The day when those who keep the house tremble
and strong men are bowed;
when the women grind no longer at the mill,
because day is darkening at the windows
and the street doors are shut;
when the sound of the mill is faint,
when the voice of the bird is silenced,
and song notes are stilled,
when to go uphill is an ordeal
and a walk is something to dread.
Yet the almond tree is in flower,
the grasshopper is heavy with food
and the caper bush bears its fruit,
the grasshopper is heavy with food
and the caper bush bears its fruit,
while man goes to his everlasting home.
And the mourners are already walking to and fro in the streetbefore the silver cord has snapped,
or the golden lamp been broken,
or the pitcher shattered at the spring,
or the pulley cracked at the well,
Or before the dust returns to the earth as it once came from it;
and the breath to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, the Preacher says. All is vanity.
As I listened to it, I felt a familiar regret; that I don't know the Bible better than I do.
I suppose, by contemporary standards, I know the Bible pretty well. I have read the New Testament a good deal, and I've read about the New Testament a good deal. I can't quote chapter and verse like an Evangelical preacher, much as I would love to. In fact, I can rarely remember the exact source of a particular quotation-- I have to look it up. But on the whole, I am fairly familiar with the New Testament.
The Old Testament is much more of a foreign country to me. There are whole books, like the books of Maccabees, of which I know next to nothing. I've made big efforts to make inroads into it, but I do so with a certain reluctance. I rarely feel like reading the Bible.
In the meantime, I have done a great deal of other spiritual reading; encyclicals, works of theology, works of religious philosophy, blogs, Catholic newspapers and magazines, Catholic history, and so forth. Some people have complimented me (though I don't feel I deserve it) on my knowledge of the Faith.
|Cardinal Avery Dulles|
And yet, I don't know the Bible very well. And I think this is not too strange amongst Catholics. A biography of Cardinal Avery Dulles that I read (there I go again) mentioned that he was a lifelong and avid reader of Scripture, and that this benefitted him when it came to ecumenical discussions with Protestants. The fact that it was worth mentioning is notable in itself.
This post isn't about Bible knowledge per se, though. It's about my genuine worry that religious believers, especially Catholics, can be excessively sophisticated and intellectualised when it comes to the Faith.
I think this is partly grounded in defensiveness. We are well aware of the 'cultured despisers' of the Faith, and we are at pains to demonstrate that we are not literal-minded, naive, gullible or unreflective. We rush to talk about the great intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church, from St. Augustine to G.K. Chesterton. And I think this is admirable in itself, and necessary.
And yet, and yet....
And yet I find myself sympathising with the words of Blessed John Henry Newman:
|Blessed John Henry Newman|
Here I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be. Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable, which would be an evident absurdity; but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquillity.
I'm not so sure that, when the world hears us talking about the great intellectual heritage of the Church, or a theologically literate reading of Scripture, or engagement iwth modern currents of thought, that it's quite as impressed as we think it is.
I suspect that all it really hears is the politician, humming and hawing in a hostile interview: "Well, we really have to look at things in their overall context..."
Along with our intellectual sophistication, there is a kind of mellowness to contemporary Christianity which I sometimes find off-putting. This seems to be associated especially with Catholics, and with Catholic intellectuals. There is something about Catholicism that seems, in many minds, to harmonise very well with a glass of burgundy, an epicurean taste in Gregorian chant and Renaissance masterpieces, and with gilt-edged and leather-bound volumes in an oak-panelled library. We are sometimes even boastful about this.
This is the spirit which is expressed by the apocryphical quotation from Chesterton: "The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar."
|G.K. Chesterton with a cigar.|
Perhaps this kind of luxuriating in created goodness, or in artistic and intellectual pleasures, in a reaction to puritanical strains of Protestantism, or to the accusation that Christianity is a life-hating and joyless religion.
Nancy Carpentier Brown, from the American Chesterton Society, made this response to those who question G.K. Chesterton's cause for sainthood on the grounds of his obesity, and his love of cigars and wine: "A three hundred pound cigar smoking wine drinking saint may be just what the whole world needs right now."
Is it? I would love to see Chesterton canonized, and I don't think his cigar-smoking or wine-drinking should be an obstacle. As for his obesity, I suspect (from what I have read of his life) that there was a medical reason for this.
But I don't think Chesterton's bon-vivant tendencies (which are overstated) make him a saint for today. I think his simplicity and child-like faith make him a saint for today.
Perhaps my favourite Chesterton quotation in this regard is his response when Holy Communion was brought to his home, and he was seen to be sweating: "'I am a simple man and I am afraid when God comes to my house."
I would argue that most of the saints and holy people that have spoken to the modern world have been distingusihed by their simplicity. I am referring to figures such as St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, St. Bernadette Soubirous, the Fatima visionaries, Matt Talbot and Edel Quinn in Ireland, and Pier Giorgio Frassatti. Saint Mother Teresa is a topical and spectacular example.
None of the above saints were gifted intellectually. But, even where a popular modern saint has been gifted intellectually, his or her faith is usually simple and child-like: St. John Paul II and St. Maximiliian Kolbe are good examples.
Of course, figures like G.K. Chesterton, St. Edith Stein, and Thomas Merton have been very influential. Anyone who has read more than two or three posts on this blog will know G.K. Chesterton is the single biggest influence on my own view of the world. Despite this, I think the influence of such figures has been amongst a minority-- bookish people, for the most part.
I have been reading a lot about St. Bernadette recently. She struggled to master the Catechism and seemed to know few prayers beyond the Rosary. (I have read that she knew no prayers other than the Rosary, but I can't find a good source for that.) There is something very attractive about such simplicity, such holy poverty.
|St. Gemma Galgani|
I have also been reading a lot about St. Gemma Galgani, whose mysticism and piety was so simple and child-like that I find it both off-putting and attractive at once, and for the same reason. Take this story told by her confessor, in which she persisted in pleading for the soul of a sinner. Despite several rebuffs, she persisted, and eventually prevailed with this tactic:
Well, I am a sinner. You Yourself have told me so, and that a person worse than me You could not find. Yes, I confess it, I am the worst sinner, and I am unworthy that You should listen to me. But look, I present Thee another advocate for my sinner; it is Thine own Mother who asks You to forgive him. See! Oh, imagine saying no to Thy Mother! Surely You cannot now say no to Her. And now answer me, Jesus, tell me me that You will save my sinner.
This kind of naive familiarity with Jesus and his Blessed Mother-- to speak to them as members of our own family, even to nag them-- seems so alien to me that I flinch from it. Imagine what a New Atheist would say! But should our faith be based on what a New Atheist would say?
I anticipate an objection at this stage; that I am disregarding the 'both/and' logic of Catholicism, the plurality of gifts that St. Paul talks about in his letters, and positing a false dichotomy between simplicity and sophistication. After all, the story goes that Our Lord appeared to St. Thomas Aquinas to say: "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas" (which makes him also a visionary). Simplicity and naivety are hardly terms we associate with St. Thomas Aquinas.
The same St. Paul who wrote: "I determined to know only one thing while amongst you, Christ and him crucified" also argued philosophy with the Athenians, quoted classical poetry, and wrote: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."
I might also be accused of contradicting myself, since I wrote in a recent article for the Irish Catholic that Catholic journalists, bloggers, broadcasters and apologists need to up their game intellectually-- or at least, in terms of the depth and scope of their material.
I admit the apparent contradiction. I hope it is only an apparent contradiction.
Perhaps I would appeal to the Newman passage I quoted earlier. I'm not really saying that a literate, deep and thoughtful faith is a bad thing. I'm just scared of its tendencies to diminish simplicity, zeal and freshness.
The Church needs both sophisticates and simple folk in its ranks. Perhaps we all need to embody both these characteristics to some degree. However, I fear that we may have too much sophistication and too little simplicity. Do we receive the kingdom of Heaven like little children?
Perhaps I am not the only Catholic who needs to devote more attention to the basics, such as the Bible, and less time on secondary and tertiary material. Every St. Patrick's Day, I read the Confession of St. Patrick, and I'm always struck by how this very humble and simple man-- who described himself as unlettered, and was obviously a very reluctant and awkward writer-- was steeped in the Bible.
Here I will delve into a little bit of autobiography. All my life, I have been powerfully attracted to simplicity and rawness, when it comes culture and ways of life. I love the polished verses of Lord Alfred Tennyson, but I also love the roughness and naivety of a street ballad or a nursery rhyme. I think folk culture is generally healthier and saner than high culture, and that people who are immersed in folk culture (insofar as they still exist) are spiritually and culturally better off than people who are immersed in high culture and intellectualism. "Blessed are the poor" is a beatitude which makes a lot of this-worldly sense to me, even though I have considerable personal experience of poverty and I am not in danger of unduly romanticising it. I very much sympathise with the lines of W.B. Yeats, from his poem 'The Fisherman', in which he turns from the cliques and chattering classes of his day to imagine a simple fisherman:
Maybe a twelvemonth since,
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream....
"The noble savage!" some of my readers may cry out, recognising a figure that has appeared in Western cultural and social thought over and over again, and one who has been repeatedly debunked. Civilized people who feel burdened by the complications of urban life (so the argument goes) project their yearning for simplicity onto some exotic figure, such as the American Indian, the Connemara peasant, or the Amish. In reality, these 'savages' are neither as noble nor as savage as the fantasist supposes.
I'm not terribly impressed by this debunking (or by any debunking). It reminds me of the frequent response when anyone expresses any kind of social nostalgia: "You're harking back to a Golden Age." Admiration isn't idolization, or blindness, or delusion.
One of the biggest influences on my teenage imagination was undoubtedly Irish cultural nationalism. Within Irish cultural nationalism, there was a strong strain of romantic admiration for rural folkways, and ways of life steeped in tradition, such as Yeats's fisherman. Undoubtedly, this involved an element of idealization. Undoubtedly, those 'simpler' ways of life involved considerable poverty, and many people fled them as soon as they could. But it seems to me as though the ideal is no less valid for all that.
Another figure that has haunted my imagination-- even before I tried to become a Christian (and I'm still trying to become a Christian)-- is the street evangelist, the intense and unsmiling figure carrying a placard announcing the end of the world, or the need for repentance.
Such figures, in their classic form, may be more a standby of cartoonists and television scriptwriters than reality. But street preachers are a reality, and placard-bearing Christian protestors at rock concerts and blasphemous movies are a reality, and tract-distributing evangelists are a reality.
I have always felt a deep admiration for such figures. Even when I thought they were deluded, I admired them.
I admired them because they were willing to be laughed at, to go out on a limb, to be serious and unsmiling and unironic. Put simply, they were willing to be fools for Christ. To be a fool for anything, it seemed to me, brought a new zest and freshness to the life of society.
Once, when I was in America, I saw a house on which were draped various enormous banners carrying Bible verses. They covered most of the surface of the house. Ridiculous....and yet, I found myself lost in admiration. I rather suspect that such 'crude' evangelisation is worth any amount of blog posts or lecture series. Why? Because it's so raw, direct and naive. It's not hiding behind 'dialogue', the prestige of the Catholic intellectual tradition, an invitation to a journey of self-discovery, or any such thing. It's not pussyfooting around at all. It's braving ridicule and dismissal, and it conveys a corresponding weight of conviction and of urgency.
If we really believe souls are at stake, isn't this the kind of thing we should be doing-- so nobody can doubt how serious we are?
For some years, I have toyed with the idea of becoming a sandwich man for Christ-- of investing in a sandwich board with some Biblical quotation, and roaming the highways and byways of Dublin, or even of Ireland.
|A sandwich man. Best picture I could find.|
This is partly motivated by the desire to perpetuate the tradition of the Dublin 'character' (such as Bang Bang or Johnny Fortycoats, or Davy Keogh of the famous 'Davy Keogh Says Hello' banner, seen at so many soccer games.) But it's also out of a desire to evangelise in the most simple and unsophisticated way I can think of. (Also, I would not have to approach people, something that deters me from many forms of evangelisation.)
I am the most self-conscious person in the world in most ways, to the extent that I find it difficult to make a phone call if somebody is in the room with me, or to ask where the milk is in a café. But when it comes to trumpeting a cause, especially an unpopular cause, I rarely feel any self-consciousness, and I even feel an urge to swim nakedly against the tide (so to speak).
(If I ever go ahead with this sandwich-board plan, which I probably won't, this post will be my evidence that I haven't suddenly flipped. I flipped a long time ago.)
I used the term 'unsmiling' above. This is relevant to my subject, because I've come to strongly believe that religious believers joke too much about religion. I have made a resolution to avoid joking about religion (though I admit I've forgotten this resolution on several occasions).
|Too much of this stuff.|
There's nothing wrong with joking about religion in itself. However, I suspect that we all-too-frequently joke about religion out of embarrassment, or to signal that we are not religious nutcases. It's the equivalent of the nervous whinny of the anxious lecturer, and it never makes a good impression.
Too much joking about the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, 'Old Nick',and similar subjects surely makes our listeners assume that we don't take any of it very seriously. George Orwell once wondered how anyone could joke about Hell if he really believed in it. I wonder the same thing myself. What is funny about Hell?
Finally, you may notice that there is a question mark in the title of this post. Usually, when there is a question mark in a title, it is purely decorative. I've often noticed that books, pamphlets or lectures with titles such as Is God Dead? or Is Capitalism Evil? or Have We Achieved Equality? invariably provide answers in the negative.
But I come by my question mark honestly. I don't know the answer to the question. Are we, religious believers, too sophisticated in our faith, or rather in our practice and expression of our faith?
I don't know the answer. But I often feel that we are.
Addendum: I included St. Gemma Galgani in a list of saints who were not intellectually gifted. It occurs to me today that I was wrong about that. Though she appeared simple-minded to many who didn't know her well, it's said that she was actually the best student in her class in school. However, she seemed to have no interest in the things of the intellect for their own sake. She was indeed 'simple-minded' in this sense.