Life is not a problem to be solved but rather, a mystery to be embraced! These words of wisdom accredited to Gabriel Marcel encapsulate the reality expressed in three informative books. The three titles explore the mystery element hidden in the realms of economy, western civilization and the priesthood. They demonstrate that what unites us in life is stronger than those which separate us. In other words, the mystery that surrounds life in general proves to be stronger than the problems encountered in life. The dilemma of the contemporary individual is to try and live a happy life in a culture where problems are often marginalized and mysteries maligned.
In the Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs makes the point that the wealth of a nation has its genesis in the success of the city economy. It is the cities that have mastered the art of replacing their imports with what they can produce locally, that can put its dwellers to work and expand economically. Once a city discovers its potential in local production, the next level is to find cities with similar pattern with which trading can take place. This cycle has to be maintained through rigorous production and assiduous trading practices. Even as the businesses thrive, there should be openness to new enterprises that come along with the success of bilateral or multilateral trade. This is to say that ingenuity cannot be sacrificed at the altar of success. For instance, a successful clothing factory may still have to yield to a computerized environment in order to have access to new information relating to the same business. If new opportunities are not embraced or exploited, it becomes just a matter of time before another newer enterprise supplants existing ones. “It is natural for human beings to build new kinds of work and skills on earlier kinds because the capacity to do so is naturally built into us.” A city’s survival in economic terms is thus not just dependant on how it handles what it has within but also how it adjusts to the unforeseeable elements that posit challenges from without.
The unforeseeable situations that affect the cycle of economic activity within the city are not just established facts but are actually inevitable. Nothing prepares one for their coming. When economic challenges arrive unannounced, doing nothing is not an option. It has been known that the death of a system could be a blessing in disguise for a better system to spring up. Under such circumstances, decline or sheer running away from the problem is paradoxically not part of the problem but rather part of the solution. As we can see in this context, this is a classical example of mystery. Problem solving mentality would surely fail if it strives to put in check and balances to take care of the unforeseeable. The author describes such a strategy as, “an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems.” If this sounds like a mystery, it is because that is what it actually is.
Another book, which gives an exposé of the mystery element in life is How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods, Jr., Ph.D. In the very first chapter, the author begins by acknowledging the sad state of affairs, where the Church finds itself ‘ridiculed’ and ‘parodied’ in the current ‘media and popular culture’. He points out that his own students’ understanding of the Church’s history is relegated to the perimeters of corruption, repression, stagnation and unbridled resistance to science. Luckily for the Church though, history is on her side. As Thomas Woods expounds eloquently in a span of about 265 pages, the Church actually built the Western Civilization. Using well documented notes and credible bibliography, he demonstrates how the Church both implicitly and explicitly helped establish universities, how the monks saved civilization and how the concept of international law found its basis on the Church Laws.
Professor Woods goes a step further to reveal the unsung heroes of science within the Church. In the fifth chapter, he seeks to correct the misconceptions that are related to the incident of Galileo and the Church. He also gives a list of accomplishments by Scientist Priest over the years, for example, Fr. Roger Bacon renowned for his work in physics and optics, Albert the Great a naturalist, Father Nicolaus Steno the founder of Statigraphy, Father Giambattista Riccioli an astronomer and ‘the first person to determine the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body’. He also mentions that “some thirty-five craters on the moon are named for Jesuit scientists and mathematicians”. Furthermore, He credits the same Jesuits with the foundation of seismology.
We learn from this piece of work by Thomas Woods that the “Catholic Church revolutionized the practice of charitable giving in both its spirit and application”. He points out that even the opponents of the Catholics have been over the years mesmerized by the charitableness of the Christian community. A perfect example is the pagan writer Lucian, who wrote: “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first law giver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!” This explicates what Jesus himself spoke when he said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13: 35).
The final book, The Priest is Not His Own, ventures into the mystery of priesthood. Thanks to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, we get to delve deeper into the ministerial priesthood, an office that is most discussed but often least understood. With the help of this classic, we get back to the basics as revealed in the Sacred Scripture. Fulton Sheen references the Scriptures in this volume from the introduction to the final chapter. In the introduction, he emphasizes the nature of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which in his lifetime was inseparable from his victimhood: “He gave himself up on our behalf, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God”. (Ephesians 5:2)
It becomes clear in this book that those readying themselves for the service of the Lord through his people must be prepared to give themselves up. This level of sacrifice, a priest cannot achieve through his own effort. He needs Grace and the constant help of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, about a third of this book is committed to explaining the role of the Spirit in the life of a priest and his ministry. Consequently, it follows necessarily that only God “can plant in a heart, by His divine husbandry the seed that will blossom into a new creature in Christ”.
Archbishop Sheen reiterates the well known Scriptural mantra, which reveals that the individual is ordained in the line of Melchizedek: ‘you are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek’. (Hebrews 7:17) The figure of priesthood in the person of Melchizedek is marked with characteristics devoid of temporality and contingency. (p. 200) It is clear as stated in the letter to the Hebrews that everything about him pointed to the eternal priesthood that lasted forever if not eternally. (Hebrews 7: 3). The life of a priest therefore should mirror this eschatological image of Melchizedek, who maintains his transcendental nature even as he traverses the material world. Jesus himself told his disciples that they were not to be of this world even though they were from it.
On the whole, the tragedy of missing the mystery element in life leaves a culture that has nothing to embrace other than its problems. It has nothing higher than itself to hold or have faith in. Faithlessness is the gateway to a culture where the sacred and the profane are synonymous while licentiousness and freedom are interchangeable. This is the perfect recipe for disaster.