There’s our work and then there’s Christ’s: Spinning Straw into Gold
Perhaps you remember the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskiin? It’s the one where the miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold for the king. You may also remember the famous words of that intellectual giant among saints, Thomas Aquinas, whose judgment on his own work was that, compared with the vision of God, it was just so much straw. Sometimes when I’m hard at work elucidating the finer points of cultural, philosophical and theological truths, I wonder whether I am spinning gold into straw.
This question occurred to me again while I was reading Fr. Martin Tripole’s explanation of the long intellectual history which underlies so many of the current weaknesses in the Church. I don’t say this because I fault Fr. Tripole’s account (which I have reviewed very favorably in Church in Crisis), but because Fr. Tripole’s understanding of the intellectual failures underlying the collapse of Catholic culture in the West so closely matches my own—and so does the importance he attaches to these errors. It is precisely these kinds of perceptions which serve as the basis for my own efforts to spin the straw of history into the gold of faith.
But one evening (yes, just after reading about the deleterious impact of nominalism on the relationship between reason and faith), I paused in full intellectual flight to do some spiritual reading. My text was Blessed John Henry Newman’s Everyday Meditations. In Meditation 26, Newman wrote:
I adore you, O my incomprehensible Creator, before whom I am an atom, a being of yesterday or an hour ago! Go back a few years, and I simply did not exist; I was not in being, and things went on without me; but you are from eternity; and nothing whatever for one moment could go on without you…. All things once were not, all things might not be, but it would be enough for the Father that he had begotten his coequal consubstantial Son, and for the Son that he was embraced in the bosom of the eternal Father. O adorable mystery! Human reason has not conducted me to it, but I believe. I believe, because you have spoken, O Lord. I joyfully accept your word about yourself. You must know what you are—and who else?
Let me say in passing that this reflection actually strengthens the point of both the book and the review, that in the relationship between faith and reason, faith must have the primacy. But Newman’s meditation places in a very different perspective all of the fascinating arguments—sometimes strained and stressful arguments—by which we try so hard to open others to God. The briefest realization of the immensity of God casts all of these efforts into the deepest shade. I trust this is not quite the outer darkness of which Scripture speaks (Mt 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30), but surely we must affirm with St. Thomas and Blessed John Henry that the barest experience of God makes dust and ashes of even our greatest personal efforts to make Him known.
Such thoughts ought to give even the most vigorous apostle pause. Take, for example, the case of St. Paul. Forgive me for speaking frankly, but there are times when I think Paul must have been a very demanding and difficult companion. He seems to have been something like a bulldozer, coupling enormous energy with a strong sense of mission. He certainly had a tendency to emphasize his own Herculean labors for the salvation of souls (albeit with good reason and with an admission of his sinfulness, but see for instance 2 Cor 11:21-28 and also his statement in 1 Cor 15:10 that he worked harder than any of the other apostles); and he sometimes set the bar pretty high for others (see, for example, his disaffection from John Mark in Acts 15:35-40).
But in the course of his ministry even the mighty Apostle to the Gentiles learned a remarkable lesson:
[T]o keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Cor 12:7-9]
And so Paul schooled himself to spend less time on his own intricate arguments and more time allowing God to work through him for the good of souls:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. [1 Cor 2:1-5]
This is why even our most sublime achievements are no substitute for grace. I do not at all mean to discourage anyone from working hard to illuminate any corner of reality, in accordance with whatever God has gifted and called each one to do. I certainly plan to continue writing as well as I can, especially about the many misunderstandings of our age. But there is always the danger of getting too caught up in our own work, or even too impressed by our own arguments. This, it seems to me, is an occupational hazard of intellectuals. When it happens, we usually end up spinning gold into straw.
For it is only Jesus Christ who can really spin straw into gold. He is both willing and able to begin with us and produce holiness—which is the infallible sign of his presence, and the most powerful demonstration of all.
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