The Art of Amoris Laetitia

Many of the great controversies of the Faith’s history have been played out in its visual culture. From the iconoclast mosaics of Hagia Irene to the Tridentine monuments of Bernini to the Jansenist portraits of Philippe de Champaigne and beyond, we find clear expressions of theological tensions throughout the centuries. So it should be no surprise to find the present troubles in the Church reflected in art.

I was recently in Ireland and came across a curious sight. In both of the Catholic Churches I entered during my stay, I found copies of the National Icon of the Holy Family, also known as the Amoris Laetitia Icon.

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The Amoris Laetitia Icon. (Source)

On a purely aesthetic level, the icon is visually striking. It was clearly written by an iconographer who knew his craft. Specially commissioned for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, the icon presents the Holy Family seated at table (in imitation of the the Rublev Trinity), flanked on either side by scenes from the Gospel.

I won’t trouble my readers with the wider ecclesiastical context, as I assume most will already be familiar with the present unpleasantness in the Church. I would, however, point out two significant irregularities in the icon, both in its construction and in its reception.

To the best of my knowledge, it is highly unusual for documents to be the subjects of icons. Only the Creeds of the Church are ordinarily enshrined in the iconographic canon.

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An icon of the Nicene Creed. (Source)

To treat Amoris Laetitia as a worthy subject for inclusion in iconography is deeply problematic. An Apostolic Exhortation is nowhere near as magisterial as a Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church speaking in her undivided voice. Icons are meant to manifest the transfigured reality of the Eschaton and lead us to contemplate the presence of divinized persons. Insofar as Creeds are foundational manifestations of the theanthropic Tradition, they are of one piece with the iconographic canon. Thus, we can write icons about them. But to write an icon about a document of quasi-magisterial status and, at best, uncertain orthodoxy is to do violence to the canon itself. I suppose there are those who would defend the icon by saying it primarily represents the Holy Family, and not the Apostolic Exhortation at all. The rather ostentatious title at the foot of the icon vitiates this interpretation.

The other issue with the Amoris Laetitia icon is the way it is being received. Or rather, imposed. The icon itself is currently making the rounds of the Irish dioceses, almost as if it were the Kursk Root Icon or some other wonder-working image. I found laminated copies on a side-altar in one church, and before the ambo in another (not to mention the pocket-sized editions at the back of the church; even these have the words Amoris Laetitia at the bottom). I’m not sure whether either case was really appropriate. I do know that both looked very tacky. And aside from the theological issues I have already described, there is another reason why I find it all so unnerving. It is a political icon, manifestly written and deployed to suppress dissent from the official line when it comes to the interpretation of AL. The image belongs to the Church’s present crisis of confidence, and cannot be read apart from it.

But the Kasperite triptych is not the only recent translation of the Church’s internal divisions into visual media. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And who should come to the defense of Tradition, but our old friend Giovanni Gasparro? I am still puzzled as to how Mr. Gasparro could have been accused of Modernism, as he continues to produce a body of Caravaggiste work that speaks very clearly to the priorities of Traditional Catholics. Case in point, his new painting.

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Amoris Laetitia. St. John the Baptist admonishing the adultery of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Giovanni Gasparro, 2018. (Source)

Like the AL icon, this painting must be read in light of the ongoing disputes within the Church. It would be simplistic, however, to see it as a merely ironic jab at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. St. John the Baptist’s expression is not one of anger or rebuke. We can read in its calm confidence the firm authority that comes from knowledge of the Truth, as well as the gentleness of love. The Forerunner is not a Pharisee.

I would add that the stark stylistic difference with the Amoris Laetitia icon speaks to an important distinction in sensibilities. In the first case, it occurs to me that the selection of iconography is a very deliberate choice. It borrows the authority of the East – and all its Ecumenical associations – to implicitly justify its theology. I suppose we oughtn’t be too surprised. The dispute over Amoris is in large part a question of whether the Latin Church can accept a theology and praxis of marriage that more closely resembles the Eastern custom. And the man who started it all, Cardinal Kasper, was, of course, at one time in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. Yet Mr. Gasparro’s painting is clearly situated within the Baroque, and thus Tridentine, aesthetic. His use of chiaroscuro, his slightly orientalist costuming, and the exaggerated theatricality of his gestures are all emblematic of the conventions of Early Modern sacred art.

In these two representative paintings and their disparate stylistic choices, we see two ways of thinking about Doctrinal Development: horizontal and vertical. The AL icon dramatizes the horizontal view of development. Doctrine can change through ecumenical encounter. Catholicism can move forward by learning from the experience of sister churches (or, in its most extreme iteration, other religions entirely). The Gasparro painting, on the other hand, stands for the vertical notion of development: the faith remains essentially the same through time, and is only clarified or deepened as the ages pass. There are, of course, elements of both views that are true. But the vertical view is the established theory of Tradition that, with some important developments (e.g. Newman), was put forth consistently from Trent to the Second Vatican Council. The question of which model will prevail is the center of the argument about Amoris.

Of course, someone will chime in and object to me reading any meaning into either image from the church political context in which they were produced. Fair enough. But while we should always start with the object in itself, it is not always possible in interpretation to keep art hermetically sealed off from the circumstances of its own creation. To do so in the case of either the AL icon or the Gasparro painting would be to ignore what is, I wager, a crucial context. And if we admit that important factor, we can start to see how the arts are speaking to the wider life of the Church in our own moment.

