Regis Martin, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He podcasts at In Search Of The Still Point.
If the driving force behind all theology is the desire to understand God, and thus to immerse ourselves in the depths of a mystery to which there is no end, then the effort to do so can only proceed by way of paradox. And what is paradox? It is what happens when truth, to cite that prince of paradox, G.K. Chesterton, “stands on her head to attract attention.” When one is seized, stupefied even, by something totally true, yet contrary to every human expectation.
Why would God, Creator of the universe, choose to become a creature like us? Breaking himself upon the wheel of an unjust world to become our bread? A God not only born, but crucified? How can this be? A baby born into the very world which he made? (How charmingly Chesterton puts it: “the hands that had made the sun and the stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”) The eternal Word unable to speak a word? “This is indeed,” exclaimed St. Gregory Nazianzen, “an unheard of commingling, and a paradoxical fusion. He who is, becomes; the Infinite is created and contained in space…the Invisible is seen, the Inaccessible touched, the Timeless steps into time, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man!”
Surely, by any human reckoning, such things are not possible. Yet life is replete with such examples. The fact that only a really big man can know how truly small he is, unlike the pride of a sinfully small man imagining himself big and brave. Only by looking up, Chesterton reminds us, will we see marvels; “for Alice must first grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland.” Of course, in a fallen world, such heartbeats of humility do not easily register. But they register with God. Which is why we need so often to be reminded that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Or that Jesus himself must tell us how “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
It was that precise passage, by the way, that changed the life of a young man by the name of Romano Guardini when, more than a century ago, he felt himself so threatened by doubt and disbelief that he scarcely knew which way to turn. Scholastic syllogisms, on which whole generations of the young were fed, were not a diet sufficient to nourish his soul, much less overcome the corrosions of modernity. That is because the problem was not finally under the hood, but in the heart. But then, all at once, paradox shows up to deliver the knockout blow. Which was the sudden lightning realization that unless he were to submit his will at once to Christ, and leave aside the heavy machinery of argument, he might never escape the bonds that held him tight. Let go, and let God. The young man did so and today we celebrate him as a Servant of God now living amid the precincts of eternal felicity.
How does Pascal put it? “The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing.” And mobilizing that heart in the form of submission to God is the only way forward. What is it, after all, that sets us apart from the animals? Unless God had designed us along the lines of a computer, it cannot be in thinking that we find our uniqueness. It is rather the ability we have, indeed, the very capacity we carry around with us at every waking moment, to receive grace that most sharply distinguishes us from the animals. It is that which renders us uniquely human and thus unrepeatable. Capable, therefore, of real and lasting friendship with God; of loving God and being loved by him. It is a stunning paradox, that each of us, while remaining wholly finite, stands in relation to an infinite Other. Who not only holds us in being — from moment to moment, in fact, above an absolute, annihilating abyss — but actually wants to share his life with us. He thirsts for our company, which must surely be among the greatest wonders of the world.
In the final scene from the Tower, so memorably set down in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More awaits his fate. He is alone but not for long: Margaret, his favorite daughter, suddenly appears, sent by Cromwell to persuade him to throw in his lot with all the other cowards who have taken the king’s side. Determined to save her father, she pulls out all the stops, hoping that reason will bring him to his senses: “But in reason!” she implores. “Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” And his answer? “Well… finally… it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
Cor ad cor loquitur. Only the love of God piercing the heart of man in order to awaken a response, will save us and the world we both love.