Monday, June 9, 2014

Lessons from Lord of the World

"There was the Catholic Faith, more certain to him than the existence of himself; it was true and alive.  He might be damned, but God reigned.  He might go mad, but Jesus Christ was Incarnate Deity, proving Himself so by death and Resurrection, and John his Vicar.  These things were as the bones of the Universe--facts beyond doubting--if they were not true, nothing anywhere was anything but a dream."

I was in 12th grade English class and we were discussing the subjective meaning of words.  

"Why is it," my teacher posed, "that that chair over there is called 'chair?'  Why don't we call it a 'ball?'"

After a number of questioning stares, he continued on.  "Perhaps what we understand of as 'chair' doesn't even exist.  This idea we have--it's just that, an idea.  Maybe this piece of metal in front of me, which we use to sit on, should be called something else.  Maybe there is no such thing as a 'chair.'"

And so went on the rest of that class.  The takeaway lesson: meaning is unstable.  

It was my first introduction to deconstructionism.  

I vividly remember a classmate yelling out exasperatedly, as the bell rang, "So is anything true?!"

Our reading that year included Derrida, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Vonnegut.

As all of reality seemed to be called into question, I found myself remembering more and more that inquiry of Pilate's: "What is truth?"  And while the class's probing into meaning caused a kind of existentialistic crisis for some students, if anything, I found it oddly reassuring.  To me, it was all quite simple.  Truth isn't a "what," it is a "Who."  

We had a large, end-of-the-year paper due, on a topic of our choice.  I decided to write mine on the subject of physical objects versus words: which is more real, more true?  My conclusion: both are true because truth lies in the one who is Truth, who is the Word made Flesh.

I went to a public high school and, in many ways, I think it did more for my faith than if I had attended a Catholic school.  Faith became something internalized to me then, a self-identification when there was so much contrary to the Faith in the ideas, words, and actions around me.  

I never had any idea what a treasure I had been given.  I have a bit more of an inclination now, but still not enough.

That next year, when I was a freshman in college, I began dating a man who was an agnostic, soon-to-become atheist.  He had so many questions for me about about the Faith.  My answers weren't sufficient for him--in part because, while I believed, I couldn't defend.  Faith is based on reason, and I didn't know how to explain the reasonableness of it all.  

But my answers were also insufficient because, while he was certainly intelligent enough, he lacked faith.  It would have helped my discussions with him if I had possessed a PhD in theology, no doubt about that.  Yet, all the degrees and knowledge in the world can never fill the place of faith.

"Well, they say there is a thing called Faith--a kind of deep conviction unlike anything else--supernatural--which God is supposed to give to people who desire it--to people who pray for it, and lead good lives, and so on...Well, this Faith, acting upon what they call Evidence--this Faith makes one absolutely certain that there is a God, that He was made man and so on, with the Church and all the rest of it..." 

Fr. Robert Hugh Benson wrote Lord of the World in 1907.  The futuristic novel is set in what is now our past--it takes place around the year 2000.  Many call the novel prophetic, as Benson describes with an eery realism many facets of contemporary culture, from technological advances (modern highways, weapons of mass destruction, airplanes--or "volors") to the Culture of Death (there are places called "Homes of Rest" where people can be euthanized).  

Benson also foresaw the crisis in faith that we observe today.  Many leave the Church for the new religion: Humanitarianism.  Their creed is, "Man is God."  This religion says that the supernatural doesn't exist and worldly peace, without any division in the brotherhood of man, is the ultimate purpose.

"...the primary lesson of the gospel [was] that there was no God but man, no priest but the politician, no prophet but the schoolmaster."

"There is no Faith, as we used to call it: it is the vision of Facts that no one can doubt..."

Catholicism shifts from being a minority religion to a persecuted religion.  All are obligated to attend the new public worship on the Feast of Paternity and those who refuse will be jailed.  And, when an attack on the part of some Catholics is uncovered, the government seeks to totally obliterate Catholicism.

Fr. Percy Franklin finds himself at the heart of the struggle as Julian Felsenburgh, a politician whose eloquent, captivating speeches have enamored the whole word, comes to power.  It is, in fact, not just any struggle, but the ultimate struggle: Felsenburgh is the Anti-Christ and the end is near.

Antichrist and the Devil, Signorelli

All the world is poised against God and His Church.  The logical, reasoned arguments, the allure power and glory, the promise of peace and prosperity: these all seem to lie with Felsenburgh.  Meanwhile, the Church, for all intents and purposes, seems to be falling into shambles as St. Peter's itself is completely decimated...

"Here, then, was the other formulated answer to the problem of life.  The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organized and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in Felsenburgh.  The other lay displayed in the sight he saw before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved.  One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God...and Percy's heart in one more spasm of conviction made its choice..."

It is 2014 and the world has not ended.  Christ has not returned.  But until the day He does, we each make our choice: what will we believe?  As attacks against the Faith grow in our day, perhaps we will find that the choice to believe demands further sacrifice.  Persecution may await us, too.  Our faith will be tested.

I thank God for the gift of faith--given out of love and generosity to me, a gift completely undeserved and unmerited.  It is the most valuable gift I have ever been given.  I need to ask myself: how precious do I guard that gift?  Do I thank God for it?  Am I helping to make that gift grow--for faith can be shaken, can be destroyed.

And so, when the priest elevates the Host at the moment of consecration, I pray: 

Lord, I believe!  Help my unbelief!  (Mark 9:24)

When Christ comes again, may I still be believing!