Ross Douthat of the Atlantic has been filling in as a guest editor on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Here are wise words on confronting the lacrimae rerum that attend our journey through this shadowed vale:

In a year of war, tsunami and hurricane, what just happened in the West Virginia mine might feel like a small tragedy, but then again where death is involved there are no small tragedies. And the twist of the knife - the false reports that twelve miners survived, and the premature celebrations - makes it that much more unbearable.

This is the point where Christians often murmur something about the mystery of suffering, or God’s mysterious ways. There is a mystery associated with suffering, but in general the language that David Hart used, following the tsunami, seems more appropriate to me - that “when confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering . . . no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms - knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against ‘fate,’ and that must do so until the end of days.”

There’s a trend in religious thought lately that dismisses the whole idea of heaven, of resurrection and eternal life and a redeemed creation, as anachronistic and spiritually immature. I wrote about it a little bit here , but it’s best embodied by a recent Harper’s essay on “The Scars of a Christian Inheritance,” in which the author, Scott Korb, offers this bit of wisdom:

“Focusing on confession and love of the here and now may be just the right way to stomach this Christian legacy I’m living under. I can let go of both the ancient miracle of the Resurrection and the modern miracle Catholics experience when priests change bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In fact, I must let go of these most basic elements of Catholicism that point to the afterlife, salvation, and personal, eternal reward. But why? Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned religious scholar, who is also not interested in the afterlife, has answered this question well: the afterlife is about preserving your ego “eternally in optimum conditions.” It’s that sort of egotism that God would have us let go of, and that builds walls between people.”

You know, I very much doubt that when the miners’ families in West Virginia hope and pray for a resurrection of the body and a life everlasting, they’re indulging in “egotism,” or throwing up walls against God or each other. And yes, I’m taking a cheap shot - but sometimes cheap shots can get at an essential truth, which is that Christianity is about the conquest of death, not its enlightened acceptance, and that in the absence of a resurrection, no pious words can make either the miners’ deaths or our own anything but a horror.


It is not tragedy of cosmic proportions, but much sadness — mixed with irritation, outrage, and bemusement — is occasioned by “contemporary” church music. The following from an unknown source (Canadian, I think) is an alternative version of the “Dies Irae” supposedly found in a Catholic hymnal, Worship III, that is big on songs such as “On Eagles’ Wings.” Protestants as well might find the new version very much to the point.

     Day of wrath, O Day of mourning!
     Earth to ashes now returning!
     Gather, by the millions, burning!
     Cleansed at last by cataclysm
     Butchered rhyme and battered rhythm,
     Neopagan narcissism!
     On that day, Lord, when thou comest,
     And our dreadful hymnals thumbest,
     Smite the ugliest and dumbest.
     Smite them, Lord, yet of thy pity
     Tak their songsters to thy city:
     Even Haugen, Haas, and Schutte.
     Spare them on the stern condition
     That they feel a true contrition
     for the Worship III edition.
     Doom them not to loss and ruin
     While the darker storm is brewing!
     They knew not what they were doing.
     On that day when Palestrina
     Dare not touch a celestina,
     What will Sister Ballerina?
     With thine eyes that pierce like lances
     Still her heathen silly dances
     And her flirting with Saint Francis.
     Purge us of the prim and prissy,
     Ditties fit for Meg or Missy,
     Not for Francis, but a sissy.
     Cantors who thought nothing grander
     Than a sheaf of propaganda
     Writ like office memoranda,
     Raise them to thy room to bide in
     Where their hearts and ears may widen
     To the strains of Bach and Haydn.
     Let their hearts within them falter,
     Hearing, as they near thine altar,
     Seraphs sing the Scottish Psalter.
     Seize those devils set to pen a
     Hymnal neutered of its men—ah,
     Fling ‘em all to black Gehenna!
     Fling them one and all to mangle
     Their pronominals, and wrangle
     Lest a participle dangle!
     Who held manhood in derision,
     Preaching double circumcision,
     Suffer now their own revision.
     Though the songs of Hell are naughty,
     None by Handel or Scarlatti,
     At the least they’ll have castrati.
     Pitch, O Lord, the bald and raucous
     Slogans of a leftist caucus
     Down to Sheol, or Secaucus!
     Save their singers, though: restore ‘em
     To a silent sweet decorum,
     Saecula per saeculorem.
     Various are the throngs of heaven:
     Some were lump, and some were leaven,
     Some as lame as six or seven.
     When the demons hear thy curses,
     And this world’s dense fog disperses,
     Heal the hobbled—not their verses.
     Hush me too, Lord, when I grumble:
     In thy mercy make me humble,
     Lest On Turkey’s Wings I stumble.
     Though Haugen sing “Hosea” evermore,
      Save me, I pray—but keep me near the door. Amen.

In addition to which :

“Gays and the Priesthood” is an extended reflection in the February issue by Father Neuhaus on reactions to the recent Vatican instruction. He asks whether we are headed for “The Truce of 2005,” comparable to “The Truce of 1968” that followed the widespread rejection of the encyclical Humanae Vitae . Other articles you will not want to miss are Stephen Barr on design and evolution, David Klinghoffer on the folly of a Jewish war on the “religious right,” and Avery Cardinal Dulles on the pope’s critique of the Second Vatican Council. To become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS , click here .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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