Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bastille Day

Yesterday was Bastille Day, a holiday that grows more bittersweet with each passing year.
I am, as far as that goes, a totally unreconstructed Catholic: I hate Reformation and Enlightenment alike; I am a Distributist.
Still for all this, I am not really a reactionary; I am not even a monarchist.
Nevertheless, we live in a reactionary age; and it is good for us to recognize this.
The sins and evils of our civilization have been piled up so high that they are now impossible to overlook or ignore. The politics of the present and near future will be largely or entirely premised on reactions to this present state of affairs, and its evils. For some, this will be a recipe for outrage, an endless reactionary anger that will search far and wide, through both the past and the future, for weapons to mock and destroy and undo--in this, there will be less and less difference between progressive and conservative reactionaries. For others, it will lead to despair, and all that comes with it, especially a blind and desperate willingness to submit and accept and surrender to anything or anyone that promises meaning or escape. For many, perhaps the majority, it will simply require better drugs, easier comforts, the first and vileest of which is arrogance, and the most human of which is perhaps irony.
These are not discrete categories; they will be difficult to tell apart, as indeed they already are. Trump channeled outrage, appealed to despair, and in practice gave entertainment: in this, he found a winning combination which the mavens of #theresistance are already employing for their own purposes. These are, I think, the basic elements of our future politics; and since American politics is consensus politics by necessity, they will rarely be found in their purity.
Still, these are all, in their essence, reactionary stances, and reactionary forms of politics. They are premised on the presence and unavoidability of unbearable evils. They are little more than the various poles of the Lost Cause.
There are grave dangers that come with reaction, though; and the greatest of all is the loss of any balanced, human perspective on reality, any real attempt to come to grips with the world as it is, and how one ought to live in it. The future, though, will belong, in the end, to those who can in fact do so; those who have some vision of the New Jerusalem on which to build, not those who can do no more than squabble in the ashes of Babylon.
But there is also a less grave, but still important, danger that comes with reaction; that we will do grave injustice to our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers: that we will lose all sight of, and all touch with, whatever good truly existed in our civilization.
Everyone these days is talking about liberalism--though usually under the aspect of that amorphous and unbearable status quo of neoliberalism, or the even more degraded and repulsive substitute of libertarianism. For libertarianism is simply liberalism without liberality--that is, without any of the genuine sympathy and humanity that made the ideologies of the Enlightenment even remotely bearable by human beings. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, is simply liberalism without liberty.
We have lost, as a civilization, any sense of what was once meant by liberty, as well as any idea as to why such a thing would ever be desirable. In this, those who defend liberalism commit the gravest injustices of all.
Those who defend liberalism today are generally engaged in defending technological power, technocratic knowledge and control, and universal moral indifference. The boons of freedom they defend generally boil down, at the end of the day, to their own individual ability to live in luxury, moral wantonness, and disregard for the sufferings of others.
Worshiping liberty in this sense is simply the worship of negation, if it is not simply the worship of the self.
This is not, of course, a new ideology in itself; indeed, in the trueest sense, it is as old as the Garden of Eden. Nor is it exactly new to our civilization, whose crimes and abominations of at its height are past recounting. In this, liberalism was all too often often nothing more than a convenient ideology of the powerful and the immoral: slave-owners and Imperialists and eugenicists and robber-barons.
But for all this, there was something else, too, that our civilization once possessed: something that made men fight and bleed and die and suffer to free slaves and build Republics and gain rights and welfare for the poor. This was not precisely liberalism, as we now understand it and speak about it; but it was, at its heart, a love of liberty. And is there anyone today who can even understand this liberty, let alone defend it?
Men of the past lived a life they saw as basically good and desirable; something worth aspiring to, and dying for. They lived in families and communities, with songs and traditions and histories and legends. They grew up, married, worked and ate their daily bread, prayed and worshiped, suffered and died. And in this life, they saw it as desirable that they be free from certain evils, from certain bonds, that made such a life impossible or unbearable. If men were subject to a King who recognized no rights save his own, who stole from and imprisoned his people and did violence to them, then they should be set free from him; if men were slaves, subject to beatings and violence and the breaking-up of their families and the iron laws of the market, they should be set free from this; if men were imprisoned in factories and company towns, paid starvation wages or else left to die in masses according to the whims of their employers, they should be set free from this, too. Perhaps, even, in a Republic such things would be less likely to happen; perhaps, in a Republic, the rights of all could be guarded, so that they could live well. In any event, Republic or no, there should be freedom.
As a perspective on life, this is lacking in many important ways; it is far too naturalistic for the Catholic Church and the supernatural goals and desires she brings with her. It too easily and quickly degenerates into a mere comfort and luxury, producing a disregard for the sufferings of all those who are despised or hated or safely out of sight. Then, too, all too often it trusts far too much in the goodness and decency of man, and the stability of human life in this world; it is easy for it to believe that it needs no help, no grace, and no penance for sins.
And, yes, too, there were certain arrogant, "enlightened philosophers" who supposedly argued for liberty and were inseparable from it--though oddly enough, most of these were fervent supporters of tyranny.
But when all was said and done, there is a reason why men fought and died and suffered for our civilization--because they loved their fellow men, and because they loved liberty. Not because they loved technocracy, or because they loved a libertarian ideology of the absolute validity of contracts, or because they loved their own absolute autonomy and power, or because they loved that ultimate moral indifference that allowed them to care nothing for the sorrows and sufferings of others. They died because they loved their homes and their families and their children and their nation; and because they wished these things to be free.
It is well that we should remember this.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Repentance

