4) SENSE AND NONSENSE.

 

Series published since 1985 in Crisis, (1814½ "N" Street, NW, Washington, D. C., 20036). My book Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays, Ignatius Press, 1992, is a collection of about forty of these essays. Over the years, the subject matter ranges widely, with indeed, some sense and nonsense contained therein.

 

I will include twenty essays here:

 

1) "The Eastertide"; 2) "To Understand Better All the 'Whys"; 3) "The Nativity: 'An Admirable Exchange'"; 4) "On Things We May Not Have Noticed"; 5) "Horizontal Man: A New Humanity 'Without God'"; 6) "Scott Walter: An Appreciation"; 7) "Truth"; 8) "Gnosticism Reconsidered"; 9) "St. Paul"; 10) "On Pens and Pencils."

 

11) "On Things We May Not Have Noticed," 12) "The "Stabat Mater," 13) "Order," 14) "On the Reality of Fantasy," 15) "'Speak So That I May See You'," 16) "John Joseph Schall," 17) "At a Christmas Eve Mass," 18) "The Craftsman," 19) "A Little Bit of Deism," 20) "On Falling Down on "M" Street."

 

Other essays in this series can be found below in 19) Bibliography.

 

_______________

 

1) From Crisis, April, 1997.

 

 

Some Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

THE EASTERTIDE

 

In 1997, Easter fell early on March 30. On Easter Thursday, 1966 (14 April), Margaret Waugh wrote to Lady Diana Cooper recounting the death at home of her father, Evelyn Waugh, on Easter Sunday. "Don't be too upset about Papa," Margaret wrote. "I think it was kind of a wonderful miracle. You know how he longed to die and dying as he did on Easter Sunday, when all the liturgy is about death and resurrection, after a Latin Mass and holy communion, would be exactly as he wanted. I am sure he had prayed for death at Mass. I am very happy for him" (A Bitter Trial, St. Austin Press, p. 66).

 

I have a copy of Waugh's autobiography, A Little Learning. In it there is a photo identified as "The Lundy Island Group, Easter, 1925." In it Waugh, at 22, is seen sitting on beach rocks; he wears a turtle-neck sweater, knickers. Behind him are two friends, Terence Greenidge and David Plunkett-Green, with Green's two sisters Olivia and Gwen. Waugh has some romantic interest in Olivia at the time. But "there was no question of me and Olivia marrying...." This is how Waugh described this Olivia: "She nagged and bullied at times, she suffered from morbid self-consciousness, she was incapable of the ordinary arts and efforts of pleasing and was generally incapable of any kind of ostentation; a little crazy, truth-loving, and in the end holy" (p. 218). At Eastertide, from 1925, it is well to remember that anyone can be holy.

 

Waugh himself died in the faith but was not a happy man with it. His last letter of 30 March 1966 (hence thirty-one years ago this Easter) was written to Lady Diana (Mitford) Mosley, a letter found Mark Amory's The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, a book which someone gave me years ago with this delightful inscription: "J. As Flannery (O'Connor) says, don't make an algebra problem out of this, just enjoy." I still laugh when I read this inscription as much directed to my character as Waugh's wit. Waugh writes to Lady Diana, "Easter used to mean so much to me. Before Pope John and his Council -- they destroyed the beauty of the Liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the faith doggedly without joy. Church going is a pure duty parade. I shall not live to see it restored." As he only lived twelve more days, we can be sure he did not see the Liturgy "restored."

 

Margaret Waugh was born in 1942. Waugh had great affection for her. On the First Sunday in Lent, 1954, (she was twelve), he wrote to her at school, "I hope that you have given up swearing & smoking & drinking for Lent." When she was fifteen, Margaret wrote to her father complaining how much she disliked the girls' Convent school. With a piece of advice that would either put him in jail or earn the undying hatred of educationists today, Waugh wrote to her, "I think it a weakness of girls' schools that they have no adequate punishments. When a boy is naughty he is beaten and that is the end of it. All this admonition makes for resentment and the part of your letter that I don't like at all is where you say the nuns 'hate' you. That is rubbish. And when you run down girls who behave better than you. That is mean. Chuck it, Meg."

 

Margaret wants to leave school early. Waugh tells her that they will talk about it at the next vacation. Then he added:

I was miserable at Lancing (his prep school) and kept asking my father to take me away. I am very glad now that he did not.... The whole of our life is a test & preparation for heaven -- most of it irksome. So each part of our life is an irksome test & preparation for something better. I think you would greatly enjoy Oxford and get the best out of it. But you can't get there without much boring labour and discipline.

Waugh adds this tender instruction to his daughter unhappy at school: "Don't get into your silly head that anyone hates you or is unfair to you. You are loved far beyond your deserts, especially by your Papa."

 

There is something appropriate at Eastertide in reading these two letters, Margaret Waugh to Lady Cooper and of Waugh to his daughter at school. The daughter knows something is right about her father dying on Easter Sunday after Latin Mass. Even though he did not live to see the Liturgy restored, this was the same man who wrote to his daughter that "the whole of our life is a test and a preparation for something better."

 

2) From Crisis, December, 1991.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

"TO UNDERSTAND BETTER ALL THE 'WHYS'"

The Feast of St. Luke, one of those perfectly beautiful October days in Washington, was a Friday. After a noon class in which I was discoursing on Hobbes, a Saudi student in class told me that he liked this material. Machiavelli and Hobbes were not allowed to be studied in his country, he explained. This remark about their now being his "favorites," however, made me wonder whether he thought these two strange philosophers were also favorites of mine. I decided I was just luminously unclear. I did not especially want to be known as what Strauss called "a teacher of evil" in Saudi Arabia!

 

In any case, the Sun was out and warm after a very wet, cozy day. I cut down to the C & O Canal Path below the campus and just above the Potomac. As I walked under Key Bridge, I noticed a rather elegant chalk pastel on the base of the Arch under which I was about to walk. The mural-like painting began with a large "WHY?" On getting closer, the words following were, "Is Life So Hard?"

We never know what to make of such random graphics on abandoned walls and sturdy bridges. But we wonder if this poignant question is perhaps a joke or is it a cri de coeur? Is it a philosophical query or a sign of existential pain? If you bother to read the other graphics on such public walls, of course, you will soon decide to take nothing on them too seriously.

 

Yet, the perennial question -- "why is life so hard, so difficult?" -- takes on a further depth if we think of it in the Christmas Season. The Incarnation of the Son of God among men was intended to address that poignant query found at the Base of Key Bridge on the Feast of St. Luke, the same St. Luke who gave us an account of the Nativity of Christ. The Incarnation, itself the primary grounding for joy for our kind, does not immediately take away the difficulties, as we might, at first sight, expect God to do for us.

 

On July 10, 1985, John Paul II gave a brief address on "Proof of God's Existence." The Holy Father is the first to acknowledge that what we think of God makes a difference. Indeed this very question, "why is life so hard?", is a challenge to God. It implies that life ought not to be so hard; but if it is, it is somehow God's problem if not His fault.

 

Christianity, of course, holds that if we did not exist, if the world did not exist at all, there would be no difficulties, no pain. Some no doubt would rather prefer to think the world and God out of existence than to have one human soul cry out below Key Bridge, "why is life so hard?" And yet, the askers of such questions need to listen for answers, something that may require even more bravery.

 

After reviewing the arguments for the existence of God, John Paul II concluded,

The proofs of the existence of God are many and convergent. They contribute to show that faith does not humble human intelligence, but stimulates it to reflections and permits it to understand better all the "whys" posed by the observation of reality.

What is remarkable about this passage of the Holy Father is its recognition that we are both to "pose" our "whys" and to answer them in the light of God's existence. We are given knowledge of God not so that we will be humble but that we may know more, may know all that is. "Why is life so hard?" is clearly a question that most people have asked if not about themselves, surely about others. The more important question is not "why is life so hard?" but why is there human life at all, even if it is difficult?

 

If we look at Luke's account of the Nativity, it is striking to note the number of "whys" that appear in the text. First of all, Caesar Augustus wanted to know how the number of inhabitants in his Empire. This census turned out directly to effect where Christ was born. Why was Christ born in Bethlehem? Because of Caesar, because of the Prophecy. The conditions of making it to Bethlehem answered why Christ was born in a manger.

 

And what does one do with questions properly posed? St. Luke describes Mary. She listened to what the Shepherds had told her about events going on around this Birth. "When (the Shepherds) saw Him, they recounted what they had been told about this Child; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said."

 

What did Mary "do" about this new knowledge? "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them." She treasured and she pondered.

 

In his A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, Josef Pieper wrote: "Only someone who is silent is listening." And he goes on, as if to reflect on this scene of Mary "pondering" in silence the events which she has seen and heard.

Since reason is nothing else than the power to understand reality, then all reasonable, sensible, sound, clear, and heart-stirring talk stems from listening silence. Thus all discourse requires a foundation in the motherly depth of silence.

Only someone who is silent is listening. All discourse comes out of the motherly depths of silence. The words of silence are to be fruitful.

 

We are then to understand all the "whys" that are posed from our observations of nature and, with Mary, our listening to the words and the events about the Nativity when the Shepherds heard the "Glory to God in the Highest."

 

"Why is life so hard?" I think it is a remarkably Catholic thing to realize that we are meant also to "understand" this hardness of life. To do this, we must ponder why the Christ was born among us as a Child. We must realize that God created and redeemed precisely us, our kind, ourselves. We must say, looking at the Incarnation, that in spite of the tragedies and difficulties of life, we exist and post the questions about the "whys."

 

In silence we listen with Mary, who pondered all these things in her heart, a heart that the sword would pierce, a heart that knew that this suffering was intended, even from its beginning, for our glory, for our joy in which all these cries are subsumed in glory if we accept the dignity God has given to us, the dignity of choosing what we are, of choosing to learn from what God is so that we may know what we are.

 

3) From Crisis, December, 1993.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

THE NATIVITY: AN "ADMIRABLE EXCHANGE"

 

In And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together, there is a sequence on the Great Pumpkin, the Peanuts not so subtle homage to Christmas, about how the Great Pumpkin rises out of the Patch and looks for sincere boys and girls to whom to give lots of toys. Peppermint Patty and Linus are sitting under a tree, both looking off in the distance in different directions. Peppermint Patty, in the previous sequence, had been the only one who would believe Linus' story. Linus is actually astonished that someone else would believe him.

 

Patty explains to Linus, "You know why I believe your story about the 'Great Pumpkin'?" As they walk away, Linus behind her, Patty continues, "Because I am very superstitious that's why! The more impossible something is, the more I believe it! That's the way I am!" The next scene shows a perplexed Linus asking Patty, "You think the Great Pumpkin story is impossible?" Patty replied, "Oh, it's impossible all right.... It's impossible, ridiculous, and stupid." But in the final scene, she turns to Linus with a yell that blows him over, "BUT I BELIEVE IT!!"

 

 

Credo quia impossibile, quia absurdam.... But of course, the Christian account of the Nativity is not based on impossibility or absurdity as many would like us to believe. It is based on fact, which requires us to change our definitions of what we think possible and impossible. If it happened; it is not impossible. Then, granting that it happened and is therefore possible, we are required to think about this event, this possibility, this "but I believe it". To explain the Nativity, we have to explain the world and more than the world. We also have to explain ourselves to ourselves. And we cannot fully explain ourselves to ourselves without Christ.

 

In his Pensées, Pascal wrote, "Through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, we prove God, and teach morality and doctrine. Jesus Christ is then the true God of men" (#546). We find a deliberate paradox here, of course. "True God of men".... Jesus is man-God, true God and true man, as the Creeds say. We might argue that the Pascal's "true God of man" need not be a man-God, though what Pascal probably meant was that we men will never really understand God unless He is like unto ourselves somehow. The very meaning of the Nativity is that He is like unto ourselves. We prove God and teach morality and doctrine because the Word is made flesh.

 

Christmas falls on a Saturday this year. We also know that it falls in the Summer in the Southern Hemisphere, that it can be very warm on Christmas in California, very cold in Minnesota, that different lands celebrate Christmas in different manners. The Christmas tree, the Yule Log, the carols, the mangers, the presents. We know of efforts to bring "Christ back into Christmas." We are aware that His presence in Christmas is looked upon by many as a threat, and it is in a way. The public imagery of Christmas in our society has been almost entirely secularized with bells and trees and dippy Santas. And even Santa causes objections to some. Yet, at least till now, we keep the day, keep the day holy even.

 

Christmas is said to be overly commercialized and secularized, and of course it is. Yet this is not such a bad thing. Over reaction to something good is not nearly so dangerous as a kind of parsimonious refusal to be excited about anything at all, particularly about something of the proportions of The Nativity.

 

What is this Christmas anyhow? It is about the birth of a Child into the world, at a definite time, in a definite place. This Child was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the whole world was said to be "at peace." Very few noticed this event at the time -- records talk about the parents, a Mary and a Joseph, about some shepherds, some Magi, some angels. Later there is a search for this Child. The Magi get the local king into the act because he thinks this Child might be a threat to his power. So he kills off a number of male children under two hoping to get this Child, who evidently escaped to Egypt in time thanks to his father.

 

 

Le Catéchisme de la Eglise Catholique has this to say about the Nativity, that "the coming of the Son of God on earth is an event so immense that God wished to prepare for it during the centuries." All the rites and sacrifices and symbols of the Old Testament converge toward Christ's coming (#522). We are not prepared to contemplate these striking words, that there was long preparation, lasting centuries for His coming. They mean that the events of the world, one way or another, have purpose and order, in spite of their seemingly haphazard sequences. Christ was not an accident or an after-thought.

 

When it comes to the mystery of this "Noël", we are told that "Jesus is born in the humility of a stable, in a poor family. Some shepherds are the first witnesses of the event. It is in that poverty that the glory of heaven is manifested" (#525). We wonder why it was this way, in such odd circumstances?

 

Would it not have been more effective were the glory of heaven to have been manifested directly in the household of, say, Caesar Augustus, right at the center of things, to where Paul and Peter had to go later anyhow? We have to assume that the way via Bethlehem was not only a much less flamboyant way, but also a more effective way for the reasons why the Incarnation and Nativity took place in the first place.

 

The Catechism then cites an ancient antiphon or anthem from the Octave of Christmas which calls the fact that "the Creator of the human race, assuming a body and a soul, has deigned to be born of a virgin and, became man without the intervention of man. He has made us a gift of His divinity" (#526). This Christ becoming man and our receiving the gift of his divinity is called "an admirable exchange." Indeed it is.

 

It is striking to me that the few paragraphs on the Nativity in the General Catechism talk mainly of the "admirable exchange" of God becoming man and man becoming in turn divinized so that he might live the life of God in grace. The Nativity, of course, presupposes the Incarnation, about which the first question to be asked is why did God become man? The answer is startling, yet it is that of the Creeds: "The Word became flesh in order to save us while reconciling us with God" (#457).

 

So Christ was not born in a manger in Bethlehem in order to demonstrate the power of God. At first sight, for God to become man in the form of an infant seems rather an act of humility, not power -- which is of course the way Christians have always seen it since Paul's notion that God emptied himself out becoming a man. We are not wrong, no doubt, to suspect that this peculiar way, the way of Incarnation and Nativity, is a better way, a way when thought about that leads to the most profound of insights into the ways of God and the meaning of man.

 

The Nativity of Christ, like all births, is a new beginning. Things are never the same once it has taken place. Things are new, unexpected. Yet, this Nativity took place in order to reconcile us with God. The great Cowper Madonna in the National Gallery shows Mary holding the Child with little John the Baptist as their side. All three are gazing at a Cross. Things are being prepared.

 

But the "admirable exchange" has taken place and is being carried out. God has become man; we are divinized. "The Word became flesh in order to save us while reconciling us with God." This is why we celebrate the Nativity. This is what we could not do by or for ourselves. That is our belief -- it is not impossible, it is not absurd. The coming of the Son of God on earth is an event of such immensity that we are still preparing for it, even as it is being carried out in time before our very eyes. The Nativity -- the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. Jesus Christ is then the true God of man.

4) From Crisis, January, 1994.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ON THINGS WE MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED

 

Once upon a January, many long years ago, I was born, in a small town in Iowa. My recollections of this momentous event, naturally, remain somewhat vague. Actually, this is a great mercy, as you can readily realize, otherwise I might be tempted to write about it. As Chesterton said in his Autobiography, we have to take the fact of our own birth on faith. We have to accept the testimony of others for the truth of a primal event in which we have some considerable interest.

 

What made me think of this reference to my this-worldly origins was a passage I came across by chance in the works of that noted theologian, P. G. Wodehouse. He caused me to think of baptism and that original sin in which we are conceived and born, of why things go wrong in spite of our best intentions. I do not recall my own baptism either, but I believe I have seen the document attesting to it someplace. Baptism, of course, is addressed to this prevailing disorder we all seem somehow to find ourselves locked into.

