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Last Things

By David Mills | April 2021
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Senior Editor US of the Catholic Herald. He writes for several Catholic and other publications.

My family has been Catholic for almost 20 years now, and I still enjoy what might be called “confessional tourism.” I’m fascinated by what confessors tell me, and so I tend to go to confession when I’m away from home.

On my last trip to New York, for Communion and Liberation’s New York Encounter, I went to confession at St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street. It’s a “liberal” parish, and some friends would never set foot in it, much less go to confession there. The priest was helpfully pointed. He did begin the absolution with a prayer in which he stressed his being my brother (which I appreciated) and he repeated “God” rather than using the male pronoun, but other than that, he was just a priest doing his job in the usual way and doing it well.

You can’t predict the type of confessor from the type of church. The priest you’d expect to be Father Smite-You turns out to be a man who’d hear you confess axe-murdering a convent and say, “I’m sure you meant well.” And the priest you’d expect to be Father That’s-Cool gives you 20 Hail Mary’s for hiccupping during Mass.

But whoever the priest, with a couple exceptions, he’s always told me something helpful, sometimes pointed, sometimes comforting. One of the exceptions I could see through the screen making the hurry-up gesture with his hand when I started my third sentence. I had heard him preach and already suspected he was a man who wasn’t happy being a priest. But the others seemed to enjoy what they’re doing.

I can imagine how boring it must get to hear people’s sins over and over, because sin is boring, and tediously unoriginal. But it must be a great pleasure to try to see the penitent’s need and to say something to help and to finish by declaring God’s forgiveness of the sinner before you. You take something dirty and leave it clean.

When a few years ago I was taking the train back and forth between Pittsburgh and New York, I’d often go to confession at St. Francis of Assisi near Penn Station. The parish had extensive confession times, with a seemingly endless supply of Franciscans to hear them.

One day, a very tall, elderly priest went into the confessional I was in line for. He slid in his name plate, and his name was something stereotypically Italian, like Father Guido Ferrari. As I began my confession, a posh English voice spoke to me from behind the screen. “Father Guido?” I asked. “Yes?” he said. “Oh, nothing,” I said.

We started talking about spiritual reading and wound up considering the spiritual value of reading The Economist, which he liked a great deal.

Paternal advice to a teenage daughter: “Without meaning any criticism of your very excellent character, I have noted that with you, popular opinions are frequently accepted as true opinions. There is nothing particularly wrong in this, it’s safe and you’ve got plenty of company, which you like. But I think you’ll find that the majority are only occasionally well-informed and that your own judgment is frequently better, and will always be more Christian than opinion in the mass. So don’t bum rides on other people’s opinions. It’s lazy at best and in some cases much worse.”

That’s Joseph Kennedy Sr., writing to his daughter Katherine, nicknamed Kick.

It’s sometimes dark at our local pub. I came down to get dinner and watch the Penguins-Rangers game. A commercial comes on, advertising some expensive mattress. People start talking about the ad, which doesn’t happen much. “What’s that cost, like a couple thousand?” asks the bartender, who has a very bad back.

A tall guy in his 30s, with a long beard, wearing his baseball cap backward and a denim vest over a t-shirt, says he has one. He’s here with his partner (wife or live-in girlfriend, one never knows), playing pool. He’s almost very good. When he tries hard shots, he usually hits the edge of the pocket. A miss, but better than most people would do.

“I go to the chiropractor a couple times a week when I’m working a lot,” he says. He works construction. “That mattress aligns me right out.”

“My pap had, what you call it, degenerative disk disease,” he continues, straightening up and turning to the bartender after taking a shot. “He wound up taking his life, it hurt so bad. He was on the painkillers, and they took ’em away. He couldn’t take it.”

“Geez, man,” I say, as someone who sympathized. “Yeah,” says the bartender, like someone who understood.

From a story in an Axios Science mailing about a planet in the habitable zone around a star discovered 4.37 light-years from Earth in the Alpha Centauri system: “Why it matters: It’s an exciting hint that potentially habitable alien worlds could be just a few light-years away.”

Okay, so how does this actually matter? A potentially habitable planet discovered unbelievably far away that man will never visit? That might carry beings we’ll never meet? That matters…how? Mattering requires some effect on our lives.