In the end, we will all be forced to face the truth. It is a terrible thing, but it can only be escaped for so long; and the longer we run, the harder we fight, the more we strive to flee from it it, the more terrible it will be when it finds us at last.
This is the only thing to ask for, the only thing for which we should pray: to repent, now; to have all our lies and illusions torn down, now; to learn, somehow, to live in the truth, now.
It is one thing to pity those who suffer in the truth--they will have their reward, if they do not taste it already. We should pity far more those who do not suffer in the truth, those who live in the secure solitude of their own lies and comforts, who will have, in the end, nothing save the fragile, falling walls of their own indifference. It is these for whom Christ wept in the garden. He wept for them, because they could not weep for themselves.
I have lived all this, have drained this cup to the brim, and I know its bitterness well.
I know also that there is one other thing for which we should pray: mercy. It is a terrible thing to face reality, a terrible thing to repent--as terrible as waking from a dream. This is why we must all pray, always, for ourselves and for one another, that God will be very gentle with us: that he will show us the truth with love, and help us to be able to bear it; that he will take us by the hand, and embrace us with tenderness, even as we stand face to face with the Cross. This he has done for me, a thousandfold; and I am grateful. May he do it for us all.
This is why we must all bear each other's burdens, love one another, intercede for one another, without any exception at all, before God; for in the last balance we are all the same. No matter our sins, no matter our virtues, we will all, in the end, be forced to face the full and terrible truth of who and what we are, and what we have done, to ourselves, to each other, and to God himself, suspended on the Cross of his love.
Let us pray, then, for repentance and mercy, for ourselves and each other and the world. There is no other hope.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Trusting God

