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Catholics & The ‘Personal Relationship’ With God

Sherry Weddell is a lay Catholic apologist and evangelist whose life’s work involves studying American Catholics and figuring out how to bring them into a spiritually active life within the Catholic Church. Fr. Thomas Berg writes about a shocking finding from Weddell’s latest book: More troubling still is her discovery – after working with hundreds […]

Sherry Weddell is a lay Catholic apologist and evangelist whose life’s work involves studying American Catholics and figuring out how to bring them into a spiritually active life within the Catholic Church. Fr. Thomas Berg writes about a shocking finding from Weddell’s latest book:

More troubling still is her discovery – after working with hundreds of parishes, and personally interviewing a couple thousand practicing Catholics, most of whom described themselves as “active” and “heavily involved” in their parishes – that many of them have tremendous gaps in their understanding of the faith.  They might be in Church every Sunday: ushers, lectors, parish secretaries, religious ed teachers and so on. Yet Weddell not infrequently discovered many who – upon sharing with her their own experience of the faith – did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or who intimated that that they don’t even believe in a personal God at all! Her personal experience in these one-on-one encounters seems to confirm one of the most disturbing implications of the Pew study. Weddell explains:

“It is especially sobering to learn that when Pew surveyors asked the question, ‘Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?’ only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.”

Mark Shea quotes Weddell here:

The greatest triumphs of Orthodox Christianity have taken place when the Church has lived as a missionary Church and not as an institutional Church. Pope Francis challenges Orthodox Christians with the following words: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”

I think that the rediscovery of Dante could be a tremendous benefit to the Catholic Church in reawakening its people to the fact that God desires us to have a personal relationship with Him, and in fact it is precisely on that relationship that our salvation depends. Catholics understandably resist the “personal relationship” language because that’s a phrase and a concept they associate with Evangelicalism. But there is a more faithfully Catholic way to understand this concept. In Orthodox Christianity, the personal relationship with God is everything, but it is not conceived in terms of Jesus being your buddy, which is what a lot of us hear (fairly or not) in the phrase “personal relationship with Christ.” Rather, in more philosophical terms, it is about entering into a radically subjective relationship with the living God — something that has been central to Christianity since the beginning.

This, of course, is at the heart of Dante’s Divine Comedy — and it may strike the modern reader as very strange that the pilgrim Dante in the poem never meets Jesus in the afterlife, or has a conversation with God. Rather, Dante enters into this personal relationship with the triune God through the agency of others who mediate His love.

Here’s what makes me think that the time may be right for Catholics to rediscover the gift of Dante. In an essay published in the scholarly collection Dante And The Franciscans, professors Bill Cook and Ron Herzman discuss the Franciscan qualities of the Commedia. The essay is called “What Dante Learned From St. Francis”. Ron Herzman sent me a photocopy of it; alas, I can’t find a copy online.

For example, St. Francis learned to find sweetness and beauty in poverty and exile, because it revealed Christ to him. It was only in loving Christ and uniting his own soul to Christ that these truths became clear to Francis. Similarly, Dante learned to accept his own exile because it led him to become more closely united with Christ, and to reject the corrupt values of the world from which he had been involuntarily cast out.

More, in these excerpts from the Cook & Herzman essay:

What perhaps is more difficult for modern people to grasp than Francis’s rejection of money is the joy he found in his abject poverty. In Nikos Kazantzakis’s twentieth-century novel about Francis, the narrator, Brother Leo, tells the reader that he can imitate Francis’s asceticism physically by using a rock for a pillow or eating slop in a beggar’s bowl. What is really hard for him, he confesses, is to find the joy and consolation of spirit that Francis felt in these activities. Dante will have to learn more than simply how to survive with less — perhaps much less — when he goes into exile. But he will also need to find joy and the possibility for spiritual growth in what looks hard and feels uncomfortable.

Cook and Herzman talk about Franciscan humility in Dante’s life. Francis became famous in his own lifetime, but kept himself detached from his own fame and spiritual gifts. Francis called himself “the greatest of sinners” because, they write, he and he alone knew the distance between who he was and what he was capable of in Christ. The scholars write:

The idea that humility begins in obedience is rooted in the monastic tradition, from Cassian and Benedict in particular. Francis, following this tradition, saw the connection, accepting not just that God knew what was better for Francis than Francis knew himself, but that other people did as well. Francis realized that when we claim that we allow God alone to guide us, we often define God’s will for us to be what we want to do anyway. After all, God does not usually send us a text or whisper in our ear a precise plan for what we ought to do. On the other hand, people we deal with, especially superiors in the religious life, do make their plans for us perfectly clear, and often they are not quite what we had in mind. Francis sought not only to be obedient directly to God but also to humans.

The Commedia begins with Dante trusting in authority — Virgil, sent by heaven — to lead him out of the darkness, fear, and confusion. Dante submitted to Virgil, and humbly followed him through the pit of Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory. Then he submitted to the leadership of Beatrice. This was not a path Dante would have chosen himself, but knowing his own limitations, he submitted to an authority he could trust, figures who knew things Dante did not know. And that was how he found salvation.

