Reflections on my journey to Rome
In medias res
October 9 -2005
The holy tears . . . Today at Mass at St. Colman's. I had attended Quaker Meeting at 10 AM at Radnor and then went to the 12 Noon Mass at St. Colman's. My feelings about the Quakers are complicated, but it is now certain that while their intentions are pure, and I appreciate their anti-militarism, these virtues alone are not sufficient. This protestantized world seems so sad, with people lacking access to the Holy Ritual to take them out of themselves. Thank God no one mentioned the Catholic Scandals in today's Meeting: I don't think I could have stood it. I have avoided going to the Meeting ever since the Scandals broke, and the newspaper has been full of it. Today a few people shared good feelings - I mean, one mentioned that it was the time of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah, and the recent earthquake which killed 20,000 people in Kashmir... and then another woman mentioned a recent religious event where a priest, a rabbi and an imam had all gotten together and affirmed that they all worshipped the One God, and how inspiring that was for her. I was reminded of a passage I had underlined in Georges Bernanos' book, The Diary of a Country Priest---
"Comforting truths, they call it! Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards. Besides, you've no right to call that sort of thing comfort. Might as well talk about condolences! The Word of God is a red-hot iron..."
The speaker, the Curé of Torcy, describes the kind of priest who preaches the "comforting truths" -- "who descends from his pulpit...with a mouth like a hen's vent, a little hot but pleased with himself, he's not been preaching: at best he's been purring like a tabby-cat." Most of the Quaker witness I have heard this past year have been little more than the purrings of a tabby-cat. Is it any wonder that I have sought the Catholics?
Radnor Meeting is a beautiful old meeting house in the suburban green land, with a hillside full of graves behind it and well-tended trees. St. Colman's, by contrast, is in Ardmore - a beautiful old church, to be sure, but with no green around it, only pavement and parking lot, and across the street a string of automobile sales yards, the new and used cars sporting American flags. Certainly this is no beautiful setting. But to enter this Church and attend this Mass is to be in another order of reality altogether. It felt to be not only in a different world from the Quakers, but on a different planet. And yet this is not true, for the Quaker Meeting and the Catholic Mass exist or rather co-exist in this world and in this same city.
Two weeks ago, when the Grand Jury report was put out and the Philadelphia Inquirer leapt at the opportunity it provided to -- once again -- take up the cudgels against the Catholic Faith, Father Tadeusz Pacholoczyk conducted the Mass. He gave a long homily, first apologizing --"for I have much to share with you today." His talk was pew-gripping intelligent -- not glossing over the problems of the sexual abuse scandals, but not omitting mention either of the anti- Catholic sentiments fomented in the way the press handled them. He managed to weave a good bit of history and theology into his remarks; I felt I was witness of a long and ongoing drama, of a story that had been told before, confronted before, atoned before. "Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church..." The Catholic Church has always known itself to be the Church of sinners: it has always clasped this knowledge of human negation, so to speak, to itself. It was something the Jews refused to grasp, and the Protestants negated. Protestantism is thus, in a manner of speaking, a kind of double negation. It is primarily a negation of Catholicism, and, being in effect a form of negation, it let slip the firewalls which Catholicism had erected concerning the knowledge of sin -- the original negation. A double negative is thus not a positive; it is only a contortion. I think this explains many of our woes today, from the abuse of our land to the abuses of our politics. More on these matters in time.
I was, in fact, overwhelmed, by Father Tad's homily; and afterwards, when we were streaming out, I gripped his hand and practically shouted in his face: "Wonderful, wonderful! I felt like clapping!" He was at first taken aback but then he smiled when he understood my import, and gave me his blessing.
