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Build Then, Always

I’m writing on November 9, one day after the “most significant election in American history,” as some people were saying, and I don’t dispute it, except I note that every big election since 1992 has been the “most significant in American history,” and we have meanwhile slid and slumped farther into moral confusion and madness.

In the days of Bill Clinton, that fatherless non-entity with a taste for young women and, somewhere in his muddled soul, for America, it was a scandal that he took advantage of a young female aide as he did, though one journalist said, with almost eager physical description, that she’d have performed oral sex on him just to keep abortion “legal and safe.”

In our days, fourth-graders are given instructions on the same subject, and the only scandal is that some people think that’s still a little young for that. As for abortion, I’ve heard many women insist that men should have no say in it at all. And thereby they provide, unwittingly, a testimony to their own unfitness to belong to any civil society where people, as rational and social creatures and not millions of islands of desire, gather to discuss the common good and how to secure it.

Yesterday, I said to a small group of conservative and devout Catholics in Canada that my country, the United States, was a “banana republic without the bananas,” and that it still would be that way on November 9, even if a tide washed a few dozen new Republican congressmen into office.

That didn’t happen.  It happened in 1994, and we still are where we are, pulled downward by the force of false premises, disordered desires, and an electoral system that engineered to ensure that no intelligent, dispassionately passionate, impersonally personal conversation about any important feature of moral, political, or economic life will ever occur again.

The baser passions sell: sex, fear, anger, hatred.  They sell the farm and all the stock before the farmer has gotten out of bed.  And the political arena, especially in an age where every potentially-rational person and every feature of human life has been politicized and ushered before the nation at large, is a passion-exchange, for sex, fear, anger, and hatred.

What do we in the Church have to sell that can compete?

Nothing. And everything.  What did the Christians in Nero’s time have to compete against gladiators and wild beasts?  A special Christian net and trident for a better retiarius?  Less bloodshed, but a lot more drama and action?  That would be to conform the Church to Nero.

It’s a version of what many churches have done.  Not that they have gotten any drama and action out of it; only silliness and irrelevance.  They are not martyrs.  They are yes-men.  You can, so to speak, attend a Christian amphitheater on Sunday, with many an empty seat, and watch a pudgy wobbly minister pretend to go after an old sow, prodding her with a stick, and claiming victory when she waddles off, bored, to roll in some cool mud.

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If it’s hedonism you want, you get a much more potent brew almost anywhere else.

The Christian martyrs of Nero’s time conquered by remaining steadfastly true to Christ, knowing they would be condemned by the world, laughed at, taken for fools. Yet there was beauty in what they did.  Their lives were like everyone else’s, they worked at the same tasks, and yet their lives were not at all like the lives of their pagan neighbors.

Emperor Julian the Apostate, 300 years later, complained that the Christians took better care of sick and needy pagans than the pagans themselves did.  Why?  The faith laid the moral duty on them, but still they would not have done it, I think, unless they were in love with Christ.

We cannot do without judgments against evil customs and deeds.  Those are poison to persons who engage in them and to the society that condones them.  Our Lord was not shy in making such judgments.  Saint Paul was not shy.  Charity demands the judgments as guard rails against temptation, as protection for the weak, and as a sharp and corrective sting against those who fall to them.

But that is not beautiful.  Ours is a world peculiarly starved for beauty.  We must be vessels of beauty, that is, of the beauty that does not originate with us, but that inspirits us and transforms us, best when we ourselves are not aware of it.  We must pray the prayer of that old Eucharistic hymn:

Sweet Sacrament, we Thee adore!
O make us love Thee more and more,
O make us love Thee more and more.

We must love Christ more, looking always to the man on the Cross, that eternally-echoing answer to the world’s questions and the world’s evil, an answer of love that the hedonist and the time-server and the half-hearted find quite mad.  But look at what men accomplish by way of beauty, inspired by Christ!

Let our hearts shine with quiet joy and charity.  You’re a sinner?  Welcome to the club.  But let the Christian hospital not be like the cold secular institution on the other side of town.  Let the Christian school be a place of good cheer and the happy shouts of children still reveling in innocence.  Let the Christian family be like a great immovable hillside green with grass and adorned with flowers and fruit trees.

We live amid rubble?  Build then, always build, boldly, cheerfully; bring people back to their own native songs and poetry, their own native customs that once built families and neighborhoods and schools, all within the sound of the church’s bells.

Is the year 2022?  Well, it might have been 1922, or 1522, and the inescapable human problems would be the same, though under other forms, and the love of our lives ought to be the same too – love of Him who says, “Come, follow me.”

 

*Image: Nero’s Torches [1] by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876 [National Museum, Kraków, Poland]. Also known as Candlesticks of Christianity, Siemiradzki’s painting depicts Christians about to be burned alive, slandered by the emperor as the alleged perpetrators of the Great Fire of Rome.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.