A wonderful passage of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man deals with the false claim that Jesus was a “man of his times.” Usually offered as a dismissal of Our Lord’s morals and doctrines as something time-bound and hence obsolete, the assertion is simply false, for many of Christ’s teachings were shocking to his contemporaries, as may be seen in his teachings on the indissolubility of marriage, which, like His Eucharistic discourse, even took his disciples by surprise. Chesterton makes the point that Christ’s teaching were no more “natural” to the men of that age than they are to us, or to men of any other age.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, being a divine Person, spent a blissful eternity utterly not subject to time, and He did not enter it as Man to be subject to its fashions, as so many of His words and deeds amply proved.
The unbelievers of Chesterton’s day seem to be on the same page as the modern infidel. They all consider religion a time-bound thing, and Christ’s religion specifically, something subject to development and constant evolution to “keep up with the times.” Sadly, many who call themselves Catholic — even our clergy — agree on that.
No, Christ’s religion is supernatural; its faith and morals are natural to no mortal. The only qualification I should make regarding that statement is that the Catholic moral law, aside from its obligations which follow exclusively from supernatural revelation, is identified with the natural law, and is therefore to that extent natural to man. But even then, in man’s fallen state, so few observe the dictates of the natural law without the benefit of supernatural grace. How many non-Catholics even know of or believe in this natural law in its integrity?
Jesus Christ cannot be dismissed as a man of His times because He was not bound by His times. On the other hand, the saints, being men and women of their age, were bound by time. But what made them saints was not that they lived in this or that epoch of history and submitted to its mores, but whether they lived lives of heroic virtue in cooperation with God’s grace. Often, they stand out in tremendous relief against their times — if by “times” here we understand not chronology, but public morals and customs of an era. Often the saints could say, like Cicero, “o tempora o mores!” — condemning the public standards of their day.
On social media, a commenter recently informed me of how mistaken I was when I expressed the need for the Church to continue to restate her moral teachings in the face of the sexual revolution. She made what she probably considered an astute observation that the Church needs to keep up with the times or she will wither away into moral irrelevance and demographic insignificance. Aside from the divine promises assuring us of her survival, and aside from the fact that we ought to preach the truth simply because it is the Church’s mission to do so, the poor woman missed another point — one of an entirely practical nature. If going along with the zeitgeist promises great success, then the trailblazing Church of England, whose 1930 Lambeth conference pioneered Christian contraception, ought to be thriving. But that institution — from its inception, a sort of anti-John the Baptist favoring the vices of the ruling elite — is not faring well lately, and has been forecast to die out later this century, something predicted over a century ago by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson in his Lord of the World.
What the woman was proposing was that we not be heroes who stand up against the world and its evils. This is a recipe for demographic, moral, and eschatological disaster.
Mr. Sean Fitzpatrick has a commentary at The Imaginative Conservative on the degeneration of heroism: “‘The Last Jedi’ and the End of Heroism.” While we might be tempted to dismiss giving serious thought to Luke Skywalker’s merits or demerits as a waste of time, Fitzpatrick makes a good point:
Cultural representation through imaginative creations should not be taken lightly—even if they are wielding lightsabers. Societies have ever established a catalogue of heroes, and their mythologies have ever been diagnostic and didactic. Our mythology reflects our world.
I believe the point he makes there is twofold: as diagnostic of our present culture, Luke’s rejection of his own heroism is telling. We are a society with a corrupt and degenerate notion of the heroic. And as didactic, the aged and cynical Skywalker teaches bad lessons to those who flocked to the theater to see a hero. (Full disclosure: I have not seen the film, and have no interest in seeing it.)
We need good heroes. We need the edification, encouragement, and example they offer. We should strive to imitate their virtues and maintain their standards. Institutions that are meant to produce heroes are not doing so these days. The military — long since misused as a tool of globalism, Anglo-American democratic messianism, Zionism, and other dangerous -isms damaging to social order and peace — has more recently become deliberately and systematically effeminized, in stark contrast to traditional notions of martial virtue. The Boy Scouts have suffered the same fate. The social elites of our day, in Hollywood, professional sports, politics, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, constitute, with rare exception, a parade of anti-heroes or just plain old villains. Even when these people fight with each other, both sides are often wrong, as when American feminist entertainers militate, on feminist principles, against Hollywood’s Weinsteinian perversion problems, only to be opposed by French feminists who defend a man’s “right” to seduce a woman.
It’s like watching intramural sports in the insane asylum.
We need good heroes. Thankfully, we have them in the saints. We have saints who are patrons of almost every trade, profession, vocation, avocation, state in life, skill, or hobby. We have martyr saints, virgin saints, bishop saints, pope saints, Apostle saints, matron saints, royal saints, peasant saints, middle-class saints, wealthy saints, poor saints. We have them wherever the Catholic sun doth shine — in every inhabited continent, even Oz! We have ancient saints, medieval saints, renaissance saints, baroque saints, and modern saints. We have young and old saints, and saints who were twenty- or thirty-something when they were born in eternity. We have military saints, saints who were always peaceful, and military saints who were peacemakers. We have male saints and female saints (but no others on this particular list!). We have saints who never lost their baptismal innocence and saints who make Harvey Weinstein look like a saint before their conversion. We have saints who struggled with every vice known to man and triumphed, with the grace of God. We have a saint for YOU dear reader — and lots where that came from.
Some saints we imitate, others we admire. And even those saints whose imitation is physically or morally impossible to us, there is a certain relative imitation that is possible. Saint Alphonsus de Liguori has a method he often employs in his spiritual writings whereby he gives examples of saints doing “extreme” things by way of asceticism, detachment from the world, and so forth. And after making us feel properly ashamed for being comparatively substandard, he then says — not in so many words — “surely if they can be so superlatively heroic in the practice of virtue, you can practice some genuine virtue yourself… now, get to it!” Far from making us despair of holiness, these examples are meant to encourage us in the practice of virtue, perhaps not to the extent that this or that saint practiced it, but to practice virtue and become truly holy nonetheless.
Father Leonard Feeney, as quoted by Brother Francis, taught us that, “We have only one business on earth: to become saints. What a pity if we miss out!”
We don’t read the news to be edified. We read the news, if we do, to find out what is going on in the world. But the world is fallen, and is afflicted with serious mental illnesses caused by sin. It is sick. And the more divorced this world becomes from the true religion, the sicker it gets. Therefore, if we simply look at what is going on in the world, we will not be edified — or will be so only very rarely.
We have to be proactive in seeking out good example.
So, let’s have a little hero worship — or a lot. The saints are entitled to that worship known as the cultus dulia, and they darn well ought to receive it. (Yes, we do worship saints, and there is no problem with this as long as we understand clearly what “worship” means: see “On Worshiping Mary and the Saints” and “On Cults and Man Worship, Some Fighting Words.”) Devotion to the saints is fundamentally Christian, is quite defensible, and is opposed only by heretics.
But I speak here to the faithful. Read the lives of the saints. Pray to the saints. Imitate the virtues of the saints. Pick some favorites as those you most often “bother” when you need help. Note the contrast in what they did versus what today’s fake heroes and real villains do. Imitate the former and reject the latter — even as you pray for them.
The world has its elites, but so does God. His elites are the saints, and we need to pay more attention to them than we do to the poor wretches stealing the headlines.