Ephesians 5:21 for the Millennial

For our marriage, my husband and I chose as our reading St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I’ve never heard it read at another wedding. “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands . . .” It was just politically incorrect enough for us to finish the passage.

. . . “as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the savior of the Body. As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”

Subordinate? Just wait.

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her.” We submit ourselves to our husband’s love.

Love her as Christ loved the Church. Didn’t Christ sacrifice Himself to redeem us? This is the love we were made for as women—love that is sacrificial, sanctifying, and dare I say it . . . liberating.

This reading is radical! Never before were women elevated to such a status—a person with a soul to be cherished. My husband nourishes and cherishes me while I submit myself to his will—his will to love me.

This spousal relationship between a husband and wife and Christ and the Church is a “great mystery.” This great mystery is the axis on which the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony rests. This sacrament we live out has a strangeness. It frustrates reason, confounds pragmatism, and shames worldly desire. The mystery of the sacrament even transcends metaphor. It isn’t a love limited by feeling because it’s a love inextricably tied to the most profound narrative—the narrative of a God who self-emptied Himself to become Man.

Beauty draws me in, and this reading, this mystery, makes me tremble because it is profoundly sacred and romantic. It imbues our domestic life with a holiness and sanctifies our work for one another. I know of no other sphere where that kind of dignity is granted.

What Beauty Can Do for True Catholic Education

We are at the cusp of a renaissance in Catholic education. The transcendentals truth, beauty, and goodness are trumpeted in classical school mission statements as the key to unlocking and preserving the great treasures of Catholic education. These schools tend to be distinctly orthodox, a testament to a strong foothold in doctrine and apologetics (truth). They also emphasize a return to virtue and tradition (goodness). Focus on truth, through doctrine, apologetics, and reason, assumes that an experience of beauty and goodness will necessarily follow.

Suppose we start with beauty. The Sacred Liturgy would become the focal point of an integrated Catholic school life. Bonaventure suggested that the reception in the Eucharist of Christ’s body and soul increases our apprehension of hidden beauty in all things. Liturgical practice and sacramental reception uphold a mystical relationship between the physical and spiritual senses. The continuity of these senses is bound to our perception of both literal and spiritual senses of the Sacred Word. Beauty calls us to the good because the Eucharist is Beauty that fulfills God’s law of charity through total obedience.

How do we discuss beauty in the context of education? The treatment of beauty in our culture today is subjective. But as a transcendental, beauty is an object’s perfection perceived as a source of pleasure. The fact that beauty is predicated on a “beholder”—someone who witnesses the object’s perfection—actually makes things a little more concrete in terms of education: We teach students attention—that is, how to become beholders. Beauty in this sense is inextricably linked to holiness.

One of the most important Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, also recognized the importance of perceiving the beauty of the divine form that God reveals:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Beauty can lead our ministry through loving and being receptive to what is good. Christ made this somewhat abstract transcendental incarnate after all. So to Dostoevsky’s prince, we might say: Beauty has saved the world.

Introducing a Philosophy of Catholic Education

The human longing for truth, beauty, and goodness inspires a true philosophy of Catholic education. The task at hand is to identify the purpose of the human mind in terms of living well—a purpose that ties life’s ultimate meaning to the transcendent and supernatural. Most educational discussions circle around questions of methodology and processes and evade the question of purpose. If we are discerning the purpose for our mind in life, then we must know what the purpose of our life is.

To begin, we need a science of humanity, or an anthropology, that can properly portray the human being. This anthropology should be fundamentally a Trinitarian Christocentric anthropology. The fundamentals of human learning inhere in the seven “Liberal Arts” (the Trivium and Quadrivium) that serve as the core of classical and medieval education.

These arts prepare students for the study of Philosophy and Theology—in other words, for the love of wisdom (philosophia) and the knowledge of God (theologia). Promoting intellectual character will ultimately require a “sophianization” of religious education in such a way that its intellectual content is no longer disconnected from the formative aspects of catechetical education. The Trivium gets us closer to this goal because it mirrors the Trinity that marks all creation: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric correspond to the human gifts of memory, thought, and communication.

For instance, grammar connects us to the source of our being, our Origin, through memory and language. Pope Benedict XVI has discussed this transcendent grammar in his message for the 2007 World Day of Peace:

The transcendent “grammar”, that is to say the body of rules for individual action and the reciprocal relationships of persons in accordance with justice and solidarity, is inscribed on human consciences, in which the wise plan of God is reflected. As I recently had occasion to reaffirm: “we believe that at the beginning of everything is the Eternal Word, Reason and not Unreason (4).” Peace is thus also a task demanding of everyone a personal response consistent with God’s plan. The criterion inspiring this response can only be respect for the “grammar” written on human hearts by the divine Creator.

In Caritas in Veritate, he also explains that nature “is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”

The Catholic philosophical approach to education also draws an important connection between the three persons within the Trinity and our being. This connection is mediated by the transcendentals of the good, true, and beautiful. In her 2016 Cardinal Winning Lecture, Professor Tracey Rowland clarifies “a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.”

