If you keep aware of the news in this dismal election year of 2016, you may well find yourself almost at the point of despair while thinking about the state of affairs in these United States and overseas. We need not review the causes in any great detail – I am sure you are quite aware of them. Add to that not only whatever impact the current miasma may have upon you and your family, but all those woes attendant upon life in a fallen world: death of loved ones, alienation from friends and family, health and financial problems, and on and on. One might well be haunted by the words of Barry McGuire’s ode to the apocalypse, “Eve of Destruction.” If these undeniable annoyances are depressing you, allow me to assure you that there are steps you can take to alleviate their effect on you. An important clue to preventing these woes may be found in one the feast-days of early August – that of Our Lord’s Transfiguration.
As we know, a short time before the events culminating in His crucifixion and resurrection, Our Lord brought Ss. Peter, John, and James up to Mount Tabor. There He was Transfigured, and shone “as the sun.” God the Father was heard to say, “This is my son in Whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him.” Moses and Elias appeared and conversed with Jesus, leading St. Peter to suggest building tabernacles for the two prophets and Jesus. Afterwards, Jesus told the three Apostles to tell no one “until the Son of Man shall have risen from the dead.” But despite both their direct experience of Heaven’s light, and Christ’s assurances that He would rise again, all was forgotten by the trio during the horrific hours of the Passion.
How very human this forgetfulness was – and how much like us! Amidst the described difficulties of this “land of woe,” we tend to forget for that which we were made, which is the hoped for goal of our earthly life. Think of the words used in Scripture and various liturgies to describe Heaven: “The Land of the Living,” “The Land of Lights,” “The Realms of Endless Day,” and so forth. As Dom Prosper Gueranger writes in his Liturgical Year, “Let us learn, from this very hour, to emancipate our souls; let us keep our hearts free, in the midst of the vain solicitudes and false pleasures of a strange land: the exile has no care but his banishment, no joy but that which gives him a foretaste of his fatherland.” If we would find joy in this world, we must bring some of the light of Heaven into our everyday lives. We must, in a sense, transfigure them.
One knows, of course, that both the Saints and the very devout dwell with one foot here and the other there, for all that they have no certainty of reaching Heaven until their deaths. But what of the majority of us? What of the lukewarm but aspiring? How are we to have a touch of that light illumine our own darkness, a bit of that joy break the depression around us? Well, we must start by attempting to follow their lead in our religious lives. Part of this task is obvious. Traditionally, the church building was considered an outpost of Heaven, and the Mass a foretaste of it. Now, admittedly, ugly buildings and banal liturgies can make that a bit difficult – so we should seek out the most beautiful and inspiring that we can find –be they Traditional Latin, Eastern Rite, Anglican Ordinariate – or just the Novus Ordo celebrated as well as possible, as at London’s Brompton Oratory or St. Paul, Minnesota’s St. Agnes. But what if we live in a place where there are no such alternatives? Then we must, as J.R.R. Tolkien recommended, use the ugliness and banality as a penance; moreover, we must try to make up with our own devotion to Our Lord whatever might be lacking in what He is subjected to just as much as we are.
Our homes are our own, of course, and we must strive to make them outposts of Heaven as well, to the best of our ability. Consecrating the house to the Sacred Heart and setting up and image thereof; a home devotional area with holy pictures and statues; saying the Rosary as a family; all of these and more can bring the light of Mount Tabor into our homes. But we need as well to alter our own attitude – to try, in the midst of horror and anguish, to keep our attention ever fixed on the joy and beauty of the World to come.
