The problem of the absence of Christ does not exist. The problem of his moving away from man’s history does not exist. God’s silence with regard to the anxieties of man’s heart and his fate, does not exist. There is only one problem that exists always and everywhere: the problem of our presence beside Christ. Of our remaining in Christ. Of our intimacy with the authentic truth of his words and with the power of his love. There exists only one problem, that of our faithfulness to the covenant with eternal wisdom, which is the source of true culture, that is, of man’s growth, and that of faithfulness to the promises of our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
– Saint John Paul II, Le Bourget, Jan 6, 1980
Culture is above all meant to be a “space” of encounter, of love, and of communion. This is why the Church and her inner mystery is above all the wellspring and safeguard of culture—for she is the one in whom God “cultures” the human heart for holiness, and in whom we can “culture” creation in the fullest way, exercising the sacred priesthood that is ours as human persons entrusted with stewardship of creation, and even more the priesthood received in baptism. We can say that culture, when it is authentic, is a kind of “home”—a “home of communion,” but in this way also becomes a “growing,” a pilgrimage toward our only true and lasting home in heaven.
There are many different levels and layers of culture, distinct and yet deeply related to one another, and often times also in opposition to one another. There is a societal culture, which comprises the beliefs, aspirations, practices, priorities and ways of relating of a given society. This directly influences the economic and political culture and practice as well. In every case, it is unavoidable that our cultural exercise is a direct expression of our vision of being, of what we believe to be the true foundation of reality. If we believe in an objective and universal goodness, truth, and beauty that bind all hearts to themselves, and bind them thus to one another, our culture will express this belief. If we believe, however, that truth is relative, and that the individual finds freedom and happiness in an autonomous pursuit of his or her own wishes apart from a greater reality and from the human community, then our culture will express this. This affirmation or lack of affirmation of the truthfulness of reality influences our every thought and action, not only in the wide societal culture, but also in the culture of the Church, in the culture of smaller communities, and in the culture of the family.
Expressed most simply, culture is defined by the way that we relate to all things: to God, to one another, to truth, goodness, and beauty, to the rest of creation. And at the heart of these relationships, determining their blossoming or their breakdown, lies a fundamental attitude toward life. On one side of the spectrum is the radical spirit of faith—as we see animated at the highest points of the Middle Ages, in which relationships were rich because faith in God and openness to reality were vivid. On the other side of the spectrum we see the breakdown brought on in the Modern period, the radical spirit of relativism and individualism, in which there is a fundamental distrust in reality, in the objective existence of truth, goodness, and beauty which bind people together because of their universality. On one hand is the spirit of childlike receptivity to reality, and the abiding disposition of gratitude. At the heart of this—the authentic blossoming of culture—is the spirit of humility, of wonder, of contemplation, and the resulting “dilation” of the heart in love. This is a fourfold movement of knowledge of which St. Thomas Aquinas speaks: 1) humility, which I would describe as the spirit of childlike receptivity to a gift that can only come from the outside; 2) wonder, which is the awe and gratitude at having received this gift, a gift radiating with the light of a Love freely given, 3) contemplation, which is remaining always in “contact” with this gift, with the beauty, goodness, and truth of reality that speaks of God; it is to rest in the Love that holds us, to abide in the One who loves us and who unveils before our eyes and our hearts his awesome Beauty, thus awakening our hearts to receiving and to giving love ever more deeply; 4) dilation of the heart and of life, in which our being expands on contact with the immensity of God and his Love; finding ourselves cradled in the arms of God’s Love, our being can spontaneously open out in vulnerability of acceptance and self-giving, into the depth of loving relationship with him, with other persons, and indeed with the whole of creation.
This lies at the heart of worship, prayer, and adoration (of “cult”), and of the whole life of faith, ethics, and interpersonal relationship. Indeed, ethics is born of childlike receptivity because every “ought” authentically springs, not from an abstract demand or impersonal obligation, but from an “awe,” an encounter with the inherent beauty and goodness of reality, which issues a personal and intimate invitation to the receptive human heart—an invitation to conform oneself to this beauty and goodness and truth.
A culture remains alive, therefore, to the degree that it sustains and fosters this childlike awe and wonder, this spirit of grateful receptivity, and therefore sustains true responsiveness to reality—to what really is outside of the human heart: to God, to neighbor, to creation, to the whole objective realm of being that radiates with the impress of God’s creative touch. Thus the heart, contemplating and receiving, is “dilated,” it opens out and expands to live in ceaseless relationship, in the vulnerability of truth and love. And this is the way of happiness, for we have been created precisely for relationship, and in this alone do our hearts blossom: in intimacy with God above all, and within him with all of our brothers and sisters and with the whole of creation.
However, a culture that no longer believes in truth, goodness, and beauty narrows the human heart and leads it to collapse in upon itself. This is a culture that fosters depression and anxiety, rooted in the deep loneliness, isolation, and sense of meaninglessness experienced by the individual who is separated from the community and from the experience of Love that alone gives life. This is a culture that degenerates from the true beauty existence—and of art, literature, and leisure that are a contact with the depths of reality as manifesting God—as a communion among persons, to a flight from what is real into a self-manufactured irresponsibility, and into the superficial and fragmenting pursuit of pleasure and ease. It is clear that our contemporary culture is founded on this divorce of the individual from the whole, from the all-enveloping embrace of God, from the forming influences of authentic community, and ultimately from what is real. What is real is in the last analysis Love.
