History is repetition; all that happens has happened and will happen. So says Qoheleth:
All things are wearisome,
too wearisome for words.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
nor has the ear enough of hearing.
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)
And so says Nietzsche:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy: and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
They are right. Certain problems plague us over and over again. One of them is the charge of “ambiguity” or sowing the seeds of discord and confusion. As I have written before, this charge is common against Pope Francis—well-intentioned fool, deceiver, or outright Anti-Christ.
I would like, then, to give two historical examples of good, decent priests facing similar problems. Perhaps in recollection, those who love our pope might be heartened and those who judge him swiftly might be called to ashes and sackcloth. Most importantly, historical examples might show us that ambiguity does not go away, that life is not black and white (an unfortunately trite statement that hides such profundity of truth!), that reductionism gets us nowhere.
Meister Eckhart was never declared a heretic, though some of his teachings were considered misleading or dangerously ambiguous. His accusers condemned his words, though not him, because, in most cases, they feared they were too liable to (mis)interpretation.
For his part, Eckhart was a student of Albertus Magnus (a distinction he shares with Aquinas), twice a professor of theology at Paris (another distinction he shares with Aquinas), and a highly respected spiritual guide, whose various positions within the Dominican Order indicate counselling and administrative acumen. He worked often with the laity. The primary emphasis of his teaching was the need to give up the goods of this world, to surrender all to God. He believed such piety to be possible for all.
His students Blessed Henry Suso and Johannes Tauler went on to have a major impact on medieval spirituality; in fact, their influence on Ludolph of Saxony helped give us St. Ignatius of Loyola (who read Ludolph’s Vita Christi while convalescing, helping to effect his conversion). When disciplined Eckhart denied any heresy, but, obediently said he would recant whatever the Church deemed necessary. In other words, Eckhart was a kind soul, whose indirect influence was immense.And yet, following the condemnation of his words and the passing away of the Middle Ages, he was forgotten. So much so, in fact, that the Dominican Order sought to rehabilitate his name in the late twentieth century. The Vatican told the friars he had never been condemned. Eckahrt won the day, but only after condemnation and eventual obscuration.
My second example is a group of priests mentioned in Dorothy Day’s autobiography. She summarizes the experience of listening to one Fr. Hugo while on retreat:
“He who says he has done enough has already perished,” he began ominously, quoting the words of St. Augustine. We shivered. How often had we settled back and said that we had done all we could; nothing more could be expected of us […]
Love is a commandment, Father Hugo said. It is a choice, a preference. If we love God with our whole hearts, how much heart have we left? If we love with our whole mind and soul and strength, how much mind and soul and strength have we left? We must love this life now. Death changes nothing. If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will. If we do not learn to praise Him and thank Him and rejoice in Him now, we never will.
Of course, the priests’ retreats were shut down, for fear that they might sow the seeds of confusion among the people. Day relates the results of their exhortations:
In Canada, Father Lacouture was charged with inexactitude of expression, causing division among the clergy and causing people to go to extremes in the business of mortification […]
[W]ithin a few years, Father Hugo and the others who gave the retreat were refused permission to give it any longer, and were told to take care of their parish duties […]
Not only were many of the young priests told they could no longer give the retreat but two members of an order who gave it were sent to Egypt and the Holy Land, another to Nicaragua, and Father Lacouture himself was sent to an Indian reservation in northern New York where he could administer the sacraments but not teach. He is there today, happy and at peace, sowing, as he terms it, his own interior sense, the memory, the understanding, the will.
“Unless the seed fall into the ground and die,” he reminds us.
Note again the obedience of these priests, faced with censure for exhorting Christians, any and all Christians, to strive for perfection. Such challenges, even when gentle, however, are, time and time again, taken to be ambiguous, or worse—deceptive.
As Christians, we are supposed to know that the world is not black and white, that faith is hard, and that spreading the Gospel is difficult not just because it demands facing those who disagree but also because it means immense self-sacrifice that even other Christians might find offensive. I am reminded of Judas, ever watchful over the coffers, but reticent to listen to our Lord.
And then there is the issue of Scripture—clearly ambiguous, clearly requiring Tradition, attention, and deference, qualities necessary precisely because the world is not black and white. Pope Francis’ words require such acts of kindness to be understood rightly. Though ears will remain closed, if history is to repeat itself as Qoheleth and Nietzsche claim, then I cannot help but believe that, in spite of these charges of ambiguity, the legacy of the Holy Father will win out—as it did for Eckhart and the priests of The Long Loneliness before him.