The Onset of Advent

Brought to you courtesy of the Shea-Wright Mutual Admiration Society, this is a post from Mark Shea’s blog, which I reprint here in full.

Grace is Dark Matter

The history of the Catholic Church is simply chockablock with people like Br. Rick Bunch, quietly and humbly laboring on behalf of the poorest and most defenseless people in the world. What’s amazing to me is how some people can seriously look at something like this and see nothing but evil. As Caesar begins to press harder to crush the Church here in the US, the astounding thing to me is that people don’t seem to realize that they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces when they pressure the Church out of works of mercy and try to replace it with the State. It’s like a man with an umbrella watering plants in a rainstorm. it’s a fine way for control freaks to corner the watering market, but a lousy way to water a garden. As priest friend of mine used to say, “I don’t worry that the Church will survive persecution in the US. I do doubt that the US will survive persecuting the Church.” A serious assault on the Church is a serious assault on what is, hands down, the greatest charitable organization on planet Earth. You may as well drain all the oil out of a car engine and expect it to run at 60 miles an hour as destroy the work of millions of volunteers who supply the vital lubrication that allows a society to function. Thanks be to God for the generosity of the millions of Br. Rick’s out there who do for love what Caesar and Mammon cannot do well for the sake of power or money. Like dark matter, the gracious work they do accounts for most of the mass of history, and nobody ever sees it or hears about it.

My comment is provoked not just by Shea’s message, but by events in my personal life, both pleasant and unpleasant, of which it would be either discourteous or unrewarding to speak. Therefore let me hide the root of my thought but share the fruit:

When I first became a Christian, I had been warned by sundry writers, CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, that being a Christian was difficult. I often in jest lamented that I had not been visited in my hour of distress by Thor. Dying in battle during some act of brigandage against treasonous relatives, then to be carried aloft by singing fierce-eyed Valkyrie to endless feasting until foredoomed Ragnarok, to fall as loyal as his wolves at the feet of dark-hooded Odin was much more in accord with my natural inclination. Given my druthers, I’d much rather be a pagan. Unfortunately, and despite what your modern teachers tell you, reality is what it is, and you don’t get a vote.

It was not until long after that I encountered those who scoffed that following Christ was the lazy or the easy path. Even if the teachings of Christ are a false and pernicious as a Dawkins or a Hitchens scoffs, they cannot honestly call the disciplines false. (Not that honesty is their strong point.)

I suggest that even those who despise the Christian religion would benefit themselves by trying to live according to our discipline for even so short a time as a month.

You will be reviled and scorned by friends and coworkers in public, but be unable to answer them as natural ire prompts.

You will give to the poor and needy with both hands, regretting only that you do not have more to give away, but he unable even to hint at any charitable work you are doing.

You will turn the other cheek when struck.

You will obey worldly authorities even when in they are in the wrong.

You will heed spiritual authorities even when your proud and smug philosophic schools and political factions urge you most strongly to defy the Church and follow instead whatever admired teacher or leader taught you your most cherished ideals.

You will be chaste. This forbids not merely adultery, but adultery of the eyes — try turning off the porn stream from the internet, male readers, and see if you can go for a month without.

You will also eschew gluttony (which includes a gluttony for intoxicating drugs) and sloth, and greed, and anger, and envy, and pride. This includes giving up any political partisanship, of any party, which masks envy or greed or anger.

If you are Catholic, you will regularly confess your sins to a priest, do penance, and vow yet again to amend those besetting sins which you hate and yet do over again. If you are Protestant, you do just the same, but without leaning on the staff of the priest.

Even to admit a sin is sin is a heroic effort of self discipline, since the busy mind naturally seeks to excuse itself from unpleasant blame, and the modern world naturally seeks to bolster your self esteem by telling you whatever your natural desires might be, are licit if you decree them so. I’m OK, you’re OK.

You will endure pain rather than commit suicide, and bear a child rather than commit prenatal infanticide. This requires considerably more courage than worldly men can muster, more, perhaps, than they can imagine. (Admittedly, this requires more than my hypothetical one month commitment.)

You will not divorce except in cases of infidelity. If you are Catholic, you will not use contraception nor fertility drugs.

If you are Mormon, you will not drink wine or beer. If you are a Christian Scientist, coffee, tea and cigarettes are forbidden.

Finally, if you are Christian of any denomination, or an observant Jew or faithful Muslim, you will denounce the culture of death, and all the works and all the ways of the august and hellish Prince whose inspires that culture and reigns with usurping iron scepter over it.

And you will return for hate love, and pray for those that despise you.

And if you attempt this discipline for a month, but live in a nation less civilized than this, you may be called upon to suffer beatings, wounds, maiming, humiliation, loss of liberty, loss of life. Ask the Copts in Egypt, or inquire of the Christians in Iraq or Africa.

Try it for a month.

Is a month too long? Try it for the season of Advent. By ancient usage, this begins with the Sunday nearest to the feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle and embracing four Sundays. This year is the longest of Advent, beginning 27 November, and lasting twenty-eight days.

Saint Andrew the Apostle

The experiment will produce an interesting result: you will fail. You will not be able to do even half these things, even for half a month. Human effort alone is insufficient. So, logically, if anyone can do these things at all, it means something beyond the human is assisting them.

Now, a worldly skeptic might scoff, “Ah, but the test is one designed to fail! These arbitrary rules, and standards set arbitrarily high, are meant to trap the unwary into a sense of unearned guilt, which is merely a sinister means for priests and authorities to control the weak-minded!”

This is the conspiracy-theory theology. It assumes there is nothing in the human conscience that recognizes and responds to the demands of the virtue, even extravagant virtue. In reality, any man whose conscience is not numb within him feels a twinge of conscience when he gives into lust or gluttony or sloth or wrath or pride, even if he calls these things good, or invents excuses to call them good.

It also assumes that, just because you fail, there are not those who succeed. But there are: We call them saints. Human effort alone is insufficient. A saint is one who has surrendered to the Holy Spirit.

To be a saint is the only kind of heroism that anyone, young or old, hale or weak, can obtain. No one is barred by race, color, creed, national origin or condition of previous servitude.

War heroes need to wait for wars. Not everyone can be a Washington or a Napoleon: without the revolution, Washington would have remained a farmer, and the Emperor a Corsican. And even swift Achilles could not have won eternal renown from Homer’s song had he had a bum leg. Likewise, artists need genius. Athletes need strength, politicians a gift of rhetoric, statesmen a gift of leadership, not to mention a state in need. Time and circumstance and fortune have a unearthly and arbitrary influence to determine where fame shall fall.

But anyone can be the Virgin Mary. All you need do is say, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.”

Anyone can be Saint Stephen. All you need do is pray for your murderers.

Anyone can be Saint Paul. All you need do is realize that you are blind and come to the Church to have your eyes opened.

Anyone can be Saint Peter. All you need do is stretch forth your hands, and another shall gird you, and carry you whither you would not go.

Anyone can be Saint John. All you need do is abide until He comes.

Sounds simple? Without the spirit, it is impossible to do these simple things.

Unlike every other form of hero or leader or admirable figure, the saint alone elevates those below him rather than depress them. The genius is not respected unless his genius is rare: the hero not victorious unless there are vanquished. But excesses of charity and love are loved even by those who say they have no use for saints.

My suggestion again, is that those who despise the Christian religion attempt to live by our precepts for a month, in order to see and understand what it is you imagine you hate.

Unfortunately, I have a much, much stronger suggestion to make to those who profess the Christian religion: Let us live by our precepts for a month.

The pagans of ancient times were converted not by words only, but by the silent example of Christians living in their midst: in their midst but not like them. How can the modern men, less even than the pagans of old in dignity and intellect and uprightness of stature, be led by our example if we live as they do?

What? You cannot find any poor who need food, clothing, shelter? Are there no prisoners in jail to visit, no sick in the hospital, no aged in the Old Folk’s Home waiting in loneliness to die?

Have you truly no enemy to forgive? Is there truly no one in your life who has cursed you or reviled you or said all manner of evil against you falsely?

If not, you might be doing something wrong, O ye faithful: if you are true servant of Christ, you well know that the world will not treat the servant better than it treated the master.

Let us abide by what we have been commanded to do, if not for a whole month, then at least for Advent.

Or a week. Or a day. Or an hour.