Christopher Columbus and Escriva
Josemaria and his first followers remind me of the conquistadors. They were young; they were enthusiastic, fresh, tireless, and enamored of spiritual adventure. Eager for a voyage of discovery, they gathered around a leader they called simply "the Father". There would be dangers in the waters ahead, but so what? There were uncharted lands to discover. Paradoxically, however, their destination turned out to be the very ground they had started from. Through a simple journey, the familiar scenes of family, work, and friendship had become a new world.
A bit of history
For nineteen centuries the Church had inhabited the world. It had always sought to saturate the world with the mystery of Christ, the God who had become man, and now Opus Dei had given a new impulse to this divine project. Such renewal is a perennial phenomenon in the Church. What a multitude of great saints populate the Counter-Reformation, not to mention the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! And was not the Romantic Era in Europe to some extent a Catholic renewal?
Nevertheless, we must face a hard truth. The last five hundred years of Renaissance, Humanism, Reformation, Enlightenment, and Socialism – regardless of their significance in God’s providence – have shown the roots of Christianity to have less depth than one might have hoped. Our own age has shattered many false and comforting illusions, awakened many sleeping Christians. We are forced to see that Christian culture, with its cathedrals, monasteries, sculpture, paintings, literature, customs and habits is one thing, while personal friendship with God is quite another. Culture can eclipse holiness. The splendor of Christian culture can at times blind the faithful to the need to strive for sanctity. But no amount of Christian culture can actually substitute for Christian virtue.
Opus Dei’s message
Time and again, the Church has been graced and adorned by men and women of extraordinary virtue, talent, and sanctity. These luminaries are loved and applauded by pontiff and peasant alike. Most Christians, admittedly, are not called to these “supernatural Olympics.” But in their own unspectacular way, might they not strive to be salt and light to the world, to leaven it from within? St Paul did not exclude anyone when he told the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God: your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). This was one of Escriva’s favorite passages in Scripture. In 1967, in a sermon at the University of Navarre, he said, “Be clear about this: God has called you precisely to serve him in and through the material, worldly tasks of human life. In the laboratory, in the hospital operating room, in military camps, in the university classroom, in the workshop, in the fields, in the household – in the whole limitless arena of human endeavor, God is waiting for us day after day. Be convinced of this: Every situation, no matter how ordinary, has something divine hidden in it, and it is your job to discover it.”
If we fail to discover it, says Escriva, then “the church becomes the only true place of Christian life. Then being a Christian means just going to church and participating in services – isolating oneself in a religious environment, a secluded world that presents itself as an antechamber of heaven, while the ordinary world outside goes its own way. The truths of Christianity and the life of grace, in that case, might just touch the edges of the arduous path of human history, but they would never really meet it.”
It was this fusion of the human and the divine that Escriva preached to the young people who first followed him. “I used to tell the students and workers who joined me in the thirties that they had to materialize their spiritual life. I wanted to free them from the temptation, as common then as now, of leading a double life: an interior life for God, and a separate life for family, work, and society, full of little daily duties. No, my children. If we want to be Christian, we cannot lead a double life, we cannot be schizophrenics. There is only one life, composed of flesh and spirit, and it has to be – both body and soul – holy and full of God, that invisible God whom we find in the most visible and material things. There is no other way, my children. Either we find God in our daily life, or we will never find him.”
This is not a discovery that can be passed along by way of books and lectures; one must discover it for oneself. When Columbus, searching for a western route to India, chanced upon America, he made a lasting discovery for himself and for everyone else.
America need not be discovered again; it was on the map, once and for all. But if other people want to share Escriva’s discovery, they would have to set sail themselves; for a discovery of the soul happens only when the soul experiences new territory. To know that spiritual land, one must live in it. Unless one tries to seek, find, and love Jesus Christ in the little things of every day, Escriva’s message simply does not come across. To the detached spectator, Opus Dei is a spiritual pie in the sky.
