False comfort

My latest column at Catholic Thing would seem to be on “False comfort” — or, comforts; I was unsure whether to use the singular or plural in the title I suggested. There is a Whole Earth Catalogue of potential false comforts, indeed:

“There are so many ways to derive false comfort from the situation of the Catholic Church today — in Canada, USA, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain, &c — that one becomes bewildered sometimes, trying to choose between them. Each is so easy to kick away. …”

On reflection, they are all variations on the same old false comfort, & so the singular was more appropriate. One might call it “worldly optimism.” Those who put their hope in the things of this world are at an intrinsic disadvantage to those who don’t, in the prospect of Futurity. This is something clearly explained through the Gospels, & supported through Epistles, Fathers & Doctors, & in every other orthodox expression of the Catholic Christian faith. But it is not something people readily understand.

That, I suspect, is one of the reasons persons confronting personal, familial, or societal disaster so often turn to God. For that is what it takes for them to get it. There may have been a glimmer of understanding, but it took disaster to bring it home: that there is nothing in & of this world to which we may look with security for salvation.

Which is not to contradict the extraordinary beauty of this world, & the goodness & truth we may well have found here. These things are transient. They are our “intimations of immortality,” but not the thing itself. There are moments, even down here on Earth, when time stands still for us. Often they seem absurd, & thus irrelevant to the lives we are leading. From the “no nonsense” mind they may be dismissed as trivial, as “something I must have eaten,” the way Scrooge rejects his own visitation in the Christmas Carol. The word “sublime” has been used to describe the scenery in such moments, where the word “beautiful” seems no longer to suffice. They remain in the memory, from time but dislocated: as if with no before, no after, only a “during.” I associate them with the light of grace, which shines beyond space & time, into the little box of our creaturely nesting; through its walls. No human born was ever deprived of such glimpses of Paradise; I am convinced by both faith & experience that this is the case. But what do we make of it?

There is one way to turn: towards Christ, & with him through the Cross of Calvary to the Resurrection. But what is the alternative?

A close friend of a close friend recently committed suicide. To the mind of reason, this is “the ultimate subjective act,” in contrast to murder, “the ultimate objective act.” See: T.G. Masaryk, whose pioneering sociological work, Suicide & the Meaning of Civilization (Vienna 1881, translated 1970) was effectively plagiarized but mangled by Durkheim a decade later. Masaryk I think nailed the key feature in societies that were liberalizing, industrializing, & becoming “agnostic” & “post-Protestant.” It was the extraordinary spike in the suicide statistics, to levels inconceivable in any “traditional society.” This was the key indicator of “progress,” as it were.

It is the key indicator for hope in this world, as I have come to realize, thinking back over the list of people I have known, who succumbed to their despair when faced with a disaster beyond their capacity to assimilate: selbstmord, “self murder.” To the older Catholic mind, this was the worst form of murder imaginable. For no greater rejection of God can be imagined.

Conversely joy, & especially joy in real adversity, is the mark of true belief. (“By their fruits ye shall know them.”) We cannot possibly count on happy times, ahead of us in this world; or even on happier times, should they depend on our own contrivance. But if we set our sights farther, it might not be so bad.