Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | January-February 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.

I wonder how much those of us who have been blessed realize how much being blessed distorts our perception of the world. Certain virtues seem easier to attain, certain vices easier to avoid. Usually virtues we feel ourselves to possess and vices not our own.

The young poet Daniel Collins says that the more stories he hears from others who suffer, the more he realizes how much he assumed the blessing of the happy family he enjoys. “The words Dad, family, parents, and even ones like argument and punishment, are defined for me very much by my experience of them. And so, when others use those words, it is my own definition that I apply to their speech.”

 

I liked my dad. I can see being able to call God “Our Father” as good news, and good news that no other name quite captures. The name speaks to me of both objectivity and investment. Just as my own father loved me but held me to a high standard, so our Father in Heaven loves us and tells us to be holy. My dad would tell me that I was doing as well as I could, or tell me when I wasn’t, but in both cases that I had to do better and could do better, and that he would help. It’s easy for me to love God the Father because I remember my own father that way.

Others whose fathers were not like mine can’t so easily see the name as good news. People — often but not always women — grew up with abusive or critical or absent fathers and hear that name as bad news. Some stories friends have told me make me marvel that they remained Christians at all. Dad had hurt them bad. How would God the Father be any different? They’re not “dissenters” or “liberals” but people who have not been blessed in the same way as I.

It would be easy for me to judge them for their doubts — not because I’m more obedient but because I was blessed with a good father. I can easily believe this part of the Christian revelation. Others can’t because their father ruined it for them.

 

Another example. Researching the subject of dating for a class, Notre Dame theologian Timothy O’Malley wrote, “What I’ve learned: vulnerability is the greatest fear of most young adults. Hooking up isn’t about sex alone. It’s about bypassing vulnerability.”

That makes perfect sense. It’s also an example of why, when we feel like getting moralistic and judgmental about someone else, we should consider that they may act as they do from a fear or pain we don’t understand. That we don’t even see because we are not them. What we might do for purely sinful reasons, someone else might do for more mixed reasons. We don’t do the same thing because we don’t share the same fears or pains.

 

We must play against this tendency. Collins explains how he does that. “It takes a real commitment to actually listen to and understand the life story of another,” he says. “I always recommend lots and lots of silence when someone is opening up to you. We are often too eager to jump into the first full pause with our advice. It is why I speak a lot about self-emptying love needing to be preceded by a self-emptying of the mind.”

Love requires it. “Love means doing good for the other. But we can never really know what the good is for the other if we only see them through the lens of our own ego.”

 

I think of this man, for example, who lives in a world very different from mine. On Christmas Eve, I went to the Dollar Store down the hill because our forks mysteriously disappear, and you can’t beat two forks for a dollar. But first I looked at the book section, which used to have surprisingly serious books but now offers mostly wannabe self-help guides and paranormal thrillers, when a man on the other side of the shelves said, “You oughta see him. You know what regular people do with that s–t. He draws pictures on it.” He was talking about pens and paper and speaking with pride about a boy who doesn’t do what regular people do with pen and paper.

He walked by me later, smelling of cigarettes, wearing a Steelers sweatshirt under a puffy jacket, his hair very short, almost shaved, looking about 35, with the kind of nose and eyes that make him look perpetually interested. The woman he was with looked a little older, with salt and pepper hair and three silver studs in the upper part of her ear, and not smelling of cigarettes. She pushed the cart, trailing behind him.

“I want to get him some paper and pens and s–t,” he continued. He and the woman started arguing about whether the boy can paint on the paper they found. She said yes; he said no. “That’s not the right paper,” he said, with conviction. She persisted, and he gave in. They argued about how much they were spending and when they walked by later, their cart was filled to overflowing, mostly with things for a child. They could easily have been spending $50-$75. He seemed more invested in the boy, but she seemed to want to spend more on him.

He seemed like an average man, a good guy. But one crucial thing I can see, he can’t. Who knows the reason? Just before I left the book section to find the forks, he said, apparently looking at a pad of paper, “Bible reading! I don’t want that. I don’t want him f—–g sitting there and talking s–t to me, and telling me I’m going to Hell.”

 

The painter Timothy Jones and I were discussing the lovely sound of babies cooing, and cooing at Mass. “The young couple in front of me had a wonderful baby boy,” he said. “His cooing got a bit too insistent, and mom took him out, though I would have liked them to stay. Infant babble is not unlike music.”

I agreed, saying, “It’s a lovely sound, one of my favorites. But young parents have been taught to be much too worried about the noises their small children make.”

I then added: “When sometimes the most distracting and annoying noises you hear at Mass come from that man in the pulpit.”

 

“That the New Testament presents the Protestant view is hardly open to dispute,” claimed my old friend, the evangelical patriarch J.I. Packer. He spoke of its teaching on the Church. “The dispute,” he wrote in his little book Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “is over whether the New Testament is final!”

Oh, my fur and whiskers. It’s an annoying kind of argument evangelicals use, which I call the “Bible trump card” argument. They assert a particular way of thinking (theirs) as if it were an objective judgment (the Bible’s). Even when they can’t agree among themselves what the Bible means — just look at them fighting over men and women in the Church — they join in asserting against Catholics the belief that the Bible speaks clearly on every crucial matter.

Packer’s argument doesn’t work. His second line subverts the first. We can’t know what the New Testament means until we know if it’s “final.” If the New Testament isn’t final, only a later, “final” authority may tell us what it really means. We must settle the more basic question before anyone can safely assert a definite reading.

The most this great and godly evangelical can legitimately argue here is: “As a Protestant, I believe the New Testament presents the Protestant view.”