St. Alphonsus on Christ’s Suffering

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May St. Alphonsus pray for us always. (Source)

This Wednesday’s spiritual teacher is St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church and founder of the Redemptorists. He was known for his moral theology as well as his Mariological and devotional writings. Here is something Lenten by St. Alphonsus drawn, paradoxically, from The Incarnation, Birth, and Infancy of Jesus Christ (trans. 1927). The bibliographic information can be found on the page from which I took this text. 

The Desire that Jesus Had to Suffer for Us

Baptismo habeo baptizari; et quomodo coarctor, usquedum perficiatur?
“I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished?”
—Luke, xii. 50.

I.
Jesus could have saved us without suffering; but He chose rather to embrace a life of sorrow and contempt, deprived of every earthly consolation, and a death of bitterness and desolation, only to make us understand the love which He bore us, and the desire which He had that we should love Him. He passed His whole life in sighing for the hour of His death, which He desired to offer to God, to obtain for us eternal salvation. And it was this desire which made Him exclaim: I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished? He desired to be baptized in His Own Blood, to wash out, not, indeed, His Own, but our sins. O infinite Love, how miserable is he who does not know Thee, and does not love Thee!

II.
This same desire caused Him to say, on the night before His death, With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you. By which words He shows that His only desire during His whole life had been to see the time arrive for His Passion and death, in order to prove to man the immense love which He bore him. So much, therefore, O my Jesus, didst Thou desire our love, that to obtain it Thou didst not refuse to die. How could I, then, deny anything to a God Who, for love of me, has given His Blood and His life?

III.
St. Bonaventure says that it is a wonder to see a God suffering for the love of men; but that it is a still greater wonder that men should behold a God suffering so much for them, shivering with cold as an infant in a manger, living as a poor boy in a shop, dying as a criminal on a Cross, and yet not burn with love to this most loving God; but even go so far as to despise this love, for the sake of the miserable pleasures of this earth. But how is it possible that God should be so enamoured with men, and that men, who are so grateful to one another, should be so ungrateful to God?

Alas! my Jesus, I find myself also among the number of these ungrateful ones. Tell me, how couldst Thou suffer so much for me, knowing the injuries that I should commit against Thee? But since Thou hast borne with me, and even desirest my salvation, give me, I pray Thee, a great sorrow for my sins, a sorrow equal to my ingratitude. I hate and detest, above all things, my Lord, the displeasure which I have caused Thee. If, during my past life, I have despised Thy grace, now I value it above all the kingdoms of the earth. I love Thee with my whole soul, O God, worthy of infinite love, and I desire only to live in order to love Thee. Increase the flames of Thy love, and give me more and more love. Keep alive in my remembrance the love that Thou hast borne me, so that my heart may always burn with love for Thee, as Thy heart burns with love for me. O burning heart of Mary, inflame my poor heart with holy love.

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Detail of Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580. (Source)

Fr. Faber on Unhappiness

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Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us in this penitential season. (Source)

As we continue through Lent, I thought I might share some edifying words from various spiritual writers every Wednesday. This week’s writer is Fr. Faber. The passages are no doubt drawn from various works, but I found them in pages 63-70 of The Spirit of Father Faber, Apostle of London (1914). Perhaps you find yourself in an unusually stark unhappiness – perhaps someone you love is ill – perhaps there is tumult in your personal life – perhaps you face doubt and despair. Meditate on the words of Fr. Faber, which brim with a supernatural wisdom drawn from his long experience of the care of souls.

Unhappiness

I

UNHAPPINESS is not without mystery even in a fallen world. By rights there should be no unhappiness at all. For is not the whole world full of God everywhere, and can there be unhappiness in the neighbourhood of God ? How much goodness and kindness is there in everyone around us, if we only take a kindly view of them ourselves ! Sin is easily forgiven to those who are in earnest. Grace is prodigally bestowed. There is an almost incredible amount of actual enjoyment, and pain and suffering themselves are quickly turned to sanctity. Yet for all this the unhappiness of the world is real. Almost
every heart on earth is a sanctuary of secret sorrow. With some the grief is fresh. With others it is old. With immense numbers the unhappiness is literally lifelong, one out of which there is no possible escape except through the single door of death. With some it arises with having chosen an unfit lot in life from the first. With others it is from the unkindness, misconduct, or misunderstanding of those they love. In some cases men have to suffer for their religion, and its consequences are made by the cruelty of others to last to the end of their days. Not unfrequently it comes from men’s characters, or from their sins, or from some consequences of these. Now and then it is the burden of a broken heart, a heart which has been overweighted, and so has snapped, and thus lost its elasticity and the power of throwing off its sorrows. To much suffering time brings no healing. The broken heart lies bleeding in the hand of its Heavenly Father. He will look to it. No one else can.

II

SORROW is to the elect on earth, what the Beatific Vision is to the Saints in Heaven. It is God’s presence, His manifestation of Himself, His unfailing reward. We must not be amazed therefore if new efforts to serve God bring new sorrows in their train. By the supernatural principles of the spiritual life, they ought to do so. If we are able to bear them, these sorrows will come at once. Their delay is only the index of God’s estimation of our weakness. Yet we need not fear that they will be disproportioned to our strength. God’s blows are not dealt out at random. Our crosses are poised to a nicety by Divine wisdom, and then Divine love planes them, in order to make them at once smoother and lighter. But we can have no real comfort in devotion, if we are without trials. We have no proof that God accepts us, no security against delusion. We know that the stars are in their old places in the sky ; but in different states of the atmosphere they seem much farther off than at other times, or again much nearer, like teardrops of light on the very point of falling to the earth. So is it with God. Joy makes Him seem far off, while sorrow brings Him near, almost down into our bosom. When sorrows come, we feel instinctively their connection with the graces which have gone before, just as temptations so often have an odour about them of past victories. They come up, one after another, dealing their several blows upon our poor hearts, with such a modest heavenly significancy upon their faces, that it is easy to recognise angels beneath the thin disguise. As we touch them, even while the thrill goes through us, we feel that we are almost handling with our hands our own final perseverance, such solid evidence are they of our adoption, so full of substantial graces in their presence, and leaving such a legacy of blessings when they go. A heart without sorrows is like a world without a revelation. It has nothing but a twilight of God about it.

