February 06, 2008
Here’s a slightly seedy confession to start off Lent: The very notion of self-denial and penance has always left me cold, tempted me to follow the Protestant poet Milton, who scorned such papist practices as the folly of literal “lunatics”—indeed, in Paradise Lost he populated the sterile, fickle Moon with the folk who engaged in what he viewed as vain and futile penances:
“Embryo’s and Idiots, Eremits and Friers
White, Black and Grey, with all thir trumperie.” (PL, III, 475-6)
On the very day I’m visiting Santa Sabina, the historic “station church“ which Pope Benedict will visit later today for the papal Mass initiating Lent, I feel quite small for saying this: It strikes me that life itself is rife enough with suffering that few of us need to seek out a moment’s more grimness than is grinning for us around the bend.
But there’s no getting past the stark facts of history: Christ himself spent 40 lenten days in the desert fasting, atoning for sins not even his own, mortifying senses that had never been corrupted. Are we somehow exempt from picking up our own (balsawood) crosses? St. Benedict didn’t think so: The monk who launched the Promethean effort of reconstructing Western civilization from the rubble of Rome through “work and prayer” lived for months in a cell the size of a casket hollowed in a Roman wall. St. Francis, the troubadour whose Canticles still spark happy tears in the eyes of children, in Rome laid his holy head on a pillow of stone. I saw the thing with my own eyes at San Benedetto in Piscinula last Thursday, and was appalled all over again. To a spoiled scion of the 70s like me, a gym membership seems barely to justify the exertion: I’ve always faintly suspected (Are there studies on this?) that the hours you add to your life by exercise will in the end add up to… precisely the number of hours you spent at the gym. Those few extra months in the nursing home just don’t seem worth the sweat.
A part of me has never ceased to whisper that perhaps those liberal nuns who taught me might be right, that in the midst of ascetical practice and renunciation hides a hatred of happiness. That a Church which endorses celibacy, fasting, abstinence, flagellation and martyrdom”whose very emblem is the ancient equivalent of a gallows”may really be half in love with death. The great Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his novel of Americans in Rome The Marble Faun, gives one of his most sympathetic characters the following remarks about monastics: “A monk”I judge from their sensual physiognomies, which meet me at every turn”is inevitably a beast. Their souls, if they have any to begin with, perish out of them before their sluggish, swinish existence is half done…. They serve neither God nor man, and themselves least of all, though their motives be utterly selfish.” (How Hawthorne felt when his daughter converted to Rome and founded what are now called the Hawthorne Dominicans is a question left to eternity.)
Of course, the sort of religionist who turns away from mortification with a therapeutic shudder is the most likely to indulge in other forms of self-destruction: crassly pacifist fantasies; a masochistic loathing of one’s own kith and kith, culture and cult; the promiscuous embrace of “otherness” which welcomes immigrant gangs and murderous imams. French traditionalist Jean Raspail depicted this post-Christian fetish with brutal candor in The Camp of the Saints“a book which 30 years ago predicted with icy clarity the Islamic conquest of Europe. As he might have summed the matter up, a culture that will not permit the nun’s veil will soon enough be donning the hijab.
The best cure for the confusion which afflicts me is a daily dose of Chesterton. Any one of his books contains more nuggets of sanity than a shelf full of SSRIs, but The Everlasting Man is my companion on this tour of the papal city”and I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate piece of lectio divina. If there’s one man who clearly embraced the good things of life (and consumed more than his share) it was Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Smoker, drinker, wielder of a potent sarcastic pen, Chesterton is an English type who suggests the kind of saint Henry VIII might well have become”had he beheaded Thomas Cromwell, and embraced good Thomas More. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton accomplishes a great many things. He redeems the good name of the “cave man,” showing him as not so much the brute of Freud’s “primal murder” as the wide-eyed, life-loving cave artist of Lascaux. But in this book, which he wrote to answer H.G. Wells’s An Outline of History“that prim pastiche of Whiggery”Chesterton takes on even greater acts of vindication. He burnishes the good name of pagan Rome. The Punic wars, which court historians for centuries have depicted as an act of commercial vandalism, Chesterton reveals as a defensive religious war. He contrasts the fantastical ghosts of Rome’s pantheon, and their loveable if inert household gods, with the fearsome deities of Carthage, who demanded infant sacrifice. As Chesterton wrote, contrasting the nations’ cults: “Can any man in his senses compare the great wooden doll, whom the children expected to eat a little bit of the dinner, with the great idol who would have been expected to eat the children? …. If the passage from heathenry to Christianity was a bridge as well as a breach, we owe it to those men who kept that heathenry human. If, after all these ages, we are in some sense at peace with paganism, and can think more kindly of our fathers, it is well to remember those things that were and the things that might have been. For this reason alone we can take lightly the load of antiquity and need not shudder at a nymph on a fountain or a cupid on a valentine.” If, as David Gress suggests, the way out of neoconservative misreadings of history is to linger less on Greece and restore the honor of Rome, it was Chesterton who pointed it.
And this is what Chesterton teaches about penance and suffering: That the only man whose life was an answer to death was the self-proclaimed Son of Man who marched on the Cross like a city whose walls he meant to scale, whose gates he would compass with his arms, whose deepest treasuries he would break into and ransack. To a modern weakling like me, who endures a few hours without his Nicorette as an afternoon spent in Hell, this isn’t puzzling. Puzzles have solutions. It’s not a surprise, since no one could have expected it. The figure of the risen Christ doesn’t leap out at us from behind a door: It falls on us like a blazing tower, then creeps back up with a terrible smile like a tiny yellow flower. Its echoes ring through the truncated lives of millions”remembered in this City’s Colosseum, or nameless in the ash heaps of Dachau and Siberia. How strange, how fitting, and yet how hideous that we still call our children after torture victims like Lawrence, Agnes, Lucy, Agatha, and Ignatius. How odd that once we stopped handing on such names, and ceased to teach our children the age-inappropriate story of the baby born to be crucified, we soon stop bothering to bear them. Could it be that once we no longer believe we are procreating souls born to eternity, the whole business hardly seems worth the trouble? How bizarre it is that in cities such as Rome”and Madrid, and Dublin”the birthrate seems to rise and fall with the ratio of sworn celibates. What role in reproduction is played by the presence of young men in brutal tonsures, and thwarted wombs wrapped in coarse woolen robes? I await the verdict of the scientists.