Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some late night blasphemy

Father John's My Life in Christ has been sitting in my bag for about a week. It is nearly 600 pages long, and I should've finished it by Wednesday morning. It is now 4:30am on Thursday and I am on page 17. Mind you, I've already read an entire, rather detailed biography of Father John, which made him out to be, quite rightly, a very interesting figure. But in these 17 pages I've gone from being devastatingly and impossibly bored by this book to nearly furious with it, which strikes me as a less than ideal attitude to take to the work of a Saint, so I'm giving voice to my frustrations here, and perhaps one of you can lead me back.

If My Life in Christ is in any way organized, its organization is not apparent to me. Whether it was written as a collection of personal reflections and edited at the end of his life (it was published while he was alive), written expressly for publication in one furious bout, whether it's a journal from which all dates and narrative anchors have been removed, I do not know. It appears, to me, to be 600 pages of musings on the Gospels, Sacraments, and prayer. It doesn't feel particularly theological, insofar as the language, while heavy with scriptural references, is fairly loose and frustratingly imprecise and open to a variety of interpretations, and its suggestions and urgings for more earnest prayer and attentiveness to God at all times and so on seem at times trite and formulaic. 

The passage that pushed me from irritated boredom into anger follows:
"The miraculous effect of the life-giving Cross upon our souls, tortured by the poison of evil, proves to us most undoubtedly and clearly: (1) That we have indeed a soul, a spiritual being; (2) That there are evil spirits, harming our souls; (3) That God exists and our Lord Jesus Christ, and that He is always with us through His Divinity; and (4) That He has indeed accomplished our salvation by His sufferings and death on the Cross, and has destroyed the power of the Devil by means of the Cross. How many proofs of the advantage of our faith there are in the wonderful action upon us of the life-giving Cross alone! Glory be to the Christian faith!"
For whom are such words written? To whom are such words convincing? Are they for those already firm in their faith? Are they for Father John himself? Are they for the doubter? Are they a rhetorical flourish? They're certainly not for the heretics, the unbelievers, the lost. Father John died in 1908; he did not have the luxury of living in Christian ubiquity (though really, who did?). I certainly don't expect every work to be an apologia, but time and again I wonder why is there so much willful naivete, blindness, false consciousness, in so much Christian writing? Yes, there are works to which we can turn for strength, examples to which we ought look to show the way, but I am frustrated.

My gut says I am frustrated because Father John "got away with" saying things my atheist friends would never let me say without expecting full exegesis including metaphysics, Christology, ecclesiology, Church history, and rebuttals of whatever cockamaimey strawmen of Christianity they've picked up in the past twenty years (which, let me tell you, 99.99% of the time, I cannot deliver). They end up scornful and disdaining both me and Christianity; I end up writhing in self-hatred and dreading with a fear and a loathing my soul has rarely known the next inevitable interrogation. My mind says he didn't "get away" with anything; he simply had a courage and a boldness I lack (and certainly a much sounder and fuller theological education). I suppose I'm just (unfairly) disappointed that, at least in this book, he's not giving me much in the way of ammunition, and perhaps even incredibly unjustly ashamed, knowing, as I do, that if atheists read this it would be more likely to turn them away than make them think again.
"Why does the Lord allow there to be poor? For your good, so that you may be cleansed from your sins and expiate them, 'for alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin'; so that you may win suppliants who will pray for you in the persons of those upon whom you bestow your charity, so that the Lord may be merciful to you. 'Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.'

