In Freedom: To do What?, Georges Bernanos, the great French Catholic writer, observes:
There is in man a secret, incomprehensible hatred, not only of his fellowmen, but of himself. We can give this mysterious feeling whatever origin or explanation we want, but we must give it one. As far as we Christians are concerned, we believe that this hatred reflects another hatred, a thousand times more profound and lucid: the hatred of the ineffable spirit who was the most resplendent of all the luminaries of the abyss and who will never forgive us his cataclysmic fall.
He is referring of course to Satan.
One manifestation of the hatred, according to the Catechism, is that “often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.” This points us to two dimensions of the problem.
On the one hand, we have lost the truth. Jesus was quite blunt in describing those who opposed him: “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
These words are all the more incisive because the person speaking is the Incarnation of Truth. Here is also the key to our existence: standing in the truth. On the other hand, we fall into serving the creature rather than the Creator. If we serve the Creator, then and only then, do we really grasp what being human is all about. In America, we talk superficially – and glibly – about doing things “for the children,” as well we might since the United States has the worst child abuse and largest number of child deaths in the industrialized world.
That’s the problem in the abstract, but it’s not difficult to make the picture more concrete. John Henry Newman described the complexion of contemporary religion:
What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel – its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth. As the reason is cultivated, the taste formed, the affections and sentiments refined, a general decency and grace will of course spread over the face of society, quite independently of the influence of Revelation. That beauty and delicacy of thought, which is so attractive in books, then extends to the conduct of life, to all we have, all we do, all we are.
There it is, the Idol of Truth. The genteel kind of religion that will just naturally – and deceptively – spread sweetness and light, as if that were all that we need concern ourselves with in our families or society at large.
The Fall of Satan by William Blake (c. 1805)
God’s Revelation presents Catholicism rather as a struggle with something far less mundane and far more familiar to us than this idyllic illusion: the hatred of which Bernanos, perceptive novelist that he was, spoke above. We follow someone who was crucified and as I often remind students, crucifixion can ruin your whole day.
The one who was crucified said: “I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.” (Matthew 10:16-18)
Catholicism is edgy, risky, robust. Not surprising when real life involves truth and relating to the Creator. It means confronting either hatred of the antihuman variety or untruth of a kind that often wrecks people’s lives just as effectively as violence.
So what does the struggle look like? First of all there is the need for humility to counter Satan’s “favorite sin,” i.e., pride – to quote a forgettable movie. The humility simply to take what God teaches through his Church and to follow it no matter where it leads.
Pardon a comment from an immigrant who likes America – U.S. Catholics generally could do with a large dollop of humility. And we could all do with more of the courage needed to apply the truth to life – not movie truth, or Oprah’s truth, or Senator X’s truth, but the truth of Scripture and Tradition. Be prepared: in a world like ours it will not look, like the popular and idolatrous counterfeits, too attractive and will sometimes be risky.
But this is just to say that it will mean accepting struggle as a feature of mature Christian life. It’s a wonderful thing to study and reflect on Christian truths. But we are called to live a life in which we not only recognize temptation, but – because we know the truth – are willing to act in its service.
The choice is stark. Ultimately, do we become partners in Satan’s hatred or commit our whole lives to genuine Gospel love?