Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Romano Guardini's "The Lord" Never Gets Old

So often, over the past 30+ years (i.e. since my days as a graduate student), this singular book has been one of my companions during Holy Week. The Lord is a book that has graced many bookshelves of Catholics since my childhood (including, if I remember correctly, that shelf in the home I grew up in, where I first encountered so many great writers).

It is a series of erudite yet bracing and provocative meditations on the life of Jesus Christ. It is provocative in a very positive sense, in that it challenges our comfortable images of Jesus and our efforts to "domesticate" Him to fit our agendas and our measure. It confronts us continually with the mystery of the Person and mission of Jesus, who is "The Lord."

Romano Guardini - a brilliant 20th century churchman towering in stature as a teacher, immense in influence even to the present day, yet also remarkably underappreciated - wrote many books on subjects ranging widely over theology, philosophy, and Western literature. He was also a pioneer in the liturgical movement and in pastoral ministry to young people many years before Vatican II.

He was a unique figure who defied categorization: an Italian by heritage who grew up and spent nearly his entire life in Germany, and spoke and wrote in German. He was not a systematic theologian, but the depth of his faith and learning inspired the theological studies and the vocations of many figures (including the last three Popes) and many currents of thought that came after him. 

His insights into Christian personalism were of significance to Saint John Paul II, while he was much loved by the German Papa Ratzinger. And Jorge Bergoglio began (but did not have the chance to complete) a dissertation on Guardini, and Pope Francis continues to draw from the wealth of Guardini's insights for following the narrow path of the Church's mission in a world of technological power.

Guardini was wonderfully attuned to the whole range of the aspirations and the tragedies of human life, and his lectures at the University of Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s were widely attended by Catholics and Protestants, and also non-Christians, agnostics, and anyone searching for truth.

It is useful to understand that The Lord was written within a precise context, as a perennially valid proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus that perhaps owes something of its particular vividness to Guardini's open rejection of the Nazi ideology. Guardini was determined to oppose Nazi efforts to co-opt Jesus and reinterpret his life in support of their racist pagan agenda. 

Guardini had already criticized these views directly in articles, so that when the original German edition of Der Herr was first published in 1937, it was clear that he was holding up the mystery of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery as light in the darkness that was overtaking Germany. The SS responded by storming bookstores and ripping the books down from the shelves. The internationally renowned professor himself was too large a target (at that time) for open persecution, but Hitler's government "invited" Guardini to "retire" from his professorial chair at the University of Berlin. In the face of this attempt to silence him, Guardini took his course on "Catholic Worldview" to the Jesuit church across the street, and his lectures remained packed in 1939.

It was clearly not a situation that would long be tolerated. During the war years, Guardini was effectively "internally exiled" to a rural area, but he continued to privately publish and circulate pamphlets on the significance of the Christian life that sustained many ordinary Catholics in their fidelity to Christ and refusal to worship the idols of the National Socialist State. But Guardini's emphasis remained the profound positivity of "Christian existence," which is the fruit of God's gratuitous love that establishes a "new criterion" in front of all human circumstances.

For this reason, Guardini's preaching continues to resonate powerfully in today's very different global social and cultural context, and is relevant in front of any and all totalizing political and/or social ideologies. Guardini's intention was always to bear witness to the whole "uncompromising" reality of Jesus - so that Jesus might be encountered as the gift of the freedom of God's overflowing love - but also with acute awareness of the resistance raised in a multitude of forms by "the world" (the realm inhabited by humans insofar as they are closed to God and trapped within their own criteria).

The text quoted immediately below expresses the summons and the challenge that Jesus "the Lord" is for us, and how He becomes the criterion for seeing the whole of reality. The entire book illuminates the Gospels and the New Testament in light of this summons to conversion and the freedom it promises:
"One must cease to judge the Lord from the wordly point of view and learn to accept his own measure of the genuine and the possible; to judge the world with his eyes. This revolution is difficult to accept and still more difficult to realize, and the more openly the world contradicts Christ's teaching, the more earnestly it defines those who accept it as fools, the more difficult that acceptance, realization. Nevertheless, to the degree that the intellect honestly attempts this right-about-face, the reality known as Jesus Christ will surrender itself. From this central reality, the doors of all other reality will swing open, and it will be lifted into the hope of the new creation."

