This battle’s smaller, but I’ll fight it ‘til it’s over, and He’s God once more. ”

V

Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

~Deuteronomy 6:7

Those Lovely Intangibles

Now awake, on my back

looking up at an autumn sky,

I wonder where I am.

And I think of the three things that would

lead me through the seasons,

and I try to stand.

Then engaged, a ring and all,

staying close to an open door,

but I was spoken for.

And I placed my belongings where the heart of the Song is;

left me wanting more.

I see, someone is overjoyed at all these odd divisions.

And why is everyone overwhelmed, and under spells and so tired?

And all this fortune leaves me cold

when there’s no one left to hold

and I am told to hide the reasons in a room.

And all the senses leave me high,

when they’re gone, I start to find all the evidence of life

in the corner of the tomb.

Now awake, on my side,

looking up at a winter sun,

take in what I’ve done, take in what’s to come.

And true:

this battle’s smaller,

but I’ll fight it ‘til it’s over,

and He’s God once more.

* * *

During my sophomore year of college, I signed up for a course called “Introduction to Philosophy.” I was excited at the prospect of spending many hours reading Descartes and Plato and Other Smart People, who could give me mesmerizing things to say at future social events. I’d rarely seen a professor so enthusiastic for the subject matter; I have vivid memories of his arms flailing around, and his jogging back and forth in front of the blackboard. I was on the edge of my seat, inhaling every word he said.

But not every word made sense. In fact, very little of what he was saying made sense to me. And when he handed out the assignments, I stared blankly at the questions on the sheet of paper before me. I was thrown back to an elementary school math class, when we had to figure out which train would arrive first in Chicago, if one train left Evanston at 10am, traveling at 60 miles an hour, and the other left Bloomingdale at 10:37am, traveling at 65 miles an hour.

This was philosophy? Herein lay the keys to unlocking doors to Purpose and Identity?

My peers didn’t seem to be struggling as much, and that did nothing to encourage me. I couldn’t even understand the questions they asked during the class. It didn’t help that there seemed to be an unspoken race in that classroom to say the cleverest thing first. If it was a race, I was coming in dead last. The only other class that had proven to be such a thorn in my side was the one I took on anthropology. Apparently, I’ve had some trouble studying the history of humanity, and the process by which humanity has tried to understand itself. Minor details, right?

Fast-forward about ten years, and I gave Introduction to Philosophy a second chance. I looked at the reading list, and I had a sense of déjà vu. But this time, I told myself, would be different. At the very least, I was prepared to answer questions about trains bound for Chicago. But it turned out to be very different, indeed. My professor was still quirky (I started to think it was a requirement in the field), but the material was actually making sense. Not all of it, mind you, but a fair bit. And that was primarily because my professor took the time to carefully connect a few dots very early on in the semester. In the first class – and in nearly every session after that – he stated that “whatever is at the center of your life will determine everything else about how you live.”

Admittedly, this class was taking place in the context of a Catholic graduate school, so the ideal “centerpiece” my professor had in mind was the person of Jesus Christ. But he wanted us to discover for ourselves about what life might look like if the wisdom of Christ was always radiating from the center of our existence. What would our good days look like, with Christ at the center? And what about our bad days? How would we deal with them, in light of what we’ve learned – and loved – about Christ? Perhaps some of you remember the popularity of the phrase “What would Jesus do?” It’s not a bad place to start, but I challenge the notion that we’re somehow observing Jesus from afar, taking down notes while watching Him go about His daily business. And then, from time to time, we approach Him, as if He were a kind of outside consultant. Is that truly loving the Lord with our whole being?

This matter of wholeness appears in the Shema, which is the Scripture passage referred to at the start of the chapter. This prayer has been at the heart of Jewish life since the time of Moses, and it is the cornerstone of the Old Covenant:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,

with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.

Take to heart these words which I command you today.

Keep repeating them to your children.

Recite them when you are at home and when you are away,

when you lie down and when you get up.

Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead.

Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.

~ Deut 6:4-9

As He ushered in the New Covenant many years later, Jesus Christ faithfully repeated these words as well. But He added something to it:

“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” ~ Matthew 22: 39-40

Four times, the word whole is used. Repeat, recite, bind, write, depend…none of this suggests even the smallest hint of a lukewarm love for our Lord. How tempting it is to reduce our love for God to a tepid and dispassionate affection! The center of our lives becomes easily cluttered, and before we know it, we are worshipping any number of gods, who are jealous for our time, our minds and our money. But no one is more jealous than our God, for no one loves us as He does! His jealousy cannot be contained; it overflows into the world in the form of life-giving graces, which call us back to our baptismal promises – or perhaps towards the font for the first time.

