Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mea Culpa

Listening to bizarre Christian folk-punk bands like mewithoutYou and the Psalters generally puts me in a brooding, elaborately conscientious mood, and this evening has proven no exception. (The Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles is a fascinating album, by the way; I am seriously contemplating polluting myself with a MySpace account just so I can buy the rest of it.) In conjunction with the account of Christ's temptation in the desert, it has me thinking on the topic of spiritual evil.

Francis George, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, remarked a few years ago, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history." It has widely (and, according to His Eminence, mistakenly) been interpreted as a reference to the HHS mandate, and specifically to its contraceptive provisions. Regardless of context, it is an eloquent overstatement (and was meant to be), and more or less went viral among Catholics, especially the fervent younger generation that, according to the media, has abandoned religion -- though, in my confessedly limited experience, it's becoming increasingly difficult to swing a cat without hitting half a dozen rosary-wielding, scapular-wearing, encyclical-quoting papists who have yet to clear their twenties.

And what does the Cardinal's mot have to do with spiritual evil? In itself, nothing. But there is something in the tone of the Young Papists that disquiets me when I hear them (okay, us) quote that -- a certain relish, bordering on enthusiasm. It would seem to be something distantly akin to the desire for martyrdom, something known to lunatics, saints, and lunatic saints. But the number of saints who have actively desired martyrdom doesn't seem terribly high, and many of those who did desire it were refused it: St. Francis is an outstanding example. St. Peter, on the other hand, though he accepted the cross, judged himself unworthy of it; and St. Thomas More, one of my favorite martyrs, did every morally licit thing in his power to avoid a death for which he had no desire at all. The tone of the Young Papists, on the other hand, has another element in it -- something that makes me think of this morning's gospel:

And the devil brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: for it is written, 'He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.'" And Jesus answering said unto him, "It is said, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.'" -- Luke 4.9-12

I don't mean that we Young Papists are Satan, although it may be worth bearing in mind that the first Vade Retro was addressed to the first Pope.* But the significance of this temptation is the same as the danger that can animate the desire for martyrdom, literal or figurative: the craving for a remarkable display of one's holiness -- for the good of others, of course; and as a proof that our faith is as strong as we claim. Tolkien hit the nail on the head when, explaining a theme that recurs through all of his works about Middle-Earth, he wrote to a friend, "[T]his frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others -- speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans".

I actually agree with the generally conservative sentiment that Christianity is on the defensive in this country, and that it will likely be so increasingly over the next few decades; though it must be said that that is an educated guess, not a prophecy, and God has a way of confounding the philosopher and the scribe. (It should be, but isn't, unnecessary to add that I still don't countenance the hysterical paranoia that, sometimes quite prosaically, attempts to equate our political-religious situation with the persecutions under the Nazis.) But that makes me more concerned about spiritual corruption rather than less. We are accustomed to thinking of the early Church as being incomparably pure and virtuous because of the persecutions, and I dare say they were rather more impressive than ourselves, spiritually speaking; but an attentive perusal of the New Testament and the primitive documents of the faith will reveal that they too had their share of half-hearted camp followers, superstitionists, freelance syncretists, jealous backbiters, self-anointed apostles, intransigent fanatics, and just plain fools. And persecution, while it can purify, can also destroy; I shall be bold to say that there have been many Christians, holy in their own way, who would not have had the nerve required if they had had to live, and perhaps die, under a persecuting state.

Moreover, if we do suppose that we are approaching an era of implicit -- or even explicit -- persecution, and relish the thought, whom exactly are we congratulating? God, who (perhaps) found our stubbornness in sin so incurable that He was forced to resort to a persecution to knock some sense into us? Ourselves, who, if we did not court persecution, cannot exactly claim credit for it; or if we did, have thus provoked a terrible sin in others?

And there is one of the questions that is rarely considered. When persecutions do come, we are specially warned in the Beatitudes to pray for those who persecute us. For, if we are unjustly persecuted, then those who persecute are sinning against us. (And if it isn't unjust, then persecution is perhaps not the word we are looking for: a man I knew remarked that Jesus said those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed, but said nothing about people who are persecuted because they're jerks.) Dorothy Day, reflecting on the pacifist convictions and practice of the Catholic Worker Movement, addressed the question with stinging insight:

"On the other hand, to continue examining these subtleties: What about this business of letting the other fellow get away with things? Isn't there something awfully smug about such piety -- building up your own sanctimoniousness at the expense of the increased guilt of someone else? This turning the other cheek, this inviting someone else to be a potential thief or murderer, in order that we may grow in grace -- how obnoxious. In that case, I believe I'd rather be the striker than the meek one struck. No, somehow we must be saved together." -- Loaves and Fishes, p. 61

I can attest that there is definitely something smug about such piety. I was recently startled in a conversation with a few friends of mine by how self-righteous and disdainful I was being, merely on the grounds of the ideas that I held -- and I've barely done anything with those ideas except talk about them! Pride's roots go deep, deep down into the unlit and dripping places of the heart; it takes a hot and a persistent fire to scorch them out.

I don't think of this post as an accusation; certainly I haven't got anyone in particular in mind; or, to be more accurate, I am attempting to practice humility by remembering that the people I do have in mind do not necessarily suffer from the vice I'm talking about merely because I think they do, and/or dislike them. I prefer to think of this as a call to examination of conscience. Whether persecution is on the horizon, or beyond the horizon, or not, purity of heart is always worth having, and a pure heart is the fruit of (among other things) an examined life.

*The Vade Retro is a prayer against devils, beginning with the line "Get thee behind me, Satan" from Matt. 16.23.

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