January 4, 2020 – Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Religious
I’ve recently found myself less interested in movies than at other times in my life, relegating them mostly to in-flight entertainment. Regardless, this past week I went to see A Hidden Life, the new picture about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian layman martyred for his private stance of conscientious objection against the Nazi regime. The film is a beautifully shot meditation on the urgency of conscience and the hardships that moral choice can entail.
The central dilemma facing Jägerstätter throughout the narrative arc is whether or not it is actually right to do the moral thing when one expects only negative outcomes to result. After all, Jägerstätter’s principled stance will cost his loved ones much and go unnoticed by nearly everyone else. The sound of the unheard tree falling in the lonely forest is echoed by the silence of the martyr’s severed head dropping to the floor in obscurity.
In the film, the local pastor and bishop both encourage Jägerstätter to accept the lesser evil of verbally appeasing a power that he was powerless to impede anyway, rather than abandoning a wife to widowhood and depriving his children of a father. After all, the explicit state coercion would have made swearing loyalty to Hitler under these circumstances only a venial sin. How much good could Jägerstätter have done instead by remaining alive to provide for his family and to help the vulnerable in his community? Is an apparently futile death inevitably a sign of the martyr’s charism?
To me, the most urgent question posed in the film though is not one that faced Jägerstätter, but rather one that he posed of his neighbors (and of us): “Don’t they recognize evil when they see it?”
I view this martyr’s story as that of a man who, though impotent to halt the monstrously hateful sins of those around him, at the very least refused to participate in them, cost what may. Could I have ever done the same?
The sins of others may sometimes provide a subtler temptation than my own weakness. It is a lot easier for me to blame somebody else for handing me forbidden fruit than to simply assume responsibility for my own actions. So much the more if force attempts to compel me toward wrongdoing. The sin of complicity provides easy moral cover, but doesn’t dodging blame end in likewise dodging grace? What if I attempted to fully liberate myself from the sins of others, leaving me guilty of only that wrongdoing which I directly author myself? In a sense, I would either sin boldly or not at all. Given the impossibility of the latter, I would have no place to hide from God’s grace seeking to redeem me.
Last year, I claimed the patriarch Jacob as a patron saint for me in 2019. I paid particular attention to the story of him wrestling with the angel until daybreak, using that incident as a key image in my prayer and reflection. At the beginning of this year, King David speaks to me.
The faults of David arose from the fullness of his humanity. The passionate temperament that animated his friendship with Jonathan and fueled his great love for his beloved son Absalom also intensified his devotion to God: he not only composed psalms but danced wildly before the ark in worshipful abandon despite social consequences. This same passion was evident in his adulterous pursuit of Bathsheba and his plot to murder her husband, but it also allowed for his dramatic repentance when confronted with his own guilt. Where sin abounds, grace abound all the more.
David was not a moral exemplar throughout his life, but like Franz Jägerstätter, he was a man who lived without excuses, in full transparency before God. May God grant me the case of becoming likewise.
Last week, I offered as ‘ear candy’ a song entitled Hallelujah that is different from the one most people know. This week seemed like a good opportunity to include a rendition of the famous Leonard Cohen composition. Although it is not as pious as early lyrics might imply, both the biblical imagery as well as the human passion expressed later in the song seem appropriate for this reflection on bold sin and bold grace. The ‘brain food’ chosen is a poem I stumbled upon that includes several quotations from the Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who understood keenly that discipleship requires standing apart from the currents of society.
Ear Candy: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, performed by Jeff Buckley
Brain Food: “Homage to Soren Kierkegaard” by Dana Gioia
Come back next Saturday for a new post!