Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mercy of Father Brown

“The secret is,” he said; and then stopped as if unable to go on. Then he began again and said: “You see, it was I who killed all those people… I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done…

"I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

Chace gradually released a sort of broken sigh. “You frightened me all right,” he said. “For the minute I really did think you meant you were the murderer. Just for the minute I kind of saw it splashed over all the papers in the States: ‘Saintly Sleuth Exposed as Killer: Hundred Crimes of Father Brown.’ Why, of course, if it’s just a figure of speech and means you tried to reconstruct the psychology — ”

Father Brown rapped sharply on the stove with the short pipe he was about to fill; one of his very rare spasms of annoyance contracted his face. “No, no, no,” he said, almost angrily; “I don’t mean just a figure of speech. This is what comes of trying to talk about deep things. . . . What’s the good of words . . .? If you try to talk about a truth that’s merely moral, people always think it’s merely metaphorical. A real live man with two legs once said to me: ‘I only believe in the Holy Ghost in a spiritual sense.’ Naturally, I said: ‘In what other sense could you believe it?’ And then he thought I meant he needn’t believe in anything except evolution, or ethical fellowship, or some bilge. . . .

I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise. I believe he got it from Pope Leo XIII, who was always rather a hero of mine.”
 GK Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

Reflection – Just a couple more days of Fr. Brown, and then we’ll move on to other things. When we talk (or at least try to talk) about the general subject of mercy—mercy received, mercy given, mercy lived—I sometimes wonder if we quite go as far as we should in our thought and words.

There are those who approach the matter of mercy in fairly strict legal terms—the crime, the repentance, the restitution, the forgiveness. Both for themselves and for others, mercy is pretty much understood in this rather extrinsic sense of the process whereby moral failures are redeemed. Of course there is real mercy at work in this, and I would never discount the above process as not just valid but necessary.

Others approach mercy in a sort of genial ease of spirit. A waving aside of the sin of the other as something of no great consequence, certainly nothing that any particular effort has to be taken with, something that God just forgives because that’s just what God does, and we don’t have to bother our silly heads about it. Again, this is not entirely wrong, either, and we poor human beings can never fully comprehend the full extent and the outer reaches of the mercy of God. Because His mercy is so vast, and ours so puny (necessarily, by comparison), we cannot really know where any of us stand in the mercy, and we are indeed called to be profoundly merciful and kind to one another.

But Fr. Brown here is talking about an expression of mercy that is quite different, it seems to me. “It was I who killed all those people,” he says. Mercy as a legal process, mercy as simply waving aside the sin—these both fall short. There is a call at the heart of the Christian Gospel to go deeper and further in our imitation of Christ’s mercy. A call to identification with the other, to genuinely, truly, really knowing ourselves to be one with this person.

Certainly no better than them, and quite likely somewhat worse, but at any rate in a sense to be this person. There is no us, no them, no fingers to point, no blame to lay. Just a bunch of sinners all slouching along together, trying to find our way to the New Jerusalem and to the merciful Jesus who bears us there.

This identification is what Jesus Himself did, even though He was in fact sinless. “For our sake, God made the sinless one into sin, and so made us the goodness of God.” I can’t find the exact chapter and verse, but St. Paul puts it here as strongly as anyone ever has.

In the Father Brown stories, this identification is used at the service of detecting crime (these stories are, in the end, merely light entertainment). But the reality of this identification is, in the truest sense, a religious exercise, a work of our faith and imitation of Jesus Christ.

When we who are Catholic Christians are tempted to get censorious about our society and the various things that go on in our society, we really should try to embrace this religious exercise. Why is this person doing this behaviour? Why are they hooking up, smoking up, shacking up, breaking up?

Become that person, in everything except committing the actual sinful act, come to know just exactly why and how a person may come to some low point of choice and action that takes them so far from the ways of God, know yourself to be ‘really like that’ yourself.

