It was not long after deciding to become a Christian that St. Augustine sat down to write a series of Soliloquies, expressing his need for complete certainty on the matter of God and the self. That was all he wished to know. Who is God and who am I? Learn that and everything else falls into place. “I inquire in order to know something,” he insisted, “not to think it.”
What a concept—that one should open the mind only in order to close it on something solid. Like reality, which is never the result of my mind thinking it but rather my receiving it. How very freeing it must be never to begin with mind, as if thought were simply thinking itself, but with reality, contact with which can be as plain and solid as an ordinary potato. The method one needs to follow, therefore, is no more complicated than that of a mere child, whose eyes are forever open, wide-eyed and eager to take in everything: allowing the object itself—reality—to reveal what one needs or wishes to know.
Bathed in being, in other words. And for Augustine, it all began back in the late fourth century when he was thirty-three years of age, determined upon the knowledge of God and himself. Fast forward another fourteen centuries or so, arriving in the year 1816, and there you will find a teenager, John Henry Newman, evincing the exact same need. “When I was fifteen,” he tells us in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, written in 1865, “a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured…making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” (Emphasis added.)
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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A perfect bullseye. If God and myself are the two bookends between which all the other volumes find their place on the shelf, then my fulfillment really does depend on the extent of my recognition of and submission to God, my Creator, with whom all of finite being stands in necessary relation.
I to my Beloved, my Beloved unto me.
Nevertheless, I remain free, most perilously free, to refuse, disdaining the very connection to which I find myself tethered. Like Dante’s giant, Capaneus, who, steeped in burning sands for the violence of his rebellion against God, remains free to despise and excoriate his own Creator, a liberty for which he has chosen all eternity to exercise. “Who is the shade,” asks Dante of Virgil, his guide through the infernal places, “that lies, mighty of limb / Contorted and contemptuous, scorning the flame, / So that the rain seems not to ripen him?”
But he himself, soon as he heard me frame
This question to my guide about him, cried:
‘That which in life I was, in death I am.’
It is a most telling reply told to Dante, who remains silent on hearing it. But not Virgil, who, says Dante, “spoke out with a vehemence / Such as I never heard him use before: ‘O Capaneus, since thy proud insolence / Will not be quenched, thy pains shall be the more; / No torment save thine own hot rage could be / A fitting cautery to thy rabid sore.’” His sin, prompted by the boastfulness of a defiant pride, serves but to deepen the punishment—as always, self-inflicted—of his damned state. Our characters, in other words, undergo no attenuation of evil in Hell but will instead become fixed and intensified versions of our earthly selves.
Luigi Giussani, in his book The Religious Sense, provides a stunning illustration of this fact in his account of the young man who came to him for confession. He was utterly without faith, notes Giussani, preferring instead to deride and dismiss the faith of those who do believe. “You cannot deny,” he scornfully tells the priest, “that the true grandeur of man is represented by Dante’s Capaneus, that giant chained by God to Hell, yet who cries to God, ‘I cannot free myself from these chains because you bind me here. You cannot, however, prevent me from blaspheming you, and so I blaspheme you.’ This is the true grandeur of man.”
I think we might call that an icebreaker. So, how did Fr. Giussani respond? After a momentary pause, he says to the young man, “But isn’t it even greater to love the infinite?” Rather than cursing God, in other words, why not conform to the order of the universe he made, and thus find your fulfillment within it? None of us, after all, made the universe, nor ourselves whom we find in it, so why not simply allow it to reveal its meaning to us? Here, says Giussani, “is the formula for the journey to the ultimate meaning of reality. Living the real,” he calls it.
So, what happens to the young man on leaving the confessional? Well, he returns some months later to tell Fr. Giussani that he’s been receiving the sacraments, so “eaten away” has he been by his answer. It lasts but a short while, however, because soon thereafter he dies in an automobile accident.
What does it mean to love the infinite? It means, like Augustine and Newman—and yes, finally, like the young man too—to say yes to reality. It means we do not rail against it because it doesn’t suit our subjectivized will to pleasure or power. If each one of us—every “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood”—stands in virtue of his finite status as creature, in necessary relation to God, the Infinite Other, then not to accept that truth as the baseline meaning of our being is to risk ending up no better than Capaneus.
Indeed, only by first seeing oneself in relation to God, this Absolute Other toward whom we are to move in obedience and love, will it be possible to affirm and love oneself.
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