I was on sabbatical last year, and as I finished three books, several international lectures, and a bunch of other projects, my superego relentlessly pursued me with the question: “Are you doing enough?”
This wretched question led me to return often to dwell on an overlooked part of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Often described as little more than a letter about abortion, it is in fact a wide-ranging analysis of many interlocking cultural developments, not the least of which is the one coming back to my mind for some time now: his strong and repeated denunciations of late-modern capitalist “idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” (no.12).
This was a theme he returned to repeatedly in the letter, later writing of how “the values of being are replaced by those of having. The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one’s own material well-being. The so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency” (no.23). Noting in the same paragraph how this ideology of efficiency is used to justify not only abortion and euthanasia, but also the reduction of all forms of life on this planet, which “are considered not for what they ‘are,’ but for what they ‘have, do and produce’” (no.23).
As we come to the end of the Paschal cycle, and enter into two major feasts that are often quickly rushed by—Ascension especially, but also Pentecost—I am struck by the contrast between cultural demands and ideas of “efficiency” on the one hand, and the lavish excessiveness of a gracious God on the other. If God were “efficient,” it seems neither feast need exist.
An efficient God would have ended with Easter—the queen of festivals indeed! Who could need or want more than that—to have death, our last and greatest enemy, destroyed? It would have been quite enough for Him to rescue us from death. That would be to right the balance lost with the fall, when death entered the world through sin. He need not have done more if we take a balance-sheet approach to salvation.
But God is not content with merely satisfying some soteriological “debt” as it were. He does not merely restore us to life on earth, but takes us from earth into heaven, so that human nature is thereby exalted beyond even that of the angels. At His Ascension we enter into the very life of God. But even this is not enough for Him insofar as it remains an eschatological promise and prospect. He wants to give us more gifts now, and His distribution system is not what Amazon or Walmart would consider efficient in the least.
If the late pope’s use of “efficiency” has been on my mind, then it has this month been paired antinomically with the word “excessive,” which was often used by and about the work of the late Jean Vanier, who died at the beginning of May and who has long been a hero to me since I was first enraptured by his Massey Lectures on CBC Radio in Canada in the 1990s. In a 2002 interview with the Catholic Herald, he spoke very powerfully of the excessive love of God: “There’s something in the Gospel message so simple, so loving, so extraordinary, so excessive,” he explains,
because everything Jesus does is done to excess. At Canaan, he gives an excessive amount of wine. When he multiplies the bread, he does an excessive amount. To love our enemies is an excess of love. When you are hit on one cheek, turn the other. Everything is excessive, because love can not be otherwise than excessive.
These themes of efficiency and excess came together this past Sunday when in the Byzantine tradition we read the gospel of the man born blind. In thinking on this gospel, and its placement just before Ascension and Pentecost, it seems to me that the Eastern Church is suggesting to Christians that we all need to be cleansed of our blindness in order to see aright in general terms, but also and especially in terms of the mysteries of the two great feasts before us. For without having our sight cleansed and purified by the Lord, how can we truly see the import of a man being taken beyond the clouds and back home to heaven whence He shall send the Holy Spirit, which appears as fire that burns but does not consume?
Seeing any of that in purely human terms, we understand none of it. Which of us, standing there as the apostles did, would in fact be able to see at all through our tears? Of all the Vesperal stichera throughout the year, none sticks in my mind so much as this deeply affecting and profoundly human one from the eve of the Ascension when we are told that as
the apostles saw You ascending upon the clouds, a great sadness overcame them; they shed burning tears and exclaimed: O our Master, do not leave us orphans; we are Your servants whom You loved so tenderly.
The only way they can endure the trauma of this second loss of our beloved, and so recently recovered, Jesus is to end, as this stichera does, by beseeching the Lord for consolation through the One rightly called Comforter: “Since You are most merciful, send down upon us Your all-holy Spirit to enlighten our souls, as You promised.”
Thus does the tradition directly link the departure of Christ at His Ascension with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And when the Spirit comes, He does not stint on spreading Himself everywhere. In the troparion (roughly equivalent to a collect) for Pentecost Monday (the Byzantine tradition having retained the octave, as the Western liturgical reforms, guided by notions of “efficiency,” have not), which becomes a prayer recited daily in the minor and major hours, the Church prays thus:
Heavenly King, Advocate, Spirit of Truth,
who are everywhere present and fill all things,
Treasury of Blessings, Bestower of Life,
come, and dwell within us;
cleanse us of all that defiles us,
and, O Good One, save our souls.
At Matins on Pentecost, the Byzantine tradition says that only now does God rest, as it were, from His supererogatory labors, for it is here that Easter’s overcoming of death reaches its consummation:
Come, O faithful, let us celebrate the feast of the Fiftieth Day: the day which concludes the Feast of feasts; the day on which the pre-ordained promise is fulfilled; the day when the Comforter descends upon the earth in tongues of fire; the day of the disciples’ enlightenment. They are revealed as initiated into the heavenly mysteries, for truly the light of the Comforter has illumined the world.
We who live here and now remain initiates into the heavenly mysteries—an act of divine generosity so excessive it overwhelms us, and the only way we can receive it is by daily petition to have our sight healed, our hearts enlarged, and our minds renewed so that we may live wildly inefficient lives of excessive, extravagant love. As we move forth into Ascensiontide and then Pentecost, let us never forget these beautiful words of St. Augustine: “Our entire task in this life, dear brothers, consists in healing the eyes of the heart so that they may be able to see God.”
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