Why does the Lord allow people to be poor? For the same reason, amongst others, that He does not make you righteous all at once according to your wish. God might have made all men well off, even rich; but then a great forgetfulness of God would have arisen, and pride, envy, etc., would have increased. And you would have thought too highly of yourself had the Lord made you soon righteous. But as sin humbles you, showing you your great infirmity, impurity, and constant need of God and His grace, so likewise the poor man is humbled by poverty and his need of other people. If the poor were to be enriched, many of them would forget God and their benefactors, would ruin their souls in the luxury of this world. So destructive are riches, and so do they blind the spiritual vision! They make the heart gross and ungrateful!"
Does it make me a hopeless modern that the first paragraph leaves me uneasy? Perhaps. Even the second one seems to veer dangerously toward, "they're poor because they are particularly broken, and need this extra special cross to compensate," which I know cannot be what he is suggesting, because to suggest that anyone deserves poverty seems to chafe against the idea that all material things are His, and none of us have any real claim to any of them, which is why we ought help them from their poverty, which Father John himself did probably with more fervor and success than any one of his contemporaries. It is apparent to anyone with even a basic understanding of Christianity that we do not laud material comfort and acquisitiveness, but isn't poverty most fruitful when knowingly chosen? I don't understand his purpose in discussing all these easily confused ideas at once, right after suggesting that the poor exist only for the salvation of the wealthy, which, again, cannot be what he meant.

I have no real basis for complaint, because even though I grow more and more confused with each passing day, honestly I do very little to try to find clarity, precision, understanding. So here's hoping, then, that this petty wrath of mine will lead to something a bit better down the road, now that I've set this all down.
Edit: reading the first passage I quoted over again, I think I simply resented his joy. I really have nothing to say to that.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,
    you may remember giving me lit advice a few months ago. Now I'm just dropping in to pester you with some annoying pious platitudes.

    So here goes:
    I) I got my knowledge of St. John of Kronstadt from your snippets in the past few days and maybe 10 minutes on the Internet, so I'm probably talking through my backside here. That said these snippets seem addressed to people intellectually convinced of the faith but still occasionally struggling with the act of believing it. Incidentally that is a good description of me. From that perspective "The miraculous effect of the life-giving Cross upon our souls, tortured by the poison of evil" i.e. the sacraments, prayer &c. go a lot further to disposing of my questions ("proving" 1-4) than rehashing intellectual answers does. Similarly with the question of poverty: It's a legitimate question to ask, but despairing over it in the abstract sees the poor as a social problem rather than a neighbor to relate to (first paragraph) and entrenches a mindset where wealth is more important than virtue (second paragraph). So perhaps these are answers not so much to abstract questions themselves as to people who would seek counsel on them from a saint.

    II) St. Philipp Neri allegedly claimed to make important decisions by thinking of what St. Ignatius would do and then doing the opposite. Both of them, b.t.w. where undoubtedly apeshit crazy. Now you Orthodox folks probably like your saints with a bit less variety than that but I still think it's a fair point that saintliness doesn't remove individuality. Indeed individuality is part of the point: with so many saints to choose from everyone can find a sympathetic intercessor. Also, saints can be cripples, right? So what should bar them from being bad writers?

    So if you find this saint's writing boring and annoying, well maybe it's just not for you. Which surely sucks if you have to write on it, but it would be nothing to beat yourself up about morally.

    III) I'm on shaky ground here because I'm generalizing from myself, but I for one am not good at separating my feelings on different things. When I'm stressed out (like, um, back when I wrote my thesis) I get grumpy at everything and everybody. So maybe you're not really resenting Father John's joy but it's just general situational and non-sinful resentment spilling over. If so it's again no ground for self-flagellation. Just finish the @§$%&! thesis, then drink, then sleep and then maybe wonder if there is any anger left to deal with.

    IV) Well, your atheist friends still come back for more, don't they? So maybe you're more convincing than you think you are. I think the point is in making them care because in the end they can read up just as easily as you can. And I'll say you're obviously good enough at that to make me a little envious. For illustration, back when I stumbled on this here blog, not only did I hit you up for lit advice, I also spent more than an hour on Youtube trying to figure out what's so great about Tom Waits. The answer seems to be (*duck*) nothing, but the point is I had to make sure of that because (as more justifiedly with Russian books) you had me worried I was missing something. So I reckon if you say something Christian-sounding to your atheist friends they actually get unsettled. While if I do same it's more like "yeah, he has that weird hangup, but otherwise he's mostly sane".

    Now I would wish you luck with the thesis if I thought you needed it but I'll just wish you success.

    Get it over with, embrace the suck, but don't mistake it for yourself. Or maybe ignore this and do something better, because I really don't know what I'm talking about. I'll be lighting a candle for you.