• He was delivering a donation to the little Catholic bookshop in a rough part of town, wrote a friend who, despite his considerable gifts, has suffered a very long period of unemployment. As soon as he walked into the Sacred Heart bookshop in Pittsburgh, the sisters asked him what he needed prayer for and then sat with him “for a good two hours while they plotted ways to find me employment. Even comments such as ‘What a wonderful gift that you’re not working, you have more time to pray’ that would ordinarily provoke me to inflict bodily harm on the speaker led me to absolute agreement.”
Not, he continued, “because I was trying to be polite but because I was sincerely prompted, in the presence of such tremendous childlike faith, to agreement. It was as if I was realizing my own total idiocy for not thinking about it in those terms.
“It’s a somewhat disorienting yet wonderful feeling to walk into a place in one mood and walk out of the same place in an entirely different mood without any apparent external change to one’s fortunes or situation. Merely being in the presence of great faith and, indeed, sanctity will do that. I think that, again, is grace.”
To support the shop, go online to abebooks.com and search for “Immaculata books.”
• He went back, needless to say. “Turns out,” he reports, “they needed someone to drive them down to the city-county building for an assessment appeal. They had a big box of papers that would have made the bus an awkward proposition. They said they knew the Lord would provide. And so he does. In quite mysterious ways. Perhaps someday I too will be mature enough to have the faith of a child. I’m still rather amazed by it all.”
• That day “a Hell’s Angel–type biker all tattooed up with a skull-and-bones winter beanie hat came in and kept signing himself.” He wanted to buy a nativity set in the window that had already been sold and said he’d pay double what the buyer had paid for it. He was told, “Once we make a promise, we keep that promise.”
He pleads that he wants it for his sister, who’s had a rough year. One of the women says that she’ll call the buyer and tells him to say a prayer if he really wants it. This, writes our friend, “leaves me and this huge guy alone in the front. He says to me, ‘They’re causing me to sin here, man.’ I told him he might want to save his sins for activities that are more enjoyable than wanting a nativity set.”
• The story continues, though the editor suggested dropping the end because it’s “too pious.” Apparently I get one expression of piety per issue. If I listened. For those of you who like piety:
The sister comes back to say that the buyer would let him have it and even donated her down payment to the store. Our friend writes: “I helped load the set onto the dolly and rolled it outside to put in his truck. He was as giddy as a three-year-old on Christmas morning. Strange to see this intimidating beast of a man reduced to a childlike state. Again, grace does strange things. Lambs mastering lions and all.”
• Here are John Henry Newman’s rules for writing sermons, which we would commend because we’ve read Newman and you’re probably (no offense) no Newman. They appear in the second volume of Wilfrid Ward’s The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.
1. A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.
2. He should never aim at being eloquent.
3. He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.
4. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.
5. He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.
6. He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility, which is a great Christian virtue, has a place in literary composition.
7. He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.
• Some people, Flannery O’Connor observed back in 1959, “in their revolt from our exaggerated materialist values, turn more often to Zen than to Christianity.” It’s still true, though the Eastern-inflected “spirituality” many people adopt seems to us a kind of sub-Buddhism, Buddhism with the discipline and demands taken out. Most people who fawn over the Dalai Lama would be disturbed to find out how “puritanical” his religion is.
So many people turned to Zen and not to Christianity because, she explains, “although it teaches poverty and charity and ethically bears a superficial resemblance to Christianity, it is non-conceptual, non-purposive, and non-historical, and therefore admirably suited to be exploited by the non-thinker and pseudo-artist.” Harsh, but not untrue.
• As the editor keeps pointing out, America is not threatened by socialism. Obama would not have received so much money from Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley were that so. But that’s not all there is to say. We are threatened by a statist mind, nearly as common among Republicans as Democrats, a mind that in response to any problem defaults to government as the way to address it.
Even Republicans who talk forever about liberty and the market vote like statists. As we write, the president and the Speaker of the House argue about what to do about the “fiscal cliff,” over whether to raise taxes, on whom, and how much.
No Republican, as far as we know, and certainly no one among the Republican leadership, is saying, “But it’s their money.” No one is saying, “There’s a limit to what we can legitimately take from people.”
No one is speaking, as Leo XIII did in Rerum Novarum, of “moderation” in taxation or noting that “the right to possess private property is derived from nature, [and] the State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.” Our present rates may be fair, but it would nice if our political leaders showed they knew this was a question to be asked.
The talk is all about what the government needs to do to have the money to do what these politicians have decided it will do, which has, not to be too cynical, a close relation to what they must give out to ensure reelection. If they talk about cutting taxes, the Republicans’ main concern is cutting them to stimulate economic growth.
