Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | July-August 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.

As I write this, our eldest child is home from east Africa for a visit. She works for a Catholic relief agency in one of the poorest countries on the continent. It’s one of those that has never had a chance to stabilize, with all the warring factions left over after independence, and China and Western countries pillaging everything they can take. One of the blessings of her coming home is that she’s always re-impressed by the blessings we have here.

Just the local grocery store amazes her, with all it has and how cheap the food is. The drug store, with its astounding range of medicines. Much has to be imported where she lives, and food and medicine cost a lot even for Westerners. A friend of hers likes to bake but doesn’t bake very often because a half pound of butter costs about $15. When returning from home, everyone brings a second, trunk-sized suitcase, usually stuffed with food. Her friend brings bags of flour.

And multiple gas stations within a quick drive. That always have gas. That a normal person can afford. Constant electricity. Water heaters. Air conditioners.

Doctors you can see when you need them. A fully equipped Western hospital ten minutes away. With an ER.

Safe streets. She and everyone else working for an NGO have to be in by 8:00 and locked in the compound — inside high walls topped with razor wire — for about 12 hours. It’s an iron rule because the streets are dangerous later in the evening. The curfew used to be 7:00, but the city has been quieter lately, and the security officer extended it an hour. It could easily go back to 7:00. And highways never blocked because they’re controlled by armed gangs.

Relatively honest police and government employees. There the police stop Westerners driving through the city and demand payment for made-up offenses — an allegedly missing sticker, a smudge on the rear window, anything. Getting in and out of the country through customs at the airport usually involves a similar struggle.

A functioning economy. A working social-welfare system. A regulatory system that makes sure (for the most part) that food, water, and medicines are safe. A free press. A government that doesn’t imprison the opposition. The freedom to protest without a government minister saying the army might shoot you.

We’re rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

 

It would be wise to reflect on Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48. And to remember that some Americans are still hurting.

 

We tend, patriotic Americans that we are, to invoke the country’s founding fathers as heroes who acted bravely and built well. They built as Protestants, though, and in some cases, especially that of poor Thomas “the Deist Unitarian” Jefferson, as secularists.

John Adams on visiting a Catholic Church in 1774, writing to his wife Abigail: “This afternoon, led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church, or rather Grandmother Church, I mean the Romish Chappell. Heard a good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in Justice and Charity, to take care of their Interests temporal and spiritual.”

What he called “this Afternoons Entertainment” he described as “most awfull and affecting.” He writes of “the poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s. Their holy Water — their Crossing themselves perpetually — their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, wherever they hear it — their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar.”

He’s not done: “The Dress of the Priest was rich with Lace — his Pulpit was Velvet and Gold. The Altar Piece was very rich — little Images and Crucifixes about — Wax Candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds. The Music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the Afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted — most sweetly and exquisitely.”

Adams was not impressed. “Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”

 

What book did a major American publisher describe this way: “In the form of an autobiography, he [the writer] tells the stirring story of the growth of an idea from the beginnings to the proportions of a great national movement and his own meteoric rise”? Answer at the end.

 

Familiar to anyone who has been a teenage boy or has had teenage boys, a story from Africa: “Young male lions were more likely to try to hunt porcupines than older lions or lionesses. There was a tendency for these males to be wounded or killed by porcupines more often — a sort of a ‘young foolish male syndrome.’ To compound matters, young males weren’t just taking part in risky behavior: they tended to be alone when they did so. This made them more vulnerable when hurt. In social contexts, a lion can remove porcupine quills with the help of another lion.”

 

Someplace in America, a priest had a liturgical official from the diocese read the archbishop’s statement telling his people that they must stand until the last person has received Communion. It’s all the rage in some places.

Writing on his weblog The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Fr. Tim Finigan suggests three ways of dealing with this. You can stand and say the Rosary or other old prayers. You can start coughing and run outside till you can go back in and kneel.

