Volume > Issue > Last Things: May 2021

Last Things: May 2021

By David Mills | May 2021
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Senior Editor US of the Catholic Herald. He writes for several Catholic and other publications.

Take no thought for the morrow. A friend asked Newman how he was doing at the small community of fellow converts he helped form a few months after he entered the Church. “I am indeed too happy — and therefore I know it shall not last — I shall have to go out into the world, and to be full of business and anxiety — and then I shall look back with kind and sad recollection at these days,” Newman responded. “But, alas, I am now speaking as if I had a long life before me instead of having past the middle age.”

Newman was then 45. He would live another 44 years.

Take no thought for the morrow, because you don’t know how many of them you shall have.

 

My wife gave me a very nice Irish sweater, the kind that lasts forever. It cost much more than I would have spent on myself, but I was glad for it, knowing that the way I wear clothes, I’d wear it for the rest of my life. I liked having at least one thing in my life permanently arranged.

The rest of my life being at most 20 or 30 years, this proved an unexpectedly melancholy thought. It gave me one of those moments when you’re feeling that life stretches out in front of you and then you realize you’re on the downward slope, because your sweater will outlive you.

 

Any Evangelicals reading this may want to skip over this one. In 1948, Caryll Houselander’s American friend Lucile Hasley faced an examination for a perforated colon. The exchange can be found in The Letters of Caryll Houselander.

A friend sent Hasley some dust from then-Blessed Martin de Porres’s grave. “Well now,” she writes, “two months ago I wouldn’t have swallowed the dust from anyone’s grave but…you know…fear and helplessness have a way of dispelling sophistication. So, at noon, I swallowed the dust (and my pride).”

Hasley was healed, with one of her doctors claiming “supernatural intervention.” The dust-eating scandalized some of her Catholic friends. Houselander couldn’t understand why those friends felt so upset. “I would have swallowed a bucketful for you gladly — I’d have to swill it down with water, or preferably gin, for it must be a real physical feat to swallow dust.”

How, she continues, can anyone be so upset? “Our Lord mixed up clay and spittle to put on the eyes of the blind man he cured. Over and over again He asked for, or made use of, some very small, humble, seemingly absurd and inadequate thing to work a miracle. That was His choice: why, since God doesn’t change, should it be any different now?”

 

My friend Geoffrey Mackey, a Byzantine Catholic priest who’d grown up Evangelical, told me that a few years ago he visited El Santuario de Chimayo. Pilgrims to the shrine in rural New Mexico used to eat the “holy dirt,” and now either smear it on themselves or bring it home.

He brought back some dirt and put it in his family’s icon corner, he wrote. “I don’t know that I’ll ever ingest any (though who knows?), but it did occur to me, as I was filling the tins, how baffled a younger me would have been at my present behavior.”

Perhaps appalled as well as baffled. My upbringing was somewhat different from his, but just as Protestant in its attitude to such things. But the Church changes you. The Catholic life grounds you (haha) more deeply in the material creation.

It offers you so many material things that in some way convey God’s grace. The Blessed Sacrament, of course, and holy water, blessed oils, candles, statues, relics, sacred places. What’s eating a little holy dirt when you’ve found God through all those things? You begin to feel that God can, and may well, use anything. What once looked like the weirdest superstition now feels plausible, even normal.

 

A warning against easy apologetic lines. Laurie Taylor, president of the Rationalist Association, interviewed Christopher Hitchens for the New Humanist in 2002. Hitchens mentions a time Jewish conservative Dennis Prager challenged him with the question: “Suppose you’re lost in a strange town and it’s late at night and you see a group of men coming toward you. Do you feel more safe or less safe on knowing they’ve just come from a prayer meeting?”

Hitchens responded that he had been lost in Belfast, Belgrade, and Beirut. He had wondered what the men on the other side of the street were thinking. “It would have been no reassurance to me at all to find that they’d just been to the Mr Paisley’s Martyrs Memorial church in Belfast or a Party of God soiree in Beirut or to the Greater Serbia Church in downtown Belgrade.”

 

When I posted their exchange on Facebook, some friends defended Prager’s argument. They noted that he’d said men with Bibles. It’s still much too facile. Yes, in this narrow example, most people would feel relieved that the men approaching them had Bibles. Especially the people who like the line, who are probably like me: white, older, respectable-looking.