Indeed this young priest -- he is perhaps 35 or 40 -- is a star -- or so I feel the term is not amiss when describing the presence of a spiritualized intelligence. Father Tad, Ph.D. is on the staff of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and lives, when in Philadelphia, at the St. Colman's Rectory. Indeed, St. Colman's is richly blessed in its priests. Father Sherwood is often present at the RCIA sessions which I attend, conducted by Deacon Shaeffer and his wife. There is in addition Father Wright, who is retired, but still conducts Masses; and a Father Maloney who assists on weekends. All of these priests, as well as the Deacon and his wife, as well as the women lay readers during the services, impress me with their devotion and faithfulness. No one has ever struck a false note or said a false thing. Every Mass I have attended has been conducted with beauty, truthful simplicity and honor.
In short, I have found a faithful Catholic parish two miles from my home. I am utterly thankful for this miracle.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity -- an important book in my conversion stages. Some quotes:
... The most fundamental feature of Christian faith ...is,namely, its personal character. Christian faith is more than the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not 'I believe in something,' but 'I believe in you.'
...Christianity... put itself resolutely on the side of truth and turned its back on a conception of religion satisfied to be mere outward ceremonial that in the end can be interpreted to mean anything one fancies... what can go on existing only through interpretation has in reality ceased to exist... The logos of the whole world, the creative original thought, is at the same time love; in fact this thought is creative because, as thought, it is love, and, as love, it is thought. It becomes apparent that truth and love are originally identical; that where they are completely realized they are not two parallel or even opposing realities but one, the one and only absolute... To this extent one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom... the Christian option for the logos means an option for the personal, creative meaning [and] ... at the same time an option for the primacy of the particular as against the universal. . . But if the logos of all being, the being that upholds and encompasses everything, is consciousness, freedom, and love, then it follows... that the supreme factor in the world is not cosmic necessity but freedom. The implications of this are very extensive. For this leads to the conclusion that freedom is evidently the necessary structure of the world... and this again means that one can only comprehend the world as incomprehensible...For if the supreme point in the world's design is a freedom that upholds, wills, knows, and loves... then this means that together with freedom the incalculability implicit in it is an essential part of the world.. With the boldness and greatness of a world defined by the structure of freedom there comes also the somber mystery of the demonic, which emerges from it to meet us...As the arena of love [the world] is also the playground of freedom and also incurs the risk of evil. It accepts the mystery of darkness for the sake of the greater light constituted by freedom and love . . .
... The doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of speculation about God.... it developed out of the effort to digest historical experience. ..God stands above singular and plural. he bursts both categories... To him who believes in God as tri-une, the highest unity is not the unity of inflexible monotony...... When it becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being 'from' and 'toward,' which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is pure relation (not substantiality) and, as pure relation, pure unity..... The 'I' is simultaneously what I have completely and what least of all belongs to me...
...to understand him as the Christ means to be convinced that he has put himself into his word... he has identified himself so closely with his word that 'I' and word are indistinguishable; he is word. In the same way, his work is nothing else than the unreserved way in which he merges himself into this very work; he performs himself and gives himself; his work is the giving of himself...
... From the point of view of the Christian faith, man comes in the most profound sense to himself, not through what he does, but through what he accepts. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift. It cannot be 'made' on own's own, without anyone else; one must wait for it, let it be given to one. And one cannot become wholly man in any other way than by being loved, by letting oneself be loved...If he declines to let himself be presented with this gift, then he destroys himself.Activity that makes itself into an absolute, that aims at achieving humanity by its own efforts alone, is in contradiction with man's being... The primacy of acceptance is not meant to condemn man to passivity... On the contrary, it alone makes it possible to do the things of this world in a spirit of responsibility, yet at the same time in an uncramped, cheerful, free way, and to put them at the service of redemptive love.
The disinterested character of simple adoration is man's highest possibility; it alone forms his true and final liberation.
Cor ad cor loquitur
"Heart unto heart speaketh . . ." This is how to call a posting about the Jews. Only the deepest to the deepest, truth to truth.
