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We all love G.K. Chesterton. We love him because he makes the truth come alive, because his beautiful way of putting things inflames our hearts and orders our passions towards the Truth. The same can be said for C.S. Lewis and many others. There is so much good in this, but partly because we are weak. Rhetorical flourishes and cascading metaphors meet us in our emotional (and therefore, human) state. But we would be very mistaken were we to think that this is the primary and fundamental form of language. No, G.K. Chesterton would have been the first to bow his knee in humble veneration of Saint Thomas Aquinas and those dry scholastics.

The minute and often strange distinctions made by St. Thomas cut to the core of reality in a way that Chesterton never could, and he would have been eager to admit his deficiency. The romantic, poetic Christianity of early twentieth-century English Catholicism has saved so many souls from rationalism and the hum-drum agnosticism of the modern mind. Yet, these men are for us only the flowers surrounding the altar; it was not Dante’s Divine Comedy that was placed on the altar at Trent, but St. Thomas’ Summa. Chesterton drew on the entire world as poetry for the Faith, but Saint Thomas defined the Faith. In those unintuitive distinctions and strange definitions, he provided for us an insight into reality.

His theology does not presume to inflame our passions, but merely to describe things as they are. This may, at first, seem off-putting. How can God be treated in such a dry, rational manner without making our Lord into a merely transcendent, merely foreign, merely abstract Being? His theology requires our imagination if we are to appreciate it. It requires us to really care about reality and not be moved by mere words or associations. To love St. Thomas is to pass through a sort of dark night, where God tests us to see if we love poetry more than reality.

Yet, at the end of this test, we will find we will have found an even more wonderful poetry. We will rejoice in his distinctions. If we actually care about God and His creation, to learn that God is identical to His perfections and that all beings have four causes will cause us to enter into happy contemplation of God and His good creation. Of course, it is hard, but it is hard just as the Faith is hard. In short, we need to take Saint Thomas seriously because we need to take sanctification seriously. If we are given the grace to do so, we will suddenly find overflowing from every page of the Summa endless beauty – poetry worthy of the most worthless romantic and intuition worthy of the most holy mystic.

We can all invent pleasing maxims, and of course, Chesterton could do more than this. He could tie the whole world up in boundless series of paradoxes. Tolkien could present a metaphorical vision of the deepest reality of fallen man. Yet, Thomas could, in a sort of gravity and dispassionate perfection, place before us reality carefully defined, without metaphors or paradoxes. He tells us without any imprecision, “And thus nothing can be desired except being, and consequently nothing is good except being.” Just as the greatest holiness is found in those saints who feel the least holy, so the greatest poetry is found in those not seeking to write poetry. They have moved past beautiful formulations and have found Beauty Himself, and in describing what they see, they mediate this beauty to us.

Richard M. Weaver wrote, “The complete man, then, is the ‘lover’ added to the scientist; the rhetorician to the dialectician.” Indeed, can we find any better example of the lover added to the scientist than St. Thomas? This is the man who declared that all his science was as straw before the Divine Lover. This is the man who wrote his treatise on the Eucharist in between his two famous ecstatic visions during his celebrations of the mass. The Angelic Doctor himself would tell us that in God, Truth and Beauty are identical. He was both a lover of God’s Beauty and a scientist of God’s Truth, and because of this, the true poet will find in his work God’s Truth, and the true scientist will find God’s Beauty.

Therefore, St. Thomas puts us to sleep not because he is boring, but because we are. We have grown old and dull, bored by God and His creation. And this is where Chesterton returns to assist the Angelic Doctor in waking us from our slothful slumber. Chesterton writes that Christmas tests whether we are truly alive or only walking corpses: “Explode [fire]crackers in his ear, and see if he jumps. Prick him with holly, and see if he feels it.” Perhaps Chesterton can be a sort of Christmas for us with his jarring paradox and elaborate antics. When we read his books, it is like a child is running around us screaming and shouting with joy until we break down, admit defeat, and laugh. He was sent into this word to inject some life into our lives, so that we might become like him a Manalive. But like John the Baptist, he tears us from our sorry state only to point us onward and upward. Now that we are made awake, we can move on to higher things. Indeed, made alive by Chesterton, who made us excited about reality, we can be made wise by St. Thomas, who can make us understand reality. Of course, even St. Thomas is only a step on the mountain of the saints. If we may switch into the language of this great saint momentarily, we might say that the love of being conveyed by Chesterton and the knowledge of being conveyed by Thomas are both ordered to the vision of Being that we await. In the meantime, however, we can turn to Aquinas for poetic and scientific sustenance, and when necessary, to Chesterton for emergency transplants.

