Peter Kwasniewski

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How Holy Week brings to life the paradox of truly finding oneself by losing oneself

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

April 16, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – "O God . . . hear me as I tremble in this darkness and reach out your right hand to me. Hold your light before me and call me back from my wandering, so that, with you guiding me, I may return again to myself and to you." (St. Augustine)

Man cannot find completion or rest in himself, but only in one who is other than himself. His entire life, from infancy to adulthood to old age, is marked with a need for others, and within this neediness there abides a desire for the Other who will complete him and bring him rest. 

He is capable of discovering through reflection that in this world he is always in some way estranged not only from God, but even from himself; what is more, he can see that the former is the cause of the latter: I am not myself because I am not yet perfectly united to my origin and end.

From their long experience of conversion and love, the saints know this truth better than anyone else. William of St. Thierry prays to the Lord: “As long as I am with You, I am also with myself; but I am not with myself as long as I am not with You.” His friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux agrees: “He who gave me Himself, gave me back to myself.” They are good disciples of St. Augustine, who said: “Unless my being remains in Him, it cannot remain in me.”

Above all other times of the Church’s year, Holy Week reminds us of this fundamental lesson. The Christian sacramental life solemnly enacted in liturgical ceremonies and their devotional echoes is a school that opens our eyes more and more to the presence and absence of God—to His majesty and beauty, and to the misery and darkness of fallen man. The public, cultic worship of God aids in divesting man of himself (the old self, his own “property”) and clothing him with Christ—or better, changing him into Christ from deep within, thus realizing the soul’s innate potential to be what God created it to be: a clear and beautiful image of Himself.

In the words of Étienne Gilson:

Grant that a being is an image, and then the more it resembles its Original the more faithful it is to itself. But what is God? He is Love . . . [T]o love God as he loves himself, that truly is to be one with him in will, to reproduce the divine life in the human soul, to live like God, to become like God, in a word, to be deified. The marvel is that in thus becoming God man also becomes or re-becomes himself, he realizes his very essence as man in realizing its end, plucks up by the roots the miserable dissimilitude that divided the soul from its own true nature. Losing that whereby it is but partially itself, it finds once more the fullness of its own being, as it was when it came from the hands of God.

G. K. Chesterton makes the same point in his own delightful way: 

To the question, “What are you?” I could only answer, “God knows.” And to the question, “What is meant by the Fall?” I could answer with complete sincerity, “That whatever I am, I am not myself.” This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves.

Awakening to the human self in the divine Other where it most perfectly exists, where it wells up from all eternity and where, in the end, it must come to rest if happiness is to be gained, requires treading the rugged, at times agonizing path of alienation. I will indeed “find myself” in the end, but only by being purified from “miserable dissimilitude”—only after yielding to the dominion of another, the beloved, who reshapes my life according to his will. Mirroring the Lord’s total gift of Himself, our conversion demands an exodus that takes the form of passion and death, before it can acquire the form of life and glory.

This very mystery of humiliation and glorification occupied Jesus, Moses, and Elias on the mountain of the Transfiguration. The lawgiver and the prophet were speaking to Jesus “of his departure [exodos], which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31). In the Vulgate, exodos is rendered excessum. Throughout his life but especially in His Passion and death, Christ models the excessus, the exodus, that each Christian must reproduce in his own life by achieving deeper union with Christ.

“Exodus . . . with its death and regrowth” is a “basic pattern in Christianity” (Joseph Ratzinger). Carnal man is constantly tempted to “reverse the exodus,” to go back to “Egypt” and all that it symbolizes. Christ rejected this temptation in the garden of Gethsemane when He prayed: “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk. 22:42); he rejected Luciferian self-assertion, the exercise of autonomous will. He made Himself bread and wine to be shared out endlessly, so that all who come to Him can receive all from Him, soberly drunk with His love.

The Eucharistic liturgy is the defining act of the new man, the paradigm of what it is to be divinely human. This metamorphosis does not destroy the person but re-creates him as a distinctly radiant reflection of the Father’s unique Image. “Far from effacing the creature, deification alone makes it possible for it to exist in its integral truth” (Jean Borella).

In its symbols the liturgy proclaims the new heavens and the new earth, and in the nascent holiness of Christians fed at the altar, begins already to anticipate the kingdom of God—a kingdom fully established only after the fiery destruction of the old heavens and the old earth. The Lord’s “risen body is the nucleus of the new world” (Pierre Benoit); and as the Head had to drain the cup of suffering before entering into His glory, so too must His members.

May this Holy Triduum draw us ever closer to the Crucified and Glorious Savior of the world.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.