Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Book Recommendation: Commentaries on Jonah by Joseph Card. Ratzinger and Fr Paul Murray OP (Part 1)

A Journey with Jonah - The Spirituality of Bewilderment by Fr Paul Murray O.P. with God Took Pity a commentary of the Book of Jonah by Joseph Ratzinger. Word on Fire Institute, 2021.

This booklet, just 84 pages long, should be studied deeply by Catholic creative artists, especially those who appreciate poetry and literature, and are motivated to create contemporary and popular works of art that communicate accessibly the noble and beautiful truths of the Faith, so as to bring people into the Church.

Cover art: Carl Mayer, 19th century, fresco, Vienna, Austria
There are two commentaries in this book. One is by Joseph Card. Ratzinger, which was presented in 2003 as the basis for a guided lectio divina at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina in Rome. It is only 15 pages long, but as with everything that he writes, is extremely rich and rooted in the tradition of the Church Fathers. This is an important addition, for, without a true understanding of the Church’s Holy Tradition, even the Scriptures are robbed of their authority. The other commentary, which takes up the bulk of the book, about 60 pages, is by Father Paul Murray O.P., who brings to light very similar themes but in a different way. We are presented with a range of spiritual and psychological insights throughout the centuries from a wide variety of artists and commentators, Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular. Implicit within Fr Murray’s commentary is a template for engagement with non-Catholics through the wider culture, as he shows us how the themes of Jonah have universal meaning, and can be used to speak, potentially, to all of humanity.

He dwells on contemporary themes in this regard, and shows how the themes of Jonah might offer hope to those who are miserable in today’s world: for example, the inclination to identify as spiritual-and-not-religious (which might also be described as a phenomenon of multiple religions with a membership of one). Dissatisfied with pure materialism, and in search of a spiritual life, people look first to their own spirits in an inwardly-directed search. It is from the vantage point of our spirits that we can see, so to speak, the Holy Spirit, but so many people conflate the window with the view, and identify themselves as the god who sets the parameters for their spiritual lives. They thereby close in on themselves and exclude the very thing they yearn for, the living God.

This is the first of three articles in which I lay out a general template for evangelization and cultural renewal inspired by a reading of this short book. Who’d have thought a little book about Jonah could do this?!

I want to explain this in some detail, and so I will present this review in three parts focusing in turn on:

1. The message of Jonah
2. The evidence, through the example of many commentators, of the universal appeal of this message through time and hence its potential to connect to people today
3. How this message of hope and joy can be communicated via contemporary culture, and the importance of the study of great works of art of the past for those who are to create the contemporary culture.

The first part will be my best attempt to represent the tradition of the Church in regard to the book of Jonah, particularly as communicated through this commentary. Parts two and three, which follow in the coming weeks, will be more personal responses to the content, and will contain more of my opinions and reflections about the issues being raised.

1. A summary of the meaning of the book of Jonah
What comes through to me in reading these commentaries is just how important the book of Jonah has been in giving Christians a deeper understanding of the Faith, and, once understood, in inspiring and guiding them to go on in their mission of evangelization so as to bring all people into the Church. The book of Jonah speaks strongly of the great mercy that God has for all people who choose freely to come to Him.

Jonah is a man who is flawed in so many ways, yet he is the one whom God, in his infinite wisdom, charged with the mission of converting the non-Jewish Ninevites. His response is often poor and less than inspiring: he tries to run away in order to escape from the responsibility of his mission; he is angry at God for showing mercy to non-Jews; and bewildered by how God chases him down and the depth of His mercy and compassion. But despite all this, his faith in God prevails, and he ultimately goes on to fulfill that mission (and along the way, he converts also the sailors of the boat in which he takes passage.)

By this, remarkably, he has become in the eyes of the Church a type for Christ. The story of Jonah follows the pattern of salvation history, and therefore directs us to our own participation in the Faith and ultimate end as Christians. As such, it is relevant to every single one of us today. As Card. Ratzinger puts it:
The book of Jonah is not narrating events that took place in the distant past; it is a parable. In the mirror of this parable-story both the future and the present become visible. The present is explained over and over again to different generations, and it is only the light of the future - ultimately in that light that comes from God - that the present can be understood and lived correctly. This parable is consequently a prophecy. It sheds God’s light on time and thereby clarifies for us the direction we must take so that the present may unfold into the future and not go to ruin.
The importance of this Old Testament book to the Christian life through the centuries is made clear when one realizes that in the Byzantine churches, the whole book is proclaimed in full at the Easter vigil; furthermore, the canticle of Jonah is sung weekly during Lent, and hymns that communicate some aspect of traditional Scriptural commentary on the book are sung every single day of the year during Morning Prayer. I am not a Scripture scholar and wary of misrepresenting the message, I thought that the simplest and safest way for me to present a summary of the meaning of the book Jonah would be to use the words of the Church herself, as proclaimed on her liturgy.

