Volume > Issue > Last Things: April 2022

Last Things: April 2022

By David Mills | April 2022
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, has been Editor of Touchstone and Executive Editor of First Things. He writes columns for Our Sunday Visitor, the Catholic Herald, and National Catholic Register.

“Respectfully,” the priest responded, “non-Christian Jews are not our brothers and sisters as they have not been born again by water and the spirit.” A friend had tweeted a quote from Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Fort Wayne-South Bend, concerned about the rise of anti-Semitic speech. He noted that Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis “have consistently referred to our Jewish brothers and sisters as ‘friends’ whom we love and esteem, not as enemies or adversaries whom we reject.”

I don’t know the priest from Adam, and don’t know what he intended. The line is a popular one justifying a kind of low-level or low-intensity Catholic anti-Jewishness, not uncommon, which consists mainly in ignoring the Jews as much as possible and challenging any Catholic who speaks well of Jews and Judaism.

The line’s also wrong. As John Paul II, speaking during his 1986 visit to the synagogue in Rome, explained, “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

 

That’s the famous quote. I’d also point to something the Pope said before that, speaking of the Church’s origin in the Jewish people: “We wish to deepen dialogue in loyalty and friendship, in respect for one another’s intimate convictions, taking as a fundamental basis the elements of the Revelation which we have in common, as a ‘great spiritual patrimony.’”

A patrimony is an inheritance from the father (in this case, the Father), given to his children who are, therefore, brothers and sisters. To deny that brotherhood denies that the God of the Old Testament is God. It robs Christians of part of their patrimony.

 

Great minds and all that. One of my favorite lines from G.K. Chesterton was said in a slightly different way by Sigrid Undset. Chesterton wrote (in my paraphrase, which is better put than his wordy way of saying it): The bigot isn’t the man who thinks he’s right. Every sane man thinks he’s right. The bigot is the man who cannot understand how the other man came to be wrong.

Undset wrote in an essay about her conversion titled “Beyond Human Limitations”: “To be bigoted does not consist in a man being convinced his belief is right and another’s belief is wrong, but in his having too little intelligence and imagination to be able to perceive that those who disagree with him can do so in good faith and complete honesty.”

 

It’s a human tendency to think we know other people well, perhaps better than they know themselves. Especially those we want to put in a box, either to hold them up as examples or to expose them to criticism. The wisest people keep saying that we don’t.

“It is rare for the members of any religious body to get below the skin where any other religious body is concerned,” Caryll Houselander wrote in a letter to a friend. “They judge of them by a few people, usually not known intimately, and by their ceremonies.”

She’d gone to a few Salvation Army meetings and read some of their books and thought she “perfectly understood” them. She seems to have meant that she understood them in a patronizing way. “Later on I got to know one or two of them, including a very cultured man who was one of the heads, and I soon realized that I knew very little indeed about them and that it would take a lifetime to know a lot about any handful of human beings.”

 

Houselander gave an example. The Russian Orthodox people she knew thought low Mass irreverent. “They find it a rush and a scramble, and that everyone at it behaves in an openly hurried and distracted fashion. It so shocks them to see any service spoken quickly, and lasting less than two hours, that it takes very long and a lot of patience to convince a Russian of how much more consistent with his devotion to the indwelling Christ it is to go to daily Communion (even in a hurry) than to refuse to go at all unless one has half the day free to spend in church.”

 

In the hospital cafeteria a couple tables over is an elderly man with a tiny, frail, carefully moving woman who looks even older. He has short, curly grey hair trimmed above his ears almost like a bowl, and with loops and half-circles that don’t look natural, but like a woman’s perm.

When I look over a few minutes later, it has slid down to his right ear. It’s a wig, and a really terrible one. I had assumed she was the patient and he was taking care of her, but he seems to be the patient and she the caregiver.

You can’t judge the way people cope. As someone whose hair started retreating when he was younger, I’d happily let it all go. He doesn’t want to be bald. Even at his age, his hair matters. I’m tempted to judge, but then I feel a little sensitive about the expanding middle that has come with getting older.

But I’d like to know why he chose a wig and why he chose that one. Because it really is a terrible wig.

 

Sitting at the end of the dining room table while our youngest three play Risk. In our family, board games are blood sports, though blood sports played with cheerfulness and a weird kind of generosity. Except when they’re not.

A nice thing about having adult children is that you don’t have to keep alert for the point you have to intervene to keep things from ending in tears. It may end in tears, or yelling, but they’re old enough to deal with it themselves.

 

An actor I sometimes help with writing thanked me for being friendly and making him feel included. We’d become friends beyond the usual editor-writer relation. It should be friendly, especially since it can stress and annoy both parties, but it’s not all that often friendship.

Friendship is a mysterious thing. There’s usually a doorway or a path you follow into a friendship, maybe even a slide that pulls you into the friendship once you step on it. It’s often hard to see, though.

My guess is that I recognized intuitively someone who has the same concern with craft, with making it right, with always working to get better and not settling for mere competence, and with doing the thing well, as close to perfectly as possible. That’s not all that common, being a craftsman and wanting what the craftsman wants.

So a friendship that began not in a meeting of minds so much as in a meeting of spirits. It’s seeing “He’s one of us,” even if you don’t then know exactly what “us” means.

 

A writer friend says that when people tell her they’re jealous of her being a published writer, she tells them they can get published too, if they work hard enough. They rarely respond, because feeling jealous doesn’t require as much work as working hard enough.

She’s vastly more optimistic than I, but then she’s never worked as an editor. I’m tempted to try to encourage such people by saying, “I’m sure there’s something you’re good at it,” but I’m guessing they wouldn’t take that the way I meant it.

 

“The orthodox position,” as C.S. Lewis describes it, isn’t what we think it is. Responding to a letter from Dorothy L. Sayers, he says that position “is summed up in sapiens dominabitur astris: i.e. just as we shd. say about physical, economic, or psychological causes for behavior ‘Yes, these are operative but they always leave room for free will. They dispose but do not determine.’”

Lewis speaks of astrology. St. Thomas Aquinas, he says, believed that the stars affected our lives, but he argued that “astrological predictions often in fact come true because most men don’t use their free will but obey the natural pre-dispositions.” The stars push us. Most people let them.

As Thomas explained, quoting Ptolemy’s Centiloquium, “Nothing prevents man resisting his passions by his free-will. Wherefore the astrologers themselves are wont to say that ‘the wise man is stronger than the stars,’ forasmuch as, to wit, he conquers his passions.”

 

I’m guessing that Thomas was thinking of people who believe the stars nearly omnipotent. They can’t resist because “It’s in the stars!” People like feeling helpless, especially when they want to do what the stars supposedly force them to do.

We know now that the stars don’t push us, but modern Americans believe in forces that compel us to act this way or that. The human wish to offload moral responsibility onto some irresistible force remains with us. The medievals had their stars, we have sexual desire. It’s a need that demands satisfying. We can’t expect chastity of people, single or married. The need for sexual intimacy is just too strong.

We need to remember what Thomas knew: The world pushes us to do things we shouldn’t do, but we can always push back.

 

That said, too many Catholics believe too strongly in free will. At least in others’ free will, especially when those others don’t act the way the righteous Catholics think they should. I’ve had some very unpleasant conversations with some who insisted that the poor suffer poverty because they won’t work hard enough, or they’re lazy, or self-indulgent, or parasitical, or foolish. If they were better people, people (it is implied) as good as the good Catholics, they wouldn’t be poor.

These good Catholics don’t care about the causes of poverty, over which the poor have little or no control. This bewilders me. We know from countless sources how and why people live in poverty and how hard it is for many to escape it.

We know from our own lives, from the inside, how powerless we can be. We know from painful personal experience how hard it is to change some things about ourselves. St. Paul himself lamented that he didn’t do the things he should and did the things — clearly kept doing the things — he shouldn’t. That’s not some woke lib talking. That’s the great Apostle speaking in inspired Scripture.

We even know this from basic cultural axioms, especially “There but for the grace of God go I.”

 

He had a great ability to put insights in a very short and often clever form. The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin (Fordham University Press) collects all the “Easy Essays” Dorothy Day’s mentor and friend wrote for The Catholic Worker. The first collection (published in 1961 and reprinted by Wipf and Stock) left out quite a few, and the new book includes more that didn’t appear in print. It also includes interviews and Maurin’s own reading list.

Arranged like poems, most of the Easy Essays develop a point over several verses. A few examples of Maurin’s insights: “There is no better way to be / than to be / what we want / the other fellow to be.” And one of the more famous ones: “The Marxists say / that religion / is the dope of the people. / Religion is not the dope of the people, / it is the hope of the people.” He could also write drily: “Religion is no longer taught / in the public schools / of America, / but politics and business / are still taught / in the public schools / of America.”

Maurin taught what he called personalism and communitarianism. Anyone who wants to think more deeply about living as a faithful Catholic in the modern world, who’s not satisfied with the usual political options — impersonal and individualistic — and the typical arguments made for them, should read The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin.

 

This column completes three years of writing “Last Things.” Writers like such anniversaries, while knowing their readers couldn’t care less. I will take the chance to thank NOR editor Pieter Vree for letting me write in this unusual form, and also for his editorial attention, which writers for small magazines don’t often get. He’s improved many items and cut some that needed cutting, though I didn’t feel that at the time. I appreciate his editorial interest and care a great deal.

 

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