The makings of a good harvest: Argument is never enough
I have been a practitioner of apologetics since somewhere around the age of ten, though the pattern must have been well-established even earlier, because I can remember from an early age my mother describing me as the child “who loves to argue.” It is also true that I had been arguing with my Protestant friends about religion since elementary school, and I was formally engaged in the logical defense of the Faith at least from my freshman year in college on.
This is mostly good; I repudiate none of it. But there is far more to be said and done about what it means to be a Catholic. Sadly (and only partly owing to the vexing Catholic atmosphere in which I came of age), I did not always say or do it. You have probably heard the expression, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” The same is true in the present case: When your only tool is apologetics, everything begins to look like…an argument.
I will likely face the same problem even in this particular essay. I can begin with the intention of evoking the sublimity of a spiritual experience or the dash and drama of a well-lived life, but as sure as I am still living and breathing, I will end up writing an argument. Perhaps I must permit others to employ more subtle skills to touch the heart with living faith. But let us at least take a quick look at what I mean.
The Attractiveness of Faith
Perhaps it goes without saying that our Catholicism must be rooted first and foremost not in argument but in God, by which I mean in prayer. To evangelize another person is to help them to experience something of the person and presence of Christ, and this simply cannot be done unless we are deeply rooted in Christ ourselves. It may be a starting point to be baptized and to learn an argument or a formula, but it is never enough. On one occasion, while serving in the National Guard in my twenties, I found myself answering questions about my Faith. After a few minutes, a member of the group said, dismissively: “You sound like a catechism!”
Well, I survive to tell you that I was using my own words. Moreover, it is not a bad thing that the right answers to difficult questions should roll easily off the tongue, which ought not to be so much a matter of memorization but of understanding and articulation. The problem is that a great many people we speak with do not yet really want the right answers to the questions they ask. They may be raising questions as a defense, as a way of shielding themselves from a decision by demonstrating how complex things are. If so, clear answers are the last thing they want or expect. Instead, they are likely to find clear answers annoying. They have already learned to reject the simplicity of the catechism.
There are, in fact, many other qualities which are just as important as a logical mind and a smooth tongue in witnessing to Christ. A person is not usually even open to argument until he finds himself drawn to Christ or the Church while being held back by some misunderstanding. Before getting to that point, the person must experience some attractive power—a kind of beauty, or serenity, or joy, or consistency, or reliability, or personal wholeness which is characteristic of the life of Christ within us. But these things do not come primarily through study. They come primarily through grace, which means we must learn, in our own lives, to practice the presence of God.
The Presence of God
Making God present is very foreign to modern secularism, which regards religion as mere sentiment and insists that it be keep very private for two reasons: First, to avoid quarrels over things that do not matter (sentiments); second—and let us be clear about this—to increase the likelihood that all religious faith will wither away from simple lack of exercise in a world without obvious spiritual opportunities. The result of these cultural restrictions is that even most sincere believers lead personal and communal lives that are seriously impoverished.
Therefore, the questions arise: How do we keep the presence of God real and constantly active in our own lives? And how do we make this presence active in our communal life as well? Now, obviously, the Church and her liturgy are key to this, but I am writing here about something at once less institutional and more personal.
To highlight one approach which brings several important elements together, let me call your attention to a fairly famous painting, “The Angelus”, by the nineteenth-century French artist Jean-François Millet. (Go ahead and click the link; I’ve loaded the image into our Multimedia Blog with some explanatory text, including a link to the prayer itself.) This is a painting of two peasants who have heard the evening bell from a nearby church and so have paused in their field labor to bow their heads and pray The Angelus, just as the end of the work day draws near.
Linking personal prayer to specific times during the day is an important way of practicing the presence of God, and sanctifying both ourselves and our activities. The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours is obviously the most highly-developed example in the life of the Church. But using a similar technique in smaller and simpler ways, first alone but also with family members or others, is a vital way of forming ourselves, our families and our closest communities in Christ. Doing it reverently cultivates the Spirit of God within both persons and groups. The additional step of engaging the arts in highlighting such practices is a way to increase our personal and collective mindfulness, a mindfulness that God is always with us, always near.
Of course, most of us cannot to be called to such reverent interludes by the ringing of a church bell. But I have an app on my phone which I can set to ring a bell on any schedule I may choose, which I use as a reminder to raise my heart and mind to God with regularity, whenever I recognize that I have slipped out of the habit such practices ought to form. Others have linked such practices of the presence of God to particular events during the day, such as saying grace at each meal, or saying a quick ejaculatory prayer each time we pass through a doorway, or spending a few moments in prayer each time we change from one task to another—each time, so to speak, that we come up for air.
The “practice of the presence of God” simply creates the habit of living in God’s presence, by which is meant making mindfulness of God and His love as natural as breathing. It is important to do this first and foremost as individuals cultivating our own Divine habits. But it is also important to include such patterns in family life, in the lives of housemates, and in the daily rounds of willing co-workers—for example, by praying the Angelus together each day before breaking for lunch. While we are at it—and on the important principle that the arts invite a deeper apprehension of reality, and so can raise our minds and hearts to God—we can place appropriate artwork on our walls; pause regularly before the Crucifix or glance periodically at an image of the Sacred Heart or of Our Lady; view occasional films together on the lives of the saints; and play inspiring music at times, either for close listening or in the background.
Putting Christ back in Community
I have been illustrating a principle, I suppose, the principle that if we want awareness of the inexhaustible redemptive power of Christ to spread, then we must first cultivate a largely continuous awareness of the presence of this same Christ in our own lives. We will never succeed in being aware of this relationship in a completely continuous way, but if our approach to practicing the presence of God is rooted in the sacramental life of the Church, that relationship will nonetheless become continuous. As an example, the Holy Spirit will enrich us even when we sleep.
Still, I would caution that most of us are not called to be hermits. There is a natural community in the family, but like-minded parents need also to join together in parishes, schools, homeschooling groups, family activities, and outings, in all of which the practice of the presence of God—never forced, never overdone—can become, with a deft touch, as natural as breathing for all. The same is true, whenever possible, in other forms of community—prayer groups, certainly, but also with housemates, workmates, clubs, teams, charitable organizations, and more. Everything possible should be imbued with this spirit of remembering God, of opening ourselves to Him, of seeking His assistance and support, of doing everything in and through Jesus Christ Our Lord—and all with the aid of habitual patterns of focus and recollection.
In time, these practices will be noticed in their absence. Something tangible actually will be felt as missing. It is just this that breaks the bonds of secularity. And it is just this that results, as depicted in the Angelus painting, in the sanctification of the harvest. For “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Lk 10:2). These laborers are not only priests. They are all who are mindful of the presence of God. And without this mindfulness—despite our expertise in argument—nothing will be harvested at all.
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