Several months after my conversion I attended a political theory workshop at the University of Michigan. Professors and doctoral students would circulate their work amongst the group, and we would gather and discuss the papers. Somehow the topic of the Immaculate Conception was raised, and the professors began to bat it around with amused indifference. I quickly became disconcerted as the discussion was shot through with errors. The professors had assumed the Immaculate Conception referred to the birth of Jesus rather than the birth of Mary, along with a few other mistakes. I intervened and subsequently learned two things from the exchange. Firstly, that most educated secularists know very little about the Christian faith--whether points of dogma or even the heart of the faith. Secondly, they view the faith as a mere artifact or historical curiosity, and a tedious one at that (unless sexuality or demons are discussed). We may as well have been discussing ancient Babylonian gods and their temple rites.
It's worth reflecting on this episode because it captures the state of mind of many of the unchurched and lukewarm in the post-Christian West. We are faced with evangelizing men and women who are apathetic and who are ignorant, and worst of all, they don't know that they are ignorant. We can only overcome this lethargy by the grace of God, but what are the means to channel this grace?
One of the four attributes of God is beauty, and beauty has a way of cutting through our apathy and ignorance. It overcomes lethargy because it's effects are rousing and unshakable; beauty simply commands our attention. Beauty also overcomes ignorance because it reveals something--a truth is presented--while at the same time beauty resists being argued away. Beauty just is, and it can't be denied. In the novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky has the holy title character declare, "Beauty will save the world", and beauty has certainly brought many into the Church. I quietly sing Gregorian chant in parts of my walk, and Patrick, a fellow who plans on joining the apostolate, likes the idea of reciting poetry in his bohemian neighborhood. We would do well to restore and revivify Catholic art and architecture, reverent liturgies, processions, sacred music, poetry, prose and even some religious habits.
|A large procession begins after Mass at the Sacra Liturgica conference in New York.|
NY street-goers were very respectful and many were deeply moved.
But there is something even more unshakable than beauty, and that is holiness--the presence of God dwelling in and acting through one of his saints. Blessed Charles de Foucauld had a way of radiating the presence of God while saying Holy Mass. Many years after his death, officers and soldiers remembered with animation the way he said Mass--even though his chapel was like a "hovel".
Marshall Lyautey colorfully described his chapel as follows: "a miserable corridor with rush-covered columns. For its altar, a plank! For decoration it had a calico panel with a picture of Christ, and tin candlesticks! Our feet were in the sand. Well! I have never heard Mass said as Fr. de Foucauld said his. I believed myself in the Thebaid [amongst the great desert Fathers]. It is one of the greatest impressions of my life."
Another soldier recalled, "What a Mass! If you were never at his mass you don't know what Mass is. When he said the Domine non sum dignus ['Lord I am not worthy...'] it was in such a tone that you wanted to weep with him."
|Holy monks of the Thebaid|
Blessed Charles, by the grace of God, was evangelizing at Holy Mass simply through his transparent holiness. Just as beauty cannot be argued away, neither can peace and charity. The soldiers and officers were often rough, coarse men--skeptical of the power of Christian virtues--but then they were struck with awe when they encountered the living peace and charity of Blessed Charles. Many men who have lived their lives in the grip of the devil have been stopped in their tracks by the peace and love of Christ, shining through his saints.
|Brother Juniper tames the tyrant in The Flowers of St. Francis|
Holiness is the most potent force in the world, and what can convert tyrants and dissolute soldiers can also seize the souls of professors and distracted young men and women. The true power of our religion isn't in talented people, strategies, massaging our message, improving our means of communication, but in holiness---for it is the power of God! If God is with us, who can be against us? Our evangelization efforts will succeed to the extent that we conform our wills to Christ, and become a living witness. It is really that simple.
St. Peter Chrysologus has a beautiful description of the path to holiness (Sermon 108):
Keep burning continually the sweet smelling incense of prayer. Take up the sword of the Spirit. Let your heart be an altar. Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice. God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.