By Charlie Johnston
“My soul magnifies the Lord” – The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
Back when I was a Protestant, it used to grate on me terribly to speak admiringly of a nobly inspiring character and have someone say, dismissively, “But he’s a Catholic.” Now that I am a Catholic, it annoys me equally to cite an amazingly inspiring character and have someone dismissively say, “But he’s a Protestant.”
Make no mistake; I am completely, even passionately, Catholic. I know that the Catholic Church is the only Christian Church that has a legitimate historical claim to having been founded by Christ, Himself. I believe that the fullness of truth is held in trust in the deposit of faith of the Catholic Church. It is a magnificent home we Catholics have been given. The holiness of the residents, though, while influenced by the splendor of the home, is not determined by it.
Every one of us falls short of the splendor of God. Far short. Every one of us is going to find that, like children, we badly misunderstood and misinterpreted some things when we stand before God, Himself. However great the treasures entrusted to us, it is altogether true that we hold these treasures in earthen vessels (see 2 Corinthians 4:2).
The Church, or faith tradition, that each of us adheres to is a sort of home to us. It pleases me to believe that Christ, Himself, is the architect of my home. Yet the splendor of the home does not determine the virtue of its inhabitants. Remember the parable of the two sons from Matthew 21:28-31: it was the son who DID rather than the son who merely SAID who did his father’s will. It is not the house we inhabit on earth which will ultimately determine our eternal residence. What a scandal it is when someone who, having received a magnificent home, defiles that gift. And what a delight to God when someone from a very humble home – or no home at all – lives His divine will well and with refinement! It is how we live our Father’s will here that will determine whether we inherit one of the many mansions he has prepared in heaven for those who love Him. (John 14:2 – though I use the elegant and evocative KJV phrasing – “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”)
When I was a Protestant, I knew a lot of preachers who were constantly hustling, on the make for how they could enhance their wealth, influence, and power over others. As a Catholic, I have encountered a dreary run of clerics who engage in petty political gamesmanship to advance their standing in the largest bureaucratic religious institution in the world. These people use the things dedicated to God in an effort to advance their own mere temporal ambitions. It is a sacrilege of sorts. My fellowship with these can only be marginal.
Yet I also know men and women of many faiths whose love of God burns so brightly that it inspires fresh hope, fresh resolve. They are always zealously eager to share what they have found in order that those around them might share in their joy. The Magnificat expresses the heart of true sanctity: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46). The true believer is not the one who tries to impose his will on others, who is eager to show he knows or has more than his fellows; but the one who, having found the fount of living water eagerly tries to share it with others that all may live. As is true of all things inspired by God, there is a great variety of temperaments and priorities in true believers. They have one thing in common, though: their souls magnify the Lord.
Some of the many Protestant heroes I hold are:
The late Rev. Billy Graham. What a preacher! The man thrummed with the love of Christ. He did more over the last century to break down the walls between Christians, ending the competing sterile, triumphal claims among denominations than anyone else. He refocused millions to the reality that it is fellowship with Christ, expressed through building each other up that is the heart of Christianity. When he and the late Pope St. John Paul met, it was the beginning of a deep friendship, for they each recognized the true believer in the other. Their souls magnified the Lord.
The late, great Anglican, C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the last century. When someone expresses an interest in knowing what is the basic point of the Christian faith, what it is authentically in layman’s terms, I always recommend Lewis’ marvelous little book, “Mere Christianity.” His series of books on Christian apologetics (though not labeled as such) is indispensable for those seeking to spread the good news to a population that is jaded and has become more filled with misinformation about the faith than information.
That great Baptist Minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spared this nation a terrible ordeal. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the frustrations inherent in a century of justice denied could have led this country to the widespread bloodshed of a new civil war, but the force of King’s personality and his orthodox Christianity spared us the worst of that. His successors have lacked his grace and largeness of spirit (to be kind to the toxic race hustlers that have risen in his aftermath). Yet I still cannot read his “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” without tearing up.
