The Chosen and Eyewitness Testimony

I watched The Chosen Christmas special episode this past Sunday. Although I could have done without the long musical intro, and setting aside evangelical vs. Catholic understandings of Mary’s experiences of the virgin birth (for a Catholic perspective, see here), I wanted to note something I really love that this series does in this episode, as well as in the first episode of season 2: the writers try to imagine not only the experiences of the first followers of Jesus when they met him and followed him during his ministry; they also try to imagine what it might have looked like for these disciples after the death, resurrection, and ascension, as they began translating their experiences of Jesus into written accounts that later would be gathered into the New Testament Scriptures. It’s something that we do not consider enough.

For me, the best part of the Christmas episode was the way in which the writers imagined how details of the Christmas story came down to us. There is a beautiful focus on the Magnificat (Lk: 1:46-55) and Mary and Joseph’s encounters with the “messengers” (Lk: 1:26-48; Mt: 1:18-24) and the fact that Jesus, like a spotless lamb set aside by shepherds for sacrifice in the Temple, was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” by his mother (Lk: 2:7). These are details which, if we believe them to be accurate in any meaningful sense, must have been reported to the evangelist Luke ultimately by Mary herself.

The Chosen writers have Mary Magdalene come to visit the mother of the Lord shortly before she dies to be given the privilege of carefully writing down the words of the Magnificat and delivering them to Luke on Our Lady’s behalf.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if this is how the information was transmitted to Luke, and perhaps this scenario is not very likely, but there is nevertheless something very beautiful about the show emphasizing Mary Magdalene’s role as “apostle to the apostles” even years after the resurrection and her initial announcement to them of the good news (cf. Mark 16:9-11, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:10-11, John 20:1-18).

It is clear to me, regardless, that there must have been a special relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — as they were profoundly united together by witnessing the suffering of Jesus and standing beneath his cross as he died (John 19:25). In the episode, Mary Magdalene movingly calls Mary “Mother,” and the mother of Jesus says that Mary Magdalene has always been “like a daughter” to her. Mary Magdalene’s role as one of the very first witnesses of the resurrection would also, no doubt, have united her in a special way to Mother Mary, who accompanied the apostles “and some women” in prayer in the Upper Room as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14).

The traditional site of the Upper Room on Mt Zion in Jerusalem

Unfortunately, much of the scholarship on these questions since the 19th century (and a disheartening view into a lot of Catholic seminary formation) is well summarized by Father Casey Cole, OFM on his Youtube video here. He critiques the show because it imagines the apostles John and Matthew taking notes on their experiences with Jesus: “[the creators] treat the Gospels as if they were eye-witness accounts, written down as they were happening,” he says, disapprovingly. Such an approach, he contends, causes scripture “to be treated as nothing more than a literal, entirely straightforward account of events.” Clearly, he is thinking about sola scriptura and un-nuanced views of the inerrancy of scripture here. But he also proffers the common view that the Gospel writers were primarily “theologians”, not historians, interested in portraying Jesus according to the needs of their “faith communities”—and not very interested with factual accuracy at all.

I’m always puzzled by this thesis, as if people 2,000 years ago were so unlike people today that they were mysteriously un-curious about facts. What the Chosen series does well is to help us imagine these people as if they were real human beings, and consider how they might respond to the amazing events they experienced.

The evangelist Luke himself, at the beginning of his Gospel, actually claims to be transmitting the accounts of eyewitnesses and seems rather intent on accuracy:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)

Anglican priest and theologian Richard Bauckham, in his brilliant and well-researched work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, offers a corrective view on the origin of the Gospels. Here’s a taste, but if you’re interested in this topic I highly recommend diving into the whole work:

The full reality of Jesus as he historically was is not, of course, accessible to us. The world itself could not contain the books that would be needed to record even all that was empirically observable about Jesus, as the closing verse of the Gospel of John puts it. Like any other part of history, the Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine is knowable only through the evidence that has survived. We could therefore use the phrase “the historical Jesus” to mean, not all that Jesus was, but Jesus insofar as his historical reality is accessible to us. But here we reach the crucial methodological problem. For Christian faith this Jesus, the earthly Jesus as we can know him, is the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, Jesus as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recount and portray him. There are difficulties, of course, in the fact that these four accounts of Jesus differ, but there is no doubt that the Jesus of the church’s faith through the centuries has been a Jesus found in these Gospels. That means that Christian faith has trusted these texts. Christian faith has trusted that in these texts we encounter the real Jesus, and it is hard to see how Christian faith and theology can work with a radically distrusting attitude to the Gospels.