Last summer I had a short-term employment as an editor in a college publications office. On my first day L. showed me around campus. We got to talking about city life. He was concerned about the education of his children, so he and his wife and family had moved to the suburbs, although they preferred living in the city. "You wouldn't consider a Catholic school?" I murmured. He seemed to start inwardly, "No... we are Jewish," he remarked, as if to say that being Jewish meant that the idea of sending one's kids to a Catholic school was simply unthinkable, beyond any bounds of possibility.
My position, although temporary, turned out to be even more temporary than I had thought. I was hired for four weeks and fired after two weeks. My boss, a Swiss woman living in the U.S., went seemingly overnight from an encouraging and friendly colleague to a venomous and heartless tyrant. To this day I still have no idea what I did to displease her so. At the final meeting, L. was in the room, and I recall whispering half-aloud - while this woman boss was sitting across from me, lashing me for my mistakes and saying how she didn't have the time for me -- "It is God's will." I don't know why I said it but I felt, rather than saw, L., sitting to my left, make an inward shudder, a gesture of recognition, of hearing, of assent. I felt a deep bond with him - a bond I have so often felt with truly faithful Jews.
These two reactions are very charcteristic. In the first, L. could not conceive of his Jewishness other than as a form of ethnicity. In the second case, he experienced the reality of the God in whom both Christians and Jews believe. The first case was ideological, a kind of programmed ethnicity; the second case was real and experiential. It had burst the bounds of the program to touch his deepest heart. It was real life, heart speaking to heart.
These two experiences describe for me the paradoxical nature of the Jews. Perhaps the Jewish heaviness is indeed, being divided between these two alternatives, and being unable to find the true third way, the mediating way - of being true to oneself without becoming frozen into the mold of ethnicity. Zionism has exploited this sad contradiction and irresolution of Jews to declare who they are. Lack of clarity and spiritual purpose always leaves one open to the invasion of demonic beings, and in this case the invading being is perhaps one of the worst, perhaps the worst. Zionism is the worst of both worlds -- the secularized Jew who does not want to be set-aside in an ethnic ghetto, and a religious Jew who has been unable to find the true religion and has been fashioning a religion of himself, his race, his nation, his people, complete with historical footnotes, victimology, suffering.
Once the Jew ceased to universalize his God and share him with all people, this God went inside and turned into Satan. The Jew suffers from a periodic, recurrent, historic inability to be true to himself. But when they do waken to themselves and are faithful, they can be counted among the very greatest of souls.
Whole and part
Catholics tell me that Catholicism is the 'fullness' of Christian truth, the 'fullness' of the faith. I was pondering this as I sat today in a weekday Mass. If you take a drop of water or a grain of salt and split the water-drop or slice through the grain, the molecular structure remains intact, and it is not true to say that half the water-drop or a fragment of salt is less than water or less than salt. This is the nature of matter or of material substance.
But the same is not true of spiritual truth - and the echo of this can be heard in the oath that is sworn in a court of law, "the truth, the whole truth, so help me God." It is not possible to take away anything from truth and have it maintain its character as truth. To remove the slightest bit of it, to twist a word from a plain meaning to an obscure one, to add something to it which does not belong to it, to shade the context with diverting or irrelevant details or aspersions of bad faith, covert motives, interests not subjected to open inquiry -- all these things undermine the possibility of truth. And actually truth remains in a mysterious ether, an atmosphere or aura of good faith between men - or at least the possibility of this good faith. Ultimately spiritual truth is bathed in this aura of Mystery - and even the truth, the whole truth, the truth of the material witness, the truth of the material world - depends upon it.
Men think that by stripping away to the very roots of the material world they will arrive at the truth they seek. Our culture has been consecrated, so to speak, to this task. But it is actually an anti-consecration, a kind of cursing of matter, a condemnation of matter to material disintegration. What this act of anti-consecration means is that modern men have lost the flexibility of thought to move from the material to the immaterial realm. Thinking is a spiritual act, and they have the spiritual means of thinking but they have lost all knowledge of the guidance of a spiritual force. So a spiritual force not guided by spiritual principles becomes anti-spiritual. It becomes demonic.
