The Religious Dimensions of Life
An important debate carried on among 20th-century Catholic theologians, from Henri de Lubac and Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange to Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, concerned the relationship between nature and gracethe very intersection between the human and the divine. Despite Catholicism’s rich sacramental imagination, many Catholics sense a lack of connection between the experience of the supernatural on Sunday at Mass and their ordinary everyday experiences in the so-called real world. George Weigel recently wrote in his book, The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001): In the Catholic imagination, the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the ordinary. Through the ordinary things of this world...God makes himself and his grace available to us in what Catholics call sacraments.’... Inside that distinctive way of looking at things, what the world often thinks of as ordinary and mundane becomes an experience of the extraordinary and divine.
Do we really believe that the extraordinary can be discovered in the quotidian? The late Catholic novelist and philosopher Walker Percy put it as follows in Signposts in Strange Language (1991):
What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listeningand what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.
As Percy points out, the story of our salvation is mediated through the ordinary things of this world.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church serves as a helpful reference text in attempts to understand the great truths of the Christian faith. The task is to connect these great truths with people’s everyday experience. How does one connect the glory and beauty of Christian revelation described, for instance, in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, to those who experience little connection between the sacred and the mundane? It is a difficult task, but one way is to begin to recognize the religious dimensions of everyday life.
The Anglican theologian John Macquarrie writes that theology draws on the whole range of human experience, and especially in a secular age when many people might disclaim any explicitly religious experience, theologians have drawn attention to what might be called religious dimensions’ in everyday experience. Macquarrie goes on to say that the religious dimensions of human life may be located in areas of experience, such as awareness of finitude, freedom, creativity, transcendence and so on. Discovering the religious dimensions of our ordinary or, if you will, secular experience may help bridge the chasm between religious truths and everyday existence.
As a high school teacher, I have found that young people sometimes have a difficult time seeing how the sacred relates to their ordinary experience. The realm of the holy, for many, lies outside their everyday conscious horizon. The holy can be experienced inside the building of the church as something descending from above, but it has little to say to the rest of the week. Would it not be helpful then to point out the grace that erupts from within one’s own conscious or, if you like, depthful experience, as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan describe in their transcendental analysis?
I recently read with my students High Flight, a poem written by John Gillespie Macgee Jr. not long before he was shot down in battle. Macgee, a fighter pilot in World War II, beautifully describes in the poem how flying has helped him touch the face of God. I asked my students to reflect on an activity that has allowed them to, as it were, touch the face of God. One student wrote:
The things that make me feel as if I could touch the face of God are times when I am overwhelmed by love and friendship. The last time I went to a family reunion, I was touched by the level of loving and caring everyone showed me. There’s nothing like the feeling of being loved. I would say that love is the one thing in life that can truly take a person to another level in life, because the source behind love and the source behind just about everything is God.
Another student wrote:
In my life, I think that the only activity that helps me touch the face of God is probably listening to or making music. When I listen to music, I am amazed at the ability that musicians have to make such wonderful sound. The creativity in many ways is mind-blowing and it makes the experience totally beautiful.
In another assignment my students were to reflect on their own experiences of wonder and awe. I asked whether they have ever had an experience of creature-awareness, as Rudolph Otto calls it, whereby they recognize their own smallness in relation to a mystery, the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans, that goes totally beyond themselves. One student wrote:
I have been to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans for deep-sea fishing and ocean kayaking, both of which make you realize how small and defenseless you are compared to the oceans. I have also been to the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Montana to go backpacking and mountaineering. All of these times I felt truly humbled by the size of the mountains.
Another student reflected:
During the summer I actually set up a tent in my backyard. It may sound odd, but there is some allure to distancing myself from technology and returning to an old way of life. It’s nice just to lay down, hear the birds chirp, smell freshly cut grass, and look up to see the blue sky through open tent flaps. We take a lot of things for granted, the chirp of birds, the meandering scuttle of ants, the chirp of crickets, everything that God has created.
Finally, a student describes his awe-filled experience of the Mississippi River:
There is a park on the river I can ride my bike to. A couple of years ago, my brother took me there for the first time on bikes. We first rode through the park, and then through the woods. Eventually, we reached the river. We got off our bikes and walked right up to the Mississippi River. There I was standing with my brother, this huge river splashing at our feet. I looked out at the water splashing every which way. So far distant across the river was Illinois. I knew God was there. The place was amazing. It immediately struck me as one of those times in which silence seems the only adequate response to greatness.
These students were articulating their experience of transcendence in the midst of the ordinary, natural settings of everyday life, whether it is riding a bike along the Mississippi River or recognizing the mind-blowing creativity of musicians. By uncovering these moments of depth and transcendence, of creature-awareness vis-à-vis a mystery that is totally other, of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature or at the capacities of the human person for creativity or experiencing the unquenchable desire to know and desire to love and be loved, we are discovering the religious elements of our own everyday experience. This discovery may serve as an important connection between our so-called ordinary lives and the church’s sacred liturgy.
What this method does is point out that God is not limited to the walls of the church, but is accessible in our conscious experience. The danger here is that many will suggest that they no longer need to go to church. For Catholics, this assertion will not hold much weight if we understand the ecclesial sacramental realm of experience and the sacramental moments of ordinary experience as distinct, but not mutually exclusive. Instead of being mutually exclusive, they have the potential to be mutually enriching. While the sacraments of the church give us the grace and strength to live sacramental lives in the ordinary, discovering the sacred in the ordinary may help deepen our experience of the sacramental.