Whatever is at the center of your life will determine everything else about how you live.

If you are anything like me, you have perhaps been worried that surrendering the center of our lives to Christ Jesus will inevitably push everything else out, as if it didn’t belong. No more fun hobbies, no more spontaneity, no more dreaming…but we mustn’t think of the Christo-centric life as a black hole, which indiscriminately flings matter into oblivion. Rather, like a positive magnetic force, all the good stuff in life is drawn towards and orbits around the Source of all Good, allowing our desires and gifts to come into clearer focus and grow according to their original design. In other words, Jesus doesn’t want to steal anything from us – He only wants to give us more of what He knows will make us truly happy.

And all the senses leave me high,

when they’re gone, I start to find

all the evidence of life

in the corner of the tomb.

I love that we are gifted with five senses. They have given me delicious foods, tantalizing smells, pleasant things to touch, stunning sights, and beautiful sounds. We have interior senses, as well: feelings of happiness that make the heart beat faster or the anxiety that ties our stomachs into knots. Sometimes these senses can seem like the totality of our identity and reality. But it is helpful to keep in mind that no pleasure is higher than the perfect goodness of God, and even our deepest and saddest valleys can go no lower than where our Lord has gone; He who descended into the very depths of hell on Holy Saturday, to rescue the souls of the righteous. We can enter into our own Holy Saturday of the senses, when all that we considered Important and Real is buried and locked in a tomb. When the life we planned is disrupted and the center is stripped away, what is there? Who is there? Here, we enter the realm of the intangible. We know there is life here, but we cannot quite reach out and touch it. If anything, it has the power to reach out and touch us.

“…if reality is in the end reducible to sensible appearance, then, since this is in a state of perpetual flux and self-contradiction, no kind of certitude will any longer be possible. [...] Truth is necessary and immutable; but in the sensible order nothing necessary or immutable is to be found; therefore sensible things will never yield us any truth.”[i]

              ~ Etienne Gilson

The truth is, the Truth lives. Church is not joking when she says we can enjoy a real relationship with the Truth. We are speaking of a person (and it should not come as any surprise, then, that the further away we get from understanding the profound realities of personhood, the further we will drift from the Person who is the Truth). refore, when we speak of the center, we do not have something stale or motionless in mind. With Christ at the core of how we live, there is undeniable energy and activity. And yes, we should brace ourselves for the jousting competition – since there are plenty of little gods trying to elbow their way into the center of our lives. These daily skirmishes might be minor or major, but every victory brings us one step closer to the restoration of the reign of the true King.

And true,

this battle’s smaller,

but I’ll fight it ‘til it’s over,

and He’s God once more.

For a long time, I considered myself to be a failed philosopher. I wanted to be much better at it than I actually was. I aspired to keep up with my friends, who could rattle on about Objection 3 to Article 1 under the heading “Whether there are ideas?” in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. But I’ve had to make my peace with the fact that the professional philosophy is best left to the experts. And I say professional because if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that philosophy is much more than a matter of expanding one’s catalogue of intelligent things to say at social gatherings. At its most practical level, this “love of wisdom” is a roadmap to finding the best and most authentic way to live.

“Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world, and those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much…you don’t get ahead that way.”

“That all depends on what you call “getting ahead.” Evidently, you and I have different definitions….Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.”

~ Miracle on 34th Street

* * *

We have been given an excellent and simple exhortation, to help us order our lives: love the Lord and love our neighbor. How we bookend our day is a good representation of how our lives are arranged and organized: what are my first and last thoughts of the day? Are the words of the Lord in my heart and on my tongue when I lie down, and when I get up? What is competing with God for the center of my life?

Lord Jesus, come, reside at the very core of my life! May Your wisdom be at the origin of my actions, words and thoughts. And I ask that You lead me into a deep stillness, where You and I may converse in tranquility. A stillness of heart, mind and body. Help me see that this time is not just a peaceful break in the chaos of human events, but is actually a quiet stirring which confirms the hidden graces of Love’s movement in the world. Still-ness…the very word suggests that things that *were* still are. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be…” I put my trust in You, O God, the King of all Ages, and the Lord of my life.

 

[i] Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, (New York, NY: Scribners, 1936) 230.