Saturday, May 28, 2005

Extraordinary Time

If you have never done so, glance through the works of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the like. You may find it interesting that the members of their writing school chose to communicate the Gospel in fairy-tale form. I know I do. These men, the Inklings, were towering intellectuals with deep philosophical minds who easily could have communicated their messages in the most systematic and scientific ways. But in their most remembered writings - the most impacting and moving ones – the stories are fantastic and mythic. The events of ordinary life are told in extraordinary ways, employing symbolism, allegory, otherworldly locations, fantastic creatures, and regular supernatural interventions. Philosophizing that, in Christ, "myth became fact," the Inklings brought to our modern, empirical worldview the unique notion that Christianity is true precisely because it doesn't make sense – at least, not to the world... the fallen world. The Gospel IS incongruous, it IS remarkably strange and unseemly: a "stumbling block" and a "folly." Members of "the way" found that way to be way off the beaten path, leading to a realm even less imaginable than Narnia or Middle-Earth - one nonetheless fantastic simply because it happens to be real. The lesson we can learn from the Inklings is that, beneath the ordinary events of ordinary lives lived by ordinary people in ordinary places, there is an all-pervasive truth whose attraction and believability depends upon its sheer extraordinariness.

Our faith is awesome and mysterious, full of rituals bound up in symbol and sacrament. Yet the eyes of modern man are blind to the underlying realities of this faith. A scientific analysis and molecular breakdown of the Eucharist would reveal only the accidents of simple, ordinary bread and common wine. The eyes of faith, on the other hand, see past these ordinary elements and into the extraordinary mystery beyond. Faith in fact grants an entirely different type of a vision - the type shared by the Inklings - the fairy-tale type of vision. How better our world would be if more men had such sight! The challenge for us Catholics is to try to foster this acuity and perception, to see how moments of our ordinary time are kissed by the eternal. Consider if our normal sight could capture this vision for us, what awful and awesome things we might see: around a tempted man we'd glimpse leagues of demons working feverishly for his downfall; before a sinner we'd see the dark boundaries of Dante's dark wood; on the shoulder of a man haunted by despair, we'd see the conniving form of Wormwood, Screwtape's nephew, whispering at his ear; we'd see souls shed blood when wounded, and a man's hands imbrued with the gore of trespasses against his neighbor's spiritual well-being. In plain truth, we DO track through these woods, soiled with blood and haunted by demons, each day. But our fairy-tale vision exists in imagination only. With our earthly sight, we see only the external, manifest forms: the bullies of the schoolyards, the impatient queues of the supermarkets, the raging roadsters of the highways, and the corporate killers of the offices. The great moments of peril we encounter each day are masked by the mundane. They are not occasioned by great battles and decisions ruling the fate of worlds; rather, their context is an altercation about copy-machine toner, or a mad rush for a better parking space.

Our modern sight is due for an adjustment. In today's worldview, the value of human life is negotiable and can be changed by judicial activism; the rights of living people to live more comfortably outweigh the rights of the unborn to live at all. It's time that we adopt the vision of the Inklings and see these epic struggles for what they are. We must learn to see with clear sight the multitude of souls pouring into Hell and the prayers said on old women's rosaries slapping the back of the pew being carried to heaven with angelic vanguard. I recommend the writings of the Inklings as a good starting point for those interested in developing this view. For those who have it, I recommend sharing it with others. G.K. Chesterton said that there are certain truths that can only be seen clearly by those who live in fairy-land. Perhaps, we should follow the map he and his contemporaries outlines for us, that everyone may grasp the gravity of his or her life's moments, and see how extraordinarily unordinary ordinary life can be.


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