The Eucharist is not only the “source and summit” of the Christian life, but it also encapsulates the Christian life. The sacramental reception of communion is at once the pre-eminent symbol, the fulfillment, and the cause of the life of grace, and thus it is the essence of the Christian life this side of Heaven.  Therefore, it contains pre-eminently those two dispositions with which the Christian finds Himself, dispositions which seem to run counter to one another: peace and longing, peace insofar as the Eucharist is the essence of grace and longing insofar as the essence is given only in a sacramental seed.  Both of these dispositions must be carefully cultivated so that we may enjoy that paradoxical tension as we await our final redemption.  The final two joyful mysteries of the rosary instruct us by giving us wonderful examples of the two dispositions.

We ought to have the same sense of finality and fulfillment that Simeon does when he, after waiting for so long, receives the promise of the Holy Spirit, that he might lay his eyes on and hold the Savior of Israel, the Son of God, before His death. When the promise is fulfilled, he does not insist that He might never return Christ to His Mother, nor does he mourn that he will never see the Christ child again before death. Rather, he thanks God and sees His encounter with the savior as the conclusion of the promise made to him.  He says, “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” He acknowledges that just one opportunity to see and hold the Son of God is enough for Him, for His peace will now remain with him until death. He has found the conclusion of his life. Likewise, one mass is enough for us. In justice, we do not even deserve one mass. In just one mass, our chest is adorned with the breastplate of justice that will not rust, our feed are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace that does not wear, and our loins are girt with the truth that will never fail. One mass is enough.

Yet, we ought also to have that longing of Mary when she loses the Child in Jerusalem. She does not see His face for three days, and how awful must have been her sorrow! For a mother to lose her son must be difficult enough, but how much worse for the Mother of God, who loved her Son with a perfect Charity above that of the angels! Again, this must be our disposition when between our communions. We are but wanderers, awaiting when we can find our Lord again in the temple. We trust God that all is held in his providence and that He desires us to find His Son again, but until then, our most frequent thought ought to be our next communion, when we, after much struggle, discover Our Lord again.  He will be seated on a throne in the temple of God, a Child and a Sage, teaching us with divine Wisdom as Christ taught those Jewish priests two millennia ago. I do not think that it would be impious for us to cry out to Christ in the temple, as Mary did, “Why hast thou done this to us?” Why must we continue to live in this shadow of death, and why might we not serve at this liturgy continuously? Why must we wait for the eternal Hossana’s of Heaven?

If we could begin to think of our relationship with the Eucharist as a perpetual losing and finding, if we could begin to think of our lives lived outside the mass as always ordered back to our next mass, we might begin to see that this is the character of the Christian life itself. We have found Him, and lest we turn away, we have found Him for good. We can rest peacefully, yet we must also strive longingly.  We have found Him whom we cannot see. We have come to His throne, been cured of our blindness, yet we find ourselves in a new blindness, seemingly inflicted by Him, in some ways harsher and in some ways sweeter than the last. We can rest in the fact that we sit before His throne, but at the same time we must strive to train our eyes and ears to see and hear His glory. In our Earthly pilgrimage, we cannot yet see the Divinity behind the veil, and so it is our grace to both sit and sprint, rest and strive. We must have the peace of Simeon and restless longing of Mary. We must eat the Bread of Life even as the hunger pangs increase, for they are the labor pains of our salvation. It is our grace today to endure a hungry fulfillment.

tridentine
The Christian religion is the bewildering combination of all that exists.  It is the Kingdom where all things are reconciled, and therefore, paradox and harmony reign; it is where the lion lies down with the lamb, and where the objective meets the subjective.  What is most transcendent becomes most immanent, and what is most exterior becomes most personal.  We are invited not to a banquet with a personal and pagan god, part of the universe and different from us only as a more powerful version of ourselves, nor to a banquet with the Buddhist nirvana, a blind, impersonal Being into which everything is dissipated.  The Christian God is more personal than the pagan God and more philosophical than the Buddhist God.  This banquet is at the castle of the Metaphysical King.
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When Atheism denies the existence of the Good, it denies the existence of goods as well.  When there is no Good to order our actions, there can be no goods by which our actions can be ordered.  Goods are only goods by participation in the Good.  They are finite manifestations of Divine Goodness.
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Whittaker Chambers was born in 1901 in Philadelphia.  He had a hard youth, with his parents separated, a mentally ill grandmother whom his family took care of, and his brother’s suicide at a young age.  He quickly turned to Marxism, and eventually found himself in the Soviet espionage system in the U.S.  Eventually, he met and married another Communist, but upon having their first child, their conversion began.  In Witness, he recounts that it was the sight of his baby’s beautiful ear that started everything.  Soon, they had become Christians and were attempting to escape the Soviet system with their lives; after years of constant danger, they succeed, and Chambers becomes the chief witness in the trial against prominent government official and diplomat Alger Hiss.  Most know him only in this context, but I think he is also one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.  His letters to his good friend, William F. Buckley, show both his greatness of soul and his genius.  One has the sense from these letters that sorrow over the state of the modern world held him in the core of his being.  His letter to his children, which prefaces his famous book Witness, can easily move one to tears.  He became a figure in American conservative circles, although he gave an incredibly scathing review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Famously, he wrote, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers — go!'”

