“The last chapter of ancient Rome, and the first chapter of Spanish,” someone said about Saint Isidore of Seville, that encyclopedic Doctor of the Church, who flourished in the early seventh century. His feast day was yesterday, in my old Catholic missal; and I’m delighted to see, still in my new one.
Today, another Spaniard, of a different age and sort entirely, yet “equally” a saint: the Dominican, Vincent Ferrer, who harried sinners across Italy and France, a long way from his native Valencia. This some seven centuries later, and getting onto the other side of the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.
I put the word “equally” between the rabbit ears, because sometimes it needs the decoration. To our post-modern, statistical, “democratic” mindset, the word has come to mean something like “interchangeably.” But to the attentive Catholic, there is nothing interchangeable about any two human beings, least of all saints. They are like other people, but more so: more particular, and varied.
Many uses may be found for one’s missal, of which the chief is to praise God. And the second is perhaps like unto that: to advance the cause of holiness in one’s own person and environment.
The educational function might also be mentioned. To my mind it is of considerable importance at this hour. Under present conditions, we live in time as if in a small crowded urban neighborhood, under a present-tense media glare that deletes the stars above, and hides even the sun behind tall buildings. I see around me, in temporal terms, mostly a ghetto Catholicism, pressed in by walls on every side.
By this I insinuate that we need to get out more, in Time. As a convert, I see this perhaps more clearly than many to the cradle born. The Church that called me was not – O Lord it was not – the Contemporary Church, though I fully acknowledge her validity in present time. It was instead the Church through all ages.
Indeed, what kept me out for so long – as I believe it has kept many out in the cold – was “the spirit of Vatican II.” Now, the scare quotes have been put on that, because I do not intend to deny the Council. Rather, in the wake of that Council, I refer to the abandonment of so much that gave the Church her substance, her resplendent beauty, her freedom from pose and fashion.
To me, it seemed that she was suddenly trying to embrace the present moment; to deny her age and her past; to be tarting herself up like a cougar, trying to look young again, for acts of “outreach” increasingly desperate. I think that’s how it looked to the world, too. And when I attended Mass in a Catholic church, the horror of the liturgical desecrations came home to me. Wherever I went: a Mass celebrated with neither reverence nor even dignity, by priests no longer properly educated.
Needless to say, this view was shallow. In the end, when my High Anglicanism became insupportable, the question was, “Where do I turn?” It was at that point I was struck by the Gloria: with the impact of the whole choir, by the power of twenty centuries, and the many more Hebrew centuries behind them.
It would be foolish to pretend that our Church is in good order. In the West, she has nearly collapsed before “the spirit of the age.” I often think we must be passing through a period analogous to the fourth century, when the hierarchy was corrupted by Arian and Gnostic fantasies, and it was given to a remnant of laity and minor clergy to hold on, to keep the heart beating until the human mind of Holy Church could recover its wits.
For I am in no doubt the Church will recover. It may be well beyond human agency to bail and right the ship, but Christ can do what is beyond our capacity. He can even raise the dead.
Indeed, I believe that had divine assistance been withdrawn, our Church would have broken into little shards and pieces by 1970 or so, and no one could have discerned which tiny fragment were the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. She would be like Pan Am: memorable, but no longer flying. She would belong almost entirely to the art historians, the early music enthusiasts, and the few remaining professors of poetry.
Now, Saint Isidore is of some importance to me, as a corrective. It was through him that I realized something about Catholic continuity. He came from the old Christian Spain that preceded the Islamic conquest; a Spain that was very alive, and Visigothic.
There are glimpses of the future Spanish language, forming in many of Isidore’s words and phrases. We can observe a transmission of the heritage of the ancient world (including Aristotle), directly to the West, and not through Arabic translations. We can see, unmistakably, that distinctly Catholic and monastic combination of learning and holiness, patiently going about its task of reconstruction.
We can see what we may well see again, when our own re-paganized world falls apart as the old pagan world did. (Read, if you haven’t, A Canticle for Leibowitz.) For a time is very likely to come when men in remote locations will again, patiently among the ruins, yet with some genius and the growing alacrity of faith, be putting the fragments of a civilized past back into order; and back into the service, both of men and of Our Lord.
In the meanwhile, the missal serves, to open such vistas; to free us from the traps of present time, and let in the sun and the stars, the immense rolling landscape of Time not confined to our own dark closet. In the procession of saints and martyrs through the centuries, in the readings and memorials, we are brought out of our smallness to encounter, once again, the large.