III

FURTHERMORE our sorrow must be our own. We must not expect anyone else to understand it. It is one of the conditions of true sorrow, that it should be misunderstood. Sorrow is the most individual thing in the whole world. We must not expect therefore to meet with sympathy at all adequate to what we are suffering. It will be a great thing if it be suitable, even though it is imperfect. It is a very desolate thing to have leaned on sympathy, and found that it would not bear our weight, with such a burden of sorrow upon our backs. It is very difficult to erect ourselves again. The heart sinks upon itself in dismay. It has used its last remaining strength to reach the place where it would rest itself, and now what is left for it, but a faintness which opens all the wounds afresh, and a dismal conviction that the grief is less tolerable than it was before? It is best therefore to keep our sorrows as secret as we can. Unfitting sympathy irritates us, and makes us sin. Inadequate sympathy lets the lame limb fall harshly to the ground. The denial of sympathy excites almost a querulous despair. God knows everything. There are volumes of comfort in that. God means everything. There is light for every darkness out of that simple truth. Our hearts are full of angels when they are full of sorrows. Let us make them our company, and go on our road, smiling all the day, scattering such sweetness round us as mourners only are allowed to scatter, and God will understand us, when we go to Him.

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Detail of the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald. (Source)

IV

JESUS will be a cause of blessed sorrow to every one of us. There are very many happy earthly things which we must sacrifice for Him ; or if we have not the heart to do so, He will have the kind cruelty to take them from us. Persecution is a word of many meanings, a thing of countless shapes. It must come infallibly to every one who loves our dearest Lord. It may come through the hard tongues of the worldly, or in the suspicions and jealousies and judgements of those we love. In the peace of family love and domestic union it often comes from hands which make it hard to be endured; and because of religion, there is keen misery where the casual visitor sees nothing but the edification of mutual love. Who was ever let alone to serve Jesus as he wished? It is idle to expect it. The husband’s love rises against it in the wife. The mother will tear her children from the Saviour’s arms. The father looks with suspicion on the claims of God, and jealousy of the Creator will make him harsh to a child who has never given him an hour of trouble in life beside, and to whom he has never been harsh before. The brother will forego the manliness of fraternal affection, and bring the bitterness of the world’s judgements into the sacred circle of home, if Jesus dares to lay a finger on his sister. O poor, poor world! And it is always the good who are the worst in this respect. Let this be laid to heart, and pondered. Outside of us, beside this inevitable persecution, our Lord will bring trials and crosses round us, at once to preserve our Grace and to augment it. The more we love him the thicker they will be. Nay, our love of Him often gets us into trouble we hardly know how. It almost leads us into faults, into imprudences to be repented of. Suddenly, especially when we are fervent, the ground gives way under our feet, and we sink into a pit, and in the retrospect, our fall seems inexcusable, and yet how did it come to pass ? How also is it within the soul ? Are there not such things as the pains of love ? Are they not more common than its joys ?

V

THEN there is the worse pain of not feeling our love, of seeming to lose our love, of its for ever slipping away from us. There are also interior trials, by which self-love is put to a painful death, and a cleansing of our inmost souls by fire, which is exceeding agony. Then there are the distresses into which the love of Jesus entraps us. It persuades us to give up this world, to put out all the lights wherewith earth had made our hearts gay, to break ties, to eschew loves, to commit ourselves to hard dull lives, and then it leaves us. God hides His countenance from us. All view of the other world is shut off from us. Just as it is at sundown, no sooner has the last rim sunk below the horizon, than, as if evoked by a spell, from river-side, from woody hollow, from pastures where the kine are feeding, from meadows with the haycocks standing, there rises up a cold white blinding mist : so is it in the soul, no sooner is God’s Face gone, than past sins, ghastly things, break up from the graves in which absolution laid them, and present imperfections, and unknown temptations, and chilling impossibilities, of perseverance, all rise up together, and involve the soul in the coldest gloomiest desolation, through which no star can pierce, and it is much if a sickly whiteness tells us that there is a moon somewhere. Who does not know these things ? It is no use shuddering. They are not on us now ; but they will come back again, be sure, when their hour arrives. Thus Jesus is in us a cause of sorrow, in us He is a sign to be contradicted, in us is He set for the rise and fall of many.

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Ecce Homo, Adam Chmielowski, 1881. (Source)

Elsewhere: Newman Against the Nazis

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White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl. (Source)

A big thanks to Fr. David Abernethy of the Pittsburgh Oratory for bringing to my attention an article in the Catholic Herald about the influence of Cardinal Newman’s thought on die Weiße Rose. Apparently the Doctor of Conscience was an important impetus for their resistance to Nazi oppression. From the article:

The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. Haecker had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. Strange though it may seem, the insights of the Oxford academic were ideally suited to help these students make sense of the catastrophe they were living through.

