Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer

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Father Louis Bouyer

This is a review of The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth to Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After.  Father Bouyer was a French Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1939, and then became respected priest and scholar who served as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council. He prepared these memoirs during his retirement in the 1990s, and died in 2004.   They were not published until 2014.

I have read the ebook version. The work is meticulously endnoted, with hypertext links that allow one to jump back and forth from notes and text with ease.

This book will be most enjoyed by those already familiar with his body of work, who are familiar with the history of Vatican II, and have an interest in the history and reform of Catholic liturgy. I do not fall into any of those categories, but I will share my thoughts for those who may be interested in reading it.

About half of Father Bouyer’s non-fiction bibliography is available in English, though you might have to buy used copies.  He also wrote four novels under pseudonyms. Those books have never been translated into English, and may even be out of print. He developed friendships with a number of other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien.

Father Bouyer reminds me of another Catholic priest, writer and scholar:  Father Andrew Greeley. Both were scholars who wrote novels, though Greeley much more so. Bouyer’s career was more consumed by teaching duties than Greeley’s was.  Both men seemed to have a lot of energy, were inquisitive, and had a certain cheerfulness (at least in their writing), and had a tendency to speak their minds and thus get into scrapes with their peers in the Church.

The most charming part of the book is the first few chapters, regarding his family, youth and early crushes.  He had a great eye for detail and characterization. and I would have liked to read one of his novels. His mother died when he was 11.

The weakest part (though not bad) of the book is the middle part, covering his career during the 1940s and 1950s. Its a whirlwind of all the characters he knew and met, and the various places he worked and studied. Friends and historians will probably find this more useful.

The last part involves his role at Vatican II, and for a period of time in implementing it. Its good basis for a belief that the fewer the big conferences there are in Rome, probably the better.  He also covers some friendships and favorite places.

Two friends he singled out are a testimony to his generosity of spirit. One was Julian Green, an American, Catholic convert. He was a diarist, novelist and translator who lived most of his life in France. He also struggled with a homosexual orientation, and Bouyer seems to have been a good friend and confidante.  The other was an English writer, Elizabeth Boudge. Though she was not a Catholic, they struck up a deep and persistent correspondence that lasted many years.

Now, the themes:

The Mediocrity of the Church’s Institutions and its Leaders

It is suggested in the introduction that the long delay between the writing of the memoirs and their publication was deliberate, to perhaps protect Father Bouyer in his retirement, and to spare many of the targets of his criticism while they were still alive or holding high positions.

It is difficult, as with Greeley’s memoirs, to read about priests criticizing others under Holy Orders. However, Paul rebuked Peter once, so as long as it is done in Charity, it must be done when there is error or failure.  The Church, in its institutions and members, comes across in these memoirs as a sprawling university system. We meet “tenured” priests (e.g. isn’t Holy Orders the ultimate tenure?) who loaf and don’t do much work, administrators who have been promoted beyond their competence, or aging leaders who should have been retired and can’t keep up anymore. There is envy for other’s accomplishments, an unwillingness to consider new ideas, hiring decisions based on personal favoritism over merit, etc.

Bouyer sometimes names names, sometimes he doesn’t. He is not nasty about it, he offers his assessment, and moves on. I am reminded of an anecdote from Father Benedict Groeschel, where he relates a conversation he had with Mother Teresa. She asked him why God chose him to be a priest, and he replied with a joke. She answered “You were called by the humility of God.” He chooses very frail instruments to work with, so we should not be surprised when they fail.  Fortunately, we have great servants like Groeschel, Greeley or Bouyer to make up for the masses of mediocre Catholics (myself included among them).

Pre-Vatican II Church Dynamics

These memoirs confirm what I have read elsewhere about the pre-Vatican II dynamic.  The controversy and confusion that followed Vatican II didn’t just fall from the sky. It had been building for a few decades among silently warring camps.

On the one hand, we had the confident, established Church. It was orthodox and resistant to any change, perhaps more out of fear of modernity than willful close-mindedness.  And on the other hand, there was a large camp that fully subscribed to the modernist project, and wanted to conform the Church to the world.

In the middle it seems, were perhaps the smallest, least powerful group. Some reformers who wanted moderate change to the liturgy, Church organization, teaching methods, etc. This includes men like the future Pope Benedict, Bouyer, Henri De Lubac, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.   They thought they had some good ideas for how the Church could respond to the problems of modernity

These reformers were criticized as dangerous radicals before Vatican II, and then criticized as out-of-touch conservatives in the decades after Vatican II. In fact, they never changed their position on anything.

What happened is that there was a rupture, and the modernist camp largely won, and imposed a lot of change very quickly. One of the stranger things I learned reading this was that during the Vatican II conferences there was a strong consensus at one point to abolish Ash Wednesday. It would have been moved to the first Sunday of Lent.  It narrowly survived. And it is one of the few times a lot of Catholics see the inside of a Church other than on weekends.  Many will skip Holy Days of obligation, but will go to Ash Wednesday services. This is an example of the kind of mentality that was at work at Vatican II.

One of the villains in this drama was Annibale Bugnini (may he rest in peace). He was a Catholic priest and important administrator given a position of great authority at Vatican II, and a staunch modernist.  When he ran into obstacles, he would pull out his trump card, “The Pope Wills It!” Bouyer and others later found out he was making it all up, the Pope did not will it. He was later punished by being named the Vatican’s delegate to Iran, where he finished his career.

Bridges between Catholics and Protestants

Though a convert, Bouyer retained his strong belief that Protestants had often outdone Catholics in both their study of scripture and their emphasis on a personal relationship with the Lord. I tend to agree, though I think the Church has made great strides in recent decades, particularly with emphasis on new devotional practices (e.g. the Divine Mercy), and Pope Benedict XVI’s great example in his series on the Gospels.  Bouyer felt these two areas should be ones the Church should focus on in its pursuit, perhaps vain, of reconciliation with our Anglican and Lutheran brethren (which were the focus of his ecumenism).

Based on my reading of his memoirs, I do have an interest in trying at least one of his books.  I am more focused on poetry now, so it may be a while before I read one. I will post a review if I do.

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Charles Peguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc”

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(Thanks for all the likes in response to the recent poems. Writing poetry was certainly never on my bucket list, and its a relief that they weren’t complete disasters.)

I mentioned in a prior post I was going to provide excerpts from some of the French poet Charles Péguy’s major works.  He was the one who inspired me to write a few. The thing about his major poems is that they are very, very long, sometimes running into hundreds of pages. You will either love them or be very bored by them. It’s ok.

