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The Divine Invitation

September 19, 2019 Featured Today No Comments


Those who have seen the classic religious film Song of Bernadette (1943) often enough to notice some of the subtler details of this compelling adaptation of Franz Werfel’s 1941 historical novel of the same name will recall that in the final scene, as the saint and visionary of Lourdes is speaking her last words on her deathbed, the voice of a priest can be heard in the background reciting the beautiful verses from the Song of Solomon, “My beloved speaks and says to me: / ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, / and come away; / for lo, the winter is past, / the rain is over and gone…. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, / in the covert of the cliff, / let me see your face, / let me hear your voice. . . .’ ”(Song 2:10-14).
In these words the Church has always heard the voice of her Beloved, the voice of her Lord and her God, summoning her to the marriage feast of Heaven. They are the words that sooner or later, in one way or another, and more than once, God addresses to every soul He has created — the divine invitation. Like the seeds in the Parable of the Sower, the words may fall on deaf ears, or may be welcomed by receptive ears. Yet regardless of the reception, God does not cease striving to make His invitation heard — for He is a Shepherd ever in search of His lost sheep.
Speaking in his Confessions of the life-changing event of his own conversion, an event that changed not only his life but also the history of the world, St. Augustine writes, “You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John Ryan, Garden City, New York, Images Books, 1960, bk. 10, chap. 27, p.254). The decisive moment came when, having become intellectually convinced to embrace the Catholic faith, Augustine was wrestling with the desires of the flesh which were holding him back: “I still hesitated to die to death and to live to life…” (ibid., bk. 8, chap. 11, p. 200). To a man of books and ideas like Augustine, God tailored His invitation in such a way that it would both appeal to his powerful and intellectually curious mind and humble him: “And lo, I heard from a nearby house, a voice like that of a boy or a girl, I know not which, chanting and repeating over and over, ‘Take up and read. Take up and read’ ” (ibid., chap. 12, p. 202).
Startled by this curious voice coming to him seemingly out of nowhere, Augustine arose and returned to the book of Sacred Scripture he had at hand, for as he explains, “. . . I interpreted this solely as a command given to me by God“ (ibid., p. 202), and opening it at random, found these words staring up at him: “…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13-14). Augustine understood at once what he needed to do — the battle was over, God had won, and a sinner went on to become one of the greatest saints and pillars of the Church.
The Bible is one long history of divine invitations — the burning bush seen by Moses, the voice heard by the young Samuel in the Temple, the word of the Lord coming to Jonah, the Annunciation of Our Lady, the star seen by the Magi, the calling of the Apostles, the parable about being invited to the wedding feast of the King’s Son, the voice of the Good Shepherd. . . .
These words and events have not only summoned those to whom they were first addressed; they summon still, and will do so until the end of time. Now as then, the divine invitation goes forth with a purpose: “For as the rain and the snow come down from Heaven, / and return not thither but water the earth, / making it bring forth and sprout, / giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, / so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; / it shall not return to me empty, /but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, / and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Often enough, the divine invitation comes in the form of a “song without words,” a message expressed through that wordless phenomenon called beauty, and in a very special and intimate way, the beauty of nature: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things / comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5).
My late brother Anthony (God rest his soul) used to enjoy telling the story of an astronomer who one day was visited by a friend of his who was an atheist. The visitor noticed on a table a finely crafted model of the solar system depicting the planets in their respective orbits around the sun, and admiring it greatly, asked his friend, “Who made this?” The astronomer replied, “It made itself.” The visitor retorted, “That’s absurd. How could it have made itself?” The astronomer answered, “It’s no more absurd than what you believe — that the universe made itself, without God.”
In the rationalists’ dark world of Darwinian functionality, beauty makes no sense whatsoever. But in a world made from scratch by a loving Creator, beauty makes perfect sense.
For beauty in all its manifestations is a divine invitation, a message from God addressed directly to the heart. It was just earlier this month that the headlines were all about a hurricane named Dorian that became one of the most powerful land-falling storms ever seen in the Atlantic Ocean. Storms can be things of great destructive fury as Dorian was, but they are also creatures of God, manifestations of the glory and omnipotence of God as we find them repeatedly portrayed in the Bible. Those who have flown into the eye of a “Category Five” hurricane or typhoon have described it as a place of unutterable beauty and solemn majesty. Commenting upon what it was like to be inside the eye of Hurricane Edna in 1954, the television journalist Edward R. Murrow observed, “The eye of a hurricane is an excellent place to reflect upon the puniness of man and his works. If an adequate definition of humility is ever written, it’s likely to be done in the eye of a hurricane” (quoted in David Toomey, Stormchasers: The Hurricane Hunters and Their Fateful Fight into Hurricane Janet, New York, W.W. Norton and Co., 2002, pp. 234-235).
It was after an October 1979 aircraft reconnaissance flight into the most powerful storm ever recorded anywhere, the Western Pacific storm Super Typhoon Tip, that one U.S. Air Force weather officer on the flight, describing it as “a thing of great beauty,” said afterward, “. . . the second penetration was beyond description. This is unquestionably the most awe-inspiring storm I have ever observed. In the 2 ½ hours that transpired between the first and second fixes, the moon had risen sufficiently to shine into the eye through an 8 nm [nautical mile] clear area at the top of the eyewall. To say it was spectacular is totally inadequate… ‘awesome’ is a little closer” (1979 Annual Typhoon Report, Guam, Mariana Islands, U.S. Naval Oceanography Command Center, Joint Typhoon Warning Center, 1980, p.77).
In the experience of beauty man is confronted by God. How important it is to have an “awakened ear” that is “open to every created thing in its mysterious message from above, in its God-given meaning” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 77).
It was to a young naval officer named Neil Diamond serving during World War II that the divine invitation came one day in the form of a beautiful sunset over the Pacific. Utterly captivated by the splendor unfolding before his eyes, he thought to himself, “I must find out what is the secret of this message. It cannot just be a scientific fact…. There is a message behind this” (quoted in Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, He had to Sacrifice a Great Human Love for a Greater Love, Arlington, VT, Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, 2016, p. 14). It was this intimate moment, amid the silence of the sea, that set Neil on a journey of the human spirit that would led him out of the dark night of atheism into the daylight of the Catholic faith. It was also the beginning of a love story. For on his journey he would later meet and fall in love with a Catholic girl from Belgium named Louloute Jourdain.
Yet the divine invitation Neil had first heard on a quiet evening in the Pacific was going to ask of him a very precious gift, the most precious he could give, “something beautiful for God” as St. Teresa of Calcutta would say. To Louloute he broke the news one evening: “. . . Neil told her how he loved her, that he had never loved anybody as much as he loved her, but that he heard God’s call to enter a religious order, and that therefore he had to sacrifice a great human love for a greater love” (ibid., p. 17).
Neil went on to become a Carthusian, ultimately the prior of Vermont’s Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, his divine love story lovingly written after his death by Louloute’s sister, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, the widow of the Fordham University professor who had helped Neil to discover the meaning of that beautiful sunset over the Pacific, Dietrich von Hildebrand.
Responding to the divine invitation won’t mean an easy way, a way that won’t disrupt our own plans. But in the end, we will learn to rejoice that God’s plans have triumphed over our own: “Your best servant is he who looks not so much to hear from you what he wants to hear, but rather to want what he hears from you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 10, chap. 26, p. 254).
However varied the divine invitation may be for the human soul, to the man or woman who perseveres in answering it, at journey’s end, when at last “the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done” (Blessed John Henry Newman), there will come the invitation that brings with it the light of eternal day: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” (Matt. 25-34).

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