Sleeping at Sermons

When Soul-melting Sermons are Preached about Christ the Saviour, about the pardon of sin, about the glory of Heaven, there are some that would sleep under them . . . . Yea, some will sit and sleep under the best Preaching in the World . . . . Some woeful Creatures, have been so wicked as to profess they have gone to hear Sermons on purpose, so that they might sleep . . . (Increase Mather, Sleeping at Sermons)

A dozing congregant in a small New England meeting house would be hard to missa finger in the clerical eye. It is easy to sympathize with a minister’s displeasure at the provocation. (Easy, too, to enjoy Mather’s unintended window onto an endearing unruliness in the Puritan heart.)

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Puritans attending service in Plymouth, Massachusetts (17th C.)

Please do not count me among the wicked if I confess to . . . no, not sleeping during homilies. Not that. But I do defend against the lure of a catnap by coming to Mass armed with a book. No novels, no journalism. Nothing profane. I only take reading that Mather himself would call soul-awakening. It is my safeguard against sermons that could not melt butter let alone a backsliding soul.

My most constant companion is Henri de Lubacs The Discovery of God. It is a 1960 translation of Sur les chemins de Dieu, itself a 1956 recasting of an earlier work written in the crucible of World War II. The first was published in 1945, the year the Reich surrendered. It was the year of the Battle of the Bulge Bataille de Ardennes to the French of the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. It was the year Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung by Hitler’s order.

A slim handbook of thematically arranged quotations and reflections, the text is studded with passages to hold close in the spirit of prayer. These are deliberately fragmentary”marginal notes” the author calls them. De Lubac avoids all semblance of a theological treatise in order to prompt us toward an intimacy beyond the reach of systematic statements and analyses.

The text proceeds from Fnelon’s assertion: “What men lack most is knowledge of God.” De Lubac approaches the dual mystery of God and man from outside the conventional machinery of academic discourse. His own commentary interlaces with a treasury of observations the poetry of contemplative minds by Origen, Bernard, Hilary, Mircea Eliade, Paul Claudel, Anselm, Gabriel Marcel, John of the Cross, Aquinas, Martin Buber, many others. Each thread of utterances is self-contained, concentrated, and terse enough to grip wandering attention for the duration of a watery Sunday sermon.

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Artist Unkown. St. Ignatius Loyola Listening to a Sermon (late 16th C.). College St. Michel Fribourg, Switzerland

Simone Weil, her writing and her life engaged by history and politics, wrote the essays later published as Gravity and Grace at the onset of World War II. It is the book that brought her to prominence as a religious thinker and mystic. De Lubac cites it in a footnote, making use of her comment”We fly from the inner void since God might steal into it”to frame his own:

Man, alas, is above all frightened of God. He is afraid of being burned at his touch, like the Israelites who touched the Ark. That adds subtlety to his denials, cunning to his attempted escapes, and makes the pious inventive in devotional tricks to deaden the shock . . . . Whether incredulous, indifferent or believers, we compete with one another in ingeniously guarding ourselves against God.

Inventive in devotional tricks. That single phrase alone invites consideration. To accept the challenge of it is to leave oneself vulnerable to dismissal or angry dissent. I only wish de Lubac had risked answering his own summons.

His chosen extracts from Augustine are commanding in their brevity. The first, below, is exhilarating. The second and third could be taken as a chastisement against the assurance of theologians whose stock and trade is the discursive:

However far thought may rise, there is always further to go.

If you have understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God. If you were able to understand even partially, then you have deceived yourself with your own thoughts. ( Sermon  52)

Whatever is understood by knowledge is limited by the understanding of the knowledge . . . . If you have reached an end, then it is not God. ( De civitate Dei)

My favorite is a caution artists understand: that a certain clarity of thought can exist apart from language. Augustine, wary of the limits of language, phrased the intuition this way:

Have we said anything, uttered any sound, which is worthy of God? . . . A sort of battle with words ensues. Since if what is ineffable is what cannot be said, yet what can be called even ineffable is not ineffable. This battle with words is to be prevented by silence rather than stilled by speech. ( De Doctrina Christiana)

One aspect of this lovely book unsettles me. It is this: In all two hundred pages there is not a hint of the agony of its time. It was composed in Lyons during the years of devastating aerial bombardment by Allied forces over German-occupied France, between 1940 and 1945. (According to Andrew Knapps Forgotten Blitzes, a study of Allied bombing of Italy and France, Britain and the United States together dropped nearly eight times the tonnage of bombs on France as the Luftwaffe dropped on the United Kingdom.)

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The evacuation of these young bombed out evacuees was sponsored by the Comit Ouvrier de Secours Immeddiat, financed largely by the confiscation of Jewish-owned goods.

The absence of all recognition of the nature of the times in which de Lubac wrote both awes and confounds me in equal measure. The roads that run from God to man and from man to God pass through the killing fields of the day, through all the days before and those yet to come. Blood drips on the philosophia perennis. No theologian knew this better than de Lubac. Wounded during battle in World War I and active in the French Resistance, the man did not live detached from the broken moment to which he was called. Reading The Discovery of God , I regret his omission of any reference to the multitude of experiences, the demonic and contradictory context, in which these reflections were shaped and ordered.

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Rouen after Allied bombing in the spring of 1944

De Lubac admits only the confident complaint religious men are fond of invoking : “Man without God is dehumanized.” But does that hold quite so well as we think? History, including Christendom’s own, demonstrates that man with God is no stranger to dehumanizing impulses. Man in the name of God, man sealed with fervor for God, is poised to kill no less than console. Man, called into being by a God Who both loves and judges, hunts the infidel, hounds the reprobate. Made in the image of God from the dust of the planet, he distinguishes between the damned and the saved, discernment variable according to cultural preference. Man-with-God holds a double-edged blade, one side as ineluctable, lethal, as the other.What de Lubac so gracefully calls “the mark of God upon us” is, perhaps, a more fearsome thing than we permit ourselves to think.

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Yahya ben Mahmoud al-Wasiti. Teaching in a Madrasa before men and veiled women. Manuscript from Baghdad (1237). Bibliotheque National, Paris

It gets wearying, these pulpit and podium appeals to Love-and-Beauty. They point to the single keyhole through which we are counseled to view terrible enormities. The vacant and the monstrous. The horror of the void. Where is there room for the necessity the candor of dread?

I am left carrying my books.

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