Attraction to Infinity: A Review of God at the Ritz
by Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
Review by Christopher West
Lorenzo Albacete – affectionately dubbed the “mystical Monsignor” by those who know and love him – is a multifaceted man. His quest for knowledge as a physicist, his love for humanity as a priest, his awe for “mystery” as a theologian, and his wit as a comedian leap off the page in God at the Ritz.
Having served as a consultant for a PBS documentary on John Paul II, Albacete was invited to the Ritz Carleton in Pasadena for the show’s premiere. There at the bar, the pool, and in the lobby the nation’s TV critics confronted Albacete with intelligent, sincere questions about life’s “ultimate issues” – questions that Albacete admits he had. The result is this collection of 42 bite-sized reflections on science, faith, politics, sex, suffering and the enigma of human existence.
These are not sugar-sweet, pious musings. In fact, God at the Ritz serves as an antidote to saccharin piety. As such, those who treat religion as an escape from reality will not find comfort in this book. Albacete engages life’s real questions even at the “risk” of losing faith. After all, if what faith holds to be true is indeed true, then religious folk should not be afraid of those nagging, human questions that challenge faith. We should unhesitatingly press into them. This is precisely what Albacete does.
With utmost respect for the sceptic, the non-Christian, and the atheist, Albacete reflects on “the most awesome experiences of life.” He proposes that these experiences point to “a great Mystery that always lies beyond and inspires more questioning, more dedication, more searching to fulfill the relentless desires of our heart” (p. 12). To be human means to ponder this Mystery, to question it and seek it. “To be human is to be an incarnate ‘why’” (p. 86).
For Albacete, oppression begins when the powers-that-be seek to stifle this “why” – to suppress the human longing for infinity by “reducing the desires of the heart.” The human heart cries out for the infinite, but “powers threatened by an explosion of the original desires of the heart preach that ...what it looks for cannot be found” (p. 158). In this view, the religious quest is pointless. There is no satisfaction of the desires of the heart, so they must be squelched. In turn, those who don’t suppress the desires of the heart become a threat to the system. Their desires get in the way of power’s agenda.
Albacete turns to Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail” which wonderfully illustrates this point. In his quest for answers, said snail embarks on a journey through a wood seeking “the end of the path.” After an encounter with two old, embittered frogs who question him about the purpose of his journey, the snail meets a pack of ants who are brutally beating one of their own. The snail learns that the tortured ant had threatened the social structure by stepping out of the production line, climbing one of the tallest trees in the forest, and gazing upon the stars. As the little ant recounts her celestial vision, the pack grows increasingly violent in their attempts to silence her. “Still,” Albacete recounts, “the dying ant insists, ‘I have seen the stars’” (p. 123).
The other ants who might have followed the “desires of their hearts” will now think twice because of the example made of their friend. “That is how power remains in power,” Albacete tells us, “by reducing our desire” (p. 156). The refrain of Albacete’s book (in my own words) is “Do not squelch the desires of your heart!” To those who tell him to suppress his deepest desires and to accept the status quo without asking why, Albacete responds “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” (p. 85).
The human need to know “why” should not embarrass us, Albacete reassures us. This passionate curiosity “expresses the power, the energy of human life itself” (pp. 26, 27). It is man’s universal “religious experience.” For when “we ask why, who are we asking? Suddenly we realize that we are having a conversation with the Mystery” (p. 94). We are exposing our face to that Mystery and waiting for some answer. This, in fact, is the “mystical Monsignor’s” definition of prayer (see p. 197).
But, as we learned from Garcia Lorca’s ant, if we refuse to stifle the desires of our hearts for infinity, we must be prepared for a hostile response from others. We must be prepared to suffer. For “suffering is the cry of freedom in the human heart refusing to be defined by any power” (p. 88).
Albacete’s reflections on suffering – obviously flowing from the depths of a man who is no stranger to the topic – are simply stunning. These alone make the book a must-read. He offers no “answer” to the question of suffering. Indeed, he believes the “cruelest response to suffering is the attempt to explain it away” with a “prepackaged religious reply” (pp. 99, 102). Albacete explores the question with ready understanding for those led to scorn God in their misery and despair. Like nothing else, suffering propels man to voice “the great cry: ‘why?’”
The only human response to suffering, according to Albacete, is co-suffering. As co-sufferers, we “can impose nothing on the other person. We can only help the other to ask the question ‘why’ by asking it together – that is, by praying together” (p. 102). “To co-suffer is to be willing ...to risk our own faith by identifying with those who suffer in their questioning of God.” We must “make a human connection with the sufferer, and cry out to God together” (p. 101).
Suffering is a deeply personal reality. It is “a wound in our personal identity” (p. 100). When we suffer, “deep within our hearts we hear a distant echo of what could have been, of how human life was really meant to be” (p. 112). In this way, suffering points us not only to “some standard,” but to the Standard, the Infinite, or – to use Albacete’s favorite word – the “Mystery.”
Without saying so directly, Albacete gently suggests that human suffering points us in some way to the “great mystery” of Christ and the Church. If the divine Mystery is not to be blamed for the horrors humanity experiences, then this Mystery must also be a “co-sufferer.” This Mystery must be willing to “descend into the hell we have encountered” in order to save us from the ultimate suffering – death, our own annihilation. Human co-suffering is limited. While it can ease another’s sufferings, as Albacete observes, it cannot “prevent that person from dying. But what if the co-sufferer is the author of our identity? Then this co-suffering would be stronger than death” (p. 115). Then we could entertain the hope of the redemption of suffering.
The redemption of suffering does not eliminate it, at least not in the earthly realm. Instead, the redemption of suffering creates “a community of those who love and offer[s] a home to those who suffer.” The presence of this community “represents an invitation to free human beings to embrace a new vocation, a new mission: to join the community of ‘redemptive suffering,’ to help complete what might be lacking in its inner resources to offer a home to those who suffer, sparing them from the loneliness that is hell” (pp. 115-116).
In the end, for Albacete, “Religion is either the reasonable quest for the satisfaction of all the original desires of the heart, or it is a dangerous, divisive, harmful waste of time” (p. 154). Perhaps the atheistic powers that seek to squelch the desires of the heart are right. Perhaps there is no satisfaction of our desire for infinity. But perhaps there remains a “Presence” among us that has not only seen the stars, but come from them. It is this “terrible perhaps” that lies at the heart of the Christian proposal.
As a Catholic Christian, it is clear that Albacete sees the human mystery as inseparable from the mystery of Christ. But there is not even a hint in his reflections that he is trying to “force-fit” the human drama into a preconceived theological system. With unstinting respect for the personal freedom of the reader, Albacete is reflecting on the questions and experiences we all have. This is why everyone – whatever his or her belief, or struggle to believe – can richly benefit from the “mystical Monsignor’s” humble attempt to represent “God at the Ritz.”
© Christopher West. All rights reserved.
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