Catholic Practice & Recapturing the Sacred

Author: John M. Haas

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 3, Fall 1990


(Delivered at the Twelfth Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this paper is printed here with permission.)

Catholic practices can provide invaluable assistance to contemporary society in recovering a sense of the sacred. I am keenly aware of how effective they can be even though I was not raised a Catholic and was never taught Catholic practices. If anything, there was a certain aversion to Catholic practices in our Protestant household. My father would mildly complain of Catholic "ritualism" even though he did not seem the least bit uncomfortable with working into the arcane intricacies of Masonic ceremonies. And there would be the predictable charges that Catholics prayed more to Mary than to God when one inadvertently picked up the recitation of the rosary on the radio.

Yet Catholic practices still had a way of impinging on our Protestant lives. For some strange reason, my Scottish Presbyterian mother was always very strict about not having meat on Good Friday, although I have never heard of that being characteristic of her own religious tradition. It must have derived from Catholic sources.

Although I often viewed them as superstitious as a youth, I could not help but be struck, even impressed, by many of the Catholic practices which I witnessed. There was the kid on the basketball court who made the sign of the cross before attempting the foul shot. There were the men on the streetcar in Pittsburgh who would tip their hats or cross themselves as we rode by a Catholic church. There were the Catholic secretaries and lunch room employees who would show up for work at our public school once a year with smudges of black ash on their foreheards, a most strange custom, we non-Catholics thought, but certainly an unforgettable one.

As a youth on my way to a camp in New Mexico, our entire busload of boy scouts had the opportunity to visit with the archbishop of Santa Fe. His Excellency received us cordially in the garden of his residence in cassock, purple sash and gold cross. He talked with us in a most congenial, pleasant way, almost as one of the guys, when the tone of the meeting suddenly changed. The scoutmaster barked out, "Okay, everybody on their knees-- Protestant boys, too! The archbishop is going to give us his blessing." I remember how unspeakably odd it seemed that we would kneel down outside-- right there on the grass and the dirt and the gravel. But it was a moment I've never forgotten as the archbishop held his left hand on his chest and traced the sign of the cross in the air with his right.

Later, as a boy scout counselor, I remember our camp being visited by a group of women religious. The camp director, himself a non-Catholic, called us together to give us the ground rules. Shirts were to be worn all day. The women were to be addressed, "Yes, Sister, and no, Sister," and under no circumstances were we to turn our back on them. We were all aware that there were going to be in our midst people who were out of the ordinary, yet in such a way that not only did they not engender ridicule, they engendered reverence and respect.

In our neighborhood there was a man who had been a farmer and later became the foreman of a gas company road crew. He was a powerful man with an enormous chest and forearms like thighs. His hands were so large he could barely hold a pencil and his fingers so lacking in suppleness he could write only with great difficulty. On one occasion he invited me to a function at his church. I don't remember what it was, but the rosary was a part of it. The rosary was, frankly, incomprehensible to me; but I do remember the interminable recitation of Hail Mary's. "Just as my parents said," I thought. "They pray more to Mary than to God." Yet the incident left a very strong impression. Millworkers, ditch diggers, pipe fitters, some with work clothes on, others with perspiration rolling down their faces and spreading across the backs of their shirts. I remember to this day how strange and how incredibly small the rosary looked hanging down from those massive, dirt-cracked hands.

Upon reflection it is remarkable the extent to which I as a Protestant growing up in Protestant America was exposed to Catholic practices. When I began to travel to Catholic cultures, the impact was all the greater: statues of the Virgin over the doors of houses, adorning the outside walls of shops, tucked in niches on random street corners; wooden and wrought- iron crucifixes on country lanes, and tiny chapels in farmers' fields.

When I was living in Fribourg, Switzerland, I was startled from sleep one morning at six-thirty with cannons exploding from the hills surrounding the old city. I discovered that it was the Feast of Corpus Christi, and the entire town was being roused for the festivities. Along the route to be taken by the Blessed Sacrament, residents of homes and proprietors of businesses had lashed green sapling trees to the fronts of the buildings. Colorful tapestries were hung from windows and flowers were heaped around outdoor altars along the route from which the Eucharistic blessings would be given.

