All posts by Eric

A New Stage in My Journey

The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. The old life is left behind and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of the realm of the finite and into the realm of infinite possibilities.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Following God’s call is an amazing adventure, one that often has many unexpected twists and turns. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many examples of people who started serving God in one way, only to discover that He was calling them to serve Him in another.

St. Francis of Assisi heard God’s call and interpreted it as a call to rebuild the church of San Damiano. God eventually made it clear that He wanted him to do more than that: He was calling him to help rebuild the universal Church by founding the Order of the Friars Minor.

St. Theresa of Calcutta felt the call to be a missionary and joined the Sisters of Loreto. However, after years of teaching with them, she felt the call at the age of 36 to leave and found the Missionaries of Charity in order to serve the poorest of the poor.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini initially felt called to be a missionary in China, but when she sought the advice of Pope Leo XIII, he said to her “not to the East, but to the West.” She then directed her missionary zeal to tirelessly caring for the Italian immigrants in the United States where she founded numerous schools, orphanages, and hospitals.

God has the big picture of our lives, and from all eternity He calls us to be happy with Him here on Earth and forever in Heaven. He knows us even better than we know ourselves, and so He knows even better than we do what will make us happy. He calls us to that happiness and He leads us in a way that is respectful of our freedom and our limited ability to understand His plan.

Sometimes, He may lead us in one direction, only later to call us in another. Such changes are not indicative of misinterpretation or misunderstanding on our part: they are simply part of a bigger plan. Sometimes, to get us to point B, God has to move us towards point C for a little while. Sometimes, to move us forward, He lets us go one way, knowing that when the time is right, He will redirect us in another.


From a young age, I have felt a strong desire to dedicate myself entirely to evangelize and to proclaim the Gospel—to bring God’s peace and love to a world so full of noise and dissatisfaction. That desire led me to pursue the priesthood, first in a religious order and then with the Archdiocese of New York. Over the years, as I have come to know myself better, my view of God’s call has sharpened and come into focus. I have gradually realized that God is indeed calling me to dedicate myself entirely to spreading the Good News, but not in the way in which I initially understood the call. He is calling me to be much more involved with the secular world, in a way that is not typically possible for a ministerial priest.

One of my favorite novels is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The youngest brother, Alyosha, is a novice in a monastery, under the guidance of the saintly Fr. Zossima. Shortly before his death, Fr. Zossima calls Alyosha to his bedside and directs him to leave the monastery. He says, “This is what I think of you, you will go forth from these walls, but will live like a monk in the world. You will have many enemies, but even your foes will love you. Life will bring you many misfortunes, but you will find your happiness in them, and will bless life and will make others bless it — which is what matters most.”

These words have resonated with me: “to live like a monk in the world.” While I strongly desire to serve God and bring His Gospel to others, I have discovered that the particular circumstances and disciplines of the priesthood, although necessary and fruitful for some, are not the best for me. For this reason, I have decided to leave the pursuit of the priesthood in order to explore how I may “live like a monk in the world,” that is, how I may live a deep spiritual life while actively engaged as layperson (either single or married) in the secular world. I want to live more deeply what I have written about on this blog: I want to live “silence in the city” and to “find peace in the city of man”, and I want to help others to do the same.

I have left the seminary and will begin a job in Manhattan later this month. I look forward to volunteering at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in SoHo, and I look forward to seeing where the Holy Spirit leads next!


I have been writing on this blog for almost three years, and I would like to thank all of you who have joined me on my journey by reading my posts. Once I am settled into my new life, I hope to start a new and upgraded blog, which I will be sure to announce on this one. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your prayers. Please count on mine.

Finding Post-Election Peace

We humans are political beings just as much as we are spiritual beings, so there are times and places where the spiritual and political realms overlap. Our political lives affect our spiritual lives, and vice versa. It is impossible to live either one completely isolated from the other. If we are losing peace because of political issues, that is going to affect us on the spiritual level.

The respite that we were hoping for after a long and contentious campaign season has not come; instead, we have seen only seen an intensification of polarization that has manifested itself in unprecedented post-election protests and riots. (Here in New York,  the section of Fifth Avenue near the Trump Tower is currently blocked off due to demonstrations, as it has been throughout the week.) Regardless of whom you were going for in the election, the past week has been a stressful one.

