Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Most Constructive Thing?

Caryll Houselander wrote this in a letter in January, 1944 in a discussion about what she saw as the necessity of reordering her life after the war to be as worthwhile as possible.
What I mean is that it is my absolute belief that Christianity alone can do any good in the world now; and when I say "do any good," I do not mean--produce economic reform, or better drains, or a fuller medical service, or brighter trade unions. I'm not meaning to belittle such reforms, etc., but whereas they have come to mean everything to a lot of thinking people, I believe that they would be the inevitable result of Christianity, but aiming at them without a very definite Christianity first is futile. What I do mean by Christianity is: 
(a) First of all what Christ taught. We can't solve half the problems asking for solutions, but He knows all the answers; and in any case a Christian state or world, built on one or two things He taught, plus a vague desire for a "better world," is nonsense.
Secondly (or "b"!): by Christianity I mean a faith which will give some coherent answer to the difficulties about suffering, the suffering of innocence in particular: that will give people comfort in suffering (in the true sense of the word "comfort," i.e. "to make strong"): that will guarantee and somehow keep fast the ideal of love, and will keep human love and [love of] the world as its first value, and which will increase life, spiritual and physical, at all times, in all circumstances.
This entire passage sounds very familiar and timely, and it seems to me that so much of what we see and hear about today from both political parties, and, indeed, from many prayerful and serious Christians is the exact opposite of what she is saying. It is her second (or "b"!) point that really strikes me. How seldom, instead of the hubris that assumes we can end suffering, do we hear someone say that we should do something that will comfort (make strong) people in their suffering. Can you imagine the response to a politician, or even a religious leader, who recommended that? I think that this was very much the ministry of Mother Teresa, and I think that this was part of the reason why some people hated her so much. 
It would take too long to enlarge on what a blessing to mankind other things in our Faith are, such as sorrow for sin, for instance. But what I want to explain is that I think myself that the most constructive thing one can do in this world is to make the Christian Faith known to English people. I have been absolutely astonished during this war to find how very few of the people who talk about a better world based on Christianity have even a rough idea of what Christ taught--other than a very vague idea that it is "love"; and I have met more than one who thinks the "love" means the same thing as a slap and tickle on Hampstead Heath!
The most constructive thing, she says is to make the Christian Faith known. And really, for most of us it is the most obvious thing we can do. We can live in such a way that our faith is visible, and we can learn what the Church teaches (and this is a never-ending process) so that when the opportunity arises we can explain what we believe. And the opportunity will arise. Sometimes, it's just a matter of not doing what everybody else is doing--of making yourself the center of attention when you really would rather just sink into the floor. Sometimes it comes in an adversarial way and you have to really focus on that hidden Christ in the person you are talking to to be able remain non-adversarial yourself. And sometimes, it's surprisingly easy, the words just seem to come of their own volition.

One thing that I do along these lines is teach PRE in my parish. I have to tell you that many years, I just really do not want to do it, and even during the years when I want to do it, there are many Sundays when I don't want to. It takes time and energy that I would like to use for other things. It requires me to be there week after week when I would sometimes like to go away for a weekend. It's expensive. The only way I can teach is by using way more stuff than I would expect the parish to pay for. But now, after several years of teaching the First Communion class, I sit in Mass and watch the children go up to receive, and I've taught lots of them, and I know that they have at least heard what the Church teaches about the Eucharist and many other things even though I don't know for sure if they remember.

So, I didn't have any intention when I started writing this post to end with a pitch for religious education teachers, but it seems to be where I've ended up. I know that you don't want to do it. You probably think that you can't it, I know that I thought that. But if you know your faith and you have the least ability to teach, I hope you will consider it, because it's almost a given that your parish is begging for teachers. It's also almost a given that many of the people who are teaching have never been taught themselves, and they could use some help. If we want to have mature Christians who know their faith and better liturgy and enough priests, and for that matter, economic reforms and better drains and fuller medical service, somebody has got to get in their and teach those children.



  1. John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame says that all reform of the Church starts as educational reform.

  2. We can certainly see how that has worked in the opposite direction in the past 40 years.

    I'm curious about how broad his definition of education is.

    I think that education is certainly important, but I'm just not sure that that is where reform starts. It may be the place where it becomes visible, but I wonder if it doesn't start in a more humble way with prayer. Well, I'm pretty sure that it does. Also, I'm thinking about St. Francis.

    Now I have to work.


  3. I'm not going to attempt religious ed again, because I seem to be pretty close to counterproductive at it. But yeah, I very much agree about the most productive thing. I follow current politics with a moderate amount of attention, more than usual lately because the Obama administration's attack on the liberty of the Church seems to me to be a major development. But I find I have lost almost all my appetite for theorizing about the great Catholic civilization we'd like to create. I applaud folks like the Distributist Review and Front Porch Republic but I'm afraid I don't actually read them that much. I'm pretty sure that whatever civilization you're in is going to be pretty much dominated by the world (in the gospel sense).

  4. I think that there probably are people who are called to do things that change the world, but, you know, the world is always changing back. I'm not sure that you can have a nice, peaceful, just society for very long before someone not very nice and very powerful comes to mess it all up.

    I'm pretty sure that what I have to do is try to live the Gospel in whatever messy place I may happen to be.


  5. Yeah, we need those people. There would never be any advances at all, such as ending slavery, without them. But I don't think I'm one of them.