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April 2006

Sunday Night Journal — April 30, 2006

Interior Design Meets the Grim Reaper

As I think I’ve mentioned before, there are far too many unread or partially-read magazine around my house. Whenever I sort through them with an eye toward dropping a subscription or two, the Atlantic rises high on the list at once. I greet the arrival of each new issue with a certain amount of dismay, because it puts me that much further behind in my reading. Just this morning I managed to discard the November 2005 issue, but decided there were a couple of things in the January/February issue that I still want to read.

There is relatively little in each issue that seems either significant enough or potentially enjoyable enough to qualify as a must-read. It’s a secular, more or less conventionally liberal magazine, and therefore most of the writing stems from a view of the world which, from my point of view as a Catholic, is inevitably deficient, and blind to some of the most important aspects of most subjects. And there’s a lot in it that just doesn’t interest me much, like the March cover story on the application of scientific methods to matchmaking.

But unlike its similar and, I presume, rival publication, Harper’s, The Atlantic has its feet on the ground most of the time, and its head level. Whenever I pick up Harper’s I have the impression that I’ve entered the atmosphere which is found all too often on the left, in which anger and scorn have replaced or at least corroded thought. Not so The Atlantic. I disagree vastly with the very left-wing and anti-Christian Christopher Hitchens, but his book reviews in The Atlantic rarely fail to tell me something interesting. If I let this subscription drop, I would miss Benjamin Schwartz on books. I would very much miss Caitlin Flanagan’s droll insistence on looking at what is actually happening in the realm of marriage and family instead of what political fashion insists ought to be happening.

And I would miss the occasional entirely unexpected piece that gives me a surprising insight or a brilliant bit of writing. Such was the article about God and evolution which I discussed here, and such is “Home Alone,” by Terry Castle, one of those putative book reviews which is less about the books and more about the author’s views on the same subject as the books. The subject here is something I didn’t know existed, or rather had not considered as a category of its own: “shelter-lit,” books and magazines about interior design.

I think of décor (to use the author’s preferred term) as something which can be afforded only by people who have either a great deal of money, no children, or both. Of course I want my home to be a physically appealing and pleasant place to be, but if nothing else the presence, often dominating, of overflowing bookshelves in almost every room of our too-small house renders anything that could be called “décor” impossible, or at least problematic. So I started this piece figuring that I would read a few paragraphs and, if it lived down to its promise, move on. I admit that when I continued to read I was impelled at least in part by a mild pleasure of the Lord I thank thee that I am not as this sinner sort, mildly pleased that I did not recognize any of the presumably expensive brand names and French terms. I soon became interested in the bits of autobiography woven into the discussion, and the way such things as the very traumatic (“nuclear-war style”) divorce of her parents had affected the author’s attitudes and emotions toward her physical homes. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing, and if you’re not a subscriber check it out the next time you’re in the library. (You can read the first few paragraphs here but most of it is available only to subscribers.)

But the reason I’m writing about this review/article is the surprising turn it takes toward a connection between mortality and the pursuit of the perfect interior. In particular I want to note this paragraph:

The habits of bourgeois life—first adumbrated in Northern Europe as early as the sixteenth century—have been for some time the buffer of choice, civilization’s all-purpose comfort-and-happiness maximizer. But the bourgeois outlook could hardly be called valiant or hardheaded: it’s all about not staring death in the face. Under its sway one seeks a world without pain.

This is right on target, I think, and I also think it reaches into an area where the author did not intend to go. I’ve believed for a long time that part of the explanation for the strange manifestations of alienation in the industrialized world is that all people sometimes, and some people most of the time, recognize that this bourgeois outlook is an attempt to set aside the most important, most disturbing, and most mysterious questions of human life. A way of life which tries to pretend that material comfort and pleasure are sufficient for real human well-being is false at heart and headed for some painful awakenings.

I like my comfortable and quiet bourgeois life a great deal, and I don’t want to have it upended by, for instance, another Hurricane Katrina. But I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s all I need. To quote Terry Castle again:

There’s one big problem here, and you don’t need to rent old Ingmar Bergman movies to see it. There’s a real skeleton at the door, and whoa—looks like he’s aiming to get in.

I once wrote most of a full-length essay on the connection between bourgeois comfort and alienation. It is now stranded on an obsolete computer. I may try to retrieve it.

Sunday Night Journal — April 23, 2006

Reading Lear in the First Week of Easter

Earlier in the week some train of thought led me to pick up King Lear, and I soon found myself reading it for the first time in thirty years or so. This would seem to be on the face of it not at all what one should be reading in the week following Easter Sunday, but I’ve found it to be perfectly fitting.

In order to understand what it means that Christ has set us free from sin and death, we have to know what sin and death are. We live in a time when it is easier to forget this knowledge than it has ever been, at least for those of us us in the wealthy and industrialized world, who find ourselves in a culture where many people believe quite seriously that scientific and social technique can at least in large part eliminate all the old enemies of human happiness. And most of us live in such comfort that the idea seems superficially plausible. I don’t mean that it is really very plausible to most people who think very much about it, but it may seem so at a glance to those who don’t.

