A few weeks ago, I did something I have not done since I was nine years old. I went to a performance at the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre near downtown Los Angeles. It was a delightful rendition of The Nutcracker — and I was as delighted by the puppets performing the old classic as were the oohing and ahhing children around me; for a short hour I was once again in that world of wonder that only the happy child can enjoy (the unhappy ones endure a correspondingly intense realm of horror, but that is another story).
In that cinder block building dwell over 3,000 handmade puppets and a staff of young enthusiasts who keep alive an obscure art — not only puppetry itself but the making of new marionettes. Puppetry is an ancient practise, with deep roots in the culture of Catholic Europe. But just a few days ago, 90-year old Bob Baker himself died. On one level, his was a rich life, indeed: he found a dying art, revitalized it, and contributed a great deal to its survival after him: training skilled and enthusiastic apprentices, and bringing enormous joy to thousands if not millions — amongst whom were both younger and older versions of this writer. But on another, as his refusal of any funeral rite shows, his art was his religion.
Now this kind of thing is by no means restricted to either Bob Baker as an individual or to puppetry as an art. We all know of historical and living individuals working in opera, ballet, classical or folk music, theatre, cinema, sculpting, poetry, painting, stone working, jewelry, stained glass, woodworking or any other art or craft for whom the same can be said. Despite the often very explicit Catholic imagery such an artist or craftsman encounters, it seems to leave little or no residue with them; what matters, apparently, is simply the work itself. The religious implications are ignored.
Nor is this situation confined to arts and crafts. Gardening, hunting, sports, scouting, the military, cultural and environmental preservation, collecting, cooking, charitable work, medicine, academia, the law — indeed any number of worthwhile things — have Catholic roots and implications which are easily ignored for the single-minded pursuit of the thing in itself. In a word, these things can become pagan idols to their most obsessed devotees.
On a larger level, this temptation has political ramifications. In a “democratic” system such as ours, the JFK patented exclusion of one’s Faith from one’s public office (whether perceived as high-minded tolerance or a mere grubbing for votes) has become endemic to” Catholic” politicians, for all that recent stalwarts such as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput have denounced the practise. But that version of the pagan temptation, obvious in Democratic ward bosses and cheap pols, surfaces elsewhere.
The pursuit of office by a successful Catholic candidate, as we all know, can lead to him glibly ignoring his party’s endorsement or tolerance of abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and all else. But for would-be paladins of truth, Pro-Life issues can become idols as well, especially to the degree that one is willing to compromise religiously with non-Catholics in the pursuit of them. It is easy to forget about the poor and suffering when fighting abortion (and just as easy to forget about abortion if one is a Catholic Worker or a member of a diocesan, state, or national Catholic peace and justice commission). As other, less important issues arise, the temptation grows — be it the Gold Standard, Gun Control, abolition of the Federal Reserve, pro– or anti-immigration, or whatever.
Nor are our politically-minded brethren in Catholic countries immune. It has been charged that Charles Maurras and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (founders respectively of Action Française and the Falange) merely valued Catholicism as part of their countries’ national spirit. Vladimir Soloviev made a similar charge against the Russian Slavophiles, declaring that if asked why Russia was superior to other nations, their response was that it was the protector of Orthodoxy; but if asked about the superiority of Orthodoxy, they replied that it was as the animating spirit of Russia. But we need not look so far afield: we all know the perils of the heresy of Americanism. But the temptation to Catholic Americans to idolize their ancestral ethnicities is also present. It is instructive to go to the website of the Ancient Order of Hibernians; once there, look up and compare that organisation’s comments on its national committees of “Catholic Action” and “Freedom for All Ireland” — one sees at once where their interest is really concentrated. One may say the same of Irish Catholic New York’s determination to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Al Smith Dinner, no matter how demeaning to the Faith such participation may be nor how odious the company. But it would be unfair to single out Irish Americans for this idolatry alone — French-Canadians, Italians, and all the rest of us can be (and very often are) quite as guilty.