The four subjects of the Quadrivium reflect the quest for the Logos or intelligibility of the world. Each subject appeals to order to recognize patterns in the world, which ascends to knowledge of the Wisdom of God. Finding God’s expression in the order of the universe is the purpose of both science and art through the exercise of the imagination. The artist, scientist, and mathematician essentially look for beauty to know truth.

The reality of the divine Logos serves as the basis for unity and integrity in the curriculum. The Logos advances how we discuss liberal education because it reconciles, with moral certainty, reason to revelation: Reason enables us to know the objective reality manifested in nature. And I think we can call that beautiful.

Shadows and Illuminations in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

When I saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I was struck by how it captivated viewers. Even though the painting illustrates a diner in the New York, its absent narrative lends a timeless quality to the piece. An American icon of twentieth-century art and culture, the painting depicts three customers seemingly disconnected or alienated from one another. The empty bar, ordered chairs, and wide gaps between objects and figures emphasize the disquiet. This anxiety reflects the enigmatic relationships, leading us to wonder whether the figures know each other or whether they are seeking refuge in strangers’ company.

Hopper understood the significance of light on human form. There is beauty in the way the light touches the simple shapes of bodies. The fluorescent light, which emerged in the early 1940s, radiates an uncanny glow. This beacon of light draws the viewer until she becomes separated from the scene by a stretch of glass. This stretch of glass reminds the night owls of the proximity of the real world outside. The figures become as distant from the viewer as they are from one another. While he did not purposefully develop a theme of human alienation in his paintings, he knew that with regard to Nighthawks, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Hopper’s aesthetic vision captures the reality of modern culture and uses a physical setting to communicate an emotional state. Why light to depict the human condition? Light concerns two primary characteristics of beauty—radiance and clarity. Light is a condition for beauty because it illuminates the beauty of objects. In medieval aesthetics light underlies the Divine Reality. The glass window was a means to meditate on eternal ideas because light could pass through windows without being the same substance. Similarly, God illuminates creation while remaining distinct in nature from those objects.

We might even call it a modern chiaroscuro, an Italian word meaning “clear-dark.” Chiaroscuro referred to a refined technique of shading that was introduced in the Renaissance. Chiaroscuro attenuates light and renders shadows more merciful. The chiaroscuro treatment of light is not so much a contrast of color as a contrast in value. Simply put, an overwhelming amount of darkness envelopes the small trace of light emanating from one source. The darkness makes the light appear even more luminous.

Imagine a portrait from Caravaggio or Rembrandt rendered in fluorescent light, and we might have the lady in red from Nighthawks. Perhaps she is de La Tour’s repentant Magdalen. Many artists, including Correggio, Caravaggio, and de La Tour, used chiaroscuro in their treatment of Christian subjects—especially the Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds, the Holy family, and the Nativity. While Nighthawks hardly seems Christian at first glance, the painting confronts the ordinary with psychological depth, making the melancholy soul-testing. But the glint of grace offered from a bright ceiling gives us hope their gathering will somehow transcend into communion.

The Philosophy of the Book of Job

I’ve never found another ancient book that fascinates me as much as the book of Job. There are two ways that I’ve learned to read this dramatic poem: as a theodicy and as a paradox. The latter came from G.K. Chesterton. The book of Job meditates on how the experience of suffering seems to belie the goodness, justice, and power of God. Theodicy attempts to solve the problem of evil by reconciling the existence of evil with the doctrine of divine goodness, justice, and power.

The book of Job reveals something of philosophical importance about the nature of God. Maybe not just God, but God’s relationship to man. Unlike other books, the book of Job inquires into the purpose of God and the worth of that purpose. These questions are what led Chesterton to assert that the book of Job is a philosophical riddle: “The first of the intellectual beauties of the book of Job is that it is all concerned with this desire to know the actuality; the desire to know what is, and not merely what seems.” Job encourages, perhaps demands, God to speak. But the author of Job does not have God enter the story to answer the questions. As Chesterton explains, “By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number of questions on His own account. In this drama of skepticism God Himself takes up the role of skeptic.”

God’s speech meets all human skepticism with a higher skepticism. This philosophical riddle comes together with a great theological insight when Job finds satisfaction in knowing that the world is mysterious. Chesterton writes,

Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

The theodicy question posed is whether God punishes vice with worldly punishment and rewards virtue with worldly prosperity. But this would conflate goodness and success: “If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue.” Virtue diffracts from God upon our own potentiality and contains a predisposition to both spiritual joy and suffering. In virtue we learn how God chose to dispose Himself to us.

The story is interesting because it concludes as a paradox. Perhaps there isn’t a theodicy here at all but something more necessary—a testimony to our human desire. The climax of the story is reached when God steps into history with the weight of His own destiny. This strange paradox surpasses a satisfying theodicy. Job’s misfortunes were never considered in relation to sin. There is no symmetry between goodness and fortune: He is a good man with a terrible fate. But, more importantly, he is also an Old Testament figure, who anticipates the paradox of Christianity—“a paradox of great humility in the matter of their sins combined with great ferocity in the matter of their ideas.” This is the mystery we are left to ponder.