Mass was celebrated by the bishop in one of the principal squares in town in front of the large Dominican residence. At Mass, as the consecrated Host was elevated, soldiers on the top of a neighboring building with binoculars and field radio notified the artillery on a nearby hill who fired the cannons in salute. When the chalice containing the Precious Blood was raised, the cannons acknowledged Our Lord again. When the Blessed Sacrament in its glistening monstrance and under its huge canopy was carried by in the bishop's hands, Swiss guards would snap to attention with their halberds, and modern infantrymen would do the same with their assault rifles.

The mayor and other town dignitaries marched in procession with their gold chains of office hung proudly over shoulder and on chest. Men and women in religious habit marched with members of their orders. All the children who had received their first Communion in the preceding year marched in procession. All children confirmed in the preceding year marched in procession. All adults received into the Church in the preceding year marched in procession. Marching bands playing solemn, dignified music swayed slowly back and forth as they proceeded with great dignity along the route. Young girls in white dresses spread flower petals in the path of the approaching Sacrament while two altar boys carrying thuribles alternated walking backwards as they incensed the Sacred Host without interruption. This was no expression of private belief. This was the profession of faith of a people, of a culture.

My first visit to Mexico fell between the 8th and the 12th of December; in other words, between the great Marian feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe. As I was being driven to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was amazed to see literally thousands of people streaming along the tree-lined boulevard between the streets leading up to and away from the church grounds. People were carrying colorful banners and huge floral depictions of the Virgin. Others had arms full of flowers. Many of them sang hymns as they went.

As I witnessed this I remembered the terrible persecution of the Church in Mexico sixty years earlier and the anti-Catholic laws still on the books which stripped priests and religious of their civil rights and which forbade the Church from owning property. Aware of the incongruity of the scene before my eyes with the political reality of Mexico, I said to the driver, "I thought there was a law in Mexico against public manifestations of religion." "Oh, si, senor. There is still a law against it." "Well, then," I asked, "how is it that these processions are permitted?" He seemed incredulous at my question. "But, senor, this is all for Our Lady of Guadalupe!", as though, because of her great importance, she and the present activities fell entirely outside the parameters of the law.

Even after twelve years of being a Catholic, I encounter practices which are totally new to me. After my recent move to Philadelphia, two ladies in our office were telling me of their trip to the New Jersey shore the preceding day, August 15. They were laughing about their stroll along the beach and of their struggles to remove shoes and stockings to wade in the ocean up to their ankles. Once they had made it into the water, the one expressed her dismay that, after all their efforts, the water may not have been blessed yet. Not to worry, responded the other. Surely by then some priest along the shore had blessed the water. When I inquired what in the world they were referring to, they were dumfounded that I did not know about the blessing of the ocean every year on "the holy day." Never having heard of the practice I asked a local priest about it who assured me that it was a custom of long-standing. He had an elderly aunt who spent every summer at the shore, but who never went in the water except on August 15. "There is," he said, "a cure in the waters on that day." I have no idea of the origin of the custom. It may be linked to Mary's title of "Stella Maris." But Catholic practices have a way of becoming incorporated into virtually every aspect of public and private life, touching light and even silly moments as well as profound and agonizing ones.

In his autobiography Josef Pieper tells of the dismay of his family when his school teacher father was called up for military service during the First World War. It was a time of considerable apprehension for the family, and the moment was solemnized with Catholic practice. As Pieper himself recounts it:

"...after supper, we children were summoned to the parents' bedroom. Ordinarily we never went there, but on this day the house was full of strangers. The only thing I remember of what took place then, is this: father blessed each one of us in turn, with a great sign of the cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder. He had never done that before. Mother leaned against his shoulder and said, in tears: "And what if you don't come back?!" Of course, she spoke in Low German; one does not say such things in a foreign language. This too was bafflingly new to us children; we had never before witnessed expressions of emotion between our parents--and we never saw it happen again." ("No One Could Ever Have Known," p. 31).

The family of Josef Pieper was helped through one of the most difficult and emotion-charged moments of his childhood by adverting to a simple, ancient Catholic practice.

A number of years ago I worked for a large Mexican bank and was privileged to be immersed in a thorough-going Catholic culture. One of the bank executives with whom I worked was intrigued with the emerging mini- technologies. He would wear a couple of digital watches showing the time in different parts of the world. He always carried a tiny clock which could be set up on a desk or table and which had a built-in alarm. Another similar one was simply a pocket watch. One day we were racing along the freeway in San Diego, California, late for an eleven o'clock appointment. All of a sudden, at eleven, this banker goes off with five different time-pieces beeping, ringing and buzzing. Strapped in with his seat belt and speeding along the highway, he could do nothing to turn himself off, and we had to endure the racket until he was able to pull over. Obviously he felt an explanation was in order and with some embarrassment pointed out that it was time for the Angelus in Mexico City, and he had set the time-pieces to remind himself to say it!

