“Do you want a plain one, or the kind with the little man on it?”
The customer was, yes, shopping for a Crucifix. He could find no sign of mordant, wry, droll, ironical, nor any other humor in the face of the young sales clerk – in a Catholic store for books and paraphernalia. She seemed unaware that she had just raised ditziness to a level almost sublime.
My own complaint about these religious emporia – ever fewer books, and the trinkets ever more cheaply manufactured – may be foregone for a moment. It seems irrelevant in this case.
I chose the anecdote (which I have at second-hand) because it made me laugh. Later I wondered if Our Lord would have laughed with me. Possibly not.
There are laws against hiring only Catholics in Catholic institutions, at least up here in the Great Totalitarian North, so I must not assume the sales clerk was Catholic, or Christian, or . . . anything at all. The mental picture I immediately formed of her was itself quite possibly illegal. We have human rights legislation up here, by which anyone can be prosecuted for particularizing.
(“The problem with stereotypes is that they’re all true,” a socialist of my acquaintance once muttered, in a moment of exasperation. Hooo, did it cost him.)
But I am writing in an American website; I will take my chances.
The things that we used to take for granted cannot be taken for granted any more. We all know this, though sometimes, in “seniors moments,” we may forget.
This goes beyond questions of law. We cannot safely assume a person below a certain age – with or without a doctorate in philosophy – has the fondest clue about anything that happened in the world before he was born. (Or much of what’s happened since, for that matter.)
What of it? The world wears, sir, as it ages, and our advanced condition of decadence is hardly confined to ecclesiastical affairs.
Only yesterday, lost in a big-box store, which seemed to sell everything except the very simple thing I wanted, I was forcefully reminded of a little truth. With the triumph of franchise capitalism and the Internet, it is no longer necessary to hire staff with any knowledge of what they will be selling. “Progress” has obviated all that, and except for a few technical specialists, everything can be done by minimum-wage zombies. (Or as I prefer to call them, “the electorate.”)
I truly believe in supply and demand, the way I believe in gravity. The two beliefs combine in a vision of the “lowest common denominator,” to which we are irretrievably sinking.
And it is to that world that we are now preaching a most extraordinary account of life and love; of sin and redemption; of death transcended. Fortunately, wherever we genuinely invoke Our Lord, we have the help of unseen forces. But we are also, as Saint Paul explained, working against other unseen forces: principalities and powers; rulers of dark; spirits of wickedness.
There is a little parish church in Bells Corners, near Ottawa, named for St Martin de Porres. It was broken into this week. Thieves stole the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament, smashed what they could, and spray-painted the rest with anti-Catholic obscenities.
It was not an isolated incident. Such attacks have become increasingly common. They get precious little media coverage, for a reason that I, as journalist of long experience, perfectly understand. This is because such incidents contradict what the media class have long been “reporting” – that the world has become indifferent to the Christian religion; that it looks on the Catholic Church herself as nothing special.
The world may often be indifferent, indeed entirely uneducated about the Christian religion, but the Prince of This World is not indifferent.
Moreover, the ignorance and malice interact. In this case, the only media report I could find presented the event as if it were a straightforward burglary, with vandalism – as if the culprits had broken into a shop to steal some valuables, then left a mess. The most telling details, which I have provided, were omitted.
Again, I am not surprised. From my experience of newsrooms, I can say that most journalists, including those once baptized in Catholic churches, will have no idea what the “Blessed Sacrament” is. They will think of the Church only vaguely, as something “on the wrong side of history.”
Nor would they be able to comprehend the idea of “invincible ignorance” – much as their immortal souls might entirely depend upon it.
In my local supermarket is a brand of cookies labeled, “Decadent.” One gathers they contain a lot of chocolate chips. The public conception today of decadence is itself quite decadent.
Similarly, the term “wicked” survives, in popular usage, but only to connote likely sources of physical pleasure. It is used with equal effect for the gustatory or the sexual. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the depth of the depravity beneath what is outwardly quite bland.
For as the Church teaches, and has taught these many centuries, the human being is not dimensionless, not cardboard, not flat. One moment he is yawning his bored indifference. The next, he is killing you. The ignorance and the malice are mutually sustaining.
The wonderful, but also horrible truth, is that human beings cannot be superficial. We try; everywhere around me I see people trying. But it is not in our capacity to pull it off.
To my mind, it is a catastrophic mistake to adapt Church teaching to the superficial: to make it casual and accessible, feel-good and off-the-shelf, like every other marketable product. It can “sell” that way, but then it is disposable, like everything else in that marketplace.
The Church cannot be bland. She is Christ’s, in Whose image we were formed, and blandness was never in His repertoire. Our product is not plain. It has a little man on it!