Several years ago, as I have heard tell, my formidable old professor of medieval Italian literature, Robert Hollander, was reading Chaucer, and he fell to weeping because the Christian faith that animated the poet was so beautiful, and he, the professor, could not share it. It was the same man who, when he first visited the University of Dallas, came back home to Princeton and said to his friend, a scholar of Cervantes, that he had finally found the school where they should have taught, rather than wasting their careers in the Ivy League. I’ve no doubt he’d have said the same had he visited us at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.
And here I am struck by something I find hard to explain or to understand. As I write, the Supreme Court is rumored to be about to deny that abortion is a fundamental moral right, protected by the Constitution. It will be a welcome retrenchment of the Court’s long-standing tyranny—I use the word in its ancient Greek sense, for a man is a tyrannos not because he is cruel, though such men often are, but because he exercises power outside of proper authority. Pisistratus was a generous and enlightened tyrant. Our Court has, I believe, been a soft-headed, capricious, and darksome tyrant, exercising authority that properly belongs to legislatures and executives. A lawyer’s province is the law, not the culture, nor even, except in an indirect way, the common good.
Protestors are set to spray-paint church doors, disrupt Mass, shout obscenities and absurdities, and in general make themselves appear as ghoulish as the thing they are defending. I’m well aware that they do not regard it that way. We rarely smell our sins as they are. There will always be some cheap rhetorical cologne to splash them with, or a clothespin for the nose.
Still, there are pictures of unborn children in the womb. As early as eight weeks in, you are looking at a being that is obviously human, with arms and legs, toes and fingers, a head, a face, and eyes. A little later on, he will be sucking the thumb, practicing in the womb what will soon be his sole means of nourishment. The child is strange and familiar at once. Set aside all the muddle of your fears and desires, your resentment, your self-opinion, your politics, whatever. Look at that child. That was you, that was me.
Nothing else that we know of is like him. He possesses, in latency, the developing powers of a mind capax universi: capable of apprehending a universe of existent things. He possesses, in latency, the soul capable of grasping itself; of conceiving objects not bounded by matter; of reflecting his Creator by the works of his hands, his heart, and his imagination; of promising itself in duty; and handing itself over in love. Surely, we have here infinite riches in a little room. And he is our brother.
What strikes me is that, in all my life, I have never heard a single supporter of the abortion license describe that child as beautiful. If you must level an old neighborhood to build an airport, you may mourn for the houses to be razed, the streams to be choked up, the contours of the land to be effaced, the human memories to be obliterated. We would consider it rather monstrous in you if you did not do so.
But the supporters of the license to kill the unborn child do not do so. They do not say, “You are right to see the beauty, your affections are just and fitting, and your moral system is admirable. It is, however, too difficult for man. We cannot live by it. We are too weak.”
It is the same for our Faith. What about it is not beautiful and filled with hope?
I can understand why someone might say that the Christian story is too good to be true: a God of love, the Creator, nearer to us than we are to ourselves; man, made in God’s image, fallen into sin and yet still dear, and so beloved by his Maker that God Himself would deign to be born as a mere child in this cold and hard-hearted world, would teach a doctrine at once obvious to man (because man was made for it) and yet world-shaking, such as the noblest and wisest of the philosophers could not reach (because it is in fact divine); that He would suffer mockery and persecution, and be condemned by His own people, and yet would say, from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; that He would die, and rise again from the tomb, not as a specter, and not as a resuscitated mortal, but in a glorified body, unto life eternal; that He would promise to all who love God a share in that life; that faith is true and hope is not in vain; that the first and last word on all things is the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
I can understand why my good old professor wept. I cannot understand the contempt. I cannot understand the desperate hope that there should be no hope.
Someone may say that the view of the faith is marred by the faces of its followers. No doubt it is. I am ever in fear that some unconsidered word, some uncharitable response to uncharity, some smartly foolish rejoinder to folly, will put a stumbling stone in the path of a brother or sister on the way to salvation. But we also seek to see the worst, and even a Mother Teresa has not escaped vilification. And then there is the face of Jesus; and the face of the unborn child.
Perhaps we should do better to tell stories, and by the unassuming beauty of an imagined life lived according to the moral law, attract our fellow dwellers in this shabby and dismal and irritable and languid world. Imagine, then, that boys and girls take for granted that they are meant to fall in love with one another. Imagine that there is an arc to their growth and their developing sexual powers. Imagine that they understand, when the first stirrings of adulthood begin to change their bodies forever, that they are rather like embryos in the womb, only beginning to learn what it really means to be a man meant for a woman, or a woman meant for a man.
Imagine that they therefore begin, with much trepidation, some embarrassment, much bashfulness, some tears, and a great lot of mirth, to learn to dance, to behave with comely modesty, to enjoy the company of the other sex, to be grateful for the differences, to open the heart to the possibility of love, to hold hands, even to kiss. Imagine that there is an aim to all this blossoming-forth in the womb of adolescence, and that the boys and girls know well what it is.
Imagine that instead of amputating their powers by pornography, and searing the wound with listlessness, and stumbling or bullying their way into bed with someone they do not love and will not live with forever, full of dark memories and regrets at the best, apathy at the worst, the boy and girl, now tall and ready for true life, though their voices are young and their faces are fresh, stand innocent before the altar and pledge themselves to one another forever.
Imagine that the wedding day is more than for legalizing and publicizing an accomplished fact, or for a party that is all the more expensive for its being sapped of significance. Imagine that it is the great end of one story, its consummation in fact, and the beginning of a new one, and that the children, children no more in body though they are yet young in soul, will soon be welcoming a new child into their midst, a new consummate mystery and wonder.
That is no airy and idealistic story. It is and has been accomplished even by fallen man, with the grace of God. And all our preaching on the family, and all our customs regarding the sexes, and all the laws that corroborate those customs, should be aimed at making that story more immediate and present to the imagination, and more common in realization; just as we want the beautiful and not the grim, the ghastly, the obscene, and the spiritually exhausted; as we want the child to live and not die.
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