Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | June 2019
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.

A high Calvinist’s view of the “Stages of progression regarding the early church fathers.” A young pastor in one of the conservative Presbyterian churches, himself a leader in the Calvinist International, Steven Wedgeworth is one of those Protestants who are genuinely interested in Christian tradition because he is genuinely a son of the Magisterial Reformation. (As distinguished from standard American evangelicalism, the product of American revivalism.) He describes the stages in a Facebook post:

1. The Fathers were mostly crazy but managed to articulate a few foundational Christian doctrines.

2. Maybe they weren’t that crazy.

3. They were probably totally right about everything.

4. Ok, not everything, but still better not to disagree with them.

5. Well, actually, they do sound pretty weird on a number of issues.

6. They agreed on the essential doctrines, and each thinker has to be treated individually, but yeah, things were pretty crazy.

It’s like an affair, I think. You’re not interested at first, then you’re attracted, then infatuated, and then you begin to feel the differences, and feel them more strongly, and after that, you lose interest. Finally, implied in the last stage, you return to your spouse.

Newman famously observed that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” To submit to the authority of the Fathers has the same effect. It undoes the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura and the kind of Christianity it requires. You either have to end the affair or marry the new interest.

 

Catholics who discover the Fathers — I mean discover them in the way a teenager falls in love — often go through a similar progression, though they usually start at stage three. It’s a romance rather than an affair.

Catholics have an easier time reading the Fathers because the Church as a living body discerns what in the Fathers comes to us authoritatively and what doesn’t.

The Protestant may feel, when he sees the Fathers’ wild diversity and odd ways of thinking and writing, that he’s entered a dog park without knowing which dogs will lick him and which will bite. The Catholic knows which is which.

For the Catholic, stage five would read, “Well actually, they were working out some things and didn’t know what we know now that doctrine’s developed more.” Stage six would read, “They agreed on the essential doctrines, and each thinker has to be tested against the Church’s developed tradition, but they’re an amazingly rich source of insight and wisdom.”

 

Last month I quoted Roberto Clemente, who said, “Playing safe everyone could field 1.000.” The line appears in a letter to Branch Rickey, the Pirates’ general manager at the time, who must have mentioned errors as part of his explanation of why he was offering Clemente the salary he offered ($7,000 in 1956, if I remember right). The letter can be found at the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh.

Errors don’t really tell much about a fielder. The slow fielder doesn’t make errors because he doesn’t get to the ball. The cautious fielder doesn’t make them because he doesn’t take chances. Neither makes great plays.

This tells us something about great Christians. Some people say that Dorothy Day can’t possibly be a saint because she got this or that issue wrong. Maybe she did, but a human being trying to live the Gospel as radically as she did will get things wrong. Mediocre Christians will always field 1.000.

 

Along the road that runs up and down the Ohio River near us is an area of trees and grass between the road and the railroad track. I always look for the groundhogs as we drive by. A couple days ago, I saw this year’s first. “There’s our groundhogs!” I said, very pleased. “You’re such a St. Francis,” my wife said. A pause, then, “In a good sense.”

I’m still not sure how one could be St. Francis in a bad sense.

 

“Many people act as if Christianity were some sort of naïve fairy tale,” writes Matthew J. Peterson of the Claremont Institute, “as opposed to the clear-eyed realism of Machiavelli or modern political philosophy, which knows that man is depraved and is based on how people really are, how the world really works, etc. It’s a very odd thing to think, given that at the heart of Christianity is the claim that when God came to help them, human beings murdered Him.”

Dorothy L. Sayers said something like this in The Greatest Drama Ever Staged: “Our leading authorities in Church and State considered that He talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of His friends to hand Him over quietly to the police, and we tried Him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had Him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows.” (Notice how she switches from “our leading authorities” to “we.”)

That, Sayers continues, “is the outline of the official story — the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull — this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.”

 

As far as I can find, all the canonized artists did something artistic as part of their greater vocation. The artist-saints include icon painters, monks who illuminated manuscripts, composers like St. Hildegard, and a few writers credited with defending icons.

None were artists who created art as their vocation, as what we today think of as artists: creative people for whom art is the central thing they do — is, in a sense, who they are. But still, we’ve had 500 years of such artists, and at least a few of them should have been canonized.

