An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.

ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

 

Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)

 

Looking Great After You’re Dead

Today is Ascension Thursday, when the Church commemorates Christ’s return to Heaven 40 days after His Resurrection, and awaits His return for the Last Judgment at the end of time.  So this is a good opportunity for us to think a bit about what we’re going to look like, when that day comes.  Are we going to have all our real or imagined physical flaws corrected?

For those unfamiliar with the belief in the resurrection of all the dead, this is not a zombie apocalypse theory.  It’s actually a core Christian belief, one which was dividing the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, between Pharisees who professed it and Sadducees who dismissed it.  The idea is, all the dead are raised and given perfected bodies of some sort, and everyone undergoes the Last Judgment, after which some go to Heaven, and some to Hell.

A few spiritual thinkers suggest that when the day arrives and the dead come back, we’re going to end up looking about what we were like around our “Jesus year”, i.e. 33 years old, the approximate age Christ was when He rose from the dead.  I can see how for a lot of people that’s not a bad place to be, particularly if you’re freed from any illnesses or conditions that might have caused you pain at that age.  At 33 you can still be as active as you would like, but you are less reckless or careless about it than you were at 23.

However there’s also the issue of perfectionism when it comes to a resurrected body, which I wonder how God is going to take care of.  Do we get to have that face or body we’ve always wanted? Is God going to treat us like a piece of claymation, making us look any way we’d like, so that we can be “happy” about our appearance? What will make us happy about the way we look, if we’re being given eternal life and eternal bodies to go with it?

Truthfully, we don’t know for sure what we’ll look like, other than some hints we might glean from the Gospels about Christ’s appearance to the disciples after His Resurrection.  For example, we know that He could enjoy material things if He chose, for when He appears to the Apostles in the Upper Room he eats some fish they give Him, to prove He’s not a ghost.  Later still, Jesus even cooks the Apostles a hearty breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  (Perhaps this means God will allow us to have bacon in eternity, but we shall have to wait and see.)

For the Christian, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining, every now and then, what it’s going to be like if we make it to Heaven.  It’s only natural that we will wonder about what we’ll look like, or what we’ll be able to do once we get there.  Yet at the same time, the focus and the goal must always remain on doing what we need to do to get ourselves right on the inside, worrying less about the outside, in order to reach that eternal destination.  God’s not going to care how many beauty pageants you won or how many pounds you could bench, if you never bothered to follow the Commandments He left you to live by.

In the end I suspect that, if and when we get there, how we look will be little more than an afterthought.  We’ll be so unconcerned with our BMI, our wardrobe, our hair, and so on, that all of these concerns about perfecting our appearance will seem to have been little more than a colossal waste of time and resources.  Oh in the meantime I’m still going to comb my hair and pick out snazzy argyle socks, of course, but if I make it upstairs at the end of this life, I for one am really, really looking forward to never ironing again.

"The Resurrection of the Dead" by Luca Signorelli (1502) Duomo, Orvieto, Italy

“The Resurrection of the Dead” by Luca Signorelli (1502)
Duomo, Orvieto, Italy