LOTH? LOL!

Note to Ferde: I messed up the Liturgy of the Hours this morning. You know how I was trying to explain to you the order of readings on Saturday morning? Fuggedaboutit! This navigator’s lost! Take the wheel, take the wheel! After posting on today’s second reading, I realized at Mass that it is not today’s second reading.

Father Barnes, in his homily, said that in a way he is sorry when, already on the first Monday of Advent, the Advent readings are interrupted by a feast day. Readings interrupted? Feast day? Something in me woke up, a part of me that apparently had remained in bed when my body went vertical at 3:30 a.m. I had to drive my daughter to the airport at 5 a.m., but not before making a cup of tea and reading the Office, and then posting a brilliant meditation on a pastoral letter of St. Charles Borromeo.

Father Barnes noted how much he loves the Advent readings, and then made a nice segue into St. Andrew—whose heart was open to the appearance of Christ by the Sea of Galilee, just as Simeon’s heart was open to the arrival of the baby Jesus in the temple, just as our hearts can be open too at Advent.

I hustled back to the Liturgy after Mass to find I had overlooked not one but two readings for the feast of St. Andrew, Apostle. I’m sure Ferde has found them already.

I can save that post on St. Charles for next year, when the feast of St. Andrew will not fall on the first Monday in Advent. Meanwhile, I think I have discovered a great new publishing opportunity: The Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies.

Because Advent Has Never Been Better

I remember the feeling last year: my first Advent as a Catholic! What a thrill that was, to experience the anticipation, joy, and depth of meaning fully for the first time in my life. This year? With apologies to B.B. King, the thrill is definitely not gone. I picked up today’s Office of Readings and found a reading that just couldn’t possibly have been there last year! How could I have missed this?

From a pastoral letter by Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awatired by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. 

The story of Simeon has always touched something deep in me. I think I knew it even as a child and it gave me a shiver then. He’s happy to die! Now that he has seen the Lord, he’s happy to die. 

This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. 

How I celebrate Advent is really important. In recent years, I had become something of a Scrooge. The period between Thanksgiving (all that food) and Christmas (all that shopping) had become more stressful than I could bear. Last year, its meaning was completely transformed: I am a Catholic now. It’s time to be vigilant! Emmanuel is coming!

In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the sees of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Get a load of that one long sentence. Imagine that every promise in that sentence is precisely, literally true! To be welcomed into the innermost recesses of heaven? To be trained in right conduct? To be a child of God? I want in! 

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

Christ is born today! Isn’t that what the carol says? Have you ever considered that these words are not a fragment of dialogue from 2,000 years ago but a statement of fact? 

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace. 

This is the best explanation of the Second Coming I have ever heard. I mean, I’m willing to believe that Christ will come again as in a sort of Cecil B. DeMille epic in the full splendor of IMAX some day. But I’ve never marked the date on a calendar, and I’m not moving to Waco or some remote mountaintop to wait for Him. Too busy today, sorry. But to remove all obstacles to his presence so that he may dwell spiritually in our hearts? I’ll do my best.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament. 

We are all Simeon! And the words of the prophet Isaiah, also from today’s Office, were written expressly for us:

     In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
     shall be established as the highest mountain
     and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
     many peoples shall come and say:

“Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, 
     to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, 
     and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
     and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
     and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
     nor shall they train for war again.

That last statement—no more sword-raising, no more war colleges—suggests that the time might not quite be at hand, that I’d best not mark my calendar “Second Coming Today.” Better far to “remove all obstacles to His presence.”

YIMC Book Clubbers Update!

The honored roll of charter members of the YIM Catholic Book Club has been expanded to eight names by imperial fiat. There’s still time to put your name on the list. No entry fee, no obeisance is required. Just send a comment on either of the first two posts: this one or this one.
(Signed) His Excellency 

The YIMCBC Roll of Honor
Mary
Kneeling Catholic
EPG
Goodalice19
Mujerlatina
Mike
Frank the Jarhead
& Your Ob’d’t S’v’t

To Shout “Happy New Year!” on November 29

Today is our New Year’s Day, or at least it’s mine. I was a lector at last night’s Vigil Mass. I picked up my missal and noted: Year C! We’ve entered a new cycle. I entered Year A as an RCIA student at the end of 2007, Year B as a Catholic at Advent 2008—I am now completing my three-year course in Catholic liturgy! First of many, I hope.