I had forgotten how sudden and terrible is the onset of disaster in Lear. All the gears of ruin are engaged and in motion by the end of the first scene. Nowhere else that I know of in literature is there such a pitiless account of horror and desolation following from a single act of prideful folly. And the disaster sweeps away the innocent along with the guilty, giving us the lines which surely few who have read the play can forget, spoken by the innocent (well, blameless in these events, anyway) Gloucester:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
they kill us for their sport.

Less widely quoted are the words of Gloucester’s son Edgar on discovering his father’s mutilation:

World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.

Just so. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone must expect to suffer such great evil as Gloucester and Cordelia do. But for my part I don’t think I can ever be reconciled to a world where—just to pick one horror—little girls can be raped and murdered. And all of us must, in the end, lose everything to time and death. There is only so much that wealth and power can do to protect us from these “strange mutations.” Technocratic dreams of mankind’s self-salvation will come to little in the end, even if we avoid doing the extremity of violence to ourselves and our natures.

St. Paul said “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” There is a corollary to that: if Christ is risen, it is rather those who do not follow him who are most miserable. The tragedy of Lear shows us what the world without the Resurrection really is, and therefore assists our celebration of it.

Sunday Night Journal — April 16, 2006

St. Edith Stein 7: What Only Remains

I’ve ended my Lenten reading of St. Edith Stein with a novena to her which I found at the web site for the Association of Hebrew Catholics. The novena follows the saint’s last days, from the day she was taken from her convent until the day on which she was killed. There is so much that one thinks, and might say, about the significance of these events that I’m not going to say anything at all in this brief note, but will mention only one thing preserved from her conversation during her last days:

The world is made up of opposites, but in the end nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love.

That last phrase reminds me of a song by the very gifted singer and songwriter Patty Griffin, “One Big Love.” The song begins with an invitation to an impulsive trip to the beach, and seems to be about letting go of inessentials:

Trading in my things
for a couple of wings
on a little white dove
and one big love

That’s very obviously open to a Christian interpretation, although I would guess a generically and conventionally “spiritual but not religious” intention is more likely. But the song as a whole seems to have more to do with giving in to emotions than to anything outside the self.

“One big love” makes me think in turn of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” a more specifically religious song but one still seemingly wrapped up with the idea of surrendering to good feelings:

Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right

It’s one thing to be conscious of one great love in the midst of the pleasure of a day at the beach, or in the haze of a reggae-and-marijuana high. It’s quite another to maintain that consciousness on the way to one’s execution (and it’s clear that Edith Stein knew that she and her companions would not be returning from that trip to the East). If you can do that, you may well lay claim to an understanding of the Cross, and consider yourself somewhat qualified to write a book called The Science of the Cross, which Edith Stein was working on at her death.

I began my Lenten reading of the saint with the sense that her life and work have something important to say to me, and I have certainly found that to be true. I also think they are of particular importance to our time. This, as noted, is a very large subject, perhaps too large for me. For now I note only the way in which the death of this saint exhibits the full fury of Satanic hatred brought to bear against one who consciously embraced and united within herself the two phases of the revelation of God to Israel and to all mankind.

This also is the time to welcome into the Church my friend Dawn Eden who, like Edith Stein, is a Jew who believes that to be a Catholic is the fulfillment, not the negation, of her Judaism. Those who have followed Dawn’s story need no further comment; those who have not can read more at her blog, here and here.

St. Teresa Benedicta, Edith Stein, pray for me, for the Jewish people both inside and outside the Church, for the Church, and for the whole world.

Sunday Night Journal — April 9, 2006

St. Edith Stein 6

I treasure the Palm Sunday liturgy for the opportunity it gives me to demand that Jesus be crucified. (For any non-Catholics reading this, the traditional Palm Sunday liturgy involves a lengthy reading of the Passion narrative in which the congregation speaks the words of the mob.) Presumably we all like to think we would have stood by Our Lord when his own people as well as the Roman authorities were demanding his blood, but surely we flatter ourselves. No, much more fitting that we should put ourselves in the role of those who shouted “Crucify Him!” To speak these words as part of a reading of the entire story of the arrest and crucifixion is to discern in the hatred of the Jerusalem crowd the same detestation of the good which is spoken of in the book of Wisdom: “He was made to reprove our thoughts. He is grievous unto us even to behold.”

And it is to feel something familiar to us all, or at least to anyone who has ever reflected on the psychology of his own sin: the violent thrusting aside of that which is in the way of the wrong we have determined to do. One need not have committed murder or adultery to know it; it’s enough to recall the ecstatic moment in which we surrender to an outburst of rage, or crush the protest of conscience against malicious gossip.

