Paragraph 52 is situated in a section of the Catechism devoted to God’s coming to meet man, the process of gradual revelation, and man’s inherent inability—through lack of capacity and bad will—to know God’s revelation instinctively. This is something of a turn from earlier paragraphs last winter which discussed the natural capacities of man to know of the existence of God, the goodness of God, and even the natural law of God written on the human heat. If this strikes one as a paradox, it is, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a history of attempts to explain where the power of God exercises restraint and the free will and understanding of man reaches its zenith. Doctrinally speaking, that point resides in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but pastorally speaking—and certainly in personal prayer—it is a challenge to both acknowledge a total dependence upon God for wisdom and a personal responsibility of conscience to reach out for that wisdom.
Think back a moment to that epic “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones is racing the evil archaeologist Belloc to recover the actual Ark of the Covenant from Moses’ day. Belloc exclaims, “Jones, do you realize what this is? A radio to talk to God!” Jones, who has just witnessed the death of his girlfriend Marian Ravenwood, comes back with an academy-winning retort: pulling out his revolver, he says to Belloc, “Let’s go see Him together right now. I’ve got nothing better to do.” (Hey, I found the trailer on YouTube with that very clip.)
I trust that your inner struggles to know God do not quite reach the intensity of Raiders, but it is true that the direction of the Catechism takes us to the proverbial fork in the road, with one way pointing “God does all the revealing” and the other pointing “I must search his heavens for the answer.” The history of Catholicism on this point anticipates Yogi Berra’s sage advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” One of the true mysteries of Christianity is this dialectic of God’s revelation, and with it our labors to trust God in all things while discerning from our own religious imagination how the will of God is best applied to me.
Looking back at the Reformation—or Reformations, as there were several stages—it is interesting to see how dissidents from Renaissance Catholicism developed a variety of spiritualities on the way God reveals Himself and the degree of help God received from human agents. Luther is famous for his sola scriptura declaration, i.e., the Word of God in the Bible alone is the one divine source of truth, but he never conceived of a world without a church—he could have lived with a profoundly reformed Catholic Church stripped of what he considered to be non-biblical inventions--and was terribly agitated by the extremism of his followers. Sola scriptura notwithstanding, Luther never abandoned the idea of a church with preaching ministers and sacraments as part and parcel of one’s spiritual life.
The second wave of reformers, led by Uldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), did not hold with Luther that man was utterly helpless, but took something of an opposite theology, that man is empowered to live by the Scripture alone if he lived a totally virtuous life. If Luther held the key to salvation to be “faith, not works,” Zwingli’s reform movement called for faith and works, something of a true church-state. The reformers connected personal piety with public order, and this reformation phase called upon the local governments, such as city magistrates, to outlaw sin, so to speak, and to police local clergy to preach purely from the Bible. It was this phase of the Reformation that stripped former Catholic churches down to bare white walls so that praying individuals would not be distracted in their meditations to a purely spiritual and other-worldly God.
The final phase of the Reformation is the emergence of diverse groups who tolerated neither church nor state in matters of spirituality, holding instead to individual and/or congregational independence of conscience in matters of Biblical interpretation and truth. Such believers were called “dissidents” and they came to North America in large numbers. Our American concept of “freedom of conscience” owes something to their influence.
So how does the Catholic find his “radio to God,” as Belloc put it? [That’s the movie villain, not the renowned Catholic man of letters, Hillaire Belloc.] Officially, the Church has held from its earliest days that the Scripture and its interpretation by the Apostles and their successors known as Tradition, which embodies our history of prayer and sacrament, is the revealing voice of the Judeo-Christian God. We are a people of historical spirituality in that it is our church practice to judge our own intense experiences and insights against the combined wisdom of Bible and history. It is a little known fact in catechetics and parish life that God’s formal revelation in history has ended with the death of the last Apostle, John. Mystics today give us new expressions of devotion, but not new divine revelation, though some claim to do so.
But it would be foolish to deny that our personal spiritual dimensions are so structured and predictable. Your own life’s story, your circumstances, will heavily dictate the way you read the Bible or listen to preaching. The biographies of nearly every thoughtful saint reflect inner spiritual turmoil. The difference for the Catholic is the inner restraint we try to exercise in examining our own internal battles and, yes, ecstasies, with God in the light of the common wisdom and experience of the Church. Francis of Assisi was deeply impacted by war, suffering and poverty. He could easily have become a Robin Hood character of sorts, but instead he took his spiritual anguish and urges to clerics who would point him toward his Catholic tradition’s response to sin and evil. Francis enriched that tradition with new energy, drawing new strength for himself from the timeless image of Christ crucified.
Fidelity to God’s revelation is fidelity to the community of God’s believers.