We have the custom of watching one movie a month in the monastery. I pick out the movie, which is to say, we watch a lot of Alfred Hitchcock.
Articles under General
Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus [Acts 4: 33].”
This power that the apostles had was the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just before the Ascension, our Lord instructed them, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth [Acts 1: 8].”
One of the more remarkable aspects of sixteenth-century music (and other arts, such as the theater of Shakespeare) is the fact that it was composed and performed in an era of unusual political instability. The medieval political arrangement had been in its death-throes for some time. The Reformation sent Europe in a rather new direction. Old verities seemed not to hold.
While God was still understood by virtually all to be the Judge and final arbiter, the splintering of the Church made discernment of His active presence in the world ambiguous at best. As historian Brad Gregory has pointed out in his amazingly detailed book The Unintended Reformation, we are still living with the fallout from this disintegration today. What had been ambiguous five hundred years ago has, if anything, turned into a welter of vagueness today. Is God involved at all in politics? Should He be?
That many Christians today even entertain such a question indicates the immense change that Western culture has undergone. Enthusiasts for the new order (rapidly becoming a disorder at the moment) would claim that we have finally succeeded in disentangling what should have been separate concerns in the first place, namely religion and politics. Those less enthused would point out that the consequence of this disentanglement is a practical atheism, what generally goes by the more genial name of secularism.
It was with these considerations in mind that Kevin Allen and I chose to include in last evening’s celebration of Solemn Vespers Jubilate Deo by Cristobal Morales. His work combines the Offertory of Quinquagesima Sunday (more on that anon) with a text celebrating the Truce of Nice (1538), which ended the conflict over Northern Italy fought for two years between the kingdoms of France and Spain. Morales interprets the truce as a moment of liturgical significance: the peace, brokered by Pope Paul III between two princes, was sent down from heaven as a blessing on “all nations.”
Pope Paul III certainly had a political stake in hostilities near the papal states. Yet it is significant that the restored peace is one in which the Church and her principal Vicar on earth play the substantial part. One can’t imagine the Holy Father brokering an analogous peace between, say, Elizabethan England and Spain fifty years later, at the time of the famous naval battle resulting in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Still, a sense of united purpose endured in Europe until very recently. There have been several lasting arrangements of European nation-states, the most recent being the European Union. All of these recognize in Europe something of a kinship bond. The proposed constitution for the EU was controversial in no small part because it failed to recognize the nature of this kinship—the shared Christian, and indeed Catholic, foundation of the very idea of Europe.
What we are seeing in the rejection of the EU by large parts of the population (most pointedly in the Brexit decision), is a sense that the new order, which prides itself on toleration of differing cultures, is anything but tolerant. Here, let me return to two earlier ideas, the medieval situation and the fact that we begin Quinquagesima Sunday tonight.
The Catholic Church is universal (kata-holos; according to the whole), but not uniform. And if the papacy and other ecclesial structures (such as eleventh-century Benedictine monasteries) were instruments of peace between peoples, it was precisely because love of neighbor and the associated virtue of prudence are able to discern what belongs to the genius of a nation and what belongs to its vices. If the medieval arrangement appears too unsystematic, this may have been with a larger purpose of genuine toleration, the tolerance that works from love. What broke down in the sixteenth century was not a sense of political uniformity, but a sense that peace and salvation could be achieved by solidarity and tolerance within one visible Church.
Our present liturgy in the Roman Rite currently uses two calendars, one for the Ordinary Form and another for the Extraordinary. This Sunday, then, is both the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time and Quinquagesima Sunday (which is the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday). The modern rationalist, who prefers clean systematic arrangements, would balk at this irregularity (and there’s certainly a part of that in me!). Is this septic rationalism a species of the same generic intolerance that modernity has ushered in? The medieval political world was a mélange of ad hoc arrangements by treaty, privilege, and custom—quite unsystematic and untidy. And the medieval liturgy mirrored and helped to shape and make sense of this multiplicity. Different dioceses employed different rites and calendars and recognized different saints. All, however, were committed to the sense of shared purpose that came about through one baptism into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We might, therefore, dignify the lack of tidiness with a word that denotes a different kind of system. The medieval liturgy was organic, the system of a living organism, the Body of Christ.
