This long conversation between Bishop Erik Varden and Daniel Capó has been published, in its Spanish translation, in the February issue of Ecclesia magazine.
In a recent gathering in Madrid, you recalled that old adage from the Desert Fathers, attributed to Saint Anthony the Great, which he repeated every day: «Today I begin!” This aphorism, in a way, has shaped monastic spirituality. Today I begin anew, regardless of my age or circumstances, looking towards God. What does this prayer mean to you? How does it appeal to you internally?
I live conscious of my inadequacies and failures. When I look at myself in human terms, I am tempted to think: ‘This is hopeless! Why bother?’ So I need to remind myself that the human terms are insufficient. The picture they present, while not quite false, is contorted, like the self-reflection we might see in a hall of mirrors, which makes us laugh while filling us with sadness. Then I think of Anthony. His life is told us by Athanasius of Alexandria, who knew him as a friend. Athanasius tells us that Anthony’s desire from childhood was to be malleable material in God’s hands. He wanted to let himself be formed by the Lord, to be made into a new man. He saw that he must give his life a consistency with which God could work, soft enough to be shaped, firm enough to retain the shape conferred. In order to acquire consistency he confronted every aspect of himself, every anxiety, desire, fear, and illusion. He learnt to live in the truth. Throughout his long life, he practised a radical abandonment to providence. This made him strong, free, and compassionate. He saw himself and others not by his own lights, but through the eyes of God, bathed in the light of an omnipotent benevolence. His daily ‘Today I begin!’ stood for the banishment of a personal project of imagined linear perfectibility. He had resolved to receive each new day as if it were the first of creation, expecting God to accomplish a surprising, beautifying work of salvation even on a lump of clay. I, too, would like to live like that.
This beginning you speak of, reminds me of the Creation story in Genesis: every day we must separate good from evil, light from darkness. I would say this idea permeates your essayistic work, each book from a different perspective: the horizon of Christian memory in «The Shattering of Loneliness,» and that of personal integrity in «Chastity.» Before asking you explicitly about this latest title, which you have just published in Spain, I would like to pose the fundamental question that Romano Guardini wanted to address to God at the end of his life: why evil? Why guilt?
Now, it would be brazen of me to pretend to answer a question posed by such a thinker to God Almighty. The scandal of evil has troubled mankind in every age. The question ‘why?’ isn’t always answerable in the concrete, for evil is of its nature irrational, not susceptible of explanation. In terms of the conduct of our life, it is often best to focus less on why evil occurs; to assert instead that it exists, then to develop criteria by which to recognise it, so to counteract it. Once we can name an individual evil, even simply by affirming its intrinsic meaninglessness, it loses a good deal of its power over us. We see that our power of reasoning, the logos in us, does carry light into darkness. That light enables hope. As for guilt, I sometimes think it has acquired an unfairly bad name. We constantly tell ourselves and others, ‘Banish guilt’, when in fact guilt can be a sign of spiritual health. If I say something sarcastic to wound another, then later, in private, feel guilty, that is good. It shows that my conscience is alive. I can start on a work of repentance and reparation. Of course, guilt can become obsessive and self-destructive; as such it is soul-sickness. Simone Pacot distinguishes between a feeling of guilt (the destructive kind, born of subjective self-loathing) and a consciousness of guilt (the helpful kind, based on an objective sense of wrongdoing). It is a good distinction.
The question of evil leads us to the question of God. In “Die Schere”, Ernst Jünger pondered the impoverishment that reducing meaning to mere significance brings to our understanding of reality. Recently, in an entry on your blog «Coram Fratribus,» you pointed out something similar: «Everyone now has pet theories about the various crises of the Church. As far as I can see, there is only really one big crisis: the gradual eclipse of a true understanding of who Jesus Christ is.» Indeed, the action of the scissors Jünger spoke of is not foreign to religious experience, and in our post-secular world, we find it much easier to accept the presence of a merely human Jesus than that of Jesus as Lord and Logos of history. How can we recover the fullness of our faith when we have become accustomed to simplifying and reducing our beliefs?
We need to rekindle our interest in theology, delving deep into Scripture and the mystery of faith enacted in the liturgy. I perceive an anti-intellectualism in much contemporary Catholicism. It concerns me. It manages the astonishing feat of making the faith seem boring. Historically speaking, any real renewal of the Church — and who would doubt that we need renewal? — has had an intellectual dimension nurturing spiritual and charitable enterprise. A paradox that mystifies me is this: we sail in the wake of a Council whose watchword was ‘Return to the sources!’, yet our discourse becomes ever narrower, more self-referential and pragmatic, yielding to vocabulary extrinsic to Catholic thought. You ask ‘How can we recover?’ We have excellent tools. The Catechism is a monumental resource whose framework and references draw on the full range of our patrimony. Let us set our sights high, not content with mediocrity, prepared to ‘to make a defence to any one who calls [us] to account for the hope that is in [us]’ (1 Peter 3.15). That hope is worth defending. We must help each other seek out what is beautiful and best in our tradition to present Christ, Alpha and Omega, credibly and attractively to the world in which we live.
In this context, the question of faith transmission seems fundamental. Two temptations immediately arise: to quickly conform to the world in an uncritical aggiornamento or to decisively reject modernity. Could the survival through the centuries of the Jewish people in the Diaspora be a model for a Christianity that also lives its particular diaspora, at least in the West?
