Monday, May 16, 2016

On Needlessly Problematizing Our Situation

Are we orphans? In the Gospel for the Vigil of Pentecost (EF), Jesus assured us He would not leave us so: “I will not leave you orphans: I will come to you.” By His Spirit He will lead us, the Church, into the fullness of truth.

But if this is not to be a mere pious platitude, it must actually mean something, namely, that the Spirit really does bless the Church with gifts at each stage of her pilgrimage. These gifts, moreover, are cumulative: their effects linger in time even as they echo in eternity. Each age inherits the gifts of the saints who have gone before (and, regrettably, suffers from the crimes and vices of the sinners who have also gone before). We do not honor the Holy Spirit or our Lord Jesus Christ if we consider any age to be so different, so great, so new, so chaotic, that it must start afresh, cut the ropes that bind it to the past, reject or push away the gifts of tradition, in a bid to “modernize,” which is to say, to make orphans or strangers of ourselves within our own household. Indeed, such an approach is the only one that could not possibly be a gift of the Holy Spirit.

One day while I was driving around, I was listening to NPR on the radio, and heard them play a clip of the rock band that happened to be performing before the start of a papal Mass in Mexico. The incident seemed to me to speak volumes as to where we are in general. Here was a visit of the Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, heir of the fisherman, about to offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the supreme act of worship on the face of the earth, the font and apex of our entire Christian life, the axis on which the cosmos revolves until the Day of Judgment. It is the most awesome thing that ever happens or could ever happen — “the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating, and awesome mysteries of Christ,” as our Eastern brethren ecstatically exclaim. And… it was being introduced by a rock concert, which was probably not a whole lot different from the music (weep, o Muses, at the abuse of your sweet name!) performed at the Mass itself. This kind of surreal contradiction, this towering absurdism, is so typical of our age that it almost ceases to attract notice.

Among some highly educated Catholics today, particularly those who study liberal arts and Great Books and therefore spend a lot of their time pondering the past, I have noticed a strange phenomenon, a sort of tormented or self-doubting relationship with tradition, as if they admire it and feel a longing to recover it, while at the same time fearing it is quite impossible to have this tradition any more. They will tell you at one moment how beautiful and how fraught with meaning are certain customs, prayers, or liturgies, and in the next moment will shake their heads about “those misguided people who want to bring all this back, when the Church is doing something different now” — as if the maintenance of laudable tradition always amounted to “turning back the clock,” which, as Charles Taylor assures us, is impossible.

So, in spite of the healthy wound of beauty and the sting of nostalgia that, on behalf of God, beckons us into the wide open spaces of Christian tradition, we end up feeling trapped in the shell of our late modern garbage. We try to console ourselves with the cold comfort of knowing that, even if what we’ve got is second-rate, at least it’s our own. Somehow this is supposed to be reassuring, and somehow it will guard against the temptation of escapism or elitism.

I submit, however, that this attitude is a manifestation of discouragement, which, as St. Thérèse teaches, is a form of pride. While it looks like humility to say we are stuck with our second-best and should not aspire to greatness, the attitude sharply contrasts with the true humility of an artisan who says: “This old chair is lovely. I’m going to copy it as well as I can.” Is there a rule written down somewhere that a great artist should not begin by copying the work of his predecessors? On the contrary, as anyone who studies art history realizes, that is exactly how all great artists have begun: as humble apprentices, learning, absorbing, imitating, drinking deeply from the fountain of the past.

Neither, of course, is there any rule that says we cannot believe, say, and do what our forefathers believed, said, and did. In fact, we would be fools to act otherwise. Our Catholicism would become somewhat like the sun of Heraclitus, which dies each day so that a new one can be born the next morning.

In reality, there is either continuity with our tradition, which guarantees abundant fruit, or there is rupture and severance from it, which brings exponentially compounding problems. So much that has taken place in the past half-century has diluted, distorted, divided, or otherwise needlessly complicated Catholicism by pretending it must change, catch up, try on new garb, shut out the past, and say goodbye to dogmatic certainties. The neo-Catholic perspective abandons us to groping confusion, within which our faith can offer us only mantras of kindness, mutual aid, and generic religiosity.

Such sins against truth and tradition yield the wages of death — death to liturgy and prayer, death to priestly and religious vocations, death to missionary work, death to marriage and family, death to education, death to a culture of beauty. Life, the vitality of the Church in her own nature, will come from our humble embrace of truth and tradition, or it will never come at all.

Reflecting on all of this, I have to wonder where the phenomenon of proudly clinging to our modern mediocrity comes from. Why do otherwise intelligent people needlessly problematize the situation of the Church and of the Catholic in the modern world, wringing their hands at insoluble problems, feeling tempted to rush along with fads and fashions, and resisting the still, small voice that calls them back to the potent treasury of the ages?

One cannot help wondering if this habit of inventing problems or excuses is not an unconscious or semi-conscious defense against taking the single sane action available, namely, immersing oneself deeply and humbly in Catholic tradition — in all those practices, customs, rituals, prayers, arts, and sciences that were handed down from century to century prior to the revolution at the time of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. Perhaps there is fear, anxiety, an unwillingness to break free from certain assumptions, comforts, alliances, or mythologies. Perhaps there have been bad experiences with traditionalists who are shell-shocked and radiate glumness instead of joy.

Whatever the case may be, let us pray and work, breaking through and breaking down this ennervating tendency to problematize what is obviously good, holy, noble, and sublime, rather than surrendering to it and embracing it wholeheartedly. It is understandable that the devil would do all he can to thwart this conversion. For in each and every soul that undergoes it, tradition lives again in our midst, and brings new life to a world out of date.

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