Thursday, 26 March 2009

Faith Matters Lecture 3: Who is Jesus?

Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ gave the third lecture in the "Faith Matters" series at Westminster Cathedral yesterday evening. The transcript of his lecture can be found here, on the website of Wesminster Diocese. This offered an opportunity for nostalgia, as I attended lectures on fundamental theology given by Fr O'Collins when I was a student in Rome (this isn't anything that special since Father taught at the Gregorian University for some 33 years so there are many a few of us who experienced his lectures at one time or another). Dr Anthony Towey, of St Mary's University College Strawberry Hill, who chaired the lecture, is also a contact from my past.

It was one of the questions at the end of the lecture that I think really focussed on what the lecture was about. This asked about how we can actually come to a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ today. This question is worthy of reflection in two ways: delineating exactly what the question means, and then providing a fully Catholic answer.

The "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" referred to in the question seems to me to indicate an attachment to Christ that has a spontaneity about it. By this I mean an attachment that seems to arise from within the individual concerned, and so to have a liveliness and energy about it that would not be the case for an attachment that is in some way achieved from outside (by a form of coercion or by an adaptation to surrounding culture or norms). There may be external factors that contribute to the situation of that attachment, but the core of it arises from within. It is spontaneous in perhaps three senses: the initiative is essentially internal to the individual, it is lively and energetic, and in being both of these it is also profoundly an act of freedom. In the Catholic Church, we can look with a certain envy towards Evangelical protestants to see this spontaneity; but it is also to be seen in the Church in the commitment of Catholics who participate in the life and activities of the new movements.

To introduce a Catholic answer to how this "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" can be achieved, let me try to describe a distinction made by Edith Stein in her doctoral thesis On Empathy. She distinguishes between a physical human body that is presented through sense perception (and which could be "my" body or the body of another) and the "living body", which is how my own body is presented to my consciousness, as something that is always "here" whereas other things, including other bodies, are always "there". The "living body" is therefore to be associated with the "I", the personal consciousness. In Edith's own words, the "I" or individual is:

.. a unified object inseparably joining together the conscious unity of an"I" and a physical body in such a way that each of them takes on a new character. The physical body occurs as a living body; consciousness occurs as the soul of the unified individual.

Edith Stein then continues her analysis to interpret the physical body of others (that we can percieve through the senses) as being also, for the other, a living body united with an "I" and capable of consciousness. Acts of empathy involve our ability to place ourselves, in a kind of secondary way, into the place of the physical body of the other so that we experience it as a living body, a centre of the others "I". Such acts represent inter-personal relationship. In her habilitation thesis, Edith Stein develops this idea of one-to-one personal relationship further in a study of relationships between individuals and communities. She suggests that communities have a kind of personal character, a kind of "I" of their own; they have a "spiritual sphere" with which the members of the community form a relationship. One might think of it as empathy between an individual and a community. What is interesting, though, is that the community has a "physical body" - it has physical members who can be seen, touched, heard - but it also has a kind of "living body" that cannot just be identified with the sum total of its individual physical members but in some way exists "in them" when the community undertakes activities of its life. And this "living body" has a kind of "soul" analagous to that which Edith Stein proposes for the "living body" of the individual person.

Now, where is this going in trying to answer our question about achieving a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? What I want to suggest is that our personal relationship with Jesus Christ is a personal relationship with his Church, the Catholic Church. Just as our empathic relations to other persons are mediated through a physical perceivable body, so with our relationship with Jesus Christ. It was first of all the physical body of Jesus, made flesh in Palestine; but it is for us now the physical body of his Church, under its aspect as a visible, tangible institution, and most fundamentally expressed in the hierarchical nature of the Church. It is the Church as institution, represented in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar by the figure of St Peter and his successors. But the physical body reveals to us a "living body", and the term "Mystical Body of Christ" applied to the Church is profoundly significant in this regard. Our empathetic relation to the Church leads us to enter into the space of this "living body", this "mystical body", which is the love of God. For von Balthasar, this aspect of the Church is represented by the figure of St John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

The achieving of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is about moving from an experience of the institutional body (which is good and utterly indispensable - and what is missing for the Evangelical protestant) to an experience of the "mystical body" (which cannot be separated from the institutional body, though the Evangelical protestant undoubtedly has some experience of this through an ever abundant grace from God and through a faithfulness to Scripture).

For most Catholics, this rather lofty reflection boils down to a very practical matter. It is about coming to see Sunday Mass as the awe inspiring presence and action of the love of God (St John) through the visible and audible forms of the liturgical texts and actions (St Peter). In this context, one can talk about meeting Jesus in the Scriptures, in the witness of the community of the faithful, in the priest who is most especially "in persona Christi" at the celebration of Mass, and in reception of Holy Communion. These meetings are all expressed in the liturgical form.

All these forms of meeting with Jesus Christ need to be lived out "again", outside of the liturgy itself, so that they become part of our lives and in turn bring us back to the liturgy with the threefold spontaneity to which I referred above. We should not be surprised if a parish that has no devotional life outside of the liturgy - Scripture study or prayer groups, Eucharistic Adoration, etc - has an experience of the liturgy that is little more than formalistic.

For Hans Urs von Balthasar, the figure in the Church who joins hierarchical structure (St Peter) to charismatic love (St John) is the Mother of the Lord, the Virgin Mary. Mary is a figure who represents the whole of the Church, in both its "physical" and its "mystical" aspects. A simply pietistic Marian devotion is, I think, of limited value. I prefer the notion of a "Marian character", which should spread through every aspect of Christian life, and not be an "add-on devotion". The ecclesial nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ is in this way at once also a Marian nature.

It is very interesting to recognise features that are almost universal among the new movements in the Church, the locus in which many people are able to achieve the "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" to which the question referred: a Marian charism, Eucharistic Adoration, reflection on the Scriptures and on their application to daily living, and faithfulness to the hierarchy of the Church.

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