This is mercy at its deepest and finest level, and is, I would say, a necessary work in our task of bearing the Gospel of Christ and the love of Christ into our hurting world today.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Rationalism of Father Brown

“The dog could almost have told you the story, if he could talk,” said the priest. “All I complain of is that because he couldn’t talk you made up his story for him, and made him talk with the tongues of men and angels.

“It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. 
“It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone.

“It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: ‘He was made Man.’”
 GK Chesterton, The Oracle of the Dog

Reflection – This little bit of Browniania comes at the end of a story in which a dog supposedly denounces the murderer of his master by the canine expedient of woofing at him. The dog’s behaviour actually has revealed the truth of the mystery, but in a completely different way that actually accords with what dogs do or do not know, do or don’t do in their proper canine natures.

But enough of the story, which is one of the strongest in the canon, and hence which I especially don’t want to spoil. It is this piece at the end, though, that I want to reflect on. Superstition, in the years that have ensued between this story’s writing and today, has continued to come in like a sea: from all the weird alternative medicines that come with no research backing them up and very odd ‘scientific’ theories to account for them, to all sorts of strange conspiracy theories claiming to account for any and all things (I’m sorry, but the Illuminati made me type that sentence).

And then there are all the odd academic theories that seem to be like the proverbial ourobouros serpent swallowing his own tail: gender theories where a man is a woman who is a woman who is a man, but gender doesn’t mean anything anyway (huh?), economic theories whereby the disparity in distribution of wealth should be redressed by putting all the money in the hands of a few government technocrats (huh?), to weird historical theories based on no evidence but which are true, as far as I can make out, because people really want them to be.

On and on it goes—alien overlords directing human history and energy fields allowing doctors to treat patients over the phone, and all manner of irrational, anti-rational, sub-rational theories, beliefs, and practices washing over the world (accelerated by the internet, of course). As Chesterton wrote elsewhere, when men stop believing in God, they don’t start believing in nothing, but in anything.

This is all perfectly logical, of course. Once we hold faith in the Christian God, that is, in a God who both established the world in order and is so committed to that order, to the reality and goodness of the world He made, that He became part of that world in a sense, became a man to redeem and restore and complete the world in the order He designed it for, then we are committed as human beings to a deeply rationalist stance towards all created reality.

The Church is not, and never has been, and never will be, anti-science. While it is a slight exaggeration to say, as some do, that the Church ‘invented’ science, certainly churchmen have practiced all of the sciences all along the life of the Church, according to what has been possible and practical in different eras and places. In the immediate ensuing centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, there was little scientific research done; in the high Middle Ages, there was quite a bit.

It is perhaps a Chestertonian-style paradox (in fact, I’m pretty sure he made this observation somewhere or other) that it is this one mystical claim—‘the Word was made flesh’—that renders the whole of the created order lucid and accessible to reason, and even opens a door to the mind of God that our reason can at least peer through, if not comprehend. And that rejecting that claim leaves us wide open to a chaotic, capricious, a-rational and utterly arbitrary universe, which is the state we increasingly find ourselves in. ‘The Oracle of the Dog’ has indeed proved itself to be a prophetic oracle.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sweeter Than Honey

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world…

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Psalm 19: 1-4, 7-10

Reflection – Monday Psalter time again, and again we have a psalm that is too long to include in its entirety. Psalm 19, many of the scholars argue, is actually two psalms combined into one. There is a marked change in rhythm, vocabulary, and subject matter half way through that seems to indicate some kind of stitching together of diverse source material.

The first section is all about the heavens declaring the glory of God, the beauty of creation, and specifically of the sun running its course each day through the sky ‘like a bridegroom, a champion’. There is a rapturous joyous tone to this, the very structure of creation ‘pouring out speech’ about the greatness of God, while remaining utterly silent all the while.

The second section is equally joyous and rapturous in its praise of the law of God, its sweetness and goodness. Sweeter than honey are the commandments of God. I have always loved the Jewish feast of Simchat Torah, ‘Rejoicing in the Law’, where the men dance with the Torah scrolls and there is much jubilation and bucolic festivity.

