As a literature teacher, I’m marking the Easter season in one way I know how: assigning books that are suited to the season. This week we’re reading that lyrical, enormously uplifting work of Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. A gifted poet, Péguy lived among the poor, defended the innocent Dreyfus, embraced and then saw through socialism, and finally was led by his love for St. Joan of Arc to renew his childhood faith before he died in one of the very first battles of World War I. But in his 40 years he penned some of the greatest Catholic books of the 20th century, and this is one of them. It focuses on what Péguy calls the most neglected theological virtue: “the little girl, Hope.” His earthy, mystical lyrics depict Hope as a playful, energetic, eight- or nine-year-old child, beside whom Faith and Charity are weary middle-aged moms, who draw the energy to keep on moving from the innocent glee of the girl who tugs them forward by the hand. Astonishing stuff.
I certainly led the students on a long slog through Lent, reading with them some deeply sobering books of enduring value:
- Philip Lawler’s The Faithful Departed, which explores the grimmest bureaucratic depths of the sex-abuse cover-up crisis and the collapse of the once-thriving Catholic subculture in Boston, identifying their root cause as Vainglory, the craving for worldly success and human respect.
- François Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle, a psychological study of an elderly lawyer and businessman possessed by covetousness and self-protective hatred for his outwardly pious wife and children. He schemes to cheat his “ungrateful” family members of their inheritance, while squinching his eyes at the glimmers of Grace that peek through the gloom that he inhabits.
- Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a chronicle of how that brilliant psychiatrist kept his sanity and even found grounds for hope in a series of Nazi concentration camps — and the lessons he draws about how men can persevere through enormous suffering so long as they see in it some higher meaning. Quoting (of all people) Nietzsche, he says, “Man can endure any ‘what’ if he knows a ‘why.'”
- Eli Wiesel’s Night, a searing memoir of a pious, orthodox Jewish boy transported to Auschwitz, who watches the systematic dehumanization and destruction of God’s chosen people. In the book, he walks in the footsteps of Job, seeing (among many others) the most devout and mystical Jews as they are shoved toward the crematoria, while the God Who promised them protection apparently sits silent. He rejects the example of Job and allows himself to curse God, but he does not die. Instead, he lives on to try (as he still is trying) to find some significance in the horror.
- Roy Schoeman’s Salvation Is from the Jews, where that Jewish convert attempts to answer Wiesel — daring to suggest (as St. Edith Stein once wrote) that the suffering of contemporary Jews might mystically partake in the Passion of the one Jew Whose anguish gave meaning to every man’s. Most audaciously, Schoeman ventures that, just as the suffering of the Innocents of Nazareth prepared for and was answered by the Epiphany of the Messiah, so the suffering of Europe’s Jews might prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming again and the redemption of Israel.
- Pope John Paul II’s best and most personal book, Memory and Identity, a late work he completed in interviews with Polish philosophers, where the pope explores the radical evil let loose in the 20th century by the totalitarian movements of Nazism and Communism, but also in the bedrooms and abortion clinics of the West. Noting that millions of ordinary people, who give no overt evidence of loving evil, took part in the criminal plans of those regimes and currently cooperate in the destruction of innocent unborn life, John Paul points (with St. Augustine) to the poisoned taproot in the human heart: The Fall made us prone to love of self to the point of contempt for God, so we must suffer to learn the love of God, even when it means contempt of self.
The brilliance and bravery of John Paul in confronting the mystery of evil are what we will celebrate on Sunday when he is beatified. Like Péguy, he was a poet and a romantic who kept one eye on the noblest aspects of human nature, calling those who would listen to seek the seeds of greatness God had planted and water them with the tears of self-sacrifice. He looked in his own heart, which was predisposed to generosity and nobility, and expected the same of others. Sometimes he expected too much, committing the deeply human error of projecting his own good intentions onto others.
When we do this in daily life, the consequences gradually accumulate: We give a second (or third, or fifth) chance to some employee out of pity, and he ends up harming customers or colleagues. We think we’re supporting a loved one who’s addicted to some deadly sin or substance, then slip into enabling that addiction — and our deeds can have ugly outcomes for innocent third parties. Or else we simply refuse to believe in the sheer ugliness of evil, and when we are faced with evidence for it, we cloud our minds with “charitable” thoughts — which, in the end, are simply lies that come from the Father of Lies.
It is this, I fear, that the holy and noble Pope John Paul II was prone to in his old age, in the anguish of his long illness brought on by a Muslim assassin’s bullet, and that is how I approach the sickening mystery of his failed response to the sex-abuse crisis. A long and detailed, soberly written and argued brief against his beatification is now circulating among Catholics, and I recommend that everyone read it — not because I think John Paul II was not a saint, but because he is a man we need to see in all three dimensions. At his best, he was ruthless with himself and with us, demanding that we look into the shadows cast by sin and acknowledge how dark they really are: They extend, without a sharp delineation or clear warning signs, from the smallest act of selfishness or cruelty, all the way to the Gulags and death camps and the dumpsters full of tiny, murdered Americans.
His human blind spots now brutally illuminated by the fires of purgation, John Paul no doubt sees that the very same shadow lay over the lax seminaries and tipsy rectories, bishops’ palaces and law firms, where the sex-abuse crisis was inseminated, germinated, and hatched. The priesthood itself seems to millions now tainted by what then-Cardinal Ratzinger called “the filth” that hundreds of bishops colluded to cover up. All this Pope John Paul II has already had to answer for, and I am confident God forgave him.
What we can do, for our part, is to ask ourselves how we might have failed — might still be failing — to advance in the holiness demanded of our state in life. We cannot undo the seductions and the rapes, the lies and the intimidation to which the victims of sex abuse were subjected. Mere money, which they are rightly owed, will do very little. We can, however, ruthlessly scour ourselves for every sign of the Shadow, the coldly selfish drive to love ourselves in contempt of God and neighbor. Little as we might like to believe it, what begins as mere mediocrity, if left unchecked, will (by the laws of the spirit, it must) unfold and emerge as flowers of evil. The butcheries of the Holocaust were only possible because of millions of individual selfish and lazy decisions. The million or so babies aborted here every year are killed at the behest not of bloodthirsty monsters but mediocre and scared Americans just like us. The thousands of children and teens abused by deviant priests were put in that danger through the simple, almost patriotic practice of institutional face-saving on the part of highly educated, mostly orthodox Catholics.
When we look to the soon-to-be Blessed Pope John Paul II, we can ask his special intercession, implore him to seek for us the grace not to lie to ourselves, or comfort ourselves by believing the lies of others that make us comfortable, that help us feel like kinder, better people because we have manufactured happy thoughts. I feel sure that a man who in so many ways lived out Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, “Live not by lies!” regrets his mistakes more deeply than any of us and will spend his eternity working to intercede for us in our shabby, day-to-day struggles against the Shadow. Pope John Paul II, ora pro nobis.