Sense and Nonsense: Things We May Not Have Noticed

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Once upon a January, many long years ago, I was born in a small town in Iowa. My recollections of this momentous event, naturally, remain somewhat vague. Actually, this is a great mercy, as you can readily realize, otherwise I might be tempted to write about it. As Chesterton said in his Autobiography, we have to take the fact of our own birth on faith. We have to accept the testimony of others for the truth of a primal event in which we have some considerable interest.

What made me think of this reference to my this-worldly origins was a passage I came across by chance in the works of that noted theologian, P.G. Wodehouse. He caused me to think of baptism and that original sin in which we are conceived and born, of why things go wrong in spite of our best intentions. I do not recall my own baptism either, but I believe I have seen the document attesting to it someplace. Baptism, of course, is addressed to this prevailing disorder we all seem somehow to find ourselves locked into.

My parents, also good theologians, upheld the practice of infant baptism. Give or take a couple of days, I am a born Catholic. Infant baptism, more than anything else almost, suggests that, while there is much right with the world, there is also something subtly deviant, something in the order of spirit that is capable of turning us away from what we truly are to become. If, because you are aware of the implications of this dire situation, you think you need all the help you can get in this life to get out of it in good shape, then you are for infant baptism even on pragmatic grounds. The Lord pursues us “down the nights and down the days,” to recall Francis Thompson’s poem.

I had even been reading Hegel, always itself a daunting exercise. Hegel observed that “the History of the World is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it.” But even Hegel wanted to redeem these periods of unhappiness. He wanted to show us how “History as the slaughterbench [of the] happiness of peoples” had some purpose. He wanted to know “to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered?” To what aim indeed? Somehow we must explain, if only to ourselves, the meaning of these “enormous sacrifices” in the slaughterbench that is too often our history.

Thus, to continue these profound topics, I read in The World of Jeeves: “I don’t know if you have noticed it, but it’s rummy how nothing in this world ever seems to be absolutely perfect.” To be sure, I had noticed this. That is why I put Wodehouse in italics. I remember once standing on Fell Street in San Francisco for a long time thinking words very similar — how nothing in this world ever seems to be perfect. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not have Wodehouse’s memorable words to explain it all to me.

Nonetheless, as I said, I have noticed this unsettling situation. In truth, however, something perhaps even more mysterious, I think that there probably are “absolutely perfect” things in this world, except, because even these originate in the divine perfection itself, they always have, as they should, a reference to something higher about them, even by being what they are, what E.F. Schumacher called “progressions.”

Yet, there is almost something sad about Wodehouse’s remark — perhaps it was the word “rummy.” We catch a certain disappointment, a certain poignancy in the heart of the comedian. He recognizes that the world is not “absolutely perfect,” of course. Nevertheless, he suspects that we are not really made for this less than perfect world, even though we find ourselves in it. His very laughter at the odd things we do portends a kind of joy that we barely understand.

The fact is that things usually do turn out to be “rummy.” We come to expect this “rumminess” of things. We become realists and pride ourselves on our knowledge of the way things actually are. We rightly distrust the perfection-seekers. They somehow do more damage than those who believe in the Wodehouse doctrine that “nothing in this world ever seems to turn out absolutely perfect.”

This is a Christian theme. We live in a world that exists for some cause that we cannot find in the world itself. We think, all in all, it is a pretty good place. It is certainly a beautiful place in so many ways. We know ourselves to be good, yet there is always this annoying thing about our not doing what we would, something Saint Paul saw in himself quite clearly.

The councils of Orange and Trent did not speak of man’s original “rumminess,” to be sure. But they did say something rather similar when talking of Original Sin. Le Catechisme de l’Eglise Catholique has some excellent and moving paragraphs on Original Sin (396-412). I want to cite a couple of lines here:

The doctrine of Original Sin — bound to that of the Redemption by Christ, gives a glance of lucid discernment over man’s condition and his acting in the world. By the sin of the First Parents, the Devil has acquired a certain domination over men, although this latter remains free. Original Sin implies “servitude under the power of him who possesses the empire of death, that is to say, the Devil” (Trent, Dz. 1511). To ignore that man has a wounded nature, inclined to evil, gives place to some grave errors in the domain of education, of politics, of social action, and of morals. [407]

I was especially struck by this last sentence. If we do not understand what is really wrong with us and the revelational remedies for it, we will never get it right in other areas.

I had just been reading Rousseau also, who is the source of much of the notion that we solve our human problems by education, politics, or social action, by changes of external structures rather than changes in our hearts. We live in a political and educational regime that has almost completely succumbed to this doctrine. The key issues lie elsewhere, however, even though the sinful condition of mankind somehow results from the accumulation of our personal sins.

At the beginning of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul stresses the importance of this very topic:

As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. I Thessalonians 1:9), exchanging “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. John 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself. [1]

No paragraph I know more clearly suggests what is behind the ideologies and moral currents of our time. The search for illusory freedom is precisely the meaning of our public order in so far as it rejects, as it does, the truths contained in revelation and the reason that supports it.

Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha is a most formidable woman who looks with a most critical eye on her nephew’s aberrations. ” ‘Bertie,’ she said — in part and chattily — ‘it is young men like you who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair!’ ” About the only thing that Bertie could reply to this not-altogether-inaccurate observation was, “What-ho!”

Aunt Agatha continued her analysis, ending with a most surprising solution to her nephew’s problems:

“Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in selfish idleness a life which might have been made useful, helpful, and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone — ” She fixed me with a glittering eye, “Bertie, you must marry!”

Aunt Agatha, to Bertie’s consternation, proceeded to explain just what sort of woman she had in mind. “You want somebody strong, self-reliant, and sensible, to counterbalance the deficiencies and weaknesses of your character.”

Well, we get the point. Our fallenness is real, and not altogether without its amusing side. That is to say, we are a fallen race, with many deficiencies and weaknesses in our characters, but we are also redeemed. We go off, as the Pope said, because we turn our gaze away from the living and true God and substitute our own inventions. Those who have the future of the human race at heart are indeed tempted to despair. Yet, we cannot help but suspect that Bertie is closer to the truth than Aunt Agatha. It’s rummy “how nothing in this world ever seems to turn out to be absolutely perfect.”

As I said, I have noticed this, too. It is a question, however, as the Pope hinted, about where we allow our gaze to fall. We can conclude from all this rumminess but two things, I think. The first is that our gaze does have a proper object in the light of which all else is and is glorious. And the second is that our gaze is such that we can avert it from what we might really want. In the end, what we really want is first given to us.

“Joy,” Josef Pieper writes, “lies in receiving what we love.” Our reaction to the slaughterbenches of history, to the rumminess of actual things, ultimately suggests that all things are related to an absolute perfection, on which we seek to gaze. We are what we are because we must still choose to see what is to be seen. This is our lot. This is the context both of our damnation and of our glory. We would not have it otherwise.

By

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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