Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the hearts of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely be there fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Whiskey Priest

There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

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I’m rereading The Power and the Glory, one of my favorites. Graham Greene’s characters have the spiritual subtlety of real life, something that many good authors don’t achieve. (Michael O’Brien comes close in Father Elijah, but even there the good and bad characters are, just a little, too simple: they come across as photorealistic portraits more than fully enfleshed people.)

Thinking of Mexican anticlerical laws is always strange to me—you grow up with this cartoonish picture of everything south of the Rio Grande as mass of Guadalupe statuettes and gory, sentimental paintings of the Savior … In 1926, the Cristeros rebelled in reaction to an abrupt, severe anticlerical shift in the administration; at that time there were about forty-five hundred priests in Mexico. Eight years later, a little more than three hundred were left, to serve a nation of fifteen million. Not all the priests were killed—some were merely chased out of the country or forced to marry. Of the thirty-one Mexican states, seventeen had no clergy at all.

Members of a Cristero regiment with their banner, a modified form of the Mexican flag, with 
an image of the Virgin and the legend Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The central character of The Power and the Glory (nameless, referred to only as the priest) is the last active priest in his state,1 operating in secret and always on the move. But he is a ‘whiskey priest,’ one whose moral flaws are aggressively clear to anyone who meets him,2 despite the higher standard he preaches: he is a raging alcoholic, or as raging as he can be under the circumstances, and has an illegitimate daughter. His holiness is totally invisible to him, or at any rate he can always explain it away. Partly because he is, truly, sinful.

He fell uneasily asleep, and the old man crouched on the floor, fanning the fire with his breath. Somebody tapped on the door and the priest jerked upright. ‘It is all right,’ the old man said. ‘Just your coffee, father.’ He brought it to him—grey maize coffee smoking in a tin mug, but the priest was too tired to drink. He lay on his side perfectly still: a rat watched him from the maize.
‘The soldiers were here yesterday,’ the old man said. He blew on the fire. The smoke poured up and filled the hut. The priest began to cough, and the rat moved quickly like the shadow of a hand into the stack.
‘The boy, father, has not been baptized. The last priest who was here wanted two pesos. I had only one peso. Now I have only fifty centavos.’
‘Tomorrow,’ the priest said wearily.
‘Will you say Mass, father, in the morning?’
‘Yes, yes.’
‘And confession, father, will you hear our confessions?’
‘Yes, but let me sleep first.’ He turned on his back and closed his eyes to keep out the smoke.
‘We have no money, father, to give you. The other priest, Padre José …’
‘Give me some clothes instead,’ he said impatiently.
‘But we have only what we wear.’
‘Take mine in exchange.’
The old man hummed dubiously to himself, glancing sideways at what the fire showed of the black torn cloth. ‘If I must, father,’ he said. He blew quietly at the fire for a few minutes. The priest’s eyes closed again.
‘After five years there is so much to confess.’
The priest sat up quickly. ‘What was that?’ he said.
‘You were dreaming, father. The boy will warn us if the soldiers come. I was only saying—’
‘Can’t you let me sleep for five minutes?’ He lay down again. Somewhere, in one of the women’s huts, someone was singing—‘I went down to my field and there I found a rose.’
The old man said softly, ‘It would be a pity if the soldiers came before we had time … such a burden on poor souls, father …’ The priest shouldered himself upright against the wall and said furiously, ‘Very well. Begin. I will hear your confession.’ The rats scuffled in the maize. ‘Go on then,’ he said. ‘Don’t waste time. Hurry. When did you last … ?’ The old man knelt beside the fire, and across the clearing the woman sang: ‘I went down to my field and the rose was withered.’
‘Five years ago.’ He paused and blew at the fire. ‘It’s hard to remember, father.’
‘Have you sinned against purity?’
The priest leaned against the wall with his legs drawn up beneath him, and the rats accustomed to the voices moved again in the maize. The old man picked out his sins with difficulty, blowing at the fire. ‘Make a good act of contrition,’ the priest said, ‘and say—say—have you a rosary?—then say the Joyful Mysteries.’ His eyes closed, his lips and tongue stumbled over the absolution, failed to finish … he sprang awake again.
‘Can I bring the women?’ the old man was saying. ‘It is five years …’
‘Oh, let them come. Let them all come,’ the priest cried angrily. ‘I am your servant.’ He put his hand over his eyes and began to weep. The old man opened the door: it was not completely dark outside under the enormous arc of starry ill-lit sky. He went across to the women’s huts and knocked. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘You must say your confessions. It is only polite to the father.’ They wailed at him that they were tired … the morning would do. ‘Would you insult him?’ he said. ‘What do you think he has come here for? He is a very holy father. There he is in my hut now weeping for our sins.’ he hustled them out; one by one they picked their way across the clearing towards the hut, and the old man set off down the path towards the river to take the place of the boy who watched the ford for soldiers.

I love this passage. The irony is bitter and beautiful at the same time. The bitterness comes, not only in the priest’s exhaustion, which you can almost feel in the flat aching squalor of the descriptions, but in the totally unwitting double meaning of that remark, There he is in my hut now weeping for our sins. Weeping, because of the stupidity of the peasant who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the priest’s desperate need to sleep, and because of the sins that, by the villagers’ politeness, will keep him awake for hours more. The monotony of some pains is as bad as the pain itself, and it seeps out of the pages here.

