Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | April 2020
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

She was leaning her head on her dad’s shoulder, the girl with her parents two rows in front of me at Ash Wednesday Mass. When she stood up, she reminded me of myself in junior high, wearing jeans with bold vertical stripes, more noticeable than pleasing, the broadest stripe a bright pink. My bellbottom jeans’ broadest stripe was red, if I remember right.

When I thought of those jeans, and though the priest was beginning to read the Gospel, it was a vivid memory, and I started to pull up my shoulders the way you do when you feel mortally embarrassed. The picture that came to mind is one I’m glad exists nowhere else. Not the clothes I would like to remember having worn. But I did wear them, and I could do nothing other than try to face my shame and continue to dress better.

A metaphor for Ash Wednesday, and perhaps for confession as well.

 

The Monday before Ash Wednesday, my wife and I drove out to central Ohio, where I taped an episode of Marcus Grodi’s EWTN show The Journey Home. We ate at a townie restaurant in a town off the highway. Afterwards, as I was waiting for my wife by the front door, I noticed that in the display cabinet, mixed in with all the local memorabilia, was a signed Carl Yastrzemski baseball card.

A signed card. A signed Carl Yastrzemski card. Two feet away from a boy who grew up in Massachusetts and started watching baseball the year Yaz won the triple crown. As I waited, I absentmindedly pulled at the cabinet’s door…and it opened.

My wife came up. “Could you go to the other end of the restaurant and fake a heart attack?” I asked. “Why?” she responded, as if this were an unreasonable request. “To divert everyone,” I said. “No,” she said. We left.

I wasn’t really serious. But I was very tempted to be serious.

 

Another story from my now oftquoted Calvinist friend Joe Long, which he found while preparing an exhibit, “paraphrased from memory, dramatized for fun,” he says.

A Catholic priest in New Orleans was ministering to wounded Southern soldiers during the Civil War. He came across a boy who scowled at him and said he’d been warned against the Catholics. “What is your religion, then?” the priest asked him.

“Ain’t got one. But let me tell you, if I were gonna have one, I wouldn’t have nothing to do with yours. No, sir! I’d join one actually helps folks, like them sisters there.” (Points to nuns.)

 

Almost everything medievalish in popular culture looks much more medieval than it actually is. The period provides fun clothes, cool weapons, new words, the hierarchies many secretly envy, authentic-looking grime, and horses. But pop culture uses those as props to tell typically modern stories.

Like the series Game of Thrones. (Which, I should note, I did not see, but did read a lot about.) The ending seems to teach the necessity of tradition, but it doesn’t, writes Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books. The character who, at the end of all the bloodletting, is chosen as king magically knows the past and present and maybe the future too. Bran knows the story. He will rule in the knowledge of what has happened. His unstable, violent world will be settled through memory.

That “is only tradition’s corrupt form,” Weingrad writes. The kinds of stories the show values “are unhooked from truth, from virtue and merit. They are mere narratives, in the sense of the Hollywood pitch and the political campaign. Furthermore, Bran’s magical wisdom is isolated: He does not share it with anyone, and apparently will not bequeath it to anyone. Real knowledge is what we receive from the generations before us, live out in our lives, and transmit to our children.”

 

Memory is not tradition. It doesn’t order the world to an end. It doesn’t tie us to our ancestors or our descendants. It gives us facts but doesn’t tell us what to do with them. As T.S. Eliot famously said, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

It’s not an abstract question. Modern Western man too quickly tries to invent and impose new things, new and better things, with no organic connection to the things that came before. An institutional connection, usually, but no real living connection. The Catholic sixties’ archeological way to create new liturgies, for example. Whether or not the new rites were better, they gave Catholics memories, and someone else’s memories at that, not traditions. For the first couple of generations, not received from those before them, not so naturally lived out, and hard to transmit to their children.

 

An editor’s lesson in effective complimenting: Be specific. Don’t, for example, just tell your hosts that they’d served a great dinner. Tell them (if you can say it honestly) they’d served a great dinner and pick out one thing you most liked about it. Try to pick out the thing of which they’re most proud.

As I wrote to book reviewers, because I know how writers feel: Write like you actually read the book and not just the chapter titles. Praise by showing that you’ve seen the praiseworthy. Not only is God in the details, appreciation is in the details.

 

The Patheos blogger Steel Magnificat writes about a Twitter warrior who repeatedly posted, “Make sex work shameful again.” From time to time, someone calls for the restoration of shame as a negative inducement to living more virtuously.

