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Everything Begins in Mysticism

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of a great modern Catholic genius. Like many such geniuses, he and his legacy have been all but forgotten. But Charles Péguy will return – for some of us he never left – because his words and the witness of his life offer a vitally original perspective on the modern Church and the contemporary world: a perspective that, paradoxically, also becomes more and more relevant – and perhaps a way out of our accelerating crises – with each passing day.

Long before the term “political correctness” became a media shibboleth, for instance, Péguy noted how certain attitudes were becoming obligatory at political demonstrations: “If you don’t take that line you don’t look sufficiently progressive. . .and it will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive.”

Coming from a young socialist – until he experienced being “canceled” (avant la lettre)  by the party’s nomenklatura – this reflects the unwavering honesty and decency of a man who refused to lie just because it reflected badly on his own party. He paid the price: poverty (a heavy burden for someone with a wife and four children) and marginalization by former friends.

This all occurred over the closing of Catholic schools and monasteries by the anti-Catholic French President Émile Combes, in theory because of the Church’s role in the Dreyfus Affair. Péguy was not a Catholic at the time, but it was simply clear to him that the injustice against Dreyfus (a false charge of treason) didn’t justify another injustice – against Catholics.

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Life, By the Numbers, Revisited

As a thought experiment, let’s assume something I would never accuse TCT readers of being: that you are materialist and utilitarian. You believe that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” in tangible, physical measures, is the pre-eminent moral principle. What might you have to consider today, when hundreds of thousands of Americans will be marching to protect life in the womb? (And people in various countries conduct their own pro-life marches?)

Well, to begin with, though all such numbers are a bit uncertain, roughly 55 million people die, globally, every year. And numerous public health organizations intensely scrutinize the slightest increase or decrease in mortality, in a laudable effort to identify what factors may be harming or helping the health of diverse peoples around the world.

That number does not include the number of babies killed by elective abortions, however, which at one time would have been thought a rare, emergency measure. The Guttmacher Institute, an advocate for abortion, estimates that there are roughly 56 million abortions around the world every year. So allowing for the statistical uncertainties, we can say in broad terms that as many innocents are slaughtered every year in the womb as there are deaths from all other causes in the entire world.

That’s the kind of mayhem you associate with murderous ideologies like Nazism and Communism, not “reproductive health.”

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Dead Men Do Tell Tales

dway through the first volume (2019) of his Prison Journal, Australian Cardinal George Pell records that: “Every type of Catholic should realise that there is an exclusion zone around the Eucharist, where adults without faith and without basic good practice should not enter. Years ago, a prominent criminal who was in jail was known to be Catholic. ‘Does he come to the jail Masses?’ the chaplain was asked. ‘Yes’ was the reply. ‘Does he receive Communion?’ The chaplain explained, ‘No, he doesn’t because he has faith.’”

Pell had much more to say about the Mass and Holy Eucharist in other contexts, as did Pope Benedict (see especially his masterpiece The Spirit of the Liturgy). Indeed, they both sensed that recovering a deep reverence for the Sacrament, “the source and summit” of the Christian life (Vatican II), would also resolve many vexed questions in the Church. And no small number in the contemporary world.

It’s in that deeper context that we need to appreciate texts that recently surfaced by or about these two great churchmen, who just died ten days apart, rather than in the adolescent media frenzy over what are always rather sordid – and now rather tiresome – Vatican politics.

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What Child Is This?

s not the season for arguments, but rather for warmth, generosity, family, fellowship, even a little indulgence of what at times can be dangerous – sentimentality. And Christmas is not only December 25 – in the traditional Christian dispensation – but an Octave (8 days, ending January 1). Prior to Vatican II, observances could last as long as 20 or 40 days (and still do for the Traditional Latin Mass, until the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple).

As was – and is – only fitting, since it’s not every day that the God who made Heaven and earth, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the long-awaited Messiah, becomes man and dwells among us.

But other days come, eventually. And in our current culture, the question in the title above arises, inevitably, for a growing number, even during Christmas. That question is, of course, related to another – later in the story: Who do men say that I am?

Not for us simply, as for Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68–69) For many people today, even many who “identify” as Christian, the default answer now is, at bottom, “I don’t really know.”

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Halo of the Son: Tintoretto’s Last ‘Last Supper’

In a recent column about Mary Magdalene, I wrote that my favorite portrait of the great saint was by Domenico Robusti, known to the world as Domenico Tintoretto. But I also noted that it’s his father, Jacopo, who is the painter most often being referred to by the name Tintoretto.

I didn’t explain an interesting thing about that name. Unlike Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who is known by that last name, which is actually the place of his birth, there’s no place called Tintoretto. It’s a nickname meaning “little dyer.” Jacopo’s father, Battista (like the father of St. Francis of Assisi) was a cloth merchant who dyed dry goods – a tintore. Jacopo, probably not Domenico, got his start in life working for his father.

As an artist, of course, Domenico learned much from Jacopo.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) is not, in my view, history’s greatest painter (that’s Caravaggio). But he was a visionary who imagined Biblical scenes with a boldness equaled by few other artists.