On another occasion I had eaten at the Bankers' Club in Mexico City with this same gentleman. On the way back to the office we were discussing Mexico's external debt. Virtually in the middle of a sentence he slipped through a door on the narrow street into a darkened 16th century church where he went down on both his knees for several minutes before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar. He then rose, walked out the door and, once on the street, picked up the discussion about Latin American debt as though nothing whatsoever had interrupted our conversation.

Catholic practices all. And other Catholics could surely add innumerable other ones: some silly, some profound, some a source of comfort, others the source of light-hearted humor. Catholic practices make up the daily life of a Catholic individual and a Catholic society. The morning offering, the invocation of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the sprinkling of holy water on children at bedtime, the incantation to Saint Anthony ("Tony, Tony, come around; something's lost and can't be found"), the pleas to Saint Jude to prevent a bankruptcy, the novenas for a sick spouse. All of these many practices fill the lives of the faithful, enrich, comfort and orient them. Often it is difficult to trace their origin. Often the ones which seem most intimate and natural to a people were never even introduced by ecclesiastical authority. They emerged as natural, faith-filled expressions of love or joy or thanksgiving or grief or desperation.

The one characteristic these Catholic practices all seem to share is their ability to turn people away from the mundane, the worldly, the everyday, and direct them toward the sacred, the transcendent, the eternal. One could be travelling on the streetcar in Pittsburgh thinking about how to make new sales contacts or how to position oneself to meet the new girl in the office when suddenly, on the part of a half-dozen people, there was an adverting to another reality, another dimension, not separate from this realm, but permeating it, leavening it, making sense of it. Perhaps the adverting to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by those on the street car was only fleeting, with virtually no break in the train of thought regarding increasing sales or meeting the new girl. But the adverting took place; Our Lord was acknowledged; and implicitly at least, the statement was made that increased sales was no end in itself and any future wife would, one would hope, be married in the Lord.

The sign of the cross made before the attempted foul shot was an expression of the intensity of desire to succeed, an acknowledgement that, no matter how great a basketball player he was, he still needed help, he was not self-sufficient. Of course, the gesture should not be presented as more than it was either, sometimes touched with a healthy amount of superstition. But it was the sign of the cross, the instrument of our salvation, our only hope for immortality. Though on the basketball court, it was the sign of the same cross raised high on cathedrals and kissed before a martyr's death.

Granted, these outward Catholic practices are not enough. As the sixteenth century Theatine, Lorenzo Scupoli, writes in his classic, "The Spiritual Combat," "Since exterior works are nothing more than dispositions for achieving true piety, or the effects of real piety, it cannot be said that Christian perfection and true piety consists in them." (New York: Paulist Press, 1978, p. 2.) Indeed, the practices can sometimes be little more than superstition or thoughtless habit. Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang, wrote that he and his prodigious young son had attended all three Masses in the court chapel of Louis XV on Christmas Day during their visit to Paris. Yet we know that the king of France who attended the services in his chapel was not in any manner a paragon of Christian moral living. We know that even the magnificence and beauty of a Corpus Christi procession can be repugnant to the Lord if it is not an expression of holy, righteous lives. "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5: 21, 24.)

Of course, the Lord wants justice and righteousness and abhors empty, hypocritical practices. But feasts and solemn assemblies are in no way evil of themselves as the Puritan supposes. Our Blessed Lord Himself went in procession up to the temple, chanted the psalms of David, observed the ritual laws, fasted and feasted. He denounced only the insincere religiously-observant of his day.

The host of Catholic practices, which have developed over the centuries and in such a variety of cultures, has arisen from a living out of the faith. They arose from the admonitions of men like Saint Benedict who told his monks to treat the tools in the workshop with the same reverence they would the sacred vessels of the altar with the result that all of creation came to be viewed with a certain reverence and awe.

