Most questions are quickly and easily posed. It’s their answers that require the while and wisdom. These days, reading Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel to the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, many find themselves repeating a question voiced by Lee’s heroine, Jean Louise Finch. After a number of years in the quintessential big city, New York, the young woman, called Scout in her childhood, returns to visit her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.
It is now the 1950s. Atticus is an old man. He’s still the strong, beloved father who despises racism, but he supports segregation and attends civic meetings, in which the “Negro problem” is debated. He reads literature detailing the racial inferiority of blacks. He’s quite sure that the federal government, under the influence of Jews and Communists, has overreached itself in civil rights legislation.
Louise is appalled at her home town, and her father. Her question: “What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say ‘nigger’ when the word had never crossed their lips before?” Book reviewers have offered a number of answers. Each in its way, true enough. Societies change slowly. Atticus was never a saint. As a little girl, Scout couldn’t see the racism that a sophisticated Jean Louise detects.
Reading the novels in tandem, a fundamental truth about the human person emerges. It’s a Gospel lesson that explains our need for “the Bread of Life.” We are creatures of time. We mistakenly believe that one can see the soul of a man or a woman in a single instant. But souls don’t dwell in space. They live in time. They grow, change, expand and contract as they move through time. Everything within the world eventually changes in time, but we humans never cease changing. Every day that we live, each person, whom we encounter in any significant way, changes who we are. How we spend our time, with whom and where, doesn’t simply matter. It makes us who we are. So, if one asks, what turns ordinary men? The answer is: time and everything within it.
There’s nothing more dangerous than a half-truth, and our dilemma is that all human truths are incomplete. When Protestant reformers seized upon the need to surrender one’s self personally to Christ, they identified a core Christian truth. The Gospel calls us to decision. We either are, or are not, disciples of this man we call the Christ. Everything hangs upon this.
That’s true enough, it’s just not entirely true, or, better, it’s not the entire truth of the human person. We dwell in time. God gives self completely, but we can’t do that. We don’t have our entire selves in our possession at any given moment in time. Saint Thomas Aquinas would say that we are still becoming, that we are only partially in act, whereas God is always in act, always fully realized. Put another way, one can’t give what one doesn’t have, and none of us completely possesses ourselves. We need time to do that.
Strictly speaking, God doesn’t promise, because God doesn’t dwell in time. God’s will is always fully realized. We, however, must make promises, because we don’t fully possess ourselves. When we pronounce a vow, we are saying that we will be faithful to someone, or something, that we have already become, already chosen, in the course of time.
At the time of the vow, we are a person in love with another, or with Christ and his Church. Not that the two are opposed. We promise to stay in love, which is more chosen path than chiseled portraiture, because we will surely not remain the same. There is no question but that time will change us. The issue is whether our love deepens or dwindles.
Our decisions in time determine eternity. The Reformers would correctly ask of Atticus: is he truly a man of Christ? The broader, Catholic caution is this: all decisions are made in media res. They don’t come out of nowhere; they come out of time. Human beings can rise above anything, but all of us start from somewhere, within the limitations of time and space. The Jean Louise who returns from New York may be a deeper human being than the young girl named Scout, who grew up in Maycomb, Alabama, but that’s not a given. East Coast liberals can be quite limited human beings.
A great truth flows from our being creatures in time. Our souls need to be fed as much as our bodies. They are fed, formed and finished by our relationships. That’s why Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. Because we hunger for him, because we cannot stop hungering for him, because we must continually return to him, to this relationship, in order to survive as souls.
Baptism perfectly expresses the truth that the Reformers stressed. We must give ourselves over to Christ. Eucharist enunciates a twin truth. We must do this in time. It must be repeated, every week, in the company of others, whom we call the Body of Christ. We usually blame sloth when we stop attending Mass weekly, but the root of the sin is pride. We begin to believe that we are immune to the movement of time, that we don’t need the support and the communion of others in order to become who we want to be.
Yet we aren’t self-made souls. The only thing complete in Baptism is the presence and action of Christ. We need Eucharist to come to our own completion. That and time.
Exodus 16: 2-4, 12-15 Ephesians 12: 17, 20-24 Matthew 6: 24-35