In 2015, I’m reading and blogging through Ronald Knox’s collection of sermons on Christian exemplars, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next portrait in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
The first sermon in the book is on Saint Cecilia, who Knox sees as a model for ordinary Christians, who may feel they have no particularly saintly challenges to face. He contrasts St. Cecilia with St. Catherine of Alexandria. While Catherine was a great debater, explaining the why of Christianity to the people who persecuted her, St Cecelia operated on a smaller stage and her life was more a testament to the what and how of Christianity, as her husband was moved to convert by her faith.
Knox takes as a lesson from her life that Christians should think more about what their witness looks like in the midst of everyday life, rather than when someone asks them a question explicitly about their faith. He writes:
The purity which is our traditional inheritance as Catholics has a message and a charm for the world about us. Each of us, whether he likes it or not, is an advertisement of the Catholic faith to the little circle of his neighbours–a good advertisement, or a bad advertisement. And it is such a mistake to think that we ought to try and impress our neighbours by making it clear to them that Catholics are not Puritans, are not strait-laced, are sportsmen like anybody else. The world is very ready to say that of us, but it does not really respect us for it. It does not respect us, for being ready to join in rather risky conversation, and enjoy rather doubtful jokes; it does not respect us for being careless about what company we keep and what places of amusement we go to. It respects us, if it sees we shrink from the touch of anything that may defile us; if it sees that the virginity which is practised in the cloister has its complement and its fruit in the chaste conversation of Catholics who are living in the world.
Saint Therese would echo Knox’s advice, based on her instruction to literally flee temptation and sin in her autobiography The Story of a Soul, though she would recommend flight for its own sake, regardless of whether anyone else is by.
And sometimes when the temptation was very severe, I would run like a deserter from the battlefield if I could do so without letting the Sister see my inward struggle.
I spoke just now, dear Mother, of the flight that is my last resource to escape defeat. It is not honorable, I confess, but during my novitiate, whenever I had recourse to this means, it invariably succeeded.
St. Therese’s advice is meant to be followed invisibly, but Knox sees a salutary effect for the people who observe a Christian shrink from sin. I wonder, a bit, how dated Knox’s advice may be (or at least how dated his expectation of the reactions of others would be). The book was originally published in 1940, when I assume that propriety was still the kind of thing you might hear people praised for, even if people disagreed about how far you should take it.
My behavior is usually classed as squeamishness, and, if not resented, is mostly interpreted as a wacky quirk, with no more moral dimension than my habit of wearing nerdy t-shirts or of reading the Sunday NYT in print. And I only seem to know how to employ it in certain circumstances. It’s easier to excuse myself from a more formal occasion, like a Cards Against Humanities game, than to extricate myself politely from a conversation that has drifted into discussing the genitals of one of the speaker’s past paramours.
I have seen my friend group spontaneously censor itself for the sake of propriety, but I was not the cause. One of the attendees of our monthly debates is a thirteen year old, and, when he walked into the room before we began debating “R: Ignore Politicians’ Sex Scandals” you could see everyone notice his presence, and mentally check over the examples they planned to use in speeches, to tone down any crudity/explicitness that wasn’t necessary for the point they were making.
His youth commanded respect, without resentment.
I’m not sure how (without perhaps finding an explicit debate proposition for my friends and I to tackle) to suggest that we adults might also be ill-done by when we are exposed to certain crudities or cruelties. Becoming accustomed to something is not the same as becoming strengthened by it.
Surprise! I know this book wasn’t on my shortlist for the year’s Monday reading. I ran across it in a used bookstore yesterday and, having read Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Knox, I thought it would make a good first reading of Knox himself, plus would give me a way to “better know a saint.” Unlike last year’s book, this one isn’t available on kindle, but the used paperback copies are less than $2 on Amazon, if you want to read along.