As Christians, regardless of our political views, we must be channels of peace and bearers of calm whenever we encounter the mass frustration that has exploded since Tuesday. In this regard, I was inspired by what Eric Metaxas, a Christian radio show host in New York City, wrote a couple of days ago:

I have dear friends who thought a Trump presidency would be the worst thing ever. At this time, I feel that it’s important to say them, “If you are upset, then I’m upset.” One friend actually emailed me: “You helped make this happen. Our friendship is over.” That hurt. But then I thought about how much he must be hurting to have written that.

For a Christian, the first thing to do after something this divisive is to pray for those who disagree with you and show them love…We need to assure those we disagree with that they are loved and respected as fellow Americans and, more importantly, loved by God. This is the work of being a Christian. It’s not extra-credit Christianity. It’s the guts of the faith at its most basic level.

We Christians are citizens of the City of God even more than we are citizens of the City of Man. In the City of Man, power dominates and governs, but in the City of God, charity does. In an America that is experiencing the worst division since the Civil War, we Christians must lead the way in bridging the divide through charitable actions and peaceful demeanors.

But before we can bring peace to others, we must find peace ourselves, and there is no better when to do this than by spending time in prayer. Giving the tense situation of our nation, I suggest setting aside an extended period of time (perhaps 15 – 30 minutes) at some point over the next couple of days during which you place yourself before God and ask Him for peace. Whether you are upset by the results of the election or upset by people’s reaction to it, place it in God’s hands. Tell Him your concern and frustration, and beg Him to pour His peace upon you so that you may communicate it to others.

I found inspiration in the entrance antiphon in the Roman Missal for today, the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: “The Lord said: ‘I think thoughts of peace and not of affliction. You will call upon me, and I will answer you'” (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

As we begin another week, let us Christians resolve to face it with the peace and charity that come with knowing that we are citizens of the City of God, en route to Heaven.

New York City Marathon Update

Dear friends,

We did it! I am happy to say that we met our goal to raise $3,000 for the St. Nicholas Project. Thank you very much for your generosity!  As I mentioned before, all of the money will go to Catholic Charities to help provide winter clothing and other items to needy New Yorkers.

Thank you for your help – now it’s time for me to do my part and run the race! I will be starting at 10:40 am on Sunday, November 6th on Staten Island near the Verrazano Bridge and finishing (hopefully around 4 hours later) in Central Park near West 67th St.

If you want to follow me in real time, download the TCS New York City Marathon app and use my race number (52290) to track my progress.

Thanks again for your support, and pray for good weather!

Yours in Christ,

Eric Wandrey

“The Great Gatsby,” the American Dream, and True Personal Freedom

The Great Gatsby offers a profound look at and critique of the American Dream. I found this paragraph from Chapter VI about Jay Gatsby to be particularly insightful:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

America is a place of freedom: its citizens are not constrained by class or caste. In America, a Dakota farm boy can indeed become a millionaire or a celebrity. We Americans value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” more than anything else. We have enthroned freedom as an absolute good, and built monuments in its honor all over our land.

The great Jay Gatsby is a fictional icon of the person allured by the American Dream. He had been born James Gatz of North Dokota, but he did not allow the limitations of his childhood circumstances determine his destiny. He was not afraid to grasp for godlike control of his fate and actualize “his Platonic conception of himself.” With voracious ambition, he launched out on his self-conceived, pseudo-divine mission of achieving the success that is available in America to those willing to grab it.

Those who have read the novel know how it turns out for Gatsby and appreciate what it tells us about the American Dream.  He goes too far in forcing reality to conform to his will, and his self-made destiny takes a wrong turn into self-destruction.


I have been reading R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In the introduction, he points out,

We Americans like to compliment ourselves for our independence and self-sufficiency. But there’s a dark side to our national character. A deep sadness comes when we realize, finally, that we’re on our own, which is where secular individualism brings us in the end.

American freedom, when left unbridled, leads to isolation from God. Absolute self-determination is simply incompatible with God’s Providence. As Reno puts it,

This world is God’s, not mine. It’s not for me to make myself into whatever I wish. God, not my sovereign will, is the Supreme Being. In him we live and move and have our being.