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Of Witness and the Only True Safety

Popular processions and pilgrimages are among the most beautiful Catholic practices all over the United States and the world. (I myself, along with 300 others, walked the thirty miles of an Order-of-Malta-sponsored Advent Pilgrimage from Jacksonville to St. Augustine, Florida, last weekend – about which more, much more, in the future.) These types of events have a long history and great spiritual value, properly done, because they differ from the demonstrations and marches for specific causes, important as those are. They simply witness that the Church – and God – are present in the world, not only within the walls of church buildings but in our common public life.

Of course, opponents and outright enemies of that presence don’t like it. At all. Though religious voices have a right to exist in the public square as much as secular voices, we see increasing efforts to curb religious expression, as if, by its very nature, it doesn’t belong in civil society – or is even dangerous. And that’s true not only of America, but many other places in the world.

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Having and Not Having

Years ago, I was watching some late-night television talk show (why I would do such a thing,  lying down, unless I was inert with jetlag, now escapes me). A young actress, who’d been “raised Catholic” – of course, by then “ex” – somehow started talking with the host about the Church. Which – she said – “Has something they call Black Friday” (viz., Good Friday).  The slip, which went uncorrected, was annoying. But then it struck me as a small sign that the Faith leaves a mark, even if imperfectly remembered, even on people who choose to make their way to places of gross self-indulgence, like Hollywood.

We’ve just experienced a “Black Friday,” as most Americans now call it. And on this first weekday of the new liturgical year (alas, “Cyber Monday”), I find myself wanting to leave a mark on the season, to make some Catholic New Year resolutions for Advent, which like Lent is supposed to be a time of preparation. Because a self-indulgent “Spirit of Black Friday” is everywhere now and will continue to wreak havoc in the weeks leading up to Christmas if we don’t recover or consciously inject some counter-measures into the mix.

Dr. Johnson was a wise Christian and once remarked: “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” And where labor and trade are honest, which they mostly are, he’s right.

Black Friday used to be fairly innocent – the day on which many businesses moved “into the black,” i.e., became profitable. Judge, not, and all that. Still, from a normal human point of view, Black Friday (its advertising in particular) now appears to have all the hallmarks of diabolical temptation.

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To Stay in the Fight

People often ask me: What can I do about the current state of the Church and the world? The question is urgent. The situation, dire. Even Pope Francis, who personally and through his appointments tries to avoid conflicts, has called the Church a “field hospital.” A field hospital only makes sense where there’s a battle. And a battle where combatants are seriously wounded, and need to be treated. Which requires resources, supply lines, coordinated efforts, multiple institutions, and – above all – healing knowledge. So what we need to do now is, basically, everything. All at once. Wherever we find ourselves.

In many ways, this is nothing new. Our current situation is – more obviously than usual, to be sure – a clash between the City of God and the City of Man. And in its way is actually helpful. It’s brought to light, for anyone with eyes to see, a battle that is always going on, has now spread rapidly, and allowed enemy forces to gain significant territory without a proper counteroffensive. No more.

Besides, the experiments in matters political, sexual, cultural, ecclesial are self-destructing before our very eyes. They’ll take a lot more of us with them before we can rebuild. Much that we once thought unshakeable will be shaken to the core. Which is why we have to hold such territory as we still control and plan on what to do as new opportunities present themselves.

And one of the first things necessary is not to let propaganda by the other side define the struggle or set the rules of engagement.

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Mary the Great

Who was she really? Can we even agree on what to call her? Is she Mary Magdalene or Mary Magdalen; Mary of Magdala or The Magdalene; maybe simply Madeleine?

Her proper name aside (which would have been Miryam in Hebrew or Maryamin Aramaic), we know that she was very important among the Lord’s disciples – so much so that she’s mentioned in the Gospels more often than most of the apostles.

Luke (8:2-3) tells us she “had been cured of evil spirits” and that “seven demons had gone out” of her, and Mark says so too, a detail he adds to the story of her visit to the tomb and Christ’s appearance to her in the garden after His Resurrection. When she told the apostles of the Lord’s rising, they didn’t believe her. (Mk 16:9-11)

Matthew mentions her three times (27:56 and 61 and 28:1), again in the context of Easter. And John, witness to the Crucifixion, notes that Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, wife of Clopas. (Jn. 19:25)

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We’ve Got Issues – and They’re Cosmic

I’ve been re-reading St. Augustine’s City of God lately, both for the TCT course I’m teaching this Fall but also because it’s the most insightful – and influential – Catholic meditation on religion and politics. We have an election tomorrow, too – as you may have heard – in which various parties now seem to have a vested interest in claiming that what’s really at stake is an existential “threat to democracy.”

I don’t believe that for a moment – at least in the short run – though you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to be troubled by the many deep crises we face, not least the continuing massacre of the innocents in abortion (and the scientific lying needed to rationalize it), our vicious identity politics cum cancel culture, and the grooming and mutilation of our children by sexual ne’er-do-wells.

To say nothing of a false understanding of America itself, which is not a pure democracy anyway, but a constitutional republic, because the Founders knew that, historically, bare popular majorities, by a strange paradox, often bring about tyrannies.

You should make every effort necessary to vote, if you haven’t already, for whomever you believe will best respond to those and many other challenges because all these things matter. And because any one of our current crises could put us on the road to ruin.

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