In theory, possible. In practice, not really. Making sex work shameful again wouldn’t do much to keep prostitutes off the streets. They’re not on the streets because they’re proud.

As Mary Pezzulo (a.k.a. Steel Magnificat) notes, many were kidnapped or sold into the work by their parents. They might have run away to escape abuse or wound up on the streets because they were ill. Others just suffered bad luck. Pimps got them because vulnerable young women on the streets have a big target on their back, and often got them addicted to heroin or captured them physically and psychologically so they couldn’t escape.

Mary continues: “If they go to the police for help, the police will promptly arrest them for prostitution, which is a felony. And when you’re a heroin addict who was picked up for prostitution, you go to prison. And after prison — good luck starting a new life if you’re a trafficking victim who was kidnapped as a teenager, never finished high school, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder plus the lifelong illness of addiction, and has a felony on their record. They’ll end up right back where they were, being trafficked.”

They feel enough shame as it is. Feeling shame won’t get you out of a life if it’s the only life you can conceive.

 

They’re not exactly wrong, the advocates for shame. Increasing the number of things for which people feel shame and making painful the shame they feel would increase virtuous behavior among those who have some choice in the matter. (Not everyone does.) A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, but if sugar doesn’t work, sneering laughter and finger-pointing might. How much it would increase virtuous behavior is a question, but presumably some, among some people.

The real question is what would be made shameful and who would enforce the feelings of shame on whom. The Twitter warrior would never keep posting, “Make exploiting workers shameful” or “Make polluting the rivers shameful.” He might know those people. He might be one of them. The truly shameful actions don’t get shamed.

He directs his charges at prostitutes, not their customers. He doesn’t say, “Make buying sex shameful again,” which would have more chance of succeeding, but might hit men he knows. Those shamed are almost certainly people who ought to be seen as victims. They’re easy to shame. They are, for shamers like the Twitter warrior, not “us.” They make good subjects for the theory because they can be put into the category: “Other people who are not doing what they should.” The shamers don’t have to see who they really are if they don’t want to, and they don’t.

Calls for the restoration of shame would be a little more convincing if they included shame for being an unsympathetic swine.

 

The people’s pre-Communion prayer in the Eastern rite, which many of you will not know but will want to:

  O Lord, I believe and profess that You are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. Accept me as a partaker of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal Your mystery to Your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I confess to You:

  Remember me, O Lord, when You shall come into Your kingdom. Remember me, O Master, when You shall come into Your kingdom. Remember me, O Holy One, when You shall come into Your kingdom.

  May the partaking of Your Holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of my soul and body. O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly Your most precious body and Your life-giving blood, which, I pray, make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.

  O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me. O Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number.

A cheering political story from the Mexican-American War — a war, shall we say, of dubious justification. Which is to say, pretty much none. Irish soldiers left the American army and formed a battalion of the Mexican army, once they realized where their true loyalties lay. They were called the San Patricios (St. Patricks).

Among the reasons the U.S. government invaded was fairly raw anti-Catholicism, as well as greed and racism. An editorial published after the war claimed that Mexico lost because Catholicism was “the festering canker-worm…infecting every organ of vitality and every fibre of strength with the poison of premature rottenness and decay…. No one thinks of keeping his word; no one forbears corrupting his neighbor’s wife or betraying his government; no one….” You get the idea.

The Mexican commander, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, wrote to the Catholic soldiers in the American army, “The Mexican nation only looks upon you as some deceived foreigners, and hereby stretch out to you a friendly hand, offer you the felicity and fertility of their territory.” Mexico would receive them “under the laws of that truly Christian hospitality and good faith which Irish guests are entitled to expect and obtain from a Catholic nation.”

He asked them, “Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia?… If you are Catholics, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of our Savior, why are you seen, sword in hand, murdering your brethren, why are you the antagonists of those who defend their country and your own God?”

The American military called them deserters. I’d call them defectors. Their experience raises interesting questions about Church and state. The U.S. government had an answer. It hanged 50 of the San Patricios.

 

The rabbi’s wife was young and beautiful, the kind of person found “in every political or religious movement, the sort of person who causes others to despair.” Reha Freier couldn’t fry an egg or make tea, but she could learn a language on a train ride, wrote Karl Stern in his autobiography The Pillar of Fire. Stern, a Jewish psychoanalyst, had grown up in Germany, before escaping to Canada. He later entered the Church.