But our American society has so hyper-valorized personal freedom, that we are arriving at unnatural consequences.

Our dream of freedom promises that no man’s destiny is fixed at birth. Why, then, should nature dictate? Why should genitalia dictate? Why should our decaying bodies dictate? Why should DNA dictate? Why should anything other than freedom alone, operating in a void, govern our futures? Unless we’re ready to propose an end or purpose for freedom to seek and serve, we’ll end up saying that freedom is for the sake of freedom. The American dream thus turns into a totalitarian nightmare of political power marshaled to subdue everything— except freedom.


It is a beautiful thing that in America no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, but it can become a nightmarish thing if this freedom is not guided and channeled by truth. Fitzgerald intuited this reality and wonderfully captured it in his classic novel.

God has blessed us with freedom to develop ourselves up into flourishing human beings, and America, perhaps more than any other country, cherishes this freedom. However, when we overstep our bounds with Gatsby-like arrogance, we step into the dark side of the American dream – one that leads us away from God and into ruin.

The proposal that R.R. Reno offers in his book is the only way to prevent the American Dream from mutating into an “American Nightmare”: we must indeed cherish our freedom, but within the context of an ennobling and ultimately more liberating submission to divine truth.

Help Me Run the New York City Marathon and Clothe Needy New Yorkers

Dear friends,

I have been accepted onto the Catholic Charities team to run the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon on November 6th. I am really excited to be a part of this team, especially because we are running to raise money for the St. Nicholas Project, a program that provides winter coats, hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters, and blankets to needy New Yorkers during the Christmas Season.

Would you help me raise money for this great cause? By being a part of the Catholic Charities marathon team, I have committed to raising at least $3,000 by October 17th. Whatever you can do would be a big help, and I would be honored to have you be a part of my marathon.

Help me run the marathon and clothe the needy by clicking the link below:

 

Thank you so much for your help! I will be sure to keep you posted on how the campaign goes.  If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me via the “Contact Eric” link on this blog.

Yours truly,

Eric Wandrey

 

Summer Break

Dear readers,

I will be taking a break from the blog during August while I take some time to be on vacation  and then to settle back into the academic year in the last week of the month. I will also be doing a  spiritual retreat, during which I will be sure to pray for you and your intentions. (Feel free to send me your prayers intentions using the “Contact Eric” tab on this blog.)

I look forward to blogging with you again in September!

Sincerely,

Eric

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 2

In my last post, I spoke about the reasons for postmodernity’s rejection of beauty and its declaration that beauty is an illusion in the midst of the ugliness of reality. In this post, I speak about why beauty is in fact real, and how the ugliness that does exist in our world does not overcome true beauty.


In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

We need not look far to see the influence of this view on contemporary art and literature. In fact, it is one of the underlying messages of Donna Tartt’s recent bestseller The Goldfinch. The protagonist, Theodore Decker, having tragically lost his beloved mother and, later on, his father, struggles to make sense of his troubled existence and the absurd hand that life has dealt him. He turns to drugs to escape from the cruel reality of his life, and, interestingly enough, he also turns to beautiful art, symbolized by the painting from which the novel takes its name. For him, “beauty alters the grain of reality”; it makes the world more bearable and life more livable.  Truth is an illusion and reality is undesirable, but, “where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, and where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists…”

For Theodore Decker, beauty is a happy dream while reality is a living nightmare. The best that one can do in such an absurdly cruel world is “wade straight through it, right through the cesspool.” Through her character, Tartt articulates well how beauty fits into the postmodern worldview: it is nothing more than an anomalous parenthesis in the fundamentally meaningless and ugly reality of our existence.

While Tartt’s realist fiction does mirror Dostoevsky’s, there is nevertheless a big difference: where Tartt sees only meaningless suffering and illusion, Dostoevsky sees meaningful suffering and salvific beauty. Although his literature is painfully unrelenting in its realistic depiction of human depravity and anguish, glimmers of hope nevertheless shine through. The Idiot is perhaps one of the clearest examples. Prince Myshkin is the center of a high society circle in 19th-century St. Petersburg whose members are complicated characters with complex, selfish, and often downright evil motives. The Prince, by contrast, is characterized by incredible goodness and innocence. His only motive is the well-being of others, and he pursues this to his own detriment. While his love and goodness are attractive (although perplexing) to some, others take advantage of him and cause him great emotional and physical suffering.