We see the saints as role models, people we can identify with, who show us how to be holy while doing what we’re doing. It would be nice to have some who did what some of us do. St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers, and I love St. Francis de Sales, but he was a bishop first, not a writer.

Chesterton’s and Gaudí’s causes have been opened, so there’s hope we’ll get some saints of our own.

 

From the funny byways of publishing: Search for “evangelicals” at the website of the photo-supply company iStock and you get 11 results: two of a church in Europe that’s almost certainly Catholic or Lutheran, one of a red rose sitting on an open Bible, seven artsy pictures of a Bible sitting on top of a bush, and one of a biker praying with one hand raised.

 

From Columbia journalism professor Nicholas Lemann’s article on John Hersey in The New Yorker: “Like many élite Wasps who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century (including Henry Luce, who also grew up in China as a child of missionaries), Hersey started out in a deeply religious world and became essentially secular in the course of his life. It’s not that the religious impulse left him; rather, he transferred it to his writing and to his myriad civic activities, all of which had a strong quality of moral preachment.”

We often talk of Christianity as a capital off which we’ve been living for decades. It’s hard to see this at first. The generation of Luce and Hersey was essentially Christian, except many of them didn’t go to church. You’d be hard pressed to find any deep difference between them and the churchgoing members of their class. Secularization had no obvious costs at that point. People were as they had been.

Maybe it’s easier to see now, four or five generations on from Hersey and Luce. All but a few then would have seen abortion as a horror, and now most Americans accept it, especially early in the unborn child’s life. On the other hand, few then saw the structure of legal and informal segregation as the offense we now see it to be.

In any case, our culture still depends on its Christian religious impulse for its moral preachments. Pro-choicers mostly remain unwilling to admit that the thing they want removed is a human child. Not so many as before talk about a “clump of cells,” but they almost always speak of “terminating a pregnancy” or “a woman’s right.” Never of killing a human child.

They still feel bound by the Christian idea of human dignity, which they must evade. The pagan Romans would not have needed such euphemisms.

 

Fordham professor Charlie Camosy tries to articulate a pro-life politics and witness that draw on the best insights and policies of both sides of the political divide, conservative and liberal.

“I do think we ought to focus not just on abortion supply and trying to reduce abortion supply by passing laws that reduce its availability, but also address abortion demand,” he told The College Fix. “I want to try to bring people together and say, can’t we at least agree on giving women the free choice to choose life?”

He thinks that those on the Left concerned with “intersectionality” should defend the unborn. “Isn’t the fetus the paradigmatic marginalized population?” he asks.

 

A friend sends this line from the great Spike Milligan, signing off The Goon Show one night: “Any man can be 62, but it takes a bus to be 62A.”

 

On the Thursday evening before Holy Week, I was leaving for our parish’s special evening confession time, part of the diocese’s “The Light Is on for You” program. I love standing in line and seeing all the priests and all the people and all the forgiveness being given. I double-checked the time and found the time was Wednesday.

Two Saturdays later, I went down to the Pittsburgh Oratory, which, bless them, hears confessions through Holy Saturday. There the people waiting to confess line up in the pews and slide along, moving back pew by pew, as people get to the head of the line and go to one of the confessionals. I sat down seven pews and maybe 40 people away from the two confessors.

Arriving next and sliding along with me was the church lady from central casting, with short, styled, puffy hair, unchanging prim, serious expression, old-fashioned wool dress coat, and comfortable shoes, and wearing a crucifix on a necklace. I smiled at her, but she stared straight ahead the whole time. She was there to confess her sins, not smile at strange men.

When we got to the end of the fourth row and stood up to move to the third, she darted around me into the second row, thereby getting seven seats ahead. I didn’t quite have the nerve to lean over and say, “You are going to confess that, aren’t you?”

 

Painter Timothy Jones, writing on his joy in hearing that all of Notre Dame’s rose windows had survived the recent fire, responds to those who responded to the fire by talking of the church as just a man-made thing: “Don’t be too quick to let dry utilitarianism take hold. It’s not just a building. Is a wedding dress ‘just some fabric’? Is the picture your child made for you just some paper and paint? Is the Atlantic ocean just (as C.S. Lewis put it) ‘so many metric tons of cold salt water’?”

