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Mary Marrocco: Boldly go inward before stepping outward

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  • July 23, 2019

Sitting on a patio having coffee, Fr. George was watching people rush along in the shadow of the big bank towers. He was silent, contemplating them. 

“They don’t know,” he mused. 

What could they not know? They were among the smartest, wealthiest, healthiest people on the planet, working in the financial district of a big North American city. 

“They don’t know how much they’re loved,” Fr. George said reflectively.

Would the rushing people be surprised to find someone was feeling sad for them in their full, productive lives? Would these upwardly-mobile members of an affluent society think of themselves as missing something essential to fine living? 

Human doings, or human beings? Since the first hand picked up the first tool, probably, humans have struggled to find a healthy tension between these two poles; these days, we lean heavily towards “doing.” We are a “just do it” culture, with an emphasis on “experiencing” everything, from destination weddings to psychedelic South American adventures.  Perhaps “doing it all” is a natural next step for information-laden people who need to reach toward everything they hear. 

This year’s 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human footstep on non-Earth soil reminds us that finding ways to walk on the moon, populate Mars and press outward to the stars reflects a passion endemic to the human spirit. There’s plenty of wrangling about whether and how to do it, but we will pursue this call, one way or another. 

Sadly, as humans become increasingly urban, they are increasingly cut off from even seeing, let alone contemplating, our galaxy and the trillions beyond. Too much artificial light renders them all but invisible to city dwellers. 

But our ancestors, who dwelt with the mysteries of the night lights, were unafraid to contemplate what the darkness reveals: that we on Earth are an infinitesimal fraction of all that is — and at the same time inextricably connected to it. The first human science was not botany but astronomy: the search to penetrate and reach the worlds beyond us. 

Still, the journey outward will destroy us if we don’t make the journey inward. Catherine Doherty’s exhortation to “go without fear into the depths of human hearts” is the surest way to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

How can we contemplate the heavens if we don’t also contemplate the mystery within each of us? How often does our rushing and doing stem from our desire to escape this inner reality? And we are sure to miss reality if we never stop and look within.

As our universe expands, we become more knowledgeable. The larger the universe becomes, and the more we know about the workings of the mind through psychology and other sciences, the less aware of ourselves we seem to be. The same cultural developments that allowed us to discover the universe’s vastness, and explore the inward expanses of the mind, created for the first time a society where God is absent. 

Apart from God, the human can’t be understood: this is what the Incarnation reveals. Unable to understand ourselves, we live in tiny compartments.

If God is absent, and we can’t understand ourselves despite all our doing, then we lose the bearings of the mystery of life, around and within us. 

Today the most radical form of witness is simply: God is. The most radical and the most practical, for it makes everything else possible.

St. Augustine, in his great work on the Divine Trinity, explored the Christian understanding of who God is. All his studies of Scripture and tradition, the contributions of his formidable intellect and the great theologians’ teachings, his reflections through many thousands of words, left him still at the starting gate — nowhere near reaching God. 

So he turned within: since humans are made in God’s image, therefore looking into the interior of the mind and heart must lead to God. Even these efforts don’t reach God, he concluded — God comes to us.

For Augustine, to know ourselves is crucial; without it no other knowledge matters.  Yet to know everything and more about ourselves, but not know we belong to God, is to know nothing and be bereft and lost. 

How to discover that we belong to God? Not by reason. Not by greatness of intellect. Not by research. Only by awe:  I am loved this much! 

Augustine returns us to the sorrow Fr. George felt in the coffee shop 16 centuries later. The people rushing by, he saw, didn’t know they were loved by God and therefore had no key to the universe — nor to themselves. 

Where do we find that key, the treasured key that unlocks everything? In the far reaches of the trillions of galaxies? In the inner depths of the genome? In neither, if we go without God.  In everything everywhere, if God is with us.

Fr. George, if his heart’s desire was fulfilled, now is “sitting under a tree, contemplating God” — for all eternity. 

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)

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