Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.” And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matthew 22: 8-10).
There are two things that I never fail to tell my students on the first day of class. One is that it won’t be long and the other is that they needn’t come back. I’m always suspicious, I explain, of professors who announce everything they know on the first day. Maybe they don’t know very much. And then, quoting that lethal line so blithely delivered by Henry Tudor to each of his half-dozen wives, I assure them that I won’t keep them long.
They find that pretty funny, of course, and once they’ve ceased chortling I remind them that since we’re in the courtship phase of the course there is still time to cancel the wedding. It won’t mean the end of the world if we decide not to get married.
The reason I do all this is not merely to get a laugh. But to make the point that taking a class is a bit like buying a car, or ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant. You don’t have to leave the lot with the model you test-drove if you don’t like it. And as for that pricey Bordeaux the waiter brought to your table, if it doesn’t pass the taste-test, tell him to take it back. He’s not going to charge you for it.
But taking a class, even in Catholic theology, is not to be confused with the experience of faith. Indeed, the two can scarcely be compared at all. George Santayana was a very learned man on matters of Catholic theology, and all his students at Harvard found his lectures dazzling to behold. But having lost or mislaid his faith long before entering the classroom, he did not believe a word of it. It is one thing to work up a set of lectures on the whole business of Catholic belief, something else again to enter into the heart and soul of what it really means to believe. And while you can always chuck the class if it doesn’t seem to be working out for you, you must never treat the life of faith in that way. Why not? Because faith is not something you work at. It isn’t a job. Cutting a thousand-acre lawn with a push mower—now that’s a job. Studying the Summa so that by week’s end you’ll pass the quiz is a job. But faith is not a job; it is not the fruit of anything we do.
It is instead a gift given that you hadn’t done a blessed thing to deserve. Most of us never even had to lift a finger in order to receive our faith. When was the last time God or the Church consulted an infant about whether or not the child wished to be baptized? “The final mutation in the evolution of the human species,” which is how Pope Benedict has described it, is not a work wrought by human agency. And to study what it means in an academic setting is one thing, and some of us even do it for a living. But to have fallen in love with the living God as a result of that faith—indeed, to frame one’s whole life in relation to the mystery that every facet of that faith testifies to in human history—that can only be a work of divine grace.
And grace, of course, is not a commodity you can buy, but only that of which you may become the beneficiary. It is given to us, not gotten by us. “The grace of God means something like this,” writes Frederick Buchener in Wishful Thinking: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you. I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift, too.”
And yet, for all the sheer otherness of faith, that it is something entirely and gratuitously given, we tend to think of it in an almost Pelagian way as just another self-help enterprise. We moralize the mystery. We are so steeped in therapeutic habits of mind that when Christ tells us that it wasn’t we who chose him, but rather he (from all eternity!) who chose us, it brings us up short. Operating out of an entitlement ethic, we like to think that heaven will be something we’ve got a right to enter since we’ve worked so bloody hard to get in. As if admission were determined solely on the strength of one’s virtue. So get busy and stop being such a slacker, we tell people. The spiritual life will not begin without you.
Actually, it already has. Which should tell us how far we have come from a grace-centered conception of the moral life. In a profound essay written some years back by Professor James Hitchcock entitled “Eternity’s Abiding Presence,” we are freshly reminded of how singularly humbling the gift of faith really is. “Not only,” he says, “because of the awareness it brings of one’s unworthiness, but also because it cannot help but dawn on any normally sensitive person that it is, from a human standpoint, a gift bestowed almost arbitrarily. As recipients of this gift we are less like victors in a race than winners in a lottery, although God must indeed have his own purposes.”
Ah, yes, God’s own purposes. What on earth had he in mind in making the human race? And then, what about the race having almost at once come to grief given God’s re-making of it in the work of his Son’s redemption? In a lovely little piece that appeared not too long ago in Magnificat (August, 2016), I came across the following by Fr. Richard Veras, who provides pastoral formation for the young men called to the priesthood. It’s a reflection on a song called “Beggars at the Feast,” which a pair of repulsive interlopers perform while crashing a wedding in the musical Les Miserables. It reminds him of the Mass, he says, and the fact that, come to think of it, we’ve all crashed that party. Aren’t we all beggars who simply don’t belong? Yes, of course we are. But, strange to say, we’ve also been invited. Like the street people promiscuously gathered up by the servants of the master in the parable, who, astonishingly, wants to feed everyone (“both bad and good”). And there is more. In fact, as our faith dares to affirm, there is the always more aspect of divine largesse, which Fr. Veras beautifully describes.
We are more than guests, for God has made us his sons and daughters through the grace of baptism. Through the grace of confession he welcomes us back like the prodigal son. He wants us to be present at this celebration. When we come up for Communion we assume the posture of beggars, with our hands or tongues out begging for his Presence. We recognize that, on our own, we do not belong. Because of our sins, God is under no obligation to treat us as sons and daughters. But God’s response is to unite us with his Son in Holy Communion. We become one flesh with Christ.
However, the final paragraph is positively stunning, throwing majestically into relief everything that makes it worthwhile for us to believe. For how otherwise can we attend the wedding?
We not only belong, we are not only members of the family … we are the bride!
Welcome to the wedding…
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Wedding at Cana” painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563.