Timothy, who teaches art at the Chesterton Academy in Minneapolis, adds: “Lewis also said ‘God likes matter. He invented it.’ He made it ‘very good.’ The created world has meaning, and our creativity (we are made in the image of the Creator God, after all) has meaning, too.”

 

The prison chaplain’s liturgical style “would drive me to distraction in any other context,” writes my friend Brandon McGinley in his “These Seven Days” mailing. “But here, he has established a connection to the men he is called to serve that would be the envy of any parish priest.”

The high point of the annual prisoners’ retreat is Saturday evening’s Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. This year they couldn’t use the prison chapel and had to use a classroom with a folding table as an altar.

Brandon writes: “Fr. M. treated the rite just as if it were occurring in a cathedral. We concluded with the hymn ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name’ as he processed out of the classroom and down the winding whitewashed corridor back to the chapel space.” Brandon expected Fr. M. to stop singing.

“But instead, out of earshot of everyone but me, Fr. M. continued to sing, just him and his Lord. For all I know, he continued to sing as he walked through the reinforced metal door connecting the corridor to the guard station, past the guards and into the chapel, holding the Blessed Sacrament aloft.”

Even in prison, “even here behind the walls and the razor wire, Jesus Christ reigns. Fr. M. testified to that in a way only a priest can, and thus served his men (even without their knowing) by serving his Lord.”

 

For more about Brandon’s “These Seven Days” mailing, go to brandonmcg.substack.com.

 

Other priests serve God in other ways. The outlaws stole his horse and told him that if he ever came back, they’d hang him. In about 1875, somewhere in southeast Texas, the circuit-riding Fr. Peter Anthony Levy told them: “Boys, you have the drop on me now. I’ll do as you say. But remember this, I’ll be back and I’ll make you line up together and recite the Lord’s Prayer.”

A few days later, he rode back into their camp, according to a story written by one of his successors and retold in the North Texas Catholic. “I can knock the eye out of a fly with this rifle,” he said. “He then proceeded to prove it, putting on a shooting display that quite humbled his astonished audience. They had not realized that the man of the cloth before them had been a sharpshooter in the French Army before joining the priesthood and coming to Texas.”

The outlaws lined up to say the Lord’s Prayer. They also gave him back his horse.

 

From Patheos blogger Steel Magnificat, a.k.a. Mary Pezzulo, a story that amused me: “We used to keep all our broken blessed statuary and torn prayer cards and other Catholic paraphernalia in a drawer for that day when we remembered to burn or bury it according to the rules. Then one day my sister’s pet rabbit died, horribly, of Flystrike, which is not pretty, and my brother ran out to the yard and dug a grave. And we realized this was an excellent time to dispose of all the religious objects after the rabbit’s funeral.

“Someday, somebody’s going to dig up the yard of the fancy suburban house in that white bread neighborhood in Columbus, to put in a pool or something, and they’re going to find the plastic-bagged corpse of a tortured rabbit in among a whole bunch of Catholic religious items. I’d like to see their faces.”

 

Putting out the candles doesn’t, when the church is too well lit up, have quite the dramatic effect it could, but still, Tenebrae on Good Friday at our parish felt both moving and restful.

In the church with us, a priest and about 50 people; a young cantor singing without the organ; two readers reading slowly and people who saw and felt the story they were reading; in an old church about 100 years old, the Tabernacle behind the altar open and empty, the crucifix above it veiled in purple cloth, and above it, unveiled, a painting of the Holy Family with the child Jesus standing between His mother and His father at his workbench.

I looked at that happy family a lot as we listened to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. We heard the lessons, said the psalms, and sang the hymns, and then, at the end, the altar boys carried a statue of the dead Jesus down the aisle as the priest walked behind them. They laid Him on a table in the aisle between the back pews and the door.

Father laid a purple cloth across the body. As we walked out, everyone put a hand on Jesus’ head or shoulder or chest and held it there for a second, as if to say goodbye.

Most emotionally moving events make you sad or excited, but this one left me feeling peaceful. Moved and restful both. I think that’s the feeling of reconciliation, of being reconciled to the life you’ve been given to live, suck as it may, and knowing that in God’s love it will work out.

I was with a friend who has later stage-four cancer, and as we said the psalms, I could feel them as I think she felt them, as speaking of a very physical and inevitable reality. But also as a reality that is not the final reality. Suffering and death, those are coming, but then life.

 

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