Then a few minutes later, Father Barnes lighted the first Advent candle, and my heart chirped. I remember the Advent candles from my early years in the Episcopal Church. Other than Christmas and Easter, the Sundays of Advent were the time when I always felt that I was coming back to Church, coming back to God and Jesus. Ah, yes, this is what it’s all about!

The rest of the year was, frankly, a blur. I went with my parents to church every Sunday, served as an acolyte every other Sunday or so (loved doing so with Dr. Harold Bassage), and took communion once a month. But otherwise? We didn’t mark the beginning of Lent by going to church or smearing ashes on our forehead. We gave up nothing for Lent and didn’t attend Good Friday services either. There were no saints’ days to observe, no references to Vietnamese martyrs with unprounceable names or wild women of the 12th century like Hildegard of Bingen.

I was made vaguely aware by odd old terms like Whitsuntide that there was a religious way of marking the year without using January, February, or December. But nothing in Sunday school or our family’s religious culture enforced this awareness. We were living a stripped-down Protestant life: go to Church on Sunday and work/play your fanny off the rest of the week. Keep your Day-Timer up to date, and don’t miss Church on Christmas!

Then I became a Catholic, and every day was someone’s feast. (First thought: Doesn’t that make fasting impossible?) I read Kristin Lavransdatter, where time is marked not by the months but by the liturgical calendar: “A week after the feast of St. Olaf, Kristin and her father—” I found it the most beautiful book, as have several friends. I began reading the Catechism seriously. (Confession: I read Kreeft’s Cliff Notes in RCIA.) I began teaching religious ed to fourth-graders and realized how little I know about the liturgical year, about this extraordinarily rich tradition that is now mine.

Becoming a Catholic is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. The greatest. Every day at Mass now, I have something to celebrate, and every time I pick up the Liturgy of the Hours to recite something so simple as a psalm, the clock in my heart goes tick.

Because Chesterton Could Write Such a Poem

As you contemplate the Catholic Church’s position on war—while reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton—consider what might have moved Chesterton to write “Lepanto.” My friend Frank, a retired Marine, alerted me to the poem. The illustration is Fernando Bertelli’s The Sea Battle of Lepanto, 1572. Frank notes: “At Lepanto a combined Christian force crushed the Ottoman navy. This painting occupies a prominent position at one end of the Hall of Maps, in the Vatican Museums, Rome.” Frank adds: “There were marines on those ships. Jack Aubrey would be proud (not to mention our Catholic friend Stephen Maturin).”

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,–
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces–four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still–hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael’s on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,–
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed–
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

YIMC Book Clubbers Alert!

All you would-be reading Catholics! It’s time to rally ’round. Charter memberships in the YIM Catholic Book Club are still available. So far, there are five of us reading and yacking: Mary, Kneeling Catholic, EPG, Frank, and Your Ob’d’t S’v’t. A motley crew and true. There’s still time for you to join.

Read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, chapter 1, with our comments, then read chapter 2, with more comments. And join the mad stampede!

Because of Hildegard and Simon

You would never, ever find this in the basement of an Episcopal Church, what I found in the basement of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church during this morning’s men’s group—my friend “Simon,” presenting an hour-long bobbing, weaving, juking, and jiving meditation on Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard may be a darling of the New Agers, but Episcopalians are generally not into either New Age or female saints. And Simon is an original, a devout Catholic who reads Hildegard’s book of visions Sciavia during Eucharistic Adoration, an eccentric so out there and at the same time so sincere that I wanted to sit at his feet at the end of the hour to hear the answers to two questions:

Who the heck was Hildegard of Bingen? Who the heck is Simon?

Only the guys present at the meeting know Simon’s real name, and I’d like to keep it that way. But I’ll offer you some other data that Simon offered this morning, quite openly. Simon was walking around Paris in the middle of the night about twenty years ago when he saw a doorway. He entered the doorway and found a Perpetual Adoration chapel and a monastery next door. Simon said he has returned to Paris “at least a dozen times” since then, for the sole purpose of returning to that chapel. After the meeting I asked Simon what he was doing wandering around Paris in the middle of the night. “Drunk?” I asked. “Drugged? Psychotic?” He only nodded, as if to say, all of the above.

Who better, then, to hem and haw his way through a heart-felt but wildly improvisational presentation on a 12th-century saint (or blessed) (Simon wasn’t really clear) whose Wikipedia entry includes the following bullet points: Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, author, counselor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, channeler, visionary, composer, and polymath. I had already encountered Hildegard through her remarkable music. (I’m listening to the CD “Canticles of Ecstasy” right now and would happily listen to her an hour a day for the duration.) The bullet point that had previously grabbed my attention, mentioned later in the Wiki entry: Hildegard is the first composer, male or female, of whom we have a contemporaneous biography.

