Volume > Issue > Last Things: June 2022

Last Things: June 2022

By David Mills | June 2022
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is an Associate Editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has been Editor of Touchstone and Executive Editor of First Things, and he writes columns for Our Sunday Visitor, National Catholic Register, and other publications. The editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C.S. Lewis and the Art of Witness and the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary, he’s finishing a book on death and dying tentatively titled When Catholics Die.

As a layman who’s had much to do with the clergy, Protestant and Catholic, for the past 30-some years, I don’t have any illusions about their peculiar temptations and their particular failings. As a layman who’s had even more to do with laymen, I don’t have any illusions about our temptations and failings.

Some people do, especially in response to the revelations of how corrupt the hierarchy can be. I ran across a meme comparing the burned-out Notre Dame Cathedral to the Church at large. The burned-up roof = the bishops and the higher clergy, but the still-sound body of the cathedral = the laity. The memer found hope in the idea. Many others did as well.

It’s a common romantic view of the Church, similar to the popular idea of the stout, simple, authentic, salt-of-the-earth country people and the sly, wily, corrupt city people. The first live among the flowers and the cows, the other among the brothels and the bars. If you believe that, I recommend reading Stella Gibbons’s satirical Cold Comfort Farm or Faulkner’s non-satirical novels, or living in the country.

The romantic view of the laity is no more plausible. Our hope isn’t in the soundness of the laity. Because holy cow, we’re not sound. We may not do some of the things the clerics do, but only because we don’t have the chance. The Church has a shrewder view of the reality of her people than that.

 

“One of the joys of marriage,” writes Wesley J. Smith, “is that you just don’t live your own life, but participate in your spouse’s. Also a joy of family.” Very true. That’s what love does.

It creates an interpenetration of lives — not a loss of identity but a blending of identities and therefore an expansion of identity. You become more yourself because you become partly someone else.

 

This is, or should be, supremely true of the Church. Marriage is a microcosm or paradigm of the life of Christians together. That explains a lot of the Christian instructions on how we’re supposed to live. That weep while others weep business, for example. It’s what (ideally) a husband does for his wife, or a wife for her husband, or both for their children.

A priest I know, Fr. John Naugle, responded to this idea: “The pure of heart shall see God because they never failed to recognize his image and likeness in their fellow humans.” His insight points to a useful diagnostic tool: Do I truly weep when others weep? Without thinking “I’m glad I’m not them” or “They deserve it”? And rejoice when they rejoice? Without thinking “I should have that” or “They don’t deserve it”?

Can I share someone’s life without the intrusion of ego? (And Yr obt svt, to be honest, rarely does.) If not, I don’t love them as I should. If I loved them, I would (in the true, not Clintonian, sense) feel their pain and their joy.

 

When I suggested these tests to some friends a few years ago, Leticia Ochoa Adams commented: “Man, those are difficult to do. What I’ve been doing lately is when I see that I am envying someone or thinking ‘Well, of course that happened to them, look at their choices,’ I call it for the sin it is and hand it to Jesus just as it is. Instead of shoving it down and being ashamed of it, I just lean into it and ask Jesus to take it from me. I am hoping this works better than just feeling like crap about it.”

 

Leticia’s book Our Lady of Hot Messes: Getting Real with God in Dive Bars and Confessionals, in which she speaks whereof she knows, will be published later this year. It’s a book I’m very much looking forward to reading.

 

After the Anglican Church of Kenya consecrated its first woman as a diocesan bishop, the conservative bishops in a group called Gafcon explained that the Bible distinguishes between “salvation issues and other secondary issues.” Ordaining women is not a salvation issue and will not “disrupt our mission: to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations.”

That’s the standard conservative Anglican dodge. When people begin to disagree about a matter that had once been “the authoritative teaching of Scripture,” a teaching every true Christian accepted, declare it a secondary matter, adiaphora, a matter of debate on which you’ll agree to disagree, pending some future illumination you know full well won’t ever come. My doubts about the dodge when I was an Anglican was one of the matters that pushed me toward the Catholic Church.

Does the New Testament make that distinction? No, because the Bible’s not dodging. All teaching binds us. All teaching is given us for our salvation. Some teachings may be applied in different ways as prudence requires, but that’s not the same thing as their not being “a salvation issue.”

The Gafcon Anglicans try to separate beliefs everyone must hold from very important beliefs — they do recognize that order matters — that though very important, everyone doesn’t have to hold. It seems pointless on its face. If ordaining women doesn’t affect their mission, it isn’t actually “a salvation issue,” so why worry about it?

 

The boy, who looked to be about 20, made a yip of delight when his mother asked him to get a grocery cart. He ran, cutting in front of me, and wheeled the cart back. They stopped between me and the door, so I waited. He held the cart while his mother, a very tall and deliberate woman, unzipped a toddler’s coat and put her into the seat. They didn’t seem to have much money.

I kept running into them inside, because they were shopping slowly, and I kept thinking of things I’d forgotten and had to go back and forth to find them. (Just you try to find lime juice.) The mother read labels, compared prices. The boy smiled as he helped with the shopping. I wound up behind them in the checkout line. The boy was still smiling, this time at his sister.

It probably doesn’t mean anything, but I was struck to see someone who seemed so content and so happy.

 

After some typically batty end-times speculation from a writer on Facebook, apparently a Catholic (sad face here), a commenter pointed out that the writer couldn’t possibly know what he claimed to know. (Russia again appears as a villain, in a way it hasn’t since the Soviet Union fell.) The writer responded, “I have the Spirit of God in me who by his Holy Spirit gives me wisdom knowledge and understanding of the word of God. If you don’t know that…then you don’t have it.”

Well, okay then.

 

Speculation is the usual term for it, but the term seems to me inaccurate. Speculation implies an extrapolation from known truths and facts or reasonable claims.

The end-times people think they’re doing that, but they’re not. They assign the meanings they want to cryptic or ambiguous Bible verses, and cherry-pick world events in the same way, combining them to make a political claim one suspects they had in mind (if unconsciously) from the beginning.

They see the connect-the-dots picture they want to draw, then choose among all the dots the ones that match their picture. They invent any dots they still need, because they know they have the right picture, so the dots must be there even if they can’t see them.

And they justify it by claiming divine inspiration, which you, poor mediocre uninspired Christian that you are, can’t challenge.

 

Like every child who grew up in his branch of Evangelicalism, wrote my oft-quoted Alas-Calvinist friend Joe Long, “I went through a phase in which I figured out the End Times, with the help of a diverse set of resources — notable among them adolescent overconfidence and Chick comic books.” Then he read a book “which Explained It All, quite logically and beautifully and…we had less than five years left. This concerned me. It could be less than five years, as the book was not new. I checked the copyright date. 1919.”

He describes this as an epi­phany.

 

Joe, the author of an entertaining book of “devotional doggerel” called Wisdom and Folly, which I commend to your book-buying attention, notes that the prophecies about the Messiah only made sense when Christians looked at them after the Messiah had come.

But not before. “The best and brightest of their time, though, failed entirely at ‘practical’ interpretation — the sort one uses for decision-making. Simeon and the Magi knew enough to worship; Herod knew enough to be terrified into atrocity — but even to the disciples, and even with Christ actually explaining that prophecies were being fulfilled, the fulfillment looked nothing like what anyone had pictured.”

The real end-times prophecies will make sense after the end, he writes. “In the meantime, be Simeon. Be assured by the prophecies, that the Almighty is in charge and His plan unfolds. Expect to be surprised by just how.”

 

I often recommend the work of the English Catholic sociologist Stephen Bullivant, author of Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America. His newest book, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, will be out later this year, and I’m guessing it will provide not-ex-Christians with painful reading.

Several times when I’ve done this, or invoked another sociologist, like the insightful Zygmunt Bauman, I have gotten from conservative Catholics a version of the response, “We don’t need sociology. We just need to proclaim the Church’s teaching.” Most say that sociology and related disciplines don’t tell us anything we really need to know. Some put down the social sciences in general, because they don’t seem to believe in the human sciences.

They may just be ignorant. And proud of it. But I think this reaction often comes from a strong moralistic feeling, a desire to keep open the possibility of judging others, because they suspect that an attempt to understand is really an attempt to excuse.

 

The weird things you find when you’re looking for something on the web. A headline I saw: “Banning Liebscher: Why Bill Johnson Didn’t Immediately Shut Down Grave Sucking.” Why Liebscher was being banned I quickly figured out. “Banning” is his first name.

Grave sucking was explained further down the story, it apparently being unfamiliar even to some of the website’s Charismatic readership. “Grave sucking, sometimes called grave soaking, is the process by which someone lays on the grave of a deceased Christian in order to absorb their mantle or anointing.”

An “Apostolic leader” named Joseph Mattera explained: “Many charismatics want shortcuts to the anointing and desire results from an instant microwave experience or a one-time event. Instead of wasting their time traveling to ‘grave suck,’ they should discipline themselves to seek God, pore over His Word and dig down deep in His presence.”

Cheers for Mr. Mattera. My thoughts are (1) we Catholics have our own weirdnesses, so we shouldn’t laugh (too much), and (2) conservative Evangelicals sometimes accuse Catholics of believing in magic, especially our belief in the sacraments, but if you want to see real belief in magic, see grave sucking.

 

Two brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, had been thrown in jail, probably for the crime of being Jews in 18th-century Eastern Europe. They couldn’t pray, Chabad rabbi Aharon Loschak explains, because their cell had an overflowing trash can, and the law forbids praying near garbage.

Elimelech was upset at not being able to pray. Zusha said, “Elimelech, why are you down? The same G-d who instructed us to pray, instructed us that we cannot do so in the presence of filth. Tonight, we are serving G-d by not praying!”

The two joined their hands and began to sing and dance at this new way to serve G-d.

 

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