Written for Those Catholic Men.
How can anyone know God? How can we plumb the depths or reach the heights of the Infinite? How do we respond to statements like, “See, God is great beyond our knowledge, the number of his years past searching out,” (Job 36:26)? To me, these types of questions and ideas can seem like the start of an intellectual exercise through which one can find the answer to such deep and weighty topics. My nationality, my degrees in physics and engineering, and my gender predispose me to try and “figure it out” when faced with something I don’t at first understand. Perhaps this feeling is natural, or maybe it’s a product of the influences I’ve had throughout my life, but I’ve been taught that if I stare at a problem long enough, if I read it enough times, or if I simply “try, try again” in the spirit of William Edward Hickson’s famous poem, I will eventually come to understand what I am trying to digest.
Does this strategy work to get good grades in school? Yes. Does this method of brute force often get us what we want in the spirit of the “American Dream”? Usually. Through enough repetition, can I eventually master a particular skill? Surely. Does this work for knowing God and growing in true holiness? Certainly not.
This is a hard fact for me. I would love to read the Gospels, the Old Testament, the Church Fathers, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Augustine, JPII, Benedict, Chesterton, Balthasar, etc. and come to understand who God is. I wish I could study God like I study for a test. I wish I could memorize, recite, reproduce correct answers, write reports, and get an A in Life from my efforts and accomplishments. But that’s not even close to what it means to be a Christian, and it falls way short of the mark of Catholic manliness.
The central message of Christianity is, as we all know, love. From this, an infinite number of topics could be explored, but they all harken back to the same source, and that is love. It is not enough to know about love; one must live one’s life according to the eternal Law of Love. Understanding its accomplishments and effects has no benefit if they are not lived out, or shall we say, incarnated in the world.
Swiss theologian, Father Maurice Zundel, in a book called With God in Our Daily Life, says, “God is not someone we can speak about, he is Someone we breathe, whom we communicate through the atmosphere emanating from ourselves.” As a left-brained man, I can easily distill my devotion to Christ down to something along the lines of, “If I do ‘X’, then I will have fulfilled my obligation and will have completed the assignment God has given me.” An emotionless fulfillment of obligations – the completion of some divine checklist – is not true faith and will not bring me closer to God, for it is not done in love. Fr. Zundel goes on to say that there cannot be singular and solitary “religious action”; rather, “it is the whole life that is religious, the whole life, or nothing.” It’s easy for me to be drawn into performing isolated “religious actions” because I know that’s what I’m supposed to do – I know what the answer is, so to speak.
Living the Christocentric life – and more poignantly, as a male – requires us to live a life entirely for God in the spirit of love; strong-arming our way to salvation will not yield spiritual fruit, and is not the true measure of a man. At the heart of Christian manliness lies sacrifice, as demonstrated by the Crucifixion. Sacrifice cannot be made directly for our own benefit but must be accomplished in love for the benefit of another.
This “other” can have many forms. For family men, it is primarily their wife and children; priests sacrifice for their Parish and their brother priests; monks die to themselves for the good of the community; single men show the face Christ rather than their own through their work and relationships. All these different manifestations, when appropriately realized, are an expression of sacrifice for the glorification of God. In religious life, we give our whole self to God. In doing this, we submit ourselves to his holy will rather than selfishly insisting on our own. This is the mark of true Christian manliness and indeed, Christianity as a whole
Christianity is not something to be conquered, we cannot earn a heavenly grade-point average, and all the theological books in the world cannot reveal to us the way in which we are called to live out our vocation. We must live our lives entirely for God, uniquely, according to our own particular talents. Not by our own efforts can we come to know God, instead this knowledge is revealed to us through the constant and supernatural communion with his divine presence in the Sacraments. This allows us to live in his love, to offer ourselves to him and to others in imitation of Christ, and, echoing Psalm 46, to rest in him who created us.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with another quote from Fr. Zundel: “[The Lord’s revelation] is a matter of giving a new value to our life, to every one of our gestures and of living it as a constantly renewed communion. For it is through these acts accomplished out of love that the face of God will take all its form in our hearts and that we will know him. For knowing God is not a matter of racking one’s brains about his attributes; knowing God is to meet him because He is born in our heart at the very core of our labour. That is the meaning of sacrament. The bread will become the Body of Christ because the whole life can become the manifestation of the divine presence.”