The following excerpt is from his 1910 poem (though some call it a play) Le Mystére de la Charité de Jeanne D’Arc. This translates into English as The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. It is the first part of a trilogy, the other two being The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents.  All three are hard to come by in libraries, and the first and third are out of print. Péguy had planned to write as many as fifteen mysteries on various topics of faith, but he tragically died too soon at the age of 41.

It is hard to describe this one. It reminds me a lot of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogs. There are three speaking roles, Joan, her friend Hauviette, and a local nun, named Madame Gervaise. The events, which occupy the space of an afternoon, occur in Joan’s village before she begins her quest to save France. There are long stretches that are akin to poetry, and other sections of ordinary dialog.

The part I am going to quote comes at the beginning, when Joan is considering the plight of France during its war with England. It almost reminds me of a Psalm of lamentation from the Old Testament. This is all spoken by Joan:

Our father, our father who art in heaven, how far is your name from being hallowed; how far is your kingdom from coming.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of the earth.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of France.

Our father, our father who art in Heaven, how far is your will from being done; how far are we from being given our daily bread.

How far are we from forgiving those who trespass against us; and not succumbing to temptation; and being delivered from evil.

That was just the warm up. The better part, which speaks to our Christian frustration follows in a few excerpts:

O God, if we could only see the beginning of your kingdom. If we could only see the sun of your kingdom rise. But there is nothing, there is never anything. You have sent us your son whom you loved so dearly, your son came, who suffered so much, and died. And now, nothing. There is never anything. If we could only see the daybreak of your kingdom. And you have sent us your saints, you have called each one of them by his name, your other sons the saints and your daughters the saints, and your saints have come, men and women, and now nothing, there is never anything.

Years have gone by, so many years that I cannot count them; centuries of years have gone by; fourteen centuries of Christianity, alas, since the nativity, and death and preaching. And now nothing, nothing, ever. And what reigns on the face of the earth is nothing but perdition.

You have sent us your son and the other saints. And nothing flows upon the face of the earth but a stream of ingratitude and perdition. God, God, will it have to be that your son died in vain?

And not only do temptations besiege us, but temptations triumph, and temptations reign, and it is the reign of temptation, and the reign of the kingdoms of the earth have fallen into the reign of the kingdom of temptation, and the evil succumb to the temptation to do evil … but the good, who were good, succumb to a temptation infinitely worse: the temptation to believe they have been forsaken by you.

Her friend Hauviette, commenting on this, accuses Joan of trying to pick a fight with Jesus. Themes of despair, damnation and others are explored.

Peguy wrote a sequel, called The Mystery of the Vocation of Joan of Arc.  It is set some time later. It was published posthumously, and never translated into English.

P.S. There appear to be two English translations. The more recent, which has a reddish cover, only gives you about half the poem. The full version runs about 200 pages.

 

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Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World

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Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the movie adaptation of The Two Towers, Theoden chants a portion of the above poem  as the darkness closes in. He then asks aloud: “How did it come to this?” Archbishop Chaput, in this survey of contemporary America, proposes to answer this question, among some others, including, “What Comes Next?” While he is writing primarily for a Catholic audience, I think Christians of other faiths grappling with the current problems may find it very helpful.

The book’s title comes from Exodus 2:22, where Moses names his firstborn son, particularly the King James Version:

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

It is thought that this was a reference to Moses time in Egypt, a “strange land” for a Hebrew. Moses later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt after he accepts a mission from God. America is arguably the “strange land” now, where man has taken the place of God, and we build large monuments to ourselves.

Archbishop Chaput may be the closest thing to a “public intellectual” among the American Catholic Church’s leadership.  After reading the book, I can tell he is extremely well read, and conversant with the ideas and arguments of artists, scholars and activists from all corners: Alexis De Tocqueville, Saul Alinsky, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, etc. He is also very conversant with all the more recent big thinkers in Catholic theology, as would be expected (De Lubac, Balthasar, etc.).

I am often interested in writers’ last names, specifically their origin. Chaput is a French name, and apparently means the “wearer of a distinctive cloak or hat”, and is derived from the French word for “chapel.” Certainly an appropriate last name for  a Catholic Bishop.  He should probably be made a Cardinal, but he is a little too forthright for that to happen anytime soon.

Chaput’s purpose is try to and help Catholics and other Christians (its not just for Catholics) understand how we got to this point. He argues that the roots go far back beyond the upheavals of the last fifty years. Essentially, he agrees with De Tocqueville’s observation that democracy is only as good as the people who live there.  Our ancestors, regardless of their party, accepted that they were sinners, were accountable to God for their actions, and accordingly went about governing this country with greater humility, caution and tolerance for those who disagreed with them.

That has changed. While the vast majority of people still believe in a higher power, more people than at any other time have substituted the worldly project of utopia for faith in God. When you don’t put God first, you make a God of other things.  Thus political candidates, parties and public policies have substituted for Jesus, Church and the Sacraments. God is a means to the worldly end, and not the End. The great joke about building utopias is that the word means “nowhere”, as St. Thomas More invented it in his semi-satirical exercise in imagining a perfect world.

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter summary. The first chapter is a particularly strong overview of the current situation. The next several get into “How did it come to this?”

The later part of the book is focused on “what to do”, and “what comes next?”.  Chaput may not agree with the ideas laid out in books like “Resident Aliens” (a chapter title), and is probably not a fan of what is known as the “Benedict Option”, referring to the monastic community of St. Benedict.   In those ideas, Christians sort of withdraw from the world and public sphere and focus on living prayerful, purpose filled lives. Sort of like islands in the storm of barbarism.Rather, I think Archbishop Chaput would prefer us to remain engaged, part of the world, even if we don’t expect solutions from the political process. He gives examples and encourages us to stand fast.

So, what does come next?  A lot of heavyweight Catholic philosophers and theologians have wrestled with a theology of history over the past century or so: Romano Guardini (The End of the Modern World), Josef Pieper (The End of Time), and Hans Urs Von Balthasar (A Theological Anthropology), for example. Pope Francis in particular seems to like Guardini, and is particularly fond of the novel Lord of the World, a fictional exercise in imagining the next phase.

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Guardini, writing after WW2, argued that the great Modern project had failed, and that something new must take its place. Guardini hoped that a new man, fully converted, would be able to:

… see through the illusions which reign in the midst of scientific and technological development: the deception behind the ‘liberal’s’ idolatry of culture, behind the totalitarian’s utopia, the tragecist’s pessimism; behind modern mythicism and the hermaphrodite world of psychoanalysis. He would see and know for himself [that] Reality is simply not like that!”

