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Blithely browsing my Facebook feed, I came across astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s 8 books every intelligent person should read. I’m always interested to read these kinds of lists. I always presume knowledge and expertise, as well as good will, on the part of the book selector. Boy did I bomb out on this one.
Here is the first item on the list:
1.) The Bible (eBook) – “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”
Seriously? That’s the only reason to read the Bible? Any book list that begins with such a potshot at the Bible is an automatic and complete FAIL. It’s such an ignorant, dishonest, and arrogant statement that I can not possibly let it slide.
First of all, if the Bible’s adherents were so eager to be told what to think and believe, then why did they resist the Romans (and other powers before them) to the point of enduring torture, death, and all out genocide? They could have easily saved their skins and their way of life by just offering incense to the State Gods to appease their oppressors. They didn’t. Why is that?
Secondly, the Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky saying “Here, this is how you have to think and act and believe. Do it or die.” Rather, the Bible–not one book, but a diverse collection of books–came about over centuries and centuries, growing up from the thoughts, insights, religious beliefs, life experiences, and aspirations of a people. The Bible was a result, not a dictator.
It’s a full, rich body of literature, comprising everything from historical chronicles to songs, apocalyptic literature to erotic poetry. It’s full of profound wisdom, brutal honesty, a magnificent comprehension of human nature, and glorious artistry. And if the human writers, and we who have followed, have believed that their inspirations came from God, then fine–respect it and assume that they and we are sincere in that belief, even if you personally don’t believe it.
But whatever you do, if you care about being regarded as intelligent, don’t hold up a book you obviously don’t know or understand and misrepresent it to make yourself look superior.
Any true striving for knowledge requires humility and liberal-mindedness–they are required, not optional. Tyson betrays his lack of both, right from the beginning. And I bet there are lots of people who will gladly take his word for it. Hopefully there are also people who will take his recommendation and find out for themselves the true value of reading the Bible, be they a detached scholar or a religious believer.
Tyson concludes by saying: “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”
Come now, sir, for that to be true, the list should have included at least one classic work from the Greeks, Romans, or Medievals. Machiavelli and Sun Tsu are the best you can offer? Western Civilization is neither impressed nor amused, Mr. Tyson.
I am reading Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s masterpiece, Transformation in Christ. I am currently reading the chapter on “True Simplicity.” If there is one thing I can always use more of, it is simplicity!
Von Hildebrand writes on this topic at length, for there are many (erroneous) ways to define “simplicity.” If we consider his own life during the time he was writing this book, we would scarcely consider it a simple life; he was being chased down by the Nazis, fleeing for life itself. And yet one would never guess that if one were reading this book without knowledge of that context. The text is radiant with clarity, with calm and very detailed analyses of many topics, as if the author were completely at leisure, at peace, and in comfort.Von Hildebrand was obviously writing from personal experience, from his own transformative relationship with Christ. That is one of the things that makes this book so great.
Below are some brief excerpts that I found helpful in thinking about how I can better live my life and weather life’s many storms. I already know that I need to keep things in proper perspective and keep God as my focus and my highest priority. I was reflecting just yesterday that one source of many of my life’s problems is that I get fixated on people or on things, worrying and fretting over them, trying to exert some sort of control and order of my own. That always results in life becoming all askew and frustrating. Life can’t be otherwise whenever we leave God out of it.
And so, Von Hildebrand says:
The more our life is permeated by God, the simpler it becomes. This simplicity is defined by the inward unity which our life assumes because we no longer seek for any but one end: God. … One supreme point of view governs our entire life and in subordination to that point of view all else is judged and settled. It is the principle of conduct enjoined by these words of the Lord: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).
If we consider all things in conspectu Dei, every genuine good finds its right place in the cosmic order and discloses its specific value more splendidly than if we attend to it in arbitrary isolation, merely for its own sake. … We only take true account of a genuine good if we see it in the place where it properly stands in the thought of God. Nor do we fully honor or love a created good of genuine value unless we honor and love God more than that good.
I am especially struck by that last sentence: “Nor do we fully honor or love a created good of genuine value unless we honor and love God more than that good.” It makes perfect sense, of course. True charity is to love God above all things, and to love others for love of God. When we regard other people as fellow children of God, when we see His image shining through them, do we not find that love naturally wells up in us in greater abundance? Do we not have much greater respect for created things when we remember Who created them? God is the source and fullness of all love and all being.
