A recent article by Stratford Caldecott on The Imaginative Conservative blog got me intrigued about this book: a work published by CS Lewis' within hi...moreA recent article by Stratford Caldecott on The Imaginative Conservative blog got me intrigued about this book: a work published by CS Lewis' within his academic specialty of medieval and renaissance literature. I was aware this book existed, but recent forays into classical educational models sparked an interest in being able to approach literary works of the past with a good sense of the "mental furniture" that ordinary members of past audiences possessed. While I was more or less familiar with the basic concept of a geocentric universe surrounded by spheres of increasing ontological importance, I've nowhere else encountered such an interesting and succinct exposition of the pre-enlightenment worldview. Part of what makes this so interesting is that it is a sympathetic exposition. Certainly, Lewis does not advocate returning to these perspectives as an alternative to contemporary astrophysics, but he does offer reasons for why letting the same spirit of wonder and enchantment inform us now is a good idea. Furthermore, he also does a very convincing job of dispelling the nation that "The medievals thought to universe to be like that, but we know it to be like this". Contemporary mathematical descriptions of the universe present a very different sort of "explanation" than the medieval worldview did, as Lewis explains in the following passage from the Epilogue:
"The nineteenth century still held the belief that by inferences from our sense-experience (improved by instruments) we could 'know' the ultimate physical reality more or less as, by maps, pictures, and travel-books, a man can 'know' a country he has not visited; and that in both cases the 'truth' would be a sort of mental replica of the thing itself. Philosophers might have disquieting comments to make on this conception; but scientists and plain men did not much attend to them. Already, to be sure, mathematics were the idiom in which many of the sciences spoke. But I do not think it was doubted that there was a concrete reality about which the mathematics held good; distinguishable from the mathematics as a heap of apples is from the process of counting them. We knew indeed that it was in some respects not adequately imaginable; quantities and distances if either very small or very great could not be visualized. But, apart from that, we hope that ordinary imagination and conception could grasp it. We should then have through mathematics a knowledge not merely mathematical. We should be like the man coming to know about a foreign country without visiting it. He learns about the mountains from carefully studying the contour lines on a map. But his knowledge is not a knowledge of contour lines. The real knowledge is achieved when these enable him to say 'That would be an easy ascent', 'This is a dangerous precipice', 'A would not be visible from B', 'These woods and waters must make a pleasant valley'. In going beyond the contour lines to such conclusions he is (if he knows how to read a map) getting nearer to the reality. It would be very different if someone said to him (and was believed) 'But it is the contour lines themselves that are the fullest reality you can get. In turning away from them to these other statements you are getting further from the reality, not nearer. All those ideas about "real" rocks and slopes and views are merely a metaphor or a parable, permissible as a concession to the weakness of those who can't understand contour lines, but misleading if they are taken literally'. And this, if I understand the situation, is just what has now happened as regards the physical sciences. The mathematics are now the nearest to the reality we can get. Anything imaginable, even anything that can be manipulated by ordinary (that is, non-mathematical) conceptions, far from being a further truth to which mathematics were the avenue, is mere analogy, a concession to our weakness. Without a parable modern physics speaks not to the multitudes. Even among themselves, when they attempt to verbalize their findings, the scientists begin to speak of this as making 'models'. But these 'models' are not, like model ships, small-scale replicas of the reality, Sometimes they illustrate this or that aspect of it by an analogy. Sometimes, they do not illustrate but merely suggest, like the sayings of the mystics. An expression such as 'the curvature of space' is strictly comparable to the old definition of God as 'a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere'. Both succeed in suggesting; each does so by offering what is, on the level of our ordinary thinking, nonsense."
It is just this sort of writing, the vivid analogies that shed so much light, Lewis' delightful style and insight, that make this book such a worthwhile endeavor.