We speak very often of trusting God, but all too often, as I know from bitter experience, this is nothing more than a facile collection of words. We "trust God" to give us what we desire; and when he does not, we feel our trust has been betrayed, or misplaced. This is the trust of the consumer, or, at best, the trust of the distant, distrustful child.
This is not the sort of trust God desires of us. Here, it is helpful to consider the root meaning of the word "trust," in all the languages I know (Greek, Latin, English): to entrust something to someone. In this sense, trust is not vague and sentimental; it is quite practical and concrete: I have entrusted this valuable thing to you, and in doing so, I have given up whatever power I might have over it. It is now in your control, rather than mine, and you have the power to do with it whatever you wish. Yet in giving it, I *trust* that you will preserve it, that you will do well by it and me; and most of all, I trust in the pledges you have offered me, that you will keep the promises you have made. I trust you to love me.
This is what God desires of us: that we should entrust every thing we possess, every thing we are, from the lowest to the highest, to him. In this, it is far from sufficient merely to entrust to God our highest and best thoughts and desires and ideas, the "religious" or "moral" or "successful" side of ourselves. Inn fact, as Christ on the Cross, God desires far more to receive our sins, our wounds, our sufferings, and our terrible humiliations, all our lack of control and understanding and dignity. Not only this, though--for do our lives in this world not consist just as much of innumerable tiny things--indifferent, trivial things--things hardly worthy of our own or other's considerations? Christ desires these as well.
In this life, we will have, necessarily, many desires. Most of them will be for good things; some of them, inevitably, will be disordered in some way. Much prayer, though by no means all, consists in the expression of our desires to God--and this is right and proper. Still, all too often, we pray, and ask, in way that is fundamentally without faith. We ask God to grant our desires, yet at the same time we keep our desires, our fears, our hopes, entirely under our own control and power--and in doing so, we center our prayer in ourselves. We do not truly entrust our desires to God: that is, put them under his power, give them to him in such a way that they become his rather than ours. And for good reason--for the alienation of the self from its own desires is a terrifying and painful thing. Yet if we do this, we will find, in all things, a peace that is denied those who trust in themselves.
Then, too, we will have sufferings, torments, pains, things that overwhelm and humiliate us. Often, we pray to ask God to take them away--and this, in itself, is right and good, as Christ prayed in the garden. Still, here, too, we pray very often without trust. We do not entrust our sufferings and pains to God, in such a way that they become his; that is, in such a way that he may choose not to take them away at once, that they might become in fact, a participation in the Cross of Christ, of infinite love for human beings and for God. Often, too, we are ashamed to entrust to God our own human weaknessess, our natural desires for health and happiness and peace. We feel they are a discredit to us; that we should be stronger, better, able to bear sufferings and humiliations with perfect composure and resignation; this is madness, since even Christ cried out on the Cross. All our human and natural weakness, all our desire for release and relief and escape from suffering, is Christ's as well--and we must give him what is his. Even what is most imperfect in us must become his, to do with as he pleases.
All of this is, and should be, absolutely terrifying--for it is the real and tangible giving of our deepest selves, of all in which we repose our confidence and from which we draw our sense of control and assurance, into the total power of another.
In this giving, though, we trust, quite rightly, in the love of God for each one of us. For we have two real and tangible pledges of this love from God, to which we can always turn. In the first place, there is the love of God present and manifest in our creation and preservation at each moment, in love; the love by which he entrusted to us, and continues to entrust to us, the great and terrible gift of existence, to do with as we please. In the second place, though, and far greater, is the eternal pledge of God's love made manifest in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ. If God loves us so much as to seek to give to us his very self, to entrust himself and his divinity to a weak human body and soul, and then to entrust that body and soul to Mary and Joseph and the sinful Apostles, and finally to Pilate and the priests and the soldiers and each and every one of us to torture and crucify and crown with thorns: then how can any of us fear to entrust ourselves to him? If this is not a love worthy of trust, there can be no such thing.
This is the challenge of the Christian life; to trust God, and in doing so, to entrust everything to him. It is not easy, by any means--but I speak from experience in saying it is far easier, and far more blessed, than any other path we can follow. For in this path, we will be led and guided by God himself--and in all others, we will be led and guided only, in the end, by ourselves: and God is far greater, and far kinder, than ourselves.
God be with you all.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thomas More



