Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pledging troth, knowing to Whom you belong

I just finished reading a book I would recommend to anyone, especially over the early weeks of Advent: John Henry Cardinal Newman's Callista: A Tale of the Third Century. In addition to being an inspiring tale of early Christian martyrdom, Newman manages to seamlessly write a lot of compelling catechesis. I am not making an attempt to unfold the tale, which is beautiful, as most things are, because of its noble simplicity, but merely highlighting one ancillary digression Cardinal Newman made at the beginning of the eleventh chapter about marriage. In the context of the story, it is a marriage that never happens, but turns into something much more beautiful for God on the part of both Callista and her suitor Agellius. As narrator, Newman writes from the perspective of an ancient North African Christian after the passing of the imperial persecutions, looking back on the events about which he is writing.

Agellius, who along with Callista is the protagonist of the story, has remained a Christian despite the fact that the Church in his town, Sicca, has stopped functioning as the result of previous persecutions. As a Christian with no community, Agellius is a truly like a fish without water. While he remains fairly devout, especially given his circumstances, his love of Christ has started to cool, verging on becoming lukewarm. With the help of his uncle, a committed Roman and pagan, he approaches Aristos, Callista's brother and guardian, about marrying the lovely, talented, and brilliant young woman, despite the fact that she is not yet a Christian. The passage with which I am concerned occurs as Agellius approaches the abode of Aristos and Callista.

About the contemplation of marriage, Newman writes that it is a "solemn moment," indeed, "under any circumstances...when anyone deliberately surrenders himself, soul and body, to the keeping of another while life shall last." It is certainly true that any authentic mode of Christian life has an eschatological dimension, including marriage, which cannot be seen merely as a concession to human weakness. Noting this, Newman wrote that giving one's entire person to another still requires one to reserve "the supreme claim of duty to the Creator."

When looked at objectively, Newman insists, marriage "is so tremendous an undertaking that nature seems to sink under its responsibilities." Looking at marriage by way of an analogy to religious life and, to a lesser degree, priesthood, Newman notes the supernatural strength needed to live both. In religious life and, by extension marriage, "the Christian binds himself" to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus surrendering himself "to Him who is all-perfect, and whom he may unreservedly trust." However, it is of the essence of these modes of life to be subject to another human being; the religious superior, in the case of a religious, and the spouse for those who are married, marriage, according to Scripture, requiring the mutual submission of husband and wife to each other under the headship of Christ (see Ephesians 5:22-33- DO NOT SKIP ANY VERSE!). Newman rightly observes that we are naturally wary of making "such a sacrifice." Nonetheless, because faith enjoins it, the Church is required to "sanction and bless it." It stands to reason, at least for Newman, "that either the bond should be dissoluble, or that the subjects of it should be sacramentally strengthened to maintain it." A Christian recognizes the latter, thereby placing himself/herself in submission to God, in whom we "may unreservedly trust."

Fr. James Blaine giving the Nuptial Blessing to a newly-married couple in The Cathedral of the Madeleine

It is clear from the beginning of the proposition that he seek to marry her that Agellius is infatuated with Callista. Infatuation, which, according to Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP, is the mirror image of lust. Infatuation, as Radcliffe describes it, is when another person "becomes the object of all our desires and the symbol of all we have longed for, the answer to all our needs." No human being can possibly bear this weight, but that they can use it to their advantage and the to detriment of the one who is infatuated. Both lust and infatuation are idolatrous. Lust worships the self; infatuation worships the other. Callista begins their interview by recalling a slave woman, Chione, who used to be in Callista's service. According to Callista, Chione was a Christian from a Christian family who died young. Speaking of her late slave, Callista says, "She was unlike any one I have seen before or since, she cared for nothing, yet was not morose or peevish or hard-hearted." The beautiful and inspiring love of Chione for Christ becomes the criterion against which Callista judges the faith of Agellius.

Agellius keeps bringing up his "Master," expressing his wish that Callista may come to know Him, but Callista cuts him short, chastising him for never saying anything meaningful to her about Christ, despite their long-time acquaintance: "Your Master! who is your Master? what know I of your Master? I suppose it is an esoteric doctrine which I am not worthy to know; but so it is, here you have been again and again, and talked freely of many things, yet I am in as much darkness about your Master as if I had never seen you." Calling out his infatuation of her, the physically beautiful Callista says to Agellius, "Your words, your manner, your looks were altogether different from others who came near me. But so it was; you came, and you went, and came again; I thought it reserve, I thought it timidity, I thought it the caution of a persecuted sect; but O, my disappointment, when first I saw in you indications that you were thinking of me only as others think, and felt towards me as others may feel; that you were aiming at me, not your God; that you had much to tell of yourself, but nothing of Him! Time was I might have been led to worship you, Agellius; you have hindered it be worshipping me." Of the last sentence, my friend Maria Elena wrote: "best quote ever."

Hence, his infatuation with her is the reason Callista very sagely rebukes Agellius, thus slapping his conscience back to life, putting them both on the royal road to salvation. It is a classic instance of loving another by loving his destiny, of showing how veritas precedes caritas. As a result of his infatuation with Callista, Agellius failed to acknowledge that God has the supreme claim upon him, something that Callista makes unmistakably clear to her would-be suitor. This shows us that it is not always evangelical zeal, but lukewarmness, that many non-Christians, at least those like Callista who have grasped the futility of life and who are looking for what their existence truly means, for fulfillment, find so unappealing.

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