The third from this English priest is lovely: “Take a leaf out of the book of an old priest and teacher I knew, who made this response to a superior in a different context. When challenged, take the priest or other liturgical enforcer by the arm gently and politely, and go to a window or door. Gesture out over your city and say to him, ‘I AM NOT your problem. THAT IS your problem.’”

 

It strikes me as a dopey symbol. What exactly does standing do for the people standing? So they’re all standing around together — big whoop. How does that symbolize unity, or create real unity, more than having everyone who just received Jesus together kneel together? Or do whatever they want, knowing they’re with brothers and sisters in Christ, and with the fraternal pleasure of letting your brethren worship God as they find most helpful?

I suspect the fad comes from some priests’ hatred of the reality of Christ in the Eucharist. Which is, sadly, a thing. And of all the pious acts of reverence and submission that follow from recognizing that reality. The priests try to erase the reality of the Body of Christ in the Host by making as big a deal of the people as the Body of Christ. They take kneeling as meaning the first and standing as meaning the second.

Dopey, as I say. Nothing creates real community, real communion, more than Communion. Start by making that as reverent as you can, if you want to unite your people.

 

I experienced this just once, visiting a parish while traveling. I knelt because the prayers I say then mean a lot to me, and I have no responsibility to indulge a priest in his fads. I was sitting near the back and most people couldn’t even see me. As I left, a kindly old man said as he shook my hand, “Sir, in this parish we stand together after Communion.” He caught me off guard, and I replied, “I don’t care.”

 

The popular TV series Chernobyl reminds me of a joke. A Pole in Moscow wants to know the time. He asks a man walking by. Setting down his two suitcases and looking at his watch, the Russian says, “It is 11:43 and 17 seconds. The date is February 13, the moon is nearing its full phase, and the atmospheric pressure stands at 992 hectopascals and is rising.”

The man brags that the watch is a product of Soviet technology. The Pole congratulates him.

“Yes,” the Russian answers, straining to pick up the suitcases, “but these batteries are still a little heavy.”

 

The joke amuses me partly because of my own experiences in the USSR one summer in the late 1970s. Soviet frisbees were rare, but our Intourist guide had one. You would think a frisbee an easy thing to imitate. Have the embassy in D.C. ship one home, make a mold from it, and set up the assembly line. But no.

Made of a rubberish plastic and thicker than the real ones, our guide’s frisbee weighed a ton (in frisbee terms). When I first tried to throw it, it went about 15 feet, hit the asphalt with a loud plop, and didn’t even slide. I felt like I’d ripped tendons in my shoulder because the thing was so heavy.

An easy thing to make, and something the people very much wanted. But the version they made was almost useless. You could play catch if you stayed close together and/or had very strong arms, and even then, catching it was like catching a rock barehanded. You would not have the pleasure of running it down and catching it as it floated downfield. You couldn’t play a game like Ultimate.

The Soviet Union. Unable to make a decent frisbee. But able to make a nuclear reactor. Oh wait.

 

Every culture has its signals, by which insiders separate the sheep from the goats. In my early days as a Catholic, an older man told me that Catholics say “Our Lord.” Only ex-Protestants — he had some in mind — said “the Lord.”

My Presbyterian friend Joe Long explains the symbolism of evangelical ministers holding an open Bible while they teach or pray, which they like to do. It’s trickier to get right than you’d think.

First, he says, “There’s the translation. A KJV, for instance, enhances credibility, while, say, an NIV reduces it drastically. The Message is so annoying that some theologians believe the Almighty won’t listen at all if you’ve got one open.”

Having yellow highlighted verses helps. But too many colors tell people you haven’t marked your Bible since high school youth group. “Marginal notations can also go either way,” he says, “because either you’re a careful scholar or you’ve been trying to correct God.”

And the covers, they send subtle signals. “The cover should be worn from extensive usage, but the binding should not be broken. A new Bible should be read at home for at least two years before you appear in public with it, because what are you doing with that brand-new Bible? Do you never read it, you heathen poseur? But if the pages are about to fall out — don’t you respect your Bible? What have you been doing to it?”

 

Chesterton, interviewed by The Cleveland Press in 1921: “The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.”