Cook & Herzman talk about how Francis was a faithful son of the Church, but was skeptical of the new Scholastic learning insofar as intellection did not lead others to living lives “more focused on what really mattered. One way of putting Francis’s concern into words is that Francis must have wondered about the value of learning and creating definitions of love if such work did not lead to one becoming a better lover.” Similarly, Dante was a brilliant intellectual, but discovered that learning is a dead end when “divorced from the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Finally, Francis was a great mystic, but he was also a man of the people. He dedicated himself to “democratizing” the experience of God — that is, making it accessible to ordinary people, not just monks. This is what I took from reading the Commedia: a way to understand the pilgrim’s path to mystical union with God in a way that I had never done.

The Cook & Herzman essay is about learning from others. They point out that Dante (the pilgrim in the poem) humbles himself from the beginning to learn from all those he meets on the way. From the damned he learns what and how not to be. From the penitents in Purgatory, he learns how to free oneself from the things that keep us from God. And from the saints in Paradise, he learns what it means to be perfected in God. In all cases, though, he has to be receptive to what others have to teach him, and not only receptive, but discerning; in the Inferno, the damned are usually unreliable narrators, and the very lies that they tell themselves about their own culpability is instructive to Dante. His entire pilgrimage is not for the purpose of sightseeing in the afterlife. It is about learning what he needs to know to be saved, to be delivered from his condition of fear, confusion, and misery, to be healed of his self-inflicted wounds, to be made whole. This, by the way, was my surprising experience in reading the Commedia, and it’s the purpose of writing the book I plan to write.

Anyway, Cook & Herzman go on to discuss the presentation of Francis’s life in Paradiso, which Dante (the poet) puts into the mouth of St. Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican, and this is rhetorically and theologically important for a reason we’ll discuss later in our study of Paradiso). The scholars say that the episodes from Francis’s life that St. Thomas recounts are episodes that speak directly to the spiritual needs of the pilgrim Dante. Specifically, they point out that Francis’s famous “Canticle of the Sun,” also known as “Canticle of the Creatures,” is not the sentimental, hippy-dippy song we moderns often take it to be, but is in fact after something far deeper: rediscovering and restoring the harmony throughout the universe that existed before the Fall. The Commedia is infinitely more sophisticated, but its goal is the same. This, obviously, is very, very far from the idea of participation in the life of the Church being about nothing more than ritual formalism and moralism, which is what many, perhaps most, people today think the Christian life consists of. 

Finally, Cook & Herzman say that Dante included in the Commedia the tale of Francis seeking and failing to find martyrdom as a kind of Crusader, preaching Christ to the sultan, as a guide for how to use his own exile. Francis returned to Italy a failed Crusader, but ended up finding a different kind of living martyrdom, one that God used to rebuild the Church and to lead people back to Himself over many subsequent centuries, even into the present day. Similarly, Dante learns that his own exile is in God’s plan. From Cook & Herzman:

Had Francis received his martyrdom at the hands of the sultan, Dante implies, his work as preacher of the word would have been cut short. But because this work allowed Francis to do what he had been called upon early in his life to do, to rebuild God’s church, Francis’s mission becomes a model for Dante’s mission as preacher of the word through is poema sacro, just as Francis’s virtues are a model for what Dante needs in order to carry out that mission. Francis endures the spiritual but no less real martyrdom of the stigmata. Dante learns from Cacciaguida that he will suffer the spiritual martyrdom of exile, but also that his mission can only be accomplished by embracing his martyrdom rather than fleeing from it. Only in this way will he be able to turn exile into pilgrimage. Cacciaguida is nothing if not forthright about the bitterness of exile as he opens the book of the pilgrim’s future. But this bitterness is precisely what will give Dante’s words the authenticity of lived experience.

It’s impossible to do justice to the riches of this essay by paraphrase, and I’ve already quoted more than I should.  Let’s end by returning to where I began this blog entry: by talking about the startling statistic that half of American Catholics aren’t sure that they can have a personal relationship with the God they profess. For them — and for many of us non-Catholics too, no doubt — the living God has become an abstraction. To read the Commedia, then, can be for many what the Dante scholar Christian Moevs calls receiving a “shock of beauty” that shakes you up and makes you consider that what you thought you knew about yourself, and God, and the cosmos, was wrong. I quoted Moevs in a Paradiso blog the other day:

The ascent [to God] begins through the “shock of beauty,” which reorients the mind away from the senses and into the depths of itself toward its source (one might say that this is the shock the pilgrim Dante will call “Beatrice”). It is a spontaneous movement toward absolute purity and renunciation, a knowing that is a stirring of love so intense that the soul becomes love, willing to renounce everything, to surrender all self-definition, to retain nothing of itself, in its thirst to be all, to rest in the One.

As Cook & Herzman tell us, Dante learned from Francis, and reinterpreted the lessons of Francis’s life for his own particular circumstances. We can do this with Dante. I’ve done it, and am doing it, and it has powerfully deepened my “personal relationship” with God. I never, ever imagined a 700-year-old poem could have that power, but God uses everything He can to call us to Himself. My hope is that Catholics, whose Pope Francis is a call to return to Franciscan ways of thinking and living as Catholic Christians, will open their hearts and minds to the Franciscan Dante. In fact, as I write this book, I will have them in mind as part of the readership I hope to have. Dante is a treasure waiting to be discovered by modern Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic. If you are the kind of Christian, Catholic or otherwise, who is put off by the language of “personal relationship” with reference to God, you really need to read Dante. Trust me on this.



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