The changes that have taken place in the 20th century are mind boggling. The elderly among us were born in a world where relatively few people had a phone, which rarely rang. It took me time to realize that, for years, I had to overcome a certain “fear of the phone” because, when a small child, a couple pieces of dramatic family news were communicated by it. Only very rich people had a car. When I was in grammar school, all of us children, while playing in the courtyard, looked up with awe at the sky when we heard an airplane. Ill-functioning radios were just being put on the market; televisions were unknown. Today elderly people are totally helpless when given new gadgets which to young kids, are a “fun toy.”
In this context, I am referring not only to scientific discoveries, (landing on the moon, heart transplant, electronic devices which are real encyclopedias), but also to a Weltanschauung that clashes radically with the spiritual climate of the pre-World War I and II. Maybe the word “spiritual” is inappropriate for secular materialism – allergic to any form of spirituality – has made deep inroads into the very core of our society.
The accelerating rhythm of technological discoveries is such that a computer is “outmoded” after a few months; soon they will “wage war” on television. New cars are equipped with more and more amazing gadgets that put to shame models of the past. To be “up to date,” some people I know “owe it to themselves” to buy a new car every single year. It belongs to their “self-image.”
Many are those who identify “change” with “improvement” and assume that every novelty should be acclaimed as a victory over the past. Now man glorifies himself that “he no longer has to step twice into the same river.” Heraclitus is the hero of the day. Clearly man is replacing or will soon be replacing God. Feuerbach was a prophet indeed: he “saw” that the concept God – creator of all things – was in fact a label wrongly attributed to “a product of man’s imagination,” namely God who, for centuries, had dethroned man. The moment has come to correct this grave error preventing him from being fully aware of his genius and, as a result, incapable of bringing to fruition his limitless potentialities. Now, finally freed from these self-made chains man can proudly proclaims that “all things are possible for him.”
Today, his self-image is radically different from the one advocated in the “dark ages.” Now he is fully entitled to call himself “the master of the universe.” Nothing can impede the full realization of all his potentialities: a glorious future lays ahead him: he is the master over life and death.
One of the very first “lessons” my veteran students “taught” me when lecturing at Hunter Uptown in the late forties, was that in the very near future, thanks to science, man would conquer death. The question was whether the student making this proud assertion would still make it on time!
My key concern in this article is to concentrate on another “change”, not unrelated to the first, and worth mentioning.
Bella Dodd who came from a modest Calabrian background, told me that, when she was a child, living in a poor village, there was no one, even the poorest, who did not have his own “house”, probably a mere shack: having neither electricity nor running water (women went to the well to provide for it), but nevertheless they had a home they called their own. This is now being threatened by a new Weltanschauung. I recall that, in the thirties, one of my friends told me, to my amazement, that her parents were selling their house and moving to an apartment building – one of the very first built in Brussels. She invited me to visit her, and even though the apartment was spacious, I marveled at the fact that it had no garden, and that it was bordering on other apartments. But the ceilings were high, and the walls thick. In the meantime, things have “improved” once again: to save space (i.e. money) the ceilings have “come down” considerably, creating a problem for people over 6 foot 5. Moreover, the construction material now used is cheaper and cheaper. As a result, if the bedroom of one apartment is only separated by a thin wall from the next apartment, one’s privacy will be threatened: alas, bedrooms can be battlefields. Serious disagreements between spouses are bound to be heard by those on the other side of the wall. Neighbors will be privy to things which are not meant to be public knowledge.
Lucky are those who have peaceful neighbors because to live close to vindictive people (as I know by experience) can make daily life very trying.
Let me retrace my steps: the mind-boggling development of technique has now proven to be a grave threat to our personal life. This has been powerfully illustrated in George Orwell’s book: l984.
For, if Big Brother – for whatever reason – considers one of us to be an “enemy of the state“, “he” can, today, thanks to technology, get detailed information about the “enemy’s personal life – something that was inconceivable in the past. It is pure illusion to assume that the messages we send on our computer are “safe.” Any expert can, without much effort, steal the information stored in it, and “techies” can even revive messages that have been deleted. Christians of old firmly believed that God’s angels saw whatever we did, and faithfully reported to Him all our thoughts and actions. (What an uplifting thought). Now these holy friends – viewed as mediaeval inventions – have been replaced by Big Brother’s agents. The impersonal monster – the State – is the one who now has a right to spy upon every single one of ours and claims to be entitled to control every single facet of our lives. We are no longer God’s creatures and God’s children: we are slaves of the Leviathan.
