Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I am inveterate explainer. It’s just what I do. Where some men draw a picture of a horse, I draw a picture of a horse and then write below it: “THIS IS A HORSE.” When it seems necessary, I italicize “horse”. And boldface. And underline, just in case. That’s because I hold two deep and contradictory convictions.
The first is that if you build an idiot-proof argument, they’ll build a better idiot.
The second is that if I just apply myself hard enough, I will nonetheless build the idiot-proof argument for this or that truth of the Faith.
I’m always, therefore, attracted to arguments that make things extremely clear, rather than to Delphic utterances that leave things shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. My impulse, nearly always, is to over-explain rather than to leave people to puzzle through their bafflement and come to discovery.
Such a personality has always stood me in good stead as an apologist-type dude when I am obsessively trying to nail down every conceivable objection to, say, the Church’s teaching on Mary or whatnot. But that personality is not always appropriate in every circumstance. Jesus, for instance, disagrees with me about the advisability of always explaining everything in exhausting detail. More often than not, Jesus will offer some cryptic utterance and then stand there, waiting for his audience to connect the dots. Particularly maddening to me is the fact that, when they don’t connect the dots, or they connect the wrong dots, He doesn’t swoop in and help them do the math. He gives, for instance, the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 and, when everybody but the apostles stalks off in a rage saying “This is a hard saying! Who can hear it?”, he doesn’t run after them explaining that this is all about the Eucharist and it will be really good if they just stick around and wait it out because in a couple of years it will all make sense. He just turns to the apostles and says, “Well? Are you leaving too?”
He does the same with his parables, which he only explained to his disciples. Again, maddening. A perfectly good chance to draw a picture and then write “THIS IS A HORSE” under it and He blows it almost every time. Even when He’s on trial he misses great opportunity to explain to Pilate and Caiaphas who He really is and what’s going on. “Are you the Christ?” ask Pilate and Caiaphas “Thou hast said,” He replies. It not only ensures crucifixion, it leaves Pilate and Caiaphas free to draw the wrong conclusion! I want to shout “Tell them who you are! Do a sign! Explain the meaning! Eliminate ambiguity! Tell them what to think and do!!!!”
“Thou hast said.” What kind of oblique answer is that? If I were Him, I’d be spelling it out. Making absolutely sure that anybody I was speaking to would not be able to arrive at any conclusion but the one I wanted them to arrive at.
Jesus, however, seems uninterested in what I think. He seems to think that many times, the best teacher is maddening silence that forces you to ask, “What on earth does He mean?” and then to puzzle it through till you find out. He seems to think this so much, in fact, that He’s willing to risk the possibility that some people will choose never to puzzle it through—and wind up crucifying Him as a result.
Why on earth does He do that? I’m still working on it. I’m sure I’ll prove Him wrong one of these days, because I’m just so smart. Surely, in time, He will realize how right I am and how my way is best!
Which brings me to today’s topic: What places in Jesus’ or the Church’s teaching does God resolutely refuse to do things your way and how has it forced you to change and grow? Might be an interesting topic of conversation, doncha think? Only (here’s the ground rules from your over-controlling host) stick to the topic. That means, not only, “Don’t drag in irrelevancies” but especially, “Don’t confess somebody else’s problem”. What I mean is this: It’s easy to talk about how Those People Over There don’t like the Church’s teaching on, say, gay marriage or abortion. If I’d wanted to talk about what’s hard for Those People Over There I would have written a column with the theme “Get a Load of Those People Over There. What a Bunch of Maroons! They Can’t Handle What I Can! Aren’t I Great?”
Instead, I wrote this piece with this theme. So let’s stick to it. What is it about the Church’s teaching that you find challenging and difficult, and how has it forced you to think and grow?
One last point: Nobody needs to treat this like the sacrament of reconciliation and say anything that embarrasses themselves in public. Maintain appropriate decorum. My idea is that it sometimes helps to air one’s struggles and discover somebody else who has faced (and overcome) similar difficulties. On a related note, posts which presume to sit in judgment of other people’s struggles will be ruthlessly deleted by yours truly. The idea is help one another and bear each other’s burdens, not chew out or offer dimestore psychoanalysis to a struggling brother or sister for their alleged “faithlessness” when they are doing the best they can.
Have I over-explained enough yet? Good! Just so there’s no ambiguity. I hate that! If you need me, I’ll be praying and trying talk Jesus out of it again. I’m sure He’ll listen this time.