In this way, we can learn, by necessity if for no other reason, how to celebrate our present liturgical diversity as a blessing and life-giving sign. To do this, we must relearn how to see God active and present everywhere, even in that most untidy world of politics from which He’s been nearly banished.
“The crosses were set in place….Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his ‘congregation’ he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessings, and he ended his ‘sermon’ with these words…’I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.’
“Then, according to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheathe their spears….[They] killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a very short time.”
–from the Acta Sanctorum, read at the Office of Vigils on the feast of St. Paul Miki and companions, February 6
It is of no small significance that the universal Church celebrates today the Japanese martyrs. We hear little of the brave European missionaries who brought the faith to Japan. Attention gradually focuses in on Saint Paul Miki, who begins his final apologia by proclaiming himself Japanese. For him, Christianity is not a betrayal of his culture, but its goal, its fulfillment. True, it comes with the trappings of faraway Rome, and yet what impresses me is that in the person of Paul Miki, it becomes Japanese. It is easily forgotten just how deep an impact the Catholic faith made upon Japan in their first encounter.
I’ve been asked to comment on Martin Scorsese’s most recent movie, Silence. I haven’t seen the movie, nor am I likely to soon (I wouldn’t mind seeing it at some point), but I am an enthusiast of the book. Two questions jump out as being pastorally weighty. Should Catholics see this movie/read this book? Are the movie and book anti-Catholic?
[SPOILER ALERT: plot developments will appear in what follows]
I separate these two questions, even though it would seem that they are intimately connected. As I attempt to answer them, my reason for considering them separately will hopefully be clear. Now, there are many excellent reviews of the movie and of the book, and the two I’ve found most helpful are those of Bishop Robert Barron and Amy Welborn. It’s also worth noting the effect of playing a Jesuit missionary had on actor Andrew Garfield. I encourage you to read them. In what follows, I will primarily focus on the questions that have been posed to me, with a few final words about the crucial issues of the novel.
In beginning to answer the first question, I should note that I hold the somewhat unpopular point of view that not all literature and not all art is for everyone. We all know this, in fact. This is why we withhold certain types of stories and images from children. Once we reach some arbitrary age, however, it is assumed that we can read or view more or less anything and derive profit from it. A more ancient wisdom respects that different persons are in different places, and not all of us are prepared to grapple with particularly vexing or troubling ideas. When I first read Endo’s Silence, I’m not sure that I was fully ready for it, even though I was thirty-three and a monk in solemn vows. I found the book quite disturbing because of the dilemma faced by the Portuguese missionaries, and the solution of external apostasy (perhaps at the command of Christ Himself?) was gravely disappointing to me. I wanted some clever escape from this version of the Kobayashi Maru test.
But the novel stayed with me. I felt that I was missing something in it, that my own personal maturity and faith needed developing before I could fruitfully engage with Endo. As I understand it, the movie is largely faithful to the book, and so to the first question, I would say that Catholics should feel no particular need to see the movie or read the book. If you do decide to see the film, it’s important to be aware that aspects of it may try your faith, and depending on where you’re at, you might change your mind and go to see something else. On the other hand, it’s also possible to remember that stalwarts like Bishop Barron have watched the film and/or read the book, and do not find it an insoluble challenge to the faith.
Which brings me to question two. Endo’s book is a great work of art, and as such, it “resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation,” in Bishop Barron’s words. Reading the book to determine whether it is pro- or anti-Catholic is a disservice to the book, and probably to the movie as well.
