Our Chastisement, Our Blessing
Woe to you who build the monuments of the prophets: and your fathers killed them….That the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation. (Luke 11: 47-50)
While reading the Gospels, it has often seemed to me that the Pharisees were like the proverbial “deer in the headlights”. Much of the time, their subterranean betrayal and malice was hidden behind real incomprehension. Theirs was the “What have we done wrong? – we have only been faithful to God’s tradition” look. Their unconscious betrayal was the result of building centuries of “monuments” (both physical and spiritual) that appeared God-like, but which in reality dulled, obscured, and finally profoundly falsified the Spirit of God’s Truth and Life. In so doing – in not having kept careful “watch” over their own spiritual integrity – their failure to understand was truly culpable, and therefore the blood of all the Old Testament prophets was upon their generation.
We are now experiencing a chastisement, come to fruition in the Papacy of Francis, which leaves us in a similar “what have we done to deserve this” bewilderment and confusion. We stand on thin ice if we attempt to claim that this is not a deserved punishment from God. The necessary question therefore is: Is it conceivable that we have been so whittled down through a long historical betrayal of the Gospel that we now stand, uncomprehending, in the face of a severe chastisement which we deserve?
Jesus’ words condemning the “monument-building” Jews occurred at a dinner to which he was invited by a Pharisee, who had earlier heard the following words spoken by Jesus:
“The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body will be lightsome: but if it be evil, thy body also will be darksome. Take heed therefore, that the light which is in thee, be not darkness. If then thy whole body be lightsome, having no part of darkness; the whole shall be lightsome; and as a bright lamp, shall enlighten thee.”
This passage speaks of a unity of spirit and flesh, each dependent upon one another for integrity, which is single in intention. The nature of this singleness of intention is more fully elaborated in a parallel passage in Matthew 6:
“Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures of heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
After these words of Jesus comes the “Lilies of the Field” passage, which ends with the equally famous: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
In the light of the above scriptures, I would like to pose, and attempt to answer, three questions: First, was there a “single eye” present in the first Christians (and not excluding other individuals and groups down through the centuries), but which has now been almost universally abandoned, and become virtually incomprehensible to the modern Catholic consciousness? Second, as the fruits of this betrayal, have we built monuments to Christianity at the expense of living it? And, finally, is it the Blood of Jesus that may be required of this generation because of this betrayal?
If we seek an absolutely reliable account of how the first Christians lived, we inevitably are pointed to the Book of Acts, and to the two passages which are brief, but most telling, in this regard:
“They therefore that received his word, were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: many wonders also and signs were done by the apostles in Jerusalem, and there was great fear in all. And all they that believed, were together, and had all things common. Their possessions and goods they sold, and divided them to all, according as every one had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart; praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord increased daily together such as should be saved.” (2: 42-47).
“And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but all things were common unto them. And with great power did the apostles give testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord; and great grace was in them all. For neither was there any one needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the price of the things they sold, and laid it down before the feet of the apostles. And distribution was made to every one, according as he had need. (Acts 4: 32-35).
I have never heard nor read any contemporary preacher or writer offer an analysis of these passages, or take them seriously in any way. It is as though they are incomprehensible – a conclusion which must certainly be false, given the specificities offered in St. Luke’s description.
In the first place, these first Christians were baptized into the Faith, and were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles. There can be here no de-emphasis of doctrine at the price of a false mercy. Twice, in fact, it is said that holy Fear was upon them all. To culpably transgress the faith which they had received was impossible as long as this fear of the Lord was operative in their hearts.
Second, there was a bond of unity, founded upon true poverty and the rejection of worldly possessions, which St. Luke describes as “having all things in common” – they sold their possessions, and laid the money which they received at the feet of the apostles, so that distribution could be made where needed. It is this particular “specificity”, of course, which is the primary reason these two passages of scripture are virtually totally ignored. As St. John Chrysostom pointed out in his commentary on Acts, it is this “having all things in common” that we fear above all, and avoid taking seriously. We must therefore look more closely.
These passages have been employed as an argument for Communism. This is ludicrous. Communism totally rejects God, and any communal living involved in its system is founded upon the elevation of collective man, and the state, over God, the rejection of individual dignity and freedom, and the rejection of the right to private property itself. Any communal living proposed by the Gospel or the Church, on the other hand, involves voluntary giving of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is not in any way a tyranny.