But there’s beauty in it too, and not just the beauty that comes from seeing something painful and familiar depicted well. Is the priest weeping for himself?—certainly; and yet—he could have escaped, he could have abandoned these villagers with whom he can barely spend a single night, a single Mass; nobody could blame a man for running from ceaseless misery sure to end in death, when the alternative is to endure it for the sake of doing what seems to be almost no good. But he can’t do that. He can’t let himself; he tries, several times throughout the book, and cannot. In an unconscious way, deeper even than his selfishness,3 the priest is weeping for their sins.

I love the paradox of holiness the priest represents. It’s so common for us Catholics to think of holiness in sugary, pastel-colored images—the child at her First Communion in a miniature wedding gown, explaining the mysteries of virtue to astonished parents—or in terms of miracles or the stark heroism of martyrdom—the nun levitating in an ecstasy, the singing saint on the pyre. And that hateful phrase, ‘The point of life is to be a saint,’ with the unspoken understanding that the point of life is to make it into My First Book of Saints. Eliot knew better: The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason. ‘Be a saint’ is a bad circumlocution for ‘Be in love with God,’ because ‘Be a saint’ is, grammatically if not deliberately, about oneself, and the mind pulls very easily in the selfward direction. Greene’s shabby, drunken, giggling priest is a wonderful antidote to that poison: he has no virtues but love. Look to God, look to God, forget sanctity, its only purpose is to draw you to Him, so look to God.

Yet scares me a little, too. Because of course it’s an appealing idea, being holy and yet having all the self-indulgence I want. That’s the danger. Christianity can be almost as dangerous to Christians as it can to devils. Not least when the Christians can come up with profound, cleverly phrase, self-effacing epigrams. There’s no way out of the danger, I think; it must simply be endured. Or perhaps it’s the perfection of love that neutralizes the danger.

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1The novel is set in the state of Tabasco, on the southern coast of the Gulf. The persecution there was at its absolute worst.
2Not a hypocrite, that’s different. A hypocrite doesn’t believe in what he preaches, or else doesn’t admit that he falls short of it; the whiskey priest has a clear knowledge of his sinfulness, but, through the interior pressure of belief or the exterior pressure of having a job to do, still has to preach the virtue he doesn’t possess. A priest who’s an alcoholic is the archetypal version of the trope, hence the name. The guilty doubts harbored by Reverend Mightly Oats in Carpe Jugulum are a psychological example; Bethany, the semi-lapsed Catholic heroine of Dogma, might count as well.
3Such as it is: this passage shows his flaws at their most excusable. He has markedly lower points in the book, usually involving brandy.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Natural Lawyer Jokes, Part IV

‘For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity … First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father. Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.’ …

The writer cannot even be conscious of his Idea except by the working of the Energy which formulates it to himself. That being so, how can we know that the Idea itself has any real existence apart from the Energy? Very strangely: by the fact that the Energy itself is conscious of referring all its acts to an existing and complete whole. In theological terms, the Son does the will of the Father. Quite simply, every choice of an episode, or a phrase, or a word is made to conform to the pattern of the entire book, which is revealed by that choice as already existing. This truth, which is difficult to convey in explanation, is quite clear and obvious in experience. It manifests itself plainly enough when the writer says or thinks: ‘That is, or is not, the right phrase’—meaning that it is a phrase which does or does not correspond to the reality of the Idea.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker1

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Benozzo Gozzoli, The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, 1471

The Thomistic approach to knowledge has, as one of its key axioms, Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu: ‘Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.’ This is part of the reason that Thomists are so confident in their rationalism; they consider their philosophy to be based in an appeal to the universal testimony of everyone’s eyes and ears and brains, and to be constructed by rational steps that practically anyone can understand and accept. But I believe there is a fatal flaw in this epistemology, one that can hamstring not only apologetics but thought as such. This flaw isn’t unique to Thomists—it’s a favorite flaw of modern philosophers from Descartes forward—but it needs correcting wherever it occurs.

The problem is this. All data gathered by the senses is, by definition, sense data: colors, tastes, sounds, textures, temperatures, and so on. The theory of knowledge set forth by Aristotle and championed by St Thomas and his successors avers that, after gathering such data (over a period of years at the beginning of our lives, and more easily later), the intellect abstracts and identifies the essences of things. For example, we see certain arrangements of colors and shapes, and perhaps feel certain textures and smell certain scents, and we’re told by our parents, ‘This is a tree.’ Then we perceive different arrangements of colors, shapes, textures, and scents, and those are trees too; and bit by bit we assemble a general idea of Tree as distinct from the individual trees that exemplify it.

The problem (as Aristotle and St Thomas alike should have seen2) is that you can’t validly move from a particular statement to a universal statement, ever. You can’t truthfully say ‘This X is Y, therefore all X are Y.’ Logically (and logic is one of the governing principles of the mind, as St Thomas insisted), you can’t abstract Tree from trees. And no matter how much sense data you gather, you cannot perceive Tree with any of your senses—you can only perceive trees. On these premises, you can’t know the natures of things, because it can’t ever be in your senses. At most, you can make educated guesses. Which is fine if that’s all you want to do, but if you want to reason out how things ought to be on the basis of what things they are, then that theory of knowledge decisively prevents you from ever doing so. In other words, if you want to practice Natural Law Theory, you have to start by rejecting Thomist epistemology.

This doesn’t bother me, because I am not attached to Thomist epistemology. I’ve preferred something more like Neo-Platonism since I was a child. If the human mind is going to recognize essences and not just appearances, it has to do so by some kind of intuition—recognition, if you will. The intellect must be lit from within as well as from without. There must be something in the human mind that is ready in advance for Tree, if trees are to prepare its way; the senses can, by all means, be the prophets and scribes of Tree, but they cannot be its only means of entry into the mind; the mind must conceive Tree apart from their touch, virginally.

This virginity is an affront to those men who wish all knowledge to enter the mind through the senses, whether they are scientists or theologians. The lust of objectivity—its own kind of objectification—is all but insatiable; less, I think, because of the natural human love of truth, than because we want very badly not only to be right, but to be right in such a way that other people’s wrongness is culpable. We like the idea that either we can persuade others of whatever we think, or else they’re just being stubborn. This is not perhaps our most amiable quality. But it’s better to admit that it’s there, and as rampant among scholars and apologists as anybody else, than to feign a neutrality we do not possess.

What is belief really? … It is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is incommensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up. … Meaning is the bread on which man, in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists. Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abundance. … No man can pull himself up out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descartes still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions. … Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.3

A teddy bear is always a gift.

So what do I mean when I talk about intuition and recognition? I mean that certain things are, in some rudimentary fashion, present in our minds by nature: the basic mathematical-logical laws of thought, the basic principles of right and wrong, and at least some basic ideas of what things are, or what kinds of things are. This isn’t to say we innately know everything, even about the rudiments of ideas that we possess. But it is to say that we must have something to work with if we are to know and reason at all; unto every one that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Put more simply, I’m saying ‘Tabula rasa is a load of bull-honkey.’4

I won’t pause here to try and puzzle out what all of these innate ideas are; I don’t have the talent to do so without a lot of assistance, time, and space, but also it isn’t essential to our purpose. But the three categories I mentioned above—those of logic, morality, and beings5—must (I think) be in our minds from the start, as things we just see, or we can’t know or learn anything. Call them knowledge of the possible, knowledge of the good, and knowledge of the factual. Again, I’m not saying we know any of these things exhaustively from birth, even in a latent state; still less am I saying that you never find odd gaps in certain minds, or that every person is able to express the knowledge they possess. I’m saying only that there is a standard outfit, and that it is the only thing that makes both individual knowledge and a communion of minds possible.

The generally shared character of human morals, across ethnicities, eras, and religions, is in my view one of the strongest testimonies for this view. Human moral codes do differ, to be sure, but the commonality is considerable (C. S. Lewis’ summary in the appendix to The Abolition of Man is an excellent source), even on points that are disadvantageous to their practitioners, like courage in battle or kindness to the poor.

This seems to me to be the only way to rescue Natural Law Theory. Many of its devotees may not regard this as much of a salvage, since it would have to be content with more modest claims: since we don’t know what the gaps in someone’s mind may be, including our own, we must be ready both to accept instruction and to allow others the liberty of not seeing something we find obvious. Because maybe they don’t, or maybe we’re missing something they do see. However, that’s a price I’m willing to pay in return for a consistent epistemology.

The difference this makes to NLT is that all the mucking about with averages and proportions and figuring out what counts as what, which I wrote about in my last post, can be swept away—because we do recognize the difference between animals and humans, don’t we? And we do intuit a distinction between the intrinsic purpose of something and its bonus effects. We don’t need to get all of our premises from observation: there are some that are axiomatic. I don’t know whether we intuit that homosexuality, contraception etc., are wrong (I sure don’t); there, I do consider NLT useful and sound. But the basis on which it’s constructed must, must be internally coherent, and as far as I can see, the basis set forth by Thomism just isn’t.

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1I have been forced (alas) to truncate Miss Sayers’ thought grossly here; I warmly recommend The Mind of the Maker to anybody who will stand still long enough. The first part of the epigraph is a quotation from one of her plays, The Zeal of Thy House, which expresses in dramatic form what Mind expresses in essayistic form.
2And perhaps they did. I don’t know any passages in which either one addresses the matter, but my acquaintance with both sages is amateur.
3Introduction to Christianity, pp. 72-73.
4Tabula rasa (Latin for ‘blank slate’) is the phrase famously used by John Locke, the English Liberal philosopher, to describe the human mind at birth.
5Vaguely put, I know. I haven’t come up with a good word for this category; universals might do. While of course we learn about beings as we go, the notion that there are kinds of things—that John and Jane and Mary are all humans, as opposed to just a bunch of objects—is not an obvious one when you think about it. Or rather, it’s only obvious because our minds are built that way, whether you regard that as accidental or significant.