In fact, I do not believe that the book is anti-Catholic at all, and in the end, I doubt such a thing can be said of the film. While it is true that Endo’s own Catholic faith was strained at different times in his life, he did come to love the Church more and more as life went on. We should, as Bishop Barron warns us, be careful not to overlook the heroism of the Japanese martyrs in the novel and in the movie. It is easy to do. Why? I believe that a major difficulty in understanding the book is roughly equivalent to the major difficulty faced by the missionary Fr. Rodrigues: we read as Westerners expecting a European/American novel written for us, and what we are confronted with is a Japanese novel written for a Japanese audience. Fr. Rodrigues struggles with a somewhat patronizing attitude to the simple, vulnerable folk who embraced the faith with tremendous vigor. He struggles to establish any kind of genuine rapport with the natives (significantly, the one native with whom he regularly interacts is the conflicted Kichijiro). His training has not really equipped him for the culture shock he’s navigating. This makes it difficult for him to see Christ alive and glorified in the suffering of his fellow Christians. He is oddly modern in this way. It is a stretch for him to communicate (or even comprehend) the joy of martyrdom for Christ, in the way that Saint Paul Miki did with apparent ease. “When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, [Saint Paul Miki’s] whole body strained upward with such joy…” Saint Paul has entered into and embodied an understanding of the Gospel that ennobles what it means to be Japanese. This nobility extends from the Emperor down to the poorest peasant. The Portuguese missionary in Silence never quite comes around to seeing their fellow Christians as genuine brothers and sisters, members of the Body of Christ. This doesn’t mean that there were not such missionaries. But it does mean that the trials faced by Fr. Rodrigues and his fallen-away fellow Jesuit Fr. Ferreira are met by men who discover themselves unprepared and out of their depth, a situation that neither anticipated or could have properly imagined.
One of Amy Welborn’s most important points is that Endo wanted to name his novel The Scent of a Sunny Place. This title would have placed more emphasis on Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy and its enfeebling consequences. He is a defeated man who puts a good face on his personal failure by…blaming the incurable strangeness of Japanese culture. Endo apparently feared that the title Silence would suggest something about the silence of God in general, which is how many do interpret it.
Here I must say something about the weakness of modern Catholic spirituality. And by modern, I mean roughly post 1350 A.D. Various factors moved the locus of communication between God and man further from the liturgy and world toward the private “cloister of the heart.” There were a few dissenting voices along the way, St. John of the Cross being the most insistent and consistent among them. God’s Logos, His Word, is that through which all things were made. Fr. Rodrigues would know this from the Final Gospel read at the end of every Mass in those days. This means that God speaks through all things, once we learn how to listen. By the early 17th century, the time of the novel’s story, prayer had become routinely interiorized to the point that well-educated priests could plausibly focus on the strained, inward search for the voice of God, especially when tossed into a profoundly alien and dangerously unfriendly culture. Yet, this notion of prayer is profoundly in tension with the attitude of the Church Fathers, including the great monastic founders of the Early Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who addressed a genuine need when he urged his followers to find God in all things, also warned about the real possibilities of self-delusion when we depend entirely on inner locutions and extraordinary signs (in his biography, the Devil deludes him into thinking that he is speaking with and adoring God in a beautiful display of lights, and is nearly led to commit suicide as a result). It is realistic of Endo to posit that not all Jesuits had been fully formed by their founder’s insight when so many cultural drifts were going the opposite direction.
It is for these reasons that I am personally not inclined to believe in the authenticity of the alleged voice of Christ coming from the fumie (the iconic representation of Christ, used by the Japanese persecutors to confirm apostasy). That’s not to say it’s definitely demonic, either. The monastic fathers and mothers taught that these sorts of phenomena have three sources, God, the Devil, and us. The voice of the fumie is what Fr. Rodrigues wants to hear. Perhaps a demon gave him a shove, but he was wandering in that direction already. And in my opinion, one main reason for his failure is his inability to see Christ in the Japanese whom he was sent to serve.