It is equally false to exaggerate the degree to which this “having all things in common” was external. There could be endless, useless speculation in this regard. It is clear, however, that these first Christians broke bread “from house to house”, and therefore possessed their own homes. We in fact need speculate no further in this regard than did the writer of the Epistle to Diognetes, writing almost 100 years later (130 A.D.): “They have a common table, but not a common bed.” It was the spirit that mattered – the externals obviously had their limits. As the passage from Acts 4 states, “Neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own”. Their physical poverty was real, but not absolute. Their “spirit of poverty”, on the other hand, was quite absolute indeed. This Christian heart in which this spirit was operative was aptly described in the following passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (7: 29-31):
“This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth awa.”
And what makes this spirit possible?
In my article on St. Francis (St. Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You), I quoted the above passages from Acts in order to exemplify the simplicity and poverty which was the core charism of St. Francis. But these passages also expose to our vision something deeper within the human heart, which makes such simplicity and poverty both possible and necessary. I find one word which best expresses this “something”: Immediacy. It is the immediacy – defined as “the quality of bringing one into direct and instant involvement with something, giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement” – which most characterizes the heart of these first Christians. And this immediacy is at the same time always present – it penetrated into all that these first Christians did, and every moment and part of their existence.
Interestingly, God’s demand that man recognize the immediacy of His presence, and be constantly preoccupied with his presence, is not something which only became possible after the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Possibly the greatest passage in all of scripture depicting this “spirit” is to be found in Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our god is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.
“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt tell them to thy children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. And thou shalt bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be and shall move between the eyes.” Deut 6:4-8).
This image of the constant presence of God “moving between the eyes” is possibly the greatest mystical image in all of Christian literature. We are dealing here with human hearts and minds possessed by God in all their thoughts and activities.
It is this immediacy of the human heart among these first Christians which made possible the “single eye” which directed everything towards Christ. Further, this immediacy made possible not only this singular relationship with Christ, but with others who were members of His Body, and it also enabled true charity towards all other human beings (both friends and enemies) simply because they were all created “by Him, and in Him” (Colossians 1:16).
This profoundly “common” union of hearts with Christ and one another merited the grace that “the Lord increased daily such as should be saved”. This is why we see so many miracles among the early Christians, why we see the fulfillment of Our Lord’s words that “you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7), why 3,000 would be converted one day ,and 5,000 another, and that there could be such astonishingly rapid conversions of whole people and nations to Christ.
It is not at all necessary to be utopian in order to understand the unique spirit of these first Christians. Where there is human nature, there is always sin. We see these sins in the story of Ananias and Saphira, who sold land, gave part while hypocritically pretending to give all, and were punished by God. We see it present in the various churches as revealed in the letters of St. Paul, especially those to the Corinthians, in regard to the unseemly behavior indulged in at Agape Feasts, the adulterous behavior of a son with his Father’s wife, the competition of various factions who claimed to be followers of one teacher in opposition to others, etc. We explore the lives of these early Christians not because the perfection of human beings was across-the board accomplished, but because it was indeed present and visible in a way which it is not now – present to such an extent as to merit all sorts of extraordinary graces from God, and in a way which can clearly be contrasted with our present nakedness in this regard.
And so, we are compelled to ask the inevitable question: What happened within the depths of the souls of Catholics during the early decades and centuries of the Christian era which compromised this immediacy of Christ presence within the followers of Christ, and profoundly diminished the visible evidence of the power of God’s grace operative through them? Again, the answer is to be found in scripture – this time most aptly expressed in the Letter of St. James:
“You ask, and receive not; because you ask amiss: that you may consume it on your concupiscences.” (4:3)/
Everything we have is a gift from God. To see the life of Christ which is “the light of men” (John 1: 4), and to follow this life and light with an upright heart is to remain in the immediacy and presence of God’s Truth and Life. Sin, both original and personal, is the turning aside the gifts of God in order to possess and use them as our own possessions: “All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way….” (Isaiah 53: 6). We all tend to do it. The extent to which we do it corresponds to the degree to which God’s immediacy and presence is lost to us, and we become immersed in hypocrisy and duplicity. At a certain point we enter into the spiritual death of mortal sin.
The “turning aside into their own way” of the truth and light which God had given through the prophets is therefore perfectly expressed in the reality of the Pharisees having built their “monuments”, but denying the spirit of God present in their teachings: “This people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me.” (Mat. 15: 8).The word “monument” is also properly translated as “tomb” or “sepulchre”. The Pharisees themselves were therefore described by Jesus as being “whited sepulchres”, appearing just to men, but inwardly full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Mat. 23-27-28). The “building of monuments” is therefore the pre-eminent metaphor employed by Jesus for the falsification of the true spirit of religion while retaining its appearance – beauty on the surface, spiritual death within.