To make my point clearer, a further distinction might be enlightening, the one between “privacy” and “intimacy”. My bank statement, my tax report, my medical records are “private.” They are my own affair, and no one, unless closely related to me by blood or marriage, is entitled to read these documents. Today, we all know how dangerous it is if our social security card or credit card is stolen: it can have catastrophic consequences even when promptly reported. Our “privacy” is constantly threatened. But still more serious is that not only “official” documents can be stolen and used illegally, but what I shall term, our “intimate” life can be intruded upon and rob us of what should be precious to all of us: our “secrets.”
There are, however, very different types of secrets: we hide certain things because they are shameful, filthy, disgusting, humiliating – either physically or psychologically or morally. I shall call them “dark” secrets. But, and this is the key point I wish to make, there are also “luminous secrets” which refer to experiences which stem from the very depth of our being: these too are today threatened to be violated. How deeply meaningful that the Bible tells us that the “the secrets of the King” should be respected.
It can refer to the mysterious dialogue taking place between Gods and the soul, – sometimes manifested in ecstasies. Those privileged by such extraordinary experiences have one burning desire: that they should not be witnessed by others. Very much against her own wishes, and obeying the order of her spiritual director, the great saint and mystic, St Teresa of Avila wrote her autobiography and revealed the extraordinary graces God showered upon her. This revelation must have cost her much suffering.
The Little Flower – miraculously healed from a grave illness by a vision of the Holy Virgin – wanted to keep this secret to herself. It was only yielding to the pressing and loving request of her oldest sister, Marie, that she told the latter how blessed she had been. Her sister then begged her to allow her to share this secret with the Carmelites. (Pauline, the second oldest sister, had entered the order). The story of the miracle spread among the nuns, and the next time that Therese, now healed, paid a visit to the convent, a couple of nuns started asking her questions such as “Was the Holy Virgin carrying the child Jesus?’ Was there much light?” Therese, baffled by these questions, could not answer them; all she could utter was, “She was very beautiful.” But upon leaving the Carmel, she was seized by scruples: had she been lying? For the next two years, this “temptation” made her suffer much. It is only when, on her way to Rome, she visited the Rue du Bac in Paris, that she regained her peace. It is certainly not by accident that in the Story of a Soul, she mentioned that one should keep “the secrets of the King.”
Why was Ham cursed by his father if not for violating the secret of his nudity?
Similarly, sweet exchanges between husband and wife, in moment of sublime and tender intimacy, are not meant to be publicized. Today, “honesty” is canonized as a capital virtue, and makes people assume that everything – whether positive or negative – belongs de facto to the public domain. A concrete example might shed light on this. To my distress, the following story has been published. Apparently Benedict XVI once, late at night, dressed in “black,” and accompanied by his “handsome” secretary, left the Vatican, and repaired to his old haunt close to St. Peter.
One thing is to publicize this information; quite another is to hint that this nightly trip should awaken our suspicions.
By adding the word “handsome”, the author clearly aims at awakening distrust in the reader’s mind, intimating that this unofficial “nightly trip” was motivated by mutual sexual attraction. Otherwise, why was the “trip” not officially announced? The answer seems to be obvious to most reader always “scandal hungry.”
How right St. Francis of Sales was when he severely condemns throwing suspicion on any fact opened to many different interpretations. In the case just referred to, we have no clue whatever about the purpose of this night trip. The person relating this fact, however, makes it clear to her readers how it should be interpreted.
The author has succeeded in poisoning his mind and it will inevitably assume that the disguise of the Pope, dressed in black, matches the darkness of his purpose. This is a subtle concoction of calumny and defamation. The author of this information, moreover makes the arrogant claim that the sheep have a right to be informed about every single move of their shepherd.