Sometimes, I just need to read or hear things put in a different way, I guess, and Von Hildebrand is one of those people who constantly sheds new light on things for me.
I have begun reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which you can read online via Google Books. It’s a wonderful telling of St. Joan’s story, beginning with her life in Domremy. Although not a Catholic, Mark Twain had a very deep and fond admiration for Joan and spent 12 years researching her story, reading all of the original transcripts of her trials and other sources. He considered it one of his own best and most important works.
Twain originally published the story anonymously so that readers would not have any preconceived notions about it or expect it to be similar to any of his other works. He wanted people to take this story seriously, and they did; the readers of the story when it was originally serialized believed that they were truly reading a contemporary man’s personal recollections of Joan, recently translated into modern English by a fictional translator named Jean Francois Alden.
The narrator is a childhood friend and faithful companion and confidant, Sieur Louis de Compte. Below is an excerpt that I found particularly beautiful, vivid, and haunting. Enjoy!
The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one reposing in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost in thought, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions—a robed form, with wings—and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of the lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one can look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, perceiving that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.
Another strange thing. The wood had been silent—smitten with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid; but now all the birds burst forth in song, and the joy, the rapture, the ecstasy of it was beyond belief; and was so eloquent and so moving, withal, that it was plain it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low and crossed her hands upon her breast.
She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.
The shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant habit was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.
Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her; and standing so, all drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen—but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant, and then clasped her hands and lifted them high, imploringly, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say:
“But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be comrade with men?—soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rude usage, and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?—I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it. . . . Yet—if it is commanded—”
Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God—and what might my punishment be? I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know.
I finally made it over to the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University to see their marvelous exhibition of some of the illuminated manuscripts that were taken from the Vatican to Toledo, Spain during Napoleon’s occupation of Rome.
What a blessing that these books–some of them from the early Middle Ages–were saved and preserved in all their original beauty and splendor! The details, the colors, and the gold leafing were so vivid, almost as if the books were brand new.
The artistry and imagination that went into them is truly mind-blowing. Part of the exhibition was a short film about how manuscripts were made–how animal skins were turned into vellum, how inks and quills were made and used, how the writing was done so neatly, how the books were bound and ornamented. I can’t even imagine doing such work by hand.
Among many other things, I got to see an early 15th-century Dominican breviary, made for a community of nuns. The illumination that was displayed included a little picture of St. Dominic handing books to some nuns.
If you are in or near Dallas, you really should visit the exhibition if you haven’t already! It runs through April 23. Click the banner for more info.
[Apologies in advance for any lack of coherence in this post. It’s big-time allergy season, and I’ve been rather head-swimmy lately.]
I am still reading Elisabeth Leseur’s diary; the copy I have is My Spirit Rejoices: the Diary of a Christian Soul in an Age of Unbelief, published by Sophia Institute Press in 1996.
Rarely has my soul felt such affinity with another as it does with Mme. Leseur! Sometimes, in reading her diary, I almost feel like I’m reading my own. It’s strange, but in reading her self-expressions, I find expression for myself also. I often feel that she has captured in words things that I wish I could capture in words.
But just as often, however, and perhaps more often, I realize that these words are the words of a far wiser, stronger, more mature soul than my own. They convict me of my own weakness. But never in a scolding way… more in an encouraging, exhorting way. She says to me, “You can overcome just as I have by the grace of God. You are not as weak as you think.”
Here are some excerpts I came across this morning. They are from her entries of December 1901 and February and March 1902:
It is a suffering from God, which I offer to Him, that among all the beloved friends surrounding me, I should have no one to whom I might open my heart in saying to him or her, “Look,” and who might understand and help me.
But perhaps to hear one’s ideas and beliefs perpetually criticized, to know them misunderstood, to have prejudice and ignorance against one, is to some extent to suffer persecution for justice’s sake.
A bad spell for more than a month: bodily fatigue, domestic troubles, and, worse than that, a kind of sadness and moral apathy, a lack of the fervor and inner joy that God has sometimes given me so abundantly. And yet not for one moment has my will ceased to belong to Him; duty has cost me dearly, but it has not ceased to be duty.