Being is Love, flowing from the bosom of the Trinity as a pure gift and constituting each and every one of us, in our inmost identity, in relationship with the God who loves us and who holds us in existence. Within this pure gift of our being, our existence given to us by God, we are also entrusted to one another in relationship. Therefore relationship, gift, and communion is not an accidental or secondary add-on to our being, but rather what lies at the very core of our existence. Love and communion indeed lies at the inner core of all things that exist, marked with the impress of God’s own hand, with the seal of the love of the Trinity, who is an eternal Community of Persons in perfect intimacy. Yes, in the last analysis the whole of our existence, all of being, is a pure gift of eternal Love, from the bosom of the Trinity. What is real is Love. Love is identical with Being.
Understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude. If we do not respond to the cosmos in this way, it is because in some sense we have been “coached out of it”— by our culture, perhaps, or by our own choices and habits. Another implication of the idea of being-as-love is that being is intrinsically relational, not individualistic. The individual is real, to be sure, but included within individuality, and lying at its core, is relationality—to God, to whom the individual is constitutively related as a created thing is to its creator, and to others, to whom the individual is related through a common relationship to God. In short, neither receptivity nor relationality [the persons inherent openness to relationship, and constitution through relationship] are concepts that we can “add on,” even in abstraction, to a self-subsisting, not related individual of the sort imagined by liberal thinkers. Ontologically speaking, before he is anything else the person is a gift and exists in relation. Receptivity, rooted in giftedness, and relationality are constitutive of the human being, and indeed of all being. (Jeremy Beer, “Philosopher of Love,” in The American Conservative, February 20, 2013)
It is because our world has forgotten our rootedness in Love, the fact that our whole existence is a gift of pure Love, that it thinks freedom and happiness lie, not in acceptance of the gift of existence, the childlike welcoming of the gift of Love coming to us at every moment, but in the cutting-off of ourselves from this. It seeks freedom rather in the effort to create our own “reality” from inside the narrowness of our own isolated self. To heal culture, therefore, the most important thing is that we regain the ability to see the face of Love shining from the depths of every being, to welcome the Love of God approaching us in all of reality, and to joyfully embrace this and to allow it to expand our hearts in its own beauty.
So how, concretely, can we respond to the disorders of our contemporary culture, divorced as it is from the truth of Being as Love, as the overflowing gift of God seeking to draw us into intimate communion with himself and with one another? We could say that it occurs in a twofold movement: a movement toward God—and toward the depth of what is real, toward authentic interpersonal communion—and also a movement toward the many persons in our world who are lost and estranged from all that gives freedom and life. The first is the “not of this world” spoken of by Christ, and the second is the “in the world.” We are not of this world, destined for the fullness of intimacy that awaits us at the end of time, and which is already implanted as a seed in the heart of our existence; but this very seed should be sheltered, fostered, and shared with those who are “in the world” so that they may participate in the mystery that is at work transforming our world from the inside.
We are invited to “withdraw” from the destructive influences of our contemporary culture, from all that militates against truth, goodness, and beauty, from the “world” in the negative sense. In a word, we are to withdraw from all false and destructive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting—all that is not in complete harmony with the beauty of the Gospel. In doing this, we are to foster authentic culture, “sub-cultures” we could say, in our Church (who is, remember, the home of communion, and thus of authentic culture), in our parishes, in our families, in communal institutions or “spiritual families” that lie in radical embracing of evangelical truth, living in the intimate sharing and joyful communion that God’s Love alone makes possible. These cultures, these communities, can be a real “leaven” in the midst of society, and have a magnetic pull, lifting up the rest of the world closer to God—for truth, goodness, beauty, love, and intimacy have a spontaneously magnetic and attractive effect. Indeed, true love, true prayer, true communion, even if it is not seen visibly, has an invisible spiritual effect (in the mystery of the communion of saints) in drawing others closer to God.
Then, from these homes of communion, these sanctuaries of culture, we can also reach out, on the strength of the love we have received, the truth to which our lives have been wedded, to the wider society. We can draw near in loving proximity to our brothers and sisters, and can foster encounter and dialogue—above all through true friendship, through the tenderness of acceptance and loving compassion. We can try to address the deep wound, the deep thirst at the heart of our broken society, at the heart of the existence of every one of our brethren. The thirst for unconditional love, a Love that gives life and identity because it has its origin in the Father, who looks upon each one of us, uniquely and unrepeatably, as precious and irreplaceable in his eyes. This is a love that shelters and protects, and in so doing re-opens the path to authentic vulnerability before the gift of reality, vulnerability to share oneself, vulnerability to enter into communion with others.
In this movement of engagement with the world, it is also possible—and important—to share the other secondary fruits of authentic culture, which themselves foster and deepen culture—expressing as they do the nature of goodness, truth, and beauty as radiances of a single Love who is God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words: art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. These are all born of that childlike receptivity, that contemplative wonder and dilation of heart that lies at the wellspring of human life and true culture. They spring from the core of authentic prayer and community life, from a true grace-filled and love-filled attitude toward life as God’s gift:
Christians might take up this task [of transforming culture] by rooting their thoughts and actions more deeply in “originary” experience [of being as love and gift] via a “grateful and wonder-filled letting be.” Christians ought to attune themselves to the “whole of Being” by cultivating receptivity, silence, and stillness. [This has great implications] for our patterns of consumption, use of technology, and relationship to place. For instance…we find God “only by truly being in a place, through the interior stillness that alone permits depth of presence.” In ways such as this, Christianity “proposes principles that affect all human activities from within, including activities in politics and the public realm, and in economics.” Christianity doesn’t just “extrinsically” add substance, direction, or tweaks from the outside of social life. It puts forth a “vision of reality—an understanding of being, man, and God—that unfolds an entire way of life.” (Ibid)
Yes, the primary core, the all-enveloping truth of culture is our living contact with the Love of the Trinity that is the very Source and Consummation of our existence, and that cradles us already, unceasingly, within itself. It is the truth of our communion with God, and, in the tenderness of his Love, with one another and with the whole of creation, radiant with his beauty and the mystery of his gentle touch.