Prince Myshkin is clearly a literary icon of Christ, the suffering servant, and we find insight into his character in Hans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which is mentioned twice in the novel. Holbein’s painting shows an emaciated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life that makes it seem as if Christ’s suffering continues. The body is shown without the onlookers who are usually present in such artistic renditions of Christ’s Passion, thus intensifying the isolation of death.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein

Holbein’s painting, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, are works of art that do not shy away from showing human suffering in all of its ugliness. Nevertheless, their art simultaneously points to a beauty that goes beyond appearance; it points to the beauty of love.

In the suffering of Jesus Christ, the undeniable ugliness of evil has been subsumed into a greater beauty – “the beauty of love that goes until ‘the very end,’” as Pope Benedict described it.  This is the beauty that will ultimately be our salvation; this is the beauty to which Dostoevsky refers in the same novel when he says that beauty will save the world. When the world asserts that reality is actually ugly, we can point to the Face of him who was “crushed for our sins” to show that there is a deeper beauty behind the ugliness of evil, an unvanquished beauty that offers us hope and meaning in a world full of despair.

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 1

 Our insatiable longing for ever greater beauty and for union with it is itself evidence that we were made for something more, for something greater; it is an indicator that we are destined for a final end.  C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Our unsatisfied desire for beauty here on Earth is proof that we are made for Beauty that can only be found in another world. Beauty and our irresistible insatiable attraction to it are evidence of an objective final end, of Something that attracts us in a way that is beyond our control. To admit this transcendent end is to admit that it determines what we ought to do, because to accept a certain end automatically implies limiting oneself to the actions that lead towards it and denying oneself all those that lead away from it.

But this is unacceptable for the postmodern man who believes himself to be an ontologically autonomous “creator” of his own reality in which he is the sole determiner of the good and, ultimately, of the beautiful. The postmodern glorification of the self-determining individual allows room for nothing that challenges his absolute freedom, not even beauty. To admit that something is objectively beautiful regardless of his self-determining perception is to admit that there is an objective order that in some way conditions how he ought to think and act. Admission of beauty thus requires humility and deference. As Roger Scruton in his excellent book on the subject, “beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

This claim of beauty challenges postmodern man’s absolute freedom and provokes him to reassert his autonomy by defying it. We find ourselves in a world that rebels against beauty and is rife with artistic ugliness. To quote Scruton again: “There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.”

In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the great precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

In next week’s post, I will discuss how to respond to the postmodern claim that beauty is nothing more than an illusion.

Beauty that Draws Us to the Creator

The beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself. An example taken from art can help us see this. We look at beautiful artwork in one of two ways: either in itself (horizontally), or in relation to its artist (vertically). To look horizontally at Nicolas Poussin’s Israelites Gathering Manna is to appreciate the balance of its composition, the harmony of its colors, the depth of its meaning, and the perfection of its mathematical proportions. However, we look at it vertically when we seek to understand what the work tells us about Poussin. Looking at the painting alone and knowing nothing else about the artist, we can nevertheless deduce that the creative intellect behind it was incredibly rational, methodical, and precise, which was indeed the case with that Baroque genius.

"Israelites Gathering Manna" - Nicolas Poussin
“Israelites Gathering Manna” – Nicolas Poussin

The same goes for the beauty of Earth, which is a complex and amazingly fine-tuned reality. As Eric Metaxas points out in his recent book Miracles, the very fact that our planet can support life is itself a sort of miracle given the incredible amount of necessary conditions and the infinitesimal margin of error allowed for each. If Earth were just slightly larger and had just slightly more gravity, toxic gases such as methane and ammonia would remain too close to the surface for life to be possible. If Earth were just slightly smaller, water vapor would dissipate leaving a virtually waterless planet. If it rotated just slightly slower, our nights would be too cold and our days would be too hot. If it rotated just a little more quickly, winds would reach insupportable velocities. Metaxas mentions many more requirements and only just scratches the surface.

