Question: What do Death Comes for the Archbishop, Ode to Joy and The Night Watch have in common? Answer: 1) They are all works of art. 2) They can all be identified by a person of culture who will also know something about them.
A cultured person can identify Death Comes for the Archbishop as a great novel by the important American novelist Willa Cather, and he will know she modeled her protagonist on French-born Jean-Baptiste Lamy, named in 1850 the first bishop of Santa Fe in what is now the state of New Mexico, and also that Lamy was an inopportunist at the First Vatican Council (1869-70) as well as what an inopportunist was. A cultured person can identify Ode to Joy as the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and will know that the music has served as the anthem of diverse entities, including Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) in Nazi Germany and the EU today. A cultured person can identify The Night Watch as a painting by Rembrandt, and will know (even if he has seen it only in reproduction in books) that the work was done circa 1640, portrays members of an Amsterdam militia (a kind of armed civilian neighborhood patrol), is a large canvas, is noted for Rembrandt’s rendering of light and shadow and depiction of his subjects on the move instead of standing still, and that the picture became known as The Night Watch because it used to be covered with a thick coating of varnish that made it appear darker than when it was first painted and now that the coating has been removed.
Another question: What has knowing such things to do with how the average person lives? Answer: Nothing at all unless the person aspires to leading a richer than average life. Most persons don’t, and that doesn’t make them bad persons. They are simply average. They likely will prove it if they do aspire to a richer life and imagine it, not as being cultured, but by their possessing more of what they already have: more money and things, a bigger house, a more expensive car, the latest wrinkle in electronic gadgetry.
It is perfectly natural that these persons should imagine a richer or better life as they do. Their lives are reflective of modern culture and also the civilization — in our day materialistic and technological — from which the culture arises. After all, culture — a way of life and what it produces — results from persons living according to the beliefs they profess, or not doing so (as is the case with most Christians nowadays).
Civilization and culture can be likened to a fruit. The interior of the fruit, its meat, is the civilization. Its core is religion, or used to be. This is why we speak of Islamic civilization, Hindu civilization, the mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism as Chinese civilization. It is also why today’s liberal West used to be known as Western Christian civilization. That is what it was.
Culture is the skin of the fruit. It may only be the skin, but it is of vital importance. That is because tears or gashes in the skin will allow bacteria to enter into the interior of the fruit, the civilization. The bacteria will cause it to begin to rot. So it was that during the centuries when Catholic Christendom existed, and even when it began to decline after the so-called Reformation, our ancestors in the Faith were vigilant in trying to prevent tears and gashes.
There are many kinds. In terms of Christian civilization here are some: religious error taught as truth; the “values” of a false philosophy (liberalism) in place of Christian standards; information mistaken for knowledge; knowledge mistaken for wisdom; coarse manners; foul language; slovenly dress calling itself casual; syncopated or discordant cacophony calling itself music; bad books passed off as literature; movies and television shows that inflame passions which need disciplining; comedians who teach audiences to laugh at even the most sacred things; profoundly immoral actions in commerce and government branded as no worse than “questionable ethics”; shoddy merchandise sold as ”goods”; money with little value; women trying to be men and men who don’t know what manhood is; positive law superseding natural law; political power concentrated in central government; the state intolerant of anything to which the individual might give allegiance prior to it, especially family, community and religion. A single word sums up all of it: modernity.
It is what Bl. Pope Pius IX was getting at in his Syllabus of Errors, the papal document that embarrasses the modern Church even more than Humanae vitae, when he condemned the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff has, and ought to, reconcile himself, and to come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Modernity, Bl. Pio Nono was saying, is inimical to the undiluted Faith. He was proved correct when it succeeded, never in diluting the deposit of Faith (an impossibility), but in fomenting confusion in the Church’s presentation of her own teaching in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Another proof: the very fact most Churchmen today will scoff at the Syllabus or outright repudiate it if the subject of the document comes up. “Oh, that kind of extremism is not what Catholicism is about today,” they will say.