I’ve been corresponding with my new friend and blogging pal Frank about the subject of war and the Church’s teaching on war. Frank, a retired US Marine with all the military bona fides you could want, pointed me in the direction of Bernard of Clairvaux, because Bernard was both the founder of the Cistercians (contemplative, pacifist) and a leading proponent of the Second Crusade (active, pugnacious). Reading about Bernard during the past 24 hours, I think I’ve found a model for how a Catholic might look at both pacifism and what the Catechism terms “just war.”

And who—it turns out, according to Simon—was one of Bernard of Clairvaux’s 12th-century pals? None other than our Hildegard of Bingen!

This is what I love about Catholicism. You meet the strangest people, from those in your parish (Simon) to those in the martyrology (Hildegard). You find these strange people conversing with one another, studying each other, mutually fascinated and fascinating—and constantly connecting with other equally strange and fascinating people. There are so many of these people to be met—some far stranger than others, but all of them fixed on the same teaching, the same Gospel, within the same Universal Catholic Church—that you are forced to one of two conclusions, and there is no other.

Either (a) the whole world is mad and wandering around in a psychotic daze in Paris in the middle of the night or (b) Jesus Christ is Lord.

To Be Frank, Part 1, “From the US Marines to the Harvard Classics”

This blog has put me in touch with Catholics worldwide, many of them converts. One of these, a retired U.S. Marine named Frank, has become a regular correspondent of mine. Recently, I asked him to consider writing his own conversion story. He agreed to do so. Until further notice, I will post one installment each weekend. The series will be indexed under the topic 2BFrank.

On a spring day in 2005 in Southern California, I convinced my wife to move back to my hometown in Tennessee.  The arguments were: better schools, cleaner air, slower living, proximity to grandparents and relatives. It was a monumental sales job because my spouse, though born in Quezon City in the Philippines, is a California girl at heart.  Her family had arrived in Los Angeles after the Marcos regime’s imposition of martial law. The government shut down the radio station where her mom was a broadcaster, and the entire family miraculously obtained visas (mom, dad, and three children) and moved to Hollywood where my future spouse entered the sixth grade. [Read more...]

Because of the Church’s Position on War II

First, let me come clean about a few things:

1. I have never been in a fistfight. I “learned to box” in third grade and, in my only bout, was knocked out by Stevie Walker. I feel obliged to add that Stevie Walker went on to win the tournament; so while I was whipped (b-a-d), I was whipped by the best.

2. I did not fight in the only war for which I would have qualified by age or health, the Vietnam War. My number in the draft lottery was 3, meaning that if I my status had been 1-A, I would have had a draft probability of 100 percent. I was not drafted for a combination of reasons, beginning with, I entered college in the fall of 1969 (status 1-S). I did not run from the war (emigrate to Canada), but I did protest the war—along with millions of other kids my age.

3. My father served in World War II, and I am proud of him for that. I have a number of friends, including Ferde and Frank, who have served with distinction in the military. I am proud of them as my friends, partly for that. Father Barnes was a Navy chaplain, and everyone knows he is a righteous dude.

4. I have had mixed feelings about the two-and-a-half wars launched since Vietnam. On balance, I thought the Gulf War launched by Bush 41 was “just,” as defined by Catholic Church doctrine. (See below.) I thought the Iraq War launched by Bush 43 was in no sense “just”: not defensive (though justified as such), founded on lies (“failures of intelligence”?), and devastating to the civilian population of Iraq. I think the Afghan War, now being escalated by Obama 44, is just plain stupid. The Russians couldn’t win in Afghanistan, and they’re next door and they’re nastier. There’s no provision in Catholic doctrine for stupid.

I’m open to attack on any one of these four points (fire away), but none of them is my point. They are only table-setters.

I want to come back eventually to the homily by St. John Chrysostom from today’s Office of Readings that I quoted in the first post in this series. But one thing at a time. For right now, what is the Church’s position on war?

The teaching occurs in the Catechism under a discussion of the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill (CCC 2258–2330). Matters also covered by this concise discussion in the Catechism are abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. All of these, plus war, are prohibited by the Fifth Commandment, and arguably by Christ throughout the Gospels. Which is why it is so hard to vote these days, or why Ferde claims that, on occasion, given the choice between a pro-war Republican and a pro-abortion Democrat, he has entered a vote for Donald Duck. Donald may be annoying, but he doesn’t kill either unborn babies or innocent children in Baghdad (or wherever our “smart” weapons are imperfectly targeted).