 

My parents, also good theologians, upheld the practice of infant baptism. Give or take a couple of days, I am a born Catholic. Infant baptism, more than anything else almost, suggests that, while there is much right with the world, there is also something subtly deviant, something in the order of spirit that is capable of turning us away from what we truly are to become. If, because you are aware of the implications of this dire situation, you think you need all the help you can get in this life to get out of it in good shape, then you are for infant baptism even on pragmatic grounds. The Lord pursues us "down the nights and down the days," to recall Francis Thompson's poem.

 

I had even been reading Hegel, always itself a daunting exercise. Hegel observed that "the History of the World is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it." But even Hegel wanted to redeem these periods of unhappiness. He wanted to show us how "History as the slaughterbench (of the) happiness of peoples" had some purpose. He wanted to know "to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered?" To what aim indeed? Somehow we must explain, if only to ourselves, the meaning of these "enormous sacrifices" in the slaughterbench that is too often our history.

 

Thus, in The World of Jeeves, I read, to continue these profound topics: "I don't know if you have noticed it, but it's rummy how nothing in this world ever seems to be absolutely perfect." To be sure, I had noticed this. That is why I put Wodehouse in italics. I remember once standing on Fell Street in San Francisco for a long time thinking words very similar -- how nothing in this world ever seems to be perfect. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not have Wodehouse's memorable words to explain it all to me.

 

None the less, as I said, I have noticed this unsettling situation. In truth, however, something perhaps even more mysterious, I think that there probably are "absolutely perfect" things in this world, except, because even these originate in the divine perfection itself, they always have, as they should, a reference to something higher about them, even by being what they are, what E. F. Schumacher called "progressions."

 

Yet, there is almost something sad about Wodehouse's remark -- perhaps it was the word "rummy". We catch a certain disappointment, a certain poignancy in the heart of the comedian. He recognizes that the world is not "absolutely perfect", of course. Nevertheless, he suspects that we are not really made for this less than perfect world, even though we find ourselves in it. His very laughter at the odd things we do portends a kind of joy that we barely understand.

 

The fact is that things usually do turn out to be "rummy". We come to expect this "rumminess" of things. We become realists and pride ourselves on our knowledge of the way things actually are. We rightly distrust the perfection-seekers. They somehow do more damage than those who believe in the Wodehouse doctrine that "nothing in this world ever seems to turn out absolutely perfect."

 

This is a Christian theme. We live in a world that exists for some cause that we cannot find in the world itself. We think, all in all, it is a pretty good place. It is certainly a beautiful place in so many ways. We know ourselves to be good, yet there is always this annoying thing about our not doing what we would, something St. Paul saw in himself quite clearly.

 

The Councils of Orange and Trent did not speak of man's original "rumminess", to be sure. But they did say something rather similar when talking of Original Sin. Le Catéchisme de l'Eglise Catholique has some excellent and moving paragraphs on Original Sin (#396-412). I want to cite a couple lines about this topic here:

The doctrine of Original Sin -- bound to that of the Redemption by Christ, gives a glance of lucid discernment over man's condition and his acting in the world. By the sin of the First Parents, the Devil has acquired a certain domination over men, although this latter remains free. Original Sin implies "servitude under the power of him who possesses the empire of death, that is to day, the Devil" (Trent, Dz. 1511). To ignore that man has a wounded nature, inclined to evil, gives place to some grave errors in the domain of education, of politics, of social action, and of morals (#407).

I was especially struck by this last sentence. If we do not understand what is really wrong with us and the revelational remedies for it, we will never get it right in other areas.

 

I had just been reading Rousseau also, who is the source of much of the notion that we solve our human problems by education, politics, or social action, by changes of external structures rather than changes in our hearts. We live in a political and educational regime that has bought almost completely this doctrine. The key issues lie elsewhere, however, even though the sinful condition of mankind somehow result from the accumulation of our personal sins.

 

 

At the very beginning of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul stressed the importance of this very topic:

As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is "a liar and the father of lies" (Jn. 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes. 1:9), exchanging "the truth about God for a lie" (Rom. 1:25). Man's capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. Jn. 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself (#1).

No paragraph I know more clearly suggests what is behind the ideologies and moral currents of our time. The search for illusory freedom is precisely the meaning of our public order in so far as it rejects, as it does, the truths contained in revelation and the reason that supports it.

 

Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha is a most formidable woman who looks with a most critical eye on her nephew's aberrations. "'Bertie,'she said -- in part and chattily -- 'it is young men like you who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair!'" About the only thing that Bertie could reply to this not altogether inaccurate observation was "What-ho!"

 

Aunt Agatha continued her analysis, ending with a most surprising solution to her nephew's problems:

"Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in selfish idleness a life which might have been made useful, helpful, and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone --" She fixed me with a glittering eye, "Bertie, you must marry!"

Aunt Agatha, to Bertie's consternation, proceeded to explain just what sort of woman she had in mind. "You want somebody strong, self-reliant, and sensible, to counterbalance the deficiencies and weaknesses of your character...."

 

Well, we get the point. Our fallenness is pretty real, and not altogether without its amusing side. That is to say, we are a fallen race, with many deficiencies and weaknesses in our characters, but we are also redeemed. We go off, as the Pope said, because we turn our gaze away from the living and true God and substitute our own inventions. Those who have the future of the human race at heard are indeed tempted to despair. Yet, we cannot help but suspecting that Bertie is closer to the truth than Aunt Agatha. It's rummy "how nothing in this world ever seems to turn out to be absolutely perfect."

 

As I said, I have noticed this too. It is a question, however, as the Pope hinted, about where we allow our gaze to fall. We can conclude from all this rumminess but two things, I think. The first is that our gaze does have a proper object in the light of which all else is and is glorious. And the second is that our gaze is such that we can avert it from what we might really want. In the end, what we really want is first given to us.

 

"Joy," Josef Pieper wrote, "lies in receiving what we love." Our reaction to the slaughterbenches of history, to the rumminess of actual things ultimately suggests that all things are related to an absolute perfection, on which we seek to gaze. We are what we are because we must still choose to see what is to be seen. This is our lot. This is the context both of our damnation and of our glory. We would not have it otherwise.

 

5) From Crisis, September, 1992..

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

THE HORIZONTAL MAN: "A 'NEW HUMANITY' WITHOUT GOD"

 

A cartoon in the New Yorker (Mankoff, 2 D 91) puts us in the office of a "Mob Psychologist," The Psychologist is dutifully sitting in his arm chair, notebook in hand, glasses, rather innocent-looking. He turns slightly to the patient. There, horizontal on the proverbial couch, lies a middle-aged Mafioso, in pin-stripped suit, fedora, dark glasses, bearing a certain anguish on his face as if he has suffered an unaccustomed spiritual crisis. To reassure the troubled Mobster, the Psychologist says to him soothingly, "So, while extortion, racketeering, and murder may be bad acts, they don't make you a bad person."

 

Those of us who still recall our common sense Aristotle -- and if we don't, we will miss the humor -- will recognize in the cartoon the exact opposite philosophy to that on which our civilization is based, namely, that the only things that can make us "bad persons" are precisely our own "bad acts." While it is true that our essential being remains good, even in Hell, still for the sort of beings we are, rational and free finite persons, we decide what we do with our given goodness. We implicitly deny it or affirm it by our thoughts and our deeds.

 

In his extraordinarily enlightening Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (December 7, 1990), John Paul II wrote,

In the modern world there is a tendency to reduce man to his horizontal dimension alone. But without an openness to the Absolute, what does man become? The answer to this question is found in the experience of every individual, but it is also written in the history of humanity with the blood shed in the name of ideologies or by political regimes which have sought to build a "new humanity" without God (#8).

We should not, forget, I think, to ponder this last phrase of the Holy Father, as it is a picture of our own time, including too often, of our democratic time. We should not fail to wonder what a "New Humanity" constructed obviously by ourselves but explicitly "without God" might look like.

 

The Holy Father often uses this imagery of "horizontal" and "vertical" because it is an apt one to clarify what is at issue in the modern world. The horizontal dimension of "man alone" means simply that the Mobster was wrong to have bad feelings about his actions. Whatever he might do, he remains "a good person." The link between what caused the person to be and the person's actions following on his reality is broken. If we eliminate any "vertical" dimension of man, any direct and personal relation to God as to what man is in his being and in his actions, we receive, admittedly, a certain kind of "new freedom." This new freedom separates us from a morality of action itself based on being, on what is, in which we are not creators of ourselves or completely independent formulators of what we ought to do.

 

On Thursday, April 8, 1773, Boswell tells that he sat a good part of the evening with Samuel Johnson, who was "very silent." However, Johnson interrupted his silence to remark that "Burnet's History of His Own Times is very entertaining. The style, indeed, is mere chit-chat. I do not believe that Burnet intentionally lyed; but he was so much prejudiced, that he took no pains to find out the truth." Finding out the truth, in other words, takes "pains," even when we are not intentionally lying and enjoy the "chit-chat."

 

I bring Samuel Johnson up in the context of "the Horizontal Man" and the Mobster who does not want to be "a bad person" because we often forget that we have an obligation not merely to avoid bad acts like "extortion, racketeering, and murder" but also to think properly, to think truly.

this is why we are given minds in the first place. We live in a time, I think, when the very notion of "thinking properly" or "thinking the truth" is looked upon as a contradiction or impossibility. "Truth" discourse becomes cynically "whose truth"? That is to say, "truth discourse" does not exist, there is only "interest discourse." This is the contemporary ideological party line.

 

At the very first address he gave to the Jury, Socrates told them: "Think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to them: let the speaker speak truly." Our civilization is based on Socrates in this sense, that truth, its telling, its pursuit, is the center of what we are. A man who "takes no pains to tell the truth," as Samuel Johnson pointed out, is not to be praised, not because the truth cannot be found, but because he does not want to take any pains to find it. But if we think there is no truth, if we implicitly repeat as our own Pilate's retort to Christ "what is truth?", then we will not know why the Mobster is not right, why being a good person has something to do with our deeds.

 

We are not, ultimately, horizontal men, however much we are concerned with our world. Of course, it is best to say that we are both horizontal, concerned with the world, and vertical, concerned first with God. In one of his letters, to Nancy Mitford, August 26, 1946, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote:

Saints are people who have a peculiar intimacy with God and as a result give evidence of sublime virtues and usually of miraculous powers. You can never understand them unless you start with God, then go to man as his creation -- a special order of being with unique limitations, opportunities & obligations. Saints are simply men & women who have fulfilled their natural obligation which is to approach God. It is in that that all mankind has a different nature from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The special nature of man, intimacy with God -- these are things we do not hear so often. Indeed, many would deny such truths as they understand both the possibility of an exclusively horizontal relation of man to man and the possibility that we can be good in our order of being no matter what we do.

 

"A 'new humanity' without God" is not only not possible, it is not even desirable. This is the truth of the matter. John Paul II, as usual, has it right:

The temptation today is to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom, a pseudoscience of well-being. In our heavily secularized world a "gradual secularization of salvation" has taken place, so that people strive for the good of man, but man who is truncated, reduced to his merely horizontal dimension (#11).

The "pseudoscience of well-being," the "gradual secularization of salvation" have indeed taken place. This reductionism is what our media and our politics are basically about in one way or another. The noble language of "striving for the good of man" is largely the good of horizontal man, the man truncated, the man reduced.

 

We can never understand saints, we can never understand men and women, unless we start with God. The Holy Father's question remains to haunt us -- "Without an openness to the Absolute, what does man become?" The fact is, we are finding out. This discovery is the meaning and history of our time, that the new humanities without God are lethal, that the truth of man includes the truth of God's creating him to be of "a different nature from the rest of the animal kingdom."

 

"So while extortion, racketeering, and murder may be bad actions, they don't make you a bad person." "But I do not believe that Burnet intentionally lyed; but he was so much prejudiced, that he took no pains to find out the truth." "Think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to them: let the speaker speak truly." "The temptation today is to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom." "Saints are men and women who have fulfilled their natural obligation, which is to approach God."

 

Our style, in other words, should not be "mere chit-chat." Yet "truth talk" can be entertaining. Even in cartoons with mobsters and psychologists can we grasp the truth of things. There is thus a "history of our times." We should, knowing our prejudices, seek with great pains its truth, that there is no explanation of humanity, new or old, without God. In the end, even the word "horizontal" implies the word "horizon."

6) From Crisis, October, 1994.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

SCOTT WALTER -- AN APPRECIATION

Generally, before publication these Sense and Nonsense columns are faxed to me by Scott Walter every month to see if there are any corrections or other changes in the text before final publication. This exchange has been going on for over a decade now. In late July, I received the galleys for the September issue. In the course of the instructions, Scott added, "By the way, it's official: I leave Crisis October 1 for the AEI magazine." Of course, I had not known that Scott Walter, the Managing Editor of Crisis almost since its beginnings, had any such idea in mind. To be sure, many of his friends and admirers had long thought that Scott's very obvious talents could well be exercised in a more well-known, larger environment. So I suppose it was just a question of time until something else came along for Scott, something he would be foolish to pass up. Still, I know that Crisis has been something that Scott has thought worthy of his careful attention. Every page of the journal over these years shows the marks of his devotion to it.

 

Scott Walter grew up in the printing business. His father had a printing company in Knoxville, Tennessee. I first ran into Scott when he was an undergraduate here at Georgetown. He was always one of those fine inquisitive students who made teaching eminently worthwhile. Scott was, moreover, that pleasantly annoying student in the presence of whom you would mention a book not to be missed, only to find out that by the next class he had gone out and read it, plus a couple of other tomes in the same area which you yourself had not yet read. He was in the first course in St. Thomas that I taught here at Georgetown, aeons ago, not that Scott is that old. He can still cite some of the things I said in that class. No teacher can relax his guard before such a retentive student! Years later, some outlandish thing you said will be recalled word-for-word at a party before all your bemused, but not overly surprised, friends.

 

In fact, to return to his age, as an undergraduate, Scott looked like he was about fourteen. Scott always dresses well and has a penchant for bow ties. I am sure when he is seventy, he will still look about forty. This youngish quality is no doubt a genetic characteristic we would all like to possess. Scott's parents now live in Fort Myers, in Florida. One of his parents, his mother, I think, actually made a hole-in-one on one of the golf courses there. Scott, I believe, has successfully eschewed athletics since youth, thought he is known to have appeared at the near-by Middleburg Hunt in a natty Madras jacket.

 

 

Crisis magazine has two founders, but at the level of actual production and organization, of putting the thing together and getting it out, Scott Walter has been Crisis. I know of no one more devoted to his job, better at it, and more generous with his time. And he is good. I recall several years ago that B. F. Smith, that most careful and exact of writers, told me that Scott is amazing in his editorship. He knows the language and just what an author is about. His corrections or advice to authors is always right to the point and somehow always according to the spirit of the writer's intention. Anne Burleigh, an equally concise and elegant writer, has noted the same quality in Scott. Very few things, in my experience, slip by Scott. If something looks dubious, badly stated, or inaccurate, he well want to have the matter clarified. Nothing helps a writer more than such a good editor.

 

Every so often, Scott will invite me to supper, usually at Clyde's, here in Georgetown, a favorite haunt of his. Scott is an expert in bartenders, not so much in their pourings, but in their lives. He will often bring along one or other of his friends. His conversation is always lively, informed, and witty. So, he has been a good friend. I also call him one of my very greatest benefactors. Ever since he was an undergraduate, he has saved articles or clippings that he thought I would like to see. He knows somehow what I need to see that I might otherwise miss. At Christmas or my birthday, he often sends me a book that I would not otherwise have known about. He is a follower of the used-book sales here in Washington and regularly reminds me when big sales are taking place.

 

Once Scott gave me a copy of Thomas à Kempis' Sermons to the Novices Regular. This was a book coming from the middle of the 1400's, translated by Dom Vincent Scully at St. Ives in Cornwall, and printed in London by Kegan Paul, Trench, Truener and Company, in 1907. The dedication in Scott's script reads, following the spirit of Thomas a Kempis' advice to his novices, but with obvious overtones for older clerics: "For Father Schall, in the hopes that he may 'have patience amid the slothful and perverse'." Needless to say, this is good Augustinian advice for anyone in this vale of tears, to have "patience amid the slothful and perverse". In Sermon XX to the Novices at Mt. St. Agnes, entitled, "On Daily Taking Up the Cross Embraced in Religion," I read this admonition: "Wo, also to wandering and dissipated monks, religious only in name and habit; who carry their cross with murmuring and obey unwillingly: keep their cell ill, easily break silence; shun toil, love idleness...." Scott did not underline these lines, but I got the point.

 

Scott also gave me the wonderful London Folio Society Editions of George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody and P. G. Wodehouse's Leave It to Psmith, along with the Peter Pauper Press's elegant edition of the Discourses of Epictetus. Anyone who would even know about these three books, let alone the Folio Society and the Peter Pauper Press, cannot be all bad. Scott has always had a cordial and stimulating interest in anything connected with Crisis, its writers, and its operation. Indeed, one of the very best things ever in Crisis was Scott's "Interview" with the late Walker Percy (July, 1989). I manage to go over to the office on 15th and K Streets once in a while. It is a clutter of magazines and things connected with magazines. Scott has overseen the installation of the Crisis computer system. He has been on top of every issue as it has come out over the past decade and more. Perhaps some can imagine that Crisis would have existed and grown without him. I cannot imagine it. How often have I called late at night or on the weekends, to find him still there finishing or starting a new month's edition. I am sure he could not have been paid by the hour else the magazine would have been broke long ago.

