Well over half a century ago, I was told the following true-life story about the late bishop Fulton Sheen:
Although better known to vast numbers of TV viewers for his weekly TV series, "Life is Worth Living," Sheen was an accomplished thinker and scholar. He did a doctoral degree at the University of Louvain, in Belgium, with a much acclaimed and academically-honored dissertation on the philosophy of religion. Years later, he shared an experience that helped him visualize, for himself and the people he ministered to, a dimension of the mystery of suffering.
During a summer vacation between academic years at Louvain, he decided to travel to France, in a sort of pilgrimage to the renowned medieval Gothic cathedrals that dot the urban and rural landscape of Western Europe. He desired in a particular way to see the stained glass windows of these churches, to admire their display of color, design and purpose, portraying people and events from the Scriptural accounts. They were called the "Bible of the Poor," since they were visual representations conveying the Scriptural message to those who could not read or write.
He arrived at Chartres (as I recall), and walked towards the cathedral, renowned as one of the most beautiful and true representatives of the Gothic style. He stopped a few feet outside the cathedral, and stared at the glass windows. He could not repress a wave a disappointment. Looking at them from outside the cathedral, with the sunlight at his back, the stained glass windows looked opaque, drab, with no color, no discernible people or events gracing them - are these, he wondered, those awesomely beautiful windows I was told about?
Then he decided to enter the cathedral. Once inside, he turned his gaze again at the stained glass windows, with the sunlight streaming from outside. Suddenly, the beauty, the color, the design, the very spirituality that anonymous medieval craftsmen had lavished upon them burst forth, like rose buds in the spring, blossoming as a mature, beautiful flower. Color, landscapes, men and women walking across the landscape of the Scriptural narratives, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, David and Solomon, Jesus, Mary, the apostles . . . they all sprang forth from the drabness and opaqueness that had concealed them from his view standing outside the cathedral.
Then, as he recalled, he understood the deeper meaning of his experience, as the Holy Spirit was whispering it into his soul. The stained glass windows revealed their beauty and stories to him only when he let go of his arrogant stance outside the cathedral. There, he had tried to make sense of them by his own powers of sight and reason, he, the gifted doctoral student from Louvain, had dared demand the mystery of the stained glass windows to reveal itself to his own mental powers. He dared ignored the life-giving source of meaning and purpose, in fact, he had turned his back to it, to sunlight. It was only when he made the act of humility to enter the cathedral, and allow the sunlight to give him that awesome burst of color, life and beauty, that the gift of spirit, art and holiness of the medieval gl windows became evident.
This, he says, may well be what happens with the mystery of suffering, particularly the mystery of the suffering of the innocent, not only the children who perish in tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, war, genocidal conflicts, but the sufferings, the pain, the contradictions that befall us, that keep us awake at night, crying: "Why, o God, why?" . . . The renowned German theologian Romano Guardini said, shortly before his death, that this was the first thing he intended to demand from God upon seeing Him face to face. The mystery of evil and suffering continues to be the high ground and battlefield of debates and confrontation between atheists philosophers and theologians, such as Guardini, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac,and others.
Fulton Sheen proposes that, while this debate will continue, as well it should, long unto the unforeseeable future, Christians, whether from a theological or practical / existential point of view, need to approach it with an act of humility, with a mental genuflection. Perhaps we allow ourselves to be influenced by the spirit of secular arrogance and pride. We may even assume that theodicy (the argument on behalf of the presence of God in a world of evil) summons the powers of reason and logic as the front line of argumentation. This is how the world (I used the term "world" in its ambiguous Johannine sense) thinks, but we Christians are called to marshal arguments from the high ground of the Cross, from the powerlessness of the Crucified Jesus. We need to bow our heads, and engage in Christian reflection as an act of genuflection (cf. Bonaventure, "The Journey of the Soul into God," and Thomas Aquinas, ST I q. 2 a. 2). We believe in the indispensable (I emphasize the word "indispensable") presence and dynamics of reason, of rigorous, critical reason, but not just any sort of reason, rather, it is reason illumined by (and in turn, supporting the coherence of) the Paschal event of Jesus Christ.
This is NOT a deprecation of human reason. On the contrary, ONLY the vulnerable, passionate, risky communion of humility with the Crucified and Risen Jesus, the radical "Yes" of Christian faith, can make reason fully rational, can give it its fullness of light. As we ponder the pain and the challenge of human suffering, we realize we need help, we need grace; in fact, the decision to engage into the whys and wherefores of the mystery of evil and iniquity is already a touch of grace, it is moved and driven by grace. We need grace streaming as a light through the stained glass windows of the cathedral, a graced light that, alone, can tell us that the suffering of the innocent cannot be a meaningless, cruel imposition of blind fate, the fatal destiny of the Greek "ananke" that dooms us, as it did to Oedipus, to a option for desperation. Somehow, in ways that only grace, love and humility can disclose to us, we are summoned to believe that seemingly meaningless suffering is pregnant, somehow, in ways we may not cleary see (hence the need for further theological debate), with redeeming grace and love.
Only by an act of genuflection, entering the cathedral, and staring at that opaqueness, drabness and meaninglessness of suffering that we beheld "outside the cathedral," through the sunlight of the Paschal event of Jesus, flooding the meaninglessness with meaning, can we begin to glimpse the face of the Crucified and Risen Jesus staring at us within and behind every cry of pain, every sleepless night of sorrow, every parasite-ridden belly of a child in the world . . . we behold and glimpse Him, whose passion and death were, when seen "outside the cathedral," appears as the most meaningless, iniquitous, unjust, atrocity ever . . . yet it was there, from the core and heart of that seeming meaninglessness, that life, redemption, joy, meaning and love burst forth, like rosebud opening its beauty and grace in the spring.
Oremus pro invicem.
AT THE SUNSET OF OUR LIVES, WE
WILL BE JUDGED BY LOVE
St. John of the Cross
"Sayings of Light and Love," 59
WE WILL NEVER LOVE ENOUGH
Bl. Charles de Foucauld
Letter to Marie de Bondy,
December 1, 1916,
The day of his Martyrdom