So different from our typical modern attitude to the law. We agree, with deep heaving sighs and much frowning, that God does indeed have authority in our lives. God (sigh…) does indeed have a right (pout…) to tell us what we can and cannot do (sniff…). Since we don’t want to go to Hell (boo hoo…), we have to do what he tells us (humph). And so we can go, the reluctant son in the parable who doesn’t much want to do the father’s will but reluctantly goes about it, and so somehow manages some kind of half-hearted obedience.

This is so very different from the proper Jewish sense of the Law, and this psalm—both halves of it—give a welcome and much needed corrective to our modern anomic and rebellious spirit. God’s laws are good—this is the main thing. The moral life is the good life. Sin is bad, harmful, death-dealing to ourselves and others. Virtue and moral living are sweet and beneficent. And it all springs from this ordered and beautiful creation which rapturously tells us of the beauty and goodness of God—his glory.

In light of this psalm, if we really take it to heart, of course we should dance and sing and be radiantly happy when we read the laws of God, the moral commandments. God has shown us how to live in such a way that our lives declare the glory of God just as creation’s beauty does. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t God good to us, to show us the path to a beautiful life, a truly good life?

And yes, this path may (and indeed does) involve sacrifice, struggle, effort on our part. If morality was a law in the same sense that gravity is a law, He wouldn’t have needed to teach it to us (you don’t need to teach a stone to fall). It is a law in that it is the assured and certain way that our lives become glorious and not tragic, a living life and not a living death.

It’s all in Psalm 19, and we need this psalm and those like it to keep us in that vision of moral law and life, the wisdom, joy, and light of God expressed in our humanity for his glory.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Certitude of Father Brown

“I wish we could have all Devonshire here to see you do it.”
“To see me do what?” asked the Duke, arching his eyebrows.
“To see you take off your wig,” said Father Brown.

The Duke’s face did not move; but he looked at his petitioner with a glassy stare which was the most awful expression I have ever seen on a human face. I could see the librarian’s great legs wavering under him like the shadows of stems in a pool; and I could not banish from my own brain the fancy that the trees all around us were filling softly in the silence with devils instead of birds.

“I spare you,” said the Duke in a voice of inhuman pity. “I refuse. If I gave you the faintest hint of the load of horror I have to bear alone, you would lie shrieking at these feet of mine and begging to know no more. I will spare you the hint. You shall not spell the first letter of what is written on the altar of the Unknown God.”

“I know the Unknown God,” said the little priest, with an unconscious grandeur of certitude that stood up like a granite tower. “I know his name; it is Satan. The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it. I entreat your Grace to end this nightmare now and here at this table.”

“If I did,” said the Duke in a low voice, “you and all you believe, and all by which alone you live, would be the first to shrivel and perish. You would have an instant to know the great Nothing before you died.”

“The Cross of Christ be between me and harm,” said Father Brown. “Take off your wig.”
GK Chesterton, The Purple Wig
Reflection – Happy Feast of Christ the King! It is by happenstance that I include this rather absurd bit of a Fr. Brown story on this feast where it actually fits quite nicely into the mystery of the Kingship of Christ.

First, the absurdity—this is, of all the Fr. Brown stories, one of the most strictly comical ones. No one is murdered; in fact, if memory serves no crime is actually committed. There is simply this nobleman and his ridiculous purple wig supposedly hiding a monstrous accursed Ear, the sight of which will drive men man. There are few authors who can get away with writing a thoroughly entertaining story in which the dramatic action revolves around whether the duke will or will not take off his wig, but GKC manages it, and in pulling off the wig, pulls off some deft social criticism at the same time (but I won’t spoil the story for you).

But as always in the midst of the rather goofy story, Fr. Brown lets fly with profound stuff, and it happens to work in nicely with Christ the King. Namely, that in Christ and by the power of his victory over all sin, evil, and death through the Cross, there is nothing whatsoever to be afraid of. We are not to be foolhardy in our engagement with evil—‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ remains foundational in our prayer—but when we are plunged into the thick of the battle, we are to do so without any fear or need for fear. This is the certain and sure truth of the matter.