 

 

Crisis, I think, occupies a unique place in Catholic and general literary journalism. It has occupied a permanent things center mostly abandoned by Commonweal, America, and other journals. But it has carved out its own unique style and slant and philosophy. It is clearly a journal of high intelligence written by and for men and women who love and know the Church, who have a sense of the romance of "orthodoxy" and a hard-headed appreciation of things that can go wrong both in political and sacred things. And the Crisis editors and writers bear marks of that infallible sign -- they love and know the Holy Father, surely the greatest and most learned Pope of modern time, of any time, the most remarkable man in public life today. Needless to say, as a Jesuit I have been particularly touched by this sense of the centrality of the Holy Father. Under Ralph McInerny and Michael Novak, that sanity so characteristic of classical Catholicism has been manifest. I think Crisis's many devoted non-Catholic readers and writers have appreciated the fact that they could look to this journal to find an intelligent, careful, and reasonable position about things sacred and secular.

Scott Walter, in addition, has known so many younger writers and encouraged them. I have gotten in the habit of asking him who is new on the scene or what are the people we mutually know thinking about. He has always had, for a young man, a sense of style and the instinct for what Chesterton called "Orthodoxy". Scott came into the Catholic Church on a Holy Saturday a couple of years ago. It seemed his natural home and he was the first to realize it. He found a good priest to instruct him at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill. But he also knew so many lay Catholics and, let me add, sane and wonderful Jews, Protestants, and whatever, that crossed his path at Crisis. So Crisis has been his natural home during this past decade. Scott knew the audience that needed to hear what Crisis had to say, and he knew the literature. He knew about Chesterton and Belloc, about a Kempis and St. Thomas, about St. Augustine and St. Teresa. He knows about Mother Teresa, about Fathers Robert Sokolowski, Bill Smith, Martin O'Connell, Paul Mankowski, Ernest Fortin, Richard John Neuhaus, and Kenneth Baker. He also knew a whole remarkable host of younger (and getting older) scholars, editors, and writers -- Terry Hall, Michael Jackson, George Weigel, Anne Carson Daly, Daniel Mahoney, David Boveniser, the Hitchcocks, Gerry Russello, Russell Hittinger, Kimberly Gustin Bright, Hadley Arkes, Leon Podles, Dinesh D'Souza, George Marlin, Michael Pakaluk, Robert Royal, Tracy Simmons, Mark Henrie, and scores of others who grace the pages of Crisis.

 

As Scott is staying right here in the Nation's Capital, I am not saying farewell. However, it would be unseemly if he were to leave Crisis without knowing the esteem and appreciation that many of us have had for his devoted and exceptional work. Scott has enormous energy and will not be far away in distance and, we hope, not away at all in advice and interest. Scott was the one who organized "The Idler" column as a sometime feature in Crisis. He has guided and encouraged the "Common Wisdom" regular column in Crisis with the late Ann O' Donnell, with B. F. Smith, Anne Burleigh, and Ellen Wilson Fielding, perhaps the best thing about Crisis. Indeed, I know there are many hundreds of small and large things that have gone to make Crisis the fine journal that it is that are the results of Scott's quiet and persistent efforts.

 

Let me, to revert to my academic mode as his former teacher, leave Scott Walter with two thoughts, the first from Epictetus, from the handsome book he once gave me:

Not with the stones of Euboea and Sparta let the structure of your city walls be variegated; but let the discipline and teaching that comes from Greece penetrate with order the minds of citizens and statesmen. For with the thoughts of men are cities well established, and not with wood and stone (Bk. III, C. 6).

The second is from P. G. Wodehouse, from an equally handsome book:

Time and neglect had done their work with the flooring of the room in which Psmith had bestowed the Hon. Freddie Threpwood, and, creeping cautiously about in the dark, he had the misfortune to go through. But, as so often happens in this life, the misfortune of one is the good fortune of another. Badly as the accident had shake (sic!) Freddie, from the point of view of Psmith it was almost ideal (p. 253).

Needless to say, that at the AEI magazine, Scott will be concerned with those "thoughts of men" that establish our cities. The misfortune of Crisis, let us admit it, is surely the good fortune of AEI.

 

And may I make one final observation that, unless there be some form of English English grammar of which I know not, the Folio Society in London did not catch, as Scott surely would have caught, that "shake" should have been "shaken". Good editors catch these things, and Scott Walter is a very good editor. He also will need, even at such a nice place as the American Enterprise Institute, "patience amid the slothful and perverse" of this world. In losing Scott Walter from Crisis, our sentiments can do no more than to repeat those words of his great hero, P. G. Wodehouse, "But as so often happens in this life, the misfortune of one is the good fortune of another."

 

 

7) From Crisis, February, 1996.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

TRUTH

 

Intellectual disorder eats at the heart of every university, journal, city, and, yes, church. Will we choose to live the truth that we can and do know? We are taught that there is no truth to be known. The only thing that exists is power. That is, everyone presents and stands for an arbitrary commitment. We cannot resolve controversy on objective grounds, so we avoid even trying. Truth-tellers and truth-claimers are the most dangerous people in our social contract. They imply that it is possible to do wrong, to err.

 

The crusades in our society are against those who profess to know and live what is true, even if they themselves often fail. The only way to deal with the truth-claimers is to marginalize them, to treat them as just another peculiar power group. If they can be made to be content with their own little version of reality, only then can we tolerate them. Truth-claimers are, by definition, arrogant. The humble claim that we can know nothing.

 

"We have an intellectual class which for the most part does not believe that the human being is capable of using its intellect to discern truth from falsehood and, given such premises, is reduced to substituting semantic games and ideological deconstruction for scholarship and critical judgment," Tracey Rowland wrote in The Australian (April 28, 1995). Scholarship and critical judgment imply that the mind can know the truth. Such is its purpose. Standards and criteria exist whereby truth can be distinguished from error.

 

Often it is intimated that truth is afraid of error. In the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, of course, just the opposite is the case. We do not know the truth until we can identify and explain accurately the arguments against the truth of any order, including that which claims there is no truth. Knowledge of truth includes the knowledge of error.

 

Truth is the conformity of mind with reality. Thus if we doubt our own knowing faculty, we will never know the truth. If we think the world an illusion, nothing exists to which we can conform ourselves. If we hold that it is only our mind that imposes order on a chaotic world, we will remain locked into ourselves. Thus, to butt up against a reality that does not conform to the vagaries of a mind filled only with itself is a very healthy experience.

 

In his Four Men, about a walk in Sussex in l902, Belloc wrote, "For men become companionable by working with their bodies and not with their weary noodles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing." This remarkable passage suggests that noodles and brains, become weary and tired when they are not constantly refreshed with a reality that did not arise in themselves.

Aristotle said that we begin our quest for knowledge in wonder, not in fear, or need, or power. That is, our minds are made simply to know and to know the truth. When we know the truth of something, we affirm this of that, in seeing why it is so. We say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, as Plato taught us.

 

If these things about truth be so, why is it that we have suddenly become a people for whom the truth of things is dangerous? It is because we know the direction of reality, of the truth of things, and we do not want to accept it. The greatest proof of the objectivity of intellect is its refusal to pursue an argument about the validity of the mind. When, in Plato's Gorgias, Callicles, the consummate politician, refused to speak any longer with Socrates, it was because he knew very well where the argument would lead him -- to a truth that would require him to change his way of living and ruling. So he refused to talk with Socrates any longer.

 

This refusal is where we are civilizationally. When the Holy Father writes of "the Splendor of Truth", he stands boldly in the most counter-cultural position of our era. He argues from truth to truth. He must be stopped at all costs because his logic, his argument, as such, cannot be broken. The only thing we can do about him is to deny the possibility of truth itself, a position that is itself contradictory, a contradiction we are willing to accept as a last desperate measure to prevent us from facing the fact that there are truths and we can know them. The only way we can not know them is to refuse to think about them, to lapse into myths, ideologies, and the silly things we spin out of our weary noodles.

 

8) From Crisis, May, 1992.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

GNOSTICISM RECONSIDERED

Recently, I was at a conference on the West Coast. I had the good fortune to be driven from the airport by a perceptive young graduate student, a Catholic. In the course of conversation, he told me that he stopped going to the local Catholic parish the day they removed the Crucifix on the altar to replaced it with a painting of Mother Earth herself being held up by a politically correct number of differing cultural hands all reaching up to her. A priest where I was saying Mass told me of another parish that was built with the Tree of Life instead of the Crucifix, until the parishioners protested enough to get the Crucifix back. This is in a diocese in which the Ordinary preaches against abortion. Another young man, this time from the East Coast, told me that as soon as he hears his pastor begin his latest sermon on a social justice theme that is readily identifiable as a specific kind of leftist ideology, he gets up and walks out.

 

Symbols count. The student was right. In Rome, considerable attention is being paid of late to the extent to which Gnosticism and Pelagianism are present in modern culture and within many movements in the Church itself. Marxism may (or may not) be passé but New Age, environmentalism, what passes for social justice, feminism, Eastern religions, multi-culturalism, dogmatic relativism, and such variant enthusiasms are not. More and more it is getting difficult to find Catholicism within Catholicism. As a Jesuit friend of mine remarked on hearing the story of the Mother Earth incident, "there comes a point when we are dealing with another religion."

 

Curiously many of these same movements profess a certain deep spiritualism. We have been told, perhaps too often, that our great enemy is "materialism." But materialism has never been the most dangerous heresy. Indeed, all really dangerous heresies or disorders of soul arise from the spirit, from, most often, the hearts of the dons, from the clerical and academic leaders whose faith is strong, but not strong enough to accept the content and history of salvation as it is given to us in specifically Catholic revelation. We have, it often seems, a religion full of enthusiasm but not doctrine, or at least not Catholic doctrine.

 

The most "unbelievable" aspect of classical Christianity, it seems, is precisely its dogged "materialism," its clinging to the Old Testament doctrine that matter is good and to the New Testament teaching that the Word became flesh. Evil is rooted in will, not matter, machines, institutions, or intelligence. Christ after all only makes sense if there is something wrong with us that we cannot remedy by ourselves, individually or collectively. Christ only makes sense if there is something at fault in our wills and not merely in the structures of the world. The New Testament has much to say about conversion and repentance but practically nothing about politics.

 

What is all this sudden Roman concern with Gnosticism all about? I think it is a sign that at long last the Roman Church in its highest reaches is beginning to realize the degree to which it is itself infiltrated by ideas and movements at variance with its own teachings about itself. These worrisome ideas come from the culture itself. Conformity to culture seems the predominant imperative for religion itself.

 

Father Richard McBrian recently (The Tablet. January 25, 1992) boasted that Rome could no longer touch dissident theologians because they were protected by the laws of the civil state. What this means, of course, is rather that these same civil institutions are locked into themselves and cannot admit any presence of the Catholicism that is identified with what the Roman Church actually teaches and stands for. When Erastianism guarantees the church, it guarantees itself. The Church is no longer heard.

 

John Paul II has both in Centesimus Annus and Redemptoris Missio taken up the theme that culture itself needs something from outside itself even to save itself. He told a group of cultural leaders in Salvador in Brazil (October 20, 1991):

In regard to those living cultures that must be saved by Christ, it is essential that the Gospel, faith and religion play a decisive role in them, imbuing them with Christian values. Either the cultures have not understood these values deeply or they have continued to hide them because of the harmful influences of secularization, consummerism, relativism, and the other evils of the modern age that does without Christ's message and the Church's fruitful presence.

No culture is closed in on itself to the exclusion of the vitality of revelation addressing itself to each people.

 

Since Vatican II, the Church, it seems, has been bent on accommodating itself as much as possible to prevailing cultures, beliefs, and political systems. In itself this is not bad. Belatedly, however, the Church has come increasingly to realize that what is specific to itself is no longer much known or taught. The Christian "mission" is preaching mostly modernity, human autonomy, not Christianity. Indeed, Catholicism in particular is being systematically excluded so that its only sort of presence is when its own language and principles are modified to conform to secular culture. The policy of adaptation has resulted in little compromise from the secular culture itself except insofar as the Church has agreed to look just like the culture in which it lives. The radical newness of Catholicism is replaced with the radicalism of the culture itself.

 

Those of us who have read our Voegelin, of course, know that this great philosopher argued that Gnosticism is in fact the heart of modernity. Modernity is the project to remove from the cosmos and from human nature itself any sign of a divine presence, origin, or transcendent destiny. Religious ideas were to be "immanentized," made into political movements with inner-worldly goals. These ideas were to replace Christianity with willed forms of human intellect projected onto all of mankind with no other source but human autonomy. Perfection becomes "self-realization" in which the self that is realized has no source other but itself, granted that this "self" is usually the disguised heritage of some philosopher.

 

I have mused about this phenomenon. Back in 1962, I wrote an essay in the old American Ecclesiastical Review entitled, "The Abiding Significance of Gnosticism" and in this column in May, 1986, I described "Gnostic Catholicism." (The column, "The Strangest Century" of October 1990, is also on this topic). Thus, when I heard of the essay of Father Giandomenico Mucci, S. J., "Mito e Pericolo della Gnosi Moderna," in La Civiltà Cattolica for January 4, 1992, I hastened over to the Woodstock Library to read it. It was indeed a fascinating essay and summed up several lines of thought that have been appearing regularly in particularly Italian journals about the nature of the contemporary religious mind.

 

All of this controversy is an aspect of a question that Paul Johnson asked (Crisis, February, 1989) about whether the demise of Marxism meant the end of "totalitarian temptations" on the part of the cultural elite of our era. These elites have been formed in secular ideals of rights and obligations that promise to achieve what Christianity never promised, namely, a new man and a new earth, a bringing to this very world all the elaborate promises that the faith called salvation. But these promises were to be obtained by excluding faith and its sense of how salvation is to be achieved.

 

Mucci considers "modern Gnosticism" to include within its reaches not just an elite, as in classic Gnosticism, but all of humanity and the whole of the world in an all-embracing "knowledge" about man's only happiness. This happiness is exclusively the result of man's own efforts. There is no "word" or nature in the world. Thus no "Word" could become flesh. Modern Gnosticism specifically rejects notions of sin and the consequent need of salvation by Christ. Christ becomes a social reformer, an inspiration to complete the worldly enterprise, which is the only enterprise there is. Marx's concern that concern for the afterlife impeded concern for this life is not forgotten. A religion that supports this inner-worldly revolution is quite acceptable but one that maintains the classic Christian doctrines is its most dangerous threat. This fear of revelational religion explains the growing hatred for the Church as it stands for itself.

 

To suggest that there is anything wrong with the intellectual structure of modernity and post-modernity, of course, risks the charge of being against "man." In a brilliant and too little known essay, "Church Activism in the 1980's: Politics in the Guise of Religion?" (in Religion and Politics, University of Virginia Press, 1989), Father Ernest Fortin wrote that an increasing number of Christians "have come to view their faith as an enterprise dedicated to eradication of the evils that plague human existence by transforming society along more or less leftist lines." When such projects become the main line of presentation about what is Christian, whether in Sunday sermons or religious journals, then clearly there is a deeper crisis than most are willing openly to admit.

 

"The Pelagian temptation returns today in consequence of neo-Gnosticism," Father Mucci wrote,

If with modern Gnosticism there is asserted an inner-worldly self-redemption of man, it is evident that with this approach also the myth of Prometheus comes back again. This Promethean position includes the consciousness of an all-powerful morality that professes to achieve the good and to realize every sort of justice without recurring to the theological help of grace. If it is possible to measure the fullness of the apostasy of modern culture, before which the Church stands, it ought to recall above all to itself that man, every man, cannot, normally and for a long time, do good and remain good without the historic-salvific encounter with Christ" (La Civiltà Cattolica, 4 Gennaio 1992).

The point is not that there are no things produced in the modern world that are good. Rather it is that the theoretic understanding of these things, an understanding that can be based on a classic and Christian philosophy loyal to its own inspiration, are being presented in a Gnostic and Pelagian context even when Christian terms and offices are used to support them.

 

Thus, I suspect, the replacing of a Crucifix by a painting of Mother Earth (Gaia) in a regular Catholic parish reveals rather strikingly that this sort of mentality is wide-spread in our culture. Perhaps it is just a mistake or an aberration. But I rather think Father Mucci is closer to the real problem. When Eric Voegelin wrote that "Gnosticism is the form of modernity," he meant that modern humanism would claim all for itself. There would remain no check on human pride, not even reality itself. Reality, what is, is no longer "nature," that is, something already itself, already a finite something, to which our minds are open to discover the truth of things. Rather reality is what we will in society and in the cosmos. If Marx has died, Nietzsche and Heidegger have appeared. But this intellectual appearance is itself a "choice," a choice against what is, not an intellectual necessity. The choice lies in the heart of a modernity that recognizes no other principle but itself as the cause of the distinction of things.