Today is the feast day of Thomas More, my confirmation saint.
Thomas More is perhaps one of the hardest saints to actually convey to modern Americans, both Protestant and Catholic. In his own day, in his own society, he was a legend even while alive--and in death, his name, smeared and blackened by all his triumphant enemies, lived on in honor, the lost promise of a better world. Yet the world he lived in and the world he worked for are alike foreign to those who live today.
For we live in the world that was built on his defeat--the world that could only exist if he were crushed out of existence, removed from the world. His lifeless body, and his head impaled on the Traitor's Gate, are alike fitting symbols of our civilization.
Thomas More lived during one of the turning points of Christian civilization. During his lifetime, the world of Christendom turned and turned and turned again, engulfed in massive and uncontrollable change. The printing press was spreading knowledge and lies alike like wildfire--unprecedentedly prosperous societies were beginning to see the perils and possibilities of that wealth--newly strong and centralized governments were testing their limits and their power--national feeling and loyalty was rising--religious fervor was reaching its height on the backs of a newly sophisticated and informed laity--discontent among the poor was becoming ever more real and dangerous. In this, Thomas More was very far from a reactionary, or even a conservative--he was one of those on the forefront of change, one of those who worked tirelessly to build a new, better future, unlike all that had come before. In himself, in his words and his writings and his deeds alike, he embodied one path forward, one solution to the ills and challenges of his age.
This was recognized by his peers, each in their own way: Erasmus frankly worshiped him, his family, his way of life, as the humanist's dream. Henry VIII saw his utility as an advisor and governor as plain as day, and made use of it for his own ends--and when the King turned from hero of humanism and Catholicism to its bitter persecutor, he saw just as plainly the danger of Thomas More as his enemy. Even after his death, the wily Emperor Charles V emphatically declared that he would rather have lost the third largest city in the Empire than give up such a giver of counsel. When the Catholic Bishops of England wished to respond in print to William Tyndale's raving pamphlets, they sought as their champion not a recognized religious scholar, a priest or monk or bishop, but this overburdened layman, statesman, and father. The common people of England revered him long after his death as a contradiction--the only honest statesman and judge, the friend of the poor and the oppressed. These examples could be easily multiplied.
But who was Thomas More, and what was the vision he embodied? Put simply, it was Christendom--Christendom one people, one nation, made up equally of Italians and Englishmen and French and Hungarians, and all others who confessed the name of Christ--it was an educated, pious laity, male and female, embodying in themselves the best of the monastic virtues, and bound by a thousand ties to one another and the institutional Church--it was the revival of scholarship and learning in all of Europe, a learning aimed at the cultivation of virtue as much as the increase of knowledge--it was justice for the poor, their defense against the rapacity of the powerful and the greed of the rich--it was a sense of humor, an earthy realism and dignity in marriage and children and celibacy alike, a richly embodied and human life in which the human and the divine lived together in close contact, with God always having the primacy. It was humanism--in the truest sense of the word.
Of course it failed--or rather, it was murdered, all across Europe, over many painful centuries. Thomas More saw the great disaster as it happened, with a burning clarity, and fought it with all his strength. He hated Protestantism with a fury greater than anyone in Europe at his time--for he saw in it, quite rightly, the seeds of ultimate betrayal and defeat of everything in which he believed, everything for which he had lived and fought. The breaking up of the one body of Christendom into warring nations and tribes and races and factions, divided by religious adherence and private judgment and tribal loyalty--the plunging of the life of the laity into a chaos of divided loyalties and private interpretations, void of the monastic virtues and