My church in downtown Nashua is a reverent, slightly battered Irish parish, with painted wood that bravely substitutes for marble, a bathroom that always smells funky, and a mostly empty rectory. Built for ten or twelve, the red brick fortress houses two of the best priests in our diocese, who offer the Latin Mass twice a month, assisted by a surprisingly able choir. The pastor is brisk and informative in his sermons. He’s also a bit of a “card”; a late vocation who used to belong to a rock band, he’s said to vent excess energies by hammering his old drum set. (At least, that’s what the associate pastor says.)
This Sunday past completed the Octave of Easter, which the pastor taught us serves in a sense like one long liturgical “day.” I didn’t know that, I said to myself, resolving to put something extra into the basket: The laborer is worthy of his hire. But I got something more from the Mass that day, an insight into a spiritual issue I struggle with, that writhes at the heart of the things I write, the arguments I get into, the doubts I fight against. This insight came to me during the Mass, although it has taken some days to fully articulate it to myself. That in itself is unusual; most times if I can’t figure out a theological problem in 20 seconds, I dismiss it as an irresolvable mystery, or at any rate something a council or ex cathedra statement will have to sort out some day.
But the conflict I encountered this past Sunday is one that pervades our life and faith as Catholics, and I don’t think it’s one I’ll see resolved this side of the grave: the tension between the orders of Nature and Redemption, between God’s Creation and Crucifixion, and the claims they make upon us.
It started with the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which was brief and went like this:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need (Acts 4:32-35).
This apostolic model of Christian life has clearly had its echoes through the centuries in the form of monastic life and mendicant orders and the ongoing aspiration of Christian thinkers that societies formed by men of faith make provision for those in need — something largely unknown in pagan Rome, where the only charity provided to the poor came in the form of bread and circuses, dished out to keep the mob from storming the Capitoline.
What is more, for many Christians, the fact that the Church in its earliest (and, presumably, purest) days practiced voluntary communism would serve as a rebuke, a perfect model from which the hierarchical, manifestly unequal societies of Christendom had fallen through human sin. Medieval heretics and orthodox mendicants alike aspired to apostolic poverty, and movements such as the Beghards and the Beguines spread the idea that true Christians even among the laity would share in this aspiration. The most radical of the Franciscans, who split from the recognized order and called themselves the “Spirituals,” went so far as to say that owning private property itself was a mortal sin.
The political implications of this were clear, and clearly dangerous, to the Christian authorities of Church and State; as Norman Cohn documents in The Pursuit of the Millennium, most of the movements that embraced ideas like these, from the Spirituals to the Flagellants, got mired in heretical anti-clericalism and sometimes resorted to violent revolutionary politics. (They also displayed a disconcerting proclivity for attacking and sacking the local Jews.)
These movements were quashed, but their spirit reappeared with the Peasants Revolt in Reformation Germany, and again among radical Protestants in the English Civil War. The notion that inequality and property were sinful structures went on to infuse the socialist movements, until at last Karl Marx claimed as his motto, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
That’s almost enough to sour a soul on the ideal of equality. But still, a small voice speaks to you when you hear this Scripture reading: The apostles lived this way. Are we sure they were wrong? That their mode of life is suited only for men in religious vows? Are you sure that isn’t a copout?
In fact, there is a deeply Christian impulse toward detachment from things of the flesh, toward focus on the next life rather than this one. One sees it, for instance, in the (frankly creepy) longing felt by some saints like Teresa of Avila for martyrdom during childhood. In its deeper, more serious forms (like her adult spiritual writings and those of St. John of the Cross), the urge toward renunciation, the willing embrace of suffering and mortification, make up a major strain in Catholic spirituality. Think of St. Ignatius’s infamous Third Degree of Humility, the deal-killer for me at my one and only Ignatian retreat:
In order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobrium with Christ replete with it rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.
(I was so scandalized by this that I could only retain my good opinion of the Jesuits by meditating on the exquisite Baroque churches they had built, their role in the court of Louis XIV, and their presence as chaplains on the ships of the Spanish Armada. But that’s another story.)
As I chewed this biblical cud at Communion time, something else happened that brought home to me the reasons for my resistance. A mother was hauling her squirming, adorable two-year-old blonde daughter up the aisle. The child, with the face of a Renaissance angel, was terrified, and squalled with perfect clarity that echoed off the walls. “But what about my toys? I want my toys!” She was scared to leave them behind, afraid her trip up to the altar of the Lord would take some joys out of her youth.
St. Augustine might have muttered to himself (as he did when he spoke of crying infants) that original sin was clearly operative even before the age of reason. But I had a different reaction: I wanted to run up and kiss the little girl. Her reaction to leaving the pew echoed my feelings about the reading. Her fear was palpable, and her mother kindly reassured her that her toys would still be there when they got back. (How unlike certain parishes I remember from NYC . . .)
And I couldn’t help thinking: Doesn’t God feel the same way toward us? While surely there is evidence of the Fall in the inordinate, obsessive attitudes we can take toward earthly pleasures — aren’t they also thumbprints left behind when He created us? If pleasures are only put here as hurdles for us to jump over, snares we are meant to renounce, then how can we justify offering them to our children, our friends, our lovers? Most of the simple acts of kindness and charity we perform in daily life consist of giving each other such pleasures — cooking a tasty meal, providing a spouse the pleasure of . . . well, let’s just say a back rub. If the truly Christian thing is to disdain and despise such things, and suffering is (as the Rev. Frederick Faber once was bold enough to write) “the only currency acceptable in Heaven,” then what business have we making the lives of others more pleasant?
I’ve written before, with blistering sarcasm:
If suffering is such a good thing, why keep it to ourselves? If it’s the key to salvation, we should be spreading it, far and wide. Instead of serving as the single largest social welfare agency in the world — running hospitals, clinics, hospices, and shelters on six continents — all with the goal of diminishing suffering, the Church ought to be promoting it.
This tension between the wholesome, animal drives God implanted in us through His creation and the call of Christian perfection isn’t one I can resolve in the next 20 seconds, so I’ll leave it to the reader to sort out the conflict between the apostolic aspirations of serious Christians and the innocence of a child, “for of such is the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:16).