This is the Kingship of Christ in our world, one expression of it anyhow. This is one reason why horror movies are not, perhaps, the most spiritually wholesome thing to watch. It’s not so much the violence and gore, although this is not so great, either. It is the sense, so prevalent in contemporary horror cinema, that evil is in fact stronger than good, that the real structure of reality is in fact too terrible to behold and destroys us once it is ‘unwigged’, so to speak. That a deformed ear is in fact a greater evil than the Paschal Mystery is a great good—this is the conceit of modern horror narrative, and Chesterton does a lovely job taking the wig off of it in this story and showing it for the silly empty boast that it is.

So, Happy feast day to you. Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe. He is king over all the vampires, the zombies, the werewolves, the krakens and aliens and boogey men. He is king over you and me, and anything in us that is ‘deformed’, that we would prefer to hide under a purple wig. He is king over everything that we don’t want to bring under his lordship, and He is king over the whole world, even as it seems to be a kingdom in something of a state of civil insurrection right now.

He is King, and so the world is actually a much better place, more full of goodness and light than it sometimes seems to be. He is king, and we have nothing to fear, and everything to be glad about, and great cause to be brave and bold and eager to go out into the world bearing his Gospel and working to make his kingdom more and more visible by lives of charity and works of justice and mercy. Happy feast day.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - November 15-22

This week in Madonna House was not a normal quiet week. Anything but, really. We were very blessed this week with the visit of the papal nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, who came for 24 hours over the weekend.

The papal nuncio is the official representative of the Holy Father in Canada, both representing him as a sort of ambassador to the Canadian government, and being his eyes and ears and liaison to the Canadian Church. So this was an event of some importance and a certain excitement for us.

He arrived just at lunch time on Saturday, and participated in the spiritual reading afterwards. Then Fr. David May, the director general of the priests, and one of the lay woman staff gave him a thorough tour of the place, going up to the farm, to the handicraft centre, to St. Mary’s, to Catherine’s cabin. In the evening he met with the three directors general. Sunday he was the celebrant for our community Mass, then stayed at St. Mary’s for brunch. He stuck around for a little while afterwards, just visiting informally with people, and left in the early afternoon.

It was all very informal and low key and friendly. Archbishop Bonazzi is a quiet, gentle man, very observant and very much interested in people above all—no matter where we took him, his entire focus was on the people there and their stories. He was impressed at the wide range of ages here—from our elderly members in wheel chairs to the very young guests and applicants. He was also impressed and surprised at what an international community MH is, with guests from Korea, Brazil, Australia, and all over Canada and the USA (in point of fact, we are actually less international than usual at this point, and quite often have quite a few more countries represented. Europe, where art thou?).

Upon leaving, he told us that he really came here just to breathe the fresh air, and that we were that air for him. He also had encountered us previously in our house in the Yukon, and so had a good idea of what we do in our missions. He told us that we should open a Madonna House in every city in Canada. To which Susanne, our DG of women, replied, ‘Well, pray for vocations, then!’

At any rate, it was good to have such affirmation and friendly support from high places. Somebody mentioned to him that I have a blog, so Your Grace, if you are reading this, please know that you are welcome in our home any time you need to breathe that fresh air again. God bless you!

Besides that, what else happened? Snow happened, of course, as it has for much of North America this week, and so out come the snow shovels, plows, snow blowers… all the gear of winter. The ‘bush crew’ – the men who work at harvesting our forest fire wood and lumber – are in full swing, doing the heavy labor of felling, limbing, and bucking up trees in various locations.

St. Raphael’s, our handicraft centre, is abuzz these days. We built a wood-fired pottery kiln this summer on the lawn next to St. Germaine’s guest dorm, and it was fired last week for the first time, primarily to cure the cement, but also with a few pots thrown in. This has been a project discussed and planned for many, many years by our potters, and now it is a reality.

