Friday, April 2, 2010

After the Swamps, the Sacred Caves

Note: As I continue reposting from the TrueWester blog, I am struck with this Good Friday thought, which is really the theme of the post below: that the Church is always in crisis, that we always need to return to the Cross in the Desert, and while it is true--as we love to say--that "there are no easy answers"--a Chestertonian turn to this should be, yes but there are always hard answers, for the truth is as hard as the hard sayings of Our Lord. In Luke (20:17-18), Jesus refers to Himself as the stone the builders rejected but adds "Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be bruised: and upon whomsoever its shall fall, it will grind him to powder" (Douai).

After the Swamps, the Sacred Caves

“This is not a good time to be a Catholic,” I mused aloud over the very small fire where I, a very small fry, cooked my very small fish on that great Chestertonian tool, a very small stick.

“First the Notre Dame mess, then the new Irish scandal, then that monstrous book by Archbishop (retired in disgrace) Rembert Weakland, known among the faithful as ‘archbishop weakmind.’ And him a Benedictine! What would St. Benedict think? Then there’s Father Soft and Father Smooth. . . and all those sniveling so-called orthodox apologists counseling ‘be friends with Obama and he’ll change into a friend’ . . .”

“Enough,” said the gray-bearded hobo who had sat silently while I swatted swamp mosquitoes and tried to stay in the smoke. I had thought he was a mute beggar from a nearby shack town under a bridge, drawn by the smell of the tiny trout I had managed to scoop out of a shallow of the Caney Fork River.

“Enough,” he repeated, and looked me in the eye with eyes that knew suffering and truth, a surefire combination for catching my attention.

“Exactly what does all this scandal you speak of mean for you?” the old man asked. “For you personally, as they say in the sick salons of Antioch?”

“Well,” I said as I shifted uneasily and wondered about Antioch, down near Nashville, “for one thing I’m embarrassed in front of my Protestant friends. I’ve been spouting off for a long time about the timeless Rock of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church and how we Catholics can depend upon its indefectibility and true teaching in a time of cultural confusion, and now it looks as if . . .”

“As if it really isn’t?”

“Exactly. I feel like a . . . fool.”

The old man laughed softly and drew forth a small pouch of bread and dates, which he offered.

“As if that great indefectible Church is full of heretics and governed by shepherds who have lost the way?”

I let my silence be my answer.

“Probably you will tell me that well over half of the so-called Catholics in those churches don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? That the catechists are teaching a wealth of Arianism and all the other heresies that grow out of it? That the priests are playing patty cake with the Divine Liturgy? That the people fear the priests are doing more than playing patty cake with their children? That the Church Christ founded looks as if it’s foundering?”

“Well. . . I . . .”

“Embarrassed! My friends in the desert up this way say that if you do not weep for your sins, you have no hope of salvation. My dear fellahin, embarrassment about the Church is one of the steps on the road to hell. Do you think my friends in the caves up this road in Thebaid would not laugh you to scorn? If you cannot endure embarrassment for the Faith, then you will be like Peter warming his hands over the brazier in the courtyard and denying Christ for fear a serving maid might think him one of His followers. Embarrassed! You probably don’t like to admit to your urban friends that the altar of the great sacrifice contains the actual bones of martyrs. A bit savage? A bit uncouth? Maybe a bit Catholic?”

“Sir,” I said as we still say in Tennessee, “who are you? Where is Thebaid? And I don’t think there is a desert in Tennessee. Caves , yeah, we got aplenty, but . . ."

“My name,” said the old man as he reared up tall and gaunt, and striking his crooked ash staff into the limestone shelf (I thought of Gandalf), “is Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and I have not seen the seat of my diocese for many a year.”

For a moment I thought he was mad, but his manner told me I had better think again.

“But, Sir, Athanasius lived in the fourth century in Africa.”

“No, Sir, Athanasius, and I am he, lives in eternity, or have you bought the teaching of Arius that the Word of God is not Eternal, and that we live only in the relativistic fogs of time?”

“No, Sir,” I cried indignantly, I am one of the faithful, the remnant, the Thomists, the ones trying to hold onto the truth. Like you, I . . . .” and I was about to sound like the traditionalist ranter I sometimes am.

Athanasius laughed softly. “Here, here, man, sit down and listen a moment. I am on my way to the caves up country and I do not have much time. A Roman legion send by the Emperor Julian is thrashing its way through this swamp behind me and they will be here within a few hours. Listen, the True Church is always pushed back into the swamps, the desert, the caves. Peter and Paul found it so, and every time Catholics forget how marginal and tough is the existence of the faithful, it runs into heresy and founders like the boat the apostles feared was sinking.”
“But you are a Doctor of the Church.”

“Yes, and doctors are called to the sick, which you are in danger of being, my friend, if you sit fretting about your pitiful state of embarrassment in front of your Protestant friends who may, after all, be the pre-Catholics we need to save our sinking boat. Heresy comes like a thief in the night and feeds on the rich foods we fancied we needed for our larders in the end times. It is like the mists over the swamps. When I was on the Nile in a small boat escaping from Emperor Julian’s plans to re-paganize the Christian world, an Imperial Galley nearly caught me and my few companions. I told my friends, ‘row toward the galley.’ The soldiers cried out, ‘have you seen the traitor Athanasius?’ My friends called into the fog, ‘he’s close. He went that-a-way,’ and so we escaped. Dear friend,” Athanasius chuckled, “I am a shepherd of the Catholic Church but I have been banished five tines and this is my seventeenth year in exile, and just now I am on my way to the caves where the followers of St. Antony dwell, where I will prepare my arguments against Arianism—again—for the next Council, which will come, yes, it will come, for the True Church will always recover. ‘My soul is troubled,’ Our Savior said in a troubled time. Do you think that your troubles are different from the trouble that He suffered in the desert and on the way of the Cross? Troubles, man, how do you think we felt when the Emperor Julian died and his successor revoked our banishment and then his successor—that was back in ought-365—banished all the orthodox bishops all over again? Excuse me, I must hurry, the hermits will be gathering for their weekly Mass.”

I stirred the ashes of the fire and looked downstream at a bird swooping to catch a small trout.

When I looked up he was gone and I, poor fool, was renewed in hope and courage, as we always can be, when we go to the saints, the doctors, the martyrs, and away from the nations furiously raging and the pundits, Catholic and non-, telling us how to think.