In his first autobiographical book The Moon’s a Balloon, the actor David Niven relates a great story about the film director William Wyler, whose nickname—“Once More Wyler”—stemmed from his demand for endless retakes by his actors. While working together on a film adaption of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Niven watched Laurence Olivier play a scene again and again for Wyler, while the director read a newspaper. Not understanding what more Wyler could want, a frustrated Olivier lashed out, saying he’d tried a hundred variations of the scene and did not understand what was needed. Wyler, still behind his newspaper, answered, “just . . . do it better.”
I was reminded of that story while reading a tweeted response to my observation that His Holiness had managed, in answering three tweeted questions, to bring actual theological insight into Twitter’s 140-character limit. The tweetback, from a self-described “Agnostic Atheist, Freethinker, Skeptic . . . ” called the Pontiff’s responses “lame” and complained, “He doesn’t answer hard questions.”
In fact, Benedict XVI—who goes by the handle @Pontifex on Twitter—had answered a “hard” question, because the life of faith turns all questions into “hard” ones. The answers become hard, too, mostly because on the surface they seem so simplistic they can easily be mistaken for glib toss-offs: “Pray, always.” “Remember the love of Christ.” A believer sincerely living the life understands that—because we are faulty, broken creatures—none of this comes easily. One can understand how an unbeliever might read the words and dismiss them as mere platitudes, or ask, what does it even mean?
Anticipating his arrival on Twitter, an American mother had asked the Pope for suggestions on “how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world?”
Benedict’s answer, which likely sounded banal to some, contained a very sound theological point. He said: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you.”
The words read like something from the epistle of Saint Peter himself; they encourage us to “offer it up,” an old spiritual practice which has become unfamiliar to us. Here Benedict reminds us that offering every moment of our day to Jesus—whether these be stressful or joyful—is a powerful and efficacious habit that brings us into continual union with Christ, which can only be a good thing. But is it an easy habit to acquire? Well, no. Within the tumult of a day and the roiling vats of thought and feeling that spin us hour by hour, this is not even an easy idea to remember, much less to apply.
I tried to convey that truth, in its barest, 140-character-limited terms, to the atheist on Twitter, and in doing so inadvertently exposed him to some jeering from a few Catholics who read our back-and-forth. I was sorry for that, because in his tweet—coming, as it did, in light of the horrific slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut—I could sense nothing to jeer at. His complaint seemed to me like the disheartened irritation of one seeking a bit of solace in the face of some of our deepest of mysteries: why evil exists; why God allows it to exist so close to goodness, just as the thieves hung beside Christ at Calvary.
The pope had tweeted his answer days before Friday’s massacre, but the reader had seen it afterward, and to me his remark smacked less of mockery than of real pain: We have a thousand questions and you’ve given three answers! What are you doing swanking about with this woman’s insipid query when children are being sprayed with bullets and our hearts are broken? Where is God, old man? Where is he, and what does he want from us?
Benedict’s earlier tweet had already provided the answer. God is with us; he wants to us to be with him. He seeks our continual outreach; he invites a constant tug-and-pull at his sleeve, so to speak, as we bring everything into his presence—all of our glee; all of our misery. There, he hears our cries, not in metaphor but in fact. Like a parent who permits a frustrated, angry child to speak his piece, God attends to us, wholly present to our howls. He allows the keening rage because it is the only way in which we may become spent enough to finally permit his consolation.
It is a relationship, as Pope Benedict has frequently said. At its most fundamental, this is a relationship between a soul limited by the corporal and the material and the distractions of ten thousand things, and the person of Christ Jesus—the Triune God, incarnate, who understands our limitations, because he consented to live them.
Even for a believer, this reality can be a challenge to remember and lay claim to, through the habit of offering and continual union. Even a believer will wonder—as so many of our greatest saints have—whether the relationship is real, as opposed to merely true.
Given what we know of the spiritual dark nights endured by men and women who have made cinders of themselves in pursuit of that reality, we cannot and should not jeer when an atheist looks for answers to the hard questions and—like William Wyler, with a newspaper before his eyes and hearing nothing so compelling as to make him lay it aside—responds with “ . . . do it better.”
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Benedict: Pontifex Does Theology in 140 Characters
Offering It Up
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