 

9) From Crisis, January, 1995.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

SAINT PAUL

 

In the little town in Iowa where I was born, there were two Catholic churches -- Sacred Heart and Sts. Peter and Paul. From my very youth, these two apostles, Peter and Paul, were visibly associated. Somehow, when spoken aloud, I have always liked the very ring of the words "Saints Peter and Paul". The Church celebrates the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, but it has a separate Feast of St. Paul in January -- the Twenty-Fifth.

 

In the olden days, St. Paul wrote a good number of the epistles of the New Testament. We used to say, for instance, that he wrote Hebrews. Today, we read "as the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews said...." No Paul. A good trivia question among literate Christians is "which Letters of St. Paul did he not write?" The extremes range from none to all. All of which gets into the good fun of scripture authorship, scholarship, tradition, interpretation, and what it all means for us.

 

In a Sermon he gave to Catholic undergraduates at Oxford in 1941, Ronald Knox wondered about this linking of these two saints, Peter and Paul. Except for one famous occasion, he noted, they seemed to get along pretty well together, but at various times they are thought to be rather antagonistic. The Reformation in particular tended to emphasize Paul at the expense of Peter. The great Protestant cathedral in London is St. Paul's. "Protestantism, in revolt against the Petrine claims, and basing its most characteristic theology on a false reading of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans," Knox remarked, "could hardly fail to draw invidious comparisons, in which St. Paul came out best."

 

Certain "learned and untrustworthy men", Knox told the undergraduates, as if to warn them to be alert in their classes, even saw the Acts of the Apostles as a kind of competition for honor and glory between Paul and Peter. "If Peter is rescued from prison at Jerusalem, Paul must be rescued at Philippi; if Paul rises Eutychus to life, Peter must do as much for Dorcas; and so on throughout." How are we to evaluate this approach? Knox's own view is clear: "Most of us will find it difficult to believe in this sort of thing."

 

The fact is that St. Paul is a pretty interesting character. I am in the habit of saying that we know more about the insides of St. Augustine than of any other ancient man. The only rivals, I think, are Cicero and St. Paul. And obviously, there is a lot of both Cicero and St. Paul in St. Augustine. In his History of Christianity, Paul Johnson had this to say about the man for whom he is named:

Paul insisted (that Jesus Christ) was God; it is the only thing about him which really matters, otherwise the Pauline theology collapses, and with it Christianity. But equally, Paul is an obstacle to those who wish to turn Christianity into a closed system. He believed in freedom. For him, Christianity was the only kind of freedom that matters, the liberation from the law, and the donation of life. He associated freedom with truth, for which he had an unlimited reverence.

Christ is God, freedom is from the law, life if a gift, the truth will make us free -- these are no small things that we have from St. Paul. Without them Christianity does collapse, we should not doubt it.

 

St. Paul had no hesitation to use his Roman citizenship when he had need of it. I have always liked this about him. He was born in Tarsus and so had Roman citizenship by birth. When (Acts c. 25) he suspected that he might be treated improperly by Jewish courts, in a famous scene in Caesarea, he chose Rome. This appeal to Rome meant that he preferred to be tried in a Roman court in Rome. He thought it would be a more just trial. Paul made this appeal to Festus, the local Roman governor in Caesarea. Festus wanted to appease the Jews and send him to Jerusalem. None of this for Paul. "I am standing before the tribunal of Caesar and this is where I should be tried," Paul admonished Festus. "I have done the Jews no wrong, as you very well know. If I am guilty of committing any capital crime, I do not ask to be spared the death penalty. But if there is no substance to the accusation against me, no one has a right to surrender me to them. I appeal to Caesar."

 

Festus, for his part, seemed only too glad to get Paul out of his jurisdiction. "You appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go." Festus obviously knew that he had a very tough man on his hands. Paul, however, was not just telling Festus that he was innocent. He went on to explain the principles of law to Festus himself. Paul in effect said to Festus, "Look, if I am guilty, kill me. But follow the law, your law. Show the accusation. You, Festus, have no right to violate your own rules of procedure. I don't trust you. Send me to the Roman courts."

 

A couple of days later, King Agrippa and his wife Bernice came to Caesarea. Festus told Agrippa about the problem with Paul. After listening to Festus recount Paul's situation, Agrippa wanted to hear his story from Paul himself. So Festus arranged a meeting with Paul for the following day. Festus, at this point, claims to Agrippa that he does not know what exactly it is that he should tell the Roman court that Paul has done. "It seems to me pointless to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him." So Festus should have released Paul at this point by his own law.

 

Paul does not help Festus formulate an accusation against himself. Rather he takes the opportunity to explain his whole life to Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus. Agrippa knew more than Festus did about Jewish and Christian issues. Paul explains how he is a Pharisee and a strict one. But he also makes precise that he is on trial for his "hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors." Paul already associates his work with Jewish revelation and its completion. Festus is obviously wondering what this all means.

 

Paul proceeds to recount to Agrippa that he himself, Saul, in his earlier days opposed "the name of Jesus the Nazarene". He even tossed many Christians into prison and tried to make them renounce their faith. This Saul, as he was earlier called, was a rather formidable character. So, here we have Paul giving an account of his life to a local monarch and a local Roman governor. Next Paul tells them of the scene on the road to Damascus. Paul is on his way to continue persecuting Christians. He is knocked off his horse. He hears someone calling to him in Hebrew, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"

 

Paul naturally tries to find out what is going on. He thought he was doing Yahweh's business. He learns that the voice is of Jesus. Paul discovers that Jesus has special plans for him. He is to go to the pagans, and "through faith in me (Jesus), (to obtain) forgiveness of their sins". Paul immediately begins to follow his new commission, first to the folks in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, even in the Temple where, naturally, he is arrested and finds himself in the present predicament.

 

Paul concludes his account, "I was blessed with God's help, and so I have stood firm to this day, testifying to great and small alike, saying nothing more than what the prophets and Moses himself said would happen; that the Christ was to suffer and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he was to proclaim that light now shone for our people and for the pagans too." Clearly, this is pretty heady stuff.

 

Festus meantime is trying to figure out what all this has to do with the Jerusalem efforts to "get rid" of Paul. Festus, who was no fool, can see no sense in all this theological jargon of Paul. Festus shouts, "Paul, you are out of your mind; all that learning of yours is driving you mad." We can imagine the situation. Here a pretty sober and decent Roman governor gets this Paul dropped in his lap. He hates to deal with the case which seems almost a "no win" case for Festus. But Paul has managed to tie his hands legally and Festus knows it. Actually, Festus seems to like Paul and to recognize his intelligence. All this silliness about being knocked off a horse and especially raising from the dead, however, seems outlandish to him.

 

But Paul understands Festus' problem. He calmly tells the Governor, "I am not mad; I am speaking nothing but the sober truth." It is not Paul's fault that he found himself involved in all these things either. He was not going to lie about or make up what had happened. Paul knew, however, that Agrippa grasped some of these things. Paul knew that Agrippa believed in the Hebrew prophets. Agrippa even admits to Paul, "A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me." And Paul adds, "little or more, I wish before God that not only you but all who have heard me today would come to be as I am -- except for these chains." Paul does not like imprisonment any more than anyone else.

 

At this point Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus rise and go out. They talked together for a while about this extraordinary man and what he had told them. They agreed that Paul had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. Finally, Agrippa adds to Festus, "The man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar." There is something ironical, of course, in this latter remark. Paul had appealed to Caesar so he could be set free. No more chains. He had appealed to Caesar, moreover, because he was worried about Festus' willingness to judge his case on its merits. Festus did not need to send Paul to Caesar in Rome if Paul was not guilty. One wonders what sort of accusation that Festus did send since before Paul's speech he did not know how to charge him and apparently even less so after.

When Paul does get to Rome, after his stormy trip, he looks up the leading Jewish authorities to explain his situation. He states his case again, how he was accused, arrested, turned over to Caesar. He told them that he did not himself have "any accusation against his own nation," which is why he wanted to talk to them. Surprisingly, the Roman Jews had heard nothing about Paul's case from Judea. They knew he belonged to a new "sect" and wanted to hear his own account of it. However, they had heard that of Paul's sect, "opinion had everywhere condemned it".

 

What seems ironical about Paul is that after all his efforts to "appeal to Caesar" that no one heard much about him in Rome. He did, however, make it to the capital of the pagans, to the heart of Empire, to where he had been directed on the road to Damascus. Festus the Roman Governor in Caesarea thought his great learning drove him mad, but Paul stuck to his position wherever he went. He was indeed eloquent and persuasive, as Agrippa acknowledged. Paul held that Jesus Christ was God, that freedom mattered, that life is a gift, that truth is to be acknowledged in liberty. Without these positions, Paul's theology does collapse, and with it Christianity. However difficult it is "to believe this sort of thing," as Festus and perhaps the Oxford undergraduates might acknowledge, still when we read St. Paul's account of his life, we know even today his wish remains that which he told Agrippa, that "before God that not only you but all who have heard me would come to be as I am -- except for the chains."

 

10) From Crisis, February, 1998.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ON PENS AND PENCILS

 

For Christmas a decade ago, Anne and Bill Burleigh gave me a Cross pen and pencil. In subsequent years I lost or broke about three of the pens. Cross had a wonderful extra-fine felt point black filler, #8424, the best writing instrument I had ever seen. About two years ago, they stopped producing this superior filler and replaced it with an inferior plastic point, #8444. I wrote to the Company in Rhode Island, suggesting that they fire the executive who made this silly decision to replace #8424 with #8444. I received no response.

 

But I want to speak of the pencil. My set is black, graphite, comfortably heavy. My friends intimate that my handwriting leaves something to be desired even with the finest writing instruments. The U. S. Postal Service not infrequently returns mail to my box claiming that the address is unknown, when it is right there on the envelope.

 

About three years ago, the mechanical pencil's inner mechanism stuck. I could not get it to turn. When I tried to buy another Cross pencil, no store in Washington would sell me just a pencil. I had to buy both pen and pencil, which I, thinking dark thoughts about the decline the free market, refused to do.

 

So, I thought I would buy another pencil brand. The leading pen store in Washington is Fahrney's, across from the U. S. Treasury Department on G Street. For $13, I bought a heavy, firm pencil that you twist to make the lead come out. From its container, it automatically replaces the lead when one stick runs out.

 

I thought that the pencil used odd-sized, .4 mm. I remember being with my friends Jim and Kay Kline in Florida trying to find lead that size. The only thing the stores carried were .5, .7, and .9, none of which, as far as I could tell, worked.

 

Suddenly, I had a broken Cross pencil and a new shiny black pencil with a lead size that I could not replace. So I went back to Fahrney's. The nice lady found the proper lead, .4, thought I. I remember stowing the packet of lead away in my room. To this day, I have never found it. As an after-thought, though, I asked her if she could fix the Cross pen. Sure enough, a young man repaired it in no time and charged me nine bucks. This was getting expensive.

 

About two weeks after I had two classy functioning pencils, I misplaced my repaired Cross pencil. That was about three years ago. It is still lost. This reduced me to one pencil. Naturally, when the supply of .4 lead in the pencil was used up, I tried to find more in various stores. I could not find the rare .4 lead.

 

My story begins here. One lovely day last summer, during the noon hour, I decided a third time to walk to Fahrney's from Georgetown to get the required .4 lead. The pencil was useless with no lead. I love to walk in Washington during the noon hour. I strolled through Georgetown, to M Street, then to Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way by the barricaded White House, where folks were taking photos, on by the Treasury Department. I crossed Fifteenth Street to G Street.

 

I enter Fahrney's. A gentleman who looks like the owner kindly interrupts talking to a salesman to serve me. I explain about the .4 lead. He looks dubiously at the pencil, twists it a couple of times, says authoritatively that it uses .5 lead, of which I had a huge supply that would not, say I, work in the said pencil.. The owner-type goes back to the repair counter. About four minutes later he returns with that sort of impatient look that a gas station attendant gets on his face when you cannot work the automatic pump.

 

The man tells me that the pencil is fine, that I had stuck a .7 lead into the shaft. That is why it would not work. He shows me the my .7 lead. I pretend I am not the klutz he thinks I am. At my humorous best, I tell him that it was a great pen and I was pleased that he fixed it. The fact is, that he did not fix it because it was not broken. It was just fouled up. He only charged me about a dollar for the lead, nothing for the remedial education. He was sure I was unteachable in the lead department. I now have enough lead to last till the Fourth Millennium. .4mm lead does not exist and would not have worked had I found it. Moral: Only look for what is.

 

11) From Crisis, January, 1994.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ON THINGS WE MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED

 

Once upon a January, many long years ago, I was born, in a small town in Iowa. My recollections of this momentous event, naturally, remain somewhat vague. Actually, this is a great mercy, as you can readily realize, otherwise I might be tempted to write about it. As Chesterton said in his Autobiography, we have to take the fact of our own birth on faith. We have to accept the testimony of others for the truth of a primal event in which we have some considerable interest.

 

What made me think of this reference to my this-worldly origins was a passage I came across by chance in the works of that noted theologian, P. G. Wodehouse. He caused me to think of baptism and that original sin in which we are conceived and born, of why things go wrong in spite of our best intentions. I do not recall my own baptism either, but I believe I have seen the document attesting to it someplace. Baptism, of course, is addressed to this prevailing disorder we all seem somehow to find ourselves locked into.

 

My parents, also good theologians, upheld the practice of infant baptism. Give or take a couple of days, I am a born Catholic. Infant baptism, more than anything else almost, suggests that, while there is much right with the world, there is also something subtly deviant, something in the order of spirit that is capable of turning us away from what we truly are to become. If, because you are aware of the implications of this dire situation, you think you need all the help you can get in this life to get out of it in good shape, then you are for infant baptism even on pragmatic grounds. The Lord pursues us "down the nights and down the days," to recall Francis Thompson's poem.

 

I had even been reading Hegel, always itself a daunting exercise. Hegel observed that "the History of the World is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it." But even Hegel wanted to redeem these periods of unhappiness. He wanted to show us how "History as the slaughterbench (of the) happiness of peoples" had some purpose. He wanted to know "to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered?" To what aim indeed? Somehow we must explain, if only to ourselves, the meaning of these "enormous sacrifices" in the slaughterbench that is too often our history.

 

Thus, in The World of Jeeves, I read, to continue these profound topics: "I don't know if you have noticed it, but it's rummy how nothing in this world ever seems to be absolutely perfect." To be sure, I had noticed this. That is why I put Wodehouse in italics. I remember once standing on Fell Street in San Francisco for a long time thinking words very similar -- how nothing in this world ever seems to be perfect. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not have Wodehouse's memorable words to explain it all to me.

 

None the less, as I said, I have noticed this unsettling situation. In truth, however, something perhaps even more mysterious, I think that there probably are "absolutely perfect" things in this world, except, because even these originate in the divine perfection itself, they always have, as they should, a reference to something higher about them, even by being what they are, what E. F. Schumacher called "progressions."

 

Yet, there is almost something sad about Wodehouse's remark -- perhaps it was the word "rummy". We catch a certain disappointment, a certain poignancy in the heart of the comedian. He recognizes that the world is not "absolutely perfect", of course. Nevertheless, he suspects that we are not really made for this less than perfect world, even though we find ourselves in it. His very laughter at the odd things we do portends a kind of joy that we barely understand.

 

The fact is that things usually do turn out to be "rummy". We come to expect this "rumminess" of things. We become realists and pride ourselves on our knowledge of the way things actually are. We rightly distrust the perfection-seekers. They somehow do more damage than those who believe in the Wodehouse doctrine that "nothing in this world ever seems to turn out absolutely perfect."

 

This is a Christian theme. We live in a world that exists for some cause that we cannot find in the world itself. We think, all in all, it is a pretty good place. It is certainly a beautiful place in so many ways. We know ourselves to be good, yet there is always this annoying thing about our not doing what we would, something St. Paul saw in himself quite clearly.

 

The Councils of Orange and Trent did not speak of man's original "rumminess", to be sure. But they did say something rather similar when talking of Original Sin. Le Catéchisme de l'Eglise Catholique has some excellent and moving paragraphs on Original Sin (#396-412). I want to cite a couple lines about this topic here:

The doctrine of Original Sin -- bound to that of the Redemption by Christ, gives a glance of lucid discernment over man's condition and his acting in the world. By the sin of the First Parents, the Devil has acquired a certain domination over men, although this latter remains free. Original Sin implies "servitude under the power of him who possesses the empire of death, that is to day, the Devil" (Trent, Dz. 1511). To ignore that man has a wounded nature, inclined to evil, gives place to some grave errors in the domain of education, of politics, of social action, and of morals (#407).

I was especially struck by this last sentence. If we do not understand what is really wrong with us and the revelational remedies for it, we will never get it right in other areas.

 

I had just been reading Rousseau also, who is the source of much of the notion that we solve our human problems by education, politics, or social action, by changes of external structures rather than changes in our hearts. We live in a political and educational regime that has bought almost completely this doctrine. The key issues lie elsewhere, however, even though the sinful condition of mankind somehow result from the accumulation of our personal sins.