… Many things to reform: pride, the tendency to delay in getting to work, to let days slip away; to allow myself to be invaded by outward excitements. And yet I have an immense need of calm and of interior life. God alone knows what difficulty I sometimes have in overcoming certain physical and moral miseries in order to arrive at that complete possession of myself, at that Christian serenity that nothing can disturb.
I have a great task before me, and nothing human to help me fulfill it. Perhaps one day I shall have the great joy of seeing my faith, which is my whole life, understood and shared by those and by him whom I love so much. As it is, all that my soul holds of desires, fervor, and tenderness much remain enclosed within itself and poured out only before God. Whatever suffering this entails, I offer for the souls who are so dear to me. Nothing is lost, not one grief or one tear.
When I read these passages, I could feel and recognize and understand the sufferings Elisabeth must have been experiencing. That loneliness and isolation from others, that helplessness to reach them, and that malaise that tends to flood in as a result. The fact is that such difficulties are part of a Christian’s life. We are in the world, but not of it. Many of our loved ones, unfortunately, are perfectly content to be of the world.
Not long ago, I was trying to tell a dear loved one about difficulties I was having in my life, specifically about difficulties I was having in persevering in my faith. This was somebody who does not share my faith, but to whom I am very close otherwise. Somebody I deeply trust and can generally talk to about anything. But when it came to matters of faith, I felt like there was such a brick wall between us! I needed so badly to share my experiences with another person–but even the closest and dearest could not understand or empathize with me. It was like a sword through the heart!
Her response, which is only logical for someone who does not understand and share my faith, was simply: “If it is so difficult, then why don’t you give it up? Find some other way of living that will make you happy and put you at ease. Why waste your time and energy on something that doesn’t make you happy and that causes you so much pain?”
At the time I was utterly nonplussed in trying to respond to that. To explain why I couldn’t simply give up on my faith even if it wasn’t easy to live with at times.
An analogy crossed my mind: that of giving up on a spouse or close relative or dear friend when he or she became difficult to live with–even if the difficulty was fleeting. But then I realized that in our society, people seem pretty comfortable with doing just that! Summarily giving up on others when things stop being lovey-dovey and happy-clappy. Abandoning duty in favor of comfort. All you have to do is look at the ruined state of marriage and the family to see how such ideas have permeated our society. And if people are quick to give up on other people, then they are even quicker to give up on God and the faith!
I realized how vastly different were the worldviews of this dear person and myself. And in the end, all I could do was cry to God. Cry to Him and at the same time reaffirm my dedication to Him–my duty to Him.
Elisabeth often writes of duty. Duty to God, and on account of that duty to God, duty to other people and to society as a whole as well. Perhaps the most pervasive problem with our society is that it has lost all sense of duty.
Coincidentally (if there is such a thing as coincidence), this evening I was unwinding with some food and watching some anime. I’m in the middle of the series Samurai Champloo. And at one point, one of the characters utters this line:
When duty goes out of style, the world will be nothing but darkness.
I think it’s a very fitting summary for my above ramblings, and so I will end on that note. :)
I’ve begun reading Elisabeth Leseur‘s diary. What a humbling and inspiring treasure it is! I think she ought to be canonized, and I shall pray for as much! Here is part of her entry from 21 September 1899:
Let us go back to the holy source, to the Gospel, the word of God. Let us draw from it lessons of moral strength, heroic patience, tenderness for all creatures and for souls. Let us Christians be sure never to “break the bruised reed” nor to “quench the smoking flax.” That reed is perhaps the mournful suffering soul of a brother; and the humble flax extinguished by our icy breath may be some noble spirit that we could have restored and uplifted. Let us beware: nothing is so delicate and so sacred as the human soul, nothing is so quickly bruised. Let each one of our words and deeds contain a principle of life that, penetrating other spirits, will communicate light and strength and will reveal God to them.
There are no novel ideas here. Rather it is a beautiful, soul-stirring exposition of some of Christianity’s most fundamental ideas. Something so desperately needed in this modern age. I know I needed to read this. It’s so easy to stray even from the fundamentals of the faith.
Dear Elisabeth Leseur, pray for us!
One of my Lay Dominican sisters gave me this wonderful little bitty book called The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP. It’s basically a brief outline of his larger works on the spiritual life. I highly recommend it! I find it very easy to read and to understand, but also challenging and inspiring.
