Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | May 2019
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

These words of Hilaire Belloc’s have been popping up a lot on the Web, so in case you haven’t seen it: Arriving at a posh Anglican school after a Catholic gathering, he told its Anglican minister: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

The story appears in Robert Speaight’s The Life of Hilaire Belloc. It follows another story in which Belloc left a Catholic gathering saying, “I have been having my bellyful of clerics lately.” He told his listeners, “Caveant sacerdotes.”


When Kenyan schoolteacher Peter Tabichi won the Global Teacher Prize, news agencies buried well down in the story the fact that he is a Franciscan. Which is, you know, really important. It’s a key to his character, the kind of thing a good journalist would use to shape the story.

But not these journalists. ABC News mentioned it in the ninth paragraph. And in a by-the-way manner, the way you’d mention that he collected old tools or kept chickens: “Tabichi, who is also a Franciscan friar, couldn’t believe his fortune in winning the award, he told the AP after the ceremony.”

All the stories include a picture of him, and he was of course in his habit. As author John Allen Gay tweeted, “Strange how many stories on prizewinning science teacher Peter Tabichi bury his membership in an order that makes a radical, sacrificial commitment to honor God by serving the poor. You can go 8 paragraphs here thinking he just happens to dress like a Jedi.”


Harvard professor Ruth Wisse wrote about her collaboration with Irving Howe in a collection called Voices from the Yiddish. He deferred to her on scholarship, she deferred to him on the writing, and it worked out well.

“I also liked his idea that transposing from emotionally inflected Yiddish to English required ‘lowering the temperature,’” she writes. However, “it was clear that he felt free to make generalizations of this kind because he was uninhibited by too much knowledge. For example: speaking as a socialist, he would affectionately refer to Yiddish as ‘the literature of the little man’ or, sometimes, ‘the little Jew’ — without considering the negative connotation of that phrase in Mendele Mokher Sforim’s debut Yiddish novel, where it refers to a corrupt little schemer.”

The 1864 novel The Little Man was the first work of modern Yiddish literature, and the title was not a compliment. This Howe did not know, though he was editing a series of works on Yiddish literature. Wisse concludes that though “admiring the grand formulations in his own writings, I would have liked to split the difference between intellectuals who knew a little about a lot and scholars who knew a lot about a little.”


“Modern Protestants characterize the medieval church as keeping people from the Bible,” and that’s wrong, says a professor of history at the officially Baptist Baylor University. “Medieval people really were expected to know their Bible,” and they learned it through heavily biblical sermons, says Beth Allison Barr. She writes for a weblog called The Anxious Bench, hosted on Patheos’s Evangelical channel.

The Bible “permeated daily life, from ordinary conversations to household art to education, entertainment, law, and even the calendar,” for one thing. For another, “The medieval world was an oral culture built on the memorization of text, a ‘passive literacy’ as Robert Swanson has called it…. Medieval men and women were encouraged to memorize large portions of the psalms and biblical prayers and even Gospel texts.”

The preachers followed the liturgical calendar for their texts. “The goal of late medieval vernacular sermons was to instruct in the faith (catechetical), so the scripture emphasized was often that which illuminated important aspects of medieval faith for Christians (such as the life and death of Jesus, the importance of fides ex auditu,…the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the vices and virtues, etc.). Medieval priests were discouraged from expounding too much on the trickier theological texts so as not to confuse ordinary parishioners.”

Search “Barr Patheos Bible in medieval sermons” to find the article and others of Barr’s on the same subject, equally illuminating.


The medieval world even enjoyed “celebrity preaching.” Barr mentions Bernardino of Siena, “a fifteenth-century observant Franciscan known for his enthusiastic emphasis on Jesus and his ability to attract large crowds. Once his sermon so excited his audience that they cried ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!’ for hours after he finished preaching.”

That seems to be an historical constant. People want the story explained, and explained by a person in his own way, and preferably in person. Barr mentions George Whitefield in colonial America. We can think of examples, several unfortunate: Joel Osteen and John Corapi, for two. But on the other hand: Tim Keller and Fulton Sheen.


There is a small movement among evangelicals to take the Middle Ages seriously. Evangelicals have traditionally seen Christianity collapsing shortly after the end of the New Testament, with a few later bright spots like Augustine and Anselm, but basically a lot of superstition and error, until the glorious dawn of the Reformation brought light back to the world.

The Middle Ages were the time of “religion,” defined as man’s inept attempt to constrain God by rules and rituals and to bribe God into liking us. And of man’s inept indulgence in sentimentality, like devotion to Jesus’ mother. Also “philosophy,” understood as man’s inept attempt to understand through his own thinking what he could only know through revelation, and so come up with absurdities like transubstantiation.

In short: the Mass, very bad; Marian devotion, very misleading; St. Thomas Aquinas, very wrong.

