The primacy of the divine in the Christian life

Father John A. Kiley

Amalfi is a popular tourist destination along Italy’s Mediterrean coast. Cliffside roads and hairpin turns breathlessly lead to hillside villas and sun-bleached homes which cascade from forested hilltops down to the legendary blue sea.

But amid the pottery shops and expresso bars, there is a spiritual side to Amalfi as well.

Amalfi is an archdiocese boasting a basilica which artistically reveals the Greek, Roman, Arabic and Italian influences which have contributed over the centuries to Amalfi’s rich cultural heritage. Visually most impressive are the no less than 60 steps which lead from the central urban plaza, dedicated to the city’s patron, St. Andrew the apostle, to the cathedral itself, in which some of St. Andrew’s remains are still entombed. The climb can be daunting (especially in an age accustomed to handicapped access). But the lengthy ascent from the city square to the ecclesiastical domain speaks of more than the hilly landscape.

Similar to many distinguished churches, even in our own country, these extended steps connote mankind’s journey from the concerns of this world to the consolations of the next world. The numerous steps leading up to St. Michael Church on Oxford Street, Blessed Sacrament Church on Academy Avenue, Holy Name Church on Camp Street, St. Cecilia Church in Pawtucket, St. Charles Church in Woonsocket, among many others, are a weekly or even daily reminder that the believer’s “true citizenship is in heaven,” as St. Paul wisely teaches. Other majestic churches with street level entry, like St. Paul Church in Cranston, St. Mary Church in Pawtucket, and Precious Blood Church in Woonsocket, have other architectural features to raise the worshippers’ minds and hearts to God above – lofty towers, vaulted ceilings, majestic marbles, precious metals, the aptly-named high altar. The parish church as a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem is a lesson better appreciated by our ancestors in the faith than by the most recent generation of believers.

That “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is undeniably central to authentic Christianity. The Son of God came to mankind clothed in flesh and blood. He was encountered in streets and homes. He was seen eating and drinking. He was sensitive to humanity’s aches and pains. He was open to human fellowship and camaraderie. And finally, like all human beings, he died. Jesus was indeed down to earth. Yet, while the Savior rightly acknowledged that the greatest commandment of the law is twofold — love of God and love of neighbor — he wisely understood and taught that love for God is primary. It is love for God that leads to love of neighbor – and not vice versa.

The latest generation exalted fellowship and community, caring and sharing, justice and peace over adoration and worship, prayer and devotion, belief and doctrine. Charity, the fruit of a Christian life, was allowed to obscure faith, the root and foundation of the Christian life. Like Christ himself, authentic Christianity always descends from God; it does not simply bubble up from the earth. Sadly the primacy of the spiritual, the supernatural, the heavenly, and, yes, the Divine has been ignored for the last half century.

In his continuing exhortations during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict recently highlighted the primacy of the divine in the life of the Christian: “Very significantly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church opens with the following statement: "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness for which he never stops searching.”

As parishioners climb the steps of their parish churches each Sunday, as pilgrims ascend the stairs of exalted basilicas, as celebrants stand elevated before their congregations, so the minds and hearts of Christian peoples are charged as the Corinthians were to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” St. Paul’s words here are not suggesting a choice: heaven or earth; God or man. Christ’s Incarnation forbids that. Rather the apostle is determining priorities. Only the heart that has fully embraced God can properly grasp the human condition. Only the mind with an intimate knowledge of God can correctly understand the ways of man.

The words of Nehemiah the prophet to be heard this coming Sunday at Mass should strike home especially during this Year of Faith: “… rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.”