Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Commentary After Half of Deus Caritas Est

I, like many of my fellow Catholic bloggers, am very excited about Pope Benedict XVI'’s first encyclical.

I'’ve downloaded it, printed it on fine parchment-like paper, and stuck it in a black duotang.

Understand that having read many encyclicals and letters by John Paul II, John XXIII, Leo XIII, and a few others, I have at least a basic appreciation for the art of papal authorship.

Benedict writes like no one I'’ve read before.

He is able to bring the reader on a journey with him; he builds a logical discourse– much like C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton (although not with as much bulldog tenacity as the latter)– and raises his reader to a new level of comprehension. He recaps previously discussed foundational topics before climbing to the next layer, like a gifted educator.

I'’m only halfway through, and already the style of this man of God is astounding me.

Yet style without substance is worth as much as an empty Safeway bag, and Benedict explores his topic - the relationship between Eros and Agape - in a new and dramatic fashion. He'’s not afraid to quote Neitzsche and Virgil, or even to make reference to Zeus in a creation myth, talking about the intrinsic compatibility of male and female:

So God forms woman from the rib of man. Now Adam finds the helper that he needed: "“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh"” (Gen 2:23). Here one might detect hints of ideas that are also found, for example, in the myth mentioned by Plato, according to which man was originally spherical, because he was complete in himself and self-sufficient. But as a punishment for pride, he was split in two by Zeus, so that now he longs for his other half, striving with all his being to possess it and thus regain his integrity. While the biblical narrative does not speak of punishment, the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become "“complete."

He also draws a connection between Love and the Communion of Saints, which blew me away:

I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become "“one body"”, completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself.

Benedictine spirituality (based on the teachings of the 5th century St. Benedict) teaches that to meditate adequately on a written work, one has to go over it time and time again, slowly, enunciating each word. Like chewing on a particularly rich piece of an Alberta steak, there is no better way to appreciate the fullness of what was intended by the one who prepared it so lovingly. So I'’m not rushing my way through Deus Caritas Est just to say that I did; I intend to "“chew the cud" for a few more days, slowly taking it in (yeah, I know, those metaphors don'’t really mix).

Before the release of this encyclical, I was talking to a local priest about the styles of Benedict XVI vs. John Paul II. He commented that while John Paul was a philosopher, Benedict is a theologian. Looking at the etymological roots of those terms, you'’d initially think that "“one who loves wisdom"” would be easier to grasp than "“one who studies God."” Yet our Theologian Pope is remarkably easy to understand, in his homilies -– who can forget his message at the funeral of John Paul II, which still brings tears to my eyes - his daily Angelus transcripts, and now his first encyclical.

When I mentioned to another local priest that I'’d be reading the encyclical, he almost recoiled in horror. "“That's not really necessary, it'’s awfully hard to understand those," he said.

It's sad how little some priests appreciate the zeal and hunger of their flocks. Maybe they've grown tired of trying and are just killing time until they retire. I pray that all our clergy would "“be not afraid"” and challenge us to growth.

The writings of John Paul II required a microscope and a scalpel to fully appreciate, whereas Benedict requires only a knife and a fork. He will thus be more widely read by the faithful, and moreso if our priests recommend it. That can only amount to good.

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