The Dark Night of the Civilization

I’ve lived through a lot of Lents, but none has felt quite like this one. Most years, we try as well or badly as we can to follow Christ a few steps into the desert — dipping our toes in the sand of some manageable sacrifice, penance, or works of charity. We give up some of the things that God made, and which are good, for the sake of something better — closeness to Him.
And it works for us, or it doesn’t. Either way, at Easter time, we follow the kindly counsel of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every year at the Russian Catholic parish I attended back in New York:
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! 

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

But this year we don’t have very much choice in the matter of fasting. Economics, politics, culture . . . Lent rains down on us now like bitter manna from heaven. Or else, if you like, it seems that the hedge that God had built around us has been uprooted, and we are now put to the test. Will we, stripped of every consolation and earthly hope, emerge purified and stronger? Or will we curse God and die? I really can’t say.
This drama played out in a conversation between two Catholics I know, which I’ll try to reproduce here. (The names have been changed to protect the immanent.)
Franz: I’m done. Finito, like Mussolini. I really just can’t afford to worry about what happens in politics anymore. Our situation is, humanly speaking, hopeless, and I’m not going to sit around waiting for a miracle. This isn’t my country anymore — I just happen to live here under occupation.
Rayne: Really? I’m sure God will be very pleased to hear that He has exhausted your patience.
Franz: He can think as He likes. He surely will. And maybe He’ll punish me for this — I can’t control that. Or anything else. I’ve finally gotten around to admitting that, and now I’m going to try my best to stop caring. I want to just go live in a city with pretty buildings, read Evelyn Waugh and Tolkien . . . and drown my hopes in bourbon. I’m glad I don’t have any kids for the future to experiment on.
Rayne: Good luck. You’ve got activism down in the marrow of your bones.
Franz: It has just been burned out. I’ve been active in pro-life politics for . . . let me count . . . 33 years. That’s as long as Jesus walked the earth. And things are worse than ever, with absolutely no prospect of anything changing. The Supreme Court will soon be stacked with enough pro-abortion judges to keep the issue away from the voters for the rest of my natural life. The president just appointed as head of Health and Human Services a so-called Catholic who has as one of her close friends perhaps the worst abortionist in the country — some guy who has done over 70,000 of them, including ninth-month, partial-birth procedures. And Obama the Messiah plans to push the government into every corner of the medical industry, using the massive taxes he’s going to impose on every citizen who pokes his head up out of middle-class misery. How long do you think Catholic hospitals will survive that kind of pressure? At best, they will close. At worst, they’ll cave.
Rayne: So we won’t have Catholic hospitals. That will be sad, but health care isn’t the Church’s primary calling. We’re here to preach the Gospel.
Franz: Along the way, we also built a civilization, and it’s one I’m kind of attached to. No, I’ll go further — it’s what attracted some of us in the first place. Maybe I’m not typical, but what kept me interested in the Church through all the kumbaya/Sandinista nonsense that was Catholic school in the 1970s was the gorgeous evidence of Christian culture: Gregorian chant, chivalry, Gothic cathedrals, Flemish Madonnas, illuminated manuscripts, the solemn Latin liturgy, Mozart’s Masses, Raphael’s frescos, Zurbaran’s crucifixions . . .
Rayne: So you’re in it for the art?
Franz: And what the art represents: a civilization where individuals matter, where they can better their lives and look out for their families, where the State doesn’t take all their wealth, or micromanage their lives, where they have the right to stand up to unlawful authority and say, “Hell no.” The cussed stubbornness of English yeomen and Swiss villagers when faced with tyranny — which we carried over here in America, in our Yankee Protestant style. We Catholics put our own stamp on that when our bishops told us that Prohibition was an unjust law, and we didn’t have to obey it. That was the proudest moment in American Catholic history.
Rayne: Ha. Let me go get a drink.
Franz: Enjoy. I gave it up for Lent.
Rayne: Psych!
Franz: Why don’t you go comfort Job?
Rayne: Touché.
Franz: I’ll admit, my path into the Church isn’t everyone’s.
Rayne: Didn’t you once say that you’d choked down the Beatitudes for the sake of the Crusades?
Franz: I will neither confirm nor deny that statement. But yes. If Christianity really did boil down to what the Quakers say, I would persecute it myself.
Rayne: You’d feed such people to the lions?
Franz: No. They might make the poor lions sick. The thing that the liberals and biblical critics are always sniping at, the “Constantinian Church” — that’s the only Church I know or want to know.
Rayne: Perhaps its day has passed.
Franz: Yeah, maybe we’ll end up squatting in catacombs, scrawling lambs on the walls of subway tunnels.
Rayne: Those “churches” will still be more reverent than the quarter-billion dollar cathedrals they build nowadays . . .
Franz: Which are meant to look like . . . catacombs. How fitting — since buildings like that are really a kind of auto-persecution, of the Church by churchmen.
Rayne: Amen, brother.
Franz: Don’t worry — they’ll soon be mosques. The problem is, the same thing is probably true of Chartres, Westminster Cathedral, the Escorial . . . Our mother continent is being swamped by an enemy civilization, and it’s going down without a fight. Really, the only “hope” for Europe is that its Muslims get infected by European values and stop having children. In a war between Islam and the Culture of Death . . . it’s almost hard to know who to root for.
Rayne: At least that’s not happening in America.
Franz: No, you’re right. Here we aren’t importing jihad, thank God. What we are doing is throwing away a flawed but functional culture in favor of some polyglot multicultural nightmare that will end up like Lebanon. We’re too lazy to mow our own lawns, too cheap to pay Americans decent wages to do it, so we’re importing the population of chaotic, impoverished countries — who will bring with them the same civic values that currently have drug gangs controlling the northern quarter of Mexico. Hardworking as the first generation of immigrants are, their kids too often grow up and assimilate to gang culture and the welfare state. They keep the benches warm in church for one generation — so our bishops want to keep the border open. Meanwhile, the former “majority” in the country is going to end up like the white farmers in Zimbabwe.
Rayne: So where does that leave you?
Franz: Pretty close to the mouth of a .45, frankly.
Rayne: Thank God for the doctrine of hell!
Franz: It has saved better men than me.
Rayne: Aren’t you overlooking something?
Franz: Oh yeah — our imperial, delusionary foreign policy that’s going to push us into war with Iran, or Russia, or China . . . whomever the neocons pick by throwing darts at their Risk board pinned to the wall.
Rayne: Shut up!
Franz: Okay, what?
Rayne: That auto-persecution. It’s ending, isn’t it? Would you ever, in 1980, have imagined that after — just by the way — Communism imploded, that the Latin Mass would be liberated, that orthodox religious orders would be the only ones that were growing, while the liberal groups were busy trying to hire people to wipe the corners of their mouths while they faded out of existence?
Franz: No, I wouldn’t.
Rayne: Well, culture comes from “cult,” doesn’t it?
Franz: Er, yes.
Rayne: Worship first, action later. St. Benedict before St. Joan of Arc.
Franz: Okay . . .
Rayne: Then maybe God’s sowing the seeds of hope everywhere. And that smell you keep complaining about? Well, think of it as fertilizer.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.