I leave it to people more competent than I am, to pass judgment upon this categorical assertion. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that in the lives of several saints, it is related, more than once, that they performed heroic deeds of charity in the darkness of the night. (St. Elizabeth of Hungary bringing food to the poor). Apart from the fact that she knew that some people would object to her “wasteful generosity”, she always remembered that holy deeds of charity should be done in secret, as clearly stated in the Gospel: “… when you give alms do not sound a trumpet… (Matt. 6:4) By contrast, we all know how desirous the Pharisees were to parade their good deeds.
Let me repeat: we have no right to assume that a deed done in secret must ipso facto, be sinful. I wish that the theme of “illegitimate” curiosity was sometime mentioned in homilies. Never in my long life, have I heard this theme alluded to. Yet, tongue-wagging can be a serious sin. Let us recall the words of St. James, Ch. 3: “the tongue is a fire …” Is the sin of defamation ever mentioned in the Confessional?
No religiously-minded person should feel himself entitled to intrude into the private life of others, and a fortiori, of a Pope who deserves what Dietrich von Hildebrand called “the credit of love” – that is always attribute the most laudable motives to actions whose motivation is unknown to us.
One of the many heavy crosses of the Papacy is that from the moment a cardinal steps into Peter’s shoes, he knows that every single one of his move, every word he utters, every remark he makes will, within minutes, be communicated to the world. He is actually being “spied” upon every single moment of the day. Let us imagine that it becomes public knowledge that a Pope has mystical experiences and at times levitates. Hundreds of fame-hungry photographers would be willing to risk their lives to take a photo of these sublime moments – even though to do so implied real physical danger, such as climbing over a steep roof.
Many of us might have written or received very personal letters which are not meant for the public. In order to properly understand such documents, the reader should be armed with reverence. The very same papers read by a loving friend, or by an “enemy”, will be differently interpreted. A colleague of mine, referring to the episode in Genesis when God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, exclaimed in front of the whole class: “If that is the case, to hell with God.” A devout Jew or Christian will read them with trembling reverence, acknowledging that God is the master of life (for He gives it) and death. They also know that “sacrifice” is very different from murder.
In our contemporary world, “dark” secrets – which were understandably hidden from public view – (such as sex perversions) have now come out of the “closet,” and the spirit of the time praises them for their “honesty” and “courage.” Silence is “the mother of hypocrisy.” The problem, however, is that far from being ashamed of these very grave flaws, and seeking help and advice, some of these “courageous” people proclaim clearly and loudly that their “life style” is just as valid as the traditional view, which was encumbered by old “mediaeval” prejudices. I repeat: they not only openly reveal this unfortunate tendency, but now brag by asserting that they are advocates of progress and freedom. According to them, people’s tragic ignorance of the precious findings of social sciences (sociology, psychology, psychiatry) prevented them from realizing that the word “normal” had, up to now, been illegitimately hijacked by narrow-minded puritans, who interpreted sex as “shameful”, although necessary for reproduction. In other words, they are “the apostles of freedom“, whose mission is to make people realize that they are affected by blindness. For the good of humanity, it is high time to condemn puritanical hypocrisy, typical of Pharisees. Up to now, the myopic eyes of the “children of dark ages“, prevented them from perceiving that they are the victims of a deadly disease: homophobia.
One might however raise the question: If the practice of homosexuality is legitimate because it gives its apostles a feeling of legitimate “self-fulfillment”, could not the same be said of child-abuse and rape? If the pursuit of pleasure is a key aim of human existence, who has to right to distinguish between “kosher” and non-kosher ones?
It is sadly true that people afflicted by the unfortunate tendencies just referred to, have rarely received the loving help to which every man is entitled. However only those have sought help who realized they were struggling with a problem that they could not solve by themselves.
Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that only those who acknowledge “defeat” (I am an alcoholic; I cannot help myself), will join this organization which is doing so much good. But what is so worrisome in our society is that flagrantly immoral acts, i.e. against the natural moral law, are now morally justified (e.g. “artificial contraception” and abortion as a “noble concern to curb the threat of overpopulation”). Needless to add that homosexuality is indeed, an efficient means of curbing this “social peril.”