Understandable. If the Church hadn’t gone off the rails back then, and God had continued working in His Church all that time — a thousand-some years — modern American evangelicals would have to take all that stuff seriously. And that would undermine much they hold dear and force them to take seriously much they have rejected. Like the Mass, the Rosary, and the Summa.

But things are changing. Another example of this new interest is the book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C.S. Lewis. As the inclusion of Lewis suggests, it takes from the Middle Ages what Protestants will find most congenial, but it also challenges them to see light in what they thought the dark ages. Its author, Chris Armstrong, until recently taught at Wheaton College, evangelicalism’s flagship institution.


In 1862 J.A. Joel and other Jewish soldiers in the Union Army decided to celebrate Passover, though they were encamped in the wilds of West Virginia. They sent away to Cincinnati for matza but had to forage for everything else. Joel wrote up the story in a New York Jewish newspaper in 1866 and someone retold it in the Jewish Review of Books.

The Passover rite includes eating bitter herbs, but they didn’t have horseradish or parsley, so they ate a weed they found in the woods. “The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper,” Joel writes, “and excited our thirst to such a degree, that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider…. Those that drank the more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself a Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.”


When editing, I don’t let writers say we unless they clearly belong to the group they’re writing about. It’s too often a way of saying you or them when making accusations, or a lazy way to generalize, or a cheap and ineffective way to make their readers think they’re one of them. Preachers do the same thing. It often rings false.

But not with Fr. Ronald Knox. His use of we is “the unobtrusive link binding priest to people,” writes Fr. Philip Caraman, S.J., in his introduction to Knox’s Occasional Sermons. “When he gives an admonition he makes no distinction between himself and his hearers. Their difficulties are also his; anything that might sound unreal to them has some measure of unreality for himself — St. Paul’s phrase, for instance, about ‘always carrying around with us the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ That seems, he says, ‘so highflown and impractical to us half-hearted Christians of a later time.’”

Knox’s use of we doesn’t ring false, I think, because he used it as part of his effort to tell his hearers the Good News he had to share through the lessons of the day. Fr. Caraman continues: “Unlike the orator, he was determined to grapple with such phrases until he had reduced them to terms that had meaning for his audience. There is always a sternly practical core in what he says. He was careful that his hearers should not go away saying ‘all very beautiful, all very edifying.’… In his view a priest who was also a scholar cannot just love his subject; he must love people and must above all, like St. Philip [Neri], love souls.”


Speaking of editing, the other day I referred to a writer, in a Freudian-slip kind of way, as being the type “who needs either a light editing or full-scare editing.”


New England “is one of the rockiest soils for church growth and church planting,” a Baptist minister wrote on the website of a Southern Baptist seminary. As a New Englander, I have to admit there’s something to that.

I grew up in a town that almost certainly had more Wiccans than Christians (there being some dual-identities, of course), and certainly more Marxists than Christians (with, again, some dual identities). The would-be evangelist wouldn’t have had such an easy time.

However, the reasons for that were more complicated than I think the writer saw. One is that we got much of the rest of the country’s people burned out on religion. Another is that outlanders can’t just march in and get people’s attention. They have to earn it. A third is that some people just don’t want to be Baptists, because. And a fourth is that a lot of the Christians in New England are Catholic, though I suspect this Baptist thinks of Catholics as among the unbelievers.

And then, the New England Christian would like to mention, there’s the question of the nature of so much of the religion in the rest of the country. It’s not so fair a comparison as it seems. How much does the other areas’ higher church attendance actually matter? How much of it expresses the local culture, not the faith? How many people would go if their family and neighbors weren’t watching?

But, yes, New England’s rocky soil, granted. But Jesus’ parable includes some plants that grew at first but didn’t do well over time.


A reference to the English writer Christopher Hollis reminded me of the end of his memoir The Seven Ages, which my friend Tom Howard (once also a contributing editor of this magazine) loaned me many years ago. I remember nothing about it except the closing story. “Whoever has the arranging of the Last Judgment, it will not be me,” Hollis wrote.

So it is of little importance what I may think about it. My friend Smitt-Ingerbretson was the Chairman of the Religious Committee of the Norwegian Government. It fell to him to give advice to the King what doctrine the King as head of the State Lutheran Church should pronounce about hell. His natural instinct was to be liberal, but then he reflected on the possibility that, if he denied all possibility of damnation, “my constituents, they will go to the Last Judgment, and they will say, ‘Mr Smitt-Ingerbretson said it would be all right,’ and Almighty God, He will say, ‘Who the hell is Mr Smitt-Ingerbretson?’ and I shall look a bloody fool.”


Our second child read about a study in which women looked at pictures of men’s faces and rated the men’s attractiveness. The men would then eat broccoli for a couple weeks and women would rate the new pictures. The men’s attractiveness ratings increased.

An advertisement for marriage: You no longer have to eat broccoli.


