Even the Atheists Need God

In Morituri Salutamus, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s moving tribute to fallen friends, the poet himself remains surprisingly serene in the face of death, fortified against every indication of its imminence. While it is not unmanly, he insists, to lament those who are no more, the game is not yet over for the rest of us. “Ah,” he exclaims, “nothing is too late / Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.” In other words, for us—the living—there is still time to repent of folly and sin, and so to resolve upon a better life.

The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;

 And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

I sometimes wonder if dear old Longfellow, that giant of nineteenth-century American literature, lived to repent of his folly and sin. And for whom did his heart palpitate? For God? There is no mention of the deity in the nearly three-hundred lines of the poem.  But perhaps, on the very cusp of death, which came not long after publication of the poem, he did pine for that Supreme Someone without whom nothing worthwhile survives. Maybe, like the fellow who knows he’s to be hanged in a fortnight, it most wonderfully concentrated his mind. And that he did not go to God with empty hands.  What a disaster that would be, owing to the fact that the loss of God is the thing we ought most to fear, since he alone is the deepest driving desire of the human heart.  This sheer transcendent Other for whom the attraction is as natural and necessary as the air we breathe.

And while it will require a special grace to succeed in satisfying that thirst, the longing is there even when we are least aware of its source.  A man knocking on the door of a brothel, says G.K. Chesterton, is really looking for God. In the wrong place, to be sure, but he is looking nevertheless, determined on ways of escape, however false or fleeting, from the loneliness of the self.  In a word, he is searching for God, for that elusive more which the world cannot give.

“What the soul hardly realizes,” Dom Hubert van Zeller wisely reminds us, “is that, unbeliever or not, his loneliness is really a homesickness for God.” And, thus, to experience this thirst, it is not necessary that one be impressively pious, enrolled alongside the enviable few who have already achieved success in the spiritual life. If the desire for God is written upon the soul of Everyman, if it remains an imprint or template of every human being, then God cannot be a stranger to any of us. Even the atheist is not immune to the secret importunities of God. He is more present to me, in fact, than I am to myself. That is what it means to be made in his image. That he should remain the theme of my life, of every life, this looming presence towards which we are all drawn. Human life, then, becomes a question asked by all, to which there can be only one answer.

 The heart is restless, O Lord, ’til it finds rest in Thee.    ∼ St. Augustine

So where does Christianity come in? What does it offer the human race in its quest for God?   If man is a searcher who must suffer until he finds that divine solace for which he was made, how exactly does the Church assist in making it happen? By being the place where the encounter with God happens.

There is a stunning picture that hangs in Rome, not far from the Piazza Navona where I lived with my family for a time while a student at the Angelicum.  It is the famous Caravaggio depiction of Christ, shown in the most pointedly direct way, calling out to Matthew the Levite, to come join him and be his disciple.  To see the painting properly, of course, one has to drop a coin or two in a little machine that then lights up the canvas, an irony not lost on the poor pilgrim who is forced to fumble for money in order to see clearly the moment when Jesus invites the tax collector to put down his money and follow him. But I thought it worth the investment every time. In fact, I was probably in very good company, although I could scarcely have known it at the time, because I have since learned that the future Pope Francis himself on his visits to Rome would often pop over to inspect the picture. In a beautiful meditation on the mystery of the encounter with Jesus, prompted by the painting we unwittingly shared, he writes:

Everything in our life, today as in the time of Jesus, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this man, the carpenter from Nazareth, a man like all men and at the same time different. Let us consider the Gospel of John, there where it tells of the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus (cf. 1:35-42). Andrew, John, Simon: they feel themselves being looked at to their very core, intimately known, and this generates surprise in them, an astonishment which immediately makes them feel bonded to him…. Speaking about the encounter brings to mind The Calling of St. Matthew, the Caravaggio in the Church of St. Louis of the French, which I used to spend much time in front of every time I came to Rome. None of them who were there, including Matthew, greedy for money, could believe the message in that finger pointing at him, the message in those eyes that looked at him with mercy and chose him for the sequela. He felt this astonishment of the encounter.

“The privileged place of encounter,” the Pope tells us at the end, “is the caress of Jesus’ mercy.” Such a lovely image. And where else but in the Church, amid the warmth and tenderness of her maternal embrace, do we feel that loving and merciful caress? May it begin with that blazing sacramental encounter in which, like Matthew, we find ourselves unexpectedly astonished by the call from Jesus and, pointing to ourselves as though too stupefied to believe it is real, we allow ourselves to be caught up by Christ, drawn by the fire of his divine love.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Calling of St. Matthew” was painted by Caravaggio in 1599-1600.


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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