Did he go to serve them? Or did he go to prove a point about Fr. Ferreira? This is another important question that Endo implies.
I might sound a bit hard on these two Jesuits. I don’t see them as weak as much as caught up in a situation for which they are unprepared. The missionaries of the New World enjoyed the consolations (and, to be sure, the complications) of an accompanying imperial power. The Japanese missionaries are utterly isolated, and it is not surprising that they struggle to read the signs of God’s Word in such unfamiliar surroundings.
There is one detail from the movie which has come to my attention. Bishop Barron points it out: that when Fr. Rodrigues’s body is shown in his coffin, he is clasping a crucifix. The implication is that he remained inwardly, privately a Christian. As the bishop goes on to point out, “that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.” I suggested above that in the crucible of a no-win situation, Fr. Rodrigues gave in to what he wanted to hear. One hopes that Martin Scorsese hasn’t done the same in his own reading of Silence.
Some years ago, at community recreation, we watched the movie “Selma.” It happened that at the same time, we had been reading together a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and we were in the midst of reading about his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. One young monk grew frustrated with conflicting portrayals of President Johnson. “I don’t get it!” he said at one point, “Was he good or not?”
The temptation to divide people neatly between good and evil, to separate the sheep from the goats as it were, is a perennial one. It tends to be stronger, however, in certain eras. In my opinion, this desire for black-and-white moral categories is stronger in times of social instability. Two highly influential, and more or less institutionalized versions of this dualism, are Manichaeism and Calvinism. A strong version of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in which persons are destined either for heaven or hell, continues to exert a strong cultural influence in America, even post-Christian America. [See Joseph Bottum’s excellent book “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, to see how a peculiar brand of American Christianity morphed into today’s liberal ideals, for example.] I experienced a kind of awakening to this aspect of American culture while watching Clint Eastwood’s (violent) masterpiece “Unforgiven,” and discussing it with a devout Protestant friend. It is interesting to consider Eastwood’s own development from the unforgivable crimes of the Wild West to the redemptive death of Walt Kowalski in the more recent “Gran Torino.” Kowalski becomes a champion and defender of the Hmong families whom he had disliked and mistrusted at the beginning of the film. Was Kowalski good or evil? A lot depends on when we ask the question.
I sense a certain lingering Calvinism in the contemporary American tendency to demonize. Labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” “xenophobe,” are useful and often descriptive of actual behaviors and institutional structures. I would not deny that. But we should use caution when applying them to persons. Let me return to Lyndon Johnson.
Was he good or not? Was he a racist? Like all of us, Johnson was complex, a mixture of good, even magnanimous impulses, along with resentments and weaknesses, especially when positions of power afforded him the license to indulge himself at the expense of, say, women who happened to be nearby. What I am saying, however, is not that we need to resign ourselves to a muddle-along world with good and bad in everyone. The mixture of the good and the bad is in part a side-effect of the fact that we are all unfinished. The dynamic and dramatic arc of a human life is what both (strong) Calvinism and Manichaeism deny. Walt Kowalski changed from being a person with suspicion and hatred toward others based on race to someone who was a friend and defender of the same persons. President Johnson also changed. As a white southerner, he did and said things, especially in his earlier life, that fit with the racist ethos of the circles in which he walked. But he also came from intense poverty, and had a feisty protectiveness for hard-luck cases that could mature into a zeal against injustice. So he also underwent a kind of conversion that made him a champion of civil rights. Other limitations, it seems he never overcame, which will be true for most of us.
Persons can also change for the worse, of course. My point here is that a label such as “racist,” when applied to specific persons, can have the effect of fixing that person in one moral location and foreclosing the possibility of growth. It reminds me of a friend I had growing up whose mother continued to accuse her of being on drugs…even though she wasn’t at first (she was highly creative and goofily energetic by temperament). Well, eventually she decided, “Why not use drugs, if I’m pegged that way anyway?” Literally damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the danger of dualism. It tends to reinforce and bring about the very evil its adherents wish to combat, in addition to blinding those who are lobbing the accusations as to the dynamism of human life.