Or as his friend Hilaire Belloc put it in “Epitaph on the Politician”:

Here richly, with ridiculous
display,

The Politician’s corpse was
laid away.

While all of his acquaintance
sneered and slanged

I wept: for I had longed to see
him hanged.

 

Like most people interested in politics, I’ve wobbled through my life from more idealistic to more cynical views of the people who lead us.

Yes, I know, politics being necessary, politicians are necessary, and being a politician can be an honorable profession, and it can be a calling like any other, and if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly, as Chesterton said, and of course some very good men and women rise to the top sometimes, and though ambition is usually a vice it can in theory be virtuously exercised, and even though most are merely mediocre yet some have moments when they are admirable or even heroic, and politics requires compromise, and even wise compromises can look to us on the outside corrupt or wicked so we can’t entirely trust our judgment, but still, well, basically, I mean, all things considered, in spirit, I mean…what Chesterton said.

 

Philosopher Michael Walzer wrote a long article in Dissent in 1960 on the Woolworth sit-ins in North Carolina. It’s an example of what we might call socialist realism. Which is not, alas, all that common among today’s socialists.

As an editor of the socialist quarterly Dissent, Walzer was a leader of the Old Left, which was even then being slowly succeeded by the New Left. Think Tom Hayden and One-Dimensional Man and the SDS and rioting and the belief that promiscuous sex is a revolutionary act. Think of the simpleminded revolt — basically, just say no, loudly — and the utopian expectations that still plague our political life.

A black student Walzer met shortly after arriving in Durham told him, “We don’t want brotherhood, we just want a cup of coffee — sitting down.” The New Left lacked this interest in the day to day, a reviewer of a new edition of Walzer’s 1971 book Political Action explains. “Activism at its best begins narrowly, with a specific issue that affects the activists directly. As it grows, it needs to maintain its focus on the particular, compressing lofty points about justice and equality into something as commonplace as a cup of coffee. These sorts of single-issue campaigns aren’t as satisfying as their louder, more utopian cousins, but they get results.”

Walzer wrote in Political Action: “It is hard to think of any other kind of victory that citizen activists have ever won.” And every victory is partial. “Winning turns out, of course, to be something less than they expected,” he continues. “The end of child labor, the achievement of women’s suffrage, prohibition and its death, the end of this or that war: none of these planted the new Jerusalem.”

 

The book? Mein Kampf in its first American translation, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1933. The blurb came from publisher Roger Scaife. He sent a copy to FDR, who had read the original German version and marked the new one, “This translation is so expurgated as to give a wholly false view of what Hitler is or says.”

Houghton Mifflin. Making money off a tyrant and prettying him up to do it. Put not your trust in publishing princes.

 

A website readers might not know but which I commend is Church Life Journal. Published by Notre Dame’s McGrath Center for Church Life — and run by theologian Timothy O’Malley — it reflects on living in the world as Catholics. The articles are weighty and usually easily readable. Recent ones include Rémi Brague on the difference between virtues and values, “the anti-integralist Alasdair Macintyre,” and a reflection on going to Lourdes in a wheelchair. You can find it at www.churchlifejournal.nd.edu.

A magazine I commend, and not just because I’m a consulting editor, is Sacred Architecture Journal, edited by Catholic architect Duncan Stroik. Duncan’s also a professor of architecture at Notre Dame. Among his current projects is the chapel at Hillsdale College.

Sacred Architecture appears twice a year and is designed to describe the history and practice of creating sacred buildings in a way that will appeal to scholars and architectural amateurs. You can find past issues and subscribe at www.sacredarchitecture.org.

 

The Vatican’s chief astronomer doesn’t profess to understand the universe, science, or even religion. “There’s an old saying,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno said. “I heard it from my dad, I think: ‘Knowledge is an island. The more you know, the bigger the island. But the bigger the island, the longer the coastline, which is the boundary between what you do know and what you don’t know.’ If you find someone who thinks they know everything, it’s because their island is really tiny.”

 

©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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