 

We clearly need such an extra-biblical authority, and, being a learned man, Packer knows it. The arguments of the first few centuries of Christianity show that. Using only the Bible, the neutral reader could define the Trinity and our Lord in several ways. What’s called Nicene orthodoxy wouldn’t have been obvious to the sola scripturists had they lived then. Arius made a good biblical argument. He was just as right as anyone else, if the New Testament alone were final.

The Nicene Fathers knew what biblical words mean because they knew how the Church understands them. Believing Christians today, Protestant as well as Catholic, don’t read the Bible alone; they read the Bible through the councils. At least the first four or five. Packer himself sees this, as an ardent believer in Nicene Christianity. But as a Protestant, he must hold, somewhat arbitrarily, that the Church stopped speaking reliably after that.

 

The Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum summarizes the Catholic teaching in a famous passage I’m sure my old friend knows. Here it is, for those of you who don’t have it to hand, because it can be useful when talking with your Protestant friends: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, “flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (I would have left out that hedging “a certain way” because there’s nothing to hedge. But I was an unchurched six-year-old when the Council Fathers wrote it, and did they ask me? No.)

The second part of this will horrify your evangelical friends: “Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known.”

Dei Verbum concludes its description with this declaration: “Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”

 

It will horrify evangelicals, and fairly too. In my observation, Catholics tend to downplay how bold and radical is the claim the Church makes for herself. Saying “The Church says” feels rude when by that we mean “The Church says you’re wrong.” It seems to violate our tacit agreement to avoid saying anything divisive to each other.

The Church says she carries truths that she hands on generation after generation, and she keeps them pure. She insists they’re biblical, even though they’re not biblical in any sense our Protestant friends will accept. They’re truths just as true and just as important as the ones carried in Sacred Scripture.

If true, as we believe it is, Sacred Tradition is half the Gospel. The half of the good news our Protestant friends don’t know and can’t preach.

 

A small town in the mountains in rural Japan has about 385 residents — 350 are life-size, cabbage-patch-like dolls created by an old woman. The 35 real people are old, the youngest resident being 38. The last children left several years ago.

“I wish there were more children because it would be more cheerful,” the doll-maker told The New York Times. “So I made the children.”

My son Christopher noted, “Every horror movie ever.”

 

The young couple a few rows in front of me at Mass the other day had a hurried, urgent conversation. The husband, who was sitting on the right, tried to get by her but couldn’t because she had a little girl on her lap and couldn’t move back so he could slide by her. He jumped up on the pew, put one hand on her shoulder and the other on the pew behind them, leapt up, pulled his knees to his chest, and swung through the small space between his wife’s back and the pew. Impressively athletic. He landed on the other side of the pew and scuttled to the end, where he grabbed a little boy I hadn’t seen.

He had on his face the “my son is going to throw up / pee his pants / screech wildly / throw something / run away / or maybe every damn one of them” look. He had a quick conversation with the boy and then took him out, apparently headed for the bathroom. The boy seemed unfazed. They returned a couple minutes later.

I recognized the look and the need that created it. Not for many years have I had it myself, but I sometimes miss the life where such emergencies were possible and, in the case of our two boys, probable.

 

Culture warriors make themselves look stupid. A recent example is the sudden burst of smug “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph weren’t immigrants” memes on social media. Maybe it’s become a Christmas tradition.

Except that they were. In his message for the 93rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees, that infamous left-winger Pope Benedict XVI quoted that notorious leftist Pope Pius XII. Citing the passage from Matthew on the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, Pius wrote in 1952, “The family of Nazareth in exile, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, emigrants and taking refuge in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are the model, the example and the support of all emigrants and pilgrims of every age and every country, of all refugees of any condition who, compelled by persecution and need, are forced to abandon their homeland, their beloved relatives, their neighbors, their dear friends, and move to a foreign land.”

Of course, one could admit that the Holy Family fled danger in Palestine for another country and still argue against a liberal immigration policy. Their movement isn’t obviously a precedent or paradigm. One could argue that. But the over-eager, too-clever-by-half culture warrior has to deny a fact found in his Bible, because he has to try to be clever.

 

Rachel Lu wrote of needing good pastries after a rough morning, and I suggested instead buying books, pastries being instant relief but books the long-acting medicine. She then told about a book group in her old neighborhood of affluent women who never bought the books but passed around the library copies. They didn’t seem to have any books in their houses. “Why would you want to be surrounded by Pottery Barn paraphernalia, with nothing to read? This is hard for me to fathom,” Lu wrote.

Me too. I suppose books are, for them, something to be consumed and, once consumed, felt to be used up, gone, never needed again (like a pastry). And consumed as an enjoyment (again like a pastry), not felt as a source of insight from which you will want to draw again, and not felt as a deep pleasure you will want to enjoy again, and not felt as a communication with another mind, the token of which you want to keep the way you keep good letters from old friends.

 

A friend wrote that when we’re young and in school, we can make friends easily, but that experience doesn’t prepare us for the effort it takes to nurture adult friendships. It does take work and the expectation of failure, because (as I had to come to see) friendship is a gift and not an item of trade. You offer yourself, and some people will turn down the offer while others will take it as a freebie requiring nothing in return.

Only a few will offer themselves back to you. They become your friends, but even those friendships usually need to be built through constant and ongoing self-offering, which will probably be one-sided. Not always, of course, and when you make the kind of friend who offers himself in return with as much care as you offer yourself to him, it’s one of the great experiences of life. Even those friendships need nurturing, but you’re blessed beyond measure when a friend has also dedicated himself to nurturing it.

 

Which, not to get too pious about it, is the kind of friendship God offers us. He offers Himself to us, over and over and over and over, when we keep saying no. That baby in the manger shows us how far our Father will go to make us His friends. As does the Cross, and the Host the priest holds up before us as he says, “The Body of Christ.”

 

©2020 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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