I don’t think that’s happened. Rather, the world seems to have tired of postmodernism’s irony, and are interested in rebooting Modernism 2.0. Thus the great interest in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Genetic Engineering, Virtual Reality, Life Extension, etc. Modernism failed because Man was not Modern, but now he can be remade through a trans-human ideology and technology. This helps explain in part why the transgender issue is so hot right now. Its just part of Modernism 2.0. Elon Musk seems a particularly prominent spokesman for Modernism 2.0, watch him to see how the new narrative continues to develop.

So, what we are left with is just plain old witness, and the readiness to stake everything on God. But as Chaput notes at several points, its not enough to ignore the world, or hope for a separate peace. You will not be allowed to disengage and retire to a monastic community.  You may not be interested in Modernism 2.0, but its interested in you. It wants your affirmation and approval, not acceptance. It will keep pushing on all fronts: public  education, workplace rules, health care, public expression, the role of parents over their children’s upbringing, etc. Chaput encourages us to continue our witness in the public square, and all that we do, even if we do not put our faith in political processes.

I will cite someone even more blunt than the good Archbishop. Writing on the same issues in the last chapter of his The Moment of Christian Witness, Hans Urs von Balthasar scripted an imaginary conversation between a commissar and an anonymous Christian under interrogation. The title of this chapter was Cordula, the name of a young girl allegedly martyred by the Huns. The catch is Cordula initially tried to hide, but after everyone else was killed, came out and gave her final witness and received the crown of martyrdom. Balthasar writes that in the end, all we have to offer is our defenseless exposure to the world, like Christ.

Hopefully it will not come to that.  And as Chaput writes, we must be hopeful, but not optimistic. Chaput likes the poet Peguy, and cites to his long poem on the second theological virtue. Hope is something we receive through God’s grace, optimism is a belief in Man and his sand castles.   I would bet on grace, not man.

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Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

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This installment in my ongoing review of Georges Bernanos bibliography is about his novel Mouchette, published in 1937. In the French publication it is titled as Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Bernanos decided to reuse the name of a female character from his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, for the title of this book and its main character. Unlike much of the Bernanos bibliography, Mouchette is in print and available through bookstores.

I will introduce the review with following Bible passage:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:20

One of the expressions that Pope Francis is known for is “Going to the margins” of society. That is, we must reach out and help the poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned as part of our love of neighbor. Those most difficult to reach should deserve special attention. Another popular expression of the Pope’s is that the Church must “accompany” those in particularly difficult situations.

The story begins with Mouchette at school, and her discomfort  with singing along with the rest of her class. They are singing the lines from a French poem, Three Days of Christopher Columbus. The first two lines, translated to English:

“Hope! … No more Hope!”

Three Days, Columbus told them, and I give you a world.

The lines apparently describe a conversation with Columbus and his despairing crew. I think Bernanos was alluding to the three days in the tomb and the Resurrection.

Mouchette has no such attention or accompaniment in her life. She is a fourteen year old girl in rural France. She is poor, and the daughter of an alcoholic father and terminally ill mother. She wears her older brother’s oversized wooden clogs everywhere, and the clopping sound they make might as well be the nails going into her very own Cross. She has no friends, and really, by the end of the novel, no hope. She can’t wait three more days. Again, deliberately, I think Bernanos chose to break up this novel of 127 pages into only three chapters.

Overall, it is a meditation on the pity of God for those on the margins, those whom God does not seem to help out of respect for our free will in ordering the affairs of the world.  Bernanos deliberately gives the reader a God’s eye view, and invites us to accompany this person on the margin of society.

A brief except to give you a flavor of Bernanos’ style in this book:

Her attention was so absorbed and so tender that it seems to be an extension of her own life. It did not occur to her to find Arsene’s face handsome. It was simply that it was made for her, and seemed as easy and natural in her gaze as the handle of her old knife in her hand, the old knife which she had found on the road one evening, and had shown to no one, and which was the only thing in the world which she possessed. She would have liked to touch his face, but its golden color, as warm as that of bread, was enough to make her happy.

 

This is a particularly good book if you are (like I hope I am not anymore) a little too quick to judge people based on the worst day of their life or after the biggest mistake they might ever make.  We don’t really know how they got there. Only God does. My local newspaper has gone mostly electronic, and its home page is steadily updated throughout the day with an endless list of crimes, deaths and various misadventures.  The people who comment on these stories are often rather cruel, criticizing the person or their family for what happened. It is far better to say a prayer for these strangers you never knew in this life … you might be the only one who does.

So you can accompany those on the margins through prayer, if nothing else is possible.

The novel was adapted into a film by the highly regarded French director Robert Bresson in 1967. The screenplay is largely faithful to the plot, though the story has been shifted forward a few decades to post-WW2 France. Bresson uses his familiar, minimalist style and relied on locals and unknowns to fill out the cast. Most of the bad stuff is not directly shown, but still, it’s not for children. It is available with subtitles. I don’t believe it won any major awards, but it was well regarded enough that the Critetion Collection decided to restore and reissue it in 2007.

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Under Satan’s Sun by Georges Bernanos

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With this post I continue my reviews of stories written by non-English speaking Catholics which may be unfamiliar to an Anglophone audience. Here I review Georges Bernanos’ novel Sous le soleil de Satan, which was translated from French into English as Under Satan’s Sun (some translations use Under the Sun of Satan). It was Bernanos’ first novel, and published in 1926.

Most of the translated versions of Bernanos’ work are out of print, and will not be found at your local library or bookstore.  Unless you want to buy a used copy for $100 on Amazon, you may need to make use of the “interlibrary loan” process, in which you can ask your local lending library to request his books from a university library. This is a free service, and I have found it to work quite well.

I.

In Under Satan’s Sun, Bernanos explores what a real saint might think and experience. This is not a dry, matter of fact or even reverent biography of a saint we have probably all read at one time or another.  Rather, Bernanos tries to imagine the interior suffering and day to day experience of a saint, their flaws and even their mistakes. The role of the saint in the world and Church was an endlessly fascinating subject for Bernanos, and the topic of several long essays.

The protagonist of the book is Father Donissan, a priest living in the French countryside. No dates are given, but the events of the book roughly overlap the late 19th century and early 20th century. Donissan is of peasant background, and somewhat rough around the edges in appearance and personality. He struggled in the seminary, and is having difficulty in his first assignment.  Bernanos very loosely based him on John Vianney and, to a lesser extent, Therese of Lisieux, who along with  Joan of Arc, were probably Bernanos’ three favorite saints.