The Earth and all that it contains overflows with so much perfection, harmony, and splendor that a vast number of sciences are dedicated to studying it. Through geology, meteorology, ecology, zoology, and so many other disciplines, we grow in our knowledge of the Earth’s beauty and come to appreciate it horizontally. However, marveling at the amazingly precise calibration of this beautiful planet, it is almost impossible not to ask why and how it is so perfect; it is almost impossible not to consider it vertically. If Earth is so fine-tuned, there has to be a Fine-Tuner. Just as the perfection of Israelites Gathering Manna points to the creative genius of Poussin, so the super-abundant perfection of Earth points to the super-abundant creative genius of its Maker. To say that Earth came together randomly would be like saying that Poussin’s masterpiece came about from a random spilling of paint. The beauty of Earth points to the Great Artist who is behind it.

And through the beauty of his creation, this Great Artist draws us towards himself, who is Perfect Beauty. The natural beauty of this Earth and the artistic beauty of its human inhabitants, although truly wonderful, never seem to be enough. We all know that unsatisfied feeling when the curtain goes down and the lights go on; when the sun sets and it’s time to go home; when the movie finishes and the credits roll – we can never get enough of beauty, and the precious times when we have it leave us aching for more. C.S. Lewis describes well this universal yearning: “We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…”

The Explosive Power of Beauty

One of the most spectacular works of 17th-century Italy is Bernini’s Chair of Peter. This masterpiece employs a variety of media in a typically Baroque fashion: the cathedra and the Fathers of the Church are bronze, the Holy Spirit is alabaster, and the angels surrounding the Holy Spirit are gilded stucco. In an equally Baroque manner, it portrays dramatic motion that breaks through the barrier between art and reality and comes into our space. The Holy Spirit appears to be exploding with amazing power into St. Peter’s Basilica: the angelic figures surrounding it are blown back from the dove, even as some try to go towards it.

"The Chair of Peter," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
“The Chair of Peter,” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Besides being an icon of the power of the Holy Spirit, Bernini’s sculpture is an icon of the power of beauty. In a no less spectacular fashion, beauty explodes into our lives. We see it in sunsets and snow-covered mountains, and we marvel at it in the astounding creative accomplishments of our fellow humans. Whenever we experience reality that overflows with perfection we experience “beauty”, and, confronted with it, none of us can remain indifferent. But its power can be disconcerting because beauty demands, and it exerts undeniable influence over us: it fascinates, entrances, moves, and challenges.

Beauty confounds us. Why does it draw us so powerfully? In a world full of ugliness and suffering, how do we make sense of it? Dostoevsky was aware of this conundrum: interestingly, in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov he refers to beauty as a “riddle.”  Beauty is indeed mysterious, and its mystery affects each person differently, depending on his openness to truth.

For the hedonistic Dmitri Karamazov, the riddle of authentic beauty is unbearable. In a conversation with his brother, Alyosha, he grapples with its mystery: “Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing! Fearful because it is undefinable, and it cannot be defined, because here God gave us only riddles.”

The human mind finds security in definitions, because if something can be defined, it can be controlled. In man’s understanding and knowledge of things, he finds intellectual self-assurance. However, mystery makes him nervous because before it he must admit that there is something beyond him, and this admission in turn leads to the possibility that this “something beyond”, this source of mystery, has power over him and limits him.

For sensualists like Dmitri, this possibility is unbearable. In the same dialogue, he contrasts the “ideal of the Madonna” (beauty with truth) with the “ideal of Sodom” (beauty without truth), and he asserts that Sodom “for the vast majority of people…is just where beauty lies.” Dmitri is a type of all those who prefer the dazzling beauty of the world, the beauty of Sodom and Babylon, the beauty of billboards and magazines, the beauty that, according to Pope Benedict, “does not bring people out of themselves into the ecstasy of starting off towards the heights but instead immures them completely within themselves.” It’s the beauty of the fruit that seduced Eve: beauty that offers power, possession, and pleasure.

But try as they might to close themselves in the “beauty of Sodom”, authentic beauty maintains its fascination and continues to bear witness to the truth, because the beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself.