Last Things: March 2022
In a meme making the rounds, a history department recruiter asks a student if he likes historical fiction, period dramas, historical movies, etc. The student says yes. The recruiter asks, “Would you like not to?”
This is true of knowing anything well. It also applies to reading serious articles on subjects you know something about. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article in a general magazine on Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Newman, and a few others that didn’t include a substantial mistake of fact or two.
Sometimes the mistakes didn’t matter much, but sometimes they did. In the latter cases, the mistakes usually supported the broad narrative the writer had chosen: Chesterton as hammer of heretics, for example, or Lewis as former hammer turned sensitive guy, or Newman as author of whatever idea the writer needed an authority for. Some mistakes left me asking, “Where in the world did he get that?”
The risk of knowing anything well is that of becoming the guy who’s always saying, “Well, actually…”
An example of the way the world works: The New York Giants’ incompetent general manager, whose bungling (and it was that) made the coach’s work impossible, is allowed to retire. He’s allowed to pretend he left when he chose. The coach is “relieved of his duties.”
Every story on the team since then reports that Dave Gettleman retired at the end of the season and Joe Judge was fired. That’s the way the story will be told from now on. The bad record? All Judge’s fault. He was the one who was fired, after all.
“Both ended their days in a nursing home, in a wheelchair,” my friend Brenda Becker writes of two women who influenced her life, “one fearful and embittered, the other, until very near the end, under the seeming impression that she was still a volunteer, charged with checking in on, and cheering up, the other residents.”
The second, Valeska, wrote her twin brother about crows she could see from her bed. “The other never bothered to look out her window in her last, sad year of life; there was, she said, nothing there she wanted to see.”
Brenda writes, “As I grow older, and seek spirit guides for how to grow old, I thank my Aunt Val for reminding me, if I must ‘stretch out my hands and be taken where I do not wish to go,’ to look up on the journey. There might be crows, marvelous crows, at play in the sky.”
Why “stole”? I wondered. And why “serving”? The ad for a series on obscure American politicians described Republican congressman Robert Smalls, who in 1861 was a slave, as “serving on the Confederate ship C.S.S. Planter. He stole the ship and sailed it to Northern waters, where he surrendered it to the U.S. Navy.”
A man held against his will, his dignity and his freedom denied by people who benefitted from hurting him, forced to do menial labor for men fighting to keep him prisoner, escapes and then captures an enemy warship. How is that serving? Where is the stealing? Who writes these things?
“Catholic bishops, take note,” wrote Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., former editor of America, tweeting a news story. “Male penguin pair, New York zoo’s first same-sex foster parents, doing ‘great job’ raising baby chick.”
I groped and groped to find a polite word for this. But I couldn’t. It’s stupid on stilts. As many people have written, including me in First Things ten years ago, animals do all sorts of things we do not want people to do. Some eat their own children. Even Peter Singer, advocate of post-birth abortion though he is, does not commend that.
As my friend Gregory Laughlin (former farm boy, now law librarian at Samford University) wrote back in 2012, “Many animals have multiple sex partners, and the male is often uninvolved in caring for his offspring. Does that make adultery, promiscuity, and paternal abandonment ‘natural’ and, therefore, licit among humans?”
He continued: “Animals go into a frenzy when fed, pushing others out of the way and even trampling others to get to the food. Does that make greed, gluttony, covetousness, and theft ‘natural’ and, therefore, licit among humans?”
If I were to pick the most Chestertonian holy day, it would probably be Christmas, but maybe the Assumption. For the same reason: both proclaim the goodness of creation that God blessed by joining it.
Father John O’Connor, Chesterton’s model for Father Brown, on hearing confessions. Some Protestants get a “curious itch” for confession, he says, but they don’t know how to do it. Even the best of them are “led into incidents untoward or comic, through lack of experience.” He writes in 1937.
O’Connor wants his readers to know that Catholic priests don’t get a kick from hearing people admit their sins. The “picturesque detail…is the only thing that varies the monstrous monotony of the catalogue of crime,” and that’s not allowed. The penitent is reporting, almost like reading from a form, not regaling the priest with stories. “There are only ten commandments and only three or four ways of breaking them, so figure to yourself if there is any excitement in hearing confessions.”
But sometimes the priest sees the fruits. “The only excitement is a rare thing among thrills: it is the vision of a submerged soul coming up out of the dark night of ocean into the pearly radiance of the morning. No words will describe the glimpse of glory vouchsafed for a passing instant to a confessor half-dazed with repetitions and numb from the knees down.”
As I write, rumors float about the Catholic Internet that the late Anne Rice, writer of (tediously) gender-bending vampire stories and very public ex-Catholic, made her confession and received the Last Rites on her deathbed when she died in mid-December. I can’t find confirmation, but I pray it’s true.
About people who return to the faith on their deathbed: Very good for them, of course, but an unfortunate witness. It encourages people to count on being able to do the same thing themselves. They assume they can continue their lives as they wish and, like a hero in an action movie, slide under the door into Heaven (or Purgatory) just as it closes.