Nowhere else is this more clear than in his description of the understanding of angels that prior ages possessed. Beginning with the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius, Lewis traces the connection between the choirs of angels and the heavenly spheres (viz. the orbit of each of the planets)--"Each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by 'intellectual love' of God". This concept is played out in literary form in Lewis Space Trilogy, particularly in Perelandra where the "spirit" of Venus and Mars are present on the crowning of the First Parents of Perelandra. If you have ever had an interest in understanding how angels were understood prior to the chubby babies of the Romantic era, Lewis would provide you with an excellent starting point.
Despite the immense erudition of this scholarly introduction, I can't help but be most thankful for the passages where Lewis sets aside the academic tone and shifts into the imaginative. He describes what it was like for a medieval person to walk outside at night and look up at the stars, equipped with a highly developed and extremely delightful set of concepts that are both far more different and far more similar to ours than I ever understood before. It is this ability to not just dissect his subject but rather sympathetically enter into the perspective of another age that makes this work so worthwhile, and such an excellent example of Lewis' genius. Imagine what it would have been like to be his student!
A largely under-appreciated work. Do yourself a favor, and take a nighttime stroll with the good professor.(less)
Esolen is a favorite author of mine, and while I did enjoy this book, I think it misses the mark: not in content, but in form. His Ten Ways to Destroy...moreEsolen is a favorite author of mine, and while I did enjoy this book, I think it misses the mark: not in content, but in form. His Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child is written in the style of the Screwtape, a conceit that is perhaps designed to justify the periodically sarcastic tone of Esolen's thoughts on the subject of the formation of children's minds. Not that such sarcasm is unjustified--certainly not; so much of what he points out as laughably inadequate to the task of initiating young men and women into adulthood hits spot on.
Esolen does a fine job of specifying what exactly we should understand when the word "imagination" is used. It carries a meaning of fantasy or dreaminess that can often dismiss it as something proper only to children or the lazy. But in a more philosophically precise sense, imagination is the faculty by which we conceive images; and in this sense, imagination is active every time we make use of images, which is just another word for sensory input. Words are images. So are smells, textures, and sounds. All of them, mediated by memory and in concert with one another, become what the ancient Greeks recognized as "the doorway to the soul."
If the activity of our mind is mediated by the imagination, its structure and content takes on paramount importance. Reflect for a moment on the symbolism of a beautiful cathedral. Consider the scene: though what’s important is front and center, beauty is on all sides and leads one to a greater appreciation of the central reality of divine worship. Think of the windows. Is there not a subconscious effect exerted by these windows’ artistic beauty? In the process of allowing light to enter, a magnificent work of art is made visible which heightens the experience of the light and what it illuminates. Consider the effect that mundane or even ugly images in those windows would have (not a difficult exercise given the churches in which many of us worship today--a subject on which Esolen has no shortage of words).
I would liken the imagination to the windows of a cathedral. Much like the scenes upon the windows, the contents of the imagination affect the workings of the mind and heart, and ultimately, how we perceive reality, as it streams in through our senses. By taking advantage of the memory and the influence it has upon the imagination, men have the power to adorn the windows of their soul with truth, goodness, and beauty, all of which lead one to a heightened appreciation of the mystical quality of daily life.
We sniff at memorization, as hardly worth the name of study. That is wise of us. For the most imaginative people in the history of the world thought otherwise. "Zeus became enamored with fair-haired Memory," sings the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, "and she produced the nine Muses with their golden diadems, who enjoy festivities and the delights of song." The great epic poets invoked the Muses not to stir in them something supposedly "original," which usually is merely self-centered and peculiar, but to give them the twin gifts of memory and prophecy. "They breathed into me their divine voice," says Hesiod, "that I might tell of things to come and of things past, and ordered me to sing of the race of the blessed gods who live forever, and always to place the Muses themselves both at the beginning and at the end of my song."
A few points that stood out for me include the section on "piety of place." Being a Kansas resident, I do realize that my state is everyone's favorite fly-over state to hate. Yet I was encouraged by Esolen's insistence that attachment to place, a particular place, is constitutive of thought and imagination. Drawing from the work of Shakespeare and Flannery O'Connor, it's clear that the enemies of imagination find a great enemy in a love for a place and a country:
We see here the products of easy cynicism. Learn to despise the place where you were born, its old customs, its glories and its shame. Then stick your head in a comic book. That done, you will be triple-armored against the threat of a real thought, or the call of the transcendent. Some people have no worlds for God to pierce through.
