Thursday, August 17, 2017

Testimonies, doors, buildings

Part 7, and the wrap up. 

One more testimony you must give, which might seem pusillanimous too, is that Christianity does supersede Judaism after all. It must, to have any real meaning. As in the Christmas carol, if there is a way to be good, and happy, and free of the errors of your time, and pardoned of sin and even yes immortal in your body, it is because he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. But this won’t make much sense unless you begin with the background of a (most extravagant) God who has loved and had a teaching plan for humanity for all time, slowly selecting one patriarch, family, tribe, and nation, to lay the vital ground work. Without the groundwork, Jesus is just another holy man from a certain place and time. There would be no reason why a Christ might not come from ancient Luoyang. But if he came from one nation, whose rituals and studies are fine but insular, whose moral laws are excellent but lead on to no daily mystic comfort and no personal promise except a sort of group satisfaction at the end of time, then it makes sense that his gigantic life must burst out of that nation, and supersede it. That is painful. We are back to the God who breaks promises – or to precious recastings of bewildered prophets. But if not, then Christ was not whom the apostles and martyrs knew. Truth has to matter. And it has to be somewhere, yes in a building.

We come to the act of re-opening the door. Having decided it’s pusillanimous not to acknowledge that the Gospels built your world, besieged by the Gospels’ enemies, I don’t know how to explain walking through a door at all except to say that sitting at home intellectually assenting seems not enough. It’s always personal. As for the choice of door, I was never a seeker in a vague way. Pageantry and ritual beckon, as do the familiarities of childhood. (Once or twice I watched the Mass for Shut-ins, partly to forestall explanations to people. It is just as I remember. And it is much like Jewish services, too, in the ineluctable presence of middle aged, musical women. They do everything, especially sing. “What have we done for the homeless?” they warbled carefully one Saturday. I wanted to shout at the tv. What have you done about Islam?)

But which door, and why? It’s almost as if cradle Catholics have a choice of Catholic doors. That must startle the potential convert and I am glad I’m not one. If I had started from nothing and plunged into my style of unabridged-books, natural-fabric research, I might have been in for some very intense and unsatisfying years. Because you see you can go to YouTube and find anything.

There are priests who regard our Vatican II, fifty years on, as the disaster from which only God can save us. They argue well. Try meeting the late Father Gregory Hesse, or the then-young Fathers Donald Sanborn and William Jenkins, discussing indefectibility and magisterium on old serious talk shows uploaded from a television station in Ohio in the 1980s. “The Novus Ordo is an anti-Mass – everything stripped in it, reversed – you’ve never heard of the Ottaviani intervention because the revolutionaries did not want you to.”* There have cropped up in the last fifty years alphabet-soup traditionalist Catholic societies, SSPX, FSSP, in communion with Rome or possibly not, scattered around the world conducting Latin Masses without lay help or crashing jamboree music. Father Sanborn is now a bishop – of what church, by whose authority? – Father Jenkins still has an actor’s voice, not golden or silver but maybe bronze, and an actor’s looks.

I listen and learn a little. If I were truly a convert I might worry. Which Catholic church? I might worry about joining people who consider themselves the saving remnant, and are in Ohio besides. I would balk at having to hunt out the occasional Latin Mass in grand old churches in bad old neighborhoods, curiously also where one finds old courthouses and hospitals, other relics of order in a different time. And yet I would also want the truth and I would probably be busy consulting old jettisoned books, diving down the rabbit hole of authenticity.

It must have to do with one’s overdrugged vision, drained of color, but none of that for me. I’m back at the church that is available to me, in the parish where I live, because at this strange time in history one wants to have chosen sides honestly but mostly it’s a relief to accept a birthright, and anonymity in it. The jamboree music will surely pass.

In the Catholic Church, alphabet soup sects and all, one pursues the most outlandishly courageous and heroic attack at life, at one’s allotment of it on this speck in the cosmos, that could ever be. From creation to apocalypse to every book and every saint and to every extravagant notion (pick one), God as bread in every church, personal immortality, and so on – there can be no structure more crazily designed for our profit. The soul feels its worth.

But I pause over the seekers, the converts. I was going to write a short story about a middle-aged woman, maybe diagnosed with something bad, who has all these jumbled thoughts in her head but still wants to sign up for what is true. I was going to call it “You Boys Will Never Get This Figured Out in My Lifetime.” It’s a rude title, I wish you wouldn’t make me write it.

And that's how the summer intern essay ended. Of course, bless her heart, there is no way she got this far.

*Letter to Pope Paul VI written by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani,, in June 1969, accompanying a study outlining objections to the Novus Ordo or New Mass. "The faithful never, absolutely never, asked for changes in the liturgy to make the Mass easier to understand."   

Thursday, August 3, 2017


The summer intern essay, part 6.

He teaches a ferocious morality, laws pared down to a perfect core. Child, your sins are forgiven, but mind the details. Not just murder but anger is wrong. Not just adultery but looking is wrong. Love your enemies. Forgive since you are forgiven. Be perfect. The combination of moral ferocity and forgiveness from another quarter – himself – must mean an eternal protection from the insane new rules of any era. The state or your neighbor or professor is not your master.

He is shrewd. No it would not make sense for him to drive out demons by the power of Satan, for why would Satan drive out himself? If then he drove them out by the spirit of God, then yes the kingdom of God is upon you (Matt. 12). Spooky scenes ring true. The only people who recognize him even as he approaches are those “possessed by demons.” I don’t understand this, but it makes sense that evil knows its enemy and must testify. They answer him as evil would. “What is your name?” “Legion.” 

 Investigating for the first time in decades the Gospels’ teaching stories cannot be the end of it. After them comes Passion and Resurrection. I don’t quite understand the logical jumps from moral teachings to: Child your sins are forgiven to: crucifixion equating to: future pardon if you believe all the foregoing: circularly, forever – a perpetual motion machine? – but the Resurrection also brings with it eyewitness avowals. The old proofs never change. Why would eyewitnesses to a dead man risen, go on later to their own executions affirming a sad lie? And the affirming and the testifying go on and on, century upon century, echoes of the big bang. Even if you timidly insist on the “Resurrection story,” it still built the West. It codified all the teaching and mercy and spookiness that made the soul feel its worth, as “know thyself” and even Sh’ma Yisrael did not. 

You may have thought it noble and truthful to wait to say I told you so at the end of time, to continue to live in the civilization that Christ and his Christians built. “This really wasn’t ever sound – what an unfair turn – but I’ll accept it as background.” But I came to think that’s kind of pusillanimous.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...