I thought I would share a couple of excerpts that have stood out to me and pertain to things I have been pondering lately.
Such are the inexhaustible riches of the spirit that they can be the property of all and yet satisfy the desires of each. Indeed, only then do we possess a truth completely when we teach it to others, when we make others share our contemplation; only then do we truly love a virtue when we wish others to love it also; only then do we wholly love God when we desire to make him loved by all. Give money away, or spend it, and it is no longer yours. But give God to others, and you possess Him more fully for yourself. (pg. 2)
I find this passage to be an excellent reminder of how important it is to evangelize. To not keep God and our faith hidden away, but to proclaim them joyfully, passionately, and unabashedly. I know how difficult it can be. Being an evangelist is not a popular thing in our society. We don’t want to offend anybody or hurt anybody’s feelings. We don’t want to be unpopular. But if we truly love and believe in our Lord and our faith–how can we hide it away and deny it? How does that make us better people? How does it serve our fellow man? How does it testify to the enlightenment and civility of our culture? How does it give God the honor He deserves?
I’m sorry if my love of God and Church upsets anybody–sorry not because it’s my problem, but because it’s such a shame that there is such immaturity and inability to live harmoniously in this pluralistic society of ours. Oddly enough, I manage to get by just fine, without throwing any hissy fits, whenever I find myself bombarded by the evangelization efforts of the many different belief systems that exist in this country. I’m cool with it. I may argue against some of the ideas, but I have no problem with people expressing them. I expect the same courtesy in return.
But whether I get that courtesy or not, I must evangelize. Not only because I’m a Dominican with a special charism of preaching and the motto about sharing with others the fruit of my contemplation. No, I must evangelize above all because I love God and the faith, because they enrich my entire life and being, and because I have no right not to share them freely with others. We mustn’t hoard nor waste these riches of the spirit. We must share them generously and gratuitously, just as God shares Himself with us. It is the duty of every Catholic, no matter what their state or walk of life.
Here’s another excerpt, from the introduction of the book:
… [We] are apt to forget that the most sublime and most vital truths are precisely elementary truths, deeply studied, prayerfully considered and made the object of supernatural contemplation.
[The footnote here reads:] The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, which we shall quote often in thesepages, is a case in point. Read at the age of twenty or twenty-five, it may fail to bring home the doctrine which it expounds, seeming, as it does, to emphasize only elementary truths and making little appeal to the sensibility and the imagination. But when it is read at a later age, and with a maturer judgment, it is seen that the elementary truths which it contains are expounded in a manner which is very profound and sublime, and at the same time with great sobriety. (pg. x-xi)
This struck me in the context of a discussion I had with my theologian friend, Mark Armitage, about what theology is all about and what it really means to be a theologian. (Mark shares some thoughts on the topic here and here.) I was complaining that today people think that all there is to being a theologian is earning a degree from a school, and that theology is just another academic discipline. All too often, these paper-based theologians are quick to dismiss all previous theologians–including the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, and all the many canonized theologians–because we know so much more now than they did then. Which I guess you would think if you only regard theology as an academic thing. But what of the intense spiritual lives of those Saint-theologians? What about the prayer, the devotion, the meditation, the contemplation, the discipline and obedience, the striving for Truth and personal sanctity? What about these sources of knowledge and understanding? If the aim of theology is knowledge of God, how can theology be merely academic? How can one be a true theologian without a strong interior life?
Mark shared with me Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s distinction between “theology on the knees” and “theology at the desk.” I think that is a great way of summarizing the difference between many of today’s theologians and those whom they dismiss. This dismissive attitude also has to do with the academic milieu, in which careers are built upon novelty and innovation. And it has to do with the general “hermeneutic of rupture” we find almost everywhere these days–it’s simply fashionable to break with the past and with tradition. Whereas we used to think it good to stand on the shoulders of giants, today it is considered better to slay the giants and be some sort of rebel hero.
Getting back to that little excerpt from Father G-L, I think he makes the point that in order to really grasp the truths of God and our faith, we have to be willing to dwell upon them, to patiently ponder them, and to pray over them, to ask for supernatural guidance and understanding. We must not look upon even the most elementary truths with arrogance–we must never imagine that we have already exhausted them, or that they are boring and out-dated, or that we are too sophisticated for them. To do so indicates intellectual and spiritual immaturity, and we will never arrive at those “most sublime and most vital truths.” Instead, we will go running around with sledgehammers, tearing down those truths in desperate search of the Next Big Thing… which, in reality, will usually be merely the latest re-hashing of some very ancient error.