I also enjoyed his perspective on food, and the hunting by which one may acquire it:
Deer hunting was a popular pastime in the rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. People who know nothing about the subject suppose it is for beer-drinking men who want to show off their prowess. Encourage that bigotry in your children. Do not let on that you know that hunting requires actual knowledge of anything, which a young person must learn from someone who is proficient. You have to know how to clean and take care of a rifle; what the difference between one gauge and the other is; what "trajectory" means. You have to coordinate your efforts with those of your fellow hunters, sometimes flushing the game, sometimes waiting, with numb fingers and aching knees, for the quarry to come. You are, at best, pitting your skill and your strategy against the animals, appreciating their strange ways, and not at all taking them for granted as creatures of strength and speed and keen instinct.
Many of the points he makes are grounded in his own experience of growing up in Pennsylvania, and so there is a decidedly autobiographical thread that runs throughout his catalog of imagination-slaying practices. My own opinion is that he should have stuck with autobiography--and the sarcasm would have come across as curmudgeonly and in earnest rather than being forced to carry the weight of a publisher's desire for an "angle."(less)
I purchased this book after reading a brief review of it in First Things. There's no question it's a beautiful book, and while I enjoyed reading it...more I purchased this book after reading a brief review of it in First Things. There's no question it's a beautiful book, and while I enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal about Renaissance art, I was disappointed on a couple of points. By far, the weakest portion of the book are the middle chapters, especially those on Benedict, Sebastian, and Catherine of Siena. Perhaps there was a dearth of source material involved, but Kiely's treatment of this series of paintings seemed like he was more interested in keeping up his postmodern art critic credentials than providing genuine insight into the art and artists in question. "I, too, can recognize the barely suppressed sexuality in these religious paintings," he seems to assure the reader. Admittedly, this is all part of the Renaissance rediscovery of the body, the Incarnation, and the ability of art to convey the power of the body to convey glory. Yet it is repeatedly is served up in a way that seems to regard these artists as prophets of postmodern socialist ideology. For instance, Catherine is portrayed as the obligatory prototype of the unconventional woman of authority--which indeed she was, but Kiely offers little insight beyond the typical ideological platitudes and recounting the "discomfort" even contemporary popes supposedly felt toward her life. Presumably this is to come across as bold and insightful, but to me it rang hollow, imposing a narrative and a lens upon the art that doesn't seem to gel with the motives of artists to defy conventionality in the name of presenting goodness by making explicit its implicit beauty.
Another example is the "gay reading" of art portraying Sebastian. It's confusing to me how an acknowledged emphasis on the beauty of the body and consequent shamelessness in the midst of physical glory should also be simultaneously read as homoerotic display.
In his favor, Kiely doesn't rest with such conclusions, instead ranging far and wide, touching upon these dimensions of art without confining himself to them. He indulges in what ends up being a lengthy but enjoyable monograph on Ruskin in the midst of a chapter on St. Lawrence. I was entirely ignorant of him, but Kiely provides a helpful introduction to him even without being familiar with his life and work. "It is as if [Ruskin] always entered churches, especially Italian churches, by a side door and remained off center, examining an obscure chapel in the transept while High Mass was being sung on the main altar." Right up my alley--he was a man with an eye for the hidden, and the beauty of the decrepit.
Kiely does seem to have a theological background and whatever errors I came across in his research were negligible. It is refreshing to read a scholar's opinions that have been formed by the very same concepts and beliefs that were at play in the lives and hearts of those who composed and viewed these paintings.