The Catechism is clear when pushed to the wall on war (CCC 2309). The war must be, first of all, defensive, “legitimately” so, and given that, the following conditions must hold.

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
3. there must be serious prospects of success;
4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Furthermore, while Church doctrine allows that such a just war may exist and may be fought, it does not reject pacifism as a viable response to war. It leaves the decision of going to war to civil authorities, but, by upholding both pacifism and just-war doctrine, it also effectively leaves the moral decision about participating in war to the Catholic conscience.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have leaned closer to the pacifist position in recent years, in part because weaponry has become so devastating that it is often impossible to violate the terms of condition # 4 above. Witness “shock and awe.” The allied bombardment of Baghdad was out of proportion with the objective of putting Saddam out of business. The civilian casualties there are only the most obvious “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

To end this post on a personal note—

Why does this make me proud to be a Catholic? Because I think that the Church is wise to be cautious about adhering to a strictly pacifist position, although in the past it has sometimes erred on the side of supporting “just” wars that were unjust. (The First Crusade may have been launched from a just position, but the Fourth?!) Here as elsewhere, the Church has adopted an inclusive position of both/and, while individual popes, bishops, and priests have made their personal positions clearer.

Benedict XVI is one of these. In 2003, he told the Catholic magazine 30 Days, We must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist.”

Next up: St. John Chrysostom and Bernard of Clairvaux.

YIM Catholic Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 2


We got a start on G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” last week, looking at the first chapter, “In Defense of Everything Else.” If you’re just coming in, you might want to check out the discussion and comments here. In the second chapter, “The Maniac,” Chesterton begins setting up his argument for Christianity by taking on two common forms of secular thinking in his time and ours: materialism and its opposite, what he calls “panegoism,” or the belief that only the self is real.

Chesterton summarizes the core belief of materialism, “All things, even the souls of men, are leaves inevitably unfolding in an utterly unconscious tree,” adding that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.” If the universe is just a blind engine pushing matter around, free will is a fiction and man is a puppet. “It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity. I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human.”

At the other extreme is the panegoist, the man who “believes in himself”:

There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils [as the materialist does], but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day.

I would add that New Age “religion” is a contemporary form of the “mystical egoism” of Chesterton’s age and therefore not so new, after all, as I argued earlier this week both here and here. In the 1970s, Werner Erhard, founder of est, taught that before we are born, we choose our parents, which is as good as “creating” them, I suppose.

These two extremes, materialism and egoism, exhibit the same paradox, according to the author; they are “complete in theory, crippling in practice.” Each is like a circle closed in upon itself: perfect in its simplicity, but also limited. Chesterton’s final thrust in the direction of Christianity contrasts the circular symbol he describes as a snake eating its own tail (the yin-yang in another form), with the cross, which unites contradictions, as healthy people always do.

* * *

Healthy people. Healthy ordinary people. This is the notion that interests me in this chapter, which otherwise I find pretty dense. (Chesterton does love to pile up analogies, and alliteration.) Chesterton doesn’t accuse materialism or egoism of being illogical. He accuses them of being unhealthy. They limit man, preventing him from being and experiencing all that he can. The materialist and egoist both end in the lunatic asylum. What keeps men sane?

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland.

What I like about this is what I like about Catholicism. First, it places Mystery at the center of our religious life: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity. There are libraries full of commentary on these mysteries, but ultimately they remain mysteries.

Second, Catholicism places the ordinary man and woman in front of the Mystery. When I was moving away from Christianity into spiritual practices that weren’t called New Age in the 1960s or 1970s and weren’t new then, the appeal of these practices was the promise that I might become extraordinary, that I might rise above the common man. These practices were fundamentally gnostic. They seduced one with the belief that there is an esoteric knowledge that only the true initiate can access. The ordinary man or woman need not apply.

I love the ordinariness of Catholicism, which is another way of saying the universality of Catholicism. Everyone may apply, and be saved. Maybe I am diverging from Chesterton’s main points here, but I encourage readers to use comments to bring the discussion back to Chesterton. What did you find meaningful? Meanwhile, I will stand, or kneel, with my ordinary Catholic friends before the Mystery of the Eucharist—and feel pretty healthy in the bargain.


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