But the idea that your money is yours and not theirs—or rather that you and not the government are before God its proper steward—of that we hear nothing at all.
The young woman, in an article a friend passed on by email, declared that she wouldn’t have children because people are bad for animals. Another friend suggested that she probably didn’t actually like animals, because most people who love animals also love children. It reminded me of Chesterton’s short poem about the English dislike of the French, which ends by referring to “The villas and the chapels where / I learned with little labour, / The way to love my fellow man / And hate my next-door neighbour.”
I suspected that there is a parallel in those who love “the earth” and don’t actually like animals, but can’t make that rhyme. My old friend Steven Hutchens, a senior editor of Touchstone, could.
I love the earth; I don’t like worms,
Or things that carry bugs or
Or howl at night or scratch the
Or plot to trip me on the stairs.
I love the earth; I don’t like cats,
Or people who are dumb or fat,
Or my next door neighbor John,
Who lets the weeds breed on his
I love the wildflower, whale, and
Things fuzzy, cute, and far from me,
Things I don’t need to have for
Things that ravage someone else’s
O Mother Earth, I raise this hymn
To thee, but not to galls or phlegm,
Or lions eating lion-style,
Or garter snakes or crocodiles.
• As I wrote in one of my columns for the Pittsburgh Catholic in response to some dingbat who called the sun, the trees, the air, etc., divine because they “give us the ultimate gift of life”—in comparison with “the organized religions,” which have “given us nothing but death and destruction” (which explains all those hospitals with names like Beth Israel and Mercy)—this kind of religion is extraordinarily dim.
Sure, we find in nature pretty sunsets, and cute little bunnies and kittens, and warm sunny breezy spring days, and the awe-inspiring mechanics of life on earth, and the equally awe-inspiring movement of the stars and galaxies. But we also find physical decay, cancer, earthquakes. Those cute kittens grow up to eat the cute bunnies. The weather that produces the beautiful spring days will also produce killing cold snaps and hurricanes that destroy everything in their path.
The mechanics of life on earth produce death as much as life, and indeed depend on death to maintain the balance. What is to you a horrible death from cancer is for nature simply a way of adjusting the population.
Last month we talked about New York courtesy, and we just stumbled across an article from the magazine, written in 1995 by the then–executive editor James Nuechterlein, called “I Heart New York.” The city, he says, “is strong where it is often thought to be weak: its sense of community.”
Jim’s critical of “community talk,” mind you. When people talk about the virtues of “thick community,” he wonders if they’ve actually experienced it. “Our excessively individualistic society finds it easy to romanticize its opposite: Living for a time in circumstances where private lives are regularly the subject of communal discussion—not to mention resolution—might lead theoretical communitarians to reconsider their enthusiasm.” Speaking of his childhood years in a small town, he notes that “communities know you: That is why we at once yearn for them and retreat from them in dread.”
But New York City, he continues, “offers as much opportunity for community as one desires.” He’d lived in communities ranging in population from seven thousand to 7.3 million (that would be New York) and “I have nowhere more fully felt a sense of community—nowhere found myself so securely part of a band of brothers—as in cold, impersonal Manhattan.”
The city is far too large to be a home, “but its very size and variety allow it to provide homes within it for a staggering range of home-seekers. Beyond that, it provides a backdrop so expansively grand and multifarious as to remind bands of brothers of the larger worlds, and the wider visions, that exist beyond them.”
• Johnson and Boswell were discussing—grading, really—the great preachers of the day: Atterbury, Tillotson, South, Jortin, Sherlock, Ogden. “It is a solemn thought that so little is conveyed to us by names which to the palaeo-Georgians conveyed so much,” wrote Max Beerbohm back in 1921. “We discern a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown, with a big congregation beneath him. But we are not anxious to hear what he is saying.”
He then continued, in an essay titled “A Clergyman,” by noting that “no more than a hundred and fifty years hence the novelists of our time, with all their moral and political and sociological outlook and influence, will perhaps shine as indistinctly as do those old preachers, with all their elegance, now. ‘Yes, Sir,’ some great pundit may be telling a disciple at this moment, ‘Wells is one of the best. Galsworthy is one of the best, if you except his concern for delicacy of style. Mrs. Ward has a very firm grasp of problems, but is not very creational. Caine’s books are very edifying. I should like to read all that Caine has written. Miss Corelli, too, is very edifying. And you may add Upton Sinclair.’”
Will the time come, continues Beerbohm, when no one will care to distinguish between these writers, the way people of his time didn’t care to distinguish between the preachers of Johnson’s day? It has already come, only ninety and not one-hundred-fifty years after he wrote. No one reads Ward or Galsworthy, and few have heard of Corelli or Caine. It’s something one thinks about, writing for a magazine like First Things .
