Volume > Issue > Last Things: November 2021

Last Things: November 2021

By David Mills | November 2021
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.

From a Facebook friend whose request I must have accepted because we had a lot of shared friends. He titled his post: “The true history of the Roman Catholic Church in summary.”

This is the history the poor fellow thinks the dumb foolish Catholic doesn’t know: “The emperor Constantine declared that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325. Pope Gregory the 1st. In the year 591ce Created the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican was established in 1929. Since 1929 the Roman Catholic Church has been systematically trying to rewrite history to hide their corruption of murder, indulgences, sin of every nature, rape, Sodomy homosexual perversions and pedophilia to this very day.”

This man seems to be on a crusade, having befriended a lot of Catholics and then posting item after anti-Catholic item, none any brighter than this. It amused me, and the friends I shared it with, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a rant from a rando on the Internet.

It amuses because he seems to want only to attack the Church and tell Catholics to get out. He shows no care for us. He wants us to get out only as another way to destroy the Church and maybe as proof that he sees the horrible truth. If he cared for the real good of Catholics, we wouldn’t laugh, no matter how stupid his posts are. You don’t laugh at someone who wants the best for you.

 

A web search led me to the word Dyerism, coined by Gandhi to denote the evil done by an English brigadier general named Reginald Dyer, better known as “the butcher of Amritsar.” He ordered his troops to fire upon Indians celebrating a religious festival who were trapped inside a walled area.

In Amritsar, in 1919, Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire into the crowd of men, women, and children, which they did for ten minutes. He ordered them to fire at the thickest parts of the crowd, because he wanted to punish the people for gathering there (a place they had every right to be). When soldiers shot over the peoples’ heads, he shouted at them, “Fire low. What have you been brought here for?” He later said he had not warned the people to disperse before firing, and he felt no remorse for ordering his troops to kill all those people.

Dyer murdered perhaps 1,000 people and wounded even more. He would have been hanged had he been tried at Nuremberg.

Added to the imperial government’s other offenses, committed over many years, the massacre would be reason, speaking as an American, for the Indians to burn the English government to the ground. The English oppression of the Indians was much worse than the small oppressions our Founding Fathers used to justify the American Revolution.

Gandhi made up the word Dyerism. “I want this country to be spared of Dyerism,” he said. “That is, I do not want my country, when it has the power, to resort to frightfulness in order to impose her custom on others.”

Dyerism covers the violent use of imperial power to control the weak. We don’t have a word for it otherwise, and alas, we need one. It will apply broadly. We live as citizens of an imperial power guilty of Dyerism, but each one of us can be an empire ruling over someone weaker.

 

Gandhi urged forgiveness for Dyer. “It would be sin for me to serve General Dyer and co-operate with him to shoot innocent men,” he said. “But it will be an exercise of forgiveness or love for me to nurse him back to life, if he was suffering from a physical malady.”

Many years later, Gandhi said, “Who could be more cruel or blood-thirsty than the late Gen. Dyer? Yet the Jallianwala Bagh [the place of the massacre] Congress Inquiry Committee, on my advice, had refused to ask for his prosecution. I had no trace of ill will against him in my heart. I would have also liked to meet him personally and reach his heart, but that was to remain a mere aspiration.”

 

A headline in a gardening magazine: “10 Plants That Attract Dragonflies for Mosquito Control.” The article says dragonflies can eat up to 100 mosquitoes a day. Cool! I think.

I love dragonflies. They’re the number one cool bug. I think to myself, I’m definitely going to plant these plants next year. And then I get to the first plant on the list, whose description begins, “Black-eyed Susans attract butterflies and other pollinators — a popular choice of the dragonfly (unfortunately so, but everyone has to eat!).”

Everyone has to eat, but they don’t have to eat my butterflies and bees. Why does the cool bug have to be the one that eats the beautiful bugs? Evidence of the Fall, Part 403,947.

 

I’ve just had two columns published on the way Protestants (specifically Lutherans) look at the Catholic Church, one in The Catholic Herald and the other in Our Sunday Visitor. In thinking about what Unitatis Redintegratio called “ecclesial communities” — the would-be Churches that aren’t — I thought about Catholics who leave the Church for one of them.

It must be tempting to leave. Every step away from the Church lowers the costs of day-to-day faithfulness. It takes the pressure off. You walk on the flatlands rather than climbing the hill. (Unless you go way outside into a fundamentalist body that polices almost every aspect of your life. But I don’t think many Catholics ever go that far. The Church formed them better than that.) You’re relieved of the costs set by the moral rules, particularly those governing marriage, but also more generally.

