There were a handful of jokes that Michael Novak told regularly. One went: “The pessimist says, ‘Things can’t get any worse.’ The optimist says, ‘Oh yes they can!’” Another was: “In a well-functioning marriage, the husband always has the last word. And it’s ‘Yes, dear.’” I learned from Novak, or at least I learned to admire, a certain equanimity and balance. Yes, which included a sense of humor, ready-to-hand, that would put even serious problems in perspective.
I have been thinking about him recently, while re-reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul. Novak was convinced that the astonishingly rapid spread of devotion to St. Thérèse throughout Europe prepared the way for the great “Catholic Renaissance” in thought and letters of the first part of the century. (If you want to know more about this, your best guide will be Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.) Novak saw the 20th century with its crises as bounded by an arc within the Church, between the teaching of the Little Flower at the start and that of Pope John Paul II at the end.
I never understood his insistence on St. Thérèse. Surely Pope Leo XIII was more important, in his great encyclicals on social questions, and his promotion of St. Thomas Aquinas as a remedy to misguided modern trends? And yet now, reading St. Thérèse again, I think I see his point.
I am reading it in French, finally, which I recommend to anyone who can do so. What I find, expressed with extraordinarily fine sentiment and an almost classical restraint – in writing that is like great poetry, in its carefulness and density – is the interior life of a child, preserved and magnified by the action of the Holy Spirit. I see the same thing in my children, as others have seen it in Christian family life.
For me, to spend time with St. Thérèse proves to be a tremendous consolation, because she so wonderfully shows the truth of the Gospel. She imparts the joy of Heaven too, because her heart is set on Heaven. And it was in this joy, this rest in the Lord along with St. Thérèse, this repose in the family life of the household of God, that I think I began to see Novak’s point.
I would put that point in this way – that in the midst of crises, we need consolations, and God has given them to us. We should not spurn them, then. Indeed, we should desire them and take them in.
About consolations, for instance – the word means comforts (and even pleasures) amidst sorrow, typically from someone’s being with us and showing compassion. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that Christians “should not seek consolations.” What this wise saying means, I think, is that we should not make feelings of interior pleasure the standard of spiritual practices, say, to pray only if it makes us feel good. It also means we should avoid deliberately cultivating such pleasures, by attempting to console ourselves, turning upon ourselves, by feeling sorry for ourselves.
And yet we should seek God’s consolations and not fail to acknowledge that we need them. After all, another name for the Holy Spirit is the Consoler. “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.” Pope Benedict in his marvelous encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est (timelier now than ever) taught that Christians need to replenish their souls prior to assisting others: “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work.” (n. 37)
I came upon a book recently, The Consolations of Catholicism, published in 1954. It has chapters corresponding roughly to the main points of a catechism – God, Jesus Christ, The Church, Communion of Saints, Life of Grace, Faith, The Sacraments, Prayer, Mary, Gifts of the Spirit, the Cross, Eternal Life. Under each heading are one page or one paragraph excerpts from spiritual authors, including great saints from history (St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Augustine), and great theologians (Cardinal Newman, Fr. Joseph Scheeben), but also, notably, and in the majority, many priests who were recognized and beloved teachers in that day, Fr. Joseph Rickaby, Fr. Vincent McNabb, Fr. Edward F. Garesché, Fr. Antonin Sertillanges, Fr. Cuthbert, Fr. Leo Trese, Msgr. Knox.
My thoughts in succession when I encountered this book were these:
— Ah, yes, I am reminded of how, as a new convert, the reality of so much Catholic truth, unmixed with error (as I could not escape in Protestantism) filled me with such joy. It was like discovering an oasis in a parched land.
— Yet Catholics generally don’t read such things anymore but seem preoccupied with internet fights over the pope, sex scandals, the virus, etc., which makes them bitter and gives many of us an unattractive personality.
— We were cut off from this sort of literature, wrongly so, by bad interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. In the 1960s, Consolations of Catholicism would surely have been dismissed as “pre-conciliar.” But the book’s contributions are as true now as they were in 1954.
— Why are there so few priests of a similar public visibility and stature today? They exist (I won’t name names), but the Church as an institution seems incapable of or inept at spotlighting them.
— I fear that we prefer being upset over being consoled.
But we need these consolations. “O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations.”
You may also enjoy:
Matthew Hanley’s St. Thérèse, Getting Scientific
Lorraine V. Murray’s A Tale of Two Women