According to the myth that the secular progressive has invented to assuage his conscience, man has become wiser with the ages, growing beyond the wishful thinking of his youth. He no longer senses a divinity about the brook, the dripping cave, the vine-hung trees. He sees water for irrigation, a hole to fill up, and lumber. He no longer needs God. He is doing all right by himself because he has penicillin and television.
The old legend of Doctor Faustus, as presented on the stage by Christopher Marlowe, shows a man pressing beyond mere logic, law, medicine, and theology, toward sheer power. But what begins with thunder and lightning degenerates into parlor tricks and trifles, such as cheating a horse trader, fetching grapes in winter for a pregnant duchess, and boxing the ears of a pope at dinner. We are not damned for being more than men but for being less – so much less.
Last Sunday was Pentecost, the great mysterious birth of the Church, and the miracle of tongues, suggesting the command of Jesus at his ascension: “Go forth, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” So the bishops of England, Scotland, and Wales chose the day to send out a letter to be read at all Masses on: recycling, saving energy, using other means besides fossil fuels to produce electricity, and “demonstrating love, care, and respect for our common home.”
I express here no opinion on fossil fuels, or on “measures that everyone can employ, in some degree, with minimal inconvenience and change.” I’d have been more impressed by the episcopal missive had it urged maximal inconvenience and change. For I have often been puzzled by the incongruity. We are told that the world is careening toward misery, and that the next degree of increase in temperature will set us forth toward uncontrollable harm. But then we are not told that we must give up energy-using devices that most Britons or Americans did not have when I was a boy: dishwashers, dryers, air conditioners.
Curfews would be good for us, body and soul, but no one mentions them. Imagine, if all television came to an end at 8:00 PM! What might people do! Eastern Pennsylvania is now a bedroom land for commuters across the intervening New Jersey, into New York City, helping to immiserate all three; but we are not told that such commuting should be prohibited, or that certain freeways should be off-limits to passenger vehicles.
All that aside, what troubles me about the bishops’ letter is that its spirit is really that of the same weary old utilitarianism that once blanketed the industrial cities of England in smoke. There is no mention of beauty, or of, to use Fr. Aidan Nichols’ excellent words, “the warmth and wonder of created things.” Man in our time is starved for beauty and numb to wonder.
So here, on Pentecost, that holy day that once merited an octave in the Church’s calendar, and that once ordered the rest of the year until Advent, the bishops do not stir the souls of the faithful to wonder at that strange moment when a group of men huddled in prayer burst forth upon the world in courage and confidence, so that things would never be the same again.
They do not urge us to consider how the Paraclete, the Advocate, interprets for us our own groans of sorrow and penitence and expectation. They do not turn our minds toward the great paradox, that the apostles received the Comforter, and went on not to be comfortable but to be afflicted, to die as witnesses to Christ.
It is like having Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew interrupted by a long commercial selling soap. I have nothing against soap. But such a commercial would be both more and other than out of place. It would not only jar against the chorale. It would make the chorale into something else: something that is not, from the first note to the last, directed toward the suffering and death of Christ, immersing us in that profound woe. The chorale would lose its unity. It would lose its existential urgency. Its wonder would be dispelled.
Of course, I know that the bishops wanted the letter read on Pentecost, because there was a fair chance that they would be heard by more congregants than on another Sunday. But the same thing may be said by the soap salesman. “Now that you all are here,” says the utilitarian Jesus at the base of the Mount of Transfiguration, “I want you to be a little more generous in your gifts to your local synagogues. Come on, people, do I have to nag you all the time? Now then, what’s the matter with this poor lad?”
The Mass is the central thing, the most important thing. It is the moment atop Mount Tabor. It is the breaking of the bread at Emmaus. It is the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire. It is a theophany. Certainly, the Mass is not a self-enclosure. Ite, missa est is a command: Go forth, here is your commission.
That commission surely must bear fruit in our love for God and our neighbor, in our declaring the good and holy news to an inattentive and often hostile world, and even, to go from the sublime to the humble, from the eternal to the temporal, in our care for the garden of the earth.
But first things first. People more sensitive to beauty, more struck by wonder, will be less likely to mar the world with the scars of industry, or, in our time the far common wrong, to turn rural areas over to the ostentatious ugliness of the rich.
But is that what Pentecost is for? Is that all? If so, then we are caricatures of humanity, like Faustus. What’s on television?
*Image: The Transfiguration by Luca Giordano, 1685 [The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]