Sense & Nonsense: Lenten Thoughts — 1995

One Sunday noon hour during January, it was the Epiphany in fact, I read Michael Medved’s article in Policy Review (Winter, 1995) about what was “right” with America. Naturally, he had to mention what was wrong. “The problem with this country isn’t too much violence on TV, and it isn’t too much promiscuous sexuality in popular culture. It is too much television period.” That sure seems right to me. “The difference between good television and bad television,” he said, “is like the difference between good heroin and bad heroin.” But what happens if you don’t watch television or take heroin? A little talk radio perhaps, lots of reading, some conversation, some journals. All the great things are still there, including the Bible. Praying and Mass might be added. Most folks would have lots of time for the important things once they understood that television and heroin fall more or less into the same category when it comes to finding out about ultimate things.

• Peter Kreeft, in his incisive new book. C.S. Lewis in the Third Millennium (Ignatius), recalled Lewis’s remark: “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” I went back to my old edition of The Weight of Glory from which that wonderful passage is taken. The sentence before that one reads: “There are no ordinary people.” You have talked to mortals, but not to a mere mortal. We are beings who die — I had just heard that Bob Sunderland, one of my good Jesuit companions, had died in San Francisco. I used to talk to Sunder a lot. He was no ordinary man, and he was no mere mortal. We are conscious of this paradox that no mortals are mere mortals when we learn that our friends have died. Even while they dwell amongst us, if we only notice, even the most ordinary mortals are not ordinary.

I received a surprise Christmas card “from an ex-student of many years ago. “I’m married to the man I’d been living with in college, and it has been a trying year for us. A few close family members have died, and we’ve all had to get a better fix on the important things in life. Maybe that’s why I decided to write you tonight.” I wrote back and said to her, “I hope you did it right this time.” As I mused to myself, I wondered, “Why don’t they do it right the first time?” then, like a good Christian, I recalled my own autobiography. Because we are mortals, we often have “second” times, even unto seventy times seven times. This is the great mystery of our redemption. “Mere mortals” do need to get a “fix” on the important things.

• Someone cited a sentence from my oddly titled book: The Praise of “Sons of Bitches” (1978). The sentence reads: “The greatest gifts we have been given are the gifts we shall never know.” I thought about that sentence for a while and wondered what I might have had in mind. The whole point of gifts is that we receive them, that we are capable of receiving. This capability is of the highest order of importance. The inability to receive gifts is a sign of pride in mortals, I think. Moreover, what can a gift that we “never know” mean? No doubt our own birth is such a gift. We know we were born, to be sure, but someone has to tell us about it. If we think of the famous passage: “Greater love than this no man has than that he lay down his life for his friend”; this often happens anonymously, I think. Indeed, most of the gifts that our parents gave to us are in that category of things about which we shall never know. We can say that Christian revelation means both that we can never know God fully and that the purpose of our creation, our own infinite non-ordinariness, is that we will know God.


• The college son of a friend of mine was going to a local fraternity Christmas party. My friend (his mother) had stated in her most clear voice, “Do not drink and drive” — the famous words of mothers. A state trooper pulled the young man over on the way home from the party, with a couple of his friends passed out in the van. The boy, on seeing the police lights, apparently drove somewhat erratically, not knowing what the problem was. The policeman asked him where he had been. He told him to a party. The policeman ordered him out of the car. He made him walk a straight line. He gave him a breath test. After completing the test, the policeman came over to the car. He said to the young man, “You are clean; you have not been drinking.” Then the officer changed his stern mood, asked my young friend where he went to college, and congratulated him for his good sense. His mother, in narrating the story to me, said simply, “The best Christmas present I could have gotten, both that the policeman proved my point and especially that my son did not drink.”

• I have had a nagging cough since long before Christmas. In fact, it caused me to come back from California early. The doctor has so far given me two diagnoses. My niece, on E-mail from Hollywood, tells me to eat plenty of fruit and to take lots of vitamins. A Jesuit doctor in the community told me that lots of nasty things are going around. One of his colleagues at the hospital told him that “adult males usually have to gut it out”; that “probably the best thing you could give an adult male was a hot toddy.” Both pieces of advice sound all right to me. The first night I used the inhaler that the doctor gave to me, I began to shake, shiver, and sweat. It was cold in my room. I had on a bathrobe, a couple of sweaters, a blanket. I finally went to the nurse. She called the head nurse who talked to me and then told me to call the doctor. I explained my problem to the doctor. He said immediately, “You’re taking too much medicine.” Needless to say, I have not done this taking too much again, besides the stuff tastes awful. Plato was right, for the most part — we should cure ourselves. I believe Plato would also have agreed with Medved about the television.

