I recently subscribed to The Lamp magazine, which is essentially a Catholic version of The New Yorker. The artwork on the cover is usually a black and white sketch of a funny scene from what I call “Catholic America”, like a nun smoking a cigarette on a lawn mower or having a cocktail or a cocktail of smiling clerics and lay people.
But my favorite lamp cover is their Saint Anselmo 2021 issue. It uses the same art style as the others but features a very different type of content.
The sketch depicts a mass of businessmen, coming and going, some engrossed in their phone screens, one smoking a stogie, all looking determined and professional in their suits and neat hairstyles. But in the midst of them all, at first almost undetectable, stands a John the Baptist dressed in camel hair, his hand raised, his mouth open, his beard wild and unruly.
The symbolism is clear. John originally preached “like a voice crying out in the wilderness” from Judea around 1 AD, but his message of the coming of the Saviour, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is also relevant in the wilderness. American life today. Also, like the Baptist audience of yesteryear, Americans today have all sorts of distractions and pursuits that allow them to avoid the gospel, a message that clashes strongly with the prevailing values and priorities of the culture. ambient.
The image was attractive and provocative enough for me to put the blanket on my wall. It serves as a daily reminder to “prepare the way of the Lord” in the midst of all my seemingly mundane activities – my work, my studies and my social life.
But the scene struck me in a new way one evening while praying my rosary in an armchair opposite. Because the room was dimly lit, some features of the design stood out even more than they did with the lights on. For one thing, the figure of John, with his dark clothes and beard, was much more visible and was more obviously the focal point of the whole work. In fact, the other characters, basically black lines on a white background at this point, seemed to recede into the background.
What can we learn from this experience? On the one hand, John the Baptist – and ultimately the One he designates – is more real, more substantial, more significant than the merely practical horizon represented by businessmen, what the German philosopher Josef Pieper calls “the world of daily work”. ”
It’s not that work and business aren’t good and important things. But what is true is that they can only have ultimate value if they are linked and ordered vertically, towards God, the foundation of all reality and the guarantor of our value and meaning. The fact that this idea only came when the lights were dimmed and my bodily senses were effectively dulled also underscores the primacy of the spiritual reality that underlies the visible, and the absolute importance of prayer in order to be able to see things really.
Moreover, John’s “weight” in the design stems directly from his humility: he is drawn so darkly—and therefore stands out so much—precisely because he wears such coarse, crude clothing, and because his beard grows so savagely. In other words, he stands out because he is poor.
John’s poverty does not make him empty. Instead, it allows him to be completely filled with his love for the Lord. As the late Cardinal Jean Danielou pointed out, and as I have written before, John’s entire mission of radical renunciation only makes sense as “a man set apart for this one great joy” – the joy to know Jesus first in the womb of his aunt, Mary, and then to anticipate a new encounter with Christ. John is filled with this joy, he is filled with Jesus, and so he stands out from the crowd as more real and more substantial.
It’s not a new idea. In “The Great Divorce”, C. S. Lewis portrays the spirits of heaven as more “solid” than the dark damned who come to visit them, for whom the grass is “hard as diamonds”. Lewis’s underlying approach seems to be the theology of St. Augustine, who taught that evil is only a “depreciation of good” – it is not real in itself, but is only the absence of reality, of what should really be there. Those who completely love the Lord, like the Spirits of Heaven and St. John the Baptist, are more real because they are more fully what they were created for: sons and daughters of God and partakers of divine Life.
As Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, our new Doctor of the Church, once said, Christ “calls men again to communion with God, so that through communion with him we may participate in the incorruptibility”. John the Baptist issued this invitation 2000 years ago, and it is offered to each of us today, as simple and factual as his weighty presence at the heart of this magazine cover. Sometimes, however, we just need our artificial lights to go down to see everything more clearly.
Liedl writes from the Twin Cities.
Category: Already/Not yet