There have been a few attempts in recent years to take this role in the Palm Sunday reading away from the congregation, I suppose because it’s too negative or something. That is at best misguided. We need reminders like this. To attempt to remove them from our lives is like attempting to keep a child from burning his fingers by anesthetizing them. To attempt to remove them from the practice of the Catholic faith is to make the faith itself superfluous and meaningless.

If I do not see in myself the same conscience-murdering impulse that drove the mob against Jesus, I become blind in the only way that really matters. The knowledge of my own wish for death is the only thing that gives me hope of life.

Against the grain of contemporary thought which wishes, either sentimentally or in reaction to excessive harshness in the past, to absolve of responsibility those who are unwilling to hear the word of God, St. Edith Stein has a perhaps alarming corrective:

Although we ought not to think it impossible that an unbeliever (meaning someone completely ignorant of God) could lack personal guilt and thereby be impervious to the image-language of Holy Scripture, we should not reject all human guilt….In most cases…the ‘unbeliever’ will share the responsibility for his blindness.

And, a little further:

In the case of someone who from mental lethargy and apathy or carelessness fails to gain any knowledge of God, his inability should rather be taken as punishment.

I hear the gates of Hell swing open here. The more the unbeliever refuses to hear, the more he becomes incapable of hearing. This is the mystery which I brought up several weeks ago in relation to Matthew 25:29 (“For unto everyone that hath shall be given…but from him that hath not shall be taken away…”): the culpability of one who fails to receive the truth which can be known but not proven. Although it is the practicing atheist who is referred to in this passage, the same process and the same judgment may be operative in the life of an ostensible believer. How can it be just that one should be damned for not knowing? But how can it be just that he be saved if he refuses to know?

When does ignorance become willful and culpable? The psychological movements which constitute such a decision on the part of a soul must be so subtle that we may well be thankful that we are forbidden to judge them in others, and have responsibility only for our own.

Sunday Night Journal — April 2, 2012

St. Edith Stein 5

“When a person lacking faith reads Holy Scripture—for example for the purposes of philology or religious studies—he does not come to know God. he only learns how God is conceived in the Bible and by those who accept the Bible in faith…”

Here is the story of what has gone wrong in the study—and, far worse, in the teaching—of scripture in our time. How many scholars does this describe, and how many of them are teaching in the name of the Church?

There is a place for philology and for objective methods in history, but they have become like so many other modern enterprises, very effective as to means but futile or harmful as to ends. One sees, over and over again, the turning of scripture against faith, with scholarship used not to explain but to explain away. Often a perverse sort of selective fundamentalism appears, in which one scripture passage is taken as an absolute and used to negate some teaching of the Church. How often is Micah 6:8 used to assert that God intends that we should have no specific and fixed doctrines? (“…what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”)

And how often is the later date assigned to John’s Gospel put forward as proof that its teaching is not that of Jesus but something invented after the fact by his followers, as if an idea could not have existed unless it was written down? Or, if necessary, the proof is turned around, so that the complexity of thought is held to prove the lateness of composition. This narrow-minded skepticism, which reaches the average Christian as a scientifically-sanctioned radical disjuncture between faith and fact, has had an incalculably corrosive effect on faith. More than a few times I’ve heard a parish priest say, in response to a question about the factuality of some incident in Scripture, that “it doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not,” leaving open—in fact inviting—the questioner to apply the same logic to everything else in Scripture.

Worse, when the “person lacking faith” is not a simple unbeliever exercising scientific detachment, but a former or perhaps just unhappy believer, the power denied to God and to the Church is assumed by the skeptic. Since he and his scholarly peers alone can determine which texts are authentic, they are the only authentic interpreters. Now what is learned is not even “how God is conceived in the Bible” and in faith, but what the scholar himself thinks; hence such aberrations as The Jesus Seminar and the arrogance of the title of Garry Wills’ new book, What Jesus Meant. And we are supposed to receive this state of affairs as a liberation.

I grew up taking the Bible for granted as the only source of religious authority, and as is often the case with things we take for granted I didn’t really see it, certainly not as a whole. I had to leave it aside for some years in order “to return to the place and know it as if for the first time,” to have the experience which Edith Stein describes here:

“…a word of Scripture may so touch me in my innermost being that in this word I feel God himself speaking to me and sense his presence. The book and the sacred writer…have vanished—God himself is speaking, and he is speaking to me.”

If we follow the skeptical scholars, this experience is closed to us, or at least is avoidable. Why would we want to avoid it? To spare ourselves pain. As often as not when God speaks to us through Scripture it is to offer us some challenge or correction. And it stings; it touches us at a sensitive place. A dentist can dig and probe my teeth with a wire hook and I will feel no great discomfort until he hits a weakened or decayed spot, and then I may try to jump out of the chair. When God probes those spots of decay in our souls he seems our enemy. This is at least part of the answer to the question posed by Walker Percy: “If the Good News is true, why is one not pleased to hear it?”