Instead of going broader in our pursuit of Truth, we need to go deeper. And we do that by living out our faith and growing more intimate in our relationship with God. Theology is not just something to study, it is something to live out.
I honestly haven’t been up to writing on religion. So here is a fun excerpt from Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian! Captain Jack Aubrey has come to fetch Dr. Stephen Maturin for a fancy soirée at the commandant’s place.
“Must I put on silk stockings?”
“Certainly you must put on silk stockings. And do show a leg, my dear chap: we shall be late without you spread a little more canvas.”
“You are always in such hurry,” said Stephen peevishly, groping among his possessions. A Montpellier snake glided out with a dry rustling sound and traversed the room in a series of extraordinarily elegant curves, its head held up some eighteen inches above the ground.
“Oh, oh, oh,” cried Jack, leaping on to a chair. “A snake!”
“Will these do?” Asked Stephen. “They have a hole in them.”
“Is it poisonous?”
“Extremely so. I dare say it will attack you, directly. I have very little doubt of it. Was I to put the silk stockings over my worsted stockings, sure the hole would not show: but then, I should stifle with heat. Do not you find it uncommonly hot?”
“Oh, it must be two fathoms long. Tell me, is it really poisonous? On your oath now?”
“If you thrust your hand down its throat as far as its back teeth you may meet a little venom; but not otherwise. Malpolon monspessulanus is a very innocent serpent. I think of carrying a dozen aboard, for the rats–ah, if only I had more time, and if it were not for this foolish, illiberal persecution of reptiles… What a pitiful figure you do cut upon that chair, to be sure. Barney, Barney, buck or doe, Has kept me out of Channel Row,” he sang to the serpent; and, deaf as an adder though it was, it looked happily into his face while he carried it away.
Oh, Dr. Maturin! He is not a person I would want to make peevish! He does like to torment Capt. Aubrey at times. But he’s got a softer side. As we see, he loves animals… and they love him. (I just love the image of the snake looking happily into his face!) And he does have a true fondness for, and patience with Aubrey, even when Aubrey sticks his foot in his mouth, does something stupid, or gets into trouble… which happens pretty frequently.
As I’m learning from the 2nd book in the series, Post Captain, Maturin has a surprisingly soft side for ladies too! He makes efforts to spruce up his appearance and everything! Unfortunately, so far, the ladies often regard him much as Aubrey does: as a good friend and a trustworthy confidant. Poor Maturin!
Can you tell who my favorite character is?
I do love Aubrey too. He can be rather a clueless ass at times… but he knows, and regrets, that he can be a clueless ass. And well, it’s hard not to love Aubrey. He can be dead serious… and he can also crack you up. He’s a very open, honest person, nearly incapable of lying or being intentionally mean to anybody.
The characters are definitely one of the greatest things about this series.
It’s time for a literary/fun post.
First, as I’ve mentioned before, my friend Julie has been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin on her podcast, Forgotten Classics. She has completed the novel, and you can find every episode here. I talked before about how human, how moving, and how engrossing the story is. I am nearing the end of it, and I’ve only become more engrossed in it. We’re now at Simon LeGree’s plantation, which is hell on earth. We’re witnessing what happens to human beings when they are pushed to the farthest brinks of despair, steeped in evil and injustice, seemingly forsaken even by God. In particular, we will see what happens to Uncle Tom, whose powerful faith has been relentless and seen him through so much loss and tragedy already. What will happen to him now? Will his soul too be crushed and his faith be in vain? It is not looking good at all.
Anyway, I highly, highly, highly recommend that you listen in over at Forgotten Classics. Or read the book. It remains a very important and relevant book today. For my part, it is inspiring me to make a greater stand against what I consider today’s greatest injustice–and a legal one, as we know: abortion. I wish Harriet Beecher Stowe could tell us what she thinks about that. I also wish I could write half as compellingly and as boldly as she did against the injustices of society.
