Sense and Nonsense: No Light Sorrow

In an Easter meditation he published in The Tablet of London on April 8, 1939, Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote that in comparison to other political and civil societies in history, the Church has not changed much. The sequence of rebellion and radical change that appears to be inherent in other institutions does not seem so evident in the Church.

We in the Church still recite the same creed. We still believe in life everlasting, in the communion of saints, in the forgiveness of sins, in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. “Those who know her best know that she does not merely continue to exist; she lives. Her vitality is profound, witnessed from age to age not by revolutions or new deals, but by the fresh shoots of devotion and charity which she puts forth continually, age after age.”

This then-contemporary reference to by-gone New Deals and failed revolutions seems both poignant and fitting today when we begin to realize that God is not going to change the world in our way, even if it is sometimes changed to our liking. No doubt the most momentous intellectual event of our time is hardly noticed in the academy because we have no adequate tools with which to measure it. More often we do not want to admit its implications. This event is the academic failure to explain in any even minimal fashion the forces that changed — or better, defeated — Marxism. I tend to think that the failure to explain the failure of Marxism is, in a way, even more momentous than the failure of Marxism as a system, because Marxism from its very beginning has somehow been involved with transcendent spiritual forces.

This failure is momentous, I think, not because we do not know certain economic or political failings in Marxism, but because in knowing these latter, we do not yet suspect what forces breathe in our times behind these factual failings. In our history, we are not alert to the forces that changed the world. “Maybe prayer works” may well be both an explanation and a mystery of world-historical proportions. No scientific proof will corroborate this suspicion, however much we can demonstrate the failures of our normal methods to explain what did happen.

Recently, I was chatting with a colleague of mine about his local parish. His comments were ones that I think might apply to many of our contemporaries who suspect that very often they do not hear preached in their churches or have taught in their schools and universities anything that might relate to their salvation in the accurate light of Christian truth. We are almost never told about our responsibilities to God, but only about political and economic things, and these mostly wrong. When questions of salvation and ultimate meaning come up, one finds oneself, as my friend remarked, turning to one’s reading, to one’s friends, to one’s prayers “for guidance and comfort. I wish that I could turn to my [local] church.”

“My parish is a large one — 2700 families,” my friend explained to me after I asked him to sit down and write briefly the remarks he had just made to me.

It is a busy, busy parish. Much outreach — the poor, the homeless, the singles. There is considerable catechetical activity. The school is a central activity. Classes on Scripture are almost always available. What is not available is teaching for salvation from the pulpit. The pulpit is, for the most part, the source of the two readings, petitions, the Gospel, and a brief and generally indifferent homily, which is normally only a few moments longer than the parish announcements.

Though I suppose all of us could find parishes in which this description is not at all accurate, still we feel the sense of loss. University teaching and sermons, I suspect, are an even bleaker lot, again for the most part.

My friend wondered why this sad situation exists. “I cannot believe that there is a satisfactory excuse for this state of affairs.” I myself, suspicious that my own teaching or preaching does not reflect enough the truths of faith, try to read John Paul II’s various homilies as they appear in my bi-weekly L’Osservatore Romano. Again I realize that the Holy Father does systematically preach to us about the things of our salvation. Why is it in our time, I wonder, that the See of Peter is so strong? Why is it so little listened to? The irony is almost too much to bear.

This unsatisfactory situation in which we are not really spoken to about our lives or taught the truths about our souls means, to continue my colleague’s remarks, that the serious questions of obligations to God, family, society are not clearly dealt with. He continued, “It is from the pulpit that the majesty and the authority of the Church is most clearly manifested, whether it be from the Vatican balcony or the altar of a missionary church. I want to hear from the Church. My salvation may be at stake.”

“In the life of grace, ah, if we could only see it,” Monsignor Knox continued, “there is a perpetual burgeoning of new life, not merely from one Easter to another … but with every worthy reception of the sacraments.” Perhaps this is it, that salvation takes place even when we least suspect its workings. The freedom of God is active in our own freedoms.

“Grace abounds,” as St. Paul said, almost in direct response to these ponderings of a man in an ordinary parish. “From time to time, and not nearly often enough, I remember that I, alone, am responsible for my salvation. This thought is indeed awesome, even though minimized to a great degree by faith in the goodness and mercy of God.” The work of God, the “opus Dei,” is in fact going forward in quiet and even strange places that we do not know of. Pastors and curates who do not preach are listened to by men and women who wonder why they are not told the truth of the faith. This, too, is a grace.

A friend who worries that the truths of salvation are not heard in his busy, busy parish hints at a deeper level that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, disturbing us. We are indeed responsible for our salvation, but the very fact that we can be saved at all, and in what that salvation consists — in all of this we are not alone. God is an actor in history and in our lives. This is what all the examinations of the fall of Marxism do not know how to account for, that something else may be taking place in the world, salvation, our salvation to be exact, something besides the rise and fall of empires.

I am teaching a class on St. Augustine this semester. I am not sure who is more astonished by what we read, the students or me. “What am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and unless I give it to Thee, art angry, and threatenest me with great sorrows? Is it, then, a light sorrow not to love Thee?”

Can we imagine being preached such things from our pulpits? When I read these things to my class, I think, how extraordinary this Augustine! Have these young men and women ever wondered about the “light sorrow”? Have I? The thought that we are responsible for our salvation is indeed mitigated by the thought of the “goodness and mercy of God.”

How does St. Augustine put it? He does not say it is an obligation to love God or to obey Him. He asks himself rather whether it is but “light sorrow” not to love God. The answer he hints at is rather that the sorrow of not loving God is much heavier than we think. This is why almost the very first thing St. Augustine prayed out loud for in the beginning of The Confessions was, “Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first, to call on Thee, or to praise Thee; and likewise to know Thee, or to call upon Thee.” We are, of course, to call upon, to know, and to praise.

On Easter Sunday, Monsignor Knox, reflecting back on the ceremonies of Holy Week, wrote, “We have heard snatches of chants long disused, seen the survivals of ceremonies which belong to an older world than ours. Still, obstinately, the Church takes refuge in her remote past while she announces to us complacently: ‘Christ is risen; all things are made new.'”

The truth of the Resurrection is why Augustine can so poignantly tell us of God that it is indeed not “a light sorrow not to love Thee.”

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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