Words on the Word
Feria iv, Week x (2)
1 Kings 18:20-39: Call louder. Perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.
Matthew 5:17-19: Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law.
I recently listened to a characteristically thoughtful lecture by Professor Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkowitz, probably our time’s greatest expert on Romano Guardini — that great theologian, who has had such a massive impact on the pontificates of both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
The lecture was concerned with current tensions in the Church. There are many of them. They are frequently bewildering. Underlying them, though, so Gerl-Falkowitz contended, is a basic conflict of principles. She enunciated it as a conflict between autonomy and heteronomy. These are dense terms that could do with a little unpacking.
The claim to autonomy has, since the Enlightenment, steadily extended its reach in Western society. To be autonomous is to be self-determined. A reasonable degree of self-determination — the freedom to shape one’s destiny within a framework of justice — is basic to human dignity.
Increasingly, however, notions of autonomy have detached themselves from notions of community. We are allergic, now, to any suggestion that we may (as citizens, as Catholics, or simply as members of the human race), have inherent obligations to others. We refuse to allow that another might have a legitimate say in how I pursue my thriving, which is what Gerl-Falkowitz labels heteronomy. We don’t admit that we’re subject to any reality outside our own. Even should we admit the notional possibility of such a reality, a reality beyond mine, we take it for granted that it should adapt itself to me, not I to it.
In such a cultural context, the words of Jesus, ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law’, seem outrageous. So, really, does the very notion of God. If the word ‘God’ is to have meaning, it must designate a transcendent, omnipotent power guiding creation. Else we end up with a caricature like that of the Canaanite prophets’ Baal. But how can I acknowledge a transcendent, directive principle of omnipotence without letting go of my own claims to being almighty, at least as far as I myself am concerned? The right to exercise such omnipotence is widely proclaimed nowadays, if you’ll permit the phrase, as ‘gospel’.
So we’re in a deadlock.
To get out of it, we must recover a sense of the law as potentially a source of freedom. That is how Scripture presents it to us: as a way of establishing the beauty of order in the sin-wounded chaos of our lives.
The first thing we have to do is to enter into the Scriptures deeply and make its story of salvation our own, freeing our perception of God from cold abstractions, enabling it to assume the features of an infinitely loving Father. We must then, on a personal level, learn to assent to our incompleteness. We must learn to be, and rejoice in being, clay in the potter’s hands, unknowing the form we have it in us to assume, trusting those hands.
It takes maturity and courage to live on the basis of the prayer we recite often enough, ‘Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit’. Not for nothing did our Lord pray it on the Cross. By letting it take flesh in us, though, we learn what liberty is. We discover little by little that our idea of self-contained autonomy is in fact imprisonment; that we, by entrusting ourselves, on Christ’s terms, to heteronomy do not surrender to tyranny. No, we learn, in this way, what it is to be loved. We learn to love trustfully in return. Such love casts out fear; and fearless, we are freed. Amen.
Deus, a quo bona cuncta procedunt, tuis largire supplicibus, ut cogitemus, te inspirante, quæ recta sunt, et, te gubernante, eadem faciamus. Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
O God, from whom all good things come, grant that we, who call on you in our need, may at your prompting think of what is right, and by your guidance do it. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.