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Reality Demands Reverence

“So rhetoric at its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the ideal, which only the intellect can apprehend and only the soul have affection for.  This is the justified affection of which no one can be ashamed, and he who feels no influence of it is truly outside the communion of minds.  Rhetoric appears, finally, as a means by which the impulse of the soul to be ever moving is redeemed.”  –Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 25.

Words are meant not only to shape our mind but to draw our will. They should bring us both to know and love the Good.  As such, words are not merely blank instruments used to convey information.  Instead, the words we use are already packed with meanings and associations before we even use them. All language to some extent is therefore rhetorical, and this not only means that we should not let ourselves be deceived by the theoretically neutral, scientific words of the modern world, but also that we need not deceive ourselves by our own speech. As individuals and as a Church, we therefore need to speak not only Catholic things, but to speak Catholic things like a Catholic. If we believe that the marital union is sacred, we need to speak in such a way that allows the subject to remain veiled. If we believe that Jesus is God, we need to speak in such a way that treats Him differently and more reverently than created things. If we believe that the world is composed of distinct creations of God, we need to speak with clarity and order, respecting the real distinctions inherent in creation.  To do otherwise would be to fail to do justice to reality, withholding from her that reverence due to her.

When the manner of our speech, the content of our speech, and the subject of our speech are all aligned, we call that speech beautiful.  So to use an earlier example, the conjugal union is the subject of speech, a clear and precise definition of the nature of this union is the content of our speech about it, and a rhetorical style and language that fits the sacred and private character of this union is the manner of our speech.  When these three aspects are united together in speech or writing, the harmony moves our intellect to see the Truth and our will to possess the Good.  The Word redeems the whole man, both mind and heart, and our words participate in this redemptive act.  As such, we need to take our words seriously so that our language does justice to reality.

Whittaker Chambers describes his life as a witness, not primarily in the famous trial against the communist Alger Hiss, but a witness to the waning hours of the West.  He was a communist spy deeply involved in the Soviet system in the US during the Cold War.  The birth of his first child precipitated his conversion to Christianity and his flight from communism, and he and his family spent years attempting to leave the system without being killed.  Finally, he testified before the country about the Soviet system in the US, of which he and his wife had been a part.  He raised his family on the farm, but was always haunted with depression as he was reviled by half the nation during the trial, almost committing suicide one night.  He became a prominent figure in the conservative movement, becoming good friends with William F. Buckley. In one letter to him, his deeply poetic mind produced this gem, which I don’t think I’ll ever forget:

It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western Civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flower-pot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there one was something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

Prophets, it should be remembered, are usually rejected during their age.  It is only after they have been rejected that they bear their fruit.  If Chambers is right about the character of this age, then truly it needs prophets more than any other time during the West.  But we must remember, these prophets will not bear their fruit immediately.  Instead, they will sow their seeds so that when “men begin again to dare to believe that there was one something else” they will find evidence that there were men and women bold enough to be scorned by the modern world for their God.  Christ only saved the Church by first allowing Her to crucify Him, and therefore Evangelism must necessarily take the form of the Cross, which is a sign of contradiction.  If preaching the Truth does not immediately bear fruit, that is okay.  If the Church honors God with her words, God will honor her with converts to the Faith, but it may take the Church’s death and resurrection to be accomplished first.  By the Church’s preaching, she should enter into persecution; but out of the persecution, that same preaching will gain for her more than she could have imagined.

As the West becomes more and more hostile towards the Church, it will be good to remember: “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”  The “New Evangelization” will not succeed if it attempts to court the tumultuous opinions of the modern world.  Rather, we must trust in God that the timeless Faith, when preached with that fiery charity that hates the sin and loves the sinner, will bear its fruit in due season.  We do not need a new form of evangelization.  We need a cruciform evangelization.