Before the splitting of the atom in 1945, I believe that the material world lay under a kind of protection, so that the despiritualization of human thinking did not penetrate to the roots of life. But now we are in the midst of this despiritualization. The havoc lies all around us, in our culture, our landscape, our politics, our lack of loyalty to anything. There are times when I come close to a great despair in humanity. It's not that no one cares. They care, but they cannot listen. They don't know how. The instrument of thinking has to be attuned to the ether in order for listening to become possible - somewhere, deep within man, this instrument has to vibrate with the whole truth. This is not to say that the 'whole truth' can be known. But somehow it must be felt, or believed, in a living core of incorruptible faith. But this living core has been squelched for modern man. Perhaps this is the real meaning of Modernity - that the core of faith should be shut up in a dank basement labelled the 'Unconscious,' full of unclean spirits that feed off of it in the darkness.
It is not by unburying the Unconscious that we reclaim the whole of ourselves but by the restoration of the fullness at the core of faith.
"The renunciation of truth does not heal man."--Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance
"...The teachers of the Church unfold the classic view...of the fact that man was not shut out from the Tree of Life until after he had maneuvered himself into a position that was not appropriate by eating from the Tree of Knowledge... for man to be immortal in this condition would indeed be perdition... There are indeed final boundaries we cannot cross without turning into agents of the destruction of creation itself." God and the World
"...when Christianity is taken away, archaic powers of evil that had been banished by Christianity suddenly break loose again." Salt of the Earth (1996)
Santayana on the Spirit: "...the Nicene Creed tells us the Son was begotten not made, that is to say, came through an inner impulse, without plan or foresight, from the substance of the Father... ... the novel fact of human existence is passion of the spirit. "This passion would certainly not have overcome the spirit in heaven, where the harmony between powers and form is perfect, and life is ever at its topmost, ecstasy - as in the God of Aristotle. But that is sheer myth; and as matter can exist only in some form , so Spirit can exist only incarnate in the flux of matter and form... Passion is therefore inseparable from Spirit in its actual existence, and exposes it to perpetual obscuration and suffering."
Its degradation: "Obscuration and suffering bring temptations with them, and spirit is tempted... to love evil and be content with lies... to deny matter; to despise form; and to pose itself the only power... and arbiter of truth...But this is itself the greatest of lies and the sin of the spirit against its own vocation. Spirit proceeds, and is always proceeding, from the Father and the Son . . . It was not the Holy ghost that denied his dependence on the Father and the Son; it was Lucifer. and Lucifer merely lost his brightness and became Satan..."
Vere dignum et justum est, æquum et salutáre
-"It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation"
- What is salvation?-- October 15, 2005
Salvation! What a load of history this word bears for Western man - as though salvation or the desire for it were the very engine of our history itself. True, the horizon of salvation, or rather the thirst for salvation, has been gradually disappearing in modern times. Modernity is the desire for salvation and history to coincide, which is to say, modernity is the ambition to do away with the supernatural horizon of salvation, or to empty salvation of its supernatural content. The traditional anchors of this supernatural content, Hell, Heaven, and Limbo, have been pushed beneath the frontiers of consciousness. They no longer correspond to any real sense of place in the cosmos, but they do continue to eke out a small living in the moral sphere, like the Salvation Army.
It is an interesting question, and one asked by far better minds than my own, whether history can continue to exist unless it can coexist with a concept of salvation which is beyond history, outside of history. That is to say, can man continue to exist as man unless he also coexists? This seems to be the battle arena of our time. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, "Even Adorno said that there can be justice only if there is a resurrection of the dead, so that past wrongs can be settled retroactively, as it were. There must, in other words, somewhere, somehow, be a settling of injustices, the victory of justice." [From his conversation with Peter Seewald, in Salt of the Earth,1996.]