How is it anything more than a fun fact? And a less-fun fun fact than, oh, the fact that platypuses share genes with reptiles, birds, and mammals, that they suckle their young, have duck bills, and protect themselves with venomous spurs.

And, as the story admits at the end, the planet might not be there after all.

Sometime NOR writer Mindy Robinson (formerly Melinda Selmys) responded to my question by suggesting that “just as humans long for other humans, the human species longs for another intelligent species — whether it’s angels or gods or aliens or hyper-intelligent dolphins…. Maybe it’s no more good for mankind to be alone than it is for man to be alone.”

I responded that since we’ll almost certainly never know whether we’re alone or not, we have to live as if we are. She noted that we don’t live as if we’re alone. Most of us believe in such beings and try to contact them.

The beings and methods of contacting them vary, of course. “Whether it’s through prayer, or channeling ascended masters, or talking to your guardian angel, or sending radio messages into space, or making offerings to Ganesh, or whatever,” Mindy wrote, “in one way or another we are continually expressing our belief that we are not alone and our hope of being able to reach across the chasm between ourselves and the non-terrestrial Other.”

That seems to prove my claim about the pointlessness of speculating that we share the universe with aliens. If we have friends in the universe (as we do), they’re here, not 4.37 light-years away.

More wisdom from my oft-quoted (by me, anyway) and alas-Calvinist friend Joe Long: “Lucifer has a personal relationship with God. (‘Mortal enemy’ is a relationship, and a very personal one indeed.) What he lacks, is true religion.”

Funny and unexpected things are happening at Focus on the Family. Long known as fairly hardcore evangelical and strongly conservative politically, it’s now speaking well of people outside its circle.

Its political site The Daily Citizen gave some good press to Democrats for Life of America and its new director, Terrisa Bukovinac. Policy analyst Brittany Raymer wrote a profile with none of the commentary one expects when a site like that profiles a liberal organization. The most critical statement Raymer makes is, “Sometimes the situation in Washington with the Democrat party may seem hopeless on the issue of life,” which pro-life Democrats know better than anyone. Then she lets Bukovinac explain.

Its movie site Plugged In gave a good review of Fatima. Paul Asay praises the movie for its spiritual insights and explains it without criticizing its Catholicism. He writes appreciatively of Christians who love God even if they do it in a way that is definitely not his.

Amusingly, and suggesting even the sympathetic evangelical’s limits, under the heading “Other Negative Elements,” Asay puts, “Lucia disobeys her mother and other authority figures, albeit in order to follow the instructions of the Virgin Mary.” He doesn’t seem to realize that the Blessed Mother outranks your mom.

It was just one guy on Facebook, but he made a claim lots of others have made over the past four years. He objected to someone criticizing Trump because he “didn’t embody socially conservative values in his own life.”

“Neither did King David,” the man argued, “yet for all his flaws and sins of the flesh that would make even Trump blanch, God kept him in the family tree that led to Jesus, so they can stick that in their pipe and smoke it with their faux incense.”

So, David=Trump, or Trump=David. But of course he doesn’t. The Scriptures repeatedly say that David was a man after God’s own heart. He kept repenting, even if sometimes he only repented when he got caught — that famous “Thou art the man” moment, for one — and he accepted his punishment as the just reward for his sins.

That is why David is a hero and his place in Jesus’ ancestry so stressed. He loved God, even though he also loved women and power and status and who knows what else.

The guy on Facebook and his peers might have had a pragmatic reason for voting for Trump, but King David gives them no precedent or justification. If people are going to make biblical arguments, they need to pay attention to what the Bible says. And doesn’t say.

A young man once asked me for advice in getting a wedding ring, which, like everything else in American life, has become a consumer item. I told him that I might be the wrong person to ask because I don’t see it as one of those things you choose the way you choose a tie. A wedding ring is a symbol of a covenant that’s general and public and even generic. It symbolizes one’s taking up the same commitment as everyone else. In other words, it’s not a designer item, it’s not self-expression, it’s a uniform. I recommended the simple gold ring.

