Sunday Thoughts: Preparing to Prepare

I am not going to talk about the election. What will happen is completely out of my power to influence and I don’t think my, what, five readers have much influence either, or particularly care what I have to say on the subject.

There was a surprisingly good homily at Mass today (my present situation is, and has been for a while, very unsettled, so I’m not part of a parish and have two or three churches that I attend depending on schedule): on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the need to be prepared for the coming of Christ. The priest pointed out that so many of us spend our lives, as he put it, ‘preparing to prepare.’ We’re not going to prepare to meet Christ – or to start a new career or make major amendments to our lifestyles or what have you – today, but we’ll start tomorrow. Except tomorrow is always tomorrow and today is always today, so we never actually start preparing. There’s always jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.

The difficult part of any endeavor, at least for me, is getting it through my head that today actually is different, or could be. It’s a self-reinforcing pattern: everything today seems much the same as yesterday, triggering the same responses. If we follow those well-worn paths, they will further make today seem much the same as yesterday. The cost of amendment is the discomfort of doing things differently with no guarantee how they will turn out. But there are never any guarantees in this life, only the illusion that things will continue to go on much as they have done. Since the bridegroom hasn’t shown up in the past hour, it’s odds-on he won’t show at all. No sense wasting time buying oil.

But today is not yesterday. Today is an absolutely unique creation. November 8th, 2020 never has been and never will be again. There is no reason at all it cannot be the beginning of a new life, the day when the preparations truly begin. It’s difficult to rewrite our programming (read: to change habits), but again, that discomfort is the cost of amendment. We always must die a little to come to new life.

Trust no Future, howe’re pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within and God o’erhead!

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.”

Sunday Thoughts: Love and Unique Creation

In the beginning, God made all things and made them good. He made each thing to be itself and not another, to occupy its own particular place in creation and to reflect its own small portion of His infinity.

God loves everything that is because it is what it is. I believe it was Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand who said that to love something is to see it through God’s eyes: to perceive the particular individual nature that God has given it. Chesterton expressed this same insight in his comic novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied: “The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as He must surely love anything that is itself and unreplaceable. But even for that I do not care. If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”

Incidentally, I think one of the reasons God permits evil is that a being that has rebelled and been reconciled is a different thing than one that has never rebelled. A creature that knows it is possible to fall, and yet stands is different from one that has no idea that it is possible to do wrong at all. That particular kind of existence requires that there be those who will not be reconciled, rebels who remain rebels to the end. It requires, at least, that there be such a thing as rebellion, if only that there may also be such a thing as reconciliation.

Now, in the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas says something almost in passing that I think is extraordinarily profound:

“For the more completely we see how a thing differs from others, the more perfectly we know it, since each thing has in itself its own being distinct from all other things.”

Each thing is itself, unique, and irreplaceable, and the more we understand how it is different, the more we see it as other, the more perfectly we understand it.

This is, I think, is the core of the Catholic view of creation: not just that creation is good, but that each created thing is good in its own nature, because it is what it is. The more perfectly it embodies that ‘being’, that idea of it in the mind of God, the better that thing is. A good thing (whatever it is) is good to the extent that it is most peculiarly itself, most perfectly the reflection of that particular idea of God’s. That is why (for instance) patriotism is a Christian virtue and one reason why love is so important: to love something, as Dr. Von Hildebrand says, is to see it as God does and to have an inclination of the idea of that thing in its uniqueness. To love something, properly loving it for its own sake, is to enter in part into the life of God.

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.