Putting the same thing more boldly and dramatically, George Bernanos once commented that "the thirst for justice will lay waste the world." That is because man's thirst for justice refers to the coexisting supernatural in him. Take away the supernatural coexistent and all that frustrated energy pours into the heart and soul of man, creating rancorous reverberations and resonances at every turn.
We live in such society now,which George Orwell depicted as the "Two-Minute Hate" of the totalitarian tyranny of 1984. We see the "Two-Minute Hate" principle applied to Catholics as a matter of course, and other targets and groups as needed. We have in this world a media, television and newspapers, which can disseminate these rancorous messages all day every day - although they are not called rancorous messages but "news." This is old hat. But it is always good to get reminders, such as Simone Weil's "The whole intellectual climate of our age favors the growth and multiplication of vacuous entities," or her comment on the intellectual decadence of our civilization: we are "almost incapable of applying elementary principles of rational thought -- e.g. loss of use of the elements of intelligence: ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends."
The loss of the idea of salvation has often been correlated with the rise of ideological this-world salvational movements --e.g. "Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God it becomes, not divine, but demonic." [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance] But too few people correlate the loss of the supernatural with the decline of thinking. This is because the people who do the thinking in society have no interest in such pursuits. For "... the intellectuals, especially academics, are fascinated by power," Paul Johnson reminds us, in his book Intellectuals(1988).
Intellectual man is the heir of religious man. But he would rather not be an heir but a ruler in his own right, dispelling all secrets [cf. Johnson: "It is one of the characteristics of the intellectual to believe that secrets, especially in sexual matters, are harmful."] with the exception of the shameful -- to him - secret of his own origin.
Declaration and Commemoration
November 20, 2005.
Today at Radnor Friends Meeting I made my announcement or declaration that I was taking steps to become a member of the Roman Catholic Faith. While sitting in the silent meeting meditating about what I would say, or whether indeed I would get up to say anything, I felt some fear and uncertainty. I knew that there was some anti-Catholic sentiment in at least a few of the Friends, though more as a subcurrent or mood than as a conscious or principled decision. Indeed, anti-Catholicism is the subcurrent mood of Protestant or ex-Protestant society in general; the general tenor was established in the 1550's and only increased in the revolutionary events of the 1600's and the so-called Enlightenment. It seemed to be the craze to subtract from God or from all the things that had heretofore carried society, as if by a process of subtraction and denigration, an addition and heightening of mankind would mysteriously turn up on the other side of the equation.
One has to ask: was it necessary, in the development of rationality and science, for this absurd balance-sheet attitude toward the relation of God and man to have gotten started? For the experiment is still going on, although it has entered a self-contradictory and even suicidal phase. Perhaps in essence that is what 'rationality' is: it is that in us which always sails perilously close to fixation, and it is only through a conversion experience of some kind that we escape shipwreck.
Still, I need not have worried about speaking. Afterwards a number of people came up to me and said how much they appreciated my sharing my religious journey. "That's what it's about - sharing the journey, walking the talk." The Quakers proved themselves most worthy of their name -Friends.
I should not fail to mention also that after I had spoken, another Friend got up to add on to what I had said. I had never seen this lady before; apparently, she was a visitor. She spoke most intelligently and appropriately about how the outlawing of Catholic churches in England in the 1500's had created a number of people who felt a loss, who felt that they missed the old services, and that George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, had perhaps appealed to these lost former Catholics in his message and preaching. This made complete sense to me; in fact, I wondered that I had not thought of it before. It seemed providential in a way that this lady had visited the Radnor congregation today - she was from Ithaca, New York. How do you explain that my message of conversion to Catholicism was received with all cordiality of spirit amongst these people, and that in fact it found an answering chord in this visitor who just happened to be present on this day?
I learned in Meeting today that our Radnor Friend, and my personal friend, Louis Hepburn, had died. There is to be a memorial service for him this afternoon. Louis was a warm presence in that meeting and a welcoming person to me. I had looked for him when I came in this morning.