Haecker’s influence is evident already in the first three White Rose leaflets, but his becomes the dominant voice in the fourth: this leaflet, written the day after Haecker had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

Read the whole thing. And pray that Bl. John Henry Newman might, by his intercession, assist us in the struggle against every tyranny.

Fr. Bowden’s Meditations for Lent

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Christ in the Desert, Ivan Kramskoi, 1872. (Source)

Some of my readers will no doubt recognize the name of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. He achieved some small notoriety as the priest who nearly converted Oscar Wilde in the 1870’s. He was also a well-respected spiritual teacher, though sadly neglected today. I would like to make some of his wisdom available, especially as it bears on the season we enter on this Ash Wednesday.

Here’s Fr. Bowden’s advice for Lent:

Consider the bearing that Lent has upon Death. Lent is given us as a time of preparation, and the way it is spent has great influence on the times that follow it: a carefully spent Lent will bring about a careful month after it, and the influence of that may go on through the year. So, we may look upon each Lent as a bringing us nearer to a good state for death, by making a fresh mark on our life:—for as we live so we must die. Therefore enter fully into this spirit: withdraw as far as you possibly can from all outer things, in thought, during this season: let the things of Time go to a distance, and be as nothing to you. Be alone with God, and try simply to learn more and more where you are, and what you are worth, in His eyes only; and thus prepare yourself for joining Him in Eternity.

Give yourself thoroughly to the Spirit of the Passion. Do not look, in anything you do, for success, pleasantness, or comfort: expect crosses, failures, disappointments, and take all these readily:go to meet them, receive all with perfect resignation from God’s handstake their impress on your soul. Aim, in preparation for death, at caring for nothing so much that you will not be ready in a moment to give it up.

Remember that, perfect and infinite as are the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death, there is one thing still wanting to them:that is, our part in them: our taking and accepting His sufferings as ours, and bearing them with Him. Without this, His Passion remains worthless. To what purpose is the Head crowned with thorns, if the Members remain dead, paralyzed, mortified and motionless? And so it is if we, who are Christ’s Members, will not enter with Him into His Passion, and will to suffer with Him. Let us, therefore, now, go in with Him into the life of suffering, giving ourselves to Him completely. It is difficult and painful to human nature to face the thought of a penitential life, but it must be done if we would be His true followers. And at this season it should be done specially by some outward thing:no lessening of food or sleep for those who need strength to work; but, still, in some wayif it is only by restraint of attitude, by some posture at times different from the ordinaryno matter what, but by some meanswe should daily remind ourselves that it is Lent.

Of course, it is hard to realize the good of the Cross: it often seems to our eyes so purposelessso gratuitousas well as so hard. It is in Faith alone that we can bear it; human nature must feel and suffer by it,. Let us try, during Holy Week, for a “broken heart”: that is, not feeling, but the certain conviction of our own nothingness and the nothingness of everything but God’s will. It is not merely the having, or the not having, to suffer this or the other thing: it is in all that we must be crushed: it is that there is absolutely nothing of importance except to do the Will of God: and this is the Cross.

The Sacrifice [acceptance of crosses or voluntary renunciation] always seems greater than we expected: when the Cross presses inward it must take hold of us. But we must treat it by looking beyond, remembering that, after all, it is all, in reality, but nothing; living in daily Faith in God, and Hope; and reminding ourselves that all will pass. Feeling, at the moment, we cannot help. (Spiritual Teaching of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory, 1921, pp. 17-20)

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Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. (Source)

I would add two brief thoughts that come from a later portion of the book. They seem admirably suited to our meditation on this penitential day, the start of a journey of penance that will not end until we face the cross.

The best way of realizing our Free Will is St. Philip’s way: “Lord, keep Thy hand on my head, or I shall betray Thee.” This consciousness of how easily we may at any moment commit any sin, however great, is simply the truth. It is the experience of everyone who knows anything of human nature, and especially of every priest. He knows it first for himself, and then for others. This it is that fills our prisons with criminals: the sinfulness of human naturegreed and avarice, lust and passion. To know our own weakness is our only safeguard. (p. 98)

Recollect that it was Christ on the Cross that redeemed the world: not His miraclesnot His life of preachingbut His naked body offered on the Cross to God. And so it must be with us if we would follow Him: the will simply to suffer must be oursto this our whole lives must be bent. It is not by great and heroic deeds that we are to succeed in Eternity: it is by the daily round of silent, humble suffering of whatever God sends. We are to become what He was: holocausts: to be stripped of Self on all sides:of our will, of our powers, of our very individuality if He chooses, so as simply to be in His hands to do what He likes with. Remember that here we see everything exactly as it is not: to us, success seems to lie in what showsin active deeds, in energy, in strength and power. But this is not so before God; and when we die we shall see it all in its right light. Let us live, therefore, for the things which are great in Eternity, though not in Time, and be patient. (pp. 79-80)

May we all learn from Fr. Bowden’s sound practical wisdom and make a well and holy Lent.

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The Temptation in the Wilderness, John St. John Long, 1824. (Source)

A Letter on Loneliness

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Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Veronese. Pinacoteca di Brera (Source)

My Dear Brother Josiah,

I received your last correspondence with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy, for all the good news you shared of our friends and familiars; sorrow, for those matters closer to your own heart that weigh so heavily upon your soul. Normally, I would not venture to offer unsolicited advice. However, as you have come to me seeking counsel, I will try to speak from what little light I have been granted. I will offer you, I hope, nothing but the constant teaching of the saints, nor anything I would not myself seek to follow. So much of what I must share is rooted in my own experience, the fruit of suffering not in all respects unlike your own.