This is the deepest tendency within fallen human nature – that point where “turning aside” begins. We must not conceive of it as always being fully developed, or accompanied by intense malice as exhibited by the Pharisees. It is most often an evolutionary progression with small but deadly beginnings initiating a process of growing compromise and falsification. Many events and persons – sinners and saints – contribute to this process. Because persons may have contributed in some way to this decay does not mean that they are in Hell, does not entail that they were evil men, and does not contradict the fact that they may even be canonized saints. All men fall short in certain areas, Satan is able to add all these failures to his conspiratorial mix, the world waxes old and more deceitful in the web which it spins, and Christianity decays. What we have now is the product of a long historical process, with many twists and turns, progressions and regressions, but with an overall trend of deepening falsification and obscuration of God’s immanence to the human heart.
For some time, the premier icon of this spiritual decay in my own perception of this historical progression has been the Portiuncula of St. Francis. I wrote of this more extensively in my article on St. Francis, but it seems appropriate to mention it again here.
Four kilometers from Assisi is the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the seventh largest church in Christendom, built over and around the original home of the Franciscan Order. Within this magnificent and massive structure, and directly under the cupola, stands a tiny church (only 22’ X 13’6”) called the Portiuncula (the word translates as “little portion of land” – it is also called “Mary of the Angels”). The Portiuncula is the singular place on this earth most beloved to St. Francis; it is where he founded his Order, and where he passionately desired the most perfect preservation of his ideal.
Because St. Francis considered the Portiuncula to be “holy, beloved, and chosen before all others by Christ and the glorious Virgin” (Mirror of Perfection, 55), and because he intensely desired that the Portiuncula be the example and model for all the rest of the order, he gave minute instructions before his death for the preservation of this ideal. These instructions applied first of all to all those practices which cultivate the interior life of holiness – silence, prayer, holy conversation, physical labor, fasting and other forms of physical mortification. Especially, he sought to keep this place free from worldly conversation and news, and free from all that is not edifying. He gave specific instructions as to the qualities needed in the clergy and friars who were to reside and serve here, and he stated, “I do not wish anyone else, whether layfolk or friars, to enter this place, except the Minister General and the lay-brothers who serve them.” (Ibid.).
The Portiuncula is now a tourist site, with all the noise, commotion, irreverence, etc. which this entails.
Many Popes have born witness to the fact that St. Francis was an extraordinary gift of God sent in order to turn mankind away from a long immersion in the concupiscense’s of this world, and back towards Christ and the living of His Gospel. He has been called by at least two Popes “the Second Christ”. And yet it was a canonized Saint, Pope Pius V, who ordered that the Portiuncula, and all it meant to Francis and his ideal, be entombed within the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The Basilica, as beautiful as it is, therefore represents a monument to the killing of the spirit of St. Francis – the culmination, as it were, of many betrayals of Francis’ ideal of Gospel poverty by saints (including St. Bonaventure) and sinners alike (all of this is discussed extensively in my article on Francis). Again, this does not make Saint Pius V (or Bonaventure) into evil men. It makes them out to have been human, with certain actions, unbeknownst to them, playing into the hands of all that wages against Christ’s presence and immanence in the heart of man.
Little escapes from such decay. Even the development of the forms in which the Mass is offered may be mentioned in this regard.
The early Christians, whose intimacy with Christ we have examined, “broke bread from house to house”. It is almost certain that there was no incensing, ornate vestments, elaborate altars, statuary, developed chant, magnificent architectural monuments, etc. There certainly was a distinct order, comprised by scripture readings, sermon, prayers for the people, kiss of peace, offering of bread and wine and thanksgiving, consecration of the bread and wine, intercessions, etc., all very much reflected in our Mass. But as Adrian Fortescue (highly respected in Traditionalist circles) states in his article on the Liturgy in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), even as late as the fourth century the Roman Rite “had practically no ritual beyond the most necessary actions”.
And yet it was the “breaking of bread…in simplicity of heart”, and the “great grace” which was received in the hearts of these first Christians, which produced the charity, massive conversions, and miracles which confront our own poverty in this regard. The question needs to be asked as to what extent the evolution of the form of the Mass into “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven” masked an historical process in which the collective Christian heart (with many exceptions) drew further and further away from the immediacy and simplicity of Christ, and in so doing violated the deepest reality of Christ’s Sacrifice. The deep divisions which now exist in the Traditionalist movement would seem ample evidence of this decay, to say nothing of the extraordinary lack of unity in truth which exists under the reign of the New Mass.
I realize that in writing about the spirituality of the early Church, and casting it in a light more favorable than those later developments in Christian spirituality which built the monuments of Christendom, I might be accused of Modernist leanings. Anyone who has read the rest of my writings should be able to understand the unfairness of such an accusation. It is certainly true that Modernism is often accompanied by a resourcement theology which rejects scholasticism (especially St. Thomas), undermines the development of dogma, and promotes a return to the early Fathers and a “simpler”, much less-developed and confrontational intellectual tradition. I, on the other hand, believe in the absolute necessity of both Thomism and defined dogma in order to counter Modernist errors in the Church and in the world. The simplicity and immediacy of which I speak in this article is a return of the heart, and not a retreat of the mind from the Deposit of Faith or the grace of Thomism.
Another icon of our times comes to mind. At the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis a prominent, traditional Catholic website offered two photographs in opposition to one another. The one was of Francis in his simple white vestments, the other of Cardinal Burke processing down the aisle in his red cappa magna vestment with its forty- foot train. The message, of course was that we had a choice – either the “phony” simplicity of Pope Francis or the magnificence of the traditional. Quite frankly, whether Francis’ motivations were phony or not, I found myself much preferring the simplicity. Further, there is much to be said for the idea that we need a poor Church, and a Church of the poor, which journeys out to the peripheries and seeks out souls who are “outside the camp”. That we tend to view almsgiving and the other temporal and spiritual works of mercy as a sort of minimalist duty, rather than a real passion, might be a pre-eminent sign of the loss of the immediacy of Christ’s Truth and Mercy in our own hearts. In other words, the Papacy of Francis might just be a message, and chastisement, from God. The fact that he uses these concepts to undermine doctrine, deny the Church’s mission to convert all these peoples, and to promote pastoral practices which at least implicitly violate dogma and encourage sacrilege, does not mean that we should entrench ourselves in a kind of pharisaism embodied in a “monumental” traditionalism which masks the loss of the simplicity and urgency of the Gospel. Quite frankly, I think the Cappa Magna is a very worldly effort (the garb of kings) to imitate an unworldly majesty. God’s majesty on this earth is most adequately mirrored and represented by the union of human hearts with His Truth, Love, and Mercy. Beautiful things are of course appropriate to the worship of God, but they too should reflect the sanctity and majesty of Christ through a holy simplicity, rather than through a Renaissance-inspired, or even pagan, garishness.
Again, I find it necessary to repeat that all of this criticism of “Traditionalism” does not mean that I do not recognize the horror of things which Pope Francis says and does. The whole point of this analysis is that “the center will not hold”; falsification and duplicity seem to reign “on all sides”; and the temptation towards taking refuge in one or more extremes seems almost overwhelming.
The conversion of Emperor Constantine and embrace of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the fourth century was accompanied by a vast expansion in the building of the monuments of Christian civilization – the building of Churches, spinning of a complex legal system, ritualization of the Liturgy, creation of a complex organization within the Church itself with all the various gradations of rights and privileges of various Sees, the establishment of the Church as a political, diplomatic, and economic power, etc. All of this tends to speak of a Christ Who, while not having abandoned us, is yet no longer the object of a single-minded immediacy and presence to the human mind and heart.
Running parallel to these developments within the Church, all Christians were now free to engage fully with the world in all aspects of its evolutionary progression towards what we now have with us. And what we now have with us is an extraordinarily complex web of both intellectual and physical structures which seem almost perfectly designed to sap any consciousness of Christ’s presence out of our lives. As recent polls indicate, at least in this country, Catholics appear to be just as immersed in these structures and their pagan roots as is the general public.
I would like to propose three qualities of human life that must be present in order for the mind and heart of man to adequately respond to the immediate presence of Christ to his soul: mystery, simplicity, and insecurity.
I have written much in other articles about what is necessary in order that the quality of mystery be present to our consciousness, and also extensively about the scientific reductionism which has made the perception of such mystery virtually impossible for modern man. Suffice to say here that once we understand that science is totally impotent to penetrate to the substantial nature or essence of any created thing, and that the substantial reality of any created thing is simply what it is because God has created it out of nothing, then we become intellectually capable of understanding the presence of this mystery. But this does not mean that the apprehension of the mystery of all of creation is fully restored to our daily lives. Almost inevitably, our perception has been so blunted by the effect of scientific thinking that we have been largely sapped of the ability to fully experience this mystery. God has effectively and affectively been billeted outside of creation.
In regard to simplicity, this quality of life has virtually been destroyed for the vast majority of human beings, especially those living in developed countries. God, in a sense, “incarnated” all sorts of values and truths in nature and in the simple life of toil and craftsmanship. Much of this has been obliterated in a world of concrete, factories and offices, contrived recreation, passive entertainment through all the various forms of media, and a host of other things which constitute the unnatural pulsations of modern life (especially of city life). It has been said that there are a great many people in cities that have never seen a cow. It is even more likely that they have never seen anything born or die.
Finally, in order that God be effectively present to the human heart, there must be a great insecurity present in our lives. After all, there can be no Christian spirituality where there is not prayer; and the most fundamental form of prayer is asking. If we feel secure in this world, there is little motivation for asking of God. And since insecurity in regard to the things of this world is considered a deficiency, it is almost inevitable that any prayer that we do offer for such things will be directed towards “consuming them in our concupiscences”.
It is astounding the degree to which we have surrounded ourselves with institutions which generate a false sense of security in regard to the things of this world. We only need to consider, as an example, the omnipresence of insurance policies in all the areas of our lives: life, liability, damage, health, car, home, business, etc. There is no area or activity of our lives that cannot be, and often must be, insured. There is even an Alien Abduction Insurance. One company in England alone has sold 30,000 of these policies. Why should we ask of God if we are already “covered” by man?
There is no escape from all of this except in spiritual childhood: “Unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18: 3). Herein lies the “foolishness” that overcomes the world.
There is one great advantage which the present generation possesses over all previous generations. All the monuments of man are now being rent asunder, and the rottenness within revealed. The chaos which the world now experiences reaches more deeply into souls than anything previously experienced by mankind. It is not primarily the brutality of war, the terror of the plague or other sicknesses, or the agonies of torture (although all these things certainly exist). Rather, it is an overwhelming insecurity as to whether life has any meaning at all. It is in the depth of this total insecurity, this nakedness, that the cry of a child may still come forth. With such a cry, God can work: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to sorrow. Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4: 9-10).
For those who weep and cry already, their nakedness is a blessing and a way that can lead them to God. A path has been prepared: “My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge, and the way that will lead you to God.” We must, however, treat this prophesy not as something we own because we are Catholics and “possess” the Faith, but as a passion to be lived in the simplicity of a child’s cry. Our Lady has in fact given us the words and grace of this cry in the Hail Mary and the Rosary. It must be prayed with the immediacy of a child’s heart, and not the automated rapidity and rhythms of hearts grown cold and remote.
Since writing the above, it has been suggested that in treating of the Liturgy I might be accused of an “archaeologism” which seeks to promote a return to a sort of apostolic primitivism at the expense of historical developments in the Church. I directly addressed such an accusation in regard to the historical development of doctrinal formulations, and also in regard to the necessity of Thomism. The following should erase any doubts in regard to my comments concerning the Liturgy.
The entire purpose of this article is constituted by an attempt to penetrate to that immediacy of Christ’s presence to the hearts of the first Christians which was the source of their unity and charity, and the extraordinary graces which they received; and to contrast this with our present relative nakedness in this regard, and to explore the duplicity which is at the root of this poverty.
The central metaphor I have used for this duplicity is the one which Jesus used – the building of monuments to what is true and good, while losing or killing the spirit of living of the same. I questioned whether the building of the “monuments” (everything from great cathedrals, to elaborate rituals, to something like the Cappa Magna) of Catholic worship were not concomitant with a real loss of the immediacy of Christ’s presence to, and demand upon, our lives. As I pointed out, it seems that a primary effect (through “consuming it in our concupiscences”) of this “monument-building” was to view the Mass as something we possess, rather than as something to be lived. The same may be said of every aspect of our faith, and even the Faith itself.
I do not assert that "an earlier form of the Mass was better". I say, in effect, that the first Christians were better, not that their Mass was better. Anyone who chooses to make the particular form of the Mass determinate of the quality of Catholic life is faced with the almost certain fact that the ritualism and many other "monuments" of what we call the Traditional Latin Liturgy were not present "from house to house" for the early Christians, and yet the Truth and Charity which they lived, and the grace which they merited, was transparently superior to what has constituted the general historical progression down through the centuries. I make no claim as to which Mass was superior. I do make the claim, however, that “possession of the Traditional Form of the Mass" is not in itself the answer to our nakedness, and that to assert the contrary is tantamount to the same sort of Pharisaism as that which was condemned by Christ.
In other words, it is not the Heart of Christ which is missing, but the heart of Catholics. As I have also stated, there are exceptions. Quite clearly, however, what was present within the early Christians as Unity, Charity, and Power (including large-scale conversions and the miraculous) is now largely extinct. There is a reason.