Invasion of the Ultra-Subtle
October 25 - 2005
One purpose of cultivating true religion is to teach instincts how to function as protections, so that souls may turn the invasions of the ultra-subtle to learning moments rather than occasions for hapless subjection. The ultra-subtle rains continually into human life like cosmic dust, and for the most part these invasions are absorbed without conscious awareness. This arena of spiritual battle has been tucked away out of sight nowadays -- we call it the "Unconscious," and thus feel we have earned the right to ignore it. Or we pay Psychology and the Scalpels of Science explore it. Thus we relinquish our knightly task - the part of us that needs to be awake, the part that needs to fight and oppose -- the part that needs to keep the sword ever sharp and at the ready. Thus we abandon huge areas of our human experience and leave them open to the forces of devastation.
I wish to describe an infinitely small incident yesterday that took place in the question and answer session following a talk on the "ghostly tales" of Russell Kirk. An academic scholar read a long paper, lasting an hour, about Russell Kirk's literary side, and he used the term "experiments" to describe Kirk's ventures into supernatural fiction. This academic paper, competent and detailed though it was, seemed long. The mood lightened considerably when Dr. Kirk's widow spoke, telling stories and filling in some of the human background of her life with Russell Kirk, and some of the characters in his stories.
During the questions, I raised my hand and indicated that I was directing my comment to the scholar. I mentioned that I had read Kirk's Lord of the Hollow Dark, a novel of supernaturalism inspired by T.,S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, also Watchers of the Strait Gate, a collection of short stories. I recalled having read Dr. Kirk's introduction to said stories, in which he made the point that such fictions were "experiential." That was to say or to affirm that the encounters with mystery and supernatural were, for Russell Kirk, real experiences -- not mere "experiments."
A kind of icy shudder held for a split second, while the professor appeared to wrestle with my comment as with an invisible opponent, finally throwing it down upon the ground in a gesture of spurning rejection. I don't know if was anything that he said, or indeed if he said anything. I attest to feeling a sense of panic, fear, or rejection emanating from him. For if what I said was true, then all the professor's careful delimitation of Kirk's supernaturalism could not be true. For how can a "ghostly tale" be a mere experiment, given what Kirk himself had written, and given the premise of his tales? This premise was well stated by T.S. Eliot when he wrote something to the effect that that the authentication of religion lies in the fact that, for mankind, spiritual reality is a discovery, not an invention. An "experiment" is an invention; an experience is a discovery. The whole intellectual world stands or falls on this distinction, that is, whether or not the intellectual life is is authentic and valid. I think that the professor knew this -- "subliminally," not consciously -- and that he was profoundly chagrined that my question had "exposed" him. My question forced him for a moment to war with himself.
Mrs. Kirk, true to her Catholic upbringing and gracious sense, decisively saved the moment soon after by remarking, "That is a good point," and a palpable sigh of relief seemed to move through the room like a lifting shadow. She took the professor's own muteness from him, and rode the reproach of his unsaid words to joyous victory.
More and more I am convinced that our ultimate human fate will depend on whether or not we succeed in wresting the intellectual life from the professoriate. I believe that in this little tiny incident, Satan, or one of his minions, had come to call -- that he left us his calling card in that momentary ice, that hushed uncertainty and fearful anticipation. The moment called for a decision, and the execution of such decision is only possible for someone with trained instincts. The human and gracious religiously-cultivated goodwill of Mrs. Annette Kirk was able to cut through the fog of the soul of a man dangling in the pride of Satan - which is to say, a man unwilling to renounce his pride.
Above all Satan wants to gird the wall of intellectualism round about the experience of the spiritual world, so that there will be no intercommunion, no two-way traffic.
Much today depends upon whether the Catholics, trained in the Holy Obedience, can win through to the Holy Initiative - and whether they are truly attuned to the invasions of the ultra-subtle even in their own midst.
My 1989 and 1993 reviews of Russell Kirk's Watchers at the Strait Gate and Lord of the Hollow Dark, have been posted to the Sword in the Mouth website.