After dinner, the evening before that conference in Vienna a while back, Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn took George Weigel and me on a private tour of the episcopal palace. The vestiges of splendor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are inspiring, although today one cannot help but wonder if they are not more a burden than an inspiration. In one great room is a large painting of Christ on the cross that bears many marks of having been viciously slashed. That happened on October 8, 1938, when a mob of Hitlerjugend stormed the palace and trashed everything in sight. Very deliberately, the painting has never been repaired.
In the same room was a table with various publications, including Schoenborn’s Loving the Church , the spiritual exercises he preached in the presence of John Paul II in 1996. Published here by Ignatius Press, I had somehow missed it, and, reading it on the flight back, realized how much I had missed.
There is this from Blaise Pascal: “Why did God institute prayer? To give his creatures the dignity of causality.” Schoenborn reflects:
Saint Thomas explains this in his long quaestio on prayer. There are things that we can do because it is in our power to do them. There are things that, although not in our power to do, can still be done by us when we ask that they be done by someone who can do them. Petitionary prayer, therefore, is for Thomas the primary form of prayer. It shows that we are in need, that we depend upon God. It is also the recognition that God really can achieve what we can only request. That is why petitionary prayer always has an element of adoration, of praise and thanksgiving.
On the importance of the doctrine of original sin, Schoenborn again invokes Pascal, who wrote: “Nothing gives us a rougher shock than this doctrine, and yet without this most incomprehensible of mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves . . . . The incomprehensibility of man without this mystery is greater than the incomprehensibility of this mystery to man.”
At another point, Schoenborn observes: “The Church can never identify herself with any one nation. She is not a national Church. And yet the unmistakable features of the Church can be discerned within the different nations. This is never more luminously expressed than in the saints. Who could be more French than Therese, more English than Thomas More, more Spanish than Ignatius, more Italian than Catherine and Francis? And yet none of them is just a national saint, and any attempt to misuse the saints in the cause of nationalism (as has happened, for example, in the case of Saint Joan of Arc) totally misses the point of their lives.” Which prompts the question: Who could be more American than . . . ?
Cajetan, commenting on Thomas, says, “Spes sperat Deum a Deo”—hope hopes for God from God. I recently read Every Eye by Isobel English, an intriguing little novel just published here. Twice the line appears, drawn from the surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun: “Stretch out your hand in the dark / It will be taken.” Think about it.
Something very strange has taken place in recent years: Christians have lost touch with heaven. Of the desire for heaven, our “heavenly home,” we hear hardly a word. It is as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of our journey. We have forgotten that we are pilgrims and that the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. Connected with this is another loss: we largely lack the awareness that we are on a dangerous pilgrim path and it is possible for us to miss our goal. To put it bluntly, we do not long for heaven; we take it for granted that we will get there. This diagnosis may be exaggerated, but I am afraid it is essentially true.
St. Augustine said of his friend Alypius that he was ready to be baptized because “he was already endowed with the humility that befits thy sacraments” ( induto humilitate sacramentis tuis congrua ). Schoenborn speaks of the superbia that will not accept the humble form of Christ’s grace in the sacraments, and quotes von Balthasar, who wrote: “The man who wants experience at any price is thinking more of himself than of God. The man who throws himself in faith and love into the words and events of the Church’s life—into, for instance, what the Eucharistic Prayer really says—such a man is oriented toward God and has been taken hold of by God without having specially to strive for it.”
Only in heaven will we fully recognize how much we owe our salvation to the Church, to the communio sanctorum . Saint Therese said, “In heaven we shall meet with no glances of indifference, because all the elect will realize that they owe one another the graces that brought them the crown of life.”
Loving the Church by Christoph Schoenborn. A florilegium of wisdom to deepen your spiritual reading.
In addition to which :
Massachusetts demanded that Catholic Charities place adoptive children with same-sex couples, and, in response, Catholic Charities opted out of the important work of adoption. In the June/July issue of First Things , Gregory Popcak explains what went wrong and why it is both courageous and compassionate to insist that adoptive children have both a mother and a father. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?