I read a story a few years ago about a woman named Mary Anne Marks, who had graduated Harvard at the top of her class, valedictorian. She gave the commencement address at graduation, which is a huge honor. At Harvard the speech is entirely in Latin, at Yale we were always more into ancient Greek but whatever. The sky was the limit for this woman, she could have done anything she wanted , achieved anything, made a ton of money, run for political office, become a professor in whatever field she chose. Her choice? To become a Dominican Nun. Before entering the convent, she did an interview with a reporter, who said, “You are a Harvard graduate. Aren’t you surrendering all the possibilities that entails by entering a convent?” Mary Anne replied, “Yes, if one doesn’t see becoming a well-educated, intellectually alive nun as one of the possibilities…”
I had a discussion once with a friend, Eric, and he was asking me about monks. As in, what do they do all day? Well, they pray. Doesn’t that somehow seem a waste, though? He was fairly friendly to the idea, he was simply trying to sort out the contemplative life and what it meant. Others are far less friendly. Monks and nuns, they’ll say, are running away from real life. The pressures of work, errands, paying bills, dealing with family, this is real life and those who don’t participate are quitters.
To a lesser extent, the same charge is leveled against all religious people. You’re wasting your time at Church and when you pray. You only believe in God because you think he’ll rescue you from real life but he’s a fairy-tale. Or the preferred politically correct way of phrasing it today: I’m spiritual but not religious, which is code for: I’ve changed the definition of God from the all-powerful ground of being, the creator of all things, and made him into my own image because that feels more realistic to me. The bonus then being that God agrees with whatever beliefs I happen to have. This, to many people is realistic and reasonable.
So, I guess my question is – What is reality? And who is running away from it?
First, don’t forget that reality is more mysterious than we think. G.K Chesterton writes, “[Learned men in the modern world] talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. […] You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees […] growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.” Reality is a pretty crazy place, and much of what we accept about it as ordinary is actually amazing. Scientists in Australia just pulled a fish out of the sea called Blobbie, the most ugly animal in the world. I love it. Trees don’t make candlesticks, they make fruit, and we can eat it, and it tastes delicious! That’s amazing. There is this thing trees make called coffee, and when you roast the bean it becomes the elixir of life. That’s amazing. Musicians can use an instrument to make sounds that somehow fit together and move our emotions to the point of tears. That’s amazing.
What we see all around us is not ordinary. Why? Because it draws on an infinitely deep well that is connected to eternity. The surface level is only the surface level, reality goes infinitely deeper. It’s a window into the heart of God. To me, it’s almost overwhelming, which is why I, like many of us, am not a monk. Monks and nuns actually bathe in reality much more intensely than we do. I have my phone to fiddle with, television to watch, errands to tend to, these are not the substance of reality, quite the opposite, they are coping mechanisms to escape reality.
The monk who sits alone in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, who wrestles with his inner demons, the christian who spends time alone with God, who confronts his sins in the confessional, the person who seeks virtue and simply spends time slowing down, looking, and seeing that everything is a sign of the world beyond this one, these are the pilgrims seeking reality, who aren’t content to live on the surface.
Socrates says that wonder is the beginning of wisdom. No one is better at wide-eyed wonder than children, which is why we’re so thrilled about it when children are here at Church making noise and squirming and asking really simple but deceptively profound questions. It’s why I love doing stuff with them like burying the Alleluia and drenching them with holy water, because they give us permission to see the reality of the world with childlike innocence, and innocence is a far more reliable guide to truth than world-weary cynicism.
Children and nuns are wise in a way that other, more supposedly sophisticated adults don’t actually understand. Kids ask good questions like, “Why do eggs turn into birds”, and, “How do the turtle and the snake live in harmony in that cage at the zoo.” I don’t know! It turns out that we don’t know everything, that the world is enchanted. It’s like a fairy-tale in which the true meaning of all things is gathered up into one, over-arching story about how much God loves us and how he made this strange, wild, beautiful, dangerous world all for us, but it takes a certain innocence, a naivete that is willing to stop and stare for a while, to see it.
This reminds me of the Father Brown story where he’s talking to some criminals and he knows every single one of their scams and how rip people off. He knows every detail of robbery and weaponry. How? Because this innocent priest hears confessions and he is far wiser than he seems. The saints are innocent, but they are so profound because they live more deeply in the real world than we do.
Lent is a step into reality. The Christian life is a journey into reality. That is why it is so uncomfortable. It’s easier to remain where we are, to embrace mediocrity and live life as usual. It’s harder to challenge ourselves.
Our Lord leads us to a transfiguring revelation. Like with St. Peter, he wants to show us what is really happening under the surface. St. Peter saw Our Lord every day and he saw the flashes of the miraculous ripping through the damaged, weary villages, he heard the teaching and the way in which ordinary things like farming and trees and fishes were shown to be much more significant than he had ever thought possible. Because the Crucifixion was such a difficult event to endure and it would test the faith of the disciples, Our Lord gave them the gift of seeing the transfiguration. What would happen on Mount Calvary was exactly what was happening when his garments glowed brighter than the sun. Both are moments of glory for those who have the eyes to see.
The Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh, who was a convert, says it’s like we’re in a looking-glass world, an absurd caricature, and then you become Catholic and step into the world as God has actually made it. And it is limitless, and wonderful.
Challenge yourself this Lent to spend time with Jesus, to leave behind sins and cynicism and see that this world is marked by his presence. We have the opportunity every day to live more and more innocently, and this is the beginning of wisdom.
O Lord, give us the eyes to see.