For my fun reading (whenever I get a chance), I have at long last taken the many, many recommendations and exhortations I have received to begin Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, beginning with Master and Commander. I resisted for a long time. I thought, “Really, now, how entertaining can a nautical story be?” And, as I found out from page 1, the answer is: “Pretty darn entertaining!”
I am almost finished with M&C, and I have to say that I still don’t get a lot of the nautical stuff–although seeing the excellent film version did help bring the setting to life. Even so, the characters, the dialogue, and O’Brian’s masterful command of the English language have been more than enough to keep me turning those pages! Central, of course, is the unlikely friendship between Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. These guys are about as different as can be, save their mutual love of listening to and playing music. But as I’ve found out in my own life, such unlikely friendships can often be the strongest and truest.
Somebody on YouTube called “swisskun” made some cute little cartoons that provide a loose summary of the novel. Emphasis on “loose.” I think they do a pretty good job of capturing the “spirit” of the story, particularly the characters and the humor. Here are the first two parts. The first is a bit fuzzy, but you get the point. The second uses some of the great music from the film.
There is a third part, as well as some miscellaneous little “Jack and Stephen” vignettes, which you can find here.
A kind reader and correspondent of mine, Mark at Joe versus the Volcano, has encouraged me to read the work of the great 19th-20th century Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP. I’ve slowly and gradually begun to read his The Three Ages of the Interior Life, which is available online.
Well, actually, I’ve only just begun reading the introduction–but have already have found lots to think about! Below is an excerpt from the 2nd section of the intro, called: “The Question of the One Thing Necessary at the Present Time.” (The “one thing necessary”–a phrase Christ uses with Martha and Mary in Luke 10:42–is the interior life, which Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says “consists in hearing the word of God and living by it”; “the life of the soul with God”).
The “present time” for Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange when he was writing this work was the late 1930s. As we know, Europe was approaching what was to be a horrific catastrophe. However, as I read, I kept thinking to myself, “My goodness, this could have been written this morning!”
This section caught my attention by its talk of “the seriousness of life.” I’m a pretty serious person. I think one thing that defines a mature adult human being is a certain awareness and observance of the gravitas of life–and certainly the gravitas of religion and the spiritual life. I would consider being serious a virtue. Of course, I’ve also been accused of being a dour, joyless, uptight, crotchety hag. I’m not sure when that became the definition of “serious.” Is it really so awful to ponder what is most important and deserving of devotion?
Without further ado, here is Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, with some reflections of mine interspersed.
Without God, the seriousness of life gets out of focus. If religion is no longer a grave matter but something to smile at, then the serious element in life must be sought elsewhere. Some place it, or pretend to place it, in science or in social activity; they devote themselves religiously to the search for scientific truth or to the establishment of justice between classes or peoples. After a while they are forced to perceive that they have ended in fearful disorder and that the relations between individuals and nations become more and more difficult, if not impossible. As St. Augustine and St. Thomas have said, it is evident that the same material goods, as opposed to those of the spirit, cannot at one and the same time belong integrally to several persons. The same house, the same land, cannot simultaneously belong wholly to several men, nor the same territory to several nations. As a result, interests conflict when man feverishly makes these lesser goods his last end.
I think of the modern Church as I’ve found it so often today: entertaining liturgy, no reverence at all, no talk of the Cross of Christ nor of the need for us to carry our own crosses, no talk of sin and repentance, no Confession lines, no whole-hearted devotion. Replacing all of that tends to be so-called “social justice” activism that is divorced in some way (or in many ways) from Catholic moral teaching and obedience to the Church Magisterium–most often at the expense of unborn children… because what are they going to do, fight back?
I think also of the dreadful insistence on “tolerance” which actually means, “Hey, Catholic Church, you have to tolerate me no matter what I say or do or think or believe or how I define ‘Catholic,’ and if you don’t then I get to scream at you for being a bunch of backward, intolerant bigots. I mean, how dare you stand up for absolute truth and for your own sense of identity! And if you even think the word ‘excommunication,’ you’ll only prove yourselves to be medieval fossils.”
Related to the insistence on tolerance are the insistence on relativism and an indifferentism that favors just about everything and everybody except the Church.
