What We Have Seen and Heard

In this Easter season, our first Mass readings come from The Acts of the Apostles, a book that gives us a history of the early period of the Christian community.

In today’s reading, the “leaders, elders and scribes” who had brought Peter and John before the Sanhedrin because of their acts, order Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. However, Peter and John, in no uncertain terms, proclaim: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.

When I read those lines, I think of the feeling I have at the end of a retreat. I come to the end of a retreat, filled with all of the blessings of the experience, overflowing with joy, and marveling about how great God has been to me. And sometimes when I leave whatever retreat house I’ve been in with that feeling and then observe what is going on around me in the world, I experience a sense of almost bewilderment. I watch people driving to work or doing their grocery shopping, walking their pets or otherwise carrying on with their life as usual and wonder why they don’t see what I see. Why are they just going about their business? And I want to climb to the highest mountain and yell out to all the world, Hey, don’t you know what is going on here? Can’t you see that (in the words of the Hopkins poem) all the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

That is the urge that I think Peter and John are expressing. Once we’ve experienced God, we can’t not share what we have seen and heard. For me, that urge prompted me to become a spiritual director and retreat leader. For others, it plays out in a different way. But however it plays out, it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.

Update: The penultimate paragraph of the post as I wrote it this morning is phrased badly, as pointed out by Kathy in her comment. She is quite right that I do not know what it actually going on in another person, and I didn’t intend my comment as judgment. I was trying (badly, I admit) to convey a reaction to what to all appearances is “business as usual” in the face of an experience of everything being different.


Witnessing Christ

I read an advance copy of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s eBook, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness in the Next Generation, scheduled to be released today. It is a short piece of 24 pages in length that addresses some of the challenges to genuine and effective witness to the Gospel in our society today.

Although I think some of the Archbishop’s statements are overgeneralized (e.g., he lumps all media together, giving the impression there exists a single journalistic orthodoxy intent on presenting religion in a a negative light), I think there is truth to his concern that “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past.” That poses a challenge to all Christians, not only Catholics (the locus of his concern).

I also share the Archbishop’s view of the value of strong religious communities in, among other things, preventing notions of freedom of the individual from turning into a “destructive individualism” that turns freedom into a “license for selfishness.” Community helps us develop a sense of morality, helps us discern right and wrong.

Finally, I think Archbishop Chaput is correct that there are many people who call themselves Christian who don’t really believe in the Gospel and don’t live lives reshaped and transformed by Christ. Whether because of embarrassment or because they only “keep their religions for comfort value” it has no effect on them, and therefore no social force.

This little book is intended as a wake-up call to Catholic to renew their efforts to convert the culture in which they live – to be “the kind of witness that sets fire to the human heart,” and he talks about the important role of Catholic higher education in sending out Catholics capable of doing that.

The Archbishop, however does not sufficiently address the difficulty created by the fact that the United States today is more religiously diverse than it had ever been. It may be that the system of government that developed in our country was shaped by a “predominantly Christian inspiration,” but it takes more than assertion to suggest that a Christian worldview should pervade government policy, law and society today. I’m not saying one can’t make that case, merely that it is not attempted in this book. And that is a surprising omission given that the Archbishop acknowledges that “People don’t conform their lives to a message because it is useful. They do so because they believe the message is true and therefore life-giving.” It is one thing to convey the message to other Christians who merely need to be educated about the truths of their faith; it is another to convey it to people who do not share that faith.