There has also been great activity in the handicrafts with Christmas card-making classes. One of our priests makes cards from birch bark and gave a class on that one Sunday; another of the staff gave a class on other card-making techniques. And of course the early Christmas baking is already starting—we are a big family, and it takes a lot of work and organization to prepare the extra traditional foods of the feast in advance. I’m already scratching my head a bit trying to figure out when to make what has developed as my annual contribution to the feast—200-300 butter tarts, made with a little help from my friends (whoever shows up to help roll out the dough).

Besides that, what else? We had a couple of meetings to plan out the dates and themes of next year’s summer program, so that we could print up posters and brochures to send to various campus ministries and student events. There have been a number of transfers of staff in the last while (those who get our newspaper Restoration can read the details there), which always makes for a certain flurry of activity as people shift jobs and train replacements and others arrive back from their mission assignments to Combermere.

There’s been quite a lot else going on in the various corners of MH—really, for the ‘quiet’ time of year, we do manage to keep awfully busy. Know that we are offering it all up for the world and for the Church, and that all of it is blessed in that offering.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Bible of Father Brown

N., as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs. 

N. was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental Book. 

Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted — lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?
GK Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword

Reflection – Leaving aside GKC’s regrettable prejudice (typical, alas, for an Englishman of his day) against the cultures and civilizations of Asia, this little bit of Brown-ian wisdom really pertains to the whole question of how we read the Bible, how we read it wrongly, and how we are to read it rightly.

‘It is useless to read your Bible unless you read everyone else’s Bible’. Chesterton really has a way of putting very complex matters into pithy little epigrams. This is precisely the mind of the Catholic Church regarding Scripture. We read it, not as isolated individuals getting bits and pieces of random sense out of it as we can, but as a community of believers united in a common reading guided by a common faith.

It is fashionable these days, among the New Atheists, to take all the cruel bits and pieces of the Bible—and there are many of them—and parade them around as proof of what a horror religion is, and particularly the Christian religion. The practice of haram warfare, where all living creatures from babies at the breast to animals in field are slaughtered to the last one, the death of the first-born in Egypt, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter—if you want horror, the Bible can deliver horror.

And if you are simply reading ‘your Bible’ and no one else’s, you may come to any kind of conclusion about all that. In the story quoted above, the sad character concludes that cruelty and vice are acceptable to God; for the New Atheists, the conclusion is that religion is evil nonsense.

Catholics read their Bible as part of a community of believers who extend 2000 years into the past (Sacred Tradition) and across the entire world in the present (the sensus fidelium), and who gather in their reading around a divinely mandated authority (the magisterium of bishops under the Pope). And the Catholic reading of this whole complex messy book is thus remarkably nuanced, thoughtful, careful, and yields profundity of insight and depth of reflection such as a New Atheist would not dream possible.

While it is far too much to go into the whole thing in a blog post, our basic Catholic sense is that we read all the earlier Scriptures through the later ones, and elevate the four Gospels in particular as the interpretive key to the entire Bible. The Old Testament is fundamentally the story of humanity—messy, mixed-up, ugly-beautiful, good-bad, chaotic, tumultuous, passionate, violent, lusty, hungry, hopeful, despairing humanity—met at each turn by this most mysterious God who only gradually reveals Himself to them in full.

The earlier parts of the Old Testament—haram warfare, etc.—are a very incomplete and poor revelation of this God. The later parts—the late prophets with their extension of God’s promises to all the nations, for example—are a more complete one.

But it is the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ that gives the right sense and proper meaning to every bit of the Scriptures, and we have 2000 years of comprehensive sweeping commentary and lectio divina on just how this is done, from the most horrific tales of violence to the most obscure precepts of the Mosaic Law. In Christ, and only in Christ, do we read these and understand anything of what they mean here and now.

So that is the Bible of Fr. Brown, and of Chesterton, and of myself, too (not that that matters much). And that is our answer to that aspect of the New Atheist critique of religion.