In many respects we might say that it is virtually impossible to have the faith without having Catholic practices. Catholicism is a sacramental religion and naturally finds expression in fingering wooden beads, wading in water along the ocean shore, tracing the sign of the cross over the bodies of one's children. Catholic practices are as natural as the mother stroking her child's cheek or the father throwing his arms around the returning soldier-son, or the patriot raising his hand to his heart at the national anthem, or the lover slipping a ring onto the beloved's finger. In fact, were external practices missing in Catholicism one would have to question whether one were dealing with a true religion.

A Calvinist woman in Switzerland one time recounted to me her visit to a Catholic church as a child. She had been awed by the dark, soaring arches, by the shadowy figures of saints high in niches, by the eerie, living flames of flickering votive candles. She could not forget the sight. It haunted and enticed her for years. The woman had been confronted by the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans." The words of Genesis (28:17) came to mind, "How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of Elohim."

The Lutheran theologian and phenomenologist of religion, Rudolf Otto, who thought Catholicism to be in error on a number of theological points, nonetheless felt compelled to write rather admiringly of our faith:

"In Catholicism the feeling of the numinous (the sacred) is to be found as a living factor of singular power. It is seen in Catholic forms of worship and sacramental symbolism, in the less authentic forms assumed by legend and miracle, in the paradoxes and mysteries of Catholic dogma, in the Platonic and neo-Platonic strands woven into the fabric of its religious conceptions, in the solemnity of churches and ceremonies, and especially in the intimate rapport of Catholic piety with mysticism." ("The Idea of the Holy." London: Oxford University Press, 1923, p. 94.)

It must be said that the attempt to eliminate many devotional Catholic practices by certain theologians and liturgists today is to diminish the character of Catholicism as a religion and to lessen its effectiveness in pointing to the transcendent in our midst. And there are schools of thought influenced by secularism or feminism or Marxism which want to accomplish that very thing. But we see it in other, less likely, places as well. The radical Calvinism of a Karl Barth with its characteristic Puritan repugnance for what is naturally human and sensual wanted to deny that Christianity was even a religion, for religion was expressive of a human attempt to reach out to God and save oneself, something repugnant to the "Neo-orthodox."

The followers of Barth at the University of Marburg used to ridicule Rudolf Otto because of his studies of the phenomenon of world religion. All that mattered to them was the relationship of faith between God and the individual. What they called for was a "religionless Christianity" since religion was a human product of sinful persons, according to their interpretation of the classical Protestant doctrine of the total depravity of man.

What they received some thirty or forty years later, however, was a religionless Christianity with a vengeance. We had the secular city of Harvey Cox and the secular gospel of Paul Van Buren and the situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher and the whole "death of God" movement in the major Protestant denominations. The result of the rejection of the place of religious practices was first an unnatural Christianity and finally the replacement of Christianity altogether with secularism. We now live in a world which, publicly at least, is devoid of the transcendent, the sacred, the holy.

We now have the world which Immanuel Kant called for in his "Religion without the Bounds of Reason Alone": Immanuel Kant, who said a man should be ashamed to be caught on his knees alone in prayer. And it is a brutish and brutal world which we have inherited in which even human life has lost its sacred quality and, therefore, its claim to inviolability, a world in which the attempted slaughter of entire peoples has been adopted as government policy, a world in which nations have disappeared from the face of the earth, in which centuries-old Catholic dynasties have been snuffed out, a world in which more children have perished at the hands of men than were ever offered whrough the fire to the bloodthirsty god, Moloch. Once human life lost its sacred character, once it was no longer the "imago Dei," it became merely more "stuff," more material, to be used in the building of the secular city.

Catholic practices which permeate the lives of individuals and nations, "even in their degeneracy," acknowledge the transcendent source of our being and of our ultimate destiny. Catholic practices point to the Source of our inestimable worth. They even allow the worldly to be properly worldly by constantly adverting to the sacred and not allowing the world to be confused with it. They enable the natural to be truly natural, for, as we know, without the supernatural the natural degenerates into the unnatural. Catholic practices remind the world in ways large and small, silly and profound, that it is under judgment, that it has an unavoidable and prearranged destiny.

Emile Durkheim, the Frenchman of the last century whom some call the father of sociology, was no Catholic. Yet he maintained that the greatest distinction of which the mind was capable was that between the sacred and the profane. Indeed, such a distinction was necessary for the integration and ordering of society.

Mircea Eliade, another non-Catholic and a phenomenologist of religion, made a similar point. It was sacred practices which put society in touch with the "really real," with the unchanging in a world of flux, with the divine axis around which reality and society could be ordered. In other words, Catholic religious practices have a very important sociological function to perform, and at a time of social disintegration should be emphasized more rather than de-emphasized. But these practices cannot be forced. Even to serve their social function they must be authentic. They must arise naturally from the piety of a people.