Alt-Right, Shoot Foot. Looking up someone mostly crazy led me to puttering around alt-right websites. On one of the major ones, I found this introduction to a podcast: “The reason the Alt-Right is stagnating is because it has allowed itself to be associated with Naziism and extreme violence, through the rise of sites like (((TRS))) and the (((Daily Stormer))) that are objectively controlled by radical Jewish interests, who clearly benefit from White identitarianism being seen in such a poor light. The social and professional costs of identifying with Alt-Right have soared, killing the movement’s ability to spread.”

So: This guy wants to distinguish his movement from neo-Nazis by…blaming the clever, sneaky, manipulative Jews. The English call that an own goal.

By the way, those odd triple parentheses are an anti-Semitic symbol highlighting that something or someone is Jewish.


An old joke, apparently, but a good one. A church sign says, “Adultery is a sin. You can’t have your Kate and Edith too.”


A string of emails one day from friends made painfully clear that many people are really suffering. People you might think have it all are carrying a world of hurt, and hurt that isn’t going to be undone in this world. But you don’t see the pain unless you know them well.

It’s something to remember when you pray. The man with every obvious worldly advantage might have a breaking heart. And — this is something I have to work on — it’s something to remember when you’re dealing with some jerk, because he might not be a jerk but a man in pain. Or he might be a jerk and a man in pain. But do unto others.


This popped up on my Facebook page. It’s a Hahaha, gotcha! story. On a Fox News TV broadcast, with the running head “‘Poor’ households,” a table claimed that 99.6 percent of the poor have a refrigerator, 81.4 percent have a microwave, and 48.6 percent have a coffeemaker. The poor, put in ironic quotes, have refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee makers so they’re…not poor? What?

I don’t know the laws everywhere, but in many places rental apartments have to have refrigerators. Maybe small cheap ones, but refrigerators. You can also buy small refrigerators new for under $100. So that tells us little.

And microwaves can be got for under $50, or as low as $10 or $15 at the thrift store, where you can find coffeemakers for almost nothing. So that also tells us little.

It’s possible to be poor and have all three things for which you paid, oh, $100, $200 at most. But still, according to the smug silly-clever boys at Fox News, the people who have them aren’t poor.


A friend, commenting on another friend’s criticism of The Screwtape Letters imitations, piped up with G.K. Chesterton’s famous line, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

That’s a truth that has been many, many times misapplied. A thing worth doing is worth doing badly if you’re supposed to do it. If you’re not, you’re just screwing around and making a mess. Chesterton did not mean that anyone could justifiably do anything he wants.

I think this applies to every imitation of The Screwtape Letters. You’re not supposed to do it. You can’t pull it off. Most imitations are just bad, many are horrendous, and even the better ones fall so short you see what a genius Lewis was.


By Scott Richert, now publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, writing in Chronicles on his experience of living with aphantasia, the inability to create mental images: “Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true.”

“Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth,” Richert continues, “which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie. Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.”


A tweet from the Baptist writer Beth Moore, relevant to any writer who writes with definite opinions, and to priests who teach and preach all of Catholic teaching: “I can remember distinctly when it began to occur to me that the most hateful critics (some critics are helpful not hateful) didn’t want me to change. They wanted me to quit. There would’ve been nothing on earth I could’ve done to make them happy. It was astonishing. Then freeing.”


The rule is, I think: Look and love first, then try to figure out. Otherwise what you figure out you know only as definitions, as verbal Legos you can snap together according to the instructions (or not), not as insights into a thing you know and care about. You’re much less likely to love the Eucharist because you understand transubstantiation than you are to find transubstantiation useful because you love the Eucharist.


We didn’t have this experience, but I’ve heard similar stories from friends. Apparently, a lot of Catholic churches make getting a child baptized weirdly hard. Some priests want to use parents’ desire to have their child baptized to reach them, grabbing the opening cultural Catholicism gives them. It looks like the only way to get the parents to be more active in the church. Others like rules, and rules can quickly become hoops to jump through.

Like this one. “Even parents presenting their second, third, or even sixth child — unless a close friendship with a priest wins them an exemption — are typically required to re-attend baptism classes, since the class certificates often arbitrarily ‘expire’ after two to three years,” Lauren Enk Mann explains on Catholic Exchange. Even perfectly faithful Catholics can find themselves frustrated by the rules.

“Bureaucratic tape between babies and baptism is an unalloyed wrong and grave injustice,” Mann notes. “Let these infants be baptized, and stop making it so complicated.” Catechizing children before First Communion makes sense, but in Baptism “the education of the parents is not the goal.”

Mann ends her article: “The canonical status of the godparents is not actually essential to the sacrament. All that matters is the desire that the baby receive baptism. That’s why the priest asks, in the rite of baptism itself, what those bringing the baby want for the child. Baptism, they answer. Right then, at the baptism, they’ve cleared up the only question that counts.”


“Man cannot come to terms with being born blind, and remaining blind, where essential things are concerned. The farewell to truth can never be final.” — then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Truth and Tolerance

“Playing safe everyone could field 1.000.” — Roberto Clemente



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