It certainly is not for the Churchmen who speak thus, nor is it for the mainstream rank-and-file Catholics who follow their lead and are indistinguishable in their living from the Presbyterians down the road or most of the rest of the seventy percent of the U.S. population who still profess some form of Christianity. Yet for some number it is, and whatever that number, be it a comparative handful or far greater than most would think, their existence is another proof: that the undiluted Faith to which they cling, the Faith upheld by Bl. Pio Nono when he condemned modernity, is still a bulwark against that which he anathematized. In truth it is the only bulwark. What else could be? Politics? Nonsense. There are no political solutions to cultural problems. All politics can do is create the conditions for resistance to modernity, but as sound economics depend on right politics, such politics depend on correct morals, and unless the morals are rooted in right religion, which is religion whose teaching is constant, they won’t be as they should.
Don’t let yourself be deluded into thinking that Christian social order can be restored or rebuilt in the foreseeable future. The entire weight of modernity is against it. Besides, nothing can ever be made again as it once was. However, there can be a new Christendom. Indeed there will be, though construction of it cannot be completed and not even properly begun until the encumbering ideational baggage foisted on Western man by the Enlightenment, and through him on the rest of the world, is jettisoned.
How long will that take? It is impossible to say. The historical experience is that although it can be undone in a generation it takes a thousand years to build a civilization. To say that, however, is to dodge the real question, at least the real question for those who want to do something: What is to be done now? What can be?
Catholics still clinging to the undiluted Faith can build their own small Christendom in the corner of the world where life finds them. How? It begins by their choosing not to be modern. Think of it as getting rid of rotten fruit before it spoils whatever is left, as one bad apple will corrupt the entire barrel. A lot is beyond our control, but anybody can ignore false religious teaching and bad books, watch his tongue, turn off television, eschew social media, dress with some care, buy durable goods instead of throw-away, act like a man (or woman) and much else. In any event, all actions will spring from, and be guided by, this decision. Other actions will include, first of all, being obedient to God, which means striving to live according to His commandments instead of according to one’s own will, let alone the “will of the people.”
Then, if possible, a decent Mass should be found in order to worship God as He is entitled to be worshipped. Ideally it will be said by a priest who preaches the Scripture or the life of the saint of the day instead of talking about a television show he recently saw.
Then there must be prayer, which means talking to God. More is needed in this regard than squeezing off a quick Rosary in the car on the way to work. There also needs to be meditation, which means listening to God. How is that done? If you know how to worry you can meditate. To worry is to think about bad things that may happen. To meditate is to think on holy things. Practically speaking, it is by prayer and meditation that our interior resources will be tapped and strengthened — the spiritual force developed for resisting and overcoming modernity.
Now here is a fact of life: Nobody can pray and meditate all the time, not even monks whose vocation is to devote themselves to both. For them and (even more) the rest of us this is where culture comes back into the picture.
Christian life is lived at a higher level than the average person lives today. Elevating ourselves will entail, for instance, reading Willa Cather instead of best-seller drivel, listening to Beethoven instead of Beyonce or whoever is topping the charts at the moment, taking time to go look at a Rembrandt instead of spending all of it staring at images on an electronic screen. In short, instead of settling for average we should fill our mind and feed our sensibility with the rare and excellent.
In all of this, and more, we may join with like-souled individuals and families to form a community, a small society. These days this is being talked about by some as taking the “Benedict option,” and a specific example being cited is the community that has grown up around Benedictine monks in Oklahoma whose monastery, still under construction, is a daughter house of Our Lady of a Good Death in Fontgombault, France. There are similar communities elsewhere in the U.S. Regular visitors to this website will certainly be familiar with Saint Benedict Center, and not simply the branch in Richmond, New Hampshire.
Such communities — such ventures, if you will — are an excellent development. They provide social support for Christian living. Something like them may be taking shape in an urban environment in Washington, D.C., and other cities where Oratories of St. Philip Neri are in formation.
What is important to remember is that Catholics aren’t Amish. Communities in Oklahoma, New England, D.C., Idaho, Wyoming, Michigan and elsewhere aren’t an end in themselves. They should be conceived as nuclei, centers for the preservation and then transmission of a Second Christendom’s culture. More is at stake for this day and some future one than merely our own salvation. That is, among the commandments to which we must be obedient is the last one His followers heard from Our Lord’s own lips: to “make disciples of all the nations.”