Yet everything changes when historians suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us, at best because they give us the historical Jesus filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith, at worst because much of what they tell us is a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church. Then that phrase “the historical Jesus” comes to mean, not the Jesus of the Gospels, but the allegedly real Jesus behind the Gospels, the Jesus the historian must reconstruct by subjecting the Gospels to ruthlessly objective (so it is claimed) scrutiny. It is essential to realize that this is not just treating the Gospels as historical evidence. It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the Gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it. The result of such work is inevitably not one historical Jesus, but many.


All history — meaning all that historians write, all historiography — is an inextricable combination of fact and interpretation, the empirically observable and the intuited or constructed meaning. […]

I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. In the case of some kinds of historical event this is especially true, indeed obvious. In the last chapter we shall consider a remarkable modern instance, the Holocaust, where testimony is indispensable for adequate historical access to the events. We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.

from Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Chapter 1

For a more direct rebuttal of Father Cole’s take, see Catholic apologist Trent Horn’s response here.

Why does our view of the Gospels as transmission of eyewitness testimony matter? It matters for much the same reason that going to specific places in the Holy Land does. The reason the ancient Church preserved these places and wrote these Gospels is because it was convinced that something utterly unthinkable actually happened. Christianity is not a literary story, or vague theological reflection cobbled together by the needs of various “faith communities.” It is a testimony about real events, or it is nothing. To appropriate Flannery O’Connor’s famous quip on the Eucharist, “if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

I appreciate that The Chosen show takes the historicity of the Gospels seriously, and as a work of art helps us enter imaginatively into the lives of these people. It seems to really embody St. Ignatius’ teaching on imaginative prayer. We are human, so abstract ideas are not enough to nourish faith. God himself, having made us, knew this and took on flesh and bones to meet us in our poverty. We need to set aside abstracting the Gospel stories into oblivion in order to meet him in his.

Repetition and remembering with Mary of Bethany

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper. (Source) *Some Christians over the centuries have identified the unnamed woman in the Gospels’ account as Mary Magdalene, and some have identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany.

Sometimes during the days leading up to and including Holy Week, I like to imagine what was happening on each day two-thousand years ago in the life of Jesus.

So what happened today, Saturday?

According to John’s Gospel, “six days before Passover” (12:1) and the day before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the donkey (cf. 12:12-15), Jesus came to Bethany and had a dinner with his disciples, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (whom he had very recently raised from the dead, as told in John 11). At this dinner, Mary “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3).

It’s such a beautiful moment. Mark and Matthew also mention this episode, but seem to place it on Tuesday of Holy Week (more on the chronology here). They identify the dinner as taking place “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper” (Mk 14:3, Mt 26:6) — perhaps the leper he cleansed earlier as recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels? — and neither Mark nor Matthew identify the woman’s name. Although, ironically, in both their Gospels, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Which it has.

A similar episode of anointing by an unnamed woman occurs in Luke 7:36-50, but not in the context of Holy Week. Rather, this anointing takes place much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, and it is quite different from the anointing in Mark, Matthew, and John. An unnamed “sinful” woman approaches Jesus in the house of a Pharisee and anoints his feet with her tears. When the Pharisee (also, interestingly, named Simon) objects, Jesus tells a parable about two men who owed money to a moneylender, who forgives them both. The one who was forgiven the greater debt loves the moneylender “more,” as Simon begrudgingly admits. Jesus says to him,

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50

There’s a lot of controversy in biblical circles about how–or whether–these different accounts can be reconciled. Eleonore Stump, in her marvelous work on suffering Wandering in Darkness, suggests that perhaps the woman in both accounts is Mary of Bethany. Her first encounter with Jesus occurs in Luke’s story, where she hears about Jesus and, uninvited, boldly approaches him with tears of love and repentance. Her life is changed forever. She becomes a disciple, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.

Lazarus later dies, and both sisters are devastated. Jesus arrives on the scene late. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both tell him. Mary, in particular, seems withdrawn in this story–she does not go out to meet Jesus, but only comes when Martha tells her quietly that the Master is asking for her (Jn 11:20, 28-29). Jesus weeps. And then he raises Lazarus after the man has been dead four days, prompting the amazement and adulation of the people and their willingness to sing “Hosannah” the next day on his entry to Jerusalem—and prompting also the Pharisees and religious leaders’ final determination to kill him.

