Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I Want to Win This Week's MEGA Giveaway from Brandon Vogt

"Lewis once described Arthur Greeves as his 'First Friend' and Owen Barfield as his 'Second Friend.' What was the difference? He said a First Friend shares all your interests and most secret delights and sees the world as you do: 'he and you join like raindrops on a window.' And the Second Friend? He shares your interests but approaches them from a different angle: 'He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one.' The discussions and arguments provide a seedbed for affection." (Milton Walsh, Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation)
Today a young man named Brian Vogt, who is Content Director at Word on Fire, a Catholic ministry founded and run by Fr. Robert Barron, is accepting entries at his blog for his latest "Giveaway." This week's treasure is a collection of books about C. S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago today. A half-century later, few people have not heard of Lewis, who is still widely known and broadly influential through his many fiction and nonfiction books, most notably the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.

Vogt provides several options for entering his Giveaway. One option was to post on my blog about which of the six books offered is most appealing to me and why. The choice is easy: Milton Walsh's Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation, published by St. Ignatius Press in 2008. Saying why is easy too. There are two reasons. The first is because at a time in my life when my Christian faith was as small and weak and hidden away as an oven's pilot light, a "Second Friend" arrived in my life, and for nearly a decade, like a match striking over and over and over against a hard surface, got and kept enough of a fire going to enable a bit of baking in the oven (including but not limited to this sporadically kept blog).

Apparently Lewis (who came to his adult Christian faith through the desert of atheism) and the less-well-known Knox (a convert to Roman Catholicism) spent time together only once, at a lunch to which they had both been invited by a mutual friend. So the book's title refers not to an actual friendship but to the sort of friendship the author believes Lewis and Knox would have experienced if they'd had the opportunity. The book, then, is not about a friendship between two men, but about two men who found the one friendship that matters most: the one with Christ--which is my second reason for wanting this book: because it is my relationship with Christ that endures beyond the limitations and failures of the Second Friendship that drew me back to Him.

Even if I don't win this book from Brandon Vogt, it is now on my list of must-reads, and I am grateful to Vogt for bringing it to my attention.

Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Saving Ridiculousness of Kolya and Zaccheus

In his Sunday Angelus message to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis praised the "ridiculous" actions of Zaccheus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree in order to be able to see Jesus in the crowds. "This external gesture, a little ridiculous, nevertheless expresses the interior attitude of a man who seeks to bring himself above the crowd in order to have contact with Jesus.... he is ridiculous, but it is a gesture of salvation." (Kerri Lenartowick reporting in the National Catholic Register, November 3, 2013)
When I read this morning that on Sunday Pope Francis referred to Zaccheus as "ridiculous," it reminded me of some lines from an enticing chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that a friend recently sent to me:
"Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?"

"Don't think about that, don't think of it at all!" cried Alyosha. "And what does ridiculous mean? Isn't everyone constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I've observed it for some time past, not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It's almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it's simply the devil," added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. "You are like everyone else," said Alyosha, in conclusion, "that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that's all."

"Even if everyone is like that?"

"Yes, even if everyone is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like everyone else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self-criticism. Don't be like everyone else, even if you are the only one."
Merriam-Webster's defines ridiculous as "arousing or deserving ridicule: extremely silly or unreasonable: absurd, preposterous." The key word here, it seems to me, is deserving. A deserved treatment or response is warranted, earned, just.

Was Kolya in fact "ridiculous"? Did he deserve ridicule, that is, to be criticized, judged, shamed? Alyosha's response wasn't "no, you aren't." In fact, he implies that Kolya was not only ridiculous but in fact was "bad." Yet his response to Kolya's tentative confession was, in Kolya's word, "consoling."

Kolya responds to Alyosha's compassion with words that could have been spoken by the equally "ridiculous" Zaccheus:
"Oh, how I have longed to know you, Karamazov! I've long been eager for this meeting."
Isn't this precisely why Zaccheus climbed that tree? And when Jesus saw him perched there he called to him, "Zaccheus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And Zaccheus did come down, "and received him with joy" (Luke 19:6).

I haven't read enough of The Brothers Karamazov to know precisely what difference Alyosha's compassion made in how Kolya lived his life. For Zaccheus, however, the encounter with Jesus was clearly transformative. In the words of Pope Francis, Zaccheus' eagerness was "a gesture of salvation," and it resulted not only in words of repentance but also in actions: "Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

The encounter between Kolya and Alyosha resembles the way many of us feel when we first encounter Jesus: we feel both known and loved. "How you know it all before hand!" Kolya declares, and "Oh, how I love you and admire you at this moment...!" Alyosha warns that the future will not be easy: "You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in your life" (though he does soften the message with the previously demonstrated consolation, "but you will bless life on the whole all the same," which also seems to hint at authentic conversion in Kolya). And even Kolya recognizes the gravity of the relationship: "Do you know, all this last month I've been saying to myself, 'Either we shall be friends at once, for ever, or we shall part enemies to the grave!'"

I will close with what appear to be the words with which Pope Francis ended his message about Zaccheus:
He is Father, always watchfully and lovingly waiting to see revived in the heart of his child the desire to return home. And when he recognizes this desire, even if simply hinted at [as Kolya hinted to Alyosha about his own sense of being "ridiculous"], and many times almost unconscious, he is immediately next to him, and with his forgiveness makes the path of conversion and return lighter [as Alyosha did for Kolya].

Brothers and sisters, let us also call upon the name of Jesus! In the depths of our hearts, listen to his voice that tells us, "Today I must stop at your house; I want to stop at your house and in your heart," that is, in your life. And let us welcome him with joy.
Amen.