, but at the end of the day the Albanians were not rich, as any naive child could point out.  Meanwhile, Mother Theresa collected the refuse of humanity off of the streets of Calcutta.  They were her riches, and in them she saw the face of God.  That’s not such a bad way of looking at creation, and I think I’ll keep struggling on in that view, despite my own occasional doubts.

Doubt is natural, because we are thoughtful and questioning  human beings.  Indecision, by contrast, is failure.  For better and for worse, I think that the good, the true and the beautiful are the better choices.  For me they are the poetry and the mathematics that make life worth living, and eternal life worth seeking — both now and hereafter.

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell

Notes

+On April 10th I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 11th we were surprised to receive nearly a foot of snow.  Actually, “crestfallen” and “disappointed” might better describe the reaction of most of us.  Once again I had to shovel out my car.  This time it was the heavy wet snow of early spring — the kind of snow that gives the omnipotent shoveler a heart attack.  If this were January, I would have taken pictures and posted them.  In April such snow tends to be both prettier and far less attractive at the same time.  I have chosen to spare you (and me) the agony of looking at it.

+On April 11th our beloved confrere Brother Gregory Eibensteiner died peacefully.  For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the carpenter shop.  And his great hobby was building the birdhouses that served as home for the purple martins.

Volumes ready for delivery

Volumes ready for delivery

+While in Arizona a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit Roswell Bindery, where the pictures in today’s post were taken.  It is there that the volumes of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible are being bound.  Second-generation owner Michael Roswell led the tour, and we were joined by Sherrie Schmidt, Director of Libraries at Arizona State University.  One set of the Heritage Edition now calls ASU home.

In many respects the process of binding a book has scarcely changed over the centuries.  But the Heritage Edition harks back to an earlier time of intensive labor and quality materials.  From the hand-sewn gatherings, to the Italian calf-skin that covers the quarter-inch maple boards, each volume is a real work of art.

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