 

At the very beginning of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul stressed the importance of this very topic:

As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is "a liar and the father of lies" (Jn. 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes. 1:9), exchanging "the truth about God for a lie" (Rom. 1:25). Man's capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn. 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself (#1).

No paragraph I know more clearly suggests what is behind the ideologies and moral currents of our time. The search for illusory freedom is precisely the meaning of our public order in so far as it rejects, as it does, the truths contained in revelation and the reason that supports it.

 

Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha is a most formidable woman who looks with a most critical eye on her nephew's aberrations. "'Bertie,'she said -- in part and chattily -- 'it is young men like you who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair!'" About the only thing that Bertie could reply to this not altogether inaccurate observation was "What-ho!"

 

Aunt Agatha continued her analysis, ending with a most surprising solution to her nephew's problems:

"Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in selfish idleness a life which might have been made useful, helpful, and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone --" She fixed me with a glittering eye, "Bertie, you must marry!"

Aunt Agatha, to Bertie's consternation, proceeded to explain just what sort of woman she had in mind. "You want somebody strong, self-reliant, and sensible, to counterbalance the deficiencies and weaknesses of your character...."

 

Well, we get the point. Our fallenness is pretty real, and not altogether without its amusing side. That is to say, we are a fallen race, with many deficiencies and weaknesses in our characters, but we are also redeemed. We go off, as the Pope said, because we turn our gaze away from the living and true God and substitute our own inventions. Those who have the future of the human race at heard are indeed tempted to despair. Yet, we cannot help but suspecting that Bertie is closer to the truth than Aunt Agatha. It's rummy "how nothing in this world ever seems to turn out to be absolutely perfect."

 

As I said, I have noticed this too. It is a question, however, as the Pope hinted, about where we allow our gaze to fall. We can conclude from all this rumminess but two things, I think. The first is that our gaze does have a proper object in the light of which all else is and is glorious. And the second is that our gaze is such that we can avert it from what we might really want. In the end, what we really want is first given to us.

 

"Joy," Josef Pieper wrote, "lies in receiving what we love." Our reaction to the slaughterbenches of history, to the rumminess of actual things ultimately suggests that all things are related to an absolute perfection, on which we seek to gaze. We are what we are because we must still choose to see what is to be seen. This is our lot. This is the context both of our damnation and of our glory. We would not have it otherwise.

12) From Crisis, January, 1993.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

THE "STABAT MATER"

 

One afternoon, I was in the Woodstock Center xeroxing something or other. The young man in charge of the operations there told me that the following Friday, he was singing at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra was doing Antonin Dvorak's "Stabat Mater," with the Czech conductor Zdenek Macal and the Oratorio Society of Washington.

 

This event seemed like something that should not be missed, particularly with my Bohemian blood. My mother's family was from Iowa. Older members of the family, with great pride, have often mentioned the visit Dvorak (1841-1904) made to Spillville, Iowa, the 19th Century center of Czech immigration into the homesteading farmland of Iowa. One likes to think that the familiar music of "The New World Symphony" -- was it called "From the New World?" -- or the quartet or the cello concerto, that Mstislav Rostropovich loves to play, bore the spirit and flavor of those fertile plains of Northern Iowa that were home to my mother's parents and grandparents. My Bohemian mother was born in the year Dvorak died in Prague.

 

The "Stabat Mater" itself, moreover, in what musical version I know not, probably a Gregorian one -- I can still hum it in my off-key way for anyone who can stand it -- was most familiar to me from my altar boy days at St. Anthony's Parish in Knoxville, in South-Central Iowa. As we lived but two houses away from the Church, during Lent my brother and I were often recruited for regular duty to serve for the Stations of the Cross, that seem in memory to have been held every day, but probably only on Wednesdays and Fridays.

 

This familiar music of the Stations, when I hear it, still puts me back in that little Church, wondering when the Stations would be over as kneeling so much made my knees sore, or at least I thought so at the time. We would have a Cross, two candle bearers, with Father Horan or Father Garrity to lead us around to each Station. The "Stabat Mater," as I recall it now, was sung at every second Station so that the end of the Stations coincided with the last stanza of the hymn. I remember an organ and a goodly number of people present for such a small parish in a Protestant town.

It is easy to recall the first stanza that sets both the tone and the teaching of the hymn:

 

Stabat Mater dolorosa

Juxta crucem lacrimosa,

Dum pendebat filius.

The program notes gave the Latin text, which Dvorak divided into ten parts, alongside an English text. The above lines are translated:

At the Cross her station keeping,

Stood the mournful Mother, weeping,

Close to Jesus at the last.

Actually, that is the way I remember the words, so I wonder if we sang it in English. Perhaps it was only in the Order that we sang it in Latin. Those words to that music always seemed touchingly sad as they evoked so graphically the scene they described, the Blessed Mother at the Cross of her Son.

 

What took nine words in Latin, in any case, took twice that many in English. There is probably a lesson there somewhere. My briefest translation of the same stanza would be, "(The) Sorrowful Mother weeping stood next to the Cross while (her) Son was hanging (there)." The Old Catholic Encyclopedia noted that by 1912, there were over sixty translations of this hymn into English.

 

This particular Sequence, as it is called, has several attributed authors, from Innocent II, to St. Bernard, to Jacopone da Todi. It has been set to music many times, over a hundred apparently. Palestrina, Pergolesi, Hayden, Scarlati, Bocherini, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, and more recently Penderecki, each has composed a score for the "Stabat Mater."

 

The "Stabat Mater," which came into the Roman Missal in 1727, is now used in the Office for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, on September 15. Formerly it was used for the same Feast (Mater Dolorosa) that occurred on the Friday after Passion Sunday (two weeks before Easter) in the Old Liturgy.

 

The music is quite solemn, lovely, meditative. The writing of his "Stabat Mater," moreover, had a personal meaning for Dvorak of some considerable poignancy. He and his wife Anna had three infant children. Between 1875-76, one (Joesfa) died a few days after birth, a second (Otakar) of small pox at about three years of age, and another (Ruzena), eleven months, after accidently drinking an acid used for making matches. Dvorak was about thirty-six at the time his children died and he wrote the music.

 

This work, consequently, is very much addressed to the grief of his wife. She was herself an alto, the voice the second from the last stanza features. It is accompanied by neither chorus or other soloist, bass, tenor, or soprano.

 

Fac me cruce custodiri,

Morte Christi praemuniri,

Confoveri gratia.

"Make me to be protected by the Cross, / To fortified by the Death of Christ, / To be favored by grace," she sings.

 

Yet, the music is, what can I say? -- itself redemptive. By the time we arrive at the last stanza, we comprehend that the words of the hymn through the very grandeur of the music have lead us from a most somber and tragic experience with corresponding musical setting to a new hope, that death, though present, is transformed.

 

The contrasting music, beginning in sadness, becomes lightsome, joyful. The Christian experience of the "Stabat Mater" bears, identifies, and transcends the tragedy of actual life, without in any way denying the reality of this life.

 

Quando corpus morietur,

Fac, ut animae donetur

Paradisi gloria;

Amen.

"When my body dies, / Make it, that the glory of Paradise / Be given to my soul," would be my most jejune translation. But the musical effect is stunning in context.

 

An experience like this, unexpectedly listing to such glorious music, music rooted in the very depths of the human condition and its redemption -- the man and wife who lose their first three children (they went on to have six more, to be sure) -- at once makes us realize the power and consolation of Christian dogma and its immediacy to life. The reviewer in the Washington Post suggested that even those of differing theologies might grasp the import of this music, but I doubt that is fully so, really.

 

Then too there is the evident power of the Virgin, that, because of her, in our grief, we do not simply lapse into abstraction.

 

Inflammatus et accensus,

Per te, Virgo, sim defensus

In die judicii.

"Inflamed and burning, / Through thee, O Virgin, let me be defended / On judgment day." Dvorak understood that we are not alone in such sorrows as his as long as we knew of the Virgin.

 

But again I go back to the sense of sorrow and hope that shines through this remarkably lovely music. The effect of the music, the comprehension of its truth, you could almost see on the face of one who listens to this music, this hymn. Hearing it we are mindful of St. Paul's oft repeated idea that we want to see God and one another "face-to-face."

 

Fac me vere tecum flere,

Crucifixo condolere,

Donec ego vixero.

"Make me truly to weep with thee, / To grieve with thee over the Crucified One, / As long as I shall have lived." The translation of this last line in my Ritual is the familiar "All the days that I may live," a translation I like.

 

I have in my files the Address that the Czech President Vaclav Havel gave to the United States Congress in February of 1990. This was the speech in which Havel remarked that "the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility."

 

Havel is abstract. No Virgin appears. Only "human consciousness" -- "without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans." Hope seems focused in this world. "If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative mediated to me by my conscience, I can't go far wrong." Yet, we wonder about this thesis. By itself, conscience often goes wrong, and "consciousness" can reveal merely itself, not what is, if we want it to.

Dvorak seems closer to the truth, even to the truth of consciousness, when he concludes his "Stabat Mater":

 

Quando corpus morietur,

Fac, ut animae donetur

Paradisi gloria.

 

Amen.

The "Amen" of this music is hauntingly lovely and glorious, almost as if to say that the last thing heard by mortal ears is the first thing for which we shall listen in Paradise. Perhaps it is true to say that we can only bear to speak of "consciousness" when we have ceased in our Parliaments and Senates to be free enough even to speak of the Virgin. Eia, Mater, fons amoris... ("Ah, Mother, font of love..."), so the ninth stanza begins.

 

In the end, even on scientific grounds, I think, with some irony, it is more likely that the Virgin was more apt to have been the reason Vaclav Havel was free of Marxist rule, so unexpectedly free as he said himself, free to speak to a Senate wherein speech of the Virgin is not proper even in Czech, than anything "consciousness" ever dreamed of. We dare not speak of these things for they might well be true. Eia, Mater, fons amoris....

13) From Crisis, June, 1996.

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ORDER

 

St. Thomas often cites the famous phrase, "sapientis est ordinare" -- the function of the wise man is to order. We human beings have the added burden, if I can call it that -- for it is also a glory -- of ordering ourselves. To order means that we properly place ourselves amidst the other things, including human things, that are not ourselves.

 

We human beings have a certain nobility. We can even protest what we are. We can think that it is unjust that we are what we are or that we are in the existential situation that we are. Aristotle remarked that man, when he is good, is the best of the animals, but when he is not, he is the worst. Our defiance of what we are is not merely a statement of fact. It bears the remark of a positive opposition, as if we are talking to someone.

 

But we protest too much. We want God to make us free. But God has said that the only way we can be free is to know the truth. And we can choose not to know the truth. How seldomly do we reflect on this enormous power we have. I like to think that God, when He created us, took the risk of God; that is, He could have chosen not to create us. God was not necessitated to create, or to create precisely us. We underestimate the Godhead if we suppose that God did not know what human choice entailed. It entailed the fact that we could choose to reject God and claim virtue for doing so.

 

St. Augustine explained that peace was the "tranquillity of order". Augustine knew the ambiguities of the word "pax". Imposed order could be a devastation. Ruin too has some sort of order. So the order from which tranquillity stems is not a destruction. The parts cannot be the parts unless the whole is the whole. Order does not mean absorbing all the parts into a unity, into a sameness. Rather it means keeping the parts to be what they are, yet parts that are complete, not intended to be other than they are. When we die, we are not absorbed into God. God keeps us what we are, finite human beings, indeed, particular human beings, each like unto nothing ever known before or nothing ever to be known again. We remain, we abide.

 

The scandal of the Incarnation is not that man is absorbed into God, but that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. God has His own internal order, what is revealed to us as the Trinity. What is not God has its own order, essentially related to the inner life of God. We are promised precisely "eternal life", the life of God as our own end. Everything in us and about us is ordained to our achieving this end. Any thing else is a seeking for it under false assumptions. We cannot, and do not, rest in what is not God. We cannot find anything that does not originate in God. Each tiny thing that we encounter, especially each human person, is directly related to the Godhead in all its glory.

 

C. S. Lewis remarked that we have never met a mere mortal. Our lives are not insignificant. They are risks. We really can lose our souls. Augustine thought that probably most people in fact did lose them. We like to be optimistic and suggest that no one loses his soul. But if this is so, it is hard to see how anything is of much importance. If nothing we do, say, or believe can really make any difference, what is our dignity? We end up doing what we want with impunity. Surely this is not the order of God for our good.

 

In God's intention, creation did not come first, then men. Men came first, then creation. We should not allow the size of space or its age to lessen the grandeur of spirit. We are given dominion over creation. We are to order it for our ends, not denying what it is. God does not "need" us. God was not once unhappy, then He found us. God was always happy, complete. The human being that did not make itself cannot explain itself by itself. The order of its being is not first its order. Our order is greater than we could propose for ourselves. This is why it is not ours to establish in the first place. Sapientis est ordinare. The end of all things is not that we establish here a lasting city. The end of all things is that, having been first chosen, we still must choose, choose not ourselves, but eternal life.

 

14) From Crisis, March, 1992.

 

 

Some Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ON THE REALITY OF FANTASY

 

By chance, just before leaving my brother's in Santa Cruz in January, I happened to notice an article in the San Jose Mercury-News (January 7, 1992) commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of J. R. R. Tolkien. The article noted that a number of elaborate editions of Tolkien's works are being published this year. It also identified several societies devoted to study of Tolkien, among which are "The Mythopoeic Society," the "Elvish Linguistic Fellowship," and the "American Tolkien Society." Keeble College in Oxford holds a large academic Symposium on Tolkien in August.

 

The founder of the Mythopoeic Society, Glen GoodKnight, is cited as remarking that "Tolkien is considered the grandfather of the modern fantasy phenomena. Go into the science-fiction section (of a book store) and half are fantasy." Tolkien, no doubt, is full of elves, Hobbits, dwarves, and all sorts of awesome races of beings. Yet, I could not help but thinking that to assign Tolkien to the category of mere "fantasy" somehow missed the essence of what he was about. I have always found in reading Tolkien a certain doom or dread strangely combined with a certain joy and exhilaration precisely because he was talking about something very real, about the way this, yes fantastic, world really is.

 

Several years ago, now, I was in a used book store in San Francisco down near the end of Ellis Street, I think. For reasons I forget now, I had wanted to obtain a copy of Tolkien's Silmarillion. After I had looked all over this vast chaotic place by myself, a friend who was with me called down from a ladder over against the West Wall to come over. I was triumphantly handed a hardback edition of The Silmarillion. I was frankly astonished.

 

This particular edition, amusingly, was published by the Bookcase Shop in Taipei in 1977. It cost $2 used and was (and still is) in good condition. It says "This is an authorized Taiwan Edition reprinted by permission of the Publisher (George Allen & Unwin) for sale in Taiwan only. It is not to be exported." Well, we were definitely not on Taiwan. But, as I told my friend who found the book later, "I have never read anything quite so beautiful as the first page of The Silmarillion, the Chapter entitled, 'Ainulindale: The Music of the Aimur'." I like to read it or have it read aloud.

 

In the book, a previous owner, perhaps the one who pirated it out of Taipei, had inserted a review of The Silmarillion from the September 11, 1977, Chicago Tribune. The Review was by Roger Sale, a Professor at the University of Washington, who wrote a book called Tolkien and Frodo Baggins. Sale did not think many people would like this book in comparison to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sold as many as 50 million copies. He added, "Tolkien was one of those moderns who, in his 20th Century darkness, was driven to invent an earlier time when the world was fresh, the sky clear, the grass green and the past was important." Again, I thought, this observation surely misses the point Tolkien was driving at. Tolkien was not escaping from the Twentieth Century just as his "fantasy" was not apart from reality. Tolkien, I suspect, thought that what was going on in the Twentieth century was just what was going on in his stories.

 

The end of The Hobbit, perhaps Tolkien's most famous book, reads like this:

"Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo.

"Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"

"Thank goodness" said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

At first glance, it is sobering to think this marvelous conversation could not take place any more on any domestic flight in Continental America because of the tobacco-jar bit, not even in fantasy.

 

But if we look at the "teaching," at the truth of what is being said in this passage, we might be somewhat cautious to intimate that this book is merely "fantasy," merely an escape from the Twentieth Century. Nor is it a fiction dreamed up by a rather dotty Oxford don that would later give hope for the "sixties," as the article in the San Jose paper seemed to imply. What Tolkien was about and what the "sixties" were about seem almost to be total opposites, however much the illusions of the "sixties" would not have surprised a Tolkien.

 

The teaching of Gandalf is that we are part of an order, a providence. Simply because we are involved in adventure and escape does not mean that we are the sole actors in our lives. The world is very wide and what benefits us does not merely benefit only us, just as what hurts us does not merely hurt us. Bilbo's response to this teaching, "Thank goodness," is a very contented, Christian one. It implies that the whole burden of the world is not on us even if we are ourselves involved in the agonies and drama of the world with its struggles of good and evil.

 

In his famous essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien himself explained some of this deeper meaning that would cause us to hesitate to think that somehow such fantasy is not dealing with reality, our reality. "It is often reported of fairies (truly or lyingly, I do not know) that they are workers of illusion, that they are cheaters of men by "fantasy"; but that is quite another matter," Tolkien wrote. "Such trickeries happen, at any rate, inside tales in which the fairies are not themselves illusions; behind the fantasy real wills and powers exist, independent of the minds and purposes of men."