all asceticism save that of ambition--the breaking of the precious link between knowledge and virtue and faith, the triumph of mere technical skill, of the boorish, prideful scholar unbound by any loyalty save to himself, defining life and cosmos and bringing forth wars and schisms based on his own private gloss on Romans--the successful revolution of the rich over the poor, the victory of endless rapacity over settled life, and the gradual destruction of every institution and every refuge of the weak--the triumph of self-seriousness and dull self-importance, the plunging of humanity into the hellish wasteland left by the reinforcing terrors of Puritan dread of the body and hedonist indulgence of it, the breaking of the fragile bond uniting the human and the divine. All this he saw with painful clarity--and he saw truly.
Of course, he lost the battle--lost it totally, without hope of recovery. In the end, he was hounded to his death by all the people and institutions in which he had seen the seeds of a better tomorrow--butchered like a criminal by the people and the King he had served so well and so faithfully.
When he died, few people, if any, really understood this death--for on the face of it, he died merely for a strict adherence to the doctrine of Papal primacy. When Thomas More died, the people of England, from the top on down, were still fervently Catholic--indeed, they were among the most pious in Europe, all but immune to the charms of Protestantism; and they would remain so for decades to come. Still, it is likely that few, if any, of these really understood why Thomas More had to die. After all, squabbles between Pope and King were among the basic stuff of Medieval life; people were used to the idea of the two falling out, and equally used to them coming back together in the end. They were realists, and the painful idealism of Thomas More must have seemed like inflexible madness, or at least pious stupidity.
In the end, though, they were far less happy than he. They bent their necks to a burdensome imposition by the government, expecting full well that all would soon return to normal--and instead had the agony of watching their religious and communal life mutilated, plundered, banned, and tortured for centuries.to come. They did not recognize the times in which they lived--they did not see what Thomas More had seen. For it, they suffered worse than almost any people in history have suffered.
Still, even for the humanists, the scholars and thinkers across Europe for whom Thomas More had been a hero and a model, his death was not widely understood. Worse, it was incongruous. He was Thomas More, the humorous, ironic jester and reformer--a man of his world and of his day, a statesman and a lawyer and an impeccable writer of Ciceronian Latin. He was no saint, and no martyr--far from it. His death as part of a petty squabble over a royal annulment was at best a meaningless accident, at worst an unforgivable embarrassment.
Still, these humanists too would live to see the death of their dreams--and what they did not know of Thomas More was much more important than what they did know. They did not see the hairshirt hidden beneath his rich robes--they did not see him, late at night in his chapel alone, scourging himself with a rope for the sins of the world--or down on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, for as long as any woman in his neighborhood remained in labor, not rising until the child was born. They did not know the burning flame of faith in the Cross that defined the deepest, most intimate part of his existence. It was this--his trust in the the failure and shame and torment of God in the flesh--and not any faith in the future, or learning, or society, that inspired his deeds.
So in the end, Thomas More went to the scaffold merrily, joking with his guards and the executioner, full of joy as always at the humble dwelling of God with man. He died, in every earthly sense, a failure--yet he died full of confidence and peace.
This confidence was not in the victory of his cause on earth--far from it. It was a confidence precisely in defeat, in failure, in ultimate loss in the face of history. It was this that made him free, and those who killed him pitiable slaves.
His God was the Crucified Christ--theirs some passing idol of this world. Thus, he was happy until the end, victorious even in defeat and death. He is happy still.
Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Silence: An Exercise in Film Criticism and Cultural Jeremiad