Before and after the discovery
This comparing of Escriva with Columbus, initially a passing fancy, has yielded some surprising parallels. Pardon me if I indulge in a little digression here. It is said that Vikings had visited America long before Columbus discovered it, but their trips in the tenth and eleventh centuries had led nowhere. The level of consciousness of those sailors, along with their whole intellectual, religious, economic, and social milieu, worked against the transformation of this local event into a universal accomplishment. Neither Christendom nor society in general felt the need for a new world. Its historical hour had not yet come. So the discovery was forgotten; it sank into a legendary twilight, there to join the ancient belief, once commonly held, that the world was round.
By the time America was discovered by Columbus, Europeans were busy exploring and populating the world, but their attention was focused elsewhere: Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Orient, Africa. It was a convergence of historical, political, and economic factors that sent Columbus westward at the end of the fifteenth century. The Moors had been driven from the Iberian peninsula, and the royal marriage between Aragon and Castile had cemented a new spiritual unity. The life story of Columbus, from his birth in 1451 to that morning in October of 1492 when he spotted that first outcropping of the New World, had prepared him for such an achievement. And we now know what Columbus did not: on the western side of the Atlantic, pre-Columbian civilization was on its last legs. The time was ripe.
Since the first century
There are striking similarities between Columbus’s geographical and Escriva’s spiritual discoveries. The ideal that Josemaria envisioned on October 2, 1928, had been known before. In fact, in the first three centuries of Christianity, it had been taken for granted. Long before there were any desert fathers, hermits, or monks, there were Christians in the far-flung cities and villages of the vast Roman Empire. These people led the lives of normal citizens. Whether they were landowners or artisans, free or in slavery, made no difference. They understood simply that they must be holy and win souls for Christ. And where else but in their day-to-day lives?
The first martyrs and others who encountered persecution were not special Christians. They were ordinary members of the Christian community. But with the fall of Rome and the growth of the monasteries, a new age was ushered in, an age that was to last until our own time. In the beginning, Christians felt obliged to bring Christ into the everyday haunts they shared with pagans so that they might share him too. Theirs was a supernatural, but utterly natural, form of apostolate. As the Empire crumbled, however, Christianity retreated into monastic enclaves. Soon the monastic exception became the rule for anyone seeking sanctity. People gradually lost sight of the possibility and importance of Christianizing the world from within it.
Certainly there were splendid flowerings of Christian life, invaluable treasures of holiness. We in no way want to underestimate or downgrade the monastic inheritance of fifteen hundred years. But it is precisely those who love and cherish the monastic ideal, and want to see it bloom again in the Church, who must realize that this will happen only when lay sanctity is recognized as the norm for Christians.
Columbus and Escriva were two discoverers: one in the service of Spain, the other a Spaniard. Neither lacked predecessors. Often enough, men had sailed in a westerly direction; contrary winds and unfortunate circumstances had forced them back. Often enough, men had preached the need for lay apostolate, and urged the sanctification of ordinary life – one thinks of St Francis de Sales, St Vincent Pallotti, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and popes from Paul III to St Pius X. Too often, however, they had offered not a specific spirituality for lay people, but rather a semi-monastic spirituality for people living semi-monastic lives.
A new world
Neither Columbus nor Escriva was without opposition. The discoverer of the New World returned from his third voyage in chains. In the 1940s, especially in Madrid and Barcelona, Escriva was fiercely defamed as a freemason and a heretic, so much so that he was threatened with arrest. He even had to keep, and occasionally use, an alias.
But here ends the analogy between the two explorers. Columbus died thinking he had discovered the western passage to India. He did not get to guide or savor the consolidation of his achievement. It remained for others to turn his discovery into “America.” Escriva, on the other hand, not only was first to tread the new land of lay sanctity, but also formed and directed, with the help of God’s grace, the people who would live in it, cultivate it, and spread it.
Extract from Opus Dei: Life and Work of its Founder Josemaria Escriva, by Peter Berglar. Published by Scepter Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1994. Pp. 76-81.v
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