Christian Life/Personal Holiness: November 2002 Archives

What Does Matter?


In the spiritual life it is important to remember that failures are as important, or perhaps even more important, than successes. To know when we will be tempted, and when we will most certainly fall, is a great strength because it gives us the opportunity to resist the near occasion of sin. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection said of failure that it did not dismay him, but allowed him the opportunity for greater prayer because he could look to heaven and say "It is ever thus when I stray from you."

Spiritual "successes", on the other hand, can be a nearly certain road to derailment of spiritual life for those not well-inured and practiced in it. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross warn about the temptation of seeking consolations in prayer. In seeking, you become attached to locutions, visions, or sweetnesses offered by the Lord, and your attention is distracted from Him. Your focus is no longer pure and true, it is diluted with another pleasure.

The most central pivot of our spiritual lives lies in this: Our entire joy is in the Lord. Everything that is done is done for love of Him. Without this pivot the lever with which we would move the world is merely a stick we use to beat it into submission. There is no loss so great as the loss of our spiritual center. There is no wandering so lonely as wandering away from Christ, for even though He is always with us, we lose sight of Him in a fog of our own making.

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The Conscience of America


After our initial surprise/joy fades, we would do well to remember that we are the conscience of America. While we elect our politicians with the hope that they will do at least some part of what they have promised us, politics is the art of compromise without looking like you're compromising. Most politicians don't seem to start with well-formed consciences anyway (I point to Ms. Granholm as an example; she might in all sincerity cling to her barbaric and ruthless beliefs, but surely that should be a signal that something is malformed in the conscience.) Many of our supposedly Catholic politicians and leaders seem to have little or no conscience or deep understanding of what the Church teaches and what it means. I was shocked when even Antonin Scalia--a supposedly well-informed, faithful Catholic announced his particular brand of cafeteria Catholicism (if it doesn't look traditional enough to me, I'll reject it.)

We must serve as the consciences of these men and women. Voting is the beginning of communication, but it becomes more and more imperative to continue to keep those lines of communication open. We must communicate and pray. The window is open for a very brief period. Everyone seems focused on things other than the issues most of us voted on. It is time to temporarily redirect their attentions to these issues and to get at least some minor relief in place for the unborn. We cannot rely upon the politicians to remember everything they have told us--the pressures of political life are such that it is nearly impossible. And so through our prayers and our letters, we need to remind them.

A suggestion--get a Mass Card from your favorite Church, Cathedral, or Society, and send it to your representative and/or Senator with a note that indicates that you are praying for them daily. Let them know that part of the electorate (a larger part than will be represented by Mass Cards) is truly Christian and truly concerned about both what is going on in Washington and the people themselves. Politics must be a lonely, ruthless, unpleasant business. People do not seem to be particularly happy--but then addicts generally are not. Most politicians are addicts to the power they have received. Sending them a note that encourages them and lets them know that we are thinking about them in something other than wholly negative terms will be a boost. More, it will keep the issues we are concerned with in their minds.

I suggest a Mass Card because it is something within our tradition that both supports our institutions and offers real help for those to whom we give them. But if it seems inappropriate--if your representative is Jewish or Christian of some other variety, buy a specifically religious greeting card that without apology invokes the name of God and send it. Send several in the course of the year. Let our representatives know from whence come our marching orders.

Perhaps we have too long been asleep. Perhaps it is time to be less apologetic (in both senses of the word) about our faith and more demonstrative of it. The best argument against an Evangelical or Fundamentalist who is seeking to convert Catholics is a life of exemplary faith. Even the most Evangelical or Fundamentalist among us would be hard-pressed to say something bad about Mother Teresa. We, that is all of us Christians, are the light of the world, and sometimes I think we've grown very used to the bushel basket secular society asks us to remain within. Now it is time to break out and to express ourselves not in political terms, but in overtly religious terms. The most important part of this expression is to let the person with whom we communicate know that they are loved, prayed for, and cared for by the God who loves us all. We must function as the well-formed conscience of the nation--we must not simply sit back and complain or make commentary, we must pray, pray, pray and let those in Washington know we are praying. Such an outpouring of prayer will certainly call down the Holy Spirit to convict a few who need conviction and to give courage to a few who need to move forward with the torch.