But not everyone, because some people would have good reason to remain worried. Jews, for example, and women by themselves, and homeless people, and people of a different race than the men with Bibles. The Bibles mean something, but they don’t always mean sanctity.

Beyond that narrow example, it’s worthless as an argument for the bigger claim Prager’s making. People act differently in different roles, and in some roles their faith may not penetrate very far. When, for example, they have practical economic interests to defend, or sexual, racial, or ethnic identities to assert, or status and power to establish. It is easy to be Christian in church, not so easy to be Christian in other places.

Their faith may give them a justification for acting (as many of us would think) un-Christianly in those roles. Some of those Bible-carrying men might, and this I have seen a distressing number of times, be lovely Bible-believing Christians at church and the most ruthless, social-Darwinian libertarians at work. Their form of Christianity gives them rules for doing the first, and an ideology that justifies the second.

 

Along the same lines, an example of how tricky are many intellectual questions, because words don’t always mean what they seem to us obviously to mean. They have a history, and people before us have read them through different beliefs than ours. A Facebook friend posted a meme saying that the canon of the Latin Mass refers to the “sacrifice of Abraham our patriarch.” That made us “brothers and sisters of the Jews.”

Readers cheered. I cheered. We want as many ways to defend our Jewish brethren as possible. Some Catholics do not wish them well, and invoke the Church’s tradition in justification.

But the matter’s more complicated, as Edwin Tait explained in a comment. What seems the obvious application of the fact’s simple meaning isn’t, because the context — the way the term has been applied in history — changes the meaning.

“It’s certainly contrary to Nazi-style racial anti-Semitism,” Edwin writes. But, he continues, “historically calling Abraham ‘our father’ and so on is tied to the claim that Christians are the true Israel, which is very much connected to anti-Semitism in the religious sense.” He’s not the Father we share, but our Father and not theirs. The term, Edwin writes, isn’t, as the generous-minded poster thought, “automatically incompatible with anti-Semitism.”

 

Townes Van Zandt wrote “the best song about drugs and Muskogee,” a friend said, “and if you beat out Merle Haggard to take that crown, then Lord knows you have lived more life than most of us put together.” The song is called “Waiting ’Round to Die.”

One kind of life. A particular kind of life. But not more of life.

Every now and then, someone who’s had a hard life tells me I don’t know about life because my life has been (as he thinks) easy. He claims to know more about life than I do. He claims epistemological superiority because he’s lived a screwed-up life, often one he seems to have helped screw up himself.

What he knows better than I do isn’t life, but a particular kind of screwed-up life. One marked by impermanence and the constant possibility of escape.

That’s something worth knowing, to help us sympathize with people different from us and to see more deeply into how we live screwed-up lives. But it’s not a greater kind of knowledge. He doesn’t know what you learn from years of marriage without the possibility of escape, and the expectation that someday it will end painfully when you or your wife gets sick and dies. He doesn’t know what you learn from raising children without the possibility of abandoning them, living under the responsibility of forming them to live good and godly lives. He doesn’t know what you learn from not being able to deal with pain by drinking, or by drinking and carousing.

 

I don’t mean to privilege middle-class life. Money and status bring their own forms of impermanence and escape. A stable marriage may not be a good marriage. It may be a marriage of codependents, or of an abuser and victim, or one held together for show. It may hide two good people suffering to make it work.

It’s also a particular kind of life. It’s a life in which you don’t easily learn things you ought to learn. One being compassion, something the guy with the screwed-up life may know much better, because he knows how much he needs it himself.

But to the extent people try to live by the Church’s rules, to inhabit them, it’s a life that teaches you about the greater things. Trying to keep a marriage till death do you part, for example. You can’t learn what marriage is and means if you don’t believe in trying to live it out. You’ll leave before the point at which lessons really begin to be learned.

 

In a paper published in the prestigious journal Theology, English philosopher Roger Trigg declares that “the Church of England still has the luxury of making its own decisions about, say, its attitude to marriage. Its doctrine is not, and must not be, dictated by the state, or by secular interests.”