Who can fail to be inspired by the heroic witness of the German Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose anti-Nazi efforts in the heart of the darkness led to his arrest – and then execution by the Nazis just two weeks shy of U.S. liberation of the concentration camp where he was held? He was imprisoned in a concentration camp for over two years before his execution. Throughout that time, he managed to smuggle hopeful, inspiring pastoral letters out – even helped by some of his guards. Here was a man who was faithful unto death.
Among the Catholic luminaries who have inspired me are St. John Paul the Great, Pope Leo XIII, St. Joan of Arc, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux. All of these characters display a fully-developed personality that is wholly devoted to bringing people to Christ and building them up.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, was one of the most brilliant, detailed and precise theologians and philosophers in all history. Yet his work shows no signs of a craven effort to show how smart he was. He knew the gifts God had given him – and chose to devote himself to using those gifts to illuminate the truth of Christ. When you read him, despite the difficulty of his dense and complex work, you can feel the joy of discovery thrumming through the page. When dealing with heretics, he never hoisted straw men to knock over, but dealt with their very best arguments – and revealed the truth of the matter on their own terms and in their own language. While tackling his Summa Theologica is an ambitious project, you can get a very accessible portal into his mastery by reading Peter Kreeft’s marvelous Summa of the Summa, which uses a condensed group of St. Thomas own texts along with explanatory and insightful commentary. I read it every few years – and do only 10 pages a day so as to absorb it well. For another introduction, get books of some of his homilies. While the structure of St. Thomas’ homilies is very formulaic, the content is startling and fresh, even provocative. I actually embedded some insights from his homilies into my sites without identifying them as such. The reason is that I wanted a reliable means of differentiating between critics who were just doing ‘gotchas’ on me and honest people who were disagreeing from the heart in, perhaps, a provocative manner. I hate to dismiss an honest disagreement just because of tone, but do not want to waste time with the bumptious ‘gotcha’ crowd. I never used it to attack the bumptious, but solely as a means of discernment – though I will confess that it often amused me when some supposed expert attacked my “obvious errors” not knowing that he was actually attacking St. Thomas Aquinas.
When he was young – and even when he was middle-aged – St. Augustine had a marked passion for both the ladies and for revelry and finery, even well after his passion grew to include the faith. He never used the faith to excuse his disordered passions, but neither did he allow shame over those disordered passions to prevent him from proclaiming the faith with profound love and insight. His writings on the Eucharist, in particular, often take my breath away. Two which have always stuck with me are (I am doing these from memory): “Some think God made the Eucharist to resemble bread. Rather, at the beginning God made bread to resemble the Eucharist so it would already be familiar to us when it was established.” The other is, “When we eat ordinary food, it is absorbed into our bodies; when we consume the Eucharist, it absorbs us into the One Body of Christ.” Once again, his writing thrums with the joy of discovery.
True believers encompass almost the whole variety of humanity – warriors, kings, paupers, virgins, mystics, laity, consecrated, clergy, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. True believers are neither proud of nor contemptuous of the gifts God endowed them with – but use those gifts to form their authentic, distinct personalities and then direct them to building each other up into joyful fellowship with God. How pathetic and paltry – and palpably brazen – are the efforts of those who substitute cunning for belief to gain advantage over their fellows – or to inflate their own reputations. St. Joan of Arc was warrior, mystic and virgin – and only perfect at the latter. The clever thinkers of the seemingly doomed French government were constantly jockeying for position, hedging their bets at war while bullying and betraying their own people and colleagues to enhance their status. Ah, but St. Joan was, above all else, a true believer – and the power and purity of her conviction infected the whole French army. In the process, it revealed who was who. The often profane General La Hire, who objected mightily to a mere girl being put in charge of the armies, became her greatest admirer and supporter – for here before him was a fellow true believer who completely ignited the passionate idealism and courage of the armies. He gladly – and devotedly – served under her. Meantime, the connivers in the French entourage loathed Joan of Arc, despite the victories she brought – and did everything they could to undermine and betray her. Ah, vain little men can never adhere to anything greater than themselves: they would rather be captains in a doomed organization than privates in a glorious one. They will work for the doom of their own side rather than risk their captaincy.