What I’m saying should not be taken to mean that we shouldn’t name injustices and their causes for what they are. When, however, we recognize that we and others have the capacity to change, we can set about to effect this change through rational argument and action. This is a painstaking process. Impatience with the process can tempt us to fall back on the expedient of power, as I wrote on Sunday. And the difficulty we have in believing that others can change is rooted in our experience of others as irrational, about which I wrote in the same post. When we perceive someone as irrational, another temptation is to despair, for we have no hope of rationally persuading that person to change.
In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood draws on explicitly Christian language of repentance and forgiveness. So for the benefit of non-Christian readers whom I’ve been inviting to read the blog this past week, I should explain that this notion of personal change is not limited at all to Christian vocabulary. Aristotle and the classical tradition that followed him (in pagan Greece and Rome, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) understood human beings as possessing potential. Human infants are amazingly helpless compared to the offspring of other animals. But they also have greater potential. Morality is more or less a question of how we end up developing that potential, whether we become the sorts of persons that we aspire to, or fall short of this goal. As the example of Walt Kowalski suggests, we can’t know for certain how to characterize a life until it has reached its end. In the meantime, even my enemies and others who hold political opinions completely opposite of mine can change. So can I. Colonialists and slave owners of the past denied full human potential and rationality in slaves and in the colonized. But we risk doing the same when we deny rationality and potential in others.
[Disclaimer: I can only claim some expertise in the theology of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to indicate that my take on Calvinism here is focusing on a specific strand within a complex historical tradition. I hope that I have not mischaracterized Calvinist theology in general by doing so.]
Several persons have contacted me and asked me to share some thoughts on the election and its meaning and aftermath. What are our responsibilities as Americans, as Christians and Catholics? If anything, Tuesday’s results and the response of those who opposed Mr. Trump have crystallized in my mind certain ideas in moral philosophy that the brothers and I have been hammering out together for many years. I have found it difficult to convey these ideas in other fora, especially on-line discussions such as take place on Facebook. Our ideas tend to get distorted by the typical political and cultural narratives that pervade the internet and other media. Last year, I began to write out a systematic outline on this blog, but I think it’s worth going through the exercise again, with newer insights from Nietzsche, Max Scheler, James Alison, and William Cavanaugh. Not only that, but much of our work turns out to be applicable to the present political situation.
But this first post is meant to establish the context for everything else that is to be said, lest the rest of what I write appear as an irresponsible escape into navel-gazing.
We are still a nation of laws
…or at least we have always aspired to be. When political rhetoric of any kind is used as an excuse to perpetrate bodily harm or issue threats, this should be met not only with disapproval but with the full force of the laws against such behavior. Those of us who denounce violence will make our own insistence on this point more credible by our own principled respect for the law. There are multiple reports of violent incidents that are being connected to the election results. Most of what appears in the media (and, plausibly, most of what has actually taken place) is violence directed against persons such as Muslims and Mexicans, whose religious and ethnic identities are bound up not only in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical gestures, but in his stated policies. Some of the violence has been against Trump supporters. All violence is out of bounds and deserves the condemnation of every American.
Christian discipleship is authenticated by love of enemies
This past political campaign was demoralizing in its constant ratcheting up of the language of demonization. This happened on both sides, and neither side seems to see its own demonization for what it is. This makes civil discourse impossible. Or, perhaps the gradual breakdown of civil discourse has left us with no way of engaging in truly rational discussions (see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, chapter 2). Without the possibility of rational argument, the temptation is to resort to demonizing those who disagree. In many cases, we have no way of making common cause, even with those inclined to agree with us, without scapegoating someone (this Girardian insight has been inverted and made into a conscious political tool by Saul Alinsky). Christians cannot settle for this state of affairs, and certainly ought not to demonize those who hold divergent ideas from our own. Pope Saint John Paul II, while an archbishop in Poland, used the strategy of holding the communist regime to account for the gap between their official rhetoric and the actual state of affairs. Václav Havel followed a similar strategy in the former Czechoslovakia.