The paper, titled “Equality and Freedom of Religion,” is quite good, but that claim is daft. Trigg appeals to a line in the Magna Carta, as if the Reformation had not radically changed the state’s view of the church. The creation of the (Protestant) Church of England was the declaration that the church did not have the right to make its own decisions about doctrine or anything else that matters.

This applies also, in a different way, to the Episcopal Church. It is not the established church, noted my late friend Geoffrey Kirk, but something much worse: the church of the establishment. The state doesn’t dictate its teaching, but secular interests — the establishment — do.

 

An Orthodox priest responded that he left the Episcopal Church when he realized that the church’s governing bodies could change anything. Nothing governed its General Convention. He was obviously right about the Episcopal Church, but I’m not sure the opposite is true of Orthodoxy.

After all, a good Episcopalian around 1950 or so, looking at some cranky fringe church, would have said roughly the same thing. The fringe church was rooted in idiosyncratic traditions and personalities, and those could change. His church, he would have said, was anchored in the great tradition of the Christian Church. If you told him it would change in all the ways it has — and the signs were there to be seen — he would have smiled at you patronizingly.

 

Here’s the thing, though. Everyone in a Catholic church, in which I include Orthodoxy, or in a Catholic-claiming body like the Anglicans used to be, makes a bet on the future. They depend either on God to protect their church from error or its future leadership to remain faithful to tradition. You may think it’s a sure thing, but you’re still betting.

Orthodoxy doesn’t have the dangerous central body the Episcopalians have, but who’s to say it won’t change in its own way? The most Westernized churches may — and I think will — slowly liberalize and then either pull others along or split from them.

Orthodoxy’s conservatism is mostly, I think, a sociological accident. It operates mostly in countries that are still socially conservative. When it operates in the West, it reflects the culture of the old country, and it’s so culturally irrelevant that it can be as eccentric as it wants. That latter seems to me, from what I know, to be true even in Greece, where its traditions have been grandfathered in, but no one pays any attention to grandfather.

Still, in the West, it liberalizes, because it can’t escape the culture in which it lives.

 

Last year about this time, scrolling through my news emails, I came across a story with a title like “You’re going to find out how horrible you are.” The pandemic would show us that we are not as nice as we thought, and that other people were not as nice as we had thought they were. It’s a kind of worldly Augustinianism, asserted — refreshingly — against the happier ideas of human nature with which some secularists comfort themselves for having no God. We are so good we have no need of that hypothesis.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way the article expected. We saw lots of examples of people being horrible, and of the horrible side of ourselves that enjoys getting angry at stories of people being horrible. But we saw lots of examples of people being kind, generous, forbearing, concerned. Most people are mixtures. A more accurate title would have been, “You’re going to find out how mediocre you are.”

 

We had a couple small examples in the day or two before I saw the story. Nothing big, nothing for the headlines, but kindnesses from people who saw what they could do for others. I still think about them.

We’d just gotten a new dog. He got out and ran down the hill. When he got to the busy street, every car stopped as he ran around, and waited till he moved away from the street, and then they all crept by very slowly. I had to watch, just knowing that someone was going to come barreling down the street and hit our dog, and kill him. Or worse, mortally wound him. And yet, at least a dozen drivers stopped when they saw him, and when they moved, went maybe three miles an hour.

Two people pulled over and asked if they could help. One even came back a little later as the dog was running around in front of the high school. The little girl in the back, maybe three, gave me a package of Cheetos to try to lure him. She seemed to be giving me her own treat. Her father again asked if he could help, and they watched for a while.

Our eldest was home for a few weeks between assignments (she works for Caritas). She went looking for hand sanitizer, which we hadn’t been able to find, because her mom wasn’t well. She tried the affluent towns to our south and couldn’t find any. She then tried the town to our north, an old steel town, where she thought she might find a greater sense of social solidarity and therefore less hoarding.

She didn’t find any in the first store she went to, and asked the pharmacist, who went to the back and came out with a container. The pharmacist said they kept them for people who asked, and that it was free, but said, “Pay it forward.”

These kindnesses didn’t involve great sacrifice. The people weren’t heroes. They don’t negate the news article’s harsh Augustinian claim, but they do complicate it, because some people care for others, and don’t stop caring even in a crisis.

 

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