Of course, the real beauty of the book is to be found in the art, and Kiely really has put together a marvelous collection of Renaissance art that is truly breathtaking and inspiring. He does communicate a great love for the art that he discusses, as well as the figures it portrays--most especially Saint Francis of Assisi. Titian and Tintoretto are probably the two that stand out as consistently worthwhile in their technique, composition, and grandeur. They, of all the many artists included, did more for me to bring to life the stories of the saints they portrayed and the people who venerated them. In his chapter on Sts. Mark, Rocco, and Sebastian, in which Tintoretto looms large, he writes, "the bare muscular leg and turning torso once again show the influence of Michaelangelo, but they also make a point: that the vocation of the artist, like that of the evangelist (at least this evangelist, if not the demure young John who writes sedately beside him), requires intense physical effort--that is, work. When Nietzche wrote that Christianity is the 'hypochondria of those whose legs are shaky,' he could not have been thinking of Tintoretto's Mark" (117).
Now if I just was pastor of a parish where these pieces wouldn't look glaringly out of place.....(less)
Because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark, of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes." --Hans Urs von Balthasar
Saint Teresa Benedicta (born Edith Stein) composed these essays in the years following her conversion to Catholicism but before her entry into the Carmel from which she was eventually deported to the Nazi death camps. During this interim period, Stein dedicated herself (among many other things) to an articulation of a theological vision of femininity that both recognized the myriad changes in how women were being regarded (and how they regarded themselves) as well as the theologoumena of Christian revelation. With the upheaval generated by the first world war and the subsequent recovery efforts enlisting the help of men, women, and children alike, traditional feminine roles were called into question. Women seemed capable of accomplishment in the very areas previously denied to them. Stein sought to sort out the wheat from the chaff and present God's plan for man and woman in the midst of this world turned on its head.
I came across this book during research for a talk on the Catholic Church's reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, and Stein does touch on the issue briefly, but I found her presentation of the meaning of a particular calling for the male and female sex insightful and profound. Her philosophical training obviously shines through here, though without obscuring her points in technical terminology--most of these essays are adapted from lectures delivered to women's organizations simply interested in sorting through the rhetoric of women's emancipation. She even resorts to sampling from literary forms in her pursuit of the feminine vocation, earning a big A+ in my book for referencing a character in Sigrid Undset's quadrilogy The Master of Hestviken.
Some might consider a book written in the 1930s hopelessly outdated for a contemporary discussion on woman, but the power of her perspective has a ring of truth about it that ought not be hastily dismissed. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to dive in to her essays and take her seriously.(less)
O'Leary attempts to set forth the practical attempts on the part of feminists to impose a clear anti-family, and ultimately anti-woman campaign throug...moreO'Leary attempts to set forth the practical attempts on the part of feminists to impose a clear anti-family, and ultimately anti-woman campaign through the UN's international conferences. I was expecting more of a general investigation of the ideology--which O'Leary does insert into the middle of the book--rather than the point-by-point jockeying among delegates and NGOs at UN gatherings and preparatory meetings leading up to the Beijing and Cairo summits. However, she does ultimately set forth the origins and goals of what she calls the "gender feminist" movement in a helpful way.
O'Leary points out how liberal feminism did not originate in a democratic push for women's rights and equality, but in Marxist theory. This theory, as set forth in Friedrich Engels' The Origins of the Family Property and the State, claims that prior to any oppression between economic classes, a more fundamental class oppression was in place. This is the class division of gender, by which men subjugate and enslave women through the institution of monogamous marriage. Marxist theory holds that until this primary division is erased, until marriage and even the family itself is eliminated as a social structure, a truly just society cannot come to be. In other words, gender distinction is the prototype of all class oppression. In a serendipitous parallel, just as the workers must seize the means of production in order to eliminate all class distinction, women must seize control of the means of re-production and so throw off the yoke of male oppression.
However, this agenda is pursued surreptitiously, in the name of simple justice. And so defenders of the goods of marriage and family, in objecting to the dialectical materialist interpretation of history advanced by Marx and Engels, are easily shoehorned into the feminist narrative; their defense of these "patriarchal" institutions is nothing more than disappointed power lust lurking beneath a mask of conservative values. Biological sex, according to the gender agenda, is immaterial to the human being, no more important than the color of one's hair or skin. In such a view, the distinction between male and female is socially constructed, carrying with it the customs and mores that serve as a warrant for the oppression of women by their confinement to the home, inability to earn an equal wage, etc. Incidentally, as we observe the agenda for gay marriage advancing to stages unimaginable just ten years ago, perhaps familiarizing ourselves with the roots of the "gender agenda" would be a prudent rhetorical strategy.
