Recognizing Grace in a Manual Transmission

This past week, I’ve been on vacation. Actually, it’s been a “stay-cation,” with me working on little projects around the house. The repairs to our home after the hail damage (from the storms back in April) needed to be managed as well. And then there was my car.

My car had been damaged pretty significantly by the hail storm too. Early in May it was inspected by my insurer, and the body shop scheduled it for repair in the third week of July. They said it would take one full week, and instead, it took three. It also cost them twice as much to repair it as the insurer estimated.

Did I mention my oldest son received his “learners permit” back in July too? And he has been driving under supervision since that time and doing a fine job. That is, until my car came home from the shop. You see, my little car has a 5-speed transmission, which helps it get 40 miles per gallon on the highway. I informed my son that he must learn to drive it.

It’s one of those unilateral “Dad Edicts” that I announce from time to time, as it is my prerogative to do. Anyway, to make a long story short, my son has been re-learning how to drive this week while I am on vacation. School starts next week for him, so now is the time.

What does any of this have to do with grace? Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything.

When talking about grace, I mean what Merriam-Webster marks down as definition #1(a) & (b):

1a: unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.

1b: a virtue coming from God.

You see, when you live in the world of automation, everything seems easy. And you can start to take for granted that ease, and completely miss out on all the wonderful, and sometimes difficult, things that actually take place in order to accomplish things as simply as shifting gears in a car. Or like drafting this message.

Now as long as I’ve had children, they have known that manual transmissions exist. But my oldest is realizing now how something that I (and his mother) make seem so effortless is actually downright tricky to duplicate.

He has learned how even the most modest of inclines is a fearsome challenge. He has been humbled, and amazed, by the ease with which a car can stall when trying to get started in first gear on level ground. And he’s learned:

How unforgiving the clutch is if you let it out too quickly. How three pedals and a stick shift have to be manipulated, all while steering and keeping track of all these other cars on the road too. He has learned how little patience other drivers have when he inadvertently stalls when at a red light.

These moments were all lost to him when he was a passenger only, or when he was driving our automatic transmission car. It really never crossed his mind that driving a car with a manual transmission is a form of work. It’s not, really, and after he gets the hang of it these tasks will be second nature to him as well.

So, as I’ve been sitting in the passenger seat as his instructor pilot this week, thoughts of recognizing grace have been popping up in my mind. Because if we don’t look for it, we can forget that it is occurring all around us, all the time. We run the risk of being numb to it, just like we forget, or never really even knew, how an automatic transmission works.

Drawing by David Levine

It’s all the fault of Karl Rahner, SJ. I’ve been reading Volume One of his Mission and Grace. In it he says stuff like,

There cannot be any grace which does not imply a quite definite putting into action of nature; nor can there be any human, responsible putting of nature into action, which is not subject to the demands of grace, amounting in concreto, with no avoidance of it while life lasts, to a Yes or No to grace.

Got that? If it sounds kind of highfalutin, pardon Fr. Karl. He probably didn’t recognize that this sounds a lot like shifting gears with a manual transmission. See, without the grace (see definition 3c) of easing out the clutch, there will be a failed action called stalling, and not the beautiful action of going.

But the grace that I am referring to is that which resides in the interactions I have been having with my son while teaching him this new skill. The grace of helping him to see he can do this seemingly impossible task. The grace of giving him encouragement. The grace of expressing my faith in his ability to succeed. The grace of helping him overcome the dejection of failure. The grace of watching him mature before my eyes. The grace of his confidence rising from the rocks of failure.

It reminds me again of what Fr. Karl writes when he says,

The Christian knows that he will constantly be sent by God upon courses which he cannot by himself complete; that tasks will be laid upon him which cannot be finally performed while the fashion of this world remains; that he has always to fight, without, as yet, being able to see final victory, indeed that it would be a danger-signal of the most appalling defeat if he so much as wanted to fight in such fashion as to achieve a once-for-all victory. And yet the Christian does not despair of this world. He works, he keeps on beginning again, he does not give up.

Yes. Recognizing God’s grace is a lot like learning to drive a stick shift. One day soon, I’ll be able to use these experiences to teach my son this higher truth. And I can only hope that recognition and gratitude will be the result.

Um, that’s my seat Cody.

 

For “Ghetto Catholicism?” Not Hardly.

The thoughts I share with you now were originally published in 1961, and in English in 1963. Yet today, to this humble reader at least, they seem prophetic. Taken from the first chapter of the first volume of the title you see below, Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, explains why in the Post Christian world of today, opting for the ghettoization of the Church is a non-starter.

Instead, he argues we should embrace the fact that we are a disapora people, because frankly, we have always been called to be so. For as the cross was Our Lord’s “sign of contradiction,” so too is the Church called to be the same, as it was in the beginning, briefly ceased to be in the Middle Ages, and is now again resuming this holy, and necessary, calling. “Take up your cross, and follow me.”