One of my Dad’s pet peeves, when he was a fundamentalist minister, was the penchant for some denominations to insist that only their adherents could get to heaven. He asked me pointedly, during a visit, whether I thought only Catholics would be in heaven. I told him that, “I believe the deposit of faith has been given over in trust to the Catholic Church by Christ, Himself. Since we know all truth in heaven, I would think in heaven we would know this. But, as you know, we are sanctified by doing the Father’s will, not by what we say, so I am certain that many of those heavenly Catholics will have been Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even atheists during their sojourn on earth.” Dad was quiet for a few moments, then smiled and said, “Good answer!”
Never underestimate the mercy and power of God. It has always seemed just and proper that it would please Him to send good and noble men and women into every community on earth. In the final book of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, a noble servant of the false God, Tash, falls before Aslan (an image of Christ), expecting to be doomed because of his adherence to Tash. Instead, Aslan tells him, “…I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” How much greater mercy will God surely show to those who do not actually serve a false god, but merely an imperfect image of the true God? And which of us perfectly comprehends the true God? Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas, near the end of his life, was given a vision of Christ. In despair that his writing fell so far short of the reality of Christ, Thomas called all his own work “so much straw” and never wrote theology again.
When I was on my pilgrimage, one of the most pious men I met was the young Muslim owner of a convenience store in Louisiana. He was so taken with what I was doing, he made me promise to pray for him regularly throughout the rest of my journey, as he promised to pray for me. He would take no money for my purchases. I had a mild flu, so I stayed camped in some nearby woods for a few days. Embarrassed by his generosity and not wanting to seem to take advantage, I snuck over to another store one morning to get some food. He caught me – and wanted to know what he had done to offend me. He was truly hurt. I explained as best I could, apologized and came to his store to accept his hospitality – and when I checked out he gave me several dainties his wife had made for me. He was a true believer.
I think of the unlikely friendship I had for years with the late Rob Sherman, once the National Spokesman for the American Atheists. Once, he had sued the northeast Illinois village of Wauconda, to remove Christian symbols from outside the village hall. He won. Residents were furious – and throughout the village lit crosses went up on many, many households. It looked almost like Christmas. People figured that would really get his goat. But he got together with me one night to drive through the town and look at all the crosses. He was jubilant about it. “See,” he told me, “I forced them to live their beliefs individually – which is how it should be.” He thought it magnificent…and rather puckishly told me I should concede that he was a “pretty effective evangelist.” We once mounted a minor pro-life initiative together. I was a bit surprised to find he was pro-life…but he was passionate about it. When I expressed skepticism, he told me, “Hey, look Charlie, I think this is all we get, so it is an absolute sin to deprive anyone of it.” When I stared at him after his description of it as a sin, he finally got it, his face reddened and he said, “…so to speak.” In a lot of our private chats, I came to think he was more agnostic than actually atheist…and he conceded on a few occasions that that might be true. He certainly welcomed my prayers – as long as I did not tell anyone about it while he was alive. I think, in his peculiar fashion, he was a true believer. Certainly, he was a good friend.
When we meet a fellow true believer, we know because a certain resonance vibrates – like a tuning fork – and our hearts burn within us. I love my Church, my home, passionately. But I know that some who also call it home are committed enemies of the faith. I know that many in other homes…and among the spiritually homeless…are passionate about truth and brotherhood. Shoot, I was once one of them. Do not shun the fellowship of a true believer because he is from a different home. Now that so much of the world is determined to crush whatsoever is true, whatsoever is honest, whatsoever is just, whatsoever is pure, and whatsoever is lovely, we sin if we fail to make common cause together. We will know Christians, not by what they say, but by their love.
Be grateful for the home God has drawn you to. But know that it is not the splendor of the home you inhabit here that will endow your eternity: it is whether your soul magnifies the Lord, bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the grieving, and comfort to the afflicted – even knowing that that light will enrage the pretenders and frauds who choose cunning over belief.