All this sounded like what Fry & Laurie would call "highly charged oratory persuasive whipping up rhetoric," but it was confirmed for me just a week ago when chatting with a student at our local state university on break for the holidays. She was an anthropology major with a focus in women's studies, and once I found this out I did my best to elicit some comments without getting into a knock-down drag-out argument right there next to the Christmas tree and ruining the party. In the course of that conversation, she substantially confirmed every claim about the nature of radical feminism that O'Leary laid out, including its Marxist provenance. It gives you an idea of my naivete that I was surprised to learn that "Marxist social theory is pretty much all we're taught," as she put it. We still have our work cut out for us in the universities, folks.
At any rate, one can see that this agenda has little to do with the Gospel, and while Christians can legitimately favor the general emancipation of women and their full admission into society, I don't believe there can be any truck with the conception of marriage outlined above. "Male and female he created them" does not allow that interpretation--certainly not as long as one believes in a Trinitarian God, who created humans in the divine image. The conflict between the "traditional marriage" and the "LGBT/radical feminism" movements is fundamentally a different conviction about what drives history: the vagaries of class oppression in all its forms, or the self-giving love of God that has written into our bodies the means by which that love can enter and transform all creation, "that God might be all in all". (less)
I lent this book to a friend and found myself unable to engage him in meaningful conversation... so I decided to read it again.
What Miller does with a...moreI lent this book to a friend and found myself unable to engage him in meaningful conversation... so I decided to read it again.
What Miller does with aplomb is transport his narrative into a distant future that is distant only for the sake of revealing quite homely truths, truths which are present here and now. As the saying goes, "Wherever you run to, there you are"--humanity of the future isn't much different than the humanity of our own day (despite the breathless conjectures of the transhumanists).
The setting of Miller's post-nuclear apocalyptic future is far less grim than Cormac McCarthy's ash-laden moonscape, but in some ways the narrative is far more so. Humanity has bombed itself back to the Stone Age, yes, but life has managed to find a way; yet the baser dimensions of our race--the lust for power, forgetfulness of the past, or the willingness to exploit and destroy--has also found a way to survive along with it. Yet grace has not been extinguished, either, and the monks of the Order of Liebowitz work to preserve the knowledge of a bygone age even as they pray, worship, and labor within the apostolic tradition. Their mission is to serve as custodians of the very technological know-how that once was used in the service of mass destruction, but will perhaps one day be useful again to a wiser and more self-controlled civilization. None of them understand the manuscripts they copy and guard; it is precisely their ignorance allows them to continue in service to the one thing necessary. Very little has changed in the day-to-day life of the monk--long fasts, total obedience, the trials of initiation and administration. Yet from them, as before, falls the thankless task of preserving civilization for a generation yet unborn that will snatch it from their hands and resent them for not having done more with it. The same scenes play out--the discoveries in the abbey basement, the first stumbling attempts at technological advance, the whisperings of blasphemy and stealing fire from heaven, and the rise of old heresies thought to have been laid to rest long ago. In fact, one of the most stirring passages of the book recounts the conflict between an abbot of the monastery and a government official running a refugee camp in the abbey's courtyard--and issuing certificates permitting the sick to be euthanized should they choose. Miller's approach to the problem is vivid, like so much of what comes earlier, and I've found myself repeating the words of that abbot even as I teach and preach on similar such questions.