The Catholic Vision of James Joyce in Araby

Is James Joyce’s Araby a medieval romance, a coming-of-age-story, or a Christian narrative? The answer lies in a key element of his aesthetic—the Epiphany. The term comes from the Theophany, or divine manifestation of God to the Three Kings or Magi. Joyce found this event particularly appealing because a simple yet singular moment—the birth of Jesus—revealed something sacred and holy to the world. The idea of the epiphany could signal the intersection of the finite and the infinite, the ordinary and the mystical, the temporal and the eternal.

In Araby a young man takes a journey in the night to the Araby bazaar—a marketplace of sorts—where he also encounters the challenges of modern love. He falls in love with his friend Mangan’s sister and promises her that he will bring her something from the bazaar. But by the time he can go, the booths are mostly abandoned, and “the greater part of the hall was in darkness.” He notices “a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”

The landscape of this mysterious bazaar is dimly lit with the summer of childhood passing quickly and the winter darkness looming ahead. As the lights continue to dwindle, we wonder whether the Joycean epiphany will pass into a requiem. “Gazing up into the darkness,” he discloses, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

But a spiritual illumination emerges from his quest into darkness. The naïve protagonist goes out at night but sees himself and his world in a profoundly new way. He greets mystery in the uncanny and discovers God in that mystery. This discovery of the divine paradoxically shows us the transformative potential for spiritual darkness to be a herald of spiritual illumination.

The young narrator’s epiphany expresses a disillusioned perspective toward the fallen state of the world. This epiphany, recognized in his sudden disillusionment, leads us to meditate on how the religious symbols, such as the chapel, Virgin Mary, and chalice construct a new kind of pattern for the story—a pattern consistent with a conversion story or Christian narrative.

Religious imagery inspires the narrator’s intense devotion, heightening his disillusionment when his desire leads to emptiness. The first instance of religious imagery occurs when the young man characterizes his love for Mangan’s sister in this way: “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.”

The juxtaposition of “chalice” to “prayers” and “praises” suggest a young communicant in the midst of a redemptive conversion. The transformation of his role into a young communicant changes our understanding of his epiphany and makes us reconsider our own: How do our memories become epiphanic? When do our quests into the dark night and the depths of the soul become illuminative and redemptive?

We recognize the spirit of kenosis, or self-emptying, when the young man sees himself “driven and derided by vanity.” Epiphanies carry a sacramental quality; they are a divine descent on an ordinary experience. But these matters require not just light from the outside but vision that can see beautiful things even in shadows.

The Search in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer opens with the following line from Søren Kierkegaard: “the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” But the hero Binx Bolling improves this idea with “the search”: “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” The story is really a philosophical narrative that gives credence to the questions we ask ourselves when weighed down by the ordinariness of life.

Binx is a Louisiana stock broker who characterizes himself as “living the most ordinary life imaginable.” Everyday existence, for Binx, emphasizes finite and external pleasures—money, status, power. But these pleasures withhold from us the infinite. His moviegoing is really an existential activity of sorts to counter the facade of New Orleans culture. The movies suggest a pattern for embarking on the search and a sense of wonder that doesn’t necessarily lead to escapism. But Binx recognizes, “they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place, but what does he do? He take us with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might as well be dead.” The movies end up betraying their own capacity to reveal something more profound about our experience.

Percy was a convert to Catholicism, and The Moviegoer has a distinctly liturgical structure. The novel takes place during the Epiphany. The name Epiphany comes from the Greek epiphania, which refers to a god appearing on earth. This theme of divine manifestation is carried through in three events of Christ’s life when His divinity comes through His humanity: the adoration of the three wise men, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, and the very first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. Indeed, we see the sacramental nature and mystical significance of these historical events in Binx’s narrative. During Lent, Binx recommends the Eucharist to Lonnie. Binx’s own baptism leads him back into the community of faith. Finally, his search culminates in his receiving the sacrament of holy matrimony. On Ash Wednesday, he confronts the mystery of penance: He sees a man come out of church with a forehead “an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he has received ashes.”

The narrative challenges the modern malaise—alienation from the truth about ourselves and the world—by treating it as a sort of “dark night” of the soul. So the malaise becomes something more than an ontological condition: It makes a distinct possibility for God. But the dilemma of Binx’s society is that God is alive, contra Nietzsche; however, He is living among those who are blind to His existence, those who believe suburban mansions and football, those like Uncle Jules: “For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.” The realization transforms Binx’s search into a dialogic encounter with this kind of secular rationalist. But his dark night precludes the possibility for affirmations of God’s existence. Instead, he approaches the mystery of sacramentality in an apophatic, or negative way, in order to disclose its ineffability.

Percy believed that the modern novel could help us diagnose and treat the modern malaise, or the condition of alienation, because good fiction removes the veil of apathy. The story isn’t political or psychological, but rather prophetic and revelatory: Only a broken stock broker could convince us moderns of the economy of salvation.