I love fried fish, but even so, when I can’t have meat, I’ll want the meat I can’t have. It’s a lesson Lent teaches, and one I’ve found that friends from traditions without set fasts often don’t understand. (I’m writing during Lent, as you might guess.) If you can just substitute fish for meat, why bother? they’ve asked me.

Because of the way most of us are wired. About 11:00 on a typical morning, the vision of a great hamburger pops into my mind. I think that maybe I’ll run out to lunch and get one, and then I think of the fries and coleslaw that come with it, and settle back to work happy in the knowledge that in an hour or so I’ll be having one — and then I remember it’s Lent and I’m not eating meat. Suddenly, I don’t like fish nearly so much. Suddenly, eating what I’d normally quite like to eat feels like a cruel deprivation.

I think most of us are wired that way. We need the Lenten unwiring.

In a post on this magazine’s weblog The Narthex, Richard M. Dell’Orfano writes, “I recall Mom would say, into her late eighties, ‘I feel like I’m only sixteen years old.’ Now nearing my eighties, I feel that way. It seems to support my hope in a life beyond this world. I suspect this genuine ageless feeling, what so many experience when elderly, is an intuitive prompt — maybe a proof — that our souls truly are immortal. Years later, after both my parents had died, I’d often pray their souls made it to heaven.”

I wonder. I’m not nearly that old, but I can see how someone could come to feel the opposite: that they’d lived a long life and had a good run and gotten from life all they could reasonably expect, and that’s that. They won’t feel the need for continued life, because life has taught them that all good things come to an end, and life itself is one of those good things that come to an end.

People try to find intimations of immortality in this life, intuitive prompts, but I doubt they’re there. The Church treats our survival after death as a matter of reason and revelation, not of experience.

No one ever suggests this for the New Evangelization. In Caryll Houselander: That Divine Eccentric, Maisie Ward writes that the English mystic and writer saw that “the greatest of all obstacles to harmony was the gulf dug by society between the respectable and the outcast — whether cast out by society for wrongdoing or merely dropped for the sin of failure and poverty.”

An intimate friend of Houselander’s told Ward, “She wanted to make herself one with prostitutes and drunkards — to go to pubs and get drunk with them. Father Steuart thought this too extreme.”

A girl then, Houselander was running someone down while sitting with an elderly priest in a country churchyard. She noticed he’d closed his eyes, and accused him of not listening.

The priest told her, “I cannot — not to that; you see we are both present at Mass. Whilst you were trying to make me think ill of X, Christ Our Lord was offering Himself up to God to redeem him.”

Houselander objected that they weren’t at Mass then. “When your thoughts are hard or bitter or sad, let the sanctuary bell silence them,” the old priest said. “It is always ringing.”

A theory of which I’m still fond: We are (or tend to be) better people when we’re exercising our calling or vocation than when we’re doing something else.

I’m not sure it’s a good theory, but it fits what I’ve seen. I deal with a person who’s by any definition a jerk, or something worse. Then I hear from a friend that the person as a teacher or pastor or contractor or dentist is very kind, even self-sacrificing. I feel like responding, “That guy? But he’s a jerk.” But my friend knows he isn’t always.

Self-interest might partly explain this. Being kind to your main market helps you more than being kind to someone else. Relative strength might also partly explain it. Being kind is easier when you’re in control.

But just doing what you should be doing must have some effect as well. You’re most focused, at the top of your powers, most conscious of the ends to which you’re working, most likely to see the other person as someone to be served and not used. That’s my guess, anyway.

This wouldn’t apply to the saintly. True kindness naturally directs itself entirely to the other person. It doesn’t need the help of self-interest or strength or even vocation. But the less-than-saintly need the help. Which is also an argument for trying to do what you’re called to do.

My friend Travis Jones says the same thing a little differently. “I think Heaven will be Heaven because we’ll finally be doing what we’re meant to do,” he wrote me. “From there I thought it sure would be nice to have a little heaven on earth.”

The novelist William Golding tells the story of a gardener clearing land owned by the vicar. He worked at “the slow pace of the true countryman, which can be kept up all day and accomplish nothing.” He finally finished the job, and the vicar thanked him.

“You have done well, my man,” the vicar said, “with God’s help.”

The gardener spat on his spade.

“You should have seen this place, vicar,” he said, “when God had it to Hisself.”



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