On Hedgehogs and Synods

The Hedgehog knows one big thing, but our Synod Fathers (and Mothers) seemed consumed with many lesser things.

There once lived a Greek poet by the name of Archilochus, among whose surviving fragments is the following, which I regularly inflict each semester upon great numbers of unsuspecting students: 

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Knowing next to nothing about either animal, they wonder if I’m making a zoological point, which of course I’m not. It’s a metaphor, I tell them, designed to make a precise and deeply theological point. How so? Because the one big thing he knows may provide the student of Catholic theology an almost perfect point of entry into the mysteries of faith.  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Allow me to explain. While I’ve seen a few foxes out and about, only once in my life have I seen a hedgehog, and from the safety of my car I very nearly ran him over. Nevertheless, my sympathies are entirely on the side of the hedgehog, whose single-minded perspective enables him to see into the very heart of faith, there to espy the one mystery without which everything remains mystery.  

And what is that mystery? Begin with Balthasar, whose formulation is most wonderfully exact, to wit, “the ineffable poverty of the divine incarnate crucified love.” Or there is Hopkins, who will cover it just as well: “infinity dwindled to infancy.” Or, finally, there is John Betjeman, former Poet Laureate of England, who, in a charming little lyric called “Christmas,” puts it this way: 

That God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine.

Only we mustn’t construe it in an Anglican way, which is the sense Betjeman, a steadfast Church of England fellow, intended. Instead, we must give it a robustly Catholic ring so as to deepen and sharpen the sense of scandal, which is that God actually becomes the bread and wine, leaving only the appearances, whose material reality has been totally transubstantiated into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

There is the unifying insight of the Hedgehog, whose whole life remains riveted upon that single adorable fact, the sheer exceptionality of the Event of Jesus Christ. Here is Eliot’s “still point,” an image only a hedgehog could come up with, moving rhythmically through “the turning world.” Meanwhile, the poor fox only knows anything from the outside, which quite prevents him from ever finding that great big thing on which everything in the universe depends.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his landmark study Introduction to Christianity—which early on caught the eye of one pope, now St. Paul VI, later on endearing him to another, now St. John Paul II—called it no less than, “the absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx, of meaning and a single historical figure.” The implication could hardly be made plainer, which is that the very ground of the universe, the meaning of all being, the very Logos of God, has chosen to become one of us. And so God Himself, “comes to pass for man through men, nay, even more concretely, through the man in whom the quintessence of humanity appears…” This is why we need never be alone or feel bereft of God again.

Beneath the impact of that singular collision wrought by the coming of Christ, a whole new world springs into being. At the very instant of Incarnation, i.e., that sudden unforeseen moment when eternity erupts into time, nothing and no one can remain the same again.  

“Men’s curiosity searches past and future,” continues Eliot, sounding the great perennial preoccupation of the human race,

And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given 
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, 
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended 
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply 
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music 
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses, 
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest  
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.  
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is 

What gorgeous poetry that is. But Eliot’s aim here is more than mere artistry. He means to impart mystery, truth, clothed in language of the purest beauty and loveliness. And in calling it “the impossible union,” which is to say, the place where “past and future / Are conquered and reconciled,” Eliot is reminding us from hard and bitter experience that,

For most of us this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.

We mustn’t give up, in other words. Sanctity will prove to have been in the struggle. But more and more of us have given up, indeed, are no longer willing even to try. Not that they’ve given it their best shot and then shuffled off to do something better; it is that they refuse to engage at all, leaving the greatest possible human adventure untried, unexamined. As if their souls were without any longing whatsoever. Meanwhile, our Lords Spiritual offer little encouragement to do so, so many of their own aims having been co-opted by a culture aggressively determined on levelling every distinction in sight. 

Let the recent Synod on Synodality serve as a case in point. Unless I’ve totally missed the bus on this, there was no hierarchy of truth in place last month in Rome, any more than there was any discernible distinction among its many attendees. Not a single point of view, I am saying, however eccentric or heterodox, nor the voice of any one participant, including bishops and cardinals, was counted or weighed any differently than those of lay or clerical estate. In short, not a single dogma or person was accorded greater weight than any other. Unless I’ve totally missed the bus on this, there was no hierarchy of truth in place last month in Rome, any more than there was any discernible distinction among its many attendees.Tweet This

Could that possibly have included Jesus Christ Himself, the overarching mystery of our Faith? Was He, too, omitted; or, if not omitted, relativized lest His claims appear too imperious? Entirely too exclusivist? Which leaves us in a lost world, a world without God, without the reassuring signposts of Sacred Doctrine to point us safely to Him. All those fixed points of canon, creed, and crozier, it would seem, which have for so long marked out the journey of the Catholic soul to God, are no more necessary in drawing the map of the Church’s life than, say, the latest pronouncements on climate change or sexual identity. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the latter displace the former entirely; in fact, among certain bishops and cardinals, their relevance appears as apodictic as the Articles of Faith themselves.

Is there no “still point” left at all then? Has it quite withered away in the wake of the world’s inattention, its indifference to Christ and, by extension, His Church? She seems no longer to speak His Name—nor, in the accent of His authority, to tell the world the things that it needs truly and finally to know. 

Consider the figure of the dying Gerontius in St. John Henry Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius,” making himself ready to take leave of the world. What he is especially anxious to set down are those few things he needs to know, on the certainty of which he can confidently cross over to the other side. Things he already believes to be true but that he requires constantly to be reminded of lest he lapse into forgetfulness at the fateful hour when his soul, summoned unto judgment, will give an accounting before God. Not by the bar of popular opinion or passing sentiment will judgment come, but by the fiery Pantokrator Himself, whose judgments are not revocable.

“Firmly I believe and truly,” he tells himself (and the reader, who hangs on every word), “God is Three, and God is One: / And I next acknowledge duly / Manhood taken by the Son. / And I trust and hope most fully / In that manhood crucified…” The Big Three: Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption. Could things possibly be made more clear, more compelling? This is the faith we need to hear from our shepherds. Lacking which we enter a world where all the lights have gone out, leaving us to sail in complete darkness. This was not God’s plan in sending Christ, His Son and our brother. Nor were we given a place to stand that was not to be the Bride and the Body of the King.  

Pray God that it not be too late to change course. For which we shall need a few good hedgehogs to help pilot the ship.      


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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