By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is the author of over half a dozen books, including The Beggar’s Banquet: A Personal Retreat on Christ, His Mother, the Spiritual Life, and the Saints. With his trademark mastery of the English language, Martin leads the reader to contemplate the wonders of God and the Catholic faith.
The desire for God, it has often and wisely been observed, is written on the human heart. It is a kind of inscription, or imprint, telling us who we are; an image or template, as it were, impressed upon the soul. Part of our spiritual DNA.
Well, what does that mean? Is there a presupposition here that we need to get a handle on? About God, certainly. But also about ourselves, those being the two pivotal words in the equation.
“When I was fifteen years of age,” writes John Henry Newman in the story of his life, “a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.” What was the result of so definite and dogmatic an imprint? Nothing less, he tells us confidingly, than “making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator . . .”
So here are the two presuppositions at work, an unpacking of which may prove helpful in throwing light upon the spiritual life. The first is that it is perfectly natural for man to desire God, to wish to express this innate longing for Him, indeed, to be finally happy only in the arms of God. This is not evidence of some vestigial organ whose removal would leave undisturbed the healthy functioning of the soul. No. It means that nothing will ultimately satisfy us unless, having been destined to be embraced for all eternity by the arms of the mystery of God, we in fact find our way home to heaven. This is nothing more than what Luigi Giussani has called “the religious sense,” which you and I can no more escape than if it were possible actually to leap out of our own skin.
And it is not to be found in the first place at the level of grace, but of nature. That man evince this hunger and thirst, this longing for supernatural life, is simply a function of his being man. Because it is already inscribed in man’s being to reach out and touch God, we do not require a special Revelation from on high to know this. It is simply and ineluctably a datum of human reason, human experience. In other words, it is a constitutive dimension of the creature we call man, which, were he to be divested of this desire, deprived therefore of all access to the God with whom he naturally desires to be united, a terrible and irreparable violence would be visited upon him. Nothing and no one could compensate him for a loss so necessary and fundamental to his well-being.
Nevertheless, it will require more than nature to consummate so natural and insistent a longing. While it may be true, as the Gospels tell us, that those who hunger for bread ought not to be given stones, it does not thereby follow that the hunger itself is what produces the bread. And so at every turn in the forest, behind every bush, there are perils awaiting us that only grace can enable us to face. To overcome. Nature cannot negotiate the road beyond nature, the journey that leads home to God. So we’re all in a ditch—every “jack, joke, potsherd” among us, to evoke the image of Everyman found in that superb poem by Hopkins. But free, entirely and blessedly free, to look up at the stars. And stare in sheer stupefied wonder at the heavens.
Thanks to the sheer graciousness of a God who need never have made us in the first place, we have all been invited to climb the ladder of sanctity that leads straight to Him.
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Regis Martin’s The Beggar’s Banquet is a feast of reflections on God’s love. In thirteen discourses on Christ, His Mother, the spiritual life, and the saints, the author rekindles the familiar Gospel message with ever-deepening wonder, whetting the appetite for that which alone truly satisfies: the Bread of life.