It is in this context that the Saturday before Holy Week dawns, the day before his entry into Jerusalem (just two miles away). And Mary of Bethany at this dinner with Jesus and her brother, newly restored to her, anoints Jesus (once again). Eleonore Stump comments on this passage in a beautiful meditation you should slow down to read:

The wildness in Mary’s actions on the first occasion of her anointing him, in Simon’s house, is still there in this second anointing, after the raising of Lazarus; but it has a new form now. On this second occasion, Mary’s actions are not scandalous. Rather, they express her understanding of Jesus’ plan, her recognition of his love for her, and her love of him in return; and they are set in the context of her ongoing history of relationship with Jesus. Those who know her story, and that must be virtually all those present on this second occasion of anointing, will understand her action as a re-enactment of her first anointing. Her repeating of her original anointing is, therefore, a recommitment to Jesus, and in a deeper way. Mary picks this way of expressing her reaction to his raising of Lazarus because the as-it-were liturgy of the repetition gives weight to her act. The unrestrained abandon she showed in her original anointing had its loveliness, but it had an out-of-control character about it as well. In the second anointing, because she is choosing in quiet to recreate her earlier action, there is not only control but also power behind the unrestrained character of what she does. (366)

I love the solemnity and power that Professor Stump perceives in this second anointing, and her insight that Mary’s act is liturgical. And isn’t that what we do too, during Holy Week? Solemnly and lovingly re-enact those events so dear to the Church’s memory?

Some biblical scholars have also pointed out that this moment is the anointing of Jesus as Messiah (which, as you know, means “Anointed One”), a title he has often resisted to adopt openly up until the moment when the crowds hail him as son of David and king of Israel. His anointing as Messiah is the same as his anointing “for burial”, as Jesus says to Judas and the others to who object to Mary’s prophetic act.

Stump continues,

It is hard to imagine [Mary] being double-minded or uncertain about [Jesus’] love of her after this. […] The surrender of love of her action has an authority about it, as we can recognize by considering how very different the reactions of the onlookers must be this time. The first time Mary anointed Jesus, the other guests must have been a bit afraid of her, wondering what else this crazy woman was likely to do. This time the onlookers will be a little in awe of her. The courage behind her action this time is not desperate; it has strength and discipline in it now. This time the story does not say that she wept when she anointed him. (Ibid)

How beautiful, and how fascinating and human. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus a second time, just days before his death, in act of gratitude and love and dignity. How moved he must have been. She takes him, and everyone in the room, back to an occasion of profound vulnerability for her, in order to re-enact the most precious moment of her life, in celebration of the miraculous resurrection of her brother and in mysterious anticipation of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

In this anointing, then, Mary manifests the glory Jesus planned for her, in both senses of glory. Her standing in her community is here the mirror image of what it was when she anointed his feet the first time. And there is now something luminous and great about her. She is very different now from the frightened but fierce, shamed and shameless person she was when she anointed Jesus the first time. Now she is both powerful and lovely. (Ibid)

I would like to think that in modestly attempting to re-enact or at least remember the specific events of these last days in the earthly life of Jesus, we can join Mary of Bethany in honoring him with trust and gratitude and awe.

“Who is Christianity?”

First week of school: check.

I was so tired today that I gave in to exhaustion and went to bed at 7:30.


And then, three hours later, I woke up and started thinking about my week. It’s keeping me awake and I thought I’d write it out, because sometimes that helps.

So this was the bell work I posted for all my kids today:


We were finishing up our lesson on Growth and Fixed Mindsets, which I use at the beginning of the year to set the tone of the class and help the kids think about themselves and their learning in new ways. We then reference it and reflect on it throughout the rest of the year.

Our new (and awesome) principal has been encouraging us to incorporate a “Faith Connection” into our lessons more explicitly and purposefully, and so this bell work was my attempt this week as a way to wrap things up right before they took their quiz on Mindsets.

I guess I knew ahead of time that the phrase “human dignity” might cause some issues for some of the kids. And, indeed, throughout the day different students raised their hands to ask me what the phrase meant. So I was already kind of breaking the cardinal rule of bell work: that it should be straight-forward enough that all students can do it without extra direction from the teacher. (This does not mean bell work cannot be rigorous, but that it’s not usually the best place to introduce new words or phrases.) So I anticipated the issue by encouraging students to raise their hands if they were confused or had any questions.