"It never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day."(less)
The fact is, I am simply not equipped to understand this book. I gave it a heroic effort though, and did learn some things about Freud, Jung, and Lawr...moreThe fact is, I am simply not equipped to understand this book. I gave it a heroic effort though, and did learn some things about Freud, Jung, and Lawrence in the process. This book came up in a Christian Anthropology class this past year and I finally got around to following up on it, and found the excerpts used in class to describe quite precisely some of the dysfunctional aspects of our present culture. If I understand the author correctly (and it's entirely possible that I don't), it seems as if he is quite aware of these destructive, individualistic, and ultimately unfulfilling impulses driving our contemporary culture, but sees a solution not in a return to the antiquated ascetic "collective therapies" of the past (prayer, fasting, sacramental participation, etc.) but an entirely new collective therapy that eschews individualism and its psychologically destructive structures, but the old "delusions" as well. I certainly wasn't expecting this coming from ISI but my best reading has confused me quite a bit and given me the impression that Rieff is no ally of traditional religion. However, this is just an impression, and I find myself doubting this judgment for no other reason than I am not conversant with the Freudian and post-Freudian terminology he uses somewhat glibly and opaquely at times. In short, it feels like starting to listen in on an intense conversation about quite particular events three quarters of the way through. (less)
I liked the biographical approach to history. It gives the long chain of events and dates a frame on which to hang them. Bokenkotter picks sixteen key...moreI liked the biographical approach to history. It gives the long chain of events and dates a frame on which to hang them. Bokenkotter picks sixteen key figures and uses their own stories to personalize and narrate the significant events of the eighteenth through twentieth century. I was exposed to a number of figures that I'd never heard of before--Frederic Ozanam, Emmanuel Mournier, Konrad Adenauer, and the three French liberal Catholics Lammenais, Lacordaire and Montalambert. My only gripe is that Bokenkotter is extremely aggressive in his portrayal of figures with which he disagrees. To present evidence that the reader can base a judgment of his own is one thing; to heap up scathing judgments against this or that historical personage with such one-sided determination to portray him as negatively as possible makes Bokenkotter less of a historian. As the pattern emerged (somewhere around chapter seven), I began to trust Bokenkotter less and less, simply because he was so unwilling to offer even a token gesture of fairness to the people he wanted to portray as obstacles to reform and naysayers of development and collaboration between the Church and modernity. I would suggest CHURCH AND REVOLUTION belongs in the "historically informed commentary and opinion" rather than strict history. (less)
If you could somehow sort out everything in the history of Christianity pertaining to Mary, what would be left? So asks the author. It's a very helpfu...moreIf you could somehow sort out everything in the history of Christianity pertaining to Mary, what would be left? So asks the author. It's a very helpful look at the history of Mary's cultural, social, and of course theological influences. There are some esoteric digressions into Goethe and Dante that I just couldn't follow, being unfamiliar with the works he examines, but most everything else was worthwhile. Those perplexed by Catholic Marian doctrine won't find a robust defense of it here, but it certainly does provide a survey of the whole that helps explain Mary's place at the heart of the Church--a heart that can never be considered in isolation from its Head.(less)
Good Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever come...moreGood Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever come across in literature. I find myself wanting to pray for him at Mass, like I'd heard the tragic story of my taciturn grandfather for the first time. Except he never existed beyond Undset's imagination--and now mine.
I won't say more. This, friends, is literature.(less)
May I please begin this review by saying that The Christian State of Life should be required reading for every vocation director, director of seminari...moreMay I please begin this review by saying that The Christian State of Life should be required reading for every vocation director, director of seminarians, and spiritual director involved in helping others to discern God’s call. I say this not because it offers practical advice on making the choice (there are plenty of perspectives on this already) but because of the grand, sweeping vision of the whole of Christian life that it presents. It might be called a work of “vocational theology,” if such a term existed, one which is deeply immersed in the Scriptures (especially the Gospels) and the unique re-presentation of the longstanding mystical tradition presented by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. If the subject is of interest to you in the least, I would get ahold of a copy from the library (they’re hard to find right now, as Ignatius Press is apparently between printings) and read the first sixty and the last forty pages. If they whet your appetite, start again from the beginning and take notes as you go—it’s helpful for keeping track of where he is in the overall structure of the work.
