Monday, August 26, 2019

Learning from the French Foreign Legion and the Story of Victor

In an article this past May, I suggested that the advice of an MIT professor on the need for a “new habit of mind” for modern Westerners fits surprisingly well with the habit of mind inculcated by participation in the traditional Latin liturgy.

Another article, of October 2018, looked at how the Marines recruit new members, and compared it with how the Church recruits seminarians. The Eastern Orthodox and the SSPX imitate the Marines’ appeal to challenge and radical self-donation, while the mainstream Catholics offer milquetoast vocational videos that would cause most straight young men with an ounce of idealism to wince.

I would like to offer another analogy from secular culture — this time, a video on the French Foreign Legion. The full video may be found here, but I am most interested in the closing 2-minute segment, which has been excerpted for this article. The clip concerns the crucial importance of time-honored rituals, “carved in stone” as it were, for maintaining the cohesion and integrity of the Legion. The ritual we see here is the receipt of the soldiers’ pay in their coveted kepis, which they drag with them all the way out to Afghanistan, for no other purpose but to carry out this ritual:

The commanding officer explains how such rituals bind Legionnaires together from all around the world. The minutely-prescribed choreography of the Legion’s rituals constitute a sort of common language, which they can all relate to, no matter what the member’s country of origin. (Sadly, the video cuts out just before the officer finishes his remarks.)

As I watched this, I was struck by the obvious parallel with the function of Latin in the traditional Mass, the value of the precise rubrics lovingly observed and cherished, and the ineffable importance of the full pleroma of accompanying rites and ceremonies and sacramentals. It isn’t just the meaning of the language or the “intellectual content.” It is the whole action as something to be performed, a thousand times always the same, and so deeply satisfying every time — a fixed star in the chaotic night of combat, to which eyes from all nations can turn. Doubtless, if Church officials had not stopped thinking of the Church on earth as the “Church Militant,” they would no sooner have abandoned her immemorial rituals and traditions than the French Foreign Legion would consider dropping its cherished customs.

When success really matters — as in, say, life-and-death situations — you stick with what has proven its worth. You do not change the slightest symbol. You don’t act like the Knights of Columbus, now completely altering their uniforms in an aggiornamento that has the membership divided. Those who love their identity love also the signs by which it is proclaimed, the rituals by which it is cemented.

The Knights of Columbus: their internal "Novus Ordo" moment

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A friend sent me a video about Victor, a young man who grew up Russian Orthodox but converted to the Catholic Faith and was eventually ordained a priest. The video is in German, but those who don’t speak the language can still follow the beautiful videography and get a sense of what’s happening:

Victor’s first step was recognizing that the Catholic Church taught the truth and that he had to become Catholic. But when he saw the Novus Ordo liturgy he was confused by its worldliness, especially in contrast to the Orthodox liturgies he had known before. He was, in fact, utterly perplexed: how can the Church that teaches the truth worship in a manner so totally at odds with her doctrine? He might have remained frozen in this no man’s land had he not found the traditional Latin Mass through the SSPX.

Victor left his family and his fatherland to go to the seminary at Zaitzkofen in Germany. He was ordained according to the rite that developed without interruption from the time of the Apostles. In other words, he encountered a perfect unity between doctrine and symbol, idea and expression, truth and ritual.

How many other Victors are there who are kept from conversion, or from priesthood or religious life, or from a coherent and mature Catholicism, because of the jarring divorce of realities so obviously meant to be wedded and, in their wedlock, fruitful? “What God hath joined together, let no pope put asunder.”

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