It worked for others, it’ll work for them. But of course, they might harden their hearts too much to turn back at the end, or they — unlike the quick-witted action movie hero — might get hit by a truck.
If you’ve left the Church but still feel her attraction, ask yourself if you’ll return to the Church when you’re dying. If you might, just do it now. A lot safer for you and a much better signal to the lapsed Catholics you care about. You don’t want to think, as you’re sliding under the door just as it closes, that your example encouraged others to stand outside and watch it close.
“You’re normal?” she asked in a definitely interrogatory voice that left open the possibility that I wasn’t and might admit it. I didn’t expect this. She didn’t know me well, but we amused each other every two or three months when we met.
I couldn’t answer because I couldn’t see why she asked, and my mind crashed in a hurried attempt to figure out why. Is she joking? Is she serious? Is she setting up a joke? Is she opening a serious conversation?
She stood behind me so I couldn’t find out anything from her face. I could have said, “Why, what have you heard?” but I only thought of that later.
“You’re normal?” she asked again, in the same way, though as if she’d never had to repeat the question before.
“I, I hope so,” I said with a laugh that I knew sounded forced.
“You want your normal haircut?” she said.
“Oh, oh, yes, I do,” I said, thinking to myself that normal did not mean usual and why do people misuse words in an effort to be creative or different or something, because some of us have minds that notice the difference and have to understand why they used the wrong word.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a barber say normal,” I said.
“I just like to say it,” she said.
She’s dealt with pain most of us haven’t, but that’s not all that makes Leticia Ochoa Adams’s writing so valuable. It’s that she keeps pushing herself and her readers to see the realities and not explain them. Explaining them, as most writers try to do, almost always means to explain them away or domesticate them.
You rarely finish reading her thinking, “There, that’s it. That’s settled. Got a box for that one,” and add one more aspect of life you think you understand and thus control. She makes you feel you know less than you did and you’re more vulnerable than you were.
To read her writing, go to LeticiaOAdams.com.
I thought of this when reading a post on Leticia’s public Facebook page about people who respond to someone who takes his own life with the “usual comments,” like the calls to reach out to people because “you never know what someone is dealing with.” She had lost her son Anthony to suicide. Leticia writes:
Anthony had a lot of people who listened. I was the last person to listen to him. I was IN IT with him. So were his siblings, his best friend, and especially his fiancée Ariana. He was not alone. He was heard. He was loved and we knew what he was struggling with. He was also in therapy. I was in therapy. Ariana was in therapy.
So if we couldn’t save him, why do you think your phone call to check in could have saved someone else? But that’s just it, it could. Because suicide is such a random bastard. Plenty of people suffer trauma and depression and do not die by suicide. Plenty of people have suicidal ideation and don’t die by suicide. So why do some survive and others don’t? I do not know.
All I know is that my son is dead and I miss him. Everyone beginning this nightmare is asking all the questions I asked five years ago, thinking if they just piece it all together that it will change the outcome, but it doesn’t. I still have all the receipts and screenshots of the day Anthony completed suicide laminated and in a box. Because the investigation of “why” is real.
How could I have saved him? That’s at the root of all my pain. Even as I know more and more that I did everything I could. And that’s life for me as a suicide loss survivor.
Faults, as it’s said, on both sides. My old friend Anthony Esolen wrote that he’s a teacher because he wants to show people good and great things. That’s why bad Church music bothers him, as it does so many of us.
Ordinary parishioners can sing and love good music. Music of both melodic quality and lyrical depth. Listening to most of the stuff we sing at the usual Sunday Mass is “like watching people being fed McDonald’s burgers, when twenty feet away, right there, is a guy grilling steaks galore,” and (I’d add) giving them out for free.
From the other side of things comes a different failure to appreciate good Church music. “I’m also a little tired,” Tony adds, “of my faithful Catholic friends taking hymns for granted as ‘Protestant,’ as if we should do without them just because we have Gregorian chant. I love Gregorian chant. I do not see why I therefore have to give up singing ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,’ or ‘Lead Kindly Light,’ or ‘The King of Love My Shepherd Is,’ or ‘There Is a Land of Pure Delight.’”
I’ve heard the same kind of remark about hymns from Catholics who don’t seem to have thought out the question of what we’re doing in worship. They’re usually just as dismissive of Catholic as of Protestant hymns. Being instructed to sing Gregorian chant doesn’t mean we must sing only Gregorian chant.
Since we have to get the altar crew into the church and out of the church, we’ve already “liturgized” those events, with the priest, acolytes, and lectors processing in and later out while the congregation sings. We have to sing something. It’s not the best time for chanting. It’s a good time for belting something out.
Why not great hymns? Hymns with good singable melodies. Melodies you’ll remember and might sing when you’re home. And harmonies for people who can sing them. Hymns with wise, insightful, moving lyrics. Lyrics you’ll remember and might find instructive, or exciting, or consoling, or convicting, when you need that.
Be ready always to give an answer to every man who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. — 1 Peter 3:15
If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, “He died for all.”
— “There Is a Balm in Gilead”
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