On doing things

I was “called,” as we say, to Christian belief and faith, but can’t say that I was called specifically to membership in the Catholic Church. That took some time to work out, for I am a slow thinker. To my reasonably certain knowledge, I was never called to the priesthood, nor to monastic life. Nor do I think myself suited to it, for obedience has never been my principal virtue. Prayer itself is a struggle for me; I blow hot and cold. When cold, I may whip myself to do what I ought, but if I then face one of these irreverent “New Masses,” the spirit of holiness does not quickly engulf me. I look at my watch if the homily strays over ten minutes; even if I’m not wearing it. The thought forms: “Look, I am here on business, I’ve been summoned into the Presence of Our Lord. Please don’t try to distract me.”

What I think of the Church, most mornings, in her aspect as a human organization, could be summarized in words I often quote from Hilaire Belloc: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

And yet I am, like any faithful Catholic, drawn short by any priest, acting in persona Christi. Confronted with the long history of Christian monasticism, and mystical works, I cannot possibly be dismissive. Rather, I am in awe.

While a superficial distinction can be made, between holiness in prayer and holiness in action, the contemplative life does not answer to it. Of course, a monastic profession is not free from “work”: nothing that gets you up before five in the morning could be. But by a trite modern notion we have come to understand that prayer is, even if work, effectual only in some “psychological” way. If there is a God, thinks the unreflecting modern, then praying might improve my standing with Him, and make me behave a little better. The Christian idea that it can move mountains is not something we are inclined to entertain. And this because, when push comes to shove, we are utterly faithless.

Holiness, as Freedom and a few other things — everything, actually — is indivisible. We have categories, but should not be under their spell. Though not called to the eremite condition myself, I am not prey to the modern superstition that the silent religious within their enclosures are “irrelevant” to the life of this world. Without them, I think, we are for the boilers. For not only is prayer “real” but — in flat contradiction of modernist individualism — the prayers of others also have effect.

In my piece at Catholic Thing this morning (here) I try to apply this to our current situation. We are passing through a time when, from our organizational summit in Rome, we are darkly warned against the many sins to which we are not tempted.

We are not, so far as I can see, in an age of all-encompassing monasticism, tithing to a Church that is fussily intruding into every aspect of our private lives, and preaching oppressive brimstone from every pulpit. (Nor were we ever, notwithstanding modern myths.) If we were, perhaps some of the latest Apostolic Exhortation would make sense.

Rather, we live in an age of irresponsible glibness, and oppressive faithlessness, towards Christ but also towards our neighbour. This is the circumstance the Church must address, if she is to have any influence on the sordid passage of human events. She must call us to worship, which means prayer. And what we should “do” about the mess around us should emerge from that prayer, not vice versa.