But during my first class of the day, one of my new foreign exchange students from Korea came bustling into the room a solid minute after the tardy bell rang.

The rest of the class looked up, but having been pretty well trained by now to understand that bell work was silent work time,  they got on with their writing without commenting. She excused herself and asked me anxiously if this meant she was going to receive a detention (since she had been tardy earlier this week as well), and I said yes. She accepted that consequence with grace, sat down, and began to work.

A moment later her hand went up and she called my name again: “Excuse me, Mrs. Ms. Shea?” (I have not corrected her yet on how to say my name, but I need to next week.)

I went over to her desk and knelt beside her, encouraging her to lower her voice by whispering her name.

She looked up at the projector screen, her eyes wide. “Mrs. Ms. Shea,” she whispered, loudly. “Who is ‘Christianity’?”

I felt many eyes look up from papers around the room and fix themselves on me.

Who is Christianity?

I looked up at the projector screen briefly, confused by her confusion. I swallowed and whispered, “Christianity is a religion.”

“Oh!” she nodded, but not comprehending.

“Do you have a religion at your home? A faith you believe in?” I was still whispering, and relieved that the other students seem to have reluctantly returned to their writing.

“No,” she said, smiling. “No religion!”

I looked up at the projector screen again, the incomprehensible word looking more incomprehensible by the second.

“That’s okay,” I said, grasping for words and speaking slowly–as much as for my sake as for hers. “Christianity is a religion… a belief, we have here at this school.  A big part of it is being loving to others… being good to others.” I searched her face for comprehension, and saw some of my words made sense. “For now, I want you to answer the question this way: How does ‘Growth Mindset’ relate to being a good person?”

“Oh, yes! Yes! Thank you, Mrs. Ms. Shea.”

I stood up and stretched bell work time by an extra minute so she could jot something down. I glanced at two of the other foreign exchange students in the class and wondered if they had had the same question, but had been too nervous to ask me.

Who is Christianity?

“Christianity” is a proper noun. She saw the capital letter. She thought it was a person’s name.

Who is Christianity?

She was right. It is a person. Jesus is Christianity.

And John the Baptist, too, whose memorial of martyrdom is today. And Edith Stein and Saint Kateri and Saint Paul, the apostles, and John Paul II, and the old gentleman at the Senior Support Center, and the Gentiles, and the Jews, and the Iraqis being brutally persecuted right now, and the religious sisters, my students, my family… a thousand faces flashed through my mind.

Who is Christianity?

But how could I explain all of that in a matter of seconds? I had not even mentioned His name to her. I had said, “It is a religion.” And suddenly it seemed small wonder to me that either she had not heard the word “religion” before or that she had, but only in some remote context like, “Some people on the other side of the world have ‘religions'”… along with political parties and horoscopes and economies and special holidays and other vague things that people in other countries “have.”

Who is Christianity?

I had only a few seconds to contemplate my clumsy answer before the timer went off and it was time to start class.

“Pens and pencils down please,” I said automatically. “It’s okay if you are not 100% finished with your bell work… Please stand for prayer.”

We stood up, faced the Crucifix on the wall, and made the sign of the Cross.



Forgetfulness – Or Memory and Faith Part II

I wrote a post a little while ago on Memory and Faith and I’ve found this theme appearing again and again.

My school, being the awesome place it is, had a retreat for all of the faculty at St. Mother Cabrini shrine. Even though it was only for one day, it was one of the best retreats I have ever experienced.

The speaker, a Franciscan graduate (and I confess, I am always a bit wary of Franciscan ‘charismatic’ spirituality – not because it is bad but because sometimes it makes my reserved, New England self a bit uncomfortable) did a fantastic job. He said many things that stood out to me, but the one I’ve been thinking most about is this: that sin is more often than not a matter of forgetfulness, and faith is a matter of remembering.


Wouldn’t Socrates be pleased? He similarly seemed to think that “sin” was often the result of lack of knowledge, or ignorance, or I suppose the sort of momentary ignorance that comes from forgetfulness. Didn’t he go so far as to say that “the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance” ?

Yet I, and many other Christians, take issue with this because we know that sin is primarily an act of the will. An action is sinful precisely because we DO have knowledge of the good and yet we reject it.

