In her poem, “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” Mary Oliver writes,
I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray…
May God deliver us from the scourge of fancy words. My friend, Father Jonathan Mitchican, recently wrote an article on why he’s eliminating fancy words from his online presence. It’s a quest for a theology that prays before it punches. In it, he lays out a vision for a simple apologetics that’s prayerful instead of combative. I have to admit, in the past I’ve had zero interest in apologetics precisely because I’ve found it to be immensely combative and I cannot think of anything more boring than arguing with people. So now, whenever I’m asked why I’m Catholic, I simply shrug my shoulders and, echoing Cardinal Newman, make a cryptic comment that one does not explain such profundities between soup and the main course. At the most, you’ll get me to make a sphynx-like statement with a faraway look in my eyes – Have you ever fallen in love? You either do or you don’t. By the way, here’s a super-gorgeous, tragic poem. Read it.
In my opinion, an irenic approach to apologetics, one that proceeds by way of contemplative prayer and love, bears the most fruit. I, like anyone else, listen far more closely to people I already trust, people for whom I have developed that undervalued form of love for that is called Friendship. A project like Father Mitchican’s is most welcome. It’s rooted in contemplation, and thus in friendship, love, and trust.
To understand why such an approach will be extremely successful, well now, that’s in my wheelhouse, because it’s a matter of aesthetics. It also happens to be the same explanation for why beauty and Catholic culture truly matter, and why these, too, are far more effective at apologetics than dialectical argumentation or the advancement of logical propositions. I’m told by smarter people than me that these propositions are important, and I believe them, truly I do, but at the same time, even the greatest of them all, St. Thomas Aquinas, placed his arguments before the Lord in prayer. Even he wrote poetry and gloried in the beauty of the Church. Even he famously discarded the lectures for a mystical vision of love, muttering that everything else is straw before the beauty it had been given him to behold. It’s all of a piece, interconnected and woven in mysterious ways. Beauty is truth. Poetry is theology. Contemplation is apologetics.
Those of us with a Catholic worldview seek to encounter a divine person, not an idea. I still remember being introduced to that concept for the first time in the work of Pope Benedict XVI. It changed everything. A person is meant to be loved. Further, in loving that person, we see him more truly because the eye of the lover sees most clearly. If we would explain a magnificent, life-changing truth to another, we must help others to love the one whom we love, to see why he is so lovable. It’s a perfect description of why I became Catholic. I fell in love with the Church and with Christ. After that, there wasn’t an argument or counter-apologetic in the universe that would stop me. It’s like running home to your mother.
Here’s the problem, though. It’s really, really difficult to get people to pay attention to beauty. Scoring points in arguments is way more fun. Creating outrage is more appealing in terms of getting page clicks. Blowing tribal dog-whistles rallies the troops much faster. It’s easier to formulate an idea and viciously defend it than it is to grapple with a real, flesh and blood person, the living Christ.
Fr. Mitchican writes about his previous online presence at the highly successful Conciliar Anglican:
I discovered that when I would write a blog post that simply reflected on the joy of following Jesus or the fruit of prayer, it did not gain much attention. But when I posted something brash, something that made claims to certainty while also rhetorically punching someone else in the face, the number of views increased exponentially. And so, slowly, this became the kind of post I would write all the time.
Isn’t that the way? It’s so satisfying to write an opinion that trends. It’s empowering to have people nodding their heads to something I write. I see this same effect in homiletics. There’s great temptation to preach on controversial topics week after week because those are the talks that generate reactions. They create the compliments after Mass. They make me feel brave. They get tons of page views and shares. Sometimes these homilies are good and necessary, but they don’t work as intended if not delivered to an audience that already knows and trusts me, if they don’t fit into a larger, ongoing relationship and conversation. In any case, the real work, the real soul-searching life-giving work of a homily is not accomplished with endless digressions into controversial topics and opinions about current events. A homily is a poem meant to mediate an ancient and mysterious beauty. Those are way harder to write. To me, sitting in my office blankly staring at an open Bible, it feel like blood from a stone. But, of course, even the rocks will sing…
It would be so satisfying to dive into the world of Catholic celebrity priests and share my opinion about every controversial and supposedly relevant topic. I could become an opinion machine – trust me, I have a lot of them – ready to bring perspective and hard-hitting, no-compromise commentary week after week. Or, I could take a step back and ask myself why, exactly, I like to write at all.
Here’s why I write. I’m a man in love.
I love the Church. I love the mysterious, vulnerable heartbeat at the center of that Church. I love beauty. I love how reading a poem is like running my hand across a hieroglyph. A man in love cannot cease speaking about the object of his love. This is why I write. This love is at the heart, I imagine, of why you all write. It’s at the heart of apologetics, and art, and culture, and this whole wild wilderness we call the universe. If your writing doesn’t start spring from deep and abiding love, tear those words from your heart and your tongue.
I lounge on the grass, that’s all. So
Isn’t it astoundingly, almost heart-breakingly evident that Mary Oliver is a woman in love?
Then I go back to town
to my own house, my own life, which has
now become brighter and simpler, some-where I have never been before…