• I was given the galleys of a book Ignatius Press is about to publish to see what I thought of it. It is a pretty good novel, called A Portrait of a Lady. I vaguely knew that was the title of a Henry James’ novel, which I never read. In the novel the author cites the famous phrase “surprised by joy.” I always thought that phrase came from C.S. Lewis as it is the title of his autobiography, but evidently it comes from Wordsworth. I thought I had a copy of Surprised by Joy, but cannot find it — maybe Lewis cited Wordsworth. This reminded me of the title of one of Christopher Derrick’s books, Joy Without a Cause, a title that comes from Chesterton’s The Ballad of a White Horse. The notion that we are surprised by joy or that joy has no cause seems perplexing, yet, I think, it gets to the heart of reality. Josef Pieper remarks that joy is never something we set out to obtain, that it is always a “by-product.” Plato says pretty much the same thing, that if we deviate from the proper object of our act, we will corrupt it. This is why we never directly seek joy or pleasure, for instance, but first we seek to do what is right and true and good. Whenever we seek pleasure without it being grounded in what is right in the action in which it exits, we isolate the pleasure, the act, from reality. We thus do not know it for what it is, the bloom, as Aristotle said, on the right act itself. Thus, joy is not merely the possession of what we desire, but the possession of what is right to desire. We should recall that it is right to desire God and that in eternal life we live in joy.

• In the Breviary for Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent, there is a Sermon of St. Leo the Great. “True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity.” That is a marvelous expression: “the eyes of the heart.” What is it that we are to see in the Crucifixion, in the Lord’s passion? Precisely our own humanity, almost as if to say that the recognition of the humanity of Christ will cause more scandal than recognizing His divinity. Indeed, this is generally the case. One of the things that most struck me about Leo the Great’s successor, John Paul II, in his new book was his consistent return, in discussing the belief of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and philosophers, to their theoretical difficulty in understanding that God was not limited to distant absoluteness. We could not make Him to be man, but He could choose to become man, should He choose. This is what Christianity is about — He did so choose.

• In Wendell Berry’s short story “Fidelity,” a passage captures a rather ordinary police officer trying to figure out his experience: “In spite of the law and the government and the police, it seemed, people went right on and did whatever they were going to do.” Obviously, this was written by someone who knows about original sin. Should we despair at hearing that reforms of law, government, and police will not cure our ills, our sins? No, we should not despair, but we should think about our ideas that would lead us to think they might. Human existence is really not about this life, even when it is about things of this life. All of our choices have a depth to them that transcends the act itself, that aims to some end. We are always choosing for or against our own glory because we are choosing or rejecting God in each of our acts, no matter what it is about, no matter how insignificant it seems. We live in a time when we want to make each of our acts ultimately insignificant or only significant in law, government, or police terms. This is why the policeman was perplexed, for he thought that it was sufficient to explain why we do or do not act merely in these public terms. It isn’t.

• Belloc in his essay, “The Breaking of Islam,” wrote: “Mahomet, acquainted with the Faith, selected from the manifold Christian truth what few points seemed good to him, and composed a new heresy alive with equality and the reduction of doctrine to the least compass; rejecting mysteries—save that of immortality. He denied the Incarnation and left the Eucharist aside” (Miniatures of French History).

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II wrote:

Whoever knows the Old and New Testament and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside. Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption.

The great problem with God is perhaps not His awesome mystery, but His self-revelation to us who are free to receive or reject it. As the Pope said, many prefer a more distant God as He seems to leave them alone, not requiring them to make decisions in their every act about their ultimate destiny, about what they conceive joy to be caused by.

• Pascal wrote: “There is no doctrine more appropriate to man than this, which teaches him his double capacity of receiving and of losing grace, because of the double peril to which he is exposed, of despair or of pride.” Despair means that, in each of our very actions, there is no reach of glory. Pride means that in our every action, we are the sole cause of what comes to be. Grace means that in our actions, there is more than our actions.

• Does this mean that we are supposed to think more during Lent than at other times? In a sense it does, if we mean by “think” to think about ultimate things, about the highest things, about the God who is not merely awesome in His glory but also Emmanuel, God-with-us? Michael Medved said that we should turn off the television and turn to what is important which is not on television. If we find that we go through a month, a quarter, a year without ever seeking or obtaining any real intellectual and spiritual nourishment, we know that we are in trouble. We live in a time, as I say, when the Church has never made a more coherent, penetrating, and profound case for itself, precisely before our time, precisely in the accurate understanding of positions opposed to the faith. If we do not know what this case is, we are in trouble, our time is in trouble.

• Vittorio Messori asked the Holy Father whether he was not worried about sociological analyses that seemed to indicate a decline of numbers of faithful and a rise in the numbers in Islam and other religions? The Holy Father replied that the success or failure or revelation on earth cannot be measured by sociological methods. He said, in fact, that if we look at the Gospels, we will find this question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:18, 103) That is to say, during Lent, we should look to our own souls to see if the ultimate dramas, including those in the world, are not being played out there.

James V. Schall


James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.