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

 

“Something Other Than God”: Jennifer Fulwiler at the CIC

In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity.  While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with.  She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section.  Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.

Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs.  She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding.  For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.

I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced.  But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself.  If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point?  Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.

One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in.  Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results.  As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.

In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born.  This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions.  It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice.  She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company.  This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.

On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time.  She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be.  I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed.  And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Revisiting the “Sisters” with Colleen Carroll Campbell

This weekend after Mass I was speaking with a friend who has a close family member suffering from dementia, a condition which began to accelerate recently following a death in their family.  Whether or not you know someone who is currently experiencing the loss of their faculties, chances are that, like my friend from the parish, one day you will.  The best advice that I could give, in addition to prayer, was for her to find out about the experiences of others.  And to that end, I recommended that she pick up a copy of My Sisters the Saints, a superb book by Colleen Carroll Campbell.

Regular readers will recall that I reviewed this book a few months ago, but I have two reasons for bringing it to the attention of those of you who might have missed it the first time.  Colleen’s book, which is now in its 7th printing, has just been released in paperback today.  In addition, it just so happens that September is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  These are two very good reasons why you should consider picking up a copy.

“My Sisters the Saints” is essentially a memoir, but not quite the sort you might expect from a media personality.  For in writing about her own personal and spiritual journey, along with reflecting on the lives of those saints who have meant something special to her at different points in her life, Colleen also chronicles the decline of her father as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.  His illness is not treated as a completely separate chapter topic, to be observed, addressed, and then put to one side.  Rather, she addresses it as something that recurs like ocean waves, now stronger in their intensity, now more subdued, with quiet patches between, but endlessly crashing onto shore all the same.

In a passage from the book, Carroll Campbell notes a lesson that she learned as she grew stronger in her spirituality, even as she watched her father becoming physically and mentally weaker.  “[O]ur culture has it exactly backward when treating such people as expendable,” she writes, speaking of those suffering from debilitating diseases like dementia, or the unborn, or the disabled, or the elderly, or the otherwise unwanted.  “If productivity, efficiency, and rationality are not the ways God gauges a human person’s value,” she argues, “then they are not the ways I should measure it either.  If childlike dependence on God is the mark of a great soul, then there are great souls hidden in all sorts of places where the world sees only disability, decay, and despair.”

Chances are that someday, someone you know is going to go down this same long, dark tunnel of unknowing.  Whether the condition is brought on by a specific trigger, or whether it arises out of pure chance, the end result is inevitably the same.  Dementia, in all its forms, is more often than not a bloody, smelly, heart-wrenching mess.  We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it and say that it’s anything but.

However, we do need to learn how to see debilitating diseases or conditions in a way that brings us closer to God, rather than making us turn away from Him.  We also need to look at these moments as pathways to becoming better imitators of Christ.  And finally, we need the experiences of others who have experienced such redemptive suffering to give us at least some sense of how to go about attempting the task.

So whether for yourself, or for someone you know who might benefit from it, please do consider reading this vivid testament of one woman’s very powerful and deeply personal experience, shared through the prism of her Faith.

Detail of "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velázquez (1618) National Gallery, London

Detail of “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Diego Velázquez (1618)
National Gallery, London