“For Those Who Find Faith, the World Becomes a Magnificent Kaleidoscope”
On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century, the new book by Pope Francis, is a wonderful read. It’s only a couple hundred pages, but overflows with spiritual wisdom–including a very specific spiritual insight that I have marveled about for years, ever since it happened to me.
The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Pope Francis (who at the time the book was first published in Spanish in 2010 was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Ares) and Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi. Having a non-Catholic in dialogue with the leader of the Catholic Church is a smart format, as it imbues in the reader a certain confidence that tough and interesting questions will be asked. It worked when John Paul II did it in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and Pope Benedict has several books that are long conversations with a journalist.
Topics in On Heaven and Earth include atheism, prayer, guilt, fundamentalism, death, education, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a particularly powerful chapter. Ever since John Paul II there has been closer and closer dialogue between Catholics and Jews, and we are getting to the point, thanks be to God, where entire generations of young Catholics are thinking of Jews as what John Paul II called them–our older brothers and sisters in faith. In On Heaven and Earth, Pope Francis offers as good a succinct summation of what happened in Nazi Germany as I have ever heard: “Each Jew that was killed was a slap in the face to the living God in the name of idols.” Many things made the Holocaust a unique evil, but as Francis points out, there was a central “cultural-religious” issue that truly set it apart. “The Devil presented himself in idols and tranquilized the human conscience.”
Another high point of On Heaven and Earth is the discussion about the future of religion. Francis offers this:
“If we are being honest with ourselves there is a feeling of profound restlessness behind our search for the transcendent, one that stirs us into an encounter with Him. As we live the encounter, another search is initiated and so forth, each time with more depth. We like to describe that restlessness like the breath of God that we carry inside of us, the mark that he left in us. Many times it is even in people who have not heard God speak or who have taken anti-religious stances in their life . . . and all of a sudden they encounter something that transcends them.”
This gets at the heart of something that for years, to me, has been a beautiful mystery that is sadly difficult to describe to the unbeliever. I speak of the depthless, dynamic nature of God. One of the ironies of our age is that people have been sold the idea that religious believers are static souls who have abandoned the excitement of the world for the steady drone of faithful certainty. In fact, the opposite is true. For those who find faith, the world becomes a magnificent kaleidoscope. To paraphrase Chesterton, with God the music sounds better, the girls are prettier, and the beer tastes better. And the marvelous thing is that as you become more free in God, your freedom expands further. For me it began many, many years ago, when I gave up drinking and a sensuous new world opened up to me. Then I curbed my promiscuity, and found myself waking up sober, guilt-free, and not next to someone whose name I didn’t know. By the time I got around to trying to turn the other cheek (I’m not quite there yet), I was almost crying with joy. Dear God, Augustine, Teresa, and the others were right. This was, is, freedom.
And as Francis notes in the quote above, the delights don’t end. One way I try to describe it is my recalling an afternoon I spent in Nice, France, shortly after I stopped drinking. I was afraid to dive off of a boat into the Mediterranean because it looked like the sea bottom was about three feet down. The boat captain explained to me that what I was seeing was an illusion. Because the water is so clear, he said, it only seems shallow. The bottom is actually hundreds of feet down.
I plunged in, a free man. And the depths, I found, had depths upon depths.