The simplest way of stating this is that we are commanded to love our enemies and not to meet violence with violence.
Christian social thought is grounded in love of neighbor
Who is my neighbor? The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump was an indication of a widespread sense in communities blue and red that the general drift of American politics has been at the expense of a great many Americans. Trump’s hope to “make America great again,” and Sanders’s “political revolution,” need to be seen in the long-range context of a failed war in Iraq, the ongoing symbiotic relationship between the federal government and defense contractors, banks, et al, 5.5 million home foreclosures, with virtually no repercussions for those responsible for this widespread suffering. The Washington and media elites are widely understood to belong to a utopian (i.e. “no-place”) globalist class that has forgotten the responsibility they have for their fellow Americans. Instead of seeing fellow Americans as neighbors with a common cause, elites unthinkingly deride the suffering as the irresponsible “47 percent” or lob them into the bucket of deplorables.
Again, I will have much more to say about how we got here, and what sort of strategies are needed to recover a sense of solidarity between Americans. In various ways, the healing follows from the principle of love of neighbor. The priest and the Levite, political insiders and beneficiaries of political power, were afraid to show compassion to the man left for dead on the way to Jericho. Perhaps we need to become outsiders, like the Samaritan, in order to see the suffering in front of us for what it is. Through the strengthening of local networks of concern, we can bring to bear a properly political pressure to bear upon government leaders, most of whom, after all, are chosen by us and work for us.
Love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemies. These are the measure of Christian witness, which is needed now.
Next: Why emotivism leads us to court political power.
I wrote several days ago something to the effect that “things are worse in the Church than people think.” This sentiment is worth qualifying and examining.
Mainly, I’d like to distinguish what I mean from what Rod Dreher means when he writes similar things. As I understand him, he sees Christian institutions under imminent attack from secularizing forces. He fears that Christians are oblivious to the seriousness of the threat. In my experience, Christians are plenty aware that demographics trends and political developments do not bode well for the Church in the immediate future. What he perhaps is responding to is the fact that few Christians make this their first concern. I don’t think that this is necessarily complacency in many cases. To explain this, let me say something about institutions.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whose famous St. Benedict quote is the inspiration for Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” is a man whose comprehensive thinking on modernity, morality, and faith deserves as much attention as one can afford. He spends almost an entire chapter on institutions in his seminal book After Virtue. Institutions are important, but should always be secondary to practices. An institution like a chess club brings together persons interested in playing chess and fostering its proper enjoyment. The club itself is not a substitute for the actual practice of playing chess. We all know that institutions tend to have their own internal logic that can often interfere with the practices they are meant to foster and protect. Therefore institutions can only function well and in proper subordination to practices if the members are virtuous. And, as MacIntyre makes clear elsewhere, virtues are learned in practices, not in the bylaws of institutions.
In my opinion, most Christians are aware that longstanding institutions are endangered. And I would agree that many of us Christians are not spending lots of time worrying about it. Ambivalence in this regard has two sources. The first is a recognition that our current institutional arrangements are often unable to surface the right kinds of virtuous leadership, and so tend to be self-defeating. The response of American bishops to the sexual abuse scandal demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) that the institutional arrangement (meaning the current structure and operating modes) of the bishops’ conference is faulty. This is to be distinguished from the theological necessity of the episcopacy or even the virtue of individual members. Bishops could choose to organize themselves differently, but this would require hard thinking about the precise practices that the bishops’ conference is meant to foster and protect. The Council documents that encouraged the formation of these institutions are somewhat vague on this point and were, perhaps, slightly naive about how institutions can corrupt practices.