You tell me that you worry about God’s blessing. You write that, in view of your griefs, you no longer trust that the Lord will bless you. This is a failure of Christian hope, but an understandable one. Faced with one reversal after another, it is easy to despair. I will point you first to the book of Job, a well from whose water I know you have already imbibed in more bitter times. What else could I tell you? The key practical thing is to recollect often those graces you have received. Savor them. Go over each, holding them close to your heart in memory. Make space in your week – better yet, your day – to ponder the grand and little mercies of God. I commend to you one of the very greatest pieces of wisdom I have received, that “a grace remembered is a grace renewed.” Continual recollection means that we are never really bereft of those graces once delivered unto us.

Look over your current state of life. The world, at least, sees your success. Many would desire your place. Thank God for what He has seen fit to give you so far.

But I know how incomparably small all of those worldly triumphs seem next to the losses you’ve suffered. I see what you mean when you say that you don’t trust God to bless you anymore. You aren’t speaking of those tangible blessings the world prizes in its vanity. You speak instead of the love of those taken from you. That golden blessing is worth all the others combined.

And so, we come to what seems to me to be the basic problem; not despair, but loneliness. The chill that stains even the brightest happiness and reveals the joys of this world to be fool’s gold. Have you considered loneliness in itself? Perhaps you have. It is a dark and loathsome thing. Perhaps you have found it buried down in your soul. A void. A hole that, like a carious tooth, aches and aches until it cries out for your full attention. A little black space at the bottom of things. You carry it around with you and never set it down. Grief carved it out, shaped it to its own image, and colors it even today.

I don’t know if you will always bear that burden. Some of us must. But I would encourage you to embrace it. That emptiness is, in the words of R.S. Thomas, “a vacuum he may not abhor.” Come close to the void. Peer at it. Ecce lignum crucis! It is the cross you have been given. Fasten your heart to its center with the very nails of Our Lord’s passion. Accept His invitation, and you will be able to endure those long and painful hours when hope fails. One day, when you are least expecting it, something may very well happen. You may be at prayer in your room. You may be savoring the Eucharist at Mass. You may be finishing the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. But suddenly, unbidden, the Holy Ghost will visit you. The darkness will turn to dazzling light. By some strange alchemy known only in heaven, the emptiness will all at once turn into a full fountain of molten gold. The cavern will become a cup that runneth over. The silence will become song beyond sound or human voice. And your heart will be seized by the beautiful and terrifying realization that the Living God sees you. If only for a moment, you will know what it is to be “alone with the Alone.” Then will your heart become one with His. Then will you know a communion that obliterates all loneliness and a joy that erases all grief.

This moment cannot be rushed. God will not come but in His own way and in His own time. All the same, one can prepare.

First and foremost, take your loneliness and grief to the sacraments. When you are at the offertory or some other convenient point at the Mass, give your heart to the Eucharistic Christ. Ask to be alone with Him in the Tabernacle. Cleave to it as to the one rock of safety in a stormy sea. Consider, too, how Our Lord suffers loneliness in the Tabernacle. Think how He is neglected in His tabernacles through all the world. Think how He desires your consolation – yours! Truly, He wishes to make that emptiness in your soul His true and everlasting Tabernacle. Will you deny your Lord? For in the Tabernacle, He is at once most suffering and most glorious. So, too, where you are most suffering, He will render you most glorious.

Second, make a point of consciously drawing near to Christ crucified in your daily prayer. One thing I’ve done in the past – though, I confess, I have lately been lax about it – is to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and dedicate each decade to one of the Holy Wounds. Start by contemplating Our Lord’s feet, His physical presence on Earth during His lifetime and evermore in the Eucharist. Consider His comings and goings, and how He willingly ceases all of that to offer Himself to the Father on the cross. Then consider His left hand, the Kingly hand that holds the orb of the world. Ponder the ways of His Providence. Take heart in His mercy towards the penitent and His just judgment of the wicked. Praise Him for His true and final victory over the forces of evil, for scattering the proud in their conceit. Then, move to His right hand, the Priestly hand of blessing. Think of how He has transformed all things by the peace wrought with His right hand, under the sign of His blessing. Look forward to the world as it shall be on the day of His Wisdom’s Triumph. It is a world we can already enter at the Mass. Bring your gaze up to the Holy Face, wounded by the crown of thorns. Offer him your anxieties, your fears for the future, and all those worries that come from not knowing what you must do or why some calamity has transpired. Consider the crown of thorns as the mortification of your very reason. As Our Lord unquestioningly accepted the will of His Father, may you do the same. But remember to gaze into the Holy Face as into the very countenance of the Living God. Ponder Jesus Christ in His humanity. God is a person; nor is he just any person, but a person who suffered all that we suffer, and more. Finally, move to the wound in the Holy Side and the Sacred Heart. Give yourself up to as pure an expression of love for your Savior as you can muster. Consider the flood of water and blood that fell from those triumphant gates, so rudely torn open. Think, if you can, of the power so much as one drop of either precious liquid would have to redeem not just one soul, but millions and millions of universes teeming with the souls of the very worst sinners. Ponder what it means that you may receive the Precious Blood at even a low Mass. Fix your gaze beyond the Holy Side, passing into the darkness of Our Lord’s chest. Dwell upon the Sacred Hear in its quiet and eternal radiance. Know that Our Lord’s chest cavity is so very much like the void to which I have already alluded, and so like the Tabernacle. For in both, we find the Heart of God! Imagine yourself receiving the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist. Meditate upon the immense fire of Love pulsing there until the last shudder of death – and, as you come to the Trisagion, recall how that love blazed forth again on Easter Morn, never to be extinguished.