Moreover, that whole “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” thing…

But our retreat speaker insisted that sin very often results from forgetting what we know – or what we ought to know. For example, Eve did not eat the fruit of the tree because she thought to herself, “I hate you God and I deliberately reject you and your rules” — but rather because she had turned her back on all of the other beautiful fruit trees in the garden and forgot God’s generosity. She was completely absorbed in how “ the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). She forgot who God really is, and so she chose herself instead.

And how many times do the prophets in the Old Testament tell the Israelites to remember! “Remember how I brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Remember all of these ways that I showed you that I love you.

And how much of the Jewish faith is tied up in memory? The Passover, Hannukah, Tabernacles.

And what does Christ say at the last meal He shares with his disciples before He dies? What does He ask them to do? “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:25). Remember me! Don’t forget me!

And, sitting there, I realized I am one of the most forgetful people ever. How many times do I forget what God has done for me? In all of my anxiety about choices I need to make, I forget how He has been there for me in all of the difficult decisions I had to make in the past. Choosing the University of Dallas was a very tough decision for me, and not a decision that “felt really good” at the time. Choosing to do ACE was very similar. (“What did you say? Where in the world is Plaquemine!?”) Even choosing to move here to Denver was another stumbling into the dark… “Why are you moving to Denver? Do you have family there?” “Uh, no, but… well… it kind of seems like a good idea…”

And yet God was there for me in that uncertainty. He is here for me now and will be in all of my decisions.

So often, the reason we sin, and make bad decisions, is because we forget who God is. We forget how generous He is. We forget everything He has done for us, and out of fear and forgetfulness we choose ourselves.

I see this EVERY day when I teach.

I mean, really. So much of being a good student is just about remembering stuff! Remember to do your homework, remember to study, remember to turn in that paper, remember these due dates. And although laziness can be a big factor in doing poorly in school, I think forgetfulness is often the bigger culprit. Students are distracted. They forget what their chief vocation is. They forget what God is asking them to do. They forget that doing their school work actually MATTERS – not just in terms of grades and college, but in terms of what God wants – He wants us to do whatever task is set before us to the very best of our ability. Doing our “jobs” — in their case, being a student — glorifies Him.

So we are all high school students. We are those kids who forget to do the most basic things. “Uh, Ms. Shea, I forgot my pencil. Can I go to my locker and…?” or “Ms. Shea, I totally forgot we had a quiz today…” “What? That stuff was written on the board?” “Wait… we had to read that last night?” “Ah Ms Shea I’m so sorry, I forgot to come at lunch today to make up that test!”

I had a great conversation yesterday on the phone with one of my dearest friends from UD about this as well. In Lumen Fidei, the Pope emphasizes how much faith is tied up in memory:

Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. (Lumen Fidei, 4)

As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (Ibid, 9)

In this regard, though, we can speak of a massive amnesia in our contemporary world. The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path. (Ibid, 25)

So, so true. We all suffer from “a massive amnesia.” We forget who we are and who God is — and it is this forgetfulness, this inattentiveness, this distraction, that leads to sin.

As an English teacher, a lover of words, I particularly love this section of the encyclical:

Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church. (Ibid, 38)

And John tells us that Jesus IS “THE Word,” the Logos. He IS the Word that we need to remember, and repeat, and tell to ourselves and to each other over and over again. As Pope Francis indicates, this is indeed what the Church does, and what Tradition really means. Scripture is part of the Living Tradition of the Church, Her very memory, which has been passed on from the apostles to us. That’s why Paul says,

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,k that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,24and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”25In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”l26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)



Sometimes life is like a poem. (Read: mysterious and really difficult to interpret). Two experiences can work like two images juxtaposed by the poet, working off of each other, challenging each other, challenging you. Like this oft-quoted line by Emily: “I heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died.” Strangely, she pushes two images together, a commonplace one and the ultimate one: a fly buzzing and death. You have to deal with that weird juxtaposition throughout the rest of the poem.

Anyway, being an English teacher/English major, I’ve been thinking about an interesting juxtaposition that happened to me, and juxtapositions within that larger juxtaposition.

The other day I went to a Chicago White Sox game. Sitting behind me and my friends were two couples, probably in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and inevitably I heard most of their conversations during the game. Eventually they began discussing their future children and whether or not they wanted to send them to Catholic school, comparing notes on their own various Catholic school and public school experiences, and joking about whether the expense was worth it. (Little did they know that four Catholic school teachers were sitting in front of them, but, tempted as we were, we didn’t turn around). They talked about how their years of education had funded all the rich mosaics of “St. Pete’s” in the Vatican. They recalled the crazy, strict morality of Catholic school, but the liberal immorality of their Catholic school friends. “They did worse stuff than my public school buddies!”