The second source of ambivalence stems from the typical Christian concentration on real practices. This is to say that the average Christian is more concerned about the practice of virtue at ground level than the institutional backing that supposedly is undergirding it. Another way to look at this is to say that Christians are already developing their own local, ad hoc institutions (which is what the Benedict Option is supposed to encourage). The collapse of larger structures that provide tax shelter for a religious soup kitchen may or may not impact the soup kitchen itself. But Christians will, in one way or another, find a way to feed the hungry. It’s what we do. And I see so much of this in my everyday life, even from the relative obscurity of the cloister, that it seems ungrateful to fret about difficulties to come, even while I do see the need to prepare for them. I’d rather point to the exercise of faith around me and encourage the Christians I know to continue the work of virtue than worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and may or may not in fact happen. This work is being done by the laity, a visible fruit of the teaching of Vatican II.
Last of all, the mention of virtue brings me at last to explain what I mean when I say that things are worse than people might think. What I mean by this is that our Western culture, especially in America, has been somewhat less-than-fully-Christian for many generations now, and that reviving a genuine, thoroughgoing practice of Christian virtue is a lot more difficult than the average person might think. This is something I can vouch for firsthand. I am a cradle Catholic who has mostly practiced by faith all my life. And yet, I am continually amazed at how far I have to go to be genuinely holy. Now, putting it that way illustrates that this is not pessimism or frustrating, or even necessarily cause for great fear. If you read the lives of the saints, you will discover that most saints had this same experience (which does not make me a saint, by the way). Love of a transcendent God means, in the words of Fr. Michael Casey, being perpetually out of one’s depth. Where I think there is some naivete is in our American optimism that “most people are basically good.” This is a nice, generous sentiment. But it does not help us to gain a lot of energy in the spiritual battle, in which we must first notice that in every heart there are large swaths of unevangelized heathendom. These are, of course, open to hearing the Good News! Which makes them, in their way, “good,” if broken and in need of healing. This healing is what we must first be about, and only if this happens will institutional reform follow in any meaningful way. In the short term, this may mean the tottering and elimination of many institutions. Some may be sad to see them go. But the long-term needs of the Faith may require this purification.
In a word, if we wish to pray, we will want to cultivate a habit of thankfulness. A thankful person sees the same things as an ungrateful person, but the two focus on different aspects of what they see. When we are ungrateful, it is often because we focus on what we wish we had and do not have. When we are grateful, it is often because we notice what we have, and what is often overlooked. Finally, when we reflect on the fact that we have been created, and that God has promised us eternal joy and backed this promise by the gift of His only Son, even when we are deprived of the things that we need in life, there is still scope for gratitude.
This cultivation of a thankful spirit finds beautiful expression in the last words of the great Fr. Alexander Schmemann: “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”
All of this is to say that the heart of our life is Eucharist.
In the first post in this series, we noted that any desire to advance in a practice or craft required renunciations. Professional pianists must refrain from woodworking and gardening, since this will adversely affect their ability to use their hands. Great athletes avoid certain foods, and certain social situations. Clearly, it is important to renounce unhealthy behaviors and attitudes, but sometimes we must also renounce even good things for the sake of better. The shape of such renunciations depends on the goal.
So when St. John Cassian writes of the renunciations, he does so in his third Conference. These renunciations appear in a context. What is the goal that gives shape to these renunciations? What are they meant to make possible? We will fill this in with more detail as we go along, but the primary goal for Cassian is the Kingdom of God. There are many ways to interpret this, and in fact, looking at the renunciations will allow us to understand better what God has planned for us in His kingdom.
Let me mention something surprising. The word “renunciation,” or abrenuntio in Latin, does not appear in the Bible. Cassian quotes the Bible something nearly two thousand times in The Conferences, and makes reference to an astonishing 61 of the 72 books of the Bible. He is also noted for using Biblical terms where his monastic predecessors used Greek philosophical terms.