Note: Every possible kind of spoiler exists herein. Proceed at your own risk.

The elusive, controversial American Catholic filmmaker Martin Scorcese spent roughly thirty years trying to adapt Silence, a novel by the equally elusive and controversial Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. After momentous efforts and many false starts, the film was finally released last year, to general bemusement and a box office take of roughly 16 million (on a 40 million budget). The film’s distributors, perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, promoted the film very little, and released it only in a heavily limited number of theaters for a very short run. The film was ignored by all major cinematic awards, garnering no Golden Globe nominations and only one Academy Award nomination (for best cinematography), which it did not win. Although it had its vociferous defenders, including most top film critics, it also garnered its share of controversy and vicious criticism, from a number of very different sources. For all intents and purposes, the film sank like a stone, leaving few ripples in its wake.

Still, I saw it, and I also followed the buzz surrounding the film fairly closely; and I found both the film and the responses it provoked almost equally fascinating. I read the novel the film is based on a number of years ago, and, as with Scorsese it has stayed with me ever since; and this in turn inspired me to read a moderate amount about the historical situations that inspired the novel, as well as other works of its author, Shusaku Endo. I also come at both film and novel from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who studies intellectual history academically and also (while by no means being an expert) reads a great deal of Catholic theology, present and (mostly) past. All this has given me, I think, a perspective on film and book different from the average American. It is my basic contention, then, that the film, being what it is, has a great deal to tell us about the perspectives and basic orientations of the people who watched it. And this in turn has a great deal to tell us about the current state of our society.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Attack of William Shatner, A Vulcan Televangelist, and Christopher Plummer With An Eyepatch; or, Farewell to TOS

The year was 1989, and Star Trek: the Next Generation was finishing its second dismal season.  The new spinoff, born of the unprecedented success of Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home (aka "the one with the whales") three years before, was now foundering in deep waters.  The new cast, crew, and setting, hampered by behind-the-scenes stress and Gene Roddenberry's titanic ego, had resoundingly failed to catch on with the general public, even as Trek fans continued to watch and wince.  In the summer of 1989, these loyal fans were dealt their worst blow yet: for positioned in the coveted season finale slot, the culmination of two years worth of storytelling, was Shades of Gray, a budget-saving clip-show in which an unconscious Riker is forced by an alien parasite to relive scenes from the first two seasons of The Next Generation.  Star Trek had officially hit rock bottom.

For watchers both devoted and cynical, there was, really, only one conclusion to be drawn: the attempt to recreate the success of the original Star Trek from the ground up, without the original cast and crew, was clearly a failure.

On the other hand, fans and critics alike were no doubt delighted to learn that, for all the failure and misery of Star Trek on television, Star Trek the film franchise was poised to continue.  The original cast and crew, beloved icons of American popular culture, with nearly a half-century of unprecedented success behind them, were once again poised to storm American cineplexes.  On June 9th, 1989, while the TNG creative team were desperately bailing water out of their sinking ship and trying to find someone--anyone--to steer it, the time-tested cast and creative team of the Star Trek film franchise launched proudly out of the harbor, headed for glory once again.

And promptly sank like a stone.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Brief History of Church-State Relations Over the Last Two Thousand Years

This is a (relatively) brief outline of Church-State relations, mostly just the big phases and conflicts, focusing on the West and on the Papacy, from my own perspective, based on my own reading, and for my own purposes:
The birth of Christianity coincides almost perfectly with the divinization of the Roman Emperor. By means of the new Imperial cult, the Emperor was treated as divine or quasi-divine, and the cult of his sacred person and authority quickly became one of the basic cores of Roman and Imperial identity. The Roman Empire, as embodied by the quasi-divine Emperor, was, by this understanding, absolutely sovereign, and not capable of being challenged from the standpoint of divinity, since it was itself, in a very real sense, divine--it also had, naturally, absolute power over religious matters, funding cults and temples and regulating them for its own purposes. Even prior to the Empire, of course, civic and religious life were generally indistinguishable, with political and religious offices and authority going together in most cases.
Christians in the first centuries, though, had a complex relationship with this Imperial ideology. On the one hand, they consistently refused to pay the Emperor divine (or even pseudo-divine) honors, which was one of the primary reasons why they were persecuted. On the other hand, Christians labored to present themselves as good citizens, loyal to the Empire and especially to the Emperor himself--and they sometimes even appealed to the Emperor for internal dispute resolutions, or for aid against local persecution (most persecutions of Christians were local rather than Imperial). As the Church expanded, though, it took on more and more the status of a "society within a society," even an "Empire within an Empire"--the Church as a highly organized institution, shadowing the Roman Empire in all its major cities, participating in its intellectual life and utilizing its infrastructure, but with its own authorities totally separate from, and frequently opposed to, the general public authorities and ideologies. A bishop was a public figure, to be sure, but he was not a civic one--and he represented, in his person, a set of ideas radically different from those animating the state at large. He and the Imperial governor were not likely to get along.