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

 

Lessons from the Farmyard: Are You a Pig?

Having grown up in a small town in the countryside, not on a farm myself but surrounded by them, I was fortunate enough to have a sense not only of where our food comes from, but of what it takes to go from barn to supermarket to dinner table.  I can spot the difference between soybeans, alfalfa, and corn beginning to emerge from the ground.  I know that some of the animals I might see standing about in the pasture today, will not be there in a few months’ time.  I can also discern the difference – at a distance – between the odors of cow, pig, and sheep manure fertilizer.

And because I know it when I smell it, I think it’s time for us to take a step back, and take a big whiff of what society is telling us about the Church: because quite frankly, it’s a load of…droppings.

Christianity is increasingly presented as an obstacle to personal fulfillment, however one chooses to define that term this week.  Many Catholics around the country seem to be agreeing with that assessment, if you saw the recent map showing the distribution of the major religions of the United States.  Although Catholics are now the largest religious group in this country, many of the states where Catholics are the majority have Mass attendance levels which barely keep the parishes open, causing one to wonder what exactly these Catholics actually believe.

What is the root cause of this blight?  The fault, we are often told, lies in the rigid history of the Church, the negative aspects of which are repeated over and over again by uneducated entertainers, bitter academics, and the chat show hosts who fawn over them both.  The alternative, or rather the only acceptable option now available to us, is a Christianity that conforms, rather than divides.  We are all to be pigs together, not sheep and goats.

Under this scenario, one can snarf up from the communal trough whatever one likes, provided that no one else is offended by it.  If only we agree to eat the same garbage that everyone else is eating, we are told, we would be much happier, and the world would be a better place.  We would have things like fatter wallets, bigger muscles, and newer gadgets, making us into prize specimens, little gods of the domestic barnyard.  And as we roll long our merry way, contentedly stuffing ourselves until we glisten in the summer sunshine, we forget what ultimately happens to farm animals.

If the line of reasoning presently being foisted upon us by the media and commentariat seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s been tried before – and worked.  For this is a shadow that has dogged our steps since the days of our first parents in Eden, despite those who try to dismiss their story as little more than a fairy tale.  “If only” you do this, we’re told, as they were, you’ll be gods.  The delivery may be different, since we don’t see many talking snakes these days, but if the formula works, why change it?  Call it individualism, or self-actualization, or what you will, but the idea that abandoning the cross in order to embrace material things will keep us from suffering and death is the real fairy tale.

In fact, the only difference between Eden and today, is that the Tempter’s message has gone mainstream.  Now it comes from people like self-help gurus, investment professionals, motivational speakers, and even supposed “Christian” evangelists.  They come onto our televisions and into our inboxes, telling us how we can avoid the fate of all human beings for only 3 easy payments of $19,95.  It comes from magazines and films that demand we pursue our own pleasure, whatever it might be, because it “feels” right, never having to consider why something as transient as a mere feeling is rarely going to serve us well.  And in the end, those who promise us that they can turn us into prize pigs end up losing everything themselves, sooner or later.

It isn’t easy to resist the urge to join in the feeding frenzy at the trough, particularly when you’re constantly being told that you need to accept the garbage you’re being fed in order for your life to be a success.  However, we will not cheat suffering, or keep death from the gate, by turning ourselves into creatures driven by our appetites.  Our eyes need to be fixed on our church steeples, not on the various screens filled with garbage that, like pig troughs, so often remain the intent focus of the human gaze.

Let’s make a point this summer, just as the crops themselves are growing in anticipation of the harvest this autumn, to try in grow in the courage and steadfastness which will remind us that we follow a Good Shepherd, not a Cool Swineherd.

Detail of "The Church at Mont-roig del Camp" by joan Miró (1919) Private Collection, Spain

Detail of “The Church at Mont-roig del Camp” by joan Miró (1919)
Private Collection, Spain

 

Rejoicing with Our Mothers

As I write this, I’m on my way home to Pennsylvania for Mother’s Day weekend to visit my parents.  In my family we’ve never made a big deal of either Mother’s Day or Father’s Day – too secular and commercial, my Mother always said.  Realistically however, their children know that they would love a little something, even just a greeting card, to let them know that we are grateful for the gift of life they gave us.

The other day a friend on social media observed that he was unaware of which holiday he was supposed to be celebrating on that particular day of the week.  Secularism has provided us with a wealth of these invented occasions to make up for the emptiness that materialism and the objectification of others has brought to our culture.  If you do an online search for holidays, you will find not only the familiar ones, both historic and religious, but ones you have probably never heard of.  The “Great American Grump Out” was one of a dozen “holidays” that just so happened to fall upon the date in question.

Fortunately, as a Catholic, I have other days that I can mark, which are the Feasts and Saints’ Days celebrated by the Church for centuries.  Sometimes these celebrations have a local flavor, like the floral carpets laid out on sidewalks in Catalonia for Corpus Christi, or they may be more internationally popular, such as eating fatty foods on Mardi Gras, i.e. “Fat Tuesday”.  Other opportunities exist to revive or interpret traditions of your own, such as going out for pints on the Feast of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers.

While Mother’s Day is really little more than a commercially designed opportunity to make you feel bad and spend money, fortunately it comes during the month of May, which traditionally has been dedicated to Our Lady.  It’s a chance during this Easter season to appreciate the words of the ancient prayer known as the “Regina Coeli”, with its emphasis on how indeed she whom the Angel Gabriel called, “full of grace”, was blessed to be able to see God’s promise to His people fulfilled, in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  “The Son whom you merited to bear, Alleluia, has risen, as He said, Alleluia.”

Perhaps this Mother’s Day Sunday, that is something for all of us to focus on, more than we do on cards, flowers, or taking our mothers to brunch.  Our mothers said “Yes” to bearing us, their children, and we should each individually be grateful for that.  Yet the “Yes” of this one mother 2,000 years ago in Judea, the one who was made our heavenly mother by her Divine Son even as He was dying on the Cross, led to the hope for eternal life which all Christians share.  Let’s be sure to thank her, too, for being such a good mother to all of us in the Church, through her willingness to seek the Will of God, and for setting an example of perseverance in Faith, no matter what happens, which all of us can try to follow.

Detail of "Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection" by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520) Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

Detail of “Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection” by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520)
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands