Propositions for the Pious

I offer the following propositions to my readers in a spirit of inquiry. Are these not edifying, pious, and – in many cases – straightforwardly true maxims? I have arranged them in thematic paragraphs, but beyond that, they do not issue from my hand. They are indeed far older maxims, drawn from the writings of certain noteworthy Catholic divines. Nevertheless, I should be very curious what my readers think of them – especially those with a theological background.

Are these not, on the whole, quite salutary? Do they not breathe the spirit of the best Fathers and Doctors, especially of those glorious Patriarchs of the West, SS Augustine and Thomas? Or, if anyone should find anything objectionable in them, what is the flaw? I ask sincerely. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

In vain, O Lord, do You command, if You do not give what you command. Thus, O Lord, all things are possible to him for whom You make all things possible by effecting those same things in him.

All knowledge of God, even natural knowledge, even in the pagan philosophers, cannot come except from God; and without grace knowledge produces nothing but presumption, vanity, and opposition to God Himself, instead of the affections of adoration, gratitude, and love. As there is no sin without love of ourselves, so there is no good work without love of God.

A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times. What is the Church except an assembly of the sons of God abiding in His bosom, adopted in Christ, subsisting in His person, redeemed by His blood, living in His spirit, acting through His grace, and awaiting the grace of the future life? The Church or the whole Christ has the Incarnate Word as head but all the saints as members. The Church is one single man composed of many members, of which Christ is the head, the life, the subsistence and the person- it is one single Christ composed of many saints, of whom He is the sanctifier. There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.

It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places, and for every kind of person, to study and to know the spirit, the piety, and the mysteries of Sacred Scripture. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all. The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for the laity to dispense themselves from reading it. The Lord’s Day ought to be sanctified by Christians with readings of pious works and above all of the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading. It is an illusion to persuade oneself that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by the reading of Sacred Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men has arisen the abuse of the Scriptures and have heresies been born. To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament, or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it, is to close for them the mouth of Christ. To forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication. To snatch from the simple people this consolation of joining their voice to the voice of the whole Church is a custom contrary to the apostolic practice and to the intention of God.

A method full of wisdom, light, and charity is to give souls time for bearing with humility. and for experiencing their state of sin, for seeking the spirit of penance and contrition, and for beginning at least to satisfy the justice of God, before they are reconciled.

To suffer in peace an excommunication and an unjust anathema rather than betray truth, is to imitate St. Paul; far be it from rebelling against authority or of destroying unity.

Nothing engenders a worse opinion of the Church among her enemies than to see exercised there an absolute rule over the faith of the faithful, and to see divisions fostered because of matters which do not violate faith or morals. Truths have descended to this, that they are, as it were, a foreign tongue to most Christians, and the manner of preaching them is, as it were, an unknown idiom, so remote is the manner of preaching from the simplicity of the apostles. and so much above the common grasp of the faithful; nor is there sufficient advertence to the fact that this defect is one of the greatest visible signs of the weakening of the Church and of the wrath of God on His sons. Stubbornness, investigation, and obstinacy in being unwilling either to examine something or to acknowledge that one has been deceived daily changes into an odor, as it were, of death, for many people, that which God has placed in His Church to be an odor of life within it, for instance, good books, instructions, holy examples, etc. Deplorable is the time in which God is believed to be honored by persecution of the truth and its disciples! This time has come…. To be considered and treated by the ministers of religion as impious and unworthy of all commerce with God, as a putrid member capable of corrupting everything in the society of saints, is to pious men a more terrible death than the death of the body. In vain does anyone flatter himself on the purity of his intentions and on a certain zeal for religion, when he persecutes honest men with fire and sword, if he is blinded by his own passion or carried away by that of another on account of which he does not want to examine anything. We frequently believe that we arc sacrificing an impious man to God, when we are sacrificing a servant of God to the devil.

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Elsewhere: Keanu Heydari on the Coredemptrix

August is the Month of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While I was too busy moving and adapting to life in Pennsylvania to write anything for Assumption Day, my good friend Keanu Heydari wrote a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Assumption as well as on Our Lady’s co-redemptive role more generally. I offer it to my readers for their edification and delight as well as for the honor of Our Lady’s Sorrow and Immaculate Heart. Here’s a particularly puissant excerpt:

In this remarkable passage, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen has argued, John’s Jesus invokes the archetypical womanhood of Mary as the New Eve. Mary is the woman. Jesus affirms her role in undoing our devastated humanity in the Garden by affirming her role as the New Eve. Moreover, the Lord makes a startling claim about the dignity of Mary’s personhood and her role in the narrative arc of cosmic salvation as Coredemptrix and Mediatrix. What is true about Christ is also just as true of the Virgin. Only Mary could confess that she, in the purest way, was truly of the flesh of the Son of Man. 

Keanu Heydari

Keanu hits upon a fundamental truth of Catholicism, the Marian-Ecclesial analogy with Christ. What is predicated of Christ can be predicated of both the Church, His Bride, and, in a special way, His Mother. This is not to suggest that anyone other than Jesus Christ as a discreet person is the Logos, but to note that all that He is by nature, we can become by Grace – and Mary first of all.

Patreon: Mirrors, Part I

Over at Patreon, I’ve published the first part of a new weird story, “Mirrors.” A popular writer moves into new lodgings, only to discover that the odd neighbors aren’t the only thing strange about the place…

Here’s an excerpt:

I still have not met any of my other neighbors, but I have heard them. Last night, I was woken up some time past midnight by several large thuds from above. It sounded as if someone was dropping bowling balls again and again on the floorboards. Just when I got out of bed and was halfway to making up my mind about whether or not I should go complain, the noise stopped. I hope this will not be a nightly recurrence, as it will surely impact my writing.

“Mirrors,” Part I – By Rick Yoder

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Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Portrait of Giles of Viterbo in his old Palazzo (Source)

Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.

The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.

If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.

Pico della Mirandola, a pioneer in the Christian use of Kabbalah. (Source)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.

It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.

We Do Not Need St. Chesterton

Chesterton at the sea (Source)

The Bishop of Northampton has announced that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization has been dropped. There will be no St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, his portly visage peering out of a halo over an altar in some out-of-the-way country church. There will be no Gilberttide Novenas, with each day dedicated to some tired and over-labored paradox the man squirted out for an article on H.G. Wells some time in the late Edwardian period. There will be no holy relics passed around – “The pipe he used to smoke with the Blessed Belloc!” – nor even little medals or fat statues cramming the shelves of the stores that specialize in such pious kitsch.

Good. The Bishop has decided wisely. The cause never should have been opened in the first place. Its continuation would represent, if not an abuse of the process, then a serious misstep in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.

Quaeritur: Why do we raise saints to the altar?

Respondeo: There are three reasons.

1) To hallow and liturgically organize a pre-existing popular cult of a holy person.

2) To recognize that said holy person is in Heaven.

3) To raise up a holy soul as an example to the Faithful.

The third is insufficient on its own. The second is implied and proven in the act of canonization itself, though the inquiry into a saint’s alleged miracles is adjunct to it. The first is thus the most important, foundational reason for the whole process.

As the Bishop pointed out in his statement, there is essentially no local cult of G.K. Chesterton in either his diocese or, I would wager, in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is such a cult in America. I was once part of it, as a member, officer, and president of UVA’s G.K. Chesterton Society. I was thus shocked to discover when I moved to England that nobody – not even most Catholics I knew – read or particularly cared about Chesterton. The British, for reasons I have never really understood, ignore much of their own “spiritual heritage,” as Americans might think of it. Even the relics of St. Edmund Campion barely raised an eyebrow when they visited Oxford in Hilary Term 2018. In the chapel where they were offered for public veneration after a sparsely-attended Mass, I watched as less than half the room went forward to pay their respects to the Jesuit martyr. Can you imagine the crowds that the same small relic would draw in Chicago or Virginia or California?

I digress. The point is that instituting an official cult of Chesterton where no such popular cult exists is to vitiate the process of Beatification.

I remain agnostic as to whether Chesterton is in heaven. I hope he is, and I pray that he might achieve the Beatific Vision if he hasn’t already. But we’ll never know until we get to heaven ourselves, now that the cause won’t advance.

But, is Chesterton an example to the faithful? My own thoughts on the matter are mixed. Clearly, he was a great apologist who presented an appealing if idiosyncratic vision of orthodox Christianity. His conversion was to be commended, as all conversions are. There are, of course, some moral objections one could make. Lingering questions remain about Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews, though the issue is probably overblown. Some have pointed to his large frame as a sign of intemperance and gluttony. However, I think there is perhaps another matter at stake.

Chesterton with his dog. (Source)

It must be said that Chesterton was, as far as we can tell, a very good man. He could be riotously funny. He was probably just the sort of fellow with whom one would enjoy getting a pint. But that quality of conviviality, even when wedded to right doctrine, does not equate to sanctity. If anything, it speaks to the opposite quality, a lack of the salutary ascesis proper to the Christian life. We hear much today of Chesterton’s alleged quote: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Let us leave aside the question of whether the man actually said it (I have struggled to find the source), and accept that he did. The question we should be asking is whether it’s true. And if it is, is it really the sort of thing worth saying anyway? What are pints and pipes but little human vices and pleasures, the things of this world, the ordinary hobbies we enjoy from time to time? A Catholicism that fits them in is probably what most of us (myself included) can strive for, what most of us achieve. But surely that’s not the heroic, sacrificial faith of the Fathers. Would any of the Desert monastics or the martyrs say such a thing? Would any of them really consider it truly pious, if acceptable? Surely we can do better than a religion of the pub stool. Let us aim higher. Let us not canonize this symbol of comfortable Catholicism.

Perhaps the best reason to refrain from canonizing Chesterton was offered in 2013 by Melanie McDonagh:

The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.

I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.

Melanie McDonagh, “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint.”

Chesterton should not be canonized because doing so would establish him as an authority. Never mind that Chesterton’s famous aphorisms and paradoxes were so often little more than the trite (or even false) quips of a journalist. I have in mind quite another matter; canonization would effectively insulate Chesterton from serious criticism, literary or otherwise. Is that really an effective tribute to a man who was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind? Are we doing him any great service by placing his work under the light of a nimbus? Wouldn’t we rather be paying him the greatest of all insults to a writer, namely, to place him beyond serious and fair consideration? On the other hand, perhaps McDonagh is right – canonizing Chesterton could instead spark a lugubrious academic cottage industry, just as the (American) Evangelical discovery of C.S. Lewis has turned that first-rate children’s novelist and second-rate Anglican theologian into big business. I can only imagine Chesterton would find it all extremely drab.

We should not be too quick to canonize, especially when it comes to writers. I love the books of Flannery O’Connor and find much that is edifying in her fiction. I believe she probably died a holy death. But I don’t think she should be canonized; if a cause were to open, it should be based entirely on the merit of her sufferings.

Julien Green thought that the very act of writing a novel – a good one anyway, that deals with real human experience and the truths of the human condition – inevitably implicates the author in mortal sin. One has to imagine evil, and in portraying it, one engages with it at some level. I don’t know whether that’s true. I have no novels on my CV. But his statement speaks to a deeper point about the act of writing. We cannot escape from the fallibility and fragility of our own humanity, nor a certain fallenness inscribed into the fractured and slipshod structures of our language. This is why criticism is a good thing. Criticism, even pointed criticism, is a sign that one takes an author’s work seriously. It also keeps an author within the bonds of a community of writers, each of whom shares the same basic limitations even as their individual geniuses differ. These are truths that Chesterton himself understood; he, too, was a literary critic.

But the work of canonized writers retains an implicit authority. Sure, philosophers and theologians might dispute over a point in St. Thomas, but rarely do they state outright that the Angelic Doctor is wrong (and he was on several occasions). One could point to other examples. There is a degree to which such deference is acceptable. One of the Church’s great strengths is her long memory and the deposit of theology that acts as a shield around the deposit of faith. Yet this quality of authority is entirely inappropriate with a figure like Chesterton, whose voluminous works largely consist of trivial journalism. True, he made a few good points in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. There are strange parts of Orthodoxy, too, that make little sense and must be taken for what they are – Chesterton’s deeply personal attempt to understand his faith. And some of his writings are simply bad, wrong, or unreadable. If we take Chesterton seriously as a thinker and a writer, we should say so.

Looking quizzical on a bench. (Source)

I realize that many of my readers, especially British ones, will think I am belaboring the point. If there is no popular cult, then are we really in danger of such an uncritical turn? I would direct such readers to the G.K. Chesterton Society’s website. I would direct them to the inclusion of Chesterton in Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The Pivotal Players alongside objectively more important figures like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and Cardinal Newman. I would direct them to that inexcusably hagiographic study of Chesterton’s milieu, Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. There may be no local cult per se, but there is a Chestertonian cult of personality spread across the Anglophone church. Especially in America.

The hallowed place Chesterton holds in the hearts of American Catholics is a reflection of a deeper American fetishization of English Christianity. This tendency tends to erect little idols of men such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Mons. Robert Hugh Benson (a deeply bizarre man of unsavory connections), and others.

I believe this tendency reflects a deep cultural anxiety proper to both Americans in general and American Catholics in particular. Unlike Europeans and South Americans, we live in an unhallowed, “historically empty” landscape. We US Catholics carry on an agon with European culture, especially British culture, because we feel deep down that we have never developed an authentically rooted version of American Catholicism. There are few saints native to our shores; the recent popular cult of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a positive development, as we move beyond the lineup of immigrant clergy who used to make up most of the canon of American saints. If Fr. Augustus Tolton is canonized, all the better. But there remains an unspoken if everywhere manifest anxiety about the authenticity of American Catholicism. Its identity is new, still forming, and thus up for grabs. One effect is a relentless, internecine preoccupation with the culture wars. Liberals and conservatives in the Church largely map on to our broader political axis. But there’s another method of identity-formation, deployed primarily by those on the right end of that spectrum. We borrow the British writers as if they’re our heritage. But this borrowing blinds us to the faults of the men (and it is largely men) whom we take as representatives of a common spiritual ancestry with the Brits. Lewis and Tolkien are emblematic of this trend, and he’s not even Catholic. Yet they are invoked breathlessly by conservative Catholics and Christians in the same way that Harry Potter has become a shibboleth of secular liberals. Chesterton’s memory is in danger of becoming just another tribal marker.

I don’t claim any special insight beyond my compatriots. However, I do think that living in England for the better part of two years has disillusioned me of my former support for this tendency. Chesterton is bigger (in many ways) than the narrow role he has been asked to play by American conservatives. Let him rest in peace, let us read him on his own terms, and let us preserve the altars of the Church from a dubious canonization.