• When he began teaching elementary school, writes Scott Farver in an article in Education Week , “I think subconsciously I was trying to go for the I-just-returned-from-Peace-Corps-and-don’t-want-to(-or-know-how-to)-dress-professionally look.” And he succeeded. Then, teaching at a school in rural New Mexico, for a reason he doesn’t explain, he bet himself that he could wear a tie for a month. He won it, and bet himself he could wear it for a year.
So far, apparently, a kind of lark. Then he realized that if the president happened to visit the school, he and everyone else “would be dressed to the nines,” and asks what kind of message he would send his students if he wore a tie for the president but not for them.
“If I did not wear a tie, did that mean they were unimportant? I don’t know if my students would ever reach that conclusion, but I felt like it was implied somehow. We dress up for important people and events. We dress up for presidents. My students are important. Every day of school is important, as important as if the president were visiting.”
He’s careful to say he’s not asking every other teacher to dress up—though we would, working in an institution that requires coats and ties—but he wants his students “to know they matter. So I wear a tie. I shine my shoes. I get haircuts. I try to reflect their value by what I wear, how I speak, and how I behave. When I enter a classroom, I think about how I look because I want my students to know they are important, as important as a president.”
• “Why,” asks our friend David Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler, “does the West wallow in images of death—not merely death, but death in massive doses, in the form of zombie armies of the walking dead?” His answer, which makes perfect sense, is that secularism doesn’t make us happy.
“We have dismissed the Jewish and Christian hope of eternal life as superstition offensive to reason, but instead, we find ourselves trapped in a recurring nightmare,” he writes. “We know that we will die, but (as Woody Allen said) we don’t want to be there when it happens. We act as if exercise, antioxidants, and Botox will keep the reaper away, but we know that our flesh one day must putrefy nonetheless.
“The more we try to ignore death, the more it fascinates us. The more we tell ourselves that mortality doesn’t apply to us, the more it surrounds us. And the more we try to fight off the fear, the more we feel like the beleaguered survivors resisting the zombie herd.”
You might point to the effects of social dysfunction, like the facts that children in single-parent homes try drugs more often and have sex at a younger age, said our friend Gerald Russello over lunch one day, but unfortunately many cultural liberals won’t see that as a problem. They’re shielded from it, replied the editor, living as they do in stable marriages in stable upper-middle-class communities with children in private schools.
There is that, but there’s probably another factor often at work, one other source of blindness. Many of these people took drugs and had sex as teenagers, and they turned out (they think) okay. It’s part of growing up. Everybody does it.
Which (everybody does it) is truer than we’d like, but not entirely true, even today. But in any case, a social policy established by those who managed to survive—who generally had the resources to survive—is not a prudent one. People win the lottery too, but you’d still be foolish to buy lottery tickets as an investment strategy.
• The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America lost 710 congregations and almost 500,000 members in 2010 and 2011, reports Richard O. Johnson. Johnson, the editor of Forum Letter and an ELCA pastor, notes that the Church’s official body had avoided posting the figures for 2011 and that its presiding bishop doesn’t mention it either, even when he announces that the Church is “always being made new.” About one thousand congregations have (so far) left for either the Lutheran Congregations for Mission or the North American Lutheran Church.
The ELCA is suffering a “slow-motion schism,” he writes, borrowing the term from the Lutheran historian Mark Granquist. “American Lutherans are no strangers to division, but more often the divisions have been dramatic and official, with entire synods formally dividing, or with large numbers of congregations walking out together. This one is more subtle.”
Pr. Johnson raises a good question: Why, he asks, when the ELCA’s standards require pastors in same-sex relationships to get married where they can get married, does the Metro New York synod still advertise events for “spouses and partners” of pastors? Even the Episcopal bishop of Long Island gave his homosexual clergy a deadline for marrying once they could do so.
He thinks he may have the answer. “Perhaps the real question is whether the ELCA is, indeed, grappling with these questions at all, or has it just thrown up its hands and said, ‘Oh, whatever. Do whatever you want, as long as you don’t frighten the horses and your congregation doesn’t care.’ That’s kind of what it feels like at the moment.”
• He was seven when he first visited his dad’s office, said Adrian, and was taken to meet a “very special person” living in a basement room that stank of excrement, with the stench permeating the rest of Kingsley Hall so badly that the doctors and patients argued about it. Adrian’s father “held madness in great esteem,” writes the English journalist Jon Ronson in his very interesting book The Psychopath Test . “He believed the insane possessed a special knowledge: Only they understood the true madness that permeated society.”