Confession, for example. No other Christian body, except the Orthodox, requires its members to confess their sins to a priest. It does something for us God demands we have done. Yet people I would have thought advanced in sanctity say how much they dislike going to confession, even though they love having confessed and been absolved.

A couple of the ecclesial communities offer confession, but they accept a prayer you make on your own as just as good. If I understand them, they don’t think their ministers have the authority to forgive sins. Their absolution is more an act of hope than a declaration of certain forgiveness. After all, if a man doesn’t need to confess to a minister, but can do it on his own, the minister, by definition, can’t add anything necessary.

If you feel oppressed by your sins, or by the Church’s insisting that your sins are sins, you might very well want to find a more understanding body with laxer requirements. It would be easier to live that way, though not nearly so much a blessing.

 

That doesn’t mean judging everyone who’s left the Catholic Church. We can’t assume they’re taking the easier way. Catholics do a lot to drive people out. I just read an informal memoir from a scholar whose father regularly beat him almost senseless. His father served the parish Mass on Sundays, and most people would have seen him as a very pious man.

If I understand the story, his father’s enraged beatings and his mother’s indifference drove the faith out of him when he was small. He seems to have tried to keep it or regain it for a while, but that didn’t last. Understandably. I don’t know how one recovers from that. A parent can rob a child of faith the way he can rob the child of an arm or leg.

Which helps explain Jesus’ stark explanation that someone who harms a child in this way would be better off drowned in the ocean before he did that. The things He says later suggest that the alternative is going to Hell.

 

To be fair, those steps away from the Church don’t necessarily lower the cost of living the faith very much. If you love Jesus, you will suffer, because He will expect you to do something that will cost you.

It was a Lutheran who said, and proved by the loss of his life, “When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.” You can’t read Dietrich Bonhoeffer without seeing a man who saw very clearly what Christianity requires of us. He saw it too clearly to live: the Nazis executed him for acting on his faith.

That’s true even more steps away. An Evangelical couple happily contracepting, because every married Christian they know does, and their church thinks it’s “responsible,” may love Our Lord and give up a lot in His service. Some homeschoolers I’ve known, for example, limit their children, but live sacrificially simple lives in order to serve others. They’d have an easier life if they didn’t love Jesus and His creatures so much, outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church though they are.

 

This seems to be what St. Paul was talking about in Romans 14. “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord,” he writes. “Why, then, do you judge your brother or sister?” Stop judging others, he says. “The kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God.”

He isn’t talking to people who are divided in the ways Catholics are separated from Christians in other bodies. But it doesn’t matter much for these purposes. It would help to think of our Protestant brethren not as people outside the Church — though they are, and that matters — but as people who haven’t made their way in yet.

 

Facebook tells me that four years ago I introduced Bud Marr, then head of the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh, and Carl Trueman, Newman-loving Calvinist theologian now teaching at Grove City College.

One of life’s greatest pleasures is introducing friends you know will be happy (permanently, even eternally) to know each other. It’s a creative act, because you create (or curate?) a new friendship, and a procreative act because from the friendship you help create, good things will come. The meeting went well, as I expected.

Bud lectured in Carl’s class, and I think Carl lectured at the Newman Institute. Carl even wanted us to take him to St. Anthony Chapel, the church in Pittsburgh with thousands of relics. We never got a chance, alas, and now Bud has gone off to a new job somewhere in the endless cornfields of Iowa.

Introducing friends requires some discernment. Some Catholic and Calvinist friends I would not introduce to each other because at some point the police would have to be called.

 

A quote from Orthodox Archpriest Andrei Tkachev: “Prayer should be our first response, not the last hope.” Or, to borrow a term from football: A Hail Mary shouldn’t be a Hail Mary.

 

Many years ago, I mentioned to a Jewish friend that someone we knew had been putting down a certain group of Jews for being “tacky” and similar faults. It was meant as a judgment of Jews in general, I thought.

“He’s absolutely right,” my friend said.

I looked at him in surprise.

“It’s not that they’re Jewish,” he said. “It’s that they’re from New Jersey.”