“Since she thought and lived on a plane of practical impossibilities, she actually carried things out which no practical person could have achieved,” he writes of Freier. Even before the Nazis came to power, she wanted to send Jewish children from Europe to Palestine. Through the group she founded, she eventually saved over 7,000 Jews, almost all of whom would have died in the Holocaust.

Freier traveled to towns where Jews were being persecuted and ordered them to organize a train to take the children away. “It was her strong point to appear before the most unlikely people, wide-eyed and with flowing robes, speaking not in terms of committee meetings and majority resolutions but in the language which King David used in his Psalms. With this embarrassingly naive and direct method she occasionally had stunning success.”

 

After writing about Catholic Puritans and their dislike of giving things up for Lent, my Facebook page was bombarded by Puritans. (The article appeared as “Let Them Have Lent” in Catholic World Report.) The impulse to tell other Catholics they’re doing it wrong must be very strong.

What’s saddest, and also most destructive, about the Puritans is that they forget or ignore or don’t recognize the element of play in this discipline, and in the whole Catholic life. That was the main point of my article: Let other people have their pleasures, especially when the pleasures make them better.

What we do is deadly serious, but it’s also play, even a game. It can be enjoyed as a game. Some parts of the Catholic life are more obviously play than others, but most parts have an element of play in them. Life can be grim. Let’s play when we can.

Even the Puritans approve the giving-up game when it’s played for other reasons. If some friends addicted to coffee gave it up for a few weeks, and did it together, and gave some kind of stoic self-mastery as the reason, the same people would say, “Great!” But do it during Lent to try to serve God better, and they’ll tell you not to.

The old discipline can be a game, so let people play it if they want.

 

Here’s one of the main things about playing games: Games can be played together, and this — Lenten discipline — may be, for many, a game best played with others. It can be played competitively but not aggressively. Giving something up is a game you want to win, and you want your friends to win too.

You can encourage, joke, cheer, tease, and push them along, and they you. And if they feel they’ve tried to do more than they could, you can tell them it’s all right to bail. You can grow in affection for each other, as we can do when we play together.

You can party together when you finish, win or lose. This is a game in which even losing is winning because that tells you something about yourself you should know, and makes you feel it in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. If you win straight out, you may learn that, with God’s help, you can do more than you thought you could.

 

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” the bartender said to the African-American couple who’d just come in and sat next to me at our local place. “And happy birthday! How was your birthday?”

“Great!” the woman says. “But I lost my leather jacket.”

“S–t,” the bartender says, but in a cheerful voice. “Yeah,” the woman says, in a resigned voice.

The bartender, a Catholic who doesn’t go to Mass but loves Joel Osteen, responds, “Isn’t that the way it goes? You gotta pay. Great day, lose a coat.” She shrugs and laughs. She would be good company for the end of the world.

A few minutes later, the woman asks for a fish sandwich. It’s Friday, and she seems to be Catholic. The bartender tells her they don’t have fish anymore. Too much trouble to make. She regrets she can’t give her friend what she wants. They ask for a menu but don’t order anything, then they finish their drinks and leave. They went to look for fish, I guess.

I, meanwhile, am feeling pious for eating the cheesy broccoli and cauliflower soup. Not just because it contains no meat but because I’m eating broccoli and cauliflower.

So in this townie bar, in which pretty much everyone is Catholic, though no one goes to Mass, even for Christmas and Easter, the old discipline is now finally gone. As disciplines do, it had long survived the faith it once expressed, but such things can’t survive forever as memories. Fish on Fridays takes too much work. What’s left is some idea of karma, of the wheel, the idea that the story of the universe isn’t redemption but balance. What goes around comes around.

No Good Friday, which some will take as an improvement. You can eat hamburgers on Fridays. That feels, watching the bartender and her disappointed Catholic friend, almost like a sacrament of a departed faith.

No Good Friday, but no Easter either. No “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Just “You gotta pay.”

 

You don’t lose only the hard things when you lose the faith. The world doesn’t lighten up because you’ve taken away the darkness. You make it darker. At best, you make life a permanent dusk, the almost darkness of the few minutes before the sun finally goes down, with no hope of the sun ever rising. Without Good Friday, no Easter.

She’d considered The Duty of Delight as a title for a sequel to her autobiography The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day wrote in her diary for February 24, 1961. She took the phrase from John Ruskin. “I was thinking, how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.”

To put it another way: Without fish, no delight in hamburgers.

 

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