Here below is another particular selection from my reading this week, which gives insight into the seemingly "peculiar way" (in human terms) that Jesus "fails" to play the winning hand that his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem had given him. He is clearly pursuing something beyond the boundaries of merely human, earthly success:
"A man convinced of his high mission and placed in a similar position [as Jesus found himself in after Palm Sunday] would have done everything possible to drive home the truth. He would have spoken with the priests, the Scribes, with those who had influence among the people; he would have taken Scripture to hand and clarified his identity with the aid of the Messianic prophecies. He would have attempted to recapture the hearts of the crowd, to reveal to them the essence of his teaching, and to win them over to his side.

"Is this what happens? No!

"Jesus does proclaim the truth, and his words are powerful and penetrating; but he makes nothing like the effort we expect of him. And his manner is anything but winning; it has something uncompromising about it, harsh and challenging. One eager to do everything in his power to swing a crisis in his favor does not speak as Jesus speaks....The man we mentioned might also have reasoned thus: The time for persuasion is past; now for action! The adversary impermeable to reason must be met on his own grounds - force with force. He would have attacked each group at its weakest point. He would have played the Sadducees against the Pharisees and vice-versa. He would have appealed to the people, would have warned them, stirred them to action, would have denounced their leaders and won them over. Or he would have realized that the odds were against him and flee.

"Jesus could easily have done so. The Pharisees even expected him to: 'You will seek me and will not find me; and where I am you cannot come' (John 7:34-35). The Jews
[i.e. the elites of Judea] therefore said among themselves, 'Where is he going that we shall not find him? Will he go to those dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?' Our man would probably have done so. He would have gone to Alexandria or to Rome, certain of finding open ears there and hopeful of returning later under more favorable conditions. But this idea is totally foreign to Jesus.

"There remains one more possibility: that our man admit himself defeated and, according to his nature, exhausted, despairingly, or proudly die. Perhaps he would even fling himself into death, as the mysterious counterpole of success, reckoning on the logic of death and life, catastrophe and new beginning. 
Nothing of all this applies to Jesus, though attempts were made into the period in which 'the eschatological' was in
vogue [i.e. 19th century liberal protestant exegesis], to prove that when all possibility of earthly success was clearly out of the question, Jesus played upon the 'success of a failure,' on the mysterious intervention of God, hoping that from his death would come the fulfillment of all things. Actually, there can be no talk of this. Jesus does not capitulate; never is there the slightest trace of 'breakdown,' and it is as false to speak only of catastrophe, as it is to take his earthly failure in a bound of mystic-enthusiasm that tries to make a creative downfall of his death. This is unrealistically exalted and, by comparison with the truth, thin psychology.

"Here is something quite different. What?

"If we follow the Gospel reports of Jesus' last days closely, we find nothing of extreme concentration on a single goal; nothing of relentless effort or struggle in the usual sense of the word. Jesus' attitude is entirely serene. He says what he has come to say - unmitigatingly, objectively; not with an eye to its acceptance, but as it must be said. He neither attacks nor retreats. He hopes for nothing as humans hope and fears nothing. When he goes to Bethany by night and stays with friends because of the opposition against him, this does not mean that he fears his enemies, but simply that the ultimate is postponed because its hour is not yet ripe.

"Jesus' soul knows no fear, not only because he is naturally courageous, but because the center of his being lies far beyond the reach of anything fearful. Therefore, he cannot really be called audacious in the human sense. He is only completely free for what in every minute of his life must be done. And he does it with unutterable calm and sovereignty.

"The more closely we distinguish between Jesus and any other man, the more clearly we see that what is happening here is not measurable by human standards. True, it is conceived by human spirit, willed by human will, experienced by the most ardent and sensitive of human hearts; but its origin and the power with which it is consummated give Jesus a greatness outside human comprehension. So God's will is done, and Jesus wills this will" 
(from The Lord, 1954 English edition, pp. 344-346).