Then one of them said,

“But I mean, the Catholic Church is a big joke, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m not Catholic.”



I almost turned around. Not because I was angry, though. And not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

But I should have said something.

That was image number one. It already includes lots of strange juxtapositions within itself.

Then, yesterday, I was sitting outside reading and enjoying the beauty of the Notre Dame campus. A man came up to me and asked me if I worked for the music department, or if I knew anything about it. And then he noticed my book: The Return of the King. And that started a long conversation. Apparently he had applied to the ACE program years ago, but was not accepted ended up doing a different teaching program in Baltimore. Teaching was not for him, however, and he asked me very kindly about my own experience. There he was, and there I was.

As always, I was surprised to find myself engaging in a rather intense conversation with a complete stranger.

Somehow our conversation turned to faith, and it turns out that he had discerned the priesthood and visited various monasteries, but about ten years ago had had a conversion experience in which he had joined one of the pre-Vatican II groups of Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church, during Vatican II, had apostatized.

He talked a lot about the Third Secret of Fatima, and how the Vatican had been covering it up. How it’s easy to tell that the Lucia presented by the Church is clearly not the “real” Lucia. How the events of the book of Revelation are occurring as we speak. How it makes sense that the Anti-Christ would come, not seeking political power as some predict, but rather spiritual power, leading souls away from Christ by the very institution that was originally supposed to lead them to Him. How the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon because she has been unfaithful to Christ.

I told him politely that that’s what some Protestants call us, too.

He gestured at the basilica, and said how he never goes in there. But he comes to Notre Dame frequently, and enjoys the library, where he has looked at many old (Pre-Vatican II) documents of the Church. He told me how strange it was.

“That must be very painful,” I said.

The Grotto

He agreed. “It is very beautiful here,” he said. “I do go to the Grotto sometimes. Do you have a devotion to Our Lady?” I told him that I did. He prays the rosary daily, all fifteen decades, but of course not the Luminous Mysteries, the ones introduced by Pope John Paul II. He walks around campus and talks to people, and it is so strange for him because “ten years ago I was like you.”

The church he goes to an hour away belongs to the Society of St. Pius X. But he, and others, actually don’t belong to that society, but a group that split off from that society.

I said that it was strange, because that’s what seems to happen so often with the Protestant Churches, too.

He asked me a lot of questions. He suggested a website for me to look at if I wanted to learn more. He was very kind, and very polite. Twice he apologized for interrupting my reading, and gave me many opportunities to close the conversation if I wanted to. But I liked talking to him.

At the end, I asked him to pray for me and I told him I would pray for him, too.

“What intention do you want me to pray for?” he asked.

I was a little surprised, but then I said, “For the unity of Christ’s Church. I know you and I disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ll end up praying for opposite things, but that’s okay.”

He said that he would.

He said goodbye and went to get a drink of water, because the air was very humid. “Nothing like in Louisiana, I expect!” he said, referring to my time there.

I thought about him kneeling at the Grotto to pray even though it’s part of a university belonging to the Church he believes abandoned the true faith. Lighting a candle with us. Juxtaposition, no?

I admire him because even though I don’t think he’s right, I think he really is trying to do what is right.

And I thought about the people behind me at the baseball game, and this man, and how hard it is to be Catholic, and how so many people struggle with what that means. How I struggle with what that means. And how easy it would be to roll one’s eyes at the people who think that the Church is a just a big “joke,” and others who think she is the “whore of Babylon.” And the people who think of the Church as some sort of corporation, making all sorts of human decisions. The Church of the old white men oppressing women, people who are gay, minorities. The big rich Vatican Church ignoring the cry of the poor. The out of touch Church. The “spirit of Vatican II” Church who moves with the times and who has abandoned tradition. The traditional Church who refuses to move with the times and clings to tradition.

Chesterton also noticed such juxtapositions of images that did not quite fit, that challenged each other. And he does a good job reminding us that the result of juxtaposition, whether it is in a poem or in your life, isn’t about striking a “happy medium,” or even Aristotle’s “golden mean,” exactly. Life and poems are too complicated for that.

He says:

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.

[…] It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.

St. Francis

[…] And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.

Blessed Pope John XXIII

[…] The Church swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

(G. K Chesterton, excerpt from Orthodoxy)