The Church is discriminated against in the name of non-discrimination. The Church is wronged in the name of justice. And it’s done most often by people within the Church–it is what they have chosen as their serious mission in place of a serious Catholic faith. Like the material things Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange mentions, the Church as a human, earthly institution, cannot belong to more than one group of persons at the same time. It either belongs to Catholics, or it belongs to non-Catholics (even if they call themselves Catholics). Until it belongs either to one or the other, interior strife and chaos run rampant. There is nothing but division.
It is very ironic that dissenters scoff at the notion of the “institutional Church” (for them, a code phrase for the real, faithful, orthodox Church they despise). In reality, they are seeking to steal the institution for themselves, to ensconce themselves as the institution, as the face and the voice of the Church on earth. To once and for all have their definition of “Catholic” win out and be universally accepted. “God? Bishops? Ordained priests? Pious laypeople? Who needs them? We are church. [sic] Like it or leave.”
One often feels that they have very nearly succeeded today. “Oh, yes, there are still a few people who blubber over crucifixion, obey the pope, consider abortion the greatest evil ever, hate sex, think only men can be priests, and pray the Rosary. But they’re just crazy extremists. Pay them no mind.”
St. Augustine, on the other hand, insists on the fact that the same spiritual goods can belong simultaneously and integrally to all and to each individual in particular. Without doing harm to another, we can fully possess the same truth, the same virtue, the same God. This is why our Lord says to us: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Failure to hearken to this lesson, is to work at one’s destruction and to verify once more the words of the Psalmist: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.”
True unity, true justice, true tolerance can only exist where there are shared spiritual goods. In contrast to the false tolerance mentioned above, the Church embraces a true tolerance based on shared beliefs and absolute truth. There is a genuine diversity within the Church. In addition to the various liturgical traditions, there are individual people of all races, nationalities, ages, states in life, political viewpoints, socio-economic status, sexual orientation. What binds us together as one Church is our belief in and devotion to “the same truth, the same virtue, the same God.” What unifies us is our common goal of worshiping, knowing, loving, and serving God and seeking the kingdom of God.
This common ground is built into the Catholic Church via Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the Magisterium, and of course the Holy Spirit’s rule and the discipline of infallibility He exerts over our human leaders where the faith and morals of the Church are concerned. When this spiritual common ground is abandoned and Catholicism is put up for grabs and torn to shreds like a piece of meat by various contenders… when the spiritual common ground ceases to be the most important, most serious part… then we get the chaos described above.
We conclude logically that religion can give an efficacious and truly realistic answer to the great modern problems only if it is a religion that is profoundly lived, not simply a superficial and cheap religion made up of some vocal prayers and some ceremonies in which religious art has more place than true piety. As a matter of fact, no religion that is profoundly lived is without an interior life, without that intimate and frequent conversation which we have not only with ourselves but with God.
What comes to mind here is the sometimes hotly-debated notion of “active participation” in the Mass by the laity. Some claim that the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite by its nature engenders active participation, as opposed to the Extraordinary Form, which by its nature stifles active participation. This claim is only true if “active participation” means exterior actions, such as speaking words and singing songs and shaking hands with your pew-mates. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is saying that such exterior actions by themselves are meaningless, “superficial and cheap.” They do not by themselves constitute “a religion profoundly lived.” They may or may not be an indication of a religion profoundly lived. What constitutes a religion profoundly lived is the interior life.
In my experience, both forms of the Latin Rite can inspire, foster, and deepen the interior life. Both forms can also stifle it. The difference lies not so much in the liturgies themselves. The difference lies chiefly within each and every one of us. How willing are we to dedicate ourselves body and soul, exteriorly and interiorly, to worshiping God? That is, how serious are we about worshiping God? If we worship half-heartedly, lazily, and without seriousness, which liturgy is used at the Mass isn’t going to matter one bit!
This is what it comes down to, dear ones: It comes down to each of us asking ourselves questions. How seriously do I myself take practicing the Catholic faith? How seriously do I take God? How seriously do I take the Mass? How seriously do I take orthodoxy? How seriously do I take the institution of the Church? How seriously do I take the tradition that has been handed down by the Holy Spirit through men? How seriously do I take unity with my fellow Catholics?
We all take things seriously. Our souls are driven by meaning, purpose, and importance. We either take the truly important things seriously (which I think happens only when we take a serious attitude toward life in general), or we take lesser and even foolish things seriously. Such as flawed notions of tolerance, for example.
Let’s get serious and make the right choices.