 

This is heady stuff, no doubt -- real wills and powers exist independent of the minds and purposes of men, yet, as Gandalf said to Bilbo, not excluding them either. Tolkien remarks in the same essay that we must accept the inside of the fairy story as true in its plot and order. If we break the spell of its story, we lose what it is saying.

 

When we come, however, to the conclusion of this remarkable essay -- which was originally a Lecture given at St. Andrew's in Scotland in 1937 and later enlarged and included in Essays in Honor of Charles Williams -- we see that Tolkien is about something of far more serious purpose than we might think if we allow ourselves to think of "fantasy" in a superficial manner. If there are stories and tales in the world of Tolkien's characters, there are tales and stories in our world too. If Tolkien "creates" a world, he reminds us that the accounts of Creation and Redemption as they appear in our tradition contain a striking truth about them. "The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories." Moreover, it is a story that has "entered history."

 

The difficulty of this story we find in Scripture, when seen from the point if view of its plausibility as fantasy, is that it is too true, too much like what we would want if we could have it. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

This latter remark about rejection explains why central to all of Tolkien's characters of whatever nature is the will, the power to choose, to accept or to reject. Without this, there is no drama, no fairy-story, no human or angelic life. If the world is full of sadness and wrath, as it no doubt is, it is because it is full of will. This is why fairy-stories, like life itself, include both doom and glory.

 

Tolkien ends the essay "On Fairy-Stories" with these lines whose power is almost overwhelming:

But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated the legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending." The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

Tolkien's world contains diversity even of virtue. He sees that the real temptation against which fairy-stories are written is the despair that in the end there is no happy ending. But it is also written with the clear, if paradoxical, knowledge that if in the end there is indeed no happiness, it is because of our wills. Fairy tales, as Tolkien said, "enrich" creation. The unsuspecting reader who thinks he is only reading "fantasy" in reading Tolkien will suddenly find himself pondering the state of his own soul because he recognizes his own soul in each fairy-tale.

 

Is the "real" world, then, like the "fantasy" world? Is there some "imagination" in which the tales of Genesis and John may be "true"? The "fallen," real world we know, is this all there is and do we, like Bilbo Baggins, remain in it, in the stories? "All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know." There is something uncanny here, when the greatest fantasy writer of our time hints that the truth of fantasy is justified because "the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true."

On the first page of The Silmarillion, we read:

Then Iluvatar said to them (the Ainur, His first created beings): "Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and harken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song."

All the great Tolkien themes are already here -- the dignity of creation, of finite beings, awe, will, hence potential doom or glory, providence, beauty, desire, order, grace, joy.

 

 

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find to be true .... To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath. Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?

 

15) From Crisis, October, 1991

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

"SPEAK, SO THAT I MAY SEE YOU"

 

On my desk is a post-card I received several years ago from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The imprint on the card is a most curious one. It shows Socrates sitting on a throne-like chair, with a kind of dunce cap on. He is behind a writing table, with a stylus in both hands. Perhaps he has a pen of some sort, as he seems to be dipping one pen in a kind of ink-pot, while he is writing with his left hand on the slate or paper. Socrates has very wide, almost dubious eyes. He is bearded, in a robe.

 

Behind Socrates -- we look at both figures from the side -- is a shorter man with a kind of skull cap on. He is identified as Plato. His left arm is around behind Socrates' left shoulder. Plato's arm is stretched out half way between Socrates' face and the desk on which he is writing. Plato's index finger is in the air, though Socrates does not seem to see it, as if he is making a point to an uncomprehending Socrates. The right index-finger of Plato is on Socrates' lower right shoulder, almost tapping on it. Plato seems to be informing a hesitant Socrates about what to write. There is an inscription below the print-drawing. I cannot make it out, even with a magnifying glass.

 

The information on the front of the card tells us that this was a frontispiece drawn by "Matthew Paris of St. Albans (d. 1259) for a fortune-telling tract of the sortes genre, The Prognostics of Socrates the King. MS. Ashmole, 304, fol. 31."

 

The friend who sent the card several years ago writes, "You should frame this print for your wall. A Great Picture!" I have never framed it, but I have it sitting on the ledge in front of me. It is a great, curious reproduction. The figures of Plato and Socrates are ever worthy ones to have before us, even in a version of the Thirteenth Century, about fortune-telling, from the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, "the city of dreaming spires," as my friend reminded me, from Matthew Arnold, I think, or is it Hopkins?

 

Several things are obviously striking about this print. The first is that Socrates was not a king, but a philosopher. Needless to say, the justification for calling him a king also is quite understandable from the Fifth Book of The Republic, where we read of the city in speech in which the king and philosopher should be the same person. Socrates himself said that he had to remain a private citizen to stay alive in Athens as long as he did, albeit it was for seventy years. Rulers of disordered regimes cannot tolerate philosophers who seek to teach the truth.

 

Secondly, it seems like the scene should be turned around. Plato should be sitting at the desk writing to the promptings of Socrates. One might say, of course, that the Socrates we know is mainly a figment of Plato's imagination. And we find it difficult to associate Socrates with fortune-telling as opposed to rational reflection and investigation. Just as science or white magis is said to have grown to some extent out of black magic, with the attempt to learn how things work and to be able to control nature, so philosophy arose out of efforts to know the future, to know the stars. Socrates said that all he knew was that he knew nothing. This could be an act of arrogance or of humility. St. Thomas said that we begin by knowing something.

 

And the reason Socrates was said to have written nothing was because he was the supreme teacher. Socrates and Christ wrote no books. Their followers, lesser men than they, wrote down what they said. This is how we still meet them, initially. The most important things are not first written. First is the dynamic of person and character, of contemplation. Then follows what someone speaks and writes about how to live.

 

Glaucon and Adeimantos in The Republic wanted to hear Socrates explain what justice is because they recognized that it might be their last chance to have this question properly treated. Plato, the brother of Glaucon and Adeimantos, wrote the book, which we can still read. The testimony of Socrates is that the higher things are sufficient and all absorbing. The someone who tells this cannot be busy writing books, else that would suggest something is more absorbing than the higher things.

 

There is only one reference to Socrates in Boswell's Life of Johnson. It is a curious one in the context of Socrates the King. It was April 10, 1778. Boswell and Samuel Johnson were dining with Sir William Scott, later His Majesty's Advocate General, "at his chambers in the Temple, nobody else was there." As the company was small, conversation was slow.

 

Johnson suddenly began to speak of subordination, then of fame, of wealth, and finally of war. Johnson observed provocatively, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." Boswell pointed out that "Lord Mansfield did not." But Johnson denied it by saying that if Lord Mansfield were present when Generals and Admirals were talking together, "he would shrink; he'd wish to creep under the table." Boswell denied this also.

 

Finally, in exasperation, Johnson replied to Boswell, "No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, 'Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;' and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, 'Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;' a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange."

 

On Boswell's Grand Tour through Switzerland and Germany in 1764, it was July 31. Boswell was in "Richardsche Kaffeegarten" near the Zoo in Berlin. He proceeded to write a letter in French to a certain Henri de Catt, who was a reader of the Prussian King. Boswell was trying to get a personal interview with the King. In explaining why he would not be put off, Boswell remarked that he was not like the famous English knight who made a trip to Potsdam to see the King but after he saw him on parade, "went quietly home."

 

Boswell continued, "I am like the ancient philosopher who said, 'Speak, so that I can see you.'" This "ancient philosopher," of course, brings us back to our subject. Boswell told de Catt that he himself had already seen the King (Frederich the Great) two or three times on Parade during his visit to Berlin. The King "electrified" him, so he wanted to see him in person. But we should not forget, remembering Johnson's story about Socrates and Charles the Twelfth, that Boswell himself wrote a biography of Samuel Johnson, not Frederick the Great of Prussia, however much the latter electrified him.

 

In the footnote to this passage in my Edition (Boswell on the Grand Tour, Edited by F. A. Pottle [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953], pp. 43-44), we are informed that Erasmus was probably the source of this passage about Socrates to which Boswell referred. The footnote continues, with some interest to our theme:

A rich man had sent his son so that Socrates might look him over and judge of his talents. "Well, then, my lad," said Socrates, "speak, so that I can see you." [Loquere igitur, inquit, adolescens, ut te videam]. Erasmus continues, "meaning thereby that a man's character is reflected less fully in his face than in his speech" (Apophthegmata, iii, 70).

So we have Plato, behind King Socrates, informing him what to write. We have Socrates, who never wrote a book, writing a book. We have Socrates telling us "to speak" so that he can "see" us, because, as Erasmus said, we are reflected less in our face than in our speech.

 

Socrates the philosopher spent his life speaking. He was said to have been quite ugly. Johnson said that if Socrates were to say "Follow me, I will give you a lecture on philosophy," no one would follow him if he also heard Charles the Twelfth of Sweden announce, "Follow me, I am going to conquer the Czar." Johnson thought this latter preference was true, if strange. Adeimantos and Glaucon listened to the other philosophers, but wanted to hear Socrates as he did not write a book.

 

 

Loquere igitur, inquit, adolescens, ut te videam. Are we embarrassed to follow Socrates or Christ or Aquinas, even if the Generals and Admirals are not always wrong, even if it is often "electrifying" to follow Charles the Twelfth or even Frederick the Great? "Well, then, my lad," said Socrates, "speak, so that I can see you."

 

16) A shorter version in Crisis, September, 1995.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

JOHN JOSEPH SCHALL

 

On April 28, a Friday morning, about ten-thirty, I got boarded a United Express at Islip, Long Island, for the flight back to Washington. I had been in that area to give a talk on the papacy, the title of which I thought was rather catchy, if I do say so myself: "Alexander VI and John Paul II: On Why Do They Love the Bad Popes and Hate the Good Ones?" The plane landed at about noon at Dulles. On the flight back, I thought I had better go down town on return to convert one of my senior citizen's coupons for a ticket to the West Coast to see my family after classes ended in May, a yearly routine since being at Georgetown. This year I had planned to go first to Spokane to see my brother Jack and family.

 

When I got back to my room, I noticed that the red blinker was on indicating a message on the phone. That is normal when I am away so I did not bother to check it. I went downtown to schedule a ticket to Spokane with a return ticket from San Jose, as my other brother lives near-by in Santa Cruz. Since my sister lives in Medford, Oregon, I usually manage a ride from Spokane to the Bay Area via Medford. After I walked back from 19th Street with the ticket, Father Gus Keppens called me to tell me that people had been looking for me, that I should check my box. I did. It was a message to call my brother Jerry in Santa Cruz. As my step-sister Jeanne has had a serious cancer problem, as had my brother Jack, I was naturally uneasy. It was my brother Jack. He had died in Spokane that morning, almost at the very moment I landed at Dulles.

 

So I had to get to Spokane as soon as possible. The funeral was scheduled for Monday morning, May 1, at Jack's parish, St. Thomas More, in North Spokane. The Catholic cemetery is almost adjacent to this parish. Jack would rest in peace there. Jack often attended morning Mass at St. Thomas More and respected the priests there. When it was first discovered about eighteen months ago that Jack had an esophagus cancer, Jack told me that after Mass one morning he mentioned it to the Pastor, Father John Steiner, who simply said to Jack, "Well, we better give you the Sacrament of the Sick right away," which he did. Good priest.

 

John Joseph Schall was my next younger brother. He would have been sixty-six in August. He was born, as was I, in Pocahontas, Iowa, on a farm North of the town. My parents had four children. My mother died in 1937, so I suppose there was no reason that we might not have had other brothers and sisters had she lived. In any case, my father about five years later married a dear lady, a widow, with two daughters, my good step-sisters of now so many years. Our step-mother Mary had, in fact, died about two years ago the afternoon Jack and I drove over to see Grand Coulee Dam. We flew together to her funeral in San Jose the next day.

 

United Airlines was very nice in rearranging my ticket to Spokane. I arrived there unannounced on Saturday evening. I stayed with the Jesuit Community at Gonzaga University, where I have many friends. The men in that community were especially nice to me. When I first went into the Residence, almost the first person I ran into was Father Pat Stewart, a classmate of mine, whom I had not seen in maybe thirty years. When I told him that my brother had died, he immediately asked me, "Is there anything I can do?" I answered gratefully, "Yes, come to the funeral Mass to see I get through it properly." Pat said simply, "I'll be there and drive you over."

 

When Jack was in Sacred Heart Hospital for chemo/radiation, another of my old classmates -- I did part of my studies in Spokane -- Father Tom Williams, one of the world's good men, along with Pat Stewart, looked in on Jack fairly frequently. Jack liked and enjoyed Tom. Tom was at the Mass also. I asked Tom to say a few words about Jack. He began, "Jack Schall was a realist." This was really exactly what Jack was.

 

Actually, Jack's death was moving in many ways. He had not told me that he was not really feeling well again. He died at morning Mass at a neighboring parish. Jack's little granddaughter Katie was to read something at the children's Mass that morning. Jack would never miss anything that his grandchildren did if he could help it. He had evidently told her, as she said later, that that he was going to die. In any case, he collapsed before he could hear her read. In the vestibule, a good nurse there at Mass revived him a bit; the ambulance came, but he died just after he arrived at the hospital of cardiac arrhythmia.

 

This was the neighboring parish where Jack went every school day to pick up Katie and usually to see his niece Colleen, Jerry's daughter, and her three children, the oldest of whom went to the same school as Katie. Jack always had some sweet for these children and, as Colleen full of tears told me on the way to the airport to pick up her folks, "my kids sure loved Uncle Jack."

 

Jack had said to one or the other of us in recent years, often to Jeanne when she suddenly developed cancer, that death is not something to be feared. As Jeanne said later, "Jack understood what such suffering was about." In fact, he told his good wife Gwen, that death was no doubt a thing of joy, that it would be like preparing for the happiest day of your life, like your wedding, when you knew it would be delightful but you were not quite sure why.

 

As I flew out to the funeral of my brother, I said to myself and have said to others often since, that the very best thing that your parents give to you is brothers and sisters. It is perfectly all right to be an only child, of course, but there is an abundance of joy in having brothers and sisters. A good deal of what I think is good and true, of where I have been, and even of the people I know are because I have brothers and sisters. But if you do have brothers and sisters, I vividly realized that day, one of you must go first. Someone said to me once that you can never really fear death if someone you love has died. The only way that you can be spared the grief of this "one goes first" is not to have any brothers and sisters. What you realize from your brother's death is that your parents gave you an especially great gift in giving you a brother who in turn had a wife and children and grandchildren, each of whom is part of your life.

 

My brother was two years behind me in school. He was a good athlete. He went to Bellarmine High in San Jose and the University of Santa Clara. He was in the army a couple of times in fact. I think he went to Fort Ord for Officers' Training. He met his wife -- herself as I mused later from Long Island -- while he was in Fort Lewis. We always thought Jack was a bit what is called "wild' while he was younger. He was famous in the Schall side of the family for always managing to break his arm or to get cut on the last day of our vacation at our Uncle Tom's farm near Pocahontas and thereby he extend all of our vacations another couple of weeks.

 

Army and family settled him immediately. He worked all his life with the telephone system, either Long Distance or Pacific Bell. He knew a lot about everything and was a very sane and wise man. I used to love to chat with him. He insisted on honor and good work. I remember visiting him often in various places. When I first went to Europe for studies then to teach in Rome, in 1964, he was in New Jersey. I remember how he and the family delivered me to Kennedy Airport for my initial excursion into the Old World.

 

When I was at the University of San Francisco, he was across the Bay in Walnut Creek. I often was over there in the semesters I was at USF. I would stay overnight with the family, get up and take BART with him when he went to work downtown San Francisco. I would then take the #5 Bus back to USF. He and Gwen and the kids were always gracious to friends of mine. I have often recalled the remark of a Jesuit, who was at USF for the summer. He came over to dinner with Jack and Gwen and the family one night. On the way back, over the Bay Bridge, I remember the man, I recall his name being Pete, said to me, "Your brother has never met a stranger, has he?" That was pretty close to Jack.

 

Jack and Gwen lived in Reno for several years. He retired there. I often took what I called the Gamblers' Special on Greyhound to Harrah's. Jack would pick me up and I would stay with them for a few days. Jack liked Reno. Jack always had good parish priests, as I recall, such as Msgr. Bolling in Reno. Jack and Gwen had a lovely home over looking the city and desert below and the often snow-capped peaks above Tahoe to the back. I helped him put in the back yard of that house. It looked like a park when he finally got done with it. A couple of years ago, one of Jack's daughters, Leslie, moved with her husband and two girls to Spokane from Reno. Jack and Gwen decided to move to Spokane. I think enjoyed it there also, though the first Summer had the big fires, the first Winter had eighty inches of snow, and a year or so later a drought set in..

 

Looking through my family letters, I find several letters from Jack. He used to write or call frequently. His letter from Reno of November 7, 1988 began typically, "Well, tomorrow is the big day -- no more political ads. The news today reports Jessie Jackson comments to the effect that if Bush is elected, the 1992 campaign will begin on Wednesday. I guess our system works but something must be done."

 

I have another letter from Reno, not sure what year. Our other brother Jerry, whom we both enjoyed immensely, is famous in the family for his accurate picks at the horse races. "It looks as if Jer has picked a real long shot for the Kentucky Derby," Jack wrote. "It is a horse named 'Olympiad' (75-1), but it appears it won't even be entered. The only race I could find it in, it finished last." Unfortunately, I do not have Jerry's usually terse remarks to our speculating on his picks. All of us know that when Jerry wins, as he sometimes does, we will never hear the end of it. Jack used to like to go to the racetrack in Spokane where, he claimed, as a senior citizen, he could park, buy a ticket and a form for a dollar, a far cry from the Alameda County Fairgrounds or Bay Meadows, where Jer likes to go.

 

On March 7, another year, Jack wrote, "We have had a very mild winter with very little rain. Reno has had only 2.09" since last July 1 (normal is about 6"). The snow pack is less than 50% of normal. Fishing won't be much this year. I have been working on the 'far back' of the yard and have it ready for planting, It's still too early to plant as the temperature gets down to the mid 20's at night. I will start seeds in the wash room in the garage in a week or so and then transplant mid-April. I have also built my shelter (a poor man's gazebo). Gwen thinks I should tear it down." Jack liked his property, to plant and watch the cycles of nature. He liked to fish and to be in a place, his place.

 

So this brother was a good man. The night before the funeral, we went to the funeral home. He looked just like he always did, strong, calm, gentle. We said the rosary together. I lead a mystery, then my brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law. Our step-sister Jo was there, Jack's son, and grandson. Somehow, I thought that rosary was a grace for all of us. His funeral and burial were quiet and dignified, as he would have wanted it. I managed not to weep saying Mass thanks to Fathers Steiner, Stewart, and Williams, but also because Jack would have wanted to hear what I had to say.

 

Mainly, again so I would not be weepy, I began my homily lightly. With some amusement I had noticed in Jack's bathroom a copy of John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a book his son-in-law, Sam, said Jack had read twice. Jack admired this Pope. I recalled too that there was always some problem in the family with both Jack's birthday and with his name. I, as the older brother, definitely recall that his name was "John Joseph Schall". I used to tell Jack that I ought to know because I was there. But on his army papers and birth certificate, he is "Jack Joseph Schall". His birthday, according to me, is August 25, but it is August 26th on the documents. The reason for this discrepancy, I figure, was that our uncle, "Doc" Kepler, mother's brother-in-law, delivered Jack. Uncle Doc evidently put "Jack" on the certificate and put the date in of the following morning after he was born.

 

The important thing about a human being, of course, is not his date of birth or name even, but that he manages to get born in the first place and that when he dies, he knows what life is about, that he is made for the glory of the Lord. Jack knew this, I think, much better than his clerical brother. This was his realism, as Tom Williams rightly said. Clerics have good brothers and sisters, I am sure, so that someone will be around to keep them sane, no easy task. And brothers and sisters have children who call you "Uncle Jim" and carry on your brother's legacy to you. When I said the final prayer at graveside, I thought, the Church does it right in the steps it takes us through at the death of a brother -- the rosary, the Mass, the final prayers. John (Jack) Joseph Schall, RIP.

17) From Crisis, December, 1994.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

AT A CHRISTMAS EVE MASS

 

A couple of years ago, I was to spend Christmas Eve with one of my nephews and his dear family. For reasons of protecting any minimal sanity that may remain in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, I will not specify just where the following account took place. Following St. Luke's example, however, I will only say that I was an eye witness to the truth of every detail that follows in this sober account. I write these lines here lest posterity be deprived of what it is that actually can happen in this world some two millennia after the Decree of Caesar Augustus went forth. No one, not even I, could ever have imagined these things. Reality continues to surprise us by remaining both odder and funnier than fiction.

 

The family procedure for Christmas Eve was as follows: my nephew's local parish was to have an early Mass, say about four or five in the evening, as I recall. While I was still in Washington, my niece-in-law had arranged that I concelebrate this Mass with the local priest who was saying the Mass. I do not recall if he was the pastor or the assistant. Since there are several children in my nephew's family, this Christmas Eve Mass seemed to be most fitting. In the Church, there would be a large Manger with its blessing, singing. I believe that one of my little grand-nieces was in the children's choir.

 

I recall arriving fifteen minutes before Mass to a teeming Church. I remember wending my way to the sacristy with all its scurrying in preparation for the Mass. No one quite knew what to do with me as I had no assigned role in the ceremony except for a chair on which I was to sit. The other priest finally came. I introduced myself. He showed me the vestments. Milling about all over the place were altar boys, altar girls, and altar adults. We were at last organized and processed out the side door to the back of the Church. We were a long file of Crucifix, candles, books, gifts, I do not know what all. The music was in full tune. Children were running all over the Church. The place was jammed. Carefully, we muscled our way through the crowd to the elaborate Nativity scene. The priest blessed Joseph, Mary, and the Child in the crib. The animals and straw were appropriately scattered about the scene at a side altar amidst the Christmas trees and lights.

 

Finally, we got to the main altar to begin Mass. Evidently, I had no role in this Mass as all essential parts such as reading and distribution of Communion were assigned to the altar adults. I doggedly followed the usual formula for concelebration. I was glad to be there. It came time to sit down for the Readings of the Epistles and Gospel (attention: I still call them Epistle, Gospel, and Mass). Only then, much to my astonishment, did I notice that there were three chairs, one for the principal celebrant, one for me, and a third already occupied by what appeared to my good eye as a very large, almost twice my size, stuffed bird, quite yellow.

 

Now fortunately, the reader will be relieved to know, I did not panic at this unexpectedly pagan scene on Christmas Eve since by now, I am shell-shocked enough to expect just about anything in a Holy Roman Catholic Church service. Moreover, I recalled having another grand-niece in Spokane who had a chair made in the same image as this very large stuffed bird that was occupying the third chair to listen to the Epistle and the Gospel with me. After the altar adults had finished the Epistles, the priest went over to read the Gospel and give his homily. I was suddenly alone there to the left of the Altar, isolated with Big Bird. Actually, I recall something unusual with the altar pendant, but I cannot now recall what it was.

 

Now I knew, and this was of considerable concern to me at the time, that my brother and my two nephews, not to mention my sister-in-law and my niece-in-law, were witnessing and watching with critical eyes this remarkable scene of Uncle Jim in chasuble and stole sitting beside Big Bird in yellow feathers listening to the Christmas Eve homily. I still recollect sitting there in utter disbelief that a Holy Roman Catholic Church could on Christmas Eve, along with myself, feature Big Bird as part of the Mass. I knew, so-to-speak, that there would be hell to pay when the family got to Christmas Eve dinner after Mass. I could already hear my nephew solemnly remarking to my brother how well Uncle Jim went on the altar with Big Bird. Fortunately, no one had a camera to record this preposterous but immortal scene.

 

The worst was yet to come. Mind you, I just walked off the plane from the District of Columbia after having read term papers and handed in grades into what I took to be a normal Holy Roman Catholic Christmas Eve Mass in a local parish. I had not the slightest warning about what might follow. I am still not sure whether my nephew deliberately did not alert me to test my mettle or if even he was surprised. My suspicion is the former because he goes to the place every Sunday and surely this sort of thing could not have been entirely unexpected.

 

Usually, I believe, the rubrics of the Church suggest that if another priest is present, when it comes time for distribution of Holy Communion, that he should assist at this service. Well, of course, this rule, in America at least, is observed in the breaking of it, normally. I was aware of that likelihood. So I went to Communion myself and dutifully sat back down next to my new clerical friend, Big Bird, while the altar adults distributed Communion. Though everyone but the small children went to Communion, I thought that Mass would soon end.

 

Wrong. Suddenly before Big Bird's and my very eyes, there was a swarming of the very little children. The priest or altar adult, I forget which, announced that on Christmas Eve they were also celebrating their parish's monthly birthday treat for the children. Somehow I also recall, vaguely, a stuffed Snoopy around. He may have been a companion to Big Bird. Needless to say, I was much surprised to learn that this birthday treat on Christmas Eve was a Hershey's lollipop. Following Holy Communion, in the same format, they apparently gave out Hershey lollipops to every child who came up to the sanctuary.

 

Before I could catch my breath in realizing what was about to happen, however, the priest handed me a big basket of said Hershey lollipops and assigned me a distribution place, again just like Communion. So, here it was Christmas Eve, and I was celebrating children's birthday night by giving out lollipops after Communion. The altar adults handled the Communion; the priests took the lollipops. This ceremony had naturally nothing to do with the Nativity Scene. No attempt was made to associate gifts with the Christ Child. I think the children thought the lollipops came from Big Bird. The kids were smart enough to figure out that they did not come from Schall.

 

Several of the little children, to be sure, all dressed up for Christmas Eve Mass, wanted to know if they could have more than one lollipop. Naturally, I did not want to violate the principles of distributive justice in this delicate affair. It looked like there were suddenly about a thousand little children under four cramming around Uncle Jim wanting their birthday treats. I was clearly out of my depth. Apparently, as far as I could tell, every child under four in that parish had a birthday in December. Or maybe the parish operated on a principle of compassion whereby it would be discrimination not to give a child a lollipop on lollipop birthday Sunday with Big Bird even if his birthday was in July or September.

 

Anyhow, mentally acknowledging that the children were very cute in their Christmas outfits, I handed out my last birthday treat Mass lollipop and returned to sit beside Big Bird in a Holy Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Eve. As I sat there waiting for the last Blessing, wondering if indeed there would be a last Blessing -- I do nor recall a Creed -- while all the altar girls, altar boys, and altar adults lined up for the exit procession, looking out on this festive gathering, I fortunately not catching my nephew's eye. I knew he would be in hysterics and I would begin to giggle uncontrollably at this incredible scene.

 

But more soberly, I did wonder to myself if I should write to the local Bishop. As I mulled it over, I thought to myself, "No, it would do no good. If the local bishop does now know that lollipops are being given out as birthday treats on Christmas Eve, if he does not know that Big Bird occupies the seat of the Deacon at the Holy Mysteries, he must be so utterly incompetent that it would not be worth the effort." "On the other hand," I thought, "if the bishop did know these things went on in his parishes, then the situation is even worse. Either, in perfect dilemma form, he was incompetent or a fool." So I dropped that line of musing, not wanting to be uncharitable to the local ordinary on Christmas Eve.

 

Still, as I processed out of the sanctuary to the strains of "Adeste Fideles", I put it up to a bet to myself. "Would you, following the logic of your horseracing brother, who was also observing these things in his son's Holy Roman Catholic parish, bet that the bishop did or did not know about the lollipops and Big Bird as deacon for Christmas Eve Mass?" You will not be surprised to know that, on the whole, I bet that he did know.

 

When Mass was over and I chatted unbelieving with the altar adults, with parishioners, with children, and, finally outside, with my nephew, he said to me laughing but with what I thought to be a touching sense of responsibility for the mental health of his aging uncle, "I'm sorry, Uncle Jim, I knew it would be bad." And then I believe he added with his arm on my shoulder, "You really looked good up there with Big Bird." At least he did not complain that I did not save him a Hershey lollipop.

I recount this tale, this true tale, to my Holy Roman Catholic friends at this Christmastide to give them comfort and consolation. Surely this sort of stuff is madness. No doubt, there is a place for Big Bird and for Hershey lollipops, even at Christmas time, under the tree for the little ones. All that we need, however, is surely the Crib, the Manger, the Christmas stories, the music, the lovely and moving account of the Birth of the Lord as we read it in the Gospels. It seemed sad to me to see a parish confused on Christmas Eve by symbols that could in no way match the normal Christmas drama of our tradition. I know the Christmas tree is from the pagan Germans, the Yule log from the English, and "White Christmas" form the Americans. I guess what I want to say is that at least once a year, let's get it straight because only when it is straight is Christmas, the Birth of Our Lord, what really moves our souls.

 

I will conclude by citing the new Catechism: "The Word became flesh so that we might know God's love: 'In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him' (1 Jn 4:9). 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son , that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' (Jn 3:16)" (#458).

 

When we walk out of Christmas Eve Mass with our dear families, hopefully ourselves not having been distracted by Big Bird on the Holy Altar or our children by free birthday Hershey lollipops after Communion, or even by Uncle Jim sitting there midst it all, this is what should stick in the depth of our souls, this only Son sent into the world that we should have eternal life. This is what our priests and bishops should be sure we understand and realize on this Holy Night. And if they persist in confusing us with Big Birds and lollipops, we still have the Catechism and the accounts of Luke and Matthew.

18) From Crisis, July-August, 1992.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

THE CRAFTSMAN

 

I do a good deal of walking. In the instructions to my new Dexter walk shoes (more anon), I am told "walking conditions almost all of your 650 muscles, and uses almost all of your 206 bones." Now, I happen never to have known the number of my muscles, let alone bones. None the less, I do not think I have ever walked "just for the exercise." Somehow, I have always found a walk a kind of everyday small adventure in which something unexpected somehow always happens, even if it is just recalling the word "thorough" or being startled by the small bird I saw just now sort of flitting backwards up the library stairs.

 

However, no matter what you think of going "barefoot in the summer" as we used to say when we were kids in Iowa, walking requires shoes (and socks). I wear the outside of my heels down pretty rapidly, so I try to put on a pair of rubber cleats every so often. This requires a shoe repair shop. In San Francisco, I used to go to one on Clement Street just off Aguello. Here, in Washington, early on I found a shop just over the P Street Bridge going out of Georgetown, about fifteen or twenty blocks out the front gate of the University. I do not know the name of the shop or the wonderful old gentleman who runs it. Just as you go towards Dupont Circle, it is on the left, next to a liquor store, next to the pub on the corner, by the bus stop.

 

On a beautiful May Saturday morning, I had a couple of pairs of black shoes that needed cleats. I also was in the mood for a good walk. Classes were just over; the dogwoods were still in bloom. In the meantime, I had had to toss away my heavier walking shoes. What they say about old shoes is true, I think. You sort of grow attached to them. No matter how odd the shape of your feet, old shoes somehow accommodate themselves to them.

 

These particular old shoes I bought down on F Street maybe ten or so years ago. I bought them for a remarkable $22. They were the only brand of its kind in the store the day I bought them, so they must have been remainders. They were leather, perhaps made in Yugoslavia or someplace and the right size, 9½ D. They were, for a walking shoe, a rather handsome shoe. As I give shoes a beating, they had to be repaired once or twice a year. Finally, after about nine years, they developed a tear on both insteps, which were also repaired with a handy patch. At last, however, I decided that they could not be repaired any longer. The left sole completely broke in two. So I gave them up, not without a touch of nostalgia for all the sights these shoes and I had seen together.

 

In the meantime, with the guidance of a friend not impressed with my purchasing habits, I bought a pair of sort of imitation Rockport walking shoes by the name of Decker. These shoes felt good from the moment I put them on. They were a darker, softer leather, lighter in weight than the Yugoslav variety. But I examined the heels and knew I would wear them down in three or four good walks if I did not have cleats put on them too. Cannot someone invent heels that do not wear down? Of course, that would end the repair business, like fluoride ends the cavity business. However, I was not sure if cleats would stay on this sort of shoe.

 

I got to the shoe shop about nine-thirty. No one was in the shop but the cobbler. The old man was working away. He has one of those old fashioned shoe repair shops -- smells shoes and polish. I noticed a lithograph of an old time cobbler on the wall sponsored by Biltrite. I asked him if Biltrite was still in business. He told me "no." I explained to him what I wanted. "When do you want them?" "Now, would be preferable." As he had done this quick job for me before, I did not hesitate to ask.

 

I showed him my new Decker model. He told me he could put cleats on these also. I took my shoes off and also gave him the other two pairs.

 

He took the shoes over to his polishing-scraping machine whirring away to clean the heels off. I asked him if these machines were German. He did not think so. "What if they need repairs?" "Oh," he told me, "that can be a problem. It is not like the car which you can get repaired any place. I have to call the repairman and make an appointment. When the machine is not working, I am in trouble." I asked him how the business was going. He told me that there are only a few old time repair shops like his left.

 

About this time another man came in and stood beside me at the counter. He joined the conversation. He seemed to know the old man. Evidently, he had a pair of shoes to pick up. I asked the old man how long he had been in this shop, "Thirty-two years." The other man informed me that he himself had been coming there since 1972. "This man is no ordinary man," the man told me. "I am an information specialist. This man is not a specialist. He is a craftsman. He rebuilds shoes. I need that. Almost every two weeks or so." I thought this was odd that someone would need to have shoes repaired so often. But I agreed, this old man was a craftsman, a wonderful old word going back to the guilds, to the notion that the making and repairing of things should be a kind of skill, art, the recta ratio factabilium, something one learns mostly by doing, by doing well, honestly.

 

The customer said that he hoped the old man would stay in business for a long time. The old craftsman had intimated that he would like to sell the place. In fact, I had kidded him about selling it to some bar. He said that he could not get anyone willing to do this kind of work. He told us that he had his sons in when they were young, but within a couple of weeks the were itching to get out. "But they had an education. They are working in jobs with time off and vacations. I have to work all the time. No work, no money coming in." I said, "Well, your boys will take care of you when you are old." He laughed and said he would take care of himself.

 

All the time the old shoe craftsman was busy repairing my shows. At the same time, he continued putting cleats on various sets of women's high heels he had hanging from his workbench. I could smell the glue and hear him hammer behind the low bench headboard.

 

The customer next to me asked him how much for his repaired shoes, which I was holding up and admiring the craftsmanship of the repair job. I suggested "about a hundred dollars." The customer said about thirty. The old man settled for twenty-five. The customer wrote out a check. As the he left, again expressing his gratefulness that this man was still in business, I glanced over my shoulder to notice that he was shuffling along as a man who had some limb impediment. I suddenly realized why he was so grateful to this old man who could carefully rebuild his shoes as he would wear them out so fast on the sidewalks. Another customer came in to collect his shoes. Another twenty-five.

 

I asked the old man how he put the cleats on those tiny women's high heels. He brought over a box with some long spikes at the end of which were the tiny cleats. He explained how it worked. He said that at one time, women had steel or aluminum heels, but they tore things up too much. He then showed me some women's shoes. "These cost a hundred dollars or so," he told me. "Some lady from one of the hotels brought them in as she has just broken them." "They cannot walk too much in these streets with high heels can they?" I asked referring to the brick sidewalks outside. "No," he said.

 

The old man next held up another pair of black lady's shoes for my inspection. Even I could see they were elegant. "These cost three hundred dollars," he told me, "but they are not worth it. These salesmen can talk them into buying these things for three hundred dollars and that's it." I was about to suggest that he should gear his repairs according to the price of the shoe, but thought better of it.

 

A middle-aged Mexican gentleman came in and was listening to us. Finally, the old man said to him, "You want the paper?" The man nodded. So the old man went into the back room and brought out the morning Post and gave it to him. "Bring it back," he told him, "I want to read it." Another old man came in with a cup of coffee and brought it over to the craftsman without a word. I suppose this happens every day in that shop.

 

Next, as if he sensed that I might be interested in taking over his shop, the old man brought over another inexpensive pair of woman's slippers. "These cost her twenty dollars at a sale," he told me. "She wanted cleats on heel and toe. Look at this material. No telling what it is. Trouble is today, they make shoes all over the world. No set standards." To prove his point, he brought me a pile of old heels in various stages of decay. "You cannot tell if this is paper or leather sometimes from the outside, but these are paper. They won't last at all." He brought over another pair of shoes to show how difficult it was to tell whether a heel was leather or paper.

 

"Nobody wants to do this work any more," the craftsman returned to the topic of his profession. "The new repair shops in the malls won't do this kind of careful repair work. They want just to do the easy stuff. Man comes in with a hundred dollar pair of shoes and the shop in the mall wants to charge him twenty dollars for a little polishing." He became philosophical, "Shoes nowadays are made to be thrown away, not repaired." These guys (apparently referring to your average DC politician) buy a two hundred dollar pair of shoes and toss them away rather than have then repaired. What's money to them?"

 

I looked down on the counter to examined the reading material he had stacked on it. I had noticed that the crippled man had taken a couple of magazines with him. He probably had brought some back. The craftsman had on the counter a January 4, 1992 copy of The Economist of London. "You have some good journals here," I told him. He also had lots of the usual Time and such. Nothing off color, I was glad to see. He laughed.

 

After hammering in the last nails -- which I was glad to see, as some repairmen use staples that last about one walk -- the craftsman brought over my six shoes. I had been standing in my stocking feet. "How much?" I asked him. He added, "let's see, two dollars and two dollars and two dollars, that will be six dollars." I paid him. Earlier he had said that he should be in the liquor business like the man next door. "It is easier, all you do is hand him the bottle; you do not have to do any work." I replied, "Yes, but you get robbed in liquor stores." He corrected my ignorance of the criminal mind, "why just last week they broke my front window."

 

After I put on my now cleated Deckers and picked up the other two pairs of shoes, going out the door, I said to the craftsman, "Goodbye, I will see you next time I wear these heels down. I enjoyed talking to you." And I did.

 

Somehow on that May Saturday morning, as I swung along in my new Deckers, back along P Street to Georgetown, now sporting a new, firmly secured cleat on each heel, all my 650 muscles and 206 bones just felt better.

19) From Crisis, May, 1996.

 

 

Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

A LITTLE BIT OF DEISM

 

In some old notes, written in my own inimitable script, a script that B. F. Smith described, not wholly inaccurately, as "your familiar, illegible scrawl", I came across the following two citations, one from St. Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles, the other from John Paul II. Both made the same point, a point contrary to our modern way of thinking but at the heart of Christian doctrine.

 

First, St. Thomas: "But unless divine grace aid us, we cannot love or delight in true righteousness." Secondly, the Holy Father, from a talk to some Asian Bishops on January 15, 1995: "The Church's future will not be solely the result of our human efforts but, more fundamentally, the work of the Divine Spirit whom we must not impede but assist."

 

Let it be noticed for the record that I can sometimes, with effort, read my own handwriting. But are these citations not rather anti-humanistic? Cannot we recognize and delight in true righteousness with our own faculties? Why cannot we assist the work of the Divine Spirit more than we can impede it? What is so inadequate with "our human efforts"?

 

Yet, we must ask ourselves whether what we can reach with our own efforts is sufficient to achieve what we really want? Are we made for our human powers alone?

 

In St. Augustine's time, an English monk by the name of Pelagius held, or was thought to have held, that we could attain salvation by our own efforts. If we just rolled up our sleeves, we could dispense with grace. Logically, this would mean that we did not need a redeemer. We could achieve the divine purpose for which we were created by our own unaided efforts. It was thought that anything less, any dependence on God, would demean man. Most modern humanists tend to be Pelagians. It appeared that we could be like gods without being gods, something that the Church rather frowned upon.

 

What brought these passages to mind was my happening on a brief comment that Josef Cardinal Ratzinger made at the Roman Synod of the Lebanese Bishops late in 1995. Ratzinger can be remarkably frank. He had missed speaking earlier at the Synod but wanted to make certain remarks about the basic document that the Lebanese bishops were discussing.

 

The document contained this passage: "The Christian adheres to this Word, makes it 'his' in the Church and thus enters into communion with God and with his brothers in the faith." At first sight, this seems like a worthy sentiment. Ratzinger noticed, however, that the biblical text to which this passage referred was somewhat different: "For all that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you" (Jn. 15:15). The subject of the biblical text is Christ, while the subject of the document's text is "the Christian." This change suggested to the German Cardinal presuppositions of modern self-sufficiency.

 

"We are the basically the acting subject. We are the ones building the Church, building the kingdom of God," Ratzinger summarized this view.

Western activism has spread -- at least as an idea -- to almost every part of the world. We easily forget that God is not only Creator and Revealer in the past, but the word of the Lord is always valid.... God is always the acting agent in history; his actions precede ours and we can only act in a good way by conforming to the action of God. I feel that a little bit of deism is also found today in the Church; it is so much more important to speak unequivocally of the fact that God, who is always at work, is at work today.

Here is my title, A Little Bit of Deism -- found sometimes in the Church itself, a de-emphasis on sin and grace, on attentiveness to God's action in history.

 

Deism held that once God set the world in motion; the rest was up to us. We thus need little prayer, little attention to a natural law or to grace. We can do it by ourselves. We will be proud of what we make by ourselves, even though it is not the righteousness to which we are called in delight and glory.

 

What is the alternative to a little bit of deism? The German Cardinal concludes, "The knowledge of God is eternal life. We must always speak more forcefully about this dimension of our faith" (Osservatore Romano, Jan. 10, 1996). No purely humanist end gives us this purpose or the means to it. This is why St. Thomas said that "unless divine grace aid us, we cannot love or delight in true righteousness." Modernity's results, in many ways, prove this thesis, as Cardinal Ratzinger intimated.

20) From Crisis, May, 1995.

 

 

Some Sense and Nonsense James V. Schall, S. J.

 

ON FALLING DOWN ON "M" STREET

 

One Saturday afternoon in late Winter, I decided to take one of my usual walks. I put on a jacket with a hood, Levis, some sturdy shoes, gloves. It was chilly. The particular walk I took that Saturday goes down Prospect Street out of the University, to 33d Street in Georgetown, across "M" Street, which is the main arterial leading back across the Key Bridge into Virginia, and, the other way, connects with Pennsylvania Avenue and downtown Washington. Once across "M" Street, I usually cross the foot-bridge over the C&O Canal, down to "K" Street under the Whitehurst Freeway, to the River. I continue along the Potomac, by Georgetown Harbor, which has such a lovely Fountain. This is at the bend in the River, Watergate and the Kennedy Center are on the other side of the bend, with Roosevelt Island across the waters.

 

Then I return back along Rock Creek Parkway, up into Georgetown by the Four Seasons, cross "M" Street just at the Meiggs Bridge over Rock Creek which separates Georgetown from Washington proper. There I turn back to the University, usually along "N" Street to cross Wisconsin Avenue. It is a most pleasant walk. Some wonderful vistas along the way never cease to delight me. My theory is that no one, but no one, should stay on a university campus all day and forget that the rest of the world is still out there, even if it is the rather odd world of the Nation's Capital.

 

Anyhow, on this particular Saturday, I cut down a kind of side street between 34th and 33d to "M" Street. As I came along to 33d Street, there were two fire trucks blocking 33d, with ladders up over the building. I could see no smoke or fire; but, with everyone else, I gawked a bit at what might be happening. I walked around the fire truck, to cross "M" Street at the light.

 

When the "walk" sign went on, I stepped down only to feel my right ankle give out somehow. I fell right down on the street, though with, as I think of it in retrospect, a rather graceful fall. Naturally, when I fall I worry about my one good eye, but I fell heads up on my knees, stomach, and left hand. Needless to say, I was grateful all the traffic was stopped; otherwise I would have been a gonner, though optimistically I presume I would have had sense enough not to step out against the traffic light. I picked myself up, felt that my knees might have been scratched and continued across "M" Street before what I presume to be the amazed eyes of the several drivers, passengers, and pedestrians stopped at the lights. I checked my knees at the next place I could brace my foot, but nothing seemed wrong. I took off my glove to find my left thumb was bleeding at the nail, but I could move it all right. So I wrapped it in a handkerchief, put my glove back on, and, undaunted, continued my walk across the Canal and down the hill to the River.

 

The reader is dying to know, of course, why I fell in the first place, right? As I have subsequently told this story to several friends, the same speculation comes up. When he first heard of this incident from my sister in Medford, Oregon, my youngest and most critical brother in California, in a feeble attempt to be amusing at the expense of his oldest and, in at least one quarter, wiser sibling, conjectured that the fall might be due to inebriation. But I assured him that, as always, as he should be the first to know after all these years, such conjecture was totally contrary to my well-known character. I was, as ever, perfectly sober, having just had, I believe, a hamburger at lunch at the Community.

 

The real cause of this now famous fall on "M" Street was a bout of what appears to be gout in my right ankle, for which at the time, I was dutifully taking Indicin. However, it was still tender when, to avoid a puddle of water, I stepped off the rather high curb without paying much attention to what I was doing.

 

But it is at this point wherein the theoretical speculation about the cause and events surrounding the fall become interesting and why I am recounting this momentous incident in these august pages. Several of my friends and my other brother in Spokane have also joined in this wild speculation, as I have proposed the issue to them. To test their virtue, I initially, by way of hypothesis, ask them: "Let us suppose that some old man falls down on 'M' Street at 33d during a relatively crowded Georgetown noon-hour. Two fire fully manned trucks stand right there. Would you not expect alert citizen to rush over to help -- as no one did?" Since I am the one asking this question, most of my friends and brothers have sense enough to realize this is a trap. The key word is "old" -- that is, if they admit the situation as I describe it, they know that they will be accused of calling me an "old man"! Most of them, to their credit, skillfully avoid this pitfall.

 

At this point, however, several other not unfriendly critics have taken up my brother's ungrounded suspicions, only from the other angle. They reply that the reason folks did not rush out of their cars and shops to help me was because they presumed that I, as the fallen gentleman, was indeed "loaded", as they say. They did not want to be "involved", as it is put today. They did not want to hassle the whole thing with some senior citizen who obviously did not know what he was doing. I assured them that this weak justification was also completely invalid.

 

Next, like a good Christian, I bring up the case of the Good Samaritan as it is applied to the streets of Georgetown, however mind-boggling that supposition might appear to be in the murder capital of the nation. I suggest that here we have a case in which just anyone, myself included, falls down off a curb, in front of stopped cars. This is the perfect case. No Levite, Priest, or Samaritan appeared to pick me up off the pavement. Not even the firemen, who are supposedly equipped to deal with such things with all sorts of resuscitation equipment, lifted a finger. Am I to conclude that there are no Good Samaritans in Georgetown? that we are in a wholly pagan and secularized society?

One other school of thought suggested that I got up too quickly, that everyone was so shocked that a fine looking specimen like myself could fall down on "M" and 33d that all were in a state of initial paralysis. Had I only remained collapsed there for a couple of minutes, I would have found my wounded thumb being bandaged in some plushy Georgetown shop out of the kindness of some proprietor's heart.

 

Yet, another view of this intellectually fertile situation intimates that it was because Schall, dressed in Levis and walking shoes, is inconspicuous, if not downright suspicious. Had he been, on the contrary, dressed in formal clerical garb for his afternoon stroll, surely some good soul would have come to help, as did the kind young naval officer a couple of months ago when he saw a helpless priest, to be sure, myself, stranded with a flat tire on Key Bridge. These days when clerics are getting absolutely terrible headlines in the local press, I admit that the thing could go either way. Nor do I have any problem wearing clerical garb as apparently do so many, particularly academic, clerics. The fact is, clerical garb is not designed for a game of basketball, or golf, or a good brisk walk in the afternoon.

 

Still another theory has to do with the gentlemen who sit at practically every corner in Georgetown with a Dixie Cup in hand asking every passer-by for money. Some perceptive observers about the reason why no one of these on-lookers picked me up on "M" Street was that these men with cups who saw me fall may have read my Sense and Nonsense column several years ago called "The Begging Industry" (June, 1993). Here I had rashly expressed some doubt about the authenticity or value of having so many able-bodied males at these posts and to whom, I thought, no one should ever give any money. In this view, these young men with the cups, on seeing who it was flat on the pavement, said to themselves, "Let him lie! Serves him right!"

 

A variant version of the same theory is that Schall, dressed in Levis and walking shoes, does not look like he could possibly have a dime to his name. Thus, the reason why none of these begging gentlemen came out, not to mention the other criminal types who, according to the press, freely roam the streets of Washington, was that any self-respecting beggar or robber figured that it was useless to get blood out of a turnip, as they say. They knew with practiced eye that even if they robbed this hapless man with the gouty ankle flung unexpectedly onto the "M" Street asphalt, they would go away empty handed.

 

What are the metaphysical conclusions to be drawn from these remarkable speculations? Needless to say, I might harken back to the title of what I call my "English" book, since it was published there, however uncharacteristically, namely, The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches': On the Worship of God by Fallen Men. The word "fallen" in the context of that title referred to "The Fall", to Original Sin, to the fact that even though we are members of a race that has "fallen", we are still to praise God. In this theological sense, we literally have here the classic case of a "fallen man" who quite literally falls in the streets of Georgetown. It will be noticed that all the reflections about the actually "fallen" man, namely, myself, do refer back in one way or another to The Fall, even gout in classical literature is said, I hope erroneously, to be due to high living and over indulgence.

 

A fall in a street thus can also be a symbol for The Fall. The Fall implies a standard that we know about but to which we do not rise. An accident generally has a cause that produces an unanticipated event of another kind when it crosses another cause. Had I been conscious that I might fall on "M" Street, I would have taken care to step more gently, hence no fall. The fall in the street was the result of an ankle not working normally, of a standard not being maintained. This discrepancy between the standard and what does not come up to it can be physical or moral. People can let old gentlemen lie in the street. Robbers can take advantage of the weak and helpless. Some people do fall because they drink too much, and some people do not want to be bothered with them in this condition because it is almost impossible to know what to do. On the other hand, you might have fallen in front of a truck when it could not stop.

 

The fact is that we are finite beings; we are men who fall. Moreover, we belong to a Fallen Race. In both conditions, finite and fallen, we are to praise God. This last conclusion is, approximately, what I learned at 33d and "M" Street after stepping off the curb and falling, as I said, rather gracefully. I use the word "gracefully" on purpose, of course, because once we understand The Fall, we begin to understand grace. And once we understand grace, God's gift to us to enable us, if we will, to praise Him, even as He is, even as we are, "fallen", as I say, then we can begin to know why younger brothers are entertained at the predicament of older ones. We can begin to understand why, after all, our "fallenness" does not stand in the way either of our brother's or of our own amusement at the sight of ourselves in Levis and walking shoes sprawled flat on the roadway at 33d and "M" Street in Georgetown wondering if anyone else noticed how our fall related to The Fall.