However, Donissan is not present in the book’s first act, which instead tells the story of Germaine Malorthy, later nicknamed “Mouchette” (meaning “little fly”). “Malorthy” appears to be a made-up last name, perhaps suggesting both “sick” (Mal in French) and “straight” (from the Greek Orth). Bernanos may have intended to allude to the concept of original sin with this name.

Mouchette is both antagonist and victim.  As antagonist, Bernanos illustrates the banality of evil, and how a series of mistakes, misunderstandings, and emotional turbulence can lead one to a very dark place. It is intended to be a compassionate portrait, and it is Bernanos speaking when he later has Donissan tell her  that her great crime was no sin in God’s eyes, because her freedom had been compromised by Satan.

But she is also a victim of Satan, the clown prince of the world, and a real presence in the book.  Bernanos accepted that the devil was real, and an omnipresent foe of humanity. The idea may seem strange to the contemporary reader, but the suffering of Donissan, much less the mystery of evil in the world, doesn’t make much sense without this. If I may borrow from the language of software, Satan is a bug, not a feature.  Bernanos’ Satan primarily manifests as a mental presence weighing the soul down at every turn. This is not The Exorcist, and Bernanos’ Satan wages a campaign of interior, spiritual warfare to lead his enemy, us, into doubt, despair and self-hate. Satan is eager to intervene during Mouchette’s confrontation with Donissan:

But then help – a help never sought in vain – came to her from a master who grows more attentive and harder with every day that passes; a dream she could scarcely distinguish from other dreams, a scarcely more bitter desire, a companion and tormentor now real and living, in turn plaintive and languid, the source of tears, more pressing, brutal, and eager to compel, and then, at the decisive moment, cruel and ferocious, fully present in a laugh full of pain, bitter, once a servant and now a master.

Mouchette is sixteen, and sort of an infernal version of the Virgin Mary. She is a savage child, striking out at everyone in her spiritual revolt. Bernanos describes her as a “bride of hell” in the making, and I will simply say it is a photo finish as to whether she consummated her nuptials with God or the Devil.

II.

But the key spiritual struggle is between Donissan and Satan, which is begun during the second act of the book, titled “The Temptation of Despair.”  The two have an encounter of sorts during a long walk Donissan makes on a cold and miserable night to a remote parish. If you have ever had one of those sleeps where you wake up ten or more times, and seem to drift from one dream fragment to the next in a night that does not end … well that’s what happens to Donissan in a way.

Donissan has been gifted with the supernatural charism known as cardiognosis, or the reading of people’s hearts. St. John Vianney apparently had this, and became a famed confessor because of it. Because of his gift, Donissan is subjected, or allows himself to be subjected, to a particular temptation: despair. The weight of seeing so many people’s sins and their lack of repentance torments him. He makes a wager of sorts, offering his happiness and even salvation in an effort to save souls.  Donissan is also overly scrupulous and prone to unnecessary acts of mortification and penance. His opponent plays on this and his combative nature to draw Donissan away from reliance on God’s mercy into a cycle of self-hate, despair and doubt. Thus an interior tug of war begins that will last his whole life:

What he was about to turn against so foolishly, however, was the mysterious joy still awake in his mind, a small, clear flame scarcely flickering in the wind. His arid soul, which had never known any other consolation than a mute and resigned sadness, was first astonished, then frightened, and finally irritated by the inexplicable sweetness. At the first stage of ascension, vertigo strikes, and the fledgling mystic struggles with all his might to break out of the passive contemplation and inner silence, disturbed by its apparent idleness … The Other, who had interposed himself between Donissan and God, concealed himself with utmost skill, advancing, withdrawing, advancing again, carefully, sagaciously, and attentively leading him on.

Donissan is not a follower of Therese’s “Little Way.” He chooses to meet his foe head on.

If you yourself have tendencies to scrupulousness, you might see yourself in him, and have a new insight as to where these feelings come from … not somewhere good.  For self-hate is really another form of pride, an unwillingness to humbly accept whatever flaws or limitations God has allowed us to endure. There was much of the young Bernanos in this book and character, and the older man later reflected on overcoming this in his usual, very quotable way:

The hard thing is not loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s loving yourself enough so that the literal observance of the precept will not do harm to your neighbor.

III.

The third act, titled “The Saint of Lumbres”, takes place some years after the conclusion of the second act. Donissan has been placed in charge of a small parish in a rural part of France, and is no longer a young man. Like John Vianney, he has acquired a reputation as a gifted confessor and miracle worker.  Bernanos uses this part to illustrate how a saint must walk much the same the same path that Jesus did while on earth.  Donissan is besieged by parishioners and visitors, like Jesus was surrounded by crowds.  He is looked at with skepticism and suspicion by the Church, much like Jesus was doubted and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. Donissan, tired and worn down by the unending demands and sins of others, undergoes one last, severe crisis of faith near the end of the book, like Christ on the Cross asking if God had abandoned him.

In terms of style, I find that Bernanos writes in a way very different from contemporary authors. There are long, discursive paragraphs of dialogue or a character’s thoughts. I think much of it is quite beautiful, but one may find him, justifiably, long-winded at times.

In later years, Bernanos referred to the novel as the “fireworks display” of a young man. While this book portrayed the saint as a hero, his later works presented the saint as a more ordinary sort of fellow who is fully cooperative with God’s grace. The confrontation between good and evil is less dramatic, and more in line with the normal day-to-day choices and temptations of the typical person.

IV.

The novel was adapted into a movie by Director Maurice Pialat, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Gerard Depardieu played Father Donissan. It was well reviewed, but I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed with the film. But I usually am with adaptations of books I like. The director clearly had a respect for the source, and the adaptation is reasonably faithful to the plot. However, given that half the book or more is about what’s going on inside people’s heads, I found it somewhat fragmentary.  The actress who played Mouchette, who was 20, also seemed too old for the part of a sixteen year old girl.

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Donissan and Mouchette. Under the Sun of Satan (1987).

If you read it and like it, a far more insightful and in-depth of treatment of the book is given in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life, in which Hans Urs Von Balthasar reviews and analyzes the spiritual themes of his entire bibliography.

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Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

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This is a review and analysis of Shusaku Endos’s 1994 novel Deep River, his last. I started reading Endo recently, and reviewed his Kiku’s Prayer a few months ago. Endo’s controversial novel Silence has also been getting more attention lately due to the Martin Scorsese film adaptation currently playing in theaters.

Deep River may be interesting for those readers who read or saw Silence, and are looking for more from Endo, or are simply trying understand his point of view. Alternatively, it may be of interest to those who ponder why the faith seems to have flourished in some parts of the world, but not taken root in places like Japan. This is a longish review, and includes details that may spoil the story in case you prefer to read it first.

Deep River follows parts of the lives of five different people leading up to their meeting on a trip to India in 1984. Three of them are elderly Japanese men coming to terms with suffering.  The two main characters are a Japanese man and woman engaged in a spiritual duel of sorts lasting several decades.

The three older men, Numada, Kugachi and Isobe, are to some degree biographical sketches of Endo or the men of his generation. Numada, like Endo, is an author who never quite got over the divorce of his parents, and has suffered from significant health problems later in life. Isobe is a representative of the traditional Japanese salary man who realized he never fully appreciated or loved his recently deceased wife. Kugachi is a WW2 veteran still trying to make sense of his and his fellow veterans’ experiences.

The main characters are Otsu, a Japanese Catholic who becomes a priest, and Mitsuko, an acquaintance from college who wrestles with alternative impulses to destroy and understand him. Mitsuko is trying to find herself, while Otsu is trying more and more to submerge himself into the Man of Sorrows.

In terms of style and structure, this is very different from Kiku’s Prayer. That book was almost a documentary about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 19th century. Deep River is more an examination of the interior states of its characters as they confront modernity and their own suffering.

Endo almost seems to be asking here  whether any of the suffering explored in Silence and Kiku’s Prayer has been worth it, or why the sacrifice of so many martyrs has borne little obvious fruit. The Christians of mid to late 20th century Japan are considered odd by their compatriots, and Otsu is the butt of jokes and mockery by his fellow students. Endo tries to explore this issue, and offers his own thoughts through the words of Otsu and Mitsuke. Western Christians may not like the message.

Endo went to France as a young man to study French Literature. He alludes to this experience through Otsu’s time in a seminary in France. Endo appears to believe that the Scholastic, Aristotelian influenced mode of Catholic Christianity dominant since the Reformation simply does not work for many Asians. I am no theologian, but briefly, a key criticism of Scholasticism is that it is too rigid, too focused on using reason or logic to approach God. A more recent version of it, “Neo-Scholasticism” was the dominant mode of philosophy and theology within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th century. Some European theologians felt that this approach was limiting, and introduced ideas in the mid-20th century, often called Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”)  that relied more on the writings of the Platonic influenced Church Fathers to address the problems presented by Modernism. Please note that this philosophical debate does not neatly fall into “liberal” or “conservative” categories, and there are no good guys or bad guys in this dispute.

Otsu voices Endo’s criticisms of “European Christianity” in a number of passages in which he describes his difficult seminary experience:

For three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve tired of the way people here think. The ways of thinking that they’ve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts … they’re ponderous to an Asian like me.

I can’t make the clear distinction that these people make between good and evil. I think that evil lurks within the good, and that good things can lie hidden within evil as well. That’s the very reason God can wield his magic. He made use of my sins and turned me towards salvation.

Again, its beyond my ability to well articulate Endo’s theological or philosophical view.  He is not a heretic, but I think he views the logic, argument based form of Christian evangelization or Christian apologetics as not suited to Asia, or perhaps modernity in general. I think this is why he focused on the “failure” of several Jesuit priests as a key point in Silence.  Rather, I think he is trying to encourage a focus on the more mystical, experience based approach of God’s mercy as often symbolized in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was the main symbol of faith in Kiku’s Prayer.

Otsu manages to become ordained, but is viewed with deep suspicion by his colleagues.  He eventually winds up in India, where he ministers to dead and dying Hindus in a solo mission of mercy. He carries the bodies of the dying to the Ganges, the “deep river” of the book, which represents God’s deep and unending love for all people. The final wish of many Hindus is that their remains be placed in the Ganges, either whole or after cremation.  The poor that Otsu serve cannot afford cremation, so he carries them on his back, like Christ carrying the cross.

Earlier, I referenced the “duel” between Otsu and Mitsuko, the book’s sole point of view female character, and really a stand in for all of us. Mitsuko and Otsu meet in late 1960’s Japan, and she is a liberated college student who drinks, studies and sleeps around.  She is given the nickname “Moira” after a character in a French novel she has read. Moira is derived from an Irish version of Mary, and Mitsuko is a sort of “Mary Magdalene” figure.

She and her fellow students are amused by Otsu’s Christianity, and they egg her on to test and seduce him.  While watching him pray one day, she makes a bet against the ugly Jesus on the cross that she will steal Otsu away from him. She seduces him into a sexual relationship, and then dumps him after a few months. Otsu is devastated, but later says that he hears Jesus speaking to him to “come to him,” and he interprets this as a sign to become a priest.

Mitsuko goes on to marry, but finds no peace.  She tracks down Otsu to his seminary while on her honeymoon in France, and his determination to keep his faith she finds unsettling.  She eventually divorces and becomes a volunteer at hospital, where she cares for the sick and dying. Years later she joins the trip to India after learning that Otsu has moved to India.

This dual repulsion and attraction is symbolized by Mitsuko’s interest in the various Hindu goddesses she learns about on her trip, such as Kali

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The goddess Kali trampling her husband, as Mitsuko tramples Otsu, and we trample the Lord

In Endo’s view, we are all, like Mitsuko, Kali to an extent, wounded by original sin, and trampling Jesus with our resistance. The theme of a trampled Jesus was the key image at the conclusion of Silence.

Endo studied the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos while he was a student in France. I have also been reading Bernanos and reviewing some of his work at this blog.  Deep River reflects this influence in the struggle between Otsu and Mitsuko. Bernanos’ stories were ones of spiritual combat, often reflected in a confrontation between a priest and a female character. This was a deliberate pairing by Bernanos; not because of misogyny, but because all souls are feminine in relation to the first and second persons of the trinity. We are part of the Church, which is the Bride to Jesus’ Bridegroom. In his novels, the male priests, in a mystical way, often endure suffering to allow the female character to respond to God’s grace.

Otsu is trampled by Mitsuko in her original sin stained Kali form through her insults, her seduction, and eventual rejection of him. The modern hatred of priests was also a theme of Bernanos’ work, best described in his Diary of a County Priest. There a variety of women slander, mock, and tempt the unassuming, gentle protagonist, a character not too different from Otsu. And despite this almost instinctive revulsion, Mitsuko keeps circling around him, and thinking about her sterile life and the promise of the Christian God.  The duel comes to a head when they encounter each other on the banks of the Ganges at the end of the novel. Otsu offers himself as a sacrifice, and in my view, it leads to a spiritual breakthrough for Mitsuko. The ending is not clear, but my interpretation is that she has been given an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.

The positive feminine symbol that Endo offers in contrast to Kali is that of the Hindu goddess Chamunda, a mother goddess who as described by Endo symbolizing the suffering and abiding of India. Chamunda is not beautiful, and her image is worn down by pain and toil.  She is a Virgin Mary figure who shows the wounds of humanity’s suffering in her image. As Mitsuko thinks about Chamunda, she increasingly becomes drawn to the  river Ganges, which Otsu compares to the deep and all accepting love of Jesus.

In the end, I think Endo is making a plea to acknowledge the feminine, motherly side of God, which bears all suffering, and accepts everyone, regardless of their stated faith. As a member of a very small Christian minority in Japan, Endo had come to accept that God had ways of reaching people of all religions.  This feminine side of God is made present in the appearance of several nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the book, the order led by Mother Theresa. I think the reader is invited to speculate whether Mitsuko, a nurse by training, stays in India and joins the order.   I would also like to think that Endo would welcome some of the developments in Catholic devotion in recent decades, including a new focus on the mercy of God, as described by St. Faustina Kowalska (canonized in 2000), and Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.

 

 

 

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The Marriage You Save May be Your Neighbor’s

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Poster of the 1959 film version

 

I just read Georges Bernanos’ screen play,  Dialogues of the Carmelites, which was also his last work. It is a fictional account of the lives of the Martyrs of Compiegne in the years and months leading up to their execution during the Reign of Terror.  The characters are very loosely based on the actual nuns.  I found it to be well written and enjoyed it very much.  Francis Poulenc later adapted the screen play into the better known opera, and it has got me thinking about marriage and divorce, which may seem an odd connection to make.  Thus this post.

The protagonist is Blanche De La Force, the young daughter of a French nobleman whose wife died giving birth to her. Blanche seeks the Lord, but has a serious flaw in her temperament: she is afraid of the world and its dangers to a marked degree. She takes the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, a foreshadowing of the particular nature of her suffering. Blanche wishes that the cup of martyrdom pass her by, like Christ asked that his own cup pass him by during his Agony in the Garden.  It is Blanche’s mission in life to share in this agony of fear and doubt.

The theme of the story is that Blanche, on her own, is not strong enough to pass the test. It takes the sacrifice of three other of her fellow sisters to give her the strength to make the walk to the scaffold. First, the Prioress who accepts her entrance into the convent suffers an unexpectedly painful and emotionally turbulent death. Next, her best friend, Sister Constance, allows herself to be publicly humiliated to conceal Blanche’s cowardice from the other nuns. Finally, the subprioress, Marie de L’Incarnacion is separated from her sisters while searching for Blanche (who has fled the convent) and misses out on their martyrdom, which causes her great spiritual suffering.

Bernanos’ argument is that we are witnessing a mysterious performance of a communion of Saints in the making. These three sisters who had been gifted with greater strength of character have taken on a portion of Blanche’s fear, humiliation, and shame. By doing this, they allow Blanche to respond to the Lord’s call to martyrdom with courage and a song at the scaffold of the guillotine.

This particular operation of the Communion of Saints is described as “vicarious representation and substitution” by Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his analysis of Bernanos’ life and works. Blanche is not solely a beneficiary however, as her own natural weakness and the corresponding suffering is a ransom paid for other members of the Body of Christ.

So it is that Blanche is carried over the threshold by the willingness of these three nuns to take her place… However, none of this should make us forget that all these works of willing, vicarious substitution have found their foundation in Blanche’s weakness and derive their efficacy and power precisely from the way Blanche herself represents the essential weakness of all men before the ultimate challenge: Blanche drinks the cup of fear to the dregs both for herself and in substitution for all others.

“Communion of saints” happens when every member of the Body surrenders his whole being and opens it to becoming but a part of the whole, when he allows his integrity to suffer wounds that make possible the passage through him of the Blood circulating throughout the whole.

Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1996).

The Carmelite nuns who were martyred had intentionally offered their lives to God in atonement for the Terror and for the restoration of peace to France.  The Reign of Terror did end ten days after their executions, and even secular historians have acknowledged that their great courage and docility made an impression on the public.

Turning to marriage, I once read a post by a religious describing how marriage is truly a martyrdom on its own.  It often is “for worse”, but we like to forget that. We all know of or have experienced (or are experiencing?) marriages that seem to be cursed by the world: poverty, health problems, infertility, difficult in-laws, etc. Some of these marriages fail, and we might ask, why did God allow it to be so hard for that couple? Some particularly good and strong couples endure hardship after hardship.  If we find ourselves in a difficult marriage, we might be inclined to give up. What does it matter anyway we might say.

And yet, the data suggests that divorce is contagious. If your friends and neighbors get divorced, its more likely you will too. In his Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos wrote that a communion of sinners exists side by side with a communion of saints.  Might our sins against marriage make it harder for others to persevere? By withdrawing, do we prevent the Blood of Christ from circulating to all members of his Body?  But if that is so, then our obedience might in some way help others endure, like Blanche’s sisters helped her to stay true to Christ to the very end.

If you are in a marriage that is hard, seems pointless, or is burdened by great hardships, one way to find meaning is to accept that you may be going through it for someone else in the Mystical Body of Christ. Like the Martyrs of Compiegne, you can offer up your suffering for other married couples, like Sister Blanche, who might not have a natural disposition towards strength and endurance of hardship. If you seem to gifted with great reservoirs of strength, like Blanche’s sisters, it may be to bear the burdens of others, even if you will never meet them in this life.

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A Review: Kiku’s Prayer

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This post is a review of the novel, Kiku’s Prayer, by Shusaku Endo. Mr. Endo was a Japanese Catholic writer whose novel, Silence, has been adapted for film several times in the past and in a soon to be released film by Martin Scorsese.

If you are planning to see Silence, and read the book, you might be interested in Kiku’s PrayerSilence is about the suppression of Christianity in 17th Century Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is Endo’s most famous work. The persecution, as measured by worldly metrics, was largely successful. Many Christians were killed and forced to renounce their faith, and the teaching of Christianity and public worship was outlawed for about two centuries.

Kiku’s Prayer is about the events that led to the end of the official persecution, which occurred during the late 19th century after the restoration of Imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration. It could be called a work of “historical fiction,”  in which real people and events are used as the basis of a novel.  Mr. Endo helpfully includes endnotes at the end of each chapter to better identify the real people, places and events referenced in the novel.

However, the main characters are not based on real people. Rather they are ordinary Japanese, Christian and non-Christian, who lived in the Nagasaki region of western Japan.  Kiku is a young woman from the small village of Urakami who moves to town for work, and falls in love with Seikichi, a young man, and secret Christian. So unlike Silence, the main characters are Japanese.

A secondary character is Father Bernard Petitjean, a young priest who has come to Japan to help build the first Catholic church in centuries (to serve foreigners), but who initiates a secret mission to make contact with the “Kakure Kirishitan“, or “hidden Christians”, who have practiced their faith in secret and passed on the traditions for two centuries.  He is successful in meeting them, and this sets in motion a chain of events that leads to their persecution but opens the door to the free exercise of religion in Japan.

I do not speak Japanese, and the book has been translated by Van C. Gessel. This is the same translator used for all English versions of Endo’s work. Accordingly, I cannot comment on the writing style or “literary” quality of Mr. Endo’s work.   The novel is very plot driven, and heavy on dialogue and brief descriptions of what the characters see and do. Mr. Gessel’s translation seems fairly straightforward to me (I am not a literary critic).  This is not a “post-modern” work of fiction, nor does it involve long descriptive paragraphs of what’s going on inside people’s heads or around them. It’s a brisk read.

If you are curious why Christianity had so much trouble making headway in Asia, Mr. Endo effectively uses the local government officials to voice a criticism of how European powers and their colonial predation, sometimes with Church assistance, tainted the faith in the minds of many peoples.

The title of the book is an intended irony, as Kiku is not a Christian, and her prayer is more in the nature of a complaint to the Blessed Mother statue she visits from time to time. In this book, as in books written by Georges Bernanos that I’ve reviewed, it is often the people with no faith, those who renounce the faith, or even persecute the faith, that have been given the greatest crosses to bear in life. If you are a Christian, it is largely an accident of birth whether you were baptized and raised in the faith. Imagine the cross you had to bear if you apostatized under torture or threat of torture. Those people probably felt a sense of despair and very distant from the Lord the rest of their life. But in fact He drew very close to them, and they were drawn into the mystery of the Cross in return.

In this vein, one of the more powerful scenes involves a confrontation between Father Petitjean and a Japanese official, Ito, responsible for persecuting the Japanese Christians:

““I’ll bet you don’t know the first thing about the pains of those who are beaten. And you know nothing of the torment of those who administer the torture!”

Then Petitjean said something completely unexpected. “No, I don’t know those pains. But I do know that God loves you more than he loves Lord Hondō.”

Itō looked up at Petitjean’s face in amazement. He thought perhaps he was being mocked, ridiculed. “You say this God of yours … loves me more than Hondō? A man who’s tortured and inflicted pain on you Kirishitans?”

“You are suffering. But Lord Hondō feels no anguish in his heart. His heart is filled with the dream of taking advantage of the mounting opportunities in this age of Meiji and making a success of himself.”

“And what … what’s so wrong with that? I’m … if anything, I’m jealous of the success Hondō is having.”

“But it’s your jaundiced, wounded heart that God is trying to penetrate, not Hondō’s. God has no interest in a man like Lord Hondō, who is inflamed right now with the lust for success. He is drawn instead to a heart like yours.”

Hatefully Itō said, “I really despise the kind of nonsense you people use to trick the hearts of men. You prey on a man’s weaknesses, but no matter how hard you try to charm me with your Kirishitan babble, I’m not falling for your lofty words and schemes. I see exactly what you’re up to.”

“You’re wrong.” Petitjean shook his head vigorously. “Someday you’ll understand. By inflicting pain on the Urakami Kirishitans, you’re splattering your own body with blood.””

In closing comments, Endo notes his thanks to the City of Nagasaki, which was the location of the last use of an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the intended target for the second bomb, but the primary target was obscured by smoke and clouds.  When the bomb was dropped it drifted somewhat away from the urban core and landed in the Urakami Valley, where the story of Kiku’s Prayer begins. The surrounding hills prevented higher casualties, but the Urakami Cathedral, the first built in Japan, was destroyed and all those attending mass for the Feast of the Assumption were killed.

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Fabrice Hadjadj’s “Against the Microscope”

Earlier this year I became acquainted with the work of  Fabrice Hadjadj, a French Catholic writer of some renown in Europe. I reviewed his first book of scriptural reflections to be published in English, The Resurrection: Experience Life in the Risen Christ, on this blog a few months back. This post is a continuation of this effort to raise his profile in the English speaking world.

I recently came across an article he wrote in 2014 about two individuals, one fairly well known, one, not so much: Dr. Jerome Lejeune and Claire Fichefeux. Dr. Lejeune was a medical doctor and geneticist, and a discoverer of the chromosomal anomaly that causes Down Syndrome.  He later became an outspoken opponent of the use of prenatal screening to facilitate the abortion of children with chromosomal anomalies such as Trisomy 21.

Claire Fichefeux was a French woman with Down who died in 2014.  Professor Hadjadj had some acquaintance with her.  Claire was apparently adopted, and served in a civilian capacity in the French military, and may have been working towards becoming a lay member or consecrated religious of a French Catholic organization known as the Community of Emmanuel. She apparently was an eloquent witness for the faith and spoke at a few conferences, including one with Professor Hadjadj.

Hadjadj offered a tribute to Claire some months after her death, and the Lejeune Foundation posted an English translation at their website. The translation is a little awkward in parts, but Professor Hadjadj’s insights come through. The article is primarily a tribute to the then recently deceased Ms. Fichefeux, but also a reflection on the work of Dr. Lejeune.

In his usually creative way, Hadjadj critiques science for causing us to miss the forest for the trees.  In limiting our alphabet to G, A , T, C, and S, we cannot spell “human,” but we can build a prison like Gattaca. I will provide a few excerpts, but its best read in its entirety:

You have understood that focusing on the alphabet causes one to forget about the poem. One ends up seeing in a living being only a “physiological bag”, a “genetic sequence”. You no longer see the unique and interesting shape one doesn’t need glasses to see: the radiant daisy, the fascinating spider, the peacock, the ostrich, the rhinoceros, the orang-utan, etc.

Before we saw a person, now we see an error in a genetic sequence:

Before people used to say: “he is a Mongolian” and, yes, maybe it sounded a bit too anthropomorphic, as if people were being classified into races, making a very debatable and dangerous assimilation. At least they were called after a statement made from a visible appearance: we could still see a face. People marvelled at these little beings who looked like descendants of Gengis Khan suddenly appearing in a perfectly French family… Nowadays, they are named after a person who studied their disease: Down. We now only see an incorrect code, a bad move on a chess board, a typing error which, therefore, needs eliminating.

Hadjadj closes with a request that Dr. Lejeune and a child with Down be beatified by the Church.  All the more appropriate as Claire and those like are “not Down but, Up, up in Heaven.”

Having read much Bernanos lately, I completely agree. Our Church is the Church of the Saints, and the recognition of a Saint who had Down Syndrome is a worthy effort. What defense do we have against a world well armed with microscopes but the child like holiness of a forever child saint. Perhaps it is Claire?  I cannot speak French, but if you can, you may listen to a 30 minute homily given about her by the French Catholic monk Daniel-Ange.

So if you find yourself in a tight corner, a prayer for Claire’s intercession may be in order. It takes two miracles to be canonized, and maybe you can be her witness. It may even be your mission in life.

Read the whole testimonial here.

From Aleteia Media.

 

 

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Witness for the Prosecution

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From Inherit the Wind

 

One of the more interesting things to observe on social media, often not in a good way, is the interaction between believers, atheists and agnostics. There is certainly tension present. Some atheists and agnostics show great frustration with Followers of the Way*, and they do have good cause to be disappointed.

Georges Bernanos captured this dynamic very well in his essay, The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.  In this essay, written in 1938, Bernanos conveys the point of view of an imaginary agnostic who has been given the opportunity to deliver a sermon to a parish of self-satisfied and mediocre Catholics. Bernanos was a Catholic novelist and essayist, and it was considered a sign of his great integrity that he was far harder on the Church and his fellow Catholics than on anyone else.

From the outset, his narrator pulls no punches:

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, he would begin, “I don’t share your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.”

“… Who among you is capable of writing twenty lines about his or her patron saint?”

Lesson one, don’t BS or condescend to an atheist or agnostic. They have probably come by their position the hard way, either through formal education or long life experience.  Their common sense may exceed yours, and they may very well know philosophy, theology, the history of the Church or the Bible better than you.

Despite this, some will make time for us, even when we ignore them:

For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are a few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there  … the faintest chance of your being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch closely and try and fathom you.

Lesson two, you will have some opportunity to demonstrate or discuss your faith with them, whether you intend to or not. Be ready.

But we are often not:

“Yes, we were drawn to you. But now we’ve decided that you’re not very interesting after all, and it’s rather disappointing. And we hate to think what fools we were, ever to have hoped in you, and to have doubted ourselves, our own unbelief.”

Lesson three, we may be accountable to some degree for their lack of faith. Jesus says woe unto those who are a stumbling block to children. But is he just speaking of physiological age? What if its spiritual age as well? We will have to account for the atheists and agnostics we disappointed by our bad example.

For example, do we take the Sacraments seriously? Bernanos’ agnostic suggests we often don’t:

When you come out of the confessional, you’re in a ‘state of grace.’ A state of grace … are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?

Lesson four, as Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Behave like your faith matters more than the world

Instead, we seem to put too much faith in politics or money, not God:

But what surpasses the understanding is that you habitually reason about the affairs of the world in exactly the same way as we do. I mean, who’s forcing you? … But when your fathers profess the pitiless economics of Mr. Adam Smith, or when you give solemn honor to Machiavelli, allow me to say that you cause us no surprise – you simply strike us as odd, incomprehensible fellows.

Lesson five: If you make an idol out of your politics, possessions, or career, why should atheists take you seriously about the Good News?

Despite any frustration we have with atheists or agnostics, we must never judge them for their profession of faith. A scientist once calculated that about 150 billion humans beings have been born on planet Earth since homo sapiens came into existence (I have no issue with the concept of the evolution of human beings over many thousands of years, in a manner consistent with the will of the Father. Nor does the RC Church). Billions lived and died before the Incarnation, never knowing the Good News. Billions have lived and died since without being baptized or even being preached to.

For whatever reason, one of the mysteries of Salvation history is that only a vanishingly small number of human beings encountered Jesus in person, and a minority, even through today, have ever been formally inducted into the faith through baptism. Most of the people who have been born went to their deaths knowing nothing of the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Most people did not believe Jesus during his day, so perhaps it is appropriate that most of humanity not believe his followers.

Peter Kreeft has suggested that one of the purposes of the Communion of Saints is for those of us who are wealthy in life to share with those who were not in the next. When you lay up treasures in heaven, it may be for those who were never graced with any spiritual treasure in this life.

Does Bernanos’ narrator offer any advice for today’s Christians? His narrator prophesies our present,  and says we must become children again:

Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so direct, that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.

Lesson six, social media places our Faith under the microscope like never before. And we will be questioned by the orphaned children of our age, who will not defer to us or accept the things we take for granted. They find much of the world rather absurd, and laugh at it. And Bernanos advises that we will never respond adequately to their laughter except through the childlike heroism of a Joan of Arc before her accusers.

Christians who listen to me – that is your peril! It is difficult to follow up a society that has foundered in laughter, because even the fragments will be useless. You will have to build it all up again. You will have to build it up under the eyes of children. Become as children yourselves. They have found the chink in your armor, and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty and audacity.

You will never disarm them save by heroism.

Lesson 7, argument is of limited value. Apologetics has its place with those who are eager to believe, and need guidance or encouragement. Our Lord had little success with argument with those disinclined to believe him. Do we expect to do any better than Him? While we have a duty to be honest when the question is put to us, we will best persuade through our heroic example, which may include prayer and fasting, and all the ordinary or anonymous sacrifices we are called to make every day.

When I die, I want Jesus to call some of these formerly hard nosed atheists from the far reaches of eternity (Heaven) or temporality (Purgatory). They can be His prosecuting attorney against me in my final confession. Did I ever impress or convert a one by my example, or my prayers? Up to this point in my life, I cannot say with any confidence that I have. I would have to plead guilty to every charge they might make, a witness for the prosecution.

 

P.S. If you wish to read more Bernanos, many of his writings have been translated into English. Unfortunately, much of it is out of print and hard to come by at a reasonable price. The essay I have quoted from is available in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories by George Bernanos at a reasonable price in e-book form.

* As Christians were apparently known in their early years. The French writer Fabrice Hadjadj has suggested, half-seriously, that Christians go back to using that description, as it sounds far more mysterious and intriguing.

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