Cassian is a consummate traditionalist of his time. So his use of the word renunciation in such a prominent place in the third of his Conferences requires us to look elsewhere for this word. And indeed, we discover it in the ancient baptismal rite. The catechumen, having learned to correct his vices and how to grow in virtue, comes before the gathered Church at the Easter Vigil, and he is asked by the priest a three-fold question: “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty show?” Cassian’s renunciations are also three-fold, even though he himself doesn’t refer to the baptismal rite.
There is a second place where three renunciations take place, this time in the Bible, though the word “renunciation” is not used. On the First Sunday of Lent, from the earliest years of the Church, we have listened to the story of Christ’s temptations in the desert. Three times, Jesus says, “No” to the suggestions of Satan. Thus it is that Lent begins and ends with three renunciations.
Three Renunciations, Three Sources
|Cassian||Temptation in the Desert||Baptismal Liturgy|
|Country/Wordliness||Vainglorious Ambition||Satan’s “pomp”|
|Kindred/Vices||Gluttony=Gateway to Vice||Satan’s works|
|Father’s House/Idolatrous Images||Submission to the Demonic||Satan|
Instead, Cassian uses the call of Abraham as his template for the three renunciations. When God calls Abraham, still known as Abram at this point, in Genesis 12, he says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Cassian then goes on to explain to us what is to be meant by 1) your country, 2) your kindred, and 3) your father’s house. I would like to discuss each of these three renunciations in my three talks. Keep in mind, however, that Cassian’s idea of the three renunciations is progressive, which is to say that each renunciation is more difficult and profound.
We should note that progress for ancient people did not necessarily mean a step-by-step growth whereby one stage was completely left behind as another was begun. Rather, all three renunciations will require a certain doubling back. I will deal with this reality, how the spiritual life is full of stops and starts, circling back, and leaps of insight, in the second talk.
Even so, it was generally acknowledged that human beings had purposes or goals. That we do not appear in the world randomly, but were made for a certain reason, and that this reason could be discovered. This was true for pagans such as Socrates as well as for monotheists like King David or Saint Paul. As the purpose of our life is gradually revealed, as we come to understand it with greater clarity, we make progress toward realizing that goal. That is to say, the achievement of our life’s goal moves from being a potential reality or a merely envisioned reality to being real.
For the purposes of this series of posts, I would like to define the Kingdom of God this way:
Joyfully receiving my life at every moment from God through others.
Notice the passive constructions. This is something that we must learn to allow to happen. The initiative is God’s. Our job is to clear away the blockages from our receptivity toward God. This is not as simple as it seems. This is because we discover what needs to be renounced after and as we discover ourselves loved and forgiven by God. The Apostles received the strength fully to renounce their lives only after Pentecost, only imperfectly before. Jesus taught them during His earthly life, but the full implications of His teaching were revealed only after He returned to them, offering them forgiveness.
We recently installed a new high altar and choir stalls. We had known for a long time that we needed the old ones replaced. But the impetus for the change was the gift of three beautiful icons by a good friend of ours. And this gift opened our imaginations to discover potential in our church building that we might not have thought of otherwise. Had we set out to put in a new altar and then add icons, we probably would have reduced our imaginations to the somewhat run-down church that we already knew. It took a gift from someone else to produce in us monks an awareness of just how run-down our church actually was! And this in turn helped us to notice where we could make real improvements to the building, rather than just patches.
So it is with Christ. When Christ dies on the Cross and returns to us, what He invites us to is not simply a patch on our old life, but an invitation to a completely new kind of life. But just as the beautiful icon suggested to us that it was time to start over in a sense with our church building, so too, the new life that Christ offers us is an invitation to die to the old self. To do this requires renunciations, laying aside our old ways of being, and allowing ourselves to be led into the land that God will show us.
You can find an index to all of the posts in this series here.