Having deprived themselves of the real sources of joy, many of our contemporaries suffer from a disease called “boredom.” The tempting solution is sensationalism: one even wonders if some crimes are not triggered by this psychological craving. Violent video games, with lots of shooting, noise, perversions, have s diabolical attraction for those who desperately need to escape from themselves. Addiction to such violent shows is, I fear, a disease caught by millions of our contemporaries.
A similar unjustifiable tendency is also to be found in people who – possibly with the best intentions – try to win others to the faith by “lowering the bar,” and thereby hoping to win them to Christ by making the mysteries of our faith more “accessible” to our contemporary mentality.
A striking example comes to mind: a very popular writer while commenting on the Nativity of our Lord in Bethlehem informs us that The Holy Virgin- like the writer’s wife, ejected a placenta after delivering Christ. A fact, that applies to all female mammals. This information should make this “mystery of mystery” more” accessible” to modern man, more “real”, more convincing.
Let us compare this presentation with the Gospel of St. Luke, and the teaching of our Holy Church. She teaches us that the Blessed One was a Virgin, prius ac posterius: in other words, that both conception and delivery were miraculous – i.e. cannot be explained by science.
Those of us who have been blessed by reading beautiful books or hearing homilies dedicated to this sublime topic, will testify that they were moved to tears; the topic was presented with trembling reverence: all that we know is that Mary delivered a male child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger. St. Joseph is not even mentioned, but we can imagine that this blessed man was in a state of trembling adoration. Holy Silence, deafening silence, is typical of things that “eyes cannot see; ear cannot hear.”
Alas, today, many are those, however well intentioned, who believe that by drawing the supernatural down to the natural level, the divine message will become more acceptable to modern man. Instead of elevating nature, we drag down the supernatural to the natural level assuming that thereby the divine message will become palatable to modern man.
Another example might illumine my point. After Vatican II, there was a real deluge of new catechisms, claiming that they were communicating the precious message the Council had imparted. One of them was written by a nun who, commenting on Christ’s visit to Bethany replied to Martha, complaining that her sister was not helping her: “Martha, Martha: you are concerned about many things. One thing alone is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.” These sublime words – that should be received on our knees – were “translated” as follow: “Christ, then said to Martha: ‘Dear, just do your best.’” To quote Kierkegaard, this is indeed “changing wine into water.”
The brutal contrast between sublime supernatural food, and the down to earth, flat- footed “translation” now offered to children, should make the Angels weep. No commentary is necessary.
How mistaken are the psychologists assuming that to make supernatural things accessible to the little ones, we should adopt baby talk. That small children, baptized, coming out of God’s hands are fully capable of understanding the Gospel’s message, is something that I was given a chance of understanding in grammar school. I was in first grade and the nun instructing us about our faith entered the classroom with a bulletin in her hands. She told us that she had received it in the mail, coming from a Parisian priest teaching little children in the slums of that great city. He had told the little ones about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Judas who for three years had benefited from living close to Christ; Judas who had been given so many chances of tasting the goodness of the Savior! Upon realizing the immensity of his crime, Judas, threw in the temple the thirty pieces of money he had “earned” for selling Christ, and hanged himself on a tree. The little ones were thunder struck: there was a deadly silence. Suddenly a little boy aged six, raised his voice, and said; “Father, why did not Judas hang himself on Christ’s neck.”
I was five years old when I heard that story. I never forgot it and it convinced me that “these little ones” are so open to the supernatural message that they are plainly betrayed by receiving “McDonald substitute menu.” Indeed, unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the Kingdom of God. All of us, except the Holy Virgin have to choose between hanging ourselves on a tree in despair, or hanging ourselves on the neck of our beloved Savior begging for mercy.
For centuries, it was the nuns’ glory to educate little Catholic children, both boys and girls, and to give them a taste of supernatural food as found in the Gospel. Today, alas, many have betrayed their noble calling. Should we wonder that the number of religious vocations has plummeted since Vatican II? Maybe we should call it “the treason of the nuns” matching the betrayal of the Clerks as mentioned by the prophet. But God never abandons His Church. Dark as the horizon is, we know that He will have the last word.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.