 

America in a segue: The national anthem before the first Steelers game this season was sung by the daughter of one of the victims, standing by the 9/11 memorial. It ended with a close-up of her face as she sang “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” with just a slight quaver. A split second after she finished, an Arby’s commercial began, with pictures of a sandwich and a loud, strong, happy voice reading the lines.

Not even a second can go by for people to feel the song and reflect on it. Money must be made.

Any ritual you care about, you leave space for it to have its effect, for people to feel it. But one you don’t care about, one you’re just going through to make yourself look like you care, you cut away from quickly to something you do care about.

 

An insight from the writer Ursula LeGuin: “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

 

“Fallah me,” said the old nurse, in a flat raspy voice as she walked by without even looking at me, before disappearing around a corner. I hurried to catch up. “Sit,” she said, imperatively, pointing to the chair, still not looking at me. She was going to draw my blood, and I thought she was either going to be very good because she’d done it so long or very bad because she just didn’t care anymore.

I waited for her to ask which arm I wanted to use, which the nurses always do, and she grabbed my left arm because the left arm was the arm she’d decided I was going to use. She swabbed the inside of my elbow, said “Make a fist,” but before I could make a fist, pushed in the needle, saying “Little pinch!” only after she’d removed the needle. No one had ever taken my blood that fast.

I barely felt it. “You’re amazing,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said.

Then she looked at me and smiled, and began telling me about working in a research lab at Johns Hopkins, and how they did things in the olden days. They took the blood in a big syringe, with a bigger needle than they use now, and then squirted it into test tubes, corked the test tubes, and sent them to the labs. We talked for a couple minutes before she had to go on to the next patient.

You learn things, if you care about doing them well and do them a lot for a long time. The philosopher Michael Polanyi called this “tacit knowledge.” This explains wisdom. I mean the kind of wisdom of people who couldn’t make a coherent argument to save their lives, but see a matter clearly and tell you what you should do, and despite being inarticulate, are proven right time after time. To put it another way: Holiness brings insight.

 

Something you never see, but I wish we did: From a mailing from the Hasidic group Chabad: “Please note also that in observance of Rosh Hashanah, our donation page will be disabled from Sunday, September 9, 7:00 PM ET through Tuesday, 8:00 PM ET.”

It’s an automated system. But even so, they turn it off to hedge round the holy days. They set apart the sacred.

 

A popular meme shows a lion walking toward a group of Christians in the Colosseum. It says “God loves you” at the top, and at the bottom, below the picture of those about to be eaten alive, “and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

A paradox, and a profound one. Understanding it requires a sharp shift in the way you see the world. It did for me, anyway. Martyrdom’s heroic and all that, four cheers for martyrs, but it’s exceptional. People in communist or fundamentalist Muslim countries might get martyred, but getting killed for the faith isn’t something that happens to those of us safely in the West.

I make no claims to be someone who would kneel in the middle of the arena. I pray I would, but no one knows how he’ll meet the test till he’s tested. With that disclaimer, I will say that many American Christians seem bad at thinking about martyrdom as it presents itself to them. To us.

We assume a baseline of the normal life people like us live. The middle-class Christian assumes he should live the life of a middle-class American. We have our pleasures. We have our rights. We have our duties, too, but they don’t overrule our pleasures and our rights. We admire great sacrifice, but it’s not for us. In other words, we have our limits. What Jesus asks us to do will stay within those limits.

 

Let me give an example from my world. When I talk about the costs of writing as a vocation and especially the cost of telling the truth clearly, someone always objects. He objects to the cost and gives a reason he should avoid it. The dean, the tenure committee, his parents, his editors, the readers, and so on. He assumes he should get published. He assumes he should advance in his career. That’s his baseline. He satisfies both by not saying what he’s been given to say, because saying it will cost him either the first or the second, or both.

 

Bonhoeffer’s wording — “When Christ calls a man” — sounds like our Lord only calls some men sometimes, and probably to Big Things. When Christ calls a man to assassinate Hitler. When Christ calls a man to face the lions. Christ always calls a man to something. Usually small, but still not always easy or enjoyable to do. We are never not being called to die in some way.

If we’re to have any hope of passing a big test, our version of being threatened with lions, we have to pass the little tests now. This is a matter that’s occupied me lately, maybe because my body is telling me in different ways that I’m getting older, which means the end is getting nearer. I don’t think I’m even yet very good at dying in all the little ways.

I think about my friend Michael Liccione’s warning: “Life is hard, then you die; then it gets harder still, unless you died before you died.”

 

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