Balthasar begins with a treatment of “love in the abstract,” a long catalogue of the qualities of love as it is in itself and not as human persons are capable of it. The author reveals himself here as a disciple of the mystics, most especially Bernard. The pages read like a gloss on Bernard’s sermon on love, in which he writes, “Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love.” Balthasar is infused with the same intoxicating fervor of the immensity of love, and he takes utterly seriously the commandment to love the Lord with all one’s mind, heart, and strength. One has the sense here of being in touch with the Love that is the source of all things, and it’s hard not to be drawn into such contemplative intensity. This passage constitutes a real examination of conscience for the reader, and certain phrases ring out with clarity many weeks later: “Love does not ask what must be done, but what can be done; the first is not a question that love asks.”
The states in life are rooted in God’s original call for humanity to be in relationship with him through loving obedience, generous poverty, and fecund purity. This is the state of our first parents. Balthasar treats the “original state” with the sort of naivete (if one can call it that) of a practiced exegete who has come full circle to the text once again by way of the many insights of scholarship; he approaches Scripture with a refreshing straightforwardness that unlocks the secrets of Scripture not as a critical examiner but a disciple. With this method, he dives into the Scriptural accounts of the creation and fall in order to shed light on the redemption and the Church as the continuation of Christ’s mission.
Balthasar then examines minutely Christ’s own “state of life” and that of his mother in order to demonstrate how the present possibilities for the Christian life are rooted in their one “stand” in the Father’s will. These sections draw on Balthasar’s Trinitarian and Christological theology, subjects few of us have the knowledge to master, but they nonetheless place the life of discipleship firmly within the context of the Trinitarian life and the whole economy of salvation. (This subject was the material for my term paper, one of the most difficult and rewarding papers I’ve written so far, and I would be glad to share it with anyone who’s interested in looking more closely at the subject.)
After a lengthy examination of the states of election and the secular state (i.e. the state of the vows and the ordinary “lay” state) and their relationship to one another, Balthasar takes a close look at the ministerial priesthood and where it fits within this whole economy. I can say very little about this, as my research forced me to put my time in elsewhere, but suffice to say I will be returning to it in the very near future to explore his insights. What is most intriguing is what he does with the concept of priestly service as one of representation and sacrifice; it reaches its perfection, of course, in Christ, but for the reason that here priest and victim are one. Balthasar concludes from this that the most perfect sacrifice (and therefore the sacrifice Jesus himself offered) is the one in which one surrenders even the consciousness of love in the performance of it; everything one does, then, becomes the impartial performance of a purely formal, external act. Some of his most stirring words are to be found in this section (though I may be partial to the subject). Particularly notable is the justification for the Church’s authority, which Balthasar perceives to be constituted by the very unworthiness of those who exercise it: “No human way of life is ever totally adequate to the greatness of the divine mission conferred with the priestly office. For how can any human person be worthy to impart the word 0f God? How can he be permitted to dispense the grace of God, to say in the name of God’s Son: ‘This is my body’ or ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, to bind and loose in such a manner that his action is ratified in heaven? Only the consciousness of an incurable unworthiness that reaches to the very depths of his being can be the halting response to the call to such a ministry. This is true even if the one so called strives in duty and in gratitude to let his whole being be re-formed in accordance with the ministry bestowed on him by God himself. This mark of absolute imparity between person and office is the beginning and end of the Church’s authority. It helps him who is charged with the office to bear it and him who must obey it to look beyond the person and even the weakness of the minister to the divine character of what he administers.”
The final section of the book is a treatment of the nature of the “call” itself, its recognition, and the possibility to reject or accept it in freedom. Other commentators (such as Mr. Bolin below), based on a more precise reading of Balthasar than my own, would quality some of his harsh language regarding the need to follow one’s vocation; I defer to that judgment as a whole, with the qualification that such incentives (exaggerated as they may be) are necessary for a generation of Catholics largely ambivalent to the question of radical discipleship. The lack of commitment to forms of religious life and the ministerial priesthood—and even to the married state—would suggest that among the many other factors that undermine readiness to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes”, the lack of insistence by our pastors that vocational discernment is a necessity for every single Christian is one of the most disheartening. The last fifteen pages of Christian State of Life will certainly make you take a serious look at your own discernment! (less)