As I’ve mentioned before, we are called to be salt, light, and yeast. We are not called to be the new pharisees of the Catholic Ghetto. Fr. Karl helps me to see why below. My comments are in bold italics.

from Mission and Grace: A Theological Interpretation of the Position of Christians in the Modern World

My thesis is thus: Insofar as our outlook is really based on today, and looking towards tomorrow, the present situation of Christians can be characterized as that of a diaspora, and this signifies in terms of the history of salvation, a “must”, from which we may draw conclusions about our behavior as Christians…

How about a quickie refresher on the definition of diaspora? Go with 2) a & b here.

What, after all, does a person do if he sees the diaspora situation coming and thinks of it as something which simply and absolutely must not be? He makes himself a closed circle, an artificial situation inside which looks as if the inward and outward diaspora isn’t one; he makes a ghetto. This, I think, is the theological starting point for an approach to the ghetto idea.

The old Jewish ghetto was the natural expression of an idea, such that Orthodox Judaism was ultimately bound to produce it within itself; the idea, namely, of being the one and only Chosen People, wholly autonomous, as of right, in every respect, including secular matters, and of all other nations as not only not belonging in practice to this earthly, social community of the elect and saved, but as not in any sense called to it, not an object towards which there is a missionary duty.

But we are called to be missionary people. To be ambassadors for Christ, as a well known, inspired writer exhorts us to be. Fr. Karl makes it clear here,

But a Christian cannot regard his Church as autonomous in secular, cultural, and social matters; his Church is not a theocracy in worldly affairs; nor can he look upon non-Christians as not called; nor can he with inopportune and inordinate means aim to get rid of the “must” with which the history of salvation presents him, namely, that there are now non-Christians in amongst the Christians or real Christians in amongst the non-Christians. His life has to be open to the non-Christians.

Hmmm. There’s that word “theocracy” again. Not a good idea. Fr. Karl explains why,

If he encapsulates himself in a ghetto, whether in order to defend himself, or to leave the world to judgement of wrath as the fate which it deserves, or with the feeling that it has nothing of any value or importance to offer him anyway, he is falling back into the Old Testament. But this is our temptation, this ghetto idea. For a certain type of deeply convinced, rather tense, militant Catholic at a fairly low (petty-bourgeois) cultural level, the idea of entrenching oneself in a ghetto is rather alluring; it is even religiously alluring: it looks like seeking only the Kingdom of God.

Nice trick, that. Jon Stewart, of the very secular Comedy Channel news spoof “the Daily Show,” recently shared some words (language alert!) about how strident tactics wind up backfiring. Roll clip.

Now back to Fr. Karl, with my editing and emphasis.

Here we are, all together, and we can behave as though there were nothing in the world but Christians. The ghetto policy consists in thinking of the Church not only as the autonomous community of salvation (which she is) but as an autonomous society in every field. So a Christian has to consider [a Catholic poet being] greater than Goethe, and have no opinion of any magazine except [Catholic magazines]; any statesman who makes his Easter duties is a great statesman, any other is automatically a bit suspect; Christian-Democratic parties are always right, Socialists always wrong, and what a pity there isn’t a Catholic party.

The insistence, for the sake of the ghetto, on integrating everything into an ecclesiastical framework naturally means that the clergy have to be in control of everything. This results in anti-clerical feeling, which is not always an effect of malice and hatred for God. The interior structure of the ghetto conforms, inevitably, to the style of that period which it is, in make-believe, preserving; its human types are those sociological, intellectual, and cultural types which belong to the period and feel comfortable in the ghetto; in our case, the petty-bourgeois, in contrast to the worker of today, or the man of tomorrows atomic age.

It is no wonder, then, if people outside identify Christianity with the ghetto, and have no desire to get inside it; it is the sheer grace of God if anyone ever manages to recognize the Church as the house of God, all cluttered up as she is with pseudo-Gothic décor, and other kinds of reactionary petty-bourgeois stuff.

You can say that again! How, then, do we get beyond this “ghetto” mindset while not falling into the error of relativism?

We may be preserved from this danger, which has become a reality only too often during the last few centuries, by a clear-sighted and courageous recognition of the fact that the diaspora situation of [the Church] is a “must” in the history of salvation, with which it is right to come to terms in many aspects of our practical conduct.

You know, Christ never promised us a rose garden. Those “two greatest commandments” need to be not just pondered, but applied. All the while keeping these thoughts in mind,

Mankind is at its best when it is most free. This will be clear if we grasp the principle of liberty. We must recall that the basic principle is freedom of choice, which saying many have on their lips but few in their minds. —Dante Alighieri

The Catholic Church must be a clear beacon of hope, and a contrarian “choice” for the world today. I believe she is, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to become Catholic.


Update: Music for Mondays selections inspired by this post.

Update II: I couldn’t have said this better myself.


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