Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reflections: Why I Read

As I was making the morning rounds of my regularly-visited blogs, I read a gorgeous post on Catholic and Enjoying It which begins like this:

“When Evangelicals ask me why the Church keeps holding up Mary alongside Christ, the best answer I can think of is this: There's one thing that even Jesus cannot do.

”He cannot show us what a disciple of Jesus looks like.”

Mark’s post was inspired, I believe, by the Pope’s recent encyclical. It speaks of the Virgin Mary as “the first apostle”. I was inspired by Mark’s post to submit the following comment:

“As a Protestant, let me ask, with reference to all the beautiful (no sarcasm there) writing above, how Mary is to be considered an exemplar for those of us struggling to attain discipleship?

”As the Immaculate Conception, born without Original Sin, it would seem that Mary would have had to struggle supernaturally to turn away from God; whereas the rest of humanity, born with, in effect, two strikes against it, needs to struggle supernaturally in order not to turn away from God, and this, knowing that we will continually fail. Mary never failed. She never needed to fear failure. I will. I can contemplate her with envy, but I can't do what she so effortlessly did. And I say "effortlessly" knowingly. Each and every one of us will face all of the sorrows that she faced, but we will face them as potentially damned sinners, while she faced them with full confidence of a crown and a heavenly throne for both her Son and herself, once the ordeal had been endured. We face our sorrows in hope, perhaps, in our strongest moments, but also in fear. Mary, ultimately, had nothing to fear.
It's all well and good to tell me to do what she did; but I can't do it. I am a sinner; she was not. And this sinlessness was of her essence; it is not of mine.
If Protestants don't get it, I think this, at least in part, is why.”

Having sent the above comment off, I clicked on “Home” and walked across the room from my computer to my recliner in order to pick up one of the books I am currently reading, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

Okay, so here is why I read:

On the very next page from where I had left off reading last night, in the chapter entitled “The Eternal Revolution”, Chesterton answers the question posed in the opening paragraph of the comment I had, only three minutes before, submitted to Mark Shea.

And here is how Chesterton does so:

“This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make may rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times, and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait. So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its own failures are fruitless. The question then becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working?” [emphasis added]

And thus the demise of my too clever objection to Mary as the ideal for the struggling apostle. Do I thank Mark Shea? Do I thank G. K. Chesterton. Do I file it under “synchronicity”? Or do I thank something Higher?

All of the above.


Aaron said...

Hi Rodak
I'm a reader at Mark Shea's blog. I read your comments over there and then your post here, but I'm not sure how the two relate. How does that Chesterton quote answer your objection? I think I must be missing some connection that you are seeing.

Rodak said...

Hello, Aaron--
Thanks for dropping by.
It related to me, in that Chesterton made me realize that it was the attempt to approach Mary's perfection (even though I may fail twenty times to take even one sure step in her direction, just as Whistler tore up twenty portraits) that matters.
It is, then, irrelevant if Mary is the Immaculate Conception, and I am just a sinner. I don't need to be able to be like Mary, but only to try to be like her. She is the constant ideal that permits me to know in which direction I should be moving.

LYL said...

Hi Rodak, I too am a reader at Mark's. Well, I love Mark's blog, I love GK Chesterton and I love Mary and Jesus and the Catholic Church. So, I was delighted to read this post of yours. And though I have read Orthodoxy, it's lovely to have a snippet brought back to mind! Perhaps I'll re-read it (again)!

God bless,


Rodak said...

Welcome, Louise--
Thank you. It's nice to find a totally positive sentiment in a comment box for a change.
You encourage me to follow your example when visiting other blogs.
God bless.

Civis said...


Nice anecdote. I would add that your problem with Mary as an examplar would also be a problem with Jesus as an exemplar.

Aside: You quoted Chesteron in our discussion under notebooks below and I was going to comment that GKC is not always the model of clarity. It's funny how IMHO he goes from some of the most convoluted, disorganized and obscure writing to some of the most power I've ever read.

Chesterton at his best is so powerful, you can't help but think. Although most prefer THE EVERLASTING MAN, my favorite is ORTHODOXY. I think I've read it eight times. Now that you've quoted it, I'll probably go read it again. The first time I read it, I found it so powerful it made me miserable. I had quotes running through my head all day and all night while I slept. I couldn't stop thinking and dreaming about it until I decided whether I agreed. I'm not exaggerating. I've never had a book do that to me.

Civis said...

Oh and reflecting on the point of this post: "Why I read". Many dittos. I'm doing everything I can to develop a love of reading with my children.

I was thiumbing through HOW TO READ A BOOK by Mortimer Adler the other day and he discussed how the great minds of the past mostly educated themselves by reading. HTRAB is a good one BTW. It taught me a thing or two about the art/skill of reading. The true art of reading, he says, is to sit down with a book that has more than just information you do not posess, but ideas you do not yet comprehend. You sit there with nothing but you and the book. No teacher, no study guide, no commentary, and you read and reread and contemplate and dissect until you comprehend and there is a meeting of the minds between the writer and the reader.

Rodak said...

"I would add that your problem with Mary as an examplar would also be a problem with Jesus as an exemplar."

The article to which I was responding was specifically an article about Mary as "the first apostle." Regarded as an apostle, especially as the prototypical apostle, Mary is automatically an exemplar for all subsequent apostles. But this is a Catholic notion, and I am a Protestant. This is why I had some trouble working out the truth in the idea of Mary as exemplar. It is true that there are similar problems with the concept of Jesus as exemplar. But Jesus is God, and one nevers even entertains the idea of living up to that level.

Harold Bloom, a challenging critic whose writings I have enjoyed, has also written a book entitled, I believe, "How to Read and Why". I'll add the Adler book to my long list, along with Bloom's. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

You need to read Cardinal Newman's essay on Mary. Can't recall the title, maybe another reader can. That essay cleared up a lot of things about the Catholic view of Mary for me.

Rodak said...

Thanks for the tip.