Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Catharsis and the Rhetoric of the Gospel

Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889), Die trauernden Juden im Exil
Good drama makes us feel good. We experience deep satisfaction when bad guys get their just deserts, and good guys emerge victorious despite the odds. Similarly, there’s a certain happy sadness when we follow the downturn of a mostly good character: we feel empathy and understanding.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined both of these plot structures in his Poetics. A good drama, says Aristotle, makes us feel better. When we watch a good drama, we participate at a distance with the emotions and plot, such that our emotions and very soul are cleansed. While we might not want to be on the Titanic while it is sinking, we might enjoy a movie about it. The cleansing of the soul – which is the goal of good drama – is catharsis. 
Catharsis depends on certain defined plot structures; namely the rise and fall of a good character, especially due to hubris “blind pride” or hamartia “a tragic fault”. The audience can see and sometimes even anticipate the downfall, but nonetheless feels sympathy for the character in question. Sophocles’ Oedipus is the textbook example. When everything is said and done, it all makes sense, but beforehand no one in the audience could have expected the reversals which lead to his downfall. If any of the parts of the plot are missing, there will be no catharsis.
Christianity has its own version of catharsis which depends deeply on similar rhetorical structures. Consider the text of the classic American hymn Amazing Grace: I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. The basic progression is darkness to light, sin and error to freedom and truth, death to life. Sometimes we even see a subsequent return to error, darkness, and sin. 
The Old Testament is a series of examples of this rhetorical pattern. God redeems fallen humanity, and soon after humanity falls again. Israel enters captivity due to sinfulness, and God rescues them and restores them again. Redemption originates with God, though humanity is at fault. 
It is useful to tell these stories, not simply because they are true, but because they can remind us of God’s redemption and salvation in our own circumstances. Hope comes in a moment of difficulty, when we see our own life fitting the larger patterns of God’s redemption and salvation. For the Christian, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the ongoing source of faith and virtue. What was accomplished at a national and collective level for the people of Israel, is now accomplished at an individual, universal, “catholic” level through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 
The rhetorical pattern nonetheless remains constant, if we wish to experience the holy “catharsis.” Sin, darkness, grief, despair, blindness, anxiety, sickness, and fear are transformed into love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This pattern is made present universally in Jesus, anecdotally in the lives of the saints, and personally in our own conversion. 
There are three distinct stages of the “rhetorical pattern” of redemption: sin, redemption, and gratitude. One need not look too far to encounter the first stage: here we’re talking about the burdens of humanity, the crushing guilt and onus of sin, the lack of hope and freedom and vision. We’ve all been there. This brings us to the end of ourselves, where we need redemption. In this second stage – redemption – we say to God, with the prophet Isaiah, “But now, O LORD, You are our Father: We are the clay, and You our potter” (Is. 64:8). Lastly, having been set free, we remember where we were and acknowledge where we have come with God’s help. We are grateful and say with the Psalmist “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for his mercy is everlasting. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary” (107:1-2). 
This three-stage story is the eternal and ongoing rhetorical pattern of redemption. Wherever we hear this story told, the light of the Gospel is "on" and we can find freedom from the burden and pain of sin. It would be absolutely tone-deaf and dysfunctional, however, to presume that all of our congregations are in the “redeemed” category at all times. Far from it! I may intentionally come to Mass precisely because I am burdened and confused, anxious, or darkened by sin and error... and I know it. The entire story – the entire rhetorical pattern of redemption – must be told if the holy “catharsis” is to take place. To the extent that we consider ourselves Christians, isn’t this “catharsis” or redemption exactly the holy and central purpose of our coming together, the source and summit of our Christian life, the reason for giving thanks in the Eucharist? 
As Catholics, however, we feel uncomfortable talking about the last aspect: our own participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What happens in the confessional rightfully remains private; we don’t like to acknowledge publicly where we have been, and we don’t like to say thank you publicly for the redemption we have received. We do, however, take inventory of our state in the penitential rite, and in a minor way with "Domine, non sum dignus..." or "Lord, I am not worthy..." before Holy Communion. But gratitude is also needed. The story of the ten lepers is particularly telling (Luke 17). Jesus healed ten lepers, but only the Samaritan returned to thank Jesus. As Catholics, we shy away from telling long and elaborate personal testimonies. And I thank God for that, but we do need to express gratitude in some way. It is right and just. 
We do encounter in our tradition a way in which the individual can express gratitude publicly: the Psalms. In addition to the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms are employed in the Mass in the vast majority of Introits, Graduals, Alleluia verses, Offertories, and Communion Antiphons.  
Just as we say together “credo” “I believe,” we can say together “Ego clamavi, quoniam exaudisti me, Deus” “I called out because you will answer me, O God” (Introit for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Psalm 16) Of note in both cases is the use of first person singular “I ” or “ego.” Far from being an expression of ego or wanton emotion, the “Ego” here is the personal and perhaps most meaningful outworking of the pattern of redemption.

Nonetheless, catharsis depends on the whole story. We can't omit a single part. And lastly, in this Easter season, I would hope that like the good leper, we return to say "thank you."

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: