Peace on Earth at Catholic Match

When I wrote today’s Catholic Match piece, I was taking it for granted that the year would end in tumult (these things are written weeks or months in advance). Turns out, this is even more timely than I expected:

In truth, if you’re seeking reasons to lament the apparent failure of the angelic promise of Christmas there is no need to go to a Civil War or a natural disaster or…whatever you would call the events of 2020.

Loneliness, disappointment, and depression will do just as well or better for most of us. Sure things are bad on a global level, but what is that to the fact that maybe we’ve just lost a job, are mourning the death of a loved one, or ended yet another year still single?

Yet every year, amidst whatever personal or historical sufferings or disasters that confront us, we receive that same message from on high: “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Those good tidings are not of the immediate end of war, or of the restoration of basic sanity to our civilization. They aren’t even of personal happiness and success, the promise of a better year to come.

They are, “this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

We know, for we are told, that this is good news.

But what does it mean here and now? It clearly doesn’t mean ‘peace on earth,’ at least not in the sense we would expect, for wars and strife still torment us.

Yes, but it means that these things shall not have the final word. Our existence is not limited to this world. For God has come to establish His Kingdom upon earth; a kingdom not of this world. To be of that kingdom is to be in right relation to the cause and center of our being. And God has provided us the means to do this through His son, who is born to us on Christmas day.

That is the peace on Earth that angels proclaimed, and that is the great joy of Christmas; the peace of being in union with God, and the joy of knowing that He has come among us. This is a peace and joy that can and has endured amid the most savage worldly turmoil and most devastating personal tragedies.

Hence the joy of Christmas, the reason why songs of celebration are uplifted every year on this day even from battlefield trenches and terminal wards.

Read the rest here.

Merry Christmas everyone, and be not afraid!

Fear of Death

“When you remove, like even in the schools, you remove prayer, you remove God, you remove the fear of God, you create the possibility of the fear of everything else. But watch this: If you instill the fear of God, you eliminate the fear of anything else!”
https://mobile.twitter.com/zhenryaz/status/1320102253865308161

I know nothing of Kanye West, but if he’s putting out messages like this I will gladly give him a shout out. We live in odd times: the Church neglects her duties, so God raises up the rappers and playboys of the world to pick up the slack.

I bring it up because he’s quite right (Churchill said something similar): when one fears God, one need fear nothing else. Remove fear of God, fear of everything else rushes in. Particularly fear of death.

The thing about fear of death is that it amounts to fear of everything. Just about anything could potentially kill you. The Jews or the Jesuits might be plotting your downfall right now (well, the latter probably are). It may seem ridiculous to you, but there’s the nagging question: what if you’re wrong? What if you die, or you get someone else killed because you believed your own lying eyes rather than the experts? And in the final resort, death is always in reach; if your masters want your obedience, they can just put a gun to your head.

(Which is why the narrative that religion, and particularly Christianity, are means of controlling the masses and keeping the elites in power is rather silly. Which is more conducive to earthly power: the idea that all men are subject to God, who rewards each according to his works and promises paradise after death to the faithful, or the idea that this life is all there is and nothing awaits after death, putting the worst possible fate squarely in the hands of human authorities?)

The trouble is that everyone dies, and everyone dies of something. The fear of death must ultimately rule your life, and as we’ve discovered it can very easily consumed everything that makes life worth living.

We live our lives always under the shadow of death. That is simply how this world works. We Christians have hope in death. But even apart from that, it has never been the way of mankind to allow fear of death to rob of life or to deprive us of our virtue. That is cowardice, and to do right in spite of fear is fortitude; one of the cardinal virtues. Maybe the Jews are plotting our downfall. But I am commanded to love my neighbor, and it is a base thing to turn on a man whom I have never known to do wrong, so I will stand up for Mr. Schneider down the hall. If he later stabs me in the back, well, that’s on him. And if there is a deadly disease going around, so be it, but I have a duty to visit my father in his final illness. If I catch the disease and spread it, I can’t help that. I shall live as a man and die when it is my time.

That is how we ought to act. That is the human, classical, Christian way (yes, yes; there must be prudence as well, but not to the point of neglect of duty). That is what happens when we fear God more than we fear death.

Today we pray for the souls of the faithful departed who are in Purgatory. It’s a day also to remember that, sooner or later, we’ll be following them. Just how or when that happens is in God’s hands; what we do in the meantime, what sort of person we make ourselves, is in ours. Do we really want to be the kind that spent his life cowering in the shadow of the inevitable?

All Saints

The doctrine of the Communion of Saints is rather simple. It’s that Christians don’t leave the Church when they die. The work they began in this life doesn’t end when they enter the next.

We have a perspective problem in this life. In fact, it’s very like being in high school (our education system has very few good qualities, but it’s useful as an analogy). We find ourselves in a confined environment subject to many seemingly arbitrary rules, with little or no sense of the larger world that would put them into context. Everything in that little world seems all-important: winning that football game. Getting that grade. Going out with that girl. Some people excel in the system, others struggle, and those who excel often make it all the harder for those who don’t.

All the while we’re told that this isn’t the real world, that it’s only a passing phase and things will get better. If we have sensible parents they’ll remind us that the skills necessary to succeed in high school are not always the ones necessary to succeed in life. But it’s hard to believe that in the moment. The ‘real world’ seems like shadow: something that will be, while high school is what is.

As the poet Brad Paisley put it, “At 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night.”

But our parents are right. High school is four short years, compared to potentially seventy or more of adult life. How many people ‘peak’ in high school? How many of those who were popular, who were the kings of campus went on to be failures at life itself? But equally comforting, how many made a success of both? The point is that life is the important thing; high school only matters insofar as it prepares us for life. No matter how much ‘success’ we had in school, it won’t matter a bit if it doesn’t translate into adult life.

Also, adult life is where we have access to a level of agency, to the power to act upon the world in a way that we scarcely dreamed of in high school. The adult world is immeasurably larger than the high school world.

We in this world are in high school. The saints are the adults. They’ve grown up, matured, set aside childish things and live and operate in a world infinitely larger than ours, with a scope and agency that we can hardly imagine. But like adults, they aren’t ‘other’ than us; they’ve been in the same position we are now and they are invested in our success (far more than adults in our world often are, to be honest).

This is something Professor Tolkien pointed out in On Fairy Stories: we have a bad habit of talking of children as if they were a distinct class of people. We talk of children the way we might talk of, say, Japanese or Jews or women: as if there are some who are children and some who are adults, and they simply exist side by side. But a child is just a person at a particular stage of development. Everyone either is a child or has been a child.

It is the same with Saints. They are simply people who have reached the final stage. They are complete people, standing to us in almost exactly the same relationship as adults stand to children. So of course we honor them, of course we seek their help and intercession. That is what is proper to people like us, just as it is proper for children to seek the aid and support of grown ups. It’s akin to Ray Harryhausen seeking advice from Willis O’Brien, or a young baseball player asking for support from one of his sports idols. The followers of Christ in all walks of life are now pursuing their vocations in Heaven, the true vocations of which their actions in this life were but shadows, and they’re eager to help us follow in their footsteps.

Because they too are in the Church. We worship and work and praise alongside of a great cloud of witnesses, of heroes who have triumphed before us and urge us on to “be imitators of them as they are of Christ.”

October 21: Blessed Karl of Austria

Today is the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria, the last Hapsburg Emperor (for now).

For those who don’t know the tragic story of this holy monarch, Blessed Karl was the grand nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph and ascended the throne in 1916 at the age of twenty-six. He was an extremely pious and kindly man, a loving husband and father, and courageous soldier (the only leader of a major power during the war to have actually fought in it. And, not coincidentally, the one who tried hardest to end it as soon as possible, but his pleas fell on deaf ears). He pursued badly-needed internal reforms, seeking to bring the various states of the Empire into a more federalist-style arrangement. Like the best monarchs – and the best leaders in general – he saw his position as one of duty to his people.

After the war, President Wilson demanded the destruction of the German and Austrian Monarchies as part of the allied peace terms; envisioning a Europe dominated by democracy. Thus the Emperor and his family were sent into exile, their property seized by the allies, and financial support blocked by the allied governments. The result of this was that Bl. Karl took ill while out buying presents for his family and died a lingering, painful death. He bore his last suffering patiently, declaring his love for his wife and offering his suffering for his divided people. He summoned his eldest son, Otto, to his bedside to “witness how a Catholic and an Emperor conducts himself when dying.” He died proclaiming the Holy Name of Jesus: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy will be done—Jesus.”

You can learn more at http://www.emperorcharles.org/

Me, I’m a Monarchist, which is one of the reasons I have a particular devotion to Bl. Emperor Karl. He seems to my mind to represent the best of Christendom-that-was; the great Monarchical civilization in whose crumbling ruins we make our dwelling. Arguably his deposition and death are the demarcation point of the end of that civilization: the last Hapsburg Emperor, shining as a beacon of sanctity and manly courage to remind us of just what we destroyed for the sake of what came after.

Leave it to Winston Churchill (also an unreconstructed Monarchist) to point out the obvious: “[World War II] would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones.”

In short, the story of the end of Christendom is that we sacrificed a Saint in the name of liberty and progress and got a monster bringing death and destruction in return.

Blessed Karl, and all the martyred monarchs of Europe, pray for us and our leaders.

History and Compromise at ‘The Everyman’

My latest post at The Everyman is up, comparing our present world to Austria in the 1930s. It’s depressingly apt.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A virulent ideological movement is spreading through a nation’s institutions. It presents itself as the wave of the future, elevating those who have been beaten down, and as a long-overdue correction of past injustices. It pretends to regard any attack on its mission as an attack on the people it claims to be advocating for and any check on its momentum as the cruelest of tyrannies. Those who oppose it are condemned as being motivated by hatred, base personal gain, or because they are beholden to entrenched interests. It is supported by student radicals who, encouraged by their professors, use protests and organized violence to silence dissent. It employs racially charged rhetoric, condemning one group in particular on account of their real or supposed past crimes. People suddenly find old friends and family members cutting ties, turning on them, or uttering shockingly brutal rhetoric. Riots and violent unrest become increasingly common as the supporters of the ideology seek to impose it upon their neighbors.

Meanwhile the Church (with a few exceptions), either mostly dithers or is complicit by focusing on the superficial points of common ground rather than the fundamentally anti-Christian nature of the ideology. Instead, the movement is chiefly opposed by an energetic, highly controversial political leader who couches his battle in terms of the nation’s historical ideals and identity.

Sound familiar?

As you probably guessed, I’m not referring to America in 2020. I’m referring to Austria in 1934. It has become gauche and tedious to make Nazi comparisons, and for good reason. The analogy has become so abused, misapplied, and overused that it now means practically nothing. And the worst of it is that we always seem to miss the real point of that sad episode of history, a point that really deserves to be brought into greater clarity.

One of the most fascinating accounts of the Nazi conquest of Germany and Austria is the memoir, My Struggle Against Hitler, by the great German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand. In it he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany and his life of exile in Austria, where he used a journal called Der Christlich Standestaat (The Christian Corporate State), to wage an unending philosophical battle against the Nazis until Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938 forced him to flee once again.

What strikes me again and again in reading Von Hildebrand’s words is how willing so many people were to go along with the Nazis and how extensively and aggressively the Nazi ideology was pushed, compared to how hesitant and diffident most of the opposition was. Nazism really was the popular, dynamic, progressive ideology of the day. Those who opposed it were condemned as hating Germany and Germans, or at best considered quaintly backwards and Quixotic, since Nazism was obviously the way of the future.

The narrative then was “we have to find a way to work with Hitler” or “there are many points of similarity between Nazism and Christianity, such as value of the nation, of authority, and so on.” Or else “yes, but the Jews really are deplorable. They really do need to be taken down a peg.”

Again, this should all sound familiar (“many Communists have a truly Christian ethic” etc.), but again, to liken the American Left, or Red China, or any other evil ideological movement to the Nazis is not really the point here. For, as these examples themselves indicate, points of likeness can nearly always be found if you care to look for them. That in itself doesn’t mean much.

My point is that the rise of all these movements serves to illustrate the same lesson taught repeatedly in Scripture: that no man can serve two masters. Neither a person or a nation can hold to two contradictory ideologies. Nazism and Christianity, as are Christianity and Socialism, are essentially contradictory. This fact makes all compromise and all accommodation impossible. Worse, any such attempt to do so will mean actively damaging Christianity and Christian culture by obscuring its real character.

Read the rest here.

Talking Confession at Catholic Match

My latest Catholic Match post is up, talking about why you need to go to Confession:

This brings us to the second point: besides your eternal salvation (if anything can be ‘besides’ that), Confession, along with the other Sacraments, conveys a very useful lesson. Namely, that we do not get to set the terms of our relationship with Christ.

This is particularly useful for us moderns, as the whole tenor of our lives runs counter to it. We are surrounded by choices and the continual message that we and we alone can legitimately make them, often causing us to fall into the habit of thinking that the world can and ought to conform to our own wishes. We even extend this to God, saying things like “oh, I can find my own way to serve Christ.”

Jesus does not play games like that. He is the one in authority here.

You have sinned against Him, and He is offering a means of forgiveness. If you don’t like the means offered, too bad. That isn’t your call to make. The repentant soldier doesn’t get to tell the king what conditions he will accept for being readmitted into the army. As long as he is doing that, he is still in rebellion.

Read the rest here

Sunday Thoughts: The Treasure in the Field

Deconstructing fairy tales is like deconstructing a ming vase; it’s easy to do, but it says more about you than about the subject itself. When some wag sniffs at the ‘love at first sight’ trope, or writes smarmy novels about Cinderella realizing how shallow her love for Prince Charming really is, it only shows the narrowness of her own mind.

Remember, narratives are always inadequate to the reality. You are always going to miss something. The question, then, is what elements of the real thing are you going to portray and why, with the goal being to convey the true, complete nature of the thing as much as possible.

Love at first sight, leading to an unyielding desire to possess the object of ones affection, is not how things usually play out day-to-day in real life. It is, however, the true pattern of an ardent love; you recognize the other for the thing you desire and you put all on the line to win her and keep her. In the context of the real world, that recognition likely takes place over the course of a good deal of time and, since we’re flawed beings, may be imperfect. In any case, there will always be elements about her that could lead you to think that you may have made a mistake at some point. But the pattern holds good; success comes in finding what you want and committing wholly to it.

As you will notice, this pattern is itself a copy of the greater pattern that Christ speaks of in today’s Gospel readings: the man who found a treasure in a field, then went and sold all he owned to possess it, or the merchant of pearls seeking one of great price who, when he found it, sold everything he owned that he might have it.

The point both here and in the fairy tales is that the hero discovers something that is worth making the baseline of his life; the thing to which all else can give way because its value exceeds them all. It is the thing that gives context and meaning to all else, and thus takes precedence over all else. It is your purpose, your destiny. Lose that, it won’t matter what else you have. Achieve it, and you achieve all.

It used to be that this pattern was repeated on earth in a minor key. And it still is in less noticeable measures; the desire to serve a noble cause and a great leader is baked into the heart of man. In legend, a young knight would consider it the highest honor to be in service to King Arthur or Charlemagne, and would endure anything for that opportunity. More recently, hundreds of men signed up to serve with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and many were disappointed to be turned away. The chivalrous spirit has, as an essential part of it, unyielding loyalty to one’s master and cause: to the Faith the knight defends and the King who serves that faith. In practice, it wasn’t so much important that the king be a good king; it was the unyielding loyalty, the submission of the self that matters. David, one of the prototypes of the Christian Knight, continued to serve King Saul even while Saul was seeking to murder him.

The virtue of devotion must be practiced in an imperfect context – to King, to country, to wife – because that is the one we know and see and thus can’t fool ourselves over. If we say “I’ll be loyal to Christ because he is perfect, but not to my country because it’s imperfect,” then we probably won’t be loyal to Christ either if He ever asks us to do something difficult or something we don’t understand. Indeed, how often do we hear people today saying things like “I love Jesus, but I don’t think he cares about my sexual habits, or about usury, or about whether I go to Church.” Because we don’t have the habit of devotion, of serving the imperfect, we have instead the habit of ‘serving’ only as we see fit. Which, of course is not serving at all. A soldier who only follows orders that he himself judges to be correct and sensible is claiming the rank of a general; a knight who only obeys his king when he would have done the same thing is claiming the rights of a king. If we have no experience of actually serving, how will we know to serve God? “He who is loyal in small things will be loyal in great ones.”

Hence, the narrative pattern of giving all for the desired object; the princess, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Hence the pattern of the noble knight who wants nothing more than to serve the good king. These are, in fact, the correct way to look at life, despite slurring over the details.

Christ, our Lord, our maker, our redeemer, is the foundational value; the base from which all other value proceeds. To be of the Kingdom of God — to be ‘in service’ to Christ — is the supreme glory of the human person and ought to be our greatest desire.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.

JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.