Over the past few months, in the service of a book I’m writing on the challenges inherent in a life of faith, I’ve covered some subjects that are near and dear to my heart, as I know they are to yours — namely, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Vanity, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. I’ve explored the nature of these lifestyle options, which hidebound moralists tar with the epithet "vice," and explained just why it is we feel so attached to them. I’ve wondered what ordinary (i.e., fallen) human life would be like in their absence. TV would certainly suffer. As the great dramatists always knew, "Trouble is interesting."
And at least on earth, the converse is also true. In a movie season that’s yielding three separate films about World War II, it’s worth wondering: Why aren’t there more peace movies? Why no films about international crises that were successfully resolved without resort to arms — like the Fashoda standoff in 1898, that almost sparked a war between England and France over some godforsaken acres of sand in Sudan? Because the parties sat down together, argued out their differences, were amenable to compromise, and treated open warfare as the last resort. In other words, they followed Just War teaching, and the outcome should have been obvious: Dull, dull, dull. I’m yawning already. The only decent film I can think of about an avoided war is 13 Days, which pictured the Kennedy brothers’ faceoff with Nikita Khrushchev and warmongering U.S. generals during the Cuban missile crisis. I recommend the movie, if not the Kennedys.
As a fan of "alternative history" novels, I’ve often thought about writing one myself. Since our species’ story is full of "what ifs," there are infinite opportunities. Most of the obvious ones have already been written: What if Germany had won World War II? If Hitler had died in the trenches? If the South had won the Civil War? If the Spanish Armada had landed? If the South Africans had used a time machine to furnish AK-47s to the Confederacy? Ho-hum. The one thing about all these books, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that they echo the message of Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s famous (albeit worthless) novel Candide: We live in the best of all possible worlds. Go back in history and change the course of events, and the outcome is sure to be either a) exactly the same or b) far worse than what really happened.
I’m not sure why novelists feel compelled to make these points, unless they’re simply captives of the Whig theory of history: the notion that Progress, while fitful, is inevitable, and every hiccup, every genocide, is an unavoidable part of the Providential march toward universal democracy, human rights, and consumerism. All of which, as Jeremy Bentham once observed, is "nonsense on a Segway." Of course there were events that could have turned out differently — and better. I could fill this column, and the next 51 for a good long year, listing a few. Just for starters: Well, the Spanish Armada could have landed . . .
But that’s not the book I thought to write. No, I’ve bent my agent’s ear about the following lurid scenario: Imagine how history would have turned out differently if . . . man hadn’t fallen. The Bible and Church history would read quite differently. Wouldn’t you love to hear about:
Cain and Abel shaking hands and making up.
Isaac and Esau splitting the difference.
The Pharaoh telling Moses, "Mazal tov."
The Maccabees trading land for peace.
Herod kneeling with the Magi at the manger.
Gladiators fighting it out in the Coliseum with Nerf bats, and Christians tied up with bungee cords, forced to play with cute little kittens . . .
(P.S. to publishers out there: That manuscript is still available, but the bidding war will soon put my expected advance out of your price range. So act now!)
Without "man’s first disobedience" there isn’t much of a story, and in light of that I’ve focused my columns up to now squarely on sin. Having run through the Seven Deadlies, I briefly considered other categories from the Catechism, like the "Sins that Cry Out to Heaven for Vengeance." I will list them with the relevant biblical verses, in what Dr. Jeff Mirus ranks as a diminishing order of gravity, with the state and party affiliation of the U.S. senators most likely to promote them:
Voluntary Murder, Genesis 4:10 (D-N.Y.)
Sodomy, Genesis 18:20-21 (D-Calif.)
Affliction of Widows and Orphans, Exodus, 21-23 (R-Tex.)
Cheating a Laborer of His Just Wage, Deuteronomy 24-25 (R-S.C.)
Try as I might, I can’t find much that’s entertaining in any of these. This explains why I failed in my brief foray into writing speeches for politicians, and why I’ve turned my attention in these articles to quite a different catalogue: The Seven Corporal and the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. Together, they make up a fairly exhaustive list of the good deeds a Christian’s expected to perform, and will have to answer questions about come the day of Judgment. (Think of them as CliffsNotes for the exam.)
I like to imagine the faithful women who’d found the empty tomb coming back with the apostles — who mostly hung back at the sight of this stunning miracle. Except for Peter, who blundered right in, picked up the winding sheet ("First-class relic!"), broke up the stone for sale at the Vatican gift shop, and found on the floor the following "To Do" list, which I’ve helpfully annotated, and will cover in detail throughout the spring:
The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy:
1. Convert the Sinner: Make sure she doesn’t convert you.
2. Instruct the Ignorant: No evangelizing over the top of the bathroom stall.
3. Counsel the Doubtful: Without using phrases like, "Trust me."
4. Comfort the Sorrowful: You think you got troubles? Check out this bunion!
5. Bear Wrongs Patiently: By counting to very high numbers before you explode.
6. Forgive Injuries: But insist on perfect contrition.
7. Pray for the living and the dead: "I’ll pray for you . . . Bless your heart!"
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:
1. Feed the Hungry: Send Harry and David baskets.
2. Give Drink to the Thirsty: Buy kegs for college freshmen.
3. Clothe the Naked: . . . with those Speedos you’ve no business wearing.
4. Shelter the Homeless: Probably not in your guest room.
5. Visit the Sick: But leave your hand puppets at home.
6. Visit Those in Prison: But no jokes about dropping the soap.
7. Bury the Dead: Except not secretively, all around your property.
I look forward to working my way with sensitivity and care through these solemn obligations of the baptized Christian, with helpful hints on how to accomplish them with minimal personal inconvenience or transformation. If you’re like me, you like yourself just fine the way you are. You want perfection? See you in Purgatory.