And so Mary Barnes, a woman suffering from severe schizophrenia, was left in the basement, “constantly naked, smearing herself and the walls in her own excreta, communicating only by squeals and refusing to eat unless someone fed her from a bottle.”
Adrian’s father was, readers with memories of the sixties might realize, the psychiatrist R. D. Laing. What was your father like? asked Ronson. “Well,” said Adrian, “the downside of having no barriers between doctors and patients was that everyone became a patient.”
Ronson says he assumed that in that case everyone would have become a doctor. “I suppose I was feeling quite optimistic about humanity.” No, said Adrian. “There was an unhealthy respect for madness there. The first thing my father did was lose himself completely, go crazy, because there was a part of him that was totally . . . mad.”
This, Ronson writes, was “an incredibly depressing thought, that if you’re in a room and at one end lies madness and at the other end lies sanity, it is human nature to veer towards the madness end.” Adrian just nodded.
Someone eventually thought to give Mary Barnes real paints, and she became a successful artist. There is a reason many people say “the sixties” in that tone of voice.
• “It was the theological shock of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 that challenged the fundamental church teachings and doctrine concerning the Jewish people,” says David R. Parsons of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, interviewed by the Israeli website Arutz Sheva. It’s not the reason—the Holocaust—you usually hear.
Mainstream Christianity, he argues, had “thought that the Jews, who were blamed for killing Christ, were doomed to endless wanderings. Accordingly they had been dispersed around the world, never to return to the Land of Israel or play an important role in God’s redemptive plan for humanity. With the birth of the Church, the Jews had served their purpose once and for all.”
This “development didn’t square with mainstream Christian doctrines. Thereupon several Christian churches, of which the large Catholic Church is a good example, gradually steered their institutions toward new attitudes concerning the Jewish people.”
• She had been brought up an atheist and thought Christianity “a symptom of bigotry or feeble-mindedness.” And then, says the English poet Sally Read, in writing about psychiatric patients, “I suddenly understood that my act of creating the voices of these damaged people was linked to an overarching creation. That there could be an ultimate author. The sky seemed to peel off a layer. I was full of a latent happiness I hardly dared interrogate.”
Each day thereafter, she stopped at a little Carmelite church (she was living in Italy) and, though not a Christian, sat before an icon of Christ. “Prayerless, I would simply look at him. It was on one of these occasions that I spoke aloud to the face and asked for help. There was no visual or aural hallucination, or anything, as a poet, I can use as a metaphor to tell what happened. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it felt like I was an amnesiac in a fit of quiet panic, and suddenly someone walked into the room that I recognized.”
She entered the Catholic Church in December 2010, at the Vatican.
• We suffer, writes Carl Zylstra, the president emeritus of Dordt College and the immediate past chair of Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, a “crisis of integrity failures” among Christian leaders. He says that in a letter announcing a summit called “The Integrity Project,” to be held in New York on March 1. The day will feature a series of speakers plus discussions. Those interested should contact the organizer, Robert F. Davis, at firstname.lastname@example.org .
• Also to be commended is the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. “Central to the Center,” writes the director, Michael Root of the Catholic University of America (and First Things writer), “has always been a commitment to a ‘thick’ ecumenism, an ecumenical outlook based on the conviction that common reflection on the basis of the great christological and trinitarian tradition the churches share should be at the heart of ecumenism.”
The center—founded by the Lutheran patriarchs Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten in 1991—rejects both “a reduction to a lowest common denominator or a retreat into an ‘enclave theology,’ concerned only with its own confessional standards. Interesting theology, theology that serves both the Church and the Christian life, comes out of such an encounter with the density of the tradition. At a time when ecumenism is lagging, a commitment to the fundamental theological work is essential.”
The center publishes the very good journal Pro Ecclesia (for which the editor has written) and a new book series called Pro Ecclesia Books, the first volume of which is The Morally Divided Body: Ethical Disagreement and the Disunity of the Church. Their next conference will address “Heaven, Hell, . . . and Purgatory?” and included among the speakers will be Paul Griffiths, Ralph Wood, and David Yeago. For more information, see e-ccet.org .
• We are pleased to say that The Best Spiritual Writing 2013 contains four essays from this magazine. (The most, by the way, of any magazine. We are tied with the New Yorker for the most items, but one of theirs is a poem.) Chosen from our 2011 issues are David Novak’s “The Man-Made Messiah,” George Weigel’s “All War, All the Time,” Francesca Aran Murphy’s “Oriental Aspects of Occidental Faith,” and Abdullah Saeed’s “The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty.” Commended in the appendix were Mary Ann Glendon’s “The Bearable Lightness of Dignity” and James Hannam’s “Modern Science’s Christian Sources.”
David Mills is executive editor of First Things and the author of Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God .