Some useful tips in doing that may be found in Arthur Machen’s novel, The Great Return, in which the Holy Grail makes an appearance in a modern (well, World War I era) Welsh town. Having just discerned that something odd is occurring, the narrator muses: “…if there be paradise in meat and in drink, so much the more is there paradise in the scent of the green leaves at evening and in the appearance of the sea and in the redness of the sky; and there came to me a certain vision of a real world about us all the while, of a language that was only secret because we would not take the trouble to listen to it and discern it.” Indeed. For what we forget in our everyday trouble is that this world of sin and shadow, fallen though it be, is still part of the Kingdom of Christ; and if the Great Enemy has left snares all about which we must avoid, its Creator has nevertheless also left all around us reminders of Whom its real ruler and master is. Later on in the book, the Mass of the Grail occurs in the old parish church, and the narrator attempts to explain the reactions of those who witness it:
And they too, like the sailors, were transmuted, or the world was transmuted for them. They experienced what the doctors call a sense of bien être, but a bien être raised to the highest power. Old men felt young again, eyes that had been growing dim now saw clearly, and saw a world that was like Paradise, the same world, it is true, but a world rectified and glowing, as if an inner flame shone in all things, and behind all things.
And the difficulty in recording this state is this, that it is so rare an experience that no set language to express it is in existence. A shadow of its raptures and ecstasies is found in the highest poetry; there are phrases in ancient books telling of the Celtic saints that dimly hint at it; some of the old Italian masters of painting had known it, for the light of it shines in their skies and about the battlements of their cities that are founded on magic hills. But these are but broken hints.
Indeed they are. But extremely important hints. For if we look at both nature and art, there is a great deal to remind us of Heaven, however imperfectly, however unclearly. As St. Paul tells us, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” But just because it is in a dark manner, it does not mean that we should stop seeing. To help us see clearly, however, there are three emotions we need to cultivate within ourselves, without which that glass shall stay completely dark: awe, joy, and gratitude. Awe at the greatness of Creation – human and Divine, especially because both reflect the glory of the ultimate Creator. Joy at the goodness, the truth, and the beauty of that Creator and His works, human and Divine. Gratitude that we are allowed to enjoy – and even to participate, in a secondary way – in that Creation.
Exercising those three emotions shall elevate the natural world for us to a reflection of that Supernatural World we can just glimpse through the Sacraments and devotions. Mountain and sea, forest and desert, stars and rivers shall sing of their Maker to us. But so too shall the way we employ that nature. Farming, gardening, and even cooking become so many cooperations with God; flowers and cuisine the fruit of that relationship. Even as we ought offer up our pains and sufferings to God to God as penance for our sins, so too should we offer up our delight in gratitude.
It is much the same with music and architecture, poetry and prose. Are there among these arts a given building or song, verse or novel that strikes as particularly rewarding or brilliant? That produces in us a joyous mood? Let us offer our resulting insight or wonder up to God in the same way, blessing Him that He has made men capable of such works.
But such use of the created to lead to the Creator need not stop with the works of others. Nostalgia has its uses, remembering what feel like “better” times (whether or not we experienced them). Enjoy the Renaissance fairs, the Christmas Revels, or any open air museums and reenactments as yet another taste of Paradise, regardless of how accurate (or not) they may be. The same is true of ethnic festivals and holidays.
Speaking of the latter, celebrate each of the holy days and holidays as well as you possibly can. The magic of Christmas and Easter – and even Halloween – can both rekindle pleasant memories and make the present magical; of course, that is probably why, in addition to corporate greed, people start putting up Halloween and Christmas decorations so very early. Life is sufficiently bleak to-day that even non-believers need a bit of magic. Indeed, for many, the Christmas lights illuminating street and square are the closest thing to Heaven they shall see in this world – and they do not understand why it attracts them.
There are, of course, diverse pitfalls in the course I suggest – ignoring the unpleasant, loving the creature over the Creator, and the like. Nevertheless, if we use them aright, the many wonderful things in this world of ours can and should point the way to Heaven for us. If we always keep in mind that they are but tastes of what awaits those who love God, then this world is the closest to hell we shall ever come. Alas, if we do not, then the poor pleasures of this life are the closest to our true home we shall ever come! May that not happen to any who read these words (nor to him who writes them!)
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