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Literature as Evangelism


I have thought about this a long time. I have thought about it since the time that Gerard Manley Hopkins convinced me that Catholicism was the way to go. I don't recall precisely how it happened. What I remember is reading Hopkins in a Seminar on Victorian Poetry (taught by one of my most enthusiastic professors). Somehow a discussion evolved, or I read in an introduction to Hopkins that he believed in something called "The Real Presence." Now, I had slim to no notion of what this was, but the notion attracted me, and if the idea gave rise to the glorious poetry I was reading, then perhaps there was some validity to it, perhaps it warranted further investigation. Thus, through the work of Hopkins, and C.S. Lewis, I found my way back to the church of my youth (Southern Baptist), and from there to the Catholic Church.

Dubay makes a powerful argument in favor of beauty as evidence of God in the universe (The Evidential Power of Beauty) and the Holy Father is convinced that Artists, and by that I am certain that he means Artists in the broadest sense of the word, have a great deal to contribute both to the support of the faithful and to the evangelization of the unbeliever.

What then must be the essential ingredients of any work that might help people come to God. First and foremost, I would think, integrity--a grass-roots, at-the-bottom, fundamental commitment to telling the truth as you see it, even if that truth seems to run counter to God. For example, though Wallace Stevens spent much of his life as a professed Atheist, I think much of his poetry deals with the question of the existence of God, and by stating his case honestly, one sees hidden within the poetry the opposite case as well. Some have argued that "Sunday Morning" is the great atheistic paean. And yet the poetry is, as one would say, "Christ-Haunted." One gets the impression that "methinks the artist dost protest too much." That he struggles mightily to make his point only to fall back on ambiguity and uncertainty that ring with a certain theistic tone. The "Disillusionment at 10 O'Clock" appears to be about aesthetics (another obsession of Stevens's) but it can be read to being about the drabness of the world without the Divine Imagination. So truth will out if one is as honest as he or she could possibly be.

The second quality is accessibility. Geoffrey Hill may convert a PoMo, but the man on the street will take one look and answer with "Say what?" T.S. Eliot, in "Ash Wednesday", "Preludes", and "Prufrock" gives us a certain kind of accessibility and encouragement. Hopkins too, though he is quite difficult. Accessibility means the invitation to dine, not spoon-feeding. There must be something at the surface of the poem that is fundamentally attractive and which encourages the prospective convert to read the work. But the surface must not exhaust the purpose of the poem. It can't be a sing-songy rhyme that tells about how lovely are the daffodils and tulips scattered by the saint around the feet of God. A poem like that can work, but most often it becomes a Helen Steiner Rice catalog item.

The third quality is that the work must be literature. It must be much better written than the vast majority of the novels that are being issued from the Catholic Novel Mill. I take a glance and see that the work of Bud McFarlane has actually been given at least one and perhaps two awards for Catholic Writing and I am appalled. Perhaps if the award was for piety in print I would have less objection, but McFarlane's work needs work. The sentences are as sloppy as most of what I publish on this blog. When writing a blog, a certain amount of that is allowable, but when executing a novel it is an unforgivable sin. Catholic and Christian work needs to be judged by the same standards that are applied when one looks at any work of literature. If the work does not rise to that standard, it should be neither awarded nor exalted. There is no reason that a Catholic Writer cannot consistently produce the work of say a Ron Hansen or a Jon Hassler (at a minimum) or a Flannery O'Connor, Shusaku Endo, Graham Greene, or best of all an Evelyn Waugh. We no longer truly encourage writers of this sort. We award our awards to those who can be most "Catholic" or most overtly religious--not a good way to decide any artistic merit.

This is a start at thinking about what might go into poetry as evangelism. And in this impulse, it might be possible to reignite the epic impulse that too long has lain dead. Chesterton did write both "Lepanto" and "Ballad of the White Horse." I am not particularly fond of these as poetry--a trifle overcontrolled and stuffy (Chesterton's best work is by no means his poetry. On the other hand, Belloc had some truly wonderful light verse and some really fine poetry as well.) The Epic impulse requires a single eye, an unfragmented vision. And the only way that is available in the modern world is through a denial of the modernist/postmodernist influence through a solid base in the truth of Christianity.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from November 2002.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: October 2002 is the previous archive.

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