Nevertheless, all of these folk at least maintain a vestigial claim to Catholicity, and try to justify their activities in terms of the Faith. But some slip further. On the political Left, of course, some fall away via social concerns — as with Liberation Theology, “Christian Marxism,” and the late, lamented Ramparts Magazine. Others of a liberal bent pass out of the Faith through would-be missionary attempts at inculturation: passing far beyond the scope of the Chinese and Malabar Rites and the Missa Luba, such folk find the paganry of the peoples among whom they labour not merely a possible preparatio evangeliae, but a Gospel in itself, quite sufficient for the salvation of its adherents — be they Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or animist. Thus it has been for some members of such orders as Maryknoll: rather than bringing the “Good News” of Christ, they go to the mission fields to “look, listen, and learn.” What they tend to bring to their hapless charges are modern plumbing and Marxism.
But this can happen on the political Right, too. Some Catholics, perceiving the evils of international high finance and control, globalism, and corruption of public morality (rightly or wrongly identifying them with the Freemasons, United Nations, ACLU, Round Table, B’Nai B’rith, Bilderberger Group, World Economic Forum, RAND Corporation, CFR, Mont Pelerin Society, Bohemian Club, Club of Rome, Wicca, Zionists, Sierra Club, European Union, Temple of Understanding, NAACP, Theosophical Society, Skull and Bones, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, World Council of Churches, and World Parliament of Religions, to name a few) survey the scene, and note that few if any official Catholic organisations — lay or clerical — seem disposed to do battle with said evils or their perceived sponsors. So they are led to groups that claim to, from the Larouchies, the Institute for Historical Review, various Neo-Nazi or Fascist groups, or even the Ku-Klux-Klan.
Now, without wanting to minimize the possible religious, cultural, and political errors propagated by some or all of the nefarious groups just listed, mere opposition to them does not guarantee truth in its opponents — far from it. Many of the Nouvelle Droite or “Third Position” value the Faith — as Maurras and Primo de Rivera were rightly or wrongly accused of — purely as a cultural institution, incarnating the values of the “West.” Still others, such as the late Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist reject Catholicism entirely as (in reference to our Jewish origins) as a “Semitic corruption” of Europe’s Aryan or Indo-European pagan heritage: an analysis shared with — among others — Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg. My late lamented friend, Thomas Molnar, wrote a brilliant book (The Pagan Temptation, whose title I have stolen for this essay) specifically on these folk. But whether or not such people openly worship Thor or whomever (and so unwittingly join hands with their supposed Wiccan opponents) or not, they make an idol for themselves of the nation, the race, or the West itself.
Akin to but distinct from this current is that of “Traditionalism” — which word in this sense has nothing to do with traditionally-minded Catholics, but rather refers to schools of thought launched by such figures as the afore-mentioned Julius Evola, Rene Guenon, Oswald Spengler, Frithjof Schuon, Hermann Count Keyserling, and Mircea Eliade, among others. For these men, either the West or all Mankind are undergirded by a Universal “Tradition,” of which the various religions and cultures were all more or less legitimate expressions — and all are equally threatened by a variously described phenomenon that might be called “Modernity” or “Modernism.” Soulless and materialist, this enemy — of whom the various organisations described earlier may or may not be minions — shall strangle all that is true or beautiful or good: Man shall be left in its wake either an unconscious automaton mindlessly doing his masters’ bidding, slaughtered by neo-barbarians destroying his corrupt civilization, or some combination of the two. Now, to be fair, all of these thinkers and their ilk have insights — some very good indeed. But the problem once more is that they tend to subordinate the Faith to something else — in this particular case, its value is merely that of one vessel of a more important thing. Nor is it necessarily the best vessel, as Guenon showed by becoming a Muslim, since, as he thought, Islam is “more faithful to itself” than Catholicism.
But practicing Catholics can find other idols within the Church to worship. These might be the apparent good of the given organisation within which one lives his Faith: his parish, religious order, diocese, fraternal order, or even the Holy See itself. With this sort of