I think so. I think of an essay by Rabbi Sacks about the survival of the Jewish faith against all odds. He asks, ‘Could it have done so without the rituals, the 613 commands, that fill our days with reminders of God’s presence? I think not. Whenever Jews abandoned the life of the commands, within a few generations they lost their identity. Without the rituals, eventually love dies. With them, the glowing embers remain, and still have the power to burst into flame.’ There is a message in this for us. It is not a matter of rejecting modernity. Modernity is the air we breathe. We should be grateful we can breathe! What matters is to find meaning in modernity. For that to happen, our roots must run deep.
And at the same time, to look upwards, right? There’s no depth without Grace. It’s like the past time, which also demands a future.
Absolutely. Human life has got to be life in ascent. It must aspire to the sublime while remaining grounded in the real. The model, if you like, is Jacob’s ladder rather than Socrates’ flying basket as wittily but cruelly described by Aristophanes in The Clouds.
Contrary to many thinkers of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that freedom and Christianity were not irreconcilable. Today a similar creed is repeated, claiming that Christianity and modernity are incompatible. Do you believe this to be true? Where do they converge, and where do they diverge? And what can we do to reconcile them?
What is Christianity? Christianity is belief that the Word by which and for which all things were made entered history to right fundamental wrongs, then to abide through a communion of believers, the Church, within the historical process, remaining a source of direction, strength, correction, and comfort until history ends. On these terms, no period is incompatible with Christianity; but each period presents Christianity with a challenge to articulate itself afresh, effectively and intelligibly, ‘that the world may believe’ (cf. John 17.21). What matters is to listen to the real questions our time asks, then see how our faith in Christ provides answers. There is a tendency in the Church to produce long, abstruse, monological answer to questions no one in fact asks. All the world perceives thereby is an effusion of hot air.
In your recent book on Chastity, you emphasize that being chaste means being whole, and this brings us very close to the horizon of holiness. How does it lead us to a fuller life?
The terms ‘healing’, ‘holiness’, and ’wholeness’ are linked contextually and etymologically. This is fascinating and important. The sanctity to which we are all called works by grace through the integration of all that properly makes up our being, as we saw in the example of Anthony. To be pulled in different direction by contrasting desires or needs drains us of energy and courage. It takes the zest out of life. Sane integration meanwhile is a source of strength. This is fundamentally what is at stake in the pursuit of chastity.
In Madrid, you hinted that chastity has a political dimension. This is a very suggestive idea, especially when we think of the wounds of the body politic manifest in social malaise and the current return of populisms. What relationship does chastity have with ideologies? How far does this political dimension reach?
If you admit the link between chastity and integrity, the link is self-evident, I think. The way to chaste integrity passes through honest confrontation with the incoherences and passions we carry. This model, too, could be transferred to the body politic, where one tends to project these things onto others, shunning catharsis and — if you admit the term — conversion. To live and love chastely is to reverence the other, refusing to see her or him as merely an instrument for the fulfilment of my purpose or desire. Here, too, we touch a key dimension of society.
At EncuentroMadrid, you openly asked: «Where is it written that today cannot be the day of my salvation?» Upon hearing you, I immediately thought of the deep eschatological tradition of monastic spirituality, of which you, as a Trappist monk, are a part. How do we connect this heritage — which leads from prayer to work, from grammar to eschatology — to today’s reader?
St Benedict enjoins that each day’s liturgy should start, in the darkness of the night, with the recitation of Psalm 95, which has the verse: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts!’ We return to the theme of the transcendent Word present in time. The Word is never silent. Whether we are ready or able to hear it is another matter. Our task is to work on our hearts, refusing to let a carapace of cynicism form, resolving to stay vulnerable, receptive. Then to listen and heed. If we do this, we may find ourselves seeing with unexpected clarity that the kingdom of God is in our midst (cf. Luke 17.21).
A central concept in your work is the notion of longing, which you identify almost as an immortal whisper inseparable from human consciousness. Yale writer Christian Wiman has written similar things referring to poetic desire. Where do you perceive the longing for God in our world?
At the risk of seeming banal: almost everywhere. ‘The heavens proclaim the glory of God’, says a Psalm (Psalm 19.1). In the natural world, this dimension is obvious. In men and women it is more mysterious and concealed. But I do belive that to be a human being is to be possessed of longing, to live as an embodied echo of a Word I may have no conscious awareness of. This lack of awareness can have a tragic aspect. It may imprison me in frustration, even hopelessness: nothing in the world seems adequate to what I really want. But it can also enable instances of exultantly unexpected, ecstatic recognition.
Shortly before he died, the poet Seamus Heaney sent a text message to his wife with a brief message in Latin: «Noli timere» (Do not be afraid). These were his last words. Anchored in faith and hope, what does Monsignor Varden fear?
In the Gospels those words are uttered by our Lord as he approaches, walking on the water, the disciples caught up in a terrible storm. They are followed by the affirmation: ‘It is I’. The one thing worth fearing is separation from Him Who Is. The priest translates this fear into aspirational terms in a prayer he prays at each Mass before receiving communion: ‘Never permit me to be parted from you’. As long as I do not draw back from that intention, I have nothing to fear, be there a raging tempest all about me.