First, here are two hymns that are sung on the feast of Jonah:
To the Ninevites, you were a trumpet sounding forth the fearful threats of Heaven’s judgments, at which they repented wholeheartedly. From the belly of the whale, you foreshadowed the divine resurrection of the Lord to the whole world. Therefore, entreat Him to bring up from the pit all of us who honor you, O Jonah, as a prophet beloved of God.
You passed three days and nights within the belly of the whale, showing the descent of the Lord into the belly of Hades. When He had freely suffered his Passion, He rose from the tomb on the third day. Therefore, we honor you, O prophet Jonah, who were counted worthy to be a type of Christ.
A Russian icon of the Prophet Jonah, from the cathedral of the Assumption in Moscow. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
For Christians, the fact that a man so clearly imperfect and flawed can, by God’s grace, be a type of Christ, demonstrates that it is also possible for each of us to participate in that type as members of His mystical body. In this scenario, we are at various times those to whom the Gospel is preached, and those who accept its message - the Ninevites and the sailors on the boat. And we are all Jonah too, flawed people whose lives and words might speak of the Gospel once we are reborn and have put on Christ through the triple sacrament of baptism, confirmation, and communion. Like Jonah we can, despite our ground state as fallen humanity, be elevated in Christ, and becomes icon of Him who draw others into the Church.

Given that Jonah is a type of Christ, his story can legitimately be connected to any liturgical celebration, to any aspect of Salvation History, and to any aspect of the Christian life. For to the degree that any feast relates to Christ, it relates in some respect to Jonah also. For example, here is a hymn about Jonah from September 14th, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross:
Jonah stretched out his hands in prayer in the form of a Cross within the belly of the whale, plainly prefiguring the saving Passion. Cast out from there after three days, he foreshadowed the marvelous Resurrection of Christ our God, who was crucified in the flesh and enlightened the world by the His rising on the third day.
And on the Nativity of the Lord, December 25th, two hymns:
The whale ejected Jonah from its belly, as it had received him, like a newborn baby from the womb. So also did the Word dwell within the Virgin’s womb, taking flesh and being born of her, yet leaving her intact. He left her virginity untouched in the woman who gave Him birth.

The fish vomits Jonah

Submerged in the depths of the sea, Jonah begged You to come and still the storm. We who are wounded by the dart of the Devil, O Christ, call upon you as the slayer of evil, asking You to come quickly and deliver us from laziness.
Jonah thrown into the sea
I illustrate the post this week with images from the catacombs of Rome dating from the 3rd or 4th-century. Fr. Murray referred to these in his essay (I was not aware of them before I read this book.) One imagines Christians venerating and regarding these simple wall paintings as they heard the Scriptures read, and the hymns and commentaries of their day being sung throughout the liturgical year.

When sacred art is used for its highest purpose, that is, to engage the eye during prayer and worship, it does not replace or substitute Scripture or the words of liturgical hymns. Rather, it acts in harmony with what is heard or sung, and acts a portal through which the person engages with the truths that Scripture and hymn also point to. Subsequently, each time a familiar painting of Jonah is seen, it brings to mind not simply the scene depicted, but also in some way all that we know of Jonah. It is just as when we see the face of a person we have known for years and love - all that we know and love about that person, their essence, as it were, is made present for us in the single moment that we behold them lovingly. In this way, sacred art has a unique and special power to engage us and direct us to the mysteries of the Faith. So, for example, when we see the image of a figure thrown out of the boat, we recognize that this is Jonah, and in that moment the essence of the person Jonah, not just this particular part of his story, is brought to mind in some way too. And through this, we are led to a deeper relationship with the person that Jonah points us to, Jesus Christ.

Jonah rests in the shade of a gourd
This is an important distinction between the role of image and of the written word in communicating and reinforcing the Faith. Christianity is a religion of the Person, not of the book. Images are a necessary bridge that spans the divide between the book, which tells us about the person, and the person himself, and those images that are frequently venerated in the context of prayer and worship will do this most powerfully. The Church has mandated the veneration of sacred art ever since the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787AD, so as stimulate our capacity for a personal connection with those who are portrayed. Images, therefore, used in conjunction with words reinforce the Faith in our hearts in a unique way, fulfilling a role that the written word alone cannot.

One might say that as a general principle, a culture of beauty does this - it connects the perceptible and engaging with the imperceptible and real, penetrating and revealing in some way, the mystery of faith.

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