There were various attempts in the recent past in this country to inject salutary Catholic practices from elsewhere. For example, some tried to promote the observance of the saints days of family members rather than birthdays. Or the attempt was made to develop a devotion to Saint Nicholas rather than Santa Claus to be observed on December 6 rather than December 25. However, many of these attempts were rather forced within the American context and were frequently the expressions of another culture as much as an expression of the one faith. Devotional Catholic practices indigenous to the United States will arise. And with their full flowering, there will be distinctively American public manifestations of the faith as grand as a Corpus Christi procession in Germany or a Holy Week procession in Mexico or Guatemala. But this will occur only when the piety and devotion of the Catholic faithful are deepened through a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

There are many practices which have long been proved to be effective in fostering piety and deepening faith, and they should be taught and encouraged at every turn. They are fundamentally private, but in time--and time may be generations or centuries--they will blossom culturally as the most characteristic expression of a people. Some of the more basic are: the rosary, the morning offering, the recitation of the angelus, spiritual reading, weekday Mass attendance, daily meditation and examination of conscience. There is nothing extraordinary about any of these practices. And that, I believe, is one reason for their efficacy and for the social hope they can provide for the future. They are ordinary; they require no heroic effort; they should be as much a part of our daily routine as our practices of physical hygiene or expressions of spousal or parental love.

But these practices must become once more a part of our lives to have their beneficial effect. Two incidents concerning the angelus might illustrate this. On the grounds of a seminary a workman was driving his tractor to the garage for his lunch break. When he heard the noon angelus begin to chime, he turned off the tractor, bowed his head and quietly offered his prayers. A salesman on campus saw the workman sitting on the tractor with his chin on his chest and feared he had lost consciousness or was suffering from a seizure. Thinking he was going to the workman's assistance, he actually found himself learning of an ancient Catholic practice--the recitation of the angelus at noon.

On another occasion a cardinal was visitng with a group of seminarians who were gathered around him like chicks about a hen. The angelus suddenly began to ring, but there was no acknowledgement of it whatsoever as the chatter continued. What an edifying moment that might have been had the cardinal simply led the men in the ancient prayers. Indeed, it would have also been a pedagogical moment since it was later learned that a number of the seminarians did not even know what the angelus was.

Such practices will, of course, have no effect if they are but vague memories of a distant past or become the precious practices of the effete or sentimentalist in the present. Catholic practices will not shape a new culture in the future unless the faith is alive and informing them.

There are some things I believe church authorities themselves could do to advance such practices. One would be to adopt some standard translations for many of our traditional devotional prayers so that Catholics could offer them more easily and more spontaneously together. How many different versions of the morning offering are floating around? Obviously, there should be no intention to discourage spontaneous prayer. Quite the opposite. The fact is that it would be helpful if there were some standard translations so that Catholics might on occasion be able to pray spontaneously "together." When the new universal catechism is published, perhaps there could be appended to it a section of devotional prayers and practices so that we would have standard translations.

When the Holy Father made his first pastoral visit to the United States, my family and I were privileged to attend his Mass in Washington. Friends had travelled a great distance to be there and stayed with us. When we returned from the Mass, one of our friends remarked that it was unfortunate that there were no Catholic hymns which were so familiar to us as Americans that we could have spontaneously broken into song together on such a joyous occasion. He had been struck by the way in which Catholics in other countries the pope visited would freely begin serenading him with Catholic hymnns and songs. Such a thing was impossible in this country.

Another example. Our eight children have had to memorize three or four different versions of the ten commandments with the result that they could not say them together if they wanted. This came to my attention when one of our older children was helping a young sibling with her religion homework. She was chastising the younger for not having memorized the commandments properly when it was discovered that her sister had learned a different translation--or better, paraphrase--than she had. The King James version of the bible helped to shape an entire culture. The endless and often insipid versions arising today will, I believe, have considerably less impact because the very variety prevents the scriptures from becoming a shared treasure.

Catholic practices do not arise only spontaneously, of course. Ecclesiastical law can have a profound effect on their development. Laws on fasting, on forbidden times for marriages, on holy days of obligation can have a tremendous impact on fostering Catholic practices.

Although I do not believe that popular Catholic practices can be forced on a people, I do believe that a strong and effective institutional expression of the faith can be tremendously beneficial. Truth be told, and we all know it, we no longer have a Eucharistic fast in any real sense. Also, I believe that absolutely nothing has been gained by transferring the observance of Corpus Christi and the Epiphany from their traditional dates to Sundays. First of all, most Sunday celebrations in this country are so homogenized and pedestrian that one Sunday virtually has no significance over another. Easter is usually about the only Sunday which manages to stand out in the course of the year in the United States. Consequently, the significance of those feasts is hardly enhanced. And secondly, the traditional dates for those feasts are themselves so weighted with significance and continue to be observed in the rest of the universal Church that, again, little or nothing is gained by the transfer and much is lost.

Catholics are the largest religious body in the United States today. We number 54 million; Episcopalians, a mere 2.5 million. Indeed the entire nation of Switzerland numbers only around 8 million. If the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Epiphany were celebrated in this country, under the leadership of the bishops, with a solemnity which even approached their significance, it could not help but make a profound cultural impact. If this were done, a great deal might actually be gained rather than lost by transferring the celebration to a Sunday from the traditional date. City authorities will not infrequently permit the rerouting of traffic from prominent downtown streets on a Saturday or a Sunday for ethnic or cultural festivities. One could imagine, for example, a public celebration of Corpus Christi in an American city on a Sunday with the cooperation of civil authorities which would be impossible on a Thursday.

Individual Catholics should deepen their spiritual lives by drawing on those well-established practices which sacralize their days and sanctify their work. They should try the ancient and new practices for themselves and their families and make them a regular part of their lives. The institutional Church can adopt certain policies to foster Catholic practices so that the faithful can work as leaven within the social body helping to remind it that its Author and Judge is the Lord God and that all its acts must be measured against the standard of His justice.

We live in a world cut off from its spiritual roots, and as a consequence cultural life is disintegrating before our very eyes. Inconceivably, mothers by the million cooperate in having their children cut and scraped and suctioned from their wombs. Divorces equal marriages in some areas of the country. Innocent non-combatants are gassed to death in regional conflicts or blown from the sky by terrorists. Drug abuse shreds the fabric of nations and undermines hope for international peace.

Christopher Dawson saw the malady clearly:

"We have a secularized scientific world culture which is a body without a soul; while on the other hand religion maintains its separate existence as a spirit without a body. This situation was tolerable as long as secular culture was dominated by the old liberal humanist idology which had an intelligible relation with the western Christian tradition, but it becomes unendurable as soon as this connection is lost and the destructive implications of a completely secularized order have ben made plain." ("Religion and Culture," New York: Meridian Books, 1958, pp. 216-217.)

We have lost our bearings. We do not know "where we are." The Catholic player on the basketball court and the office workers wading in the Atlantic on the feast of the Assumption knew where they were, of course, but more and more modern men and women have no idea where they are. And small wonder. The human person was once the crown of God's creation, touched with the sacred. But what assaults we have suffered since the onset of modernity! Sigmund Freud spoke of the cosmic insult to man's pride when Copernicus showed that we lived on a mere speck in a vast universe rather than at the center of the cosmos. Darwin delivered another insult when he showed us, not as a crown of creation, but as a chance product of biological process, a cousin of the ape. Freud called this the biological insult. Marx claimed to show that all our greatest cultural and artistic and political achievements are really nothing but the product of economic factors. This might be called the cultural insult. And Freud himself delivered a devastating blow to the pride man has always had in the vaunted faculty of reason. In the words of the psychoanalyst Karl Stern, "human reason, royal and autonomous, became a mere surface ripple over an ocean of dark mysterious currents which seem to be guided by blind, irrational forces. This was the psychological insult." ("The Third Revolution," Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1954, p. 190.)

But that kid on the basketball floor tracing the sign of the cross before the foul shot tells a different story. He declares that we are indeed the center of the universe, that even in our natural state, we are "higher than the animals and a little lower than the angels," and that in our supernatural state we are higher even than the angels and have become as gods. That gesture made in a moment's time with little or no thought, over a sweaty body in the heat and excitement of athletic competition before shouting fans, declares what has been proclaimed in untold ways throughout the whole of the Christian dispensation--that each one of us is so precious in God's sight that the Father sent His only Son to shed the last drop of His life's blood so that we might reign with Him forever in glory.