Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?

Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has saimtsfor the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic?  It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.

I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.

Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.

A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?

I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church screwtapeas we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.

Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.

Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary StatueTriumphjpgworld. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.

At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.

It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, Northern rose window of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Chartres, Francebehind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.

I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.

I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.

At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.

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4 thoughts on “Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

  1. I enjoyed out discussion last night and am going to try and put my thinking cap on about good material for further discussions with your reading group. It sounds like you’ve already had some wonderful talks about the readings you have suggested. Enjoyed the post – and thought you did a great job with all of your “wrap ups” of the groups talks on Orthodoxy.

    • Yeah, I only have one more to complete before I am done with the series. To tell you the truth, this series is much longer than anticipated. Once I developed a certain style for addressing the themes from one chapter, it felt appropriate to continue in the same way. I am looking forward to much shorter blog updates in the future.

    • Thanks, I appreciate the comment. I’m very privileged to have access to such an intelligent reading group at my University. The series is almost over, but I’m probably going to be blogging about similar topics in the future. It’s great to hear from readers.

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