On Intellectual Signs

Author: Sebastian Walshe, O. Praem.

On Intellectual Signs

Sebastian Walshe, O. Praem.*

The Lord will give you a sign

“The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” These words from the opening paragraphs of Gaudium et Spes find special meaning and application in the present as the Church reflects upon our times in the Synod on the Family. These signs of the times are to be judged in light of the Gospel, which offers to mankind a sign from beyond time, a revelation from eternity.

Human life is filled with signs: traffic signs, signs giving directions, signs advertising something. Our words are signs we use to communicate with one another. Even facial expressions and clothing are kinds of signs of our interior dispositions that are interwoven with our daily human experiences. So we find signs everywhere: man-made signs and even natural signs like smoke which is a sign of fire. Human life would be impossible and unbearable without these signs.

Today there are so many signs and so many kinds of signs that interpreting all of them can get so confusing so quickly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the modem family. New reproductive technologies are being developed; public opinion is shifting about the origin, nature and purpose of the family; new laws are everyday being passed. How should we interpret these signs? Does the Gospel have anything to say about them? These are the questions facing the Synod on the Family.

So what does the Gospel have to say about the signs of the times? First of all, the Gospel teaches us that God too institutes signs. The Lord Jesus teaches that the Incarnation is intended to be a sign when he says to Philip: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (Jn 14:9). And so that He might always be with us, Jesus gave us the seven sacraments of the Church as signs of God’s grace. These signs given by God point beyond ordinary human life to a higher, supernatural life. The Gospel also teaches us that the things in the natural world are also intended by God to be signs of the supernatural. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (Jn 3:12). In other words, unless we understand the meaning of the natural things around us, the “earthly things,” we cannot understand the “heavenly things” of which they are signs. No one in this life has a direct experience of that supernatural life, so that means the heavenly life is given to us entirely through earthly signs. Entering into the supernatural life presupposes a knowledge and love of the natural order. We have no alternative.

The Synod on the Family is now in the process of interpreting these signs anew, trying to help modern man understand them once again, to make them fresh for those who have lost a sense of the sacred in the natural world. In particular, the Synod is striving to interpret to the world the supernatural significance of the natural family. The stakes are high. For unless modern man can recapture the meaning which God has written into the natural human family, the result will be ignorance and error, indifference and animosity, toward the entire supernatural order.

The natural human family itself is a privileged sign intended by God to lead us into supernatural realities. When we survey the principal mysteries of our faith, we find that they are expressed in terms of relationships within the human family: God is a Father, who has an eternally begotten Son. This is the foundational truth of our faith. The relationship of this Son to His Church is that of a bridegroom to his bride. The love of God for His people is like that of a mother for her infant child. Moreover, among the seven Sacraments of the Church, the best known is the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is best known because it is closest to nature, standing as it were on the boundary between the natural and supernatural order. And so it is the natural beginning point by which souls are lead into the life of grace. Hence, it was the first sacred sign instituted by God at the origin of our race in paradise, when He united Adam and Eve in marriage.

We read in the Gospel according to St John that it was at a wedding feast that Jesus first manifested His glory and His disciples first began to believe in Him. This is not by chance. The natural beginning of the Christian faith is in the Christian family, and the first sacrament by which children come to believe is the marriage between their parents. For while habitual faith is infused first at baptism, that faith becomes actual through the witness of the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Sacrament of Matrimony is the first sign by which Christ is glorified; and children first learn to believe in Christ’s love for them, they first become disciples, through the marriage of their parents.

In the beginning of creation, God blessed each day and called it good. But on one occasion, it was not good: it was not good for the man to be alone. Yet once woman was made from man, God said that it was very good. Every artist has his favorite work of art, and God’s favorite is the human family. From all eternity, in fact, He understood himself as the Son of Mary, as a member of a human family. The reason for God’s predilection is that more than the other parts of His creation, the family reflected His own goodness and beauty. Hence, we cannot know God, we cannot love Him, without knowing and loving the natural human family. To do so would be tantamount to considering someone beautiful whose accurate reflection in a mirror we consider ugly.

Consider how the modem distortions of the family can lead to distortions in faith. The indissolubility of marriage is intended to be a sign of God’s eternal and unique love for His Church. Is it any surprise then that religious pluralism and the denial that there is one Church is widespread in a society in which divorce and remarriage are widespread? The natural begetting of a child through the loving union of husband and wife is intended to be a sign that God creates each human soul immediately and with love. This reality is obscured in a society which accepts in vitro fertilization or other artificial means of procreation. The eternal and natural procession of the Son from the Father is signified by the natural begetting of a child, yet this significance is lost to a society which accepts cloning or other non-natural modes of reproduction. In such a world, God, if one believes in Him at all, will simply be viewed as a technician, a maker who stands apart from and indifferent to His creation. And in households where, by design, there is no father or there is no mother, how will the children come to understand God as Father or what it means for God to love us like a mother? Or how shall the spiritual motherhood of the Church or the Virgin Mary be valued in a society which teaches that mothers are expendable, a non-essential part of a family, which can be replaced by a man? And when the natural relationship between husband and wife is denied, the purpose of a male priesthood is misunderstood or rendered meaningless. Pope Francis underlines the significance of a male priesthood when he wrote that it is “a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives Himself in the Eucharist,” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 104). C.S. Lewis put it this way in God in the Dock: “One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.” Examples could be multiplied but, suffice it to say, a lack of love and esteem for the goodness of the natural family entails a lack of love and esteem for God and the things of heaven.

From this we can see that the natural relationships within a family are not simply a matter of necessity or competence to carry out a function. They are also indispensable signs of higher realities. The case of the Holy Family is a striking example of this. If ever a father and husband were unnecessary and expendable in a family from the perspective of functionality, it was in the Holy Family. St Joseph was not necessary to beget or even educate the child. God was the child’s Father and the Holy Spirit was the Spouse of the Virgin Mary. St Joseph was not necessary as a moral or intellectual guide to his spouse who was conceived without original sin, and is acclaimed by the Church as Virgin most prudent, and Seat of Wisdom. The power of miracles or angelic protection could have sufficed to provide and protect the child and His mother. Yet in spite of all this, God willed the Holy Family to have a husband and father, and it was through St Joseph that He guided the Holy Family in the early years of the life of Jesus. In the one case where God could have done without a husband and father, He chose not to. Grace builds upon, preserves and perfects nature, even in its most extraordinary manifestations.

The Lord Himself has given us the sign of the human family: the almah, the maiden under a guardian, who shall bear a Son and call Him Emmanuel, “God is with us.” Indeed, if we cherish and believe in this sign, God shall be with us, and we with Him.

*Professor of Philosophy at St Michael's Abbey, California

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 October 2014, page 24

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