Third, keep in mind the words of St. Philip Neri. Amare Nesciri – “Love to be unknown.” One thinks of St. Benedict. In his rule, St. Benedict enjoins his children to overcome the temptations of lust with a similarly simple phrase, “Love chastity” (RB IV). St. Philip’s words carry many meanings. They are a wonderful program of humility, of perfection, of freedom, but also of loneliness and grief. Love to be unknown. Find God in the moment when no one else notices you. Don’t do what you do to be recognized, as the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 6:3, 16, Luke 18:9-14). Be content that God sees and knows you. It will take time to grow into this practice, but you will come to recognize its benefit. You may someday find someone to share or alleviate the yoke of your sorrows – maybe even someone to love. But until then, embrace Solitude as St. Benedict would have us embrace Chastity; that is, as a beloved spouse. Focus on that task, the one you have been given for now, and the rest will come to you as God sees fit in His own time. I would wager that it will make you happier and help you love others more perfectly.

Fourth, do not depart from under Mary’s mantle. If you wish to see the very picture of loss, I will show you the woman who, though the only one free of sin among the whole human race, suffered the loss of her parents, her husband, and her son. Turn your eyes to Mary. The sorrows of her Immaculate Heart demand your attention. We have no greater advocate and comfort in our own suffering than Mary, in union with her eternal spouse, the Paraclete.

Finally – hardest of all – you must forgive. Jesus’s death was not just a perfect sacrifice because He was an innocent and willing victim. He forgave His murderers. If we are to have a share in that death, we must learn the extremely difficult discipline of forgiveness. It is the only way we can be truly free.

I would be remiss in giving you these counsels if I did not add with all due caution that, insofar as any of it applies to me, I often fail. But I feel no shame in saying so, since Our Lord is magnified in weakness. Don’t rely only on my words, narrow and feeble as they are. If anything I have said is contradicted by the example of the saints and the teaching of God’s holy Church, refer to their superior model. After all, I’m not a priest. I’m not even all that well versed in theology. Seek out a spiritual father who can help your soul more intimately than a friend can.

For all that, be assured of my prayers and affection. I hope you find the hope that can only come from the Lord, my dear brother. May He bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Christ,

RTY

God is Real, Not Nice

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Colorized detail of Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law, by Gustave Dore. (Source)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the spiritual father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, launched his movement in the nineteenth century with an assault on the Frankfurt Reformers entitled “Religion Allied to Progress.” Hirsch decries the new forms of liberal, secular religion he saw animating the well-to-do populations of Jews in Germany.

“But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity. By this one magic phrase he distilled the ancient world-ranging spirit of the Torah into a single aromatic drop of perfume so fragrant that in the most elegant party dress they could carry it round with them in their waistcoat pockets without being ashamed. By means of it, he carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms. By means of this one magic phrase he so skilfully loosened the rigid bonds of the old law with its 613 locks and chains that the Divine Word which until then had inflexibly prohibited many a desire and demanded many a sacrifice, henceforth became the heavenly manna which merely reflected everybody’s own desires, echoed their own thoughts, sanctified their own aspirations and said to each one: ‘Be what you are, enjoy what you fancy, aspire to what you will, whatever you may be you are always religious, whatever you may do–all is religion; continue to progress, for the more you progress the further you move from the ancient way, and the more you cast off old Jewish customs the more religious and acceptable to God will you be….'”

These prophetic words came to mind as I was reading Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s excellent new offering, God Is Not Nice (2017). Published by Ave Maria Press, the book is a cannon-blast through America’s spiritual miasma. His target? The false image of God as a nice guy. I’m afraid that, as the book shows, He isn’t very “nice” at all. He’s so much better than that.

Each chapter considers one of God’s attributes as revealed in the Scriptures, the Magisterium, and Church History. How wonderful to come across a work of theology that isbrace yourselfactually about God! Gone are the boring and programmatic encumberments that so often clog up the pages of the theological press. Lehner is centrally concerned with God’s character, and only secondarily with what that must mean to us, His creations.

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Lehner drinks deeply of the Scriptures. He often returns to Old Testament narratives of encounter with a God who surpasses every expectation. (Source)

It is also one of the most erudite pieces of popular religious writing I have ever read. Sprinkled in among the obligatory references to the Inklings are much heavier hitters. One finds ideas drawn from Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Crowe Ransom, Rodney Stark, Robert Spaemann, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many more. Lehner’s prodigious knowledge of philosophy was especially apparent, as he deftly maneuvered between classical Thomism and recent German thoughtnot exactly the fare one expects from a major Church Historian. God Is Not Nice also has the distinction of being the only book of popular devotion I’ve encountered that speaks favorably of Erich Fromm (and cribs some of his ideas). It is to Lehner’s credit as a teacher that the reader never feels as if he’s suddenly entered rare air. He presents some difficult concepts with a simplicity that never sacrifices substance. An eighth grader could read and, more importantly, understand the text. So could an Evangelical. The book never ceases to be Catholic, but one is hard-pressed to find many insights that are so uniquely Papist as to dissuade Protestant readers. Its broad appeal comes not from a watering down of the Faith’s distinctives, but a consistent penetration of those things which lie at the very heart of the Christian life.

The book is also imbued with a deep humanity. First, Lehner’s understated humor crops up now and again, such as the time he casually compares the Prosperity Gospel preachers to Nazis (62). Or when, at the start of a chapter on intimacy with God, he writes, “Nakedness in public is a clear no-no” (80). It is difficult to imagine Lehner writing that line with a straight face, and impossible to read it with one.

The humanity of the text lies in its content as well as its style. Although Lehner hardly ever proposes specific ideas for spiritual renewal, the call to conversion is constant, simple, and universal enough that it all feels eminently practical. It works in large part because Lehner never invests his project with the unwieldy freight of, say, the hopes and failures of socially conservative American Christianity. This book is not The Benedict Option. Sure enough, Lehner is critical; for example, I was surprised to see such a forthright condemnation of the Enlightenment from an author who has made it is his life’s study. But Lehner never carries his criticism into the unpleasant realm of polemic, as Dreher so often does in his own book. What matters to Lehner is the individual human soul, not the social conditions under which the Church must forge her way through history. He is realistic about the quotidian quality of our spiritual lives. Everything must come back to the individual’s relationship with God, a relationship largely shaped by the perfectly ordinary moments of our day. The book never leaves this vision.

That isn’t to say that Lehner advocates a purely individualistic spirituality, like some eighteenth-century revivalist, red in the face, handkerchief flailing. I was struck many times by the familial note in Lehner’s work. Instead of shying away from appearing in his own workthe hallmark of a bloodless academicLehner grounds his spiritual call to arms in his own life. Lots of the book’s wisdom is drawn from its author’s experience of parenting. We read, in a chapter on God and suffering:

In fact, many of our children learn from the first hour of Sunday school that God wants everybody to be happy. Some parents might object that a different image of God would terrify children. I don’t think so – and I am speaking with the experience of parenting five kids. (100)

Or elsewhere, in a discussion of the Redemption:

A nice god might pardon us without care for our repentance, but so would a terrible parent who is not interested in us becoming mature and responsible persons. (118)

Or this charming anecdote, while pondering human freedom and what we really mean when we say that the Lord is “a God of Surprises”:

Of course, God is omniscient regarding all our actions and thoughts, but he leaves us our freedom and seems to choose to be surprised. I cannot help but compare this to my own parenting. When my younger children prepare a surprise present for my birthday, I usually find traces in the kitchen and the living room: crayons, pieces of paper, glue sticks, and first drafts with ‘Happy Birthday’ on them. Nevertheless, I choose to be surprised when they hand me their work of art. I think that with an omniscient God, it must be somehow like this. (126)

It thus didn’t come as too great a surprise when, at the end of his text, Lehner turned to a brief yet powerful meditation on St. Joseph. In some sense, St. Joseph is the paragon of all that Lehner advocates. He dwelt with God day to day in an intimacy unclouded by the various pretty illusions to which we all fall prey. Instead, St. Joseph drew the strength he needed from a true knowledge of God’s character. That knowledge created a great love and humble awe in him. For us, as for the Frankfurt Jews of Hirsh’s day, God is little more than a plaything or bric-a-brac, “relegated to a mantelpiece long ago and…only taken down on Sundays.” (106).

It was not so with St. Joseph. He knew the awful and living God as a human being, as one beloved. But for St. Joseph, that God wasn’t “nice.” After reading Lehner’s book, we too may be lucky enough to know that God’s not nice. He’s real.

The God Who Loves to Be Unknown

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Christmas at the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

We come at last to the feast of the Incarnation, the brilliant night of the Godhead’s triumphal entry into creation. But the mysteries here are too vast and too bright for our untrained eyes. Let us therefore ascend to higher things by way of lower ones.

A phrase that St. Philip Neri was always repeating to his disciples was Amare Nesciri—”to love to be to unknown.” This injunction lies at the heart of St. Philip’s idiosyncratic sense of mortification. The chief thing was not to punish the body through long fasts and arduous ascesis. Far better was the mortification of the “razionale,” that proud and self-commanding reason common to us all. How often would St. Philip say to his penitents, “The sanctity of a man lies in the breadth of three fingers,” and pointedly lay those fingers on his forehead.

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The Madonna Appearing to St. Philip Neri, Sebastiano Conca, 1740. It is no accident that the vast majority of St. Philip’s iconography shows him in an ecstasy, venerating the Virgin and Christ Child. (Source)

The outlandish practical jokes, the daily confessions, the severe and thankless workload he imposed on his sons; everything tended to mortify the intellect and cultivate humility. Like T.S. Eliot, St. Philip knew that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (East Coker II). And for St. Philip, humility found its greatest expression in “loving to be unknown.” 

In a certain sense, this fact hardly strikes us as noteworthy. All the greatest saints were humble and taught humility to other, lesser souls. But how marvelously unique is St. Philip’s via humilitatis! To better grasp his singular path of perfection, it would behoove us to turn briefly to other saints first.

St. Benedict makes perfection in humility a physical, and even visible, matter. The monk who has achieved the Twelfth Degree of humility goes about with his head and eyes ever downcast, pondering his guilt and preparing himself for Judgment (Regula VII). In this state, the monk is spiritually united to Christ on the cross. As one eminent and trustworthy commentator has it, “The bowed head of the crucified Jesus, and of the monk in whom the Holy Ghost reproduces the image of His death, signifies a total adhesion to the will of the Father.” The monk’s humility is cruciform, stained by the Precious Blood as it flows freely from the holy wound in Christ’s side.

St. Ignatius stands apart as well. Ever spurring his sons on with a single battle cry Magis! Magis!“Greater! Greater!”he demands a humility that can only grow in the self-effacing pursuit of excellence for God. Jesuits must act. Like Christ in His ministry, they have no place to lay their heads (Luke 9:58). But Christ was not always going to and fro. His active life was marked by a profound interiority. He was often withdrawing for times of recollection and prayer. And thus the Jesuit humbles himself like Christ through his Examen, a conscious effort at humbling one’s self before God in an honest review of the day. The Jesuit’s proper humility thus bears a striking resemblance to that of Our Lord during those three momentous years.

We could find similar likenesses all through the glorious garden of the Church. Consider the contemplative humility of Carmel, drawn doubly from Christ on Tabor and Christ in Nazareth. Or ponder the humility of St. Dominic, by which we disappear entirely in the singular and all-absorbing Truth of the Word. How like Christ the preacher is the Dominican in his humility! And need we point to the way in which Franciscans draw their model of humility from the unremitting poverty of Our Lord? Thus, the Holy Ghost has showered the Church with various views of Christ’s one inexhaustible humility.

What, then, is left to St. Philip? How may his peculiar spirit and sense of humility draw us closer to Christ’s own humility? In what way can we find the God of the Universe in the simple words, Amare Nesciri?

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Nativity, Federico Barocci, 1597. Now in the Prado, Madrid. Barocci was St. Philip’s favorite artist. (Source)

St. Philip would have us love to be unknown. And so he leads us to the God who loves to be unknown, the God who willingly entered into human obscurity, who put off His glory, who was content to sleep under the watch of peasants and shepherds and beasts of burden. St. Philip brings us, gently but firmly, to gaze upon the face of the Infant Christ, true icon of humility. In the newborn Deity of Bethlehem, there are no clear signs of divinityonly the ineffable sweetness that seems to mark His features, a sweetness He will impart to the hearts of all His saints.

St. Philip is eminently the saint of the Divine Arrival. His whole life was marked by Pentecost, and his devotion to the Eucharist was legendary. So, too, is he invisibly bound to the conception and birth of the God-Man. His own deeply domestic spirituality drew its core of humble charity from the life of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. See the characters laid out before us: silent St. Joseph, the all-meek Virgin, the wakeful and overawed shepherds. At the heart of it all lies the sleeping babe, “Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word” as Lancelot Andrewes puts it. What a picture of humility! Here is a delightful paradox. God has entered the world in darkness and obscurity, that He might commune more profoundly with those few quiet souls. Here we have no mere abasement, but a stripping away of everything extraneous so that a deeper knowledge might follow. The God who is self-diffusive Goodness nevertheless hides and loves to be unknown, that He might savor the intimacy which only true humility can find.

Let Angel choirs sound their celestial praises; let powers and principalities quake with awe; let even the sky hail a new champion among the sidereal host; yet “let all mortal flesh keep silence,” for here lies the newborn God asleep. Above, music. Below, silence. Christmas is not just about the joyful manifestation of God. It is just as much about the astounding paradox at the heart of our faith, the way that the Infinite and Omnipotent God deepened the mystery of all things by robing himself in lowly humanity. Neither Jew nor pagan could have conceived of such a scandalous humility.

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The Mystical Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501. National Gallery, London. (Source)

And that is the humility that St. Philip Neri taught. We love to be unknown so that we might reach a deeper communion with God and with each other, free of pretense or distraction. That is why Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur, breathes of a peculiarly Oratorian spirit. Heart truly can speak to heart when both are freed by humility. The remarkable life of St. Philip Neri is testament to that truth.

But where did St. Philip learn to emulate the humility of the Infant Christ? I think we can infer two chief sources.

It is the distinctive mark of the Oratory to discourse daily upon the Word of God in a free and familiar manner. Indeed, the very first exercises of the Oratory at San Girolamo always took the reading and discussion of Scripture as their central object. It stands to reason that St. Philip’s profound engagement with the Gospels would have shaped his sense of Christ’s own humility.

But perhaps a more important source can be glimpsed in St. Philip’s intensely Eucharistic life. Surely St. Philip would have entered into the mystery of Christ’s birth precisely as he encountered Him in the Mass. The Eucharistic silence of the Host is but an echo of the silence Christ kept that first Christmas night. God’s hiddenness upon the altar comes from the obscurity in which He enmantled himself on that first night of His human life.

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Icon of The Inexhaustible Chalice. (Source)

Christmas is here, reminding us of God’s wondrous love. But that love calls us to contemplation as well as jubilation. Amidst the lessons and carols, amidst the bells and laughter, amidst the exuberance of family conversations, let us recall the silence of the Holy Infant. He was willing to cloak his Godhead for us. That love of being unknown seems utterly foreign to us, proud and vain as we are. So let this Christmastide see our entry into the mystery of God’s humility. Perhaps St. Philip Neri can help us find what we have missed.

 

The Five Idols of Christmas

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A beautiful Christmas scene. (Source)

Five Golden Rings

Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.

Material Goods

Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmasonly to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and giftsand little else.

After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.

Happiness

Beneath the idol of material goodswhether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houseshides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.

I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good timeor else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.

The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.

Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.

Traditions

One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.

As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.

Family

Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?

These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.

Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.

Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.

Spiritual Consolations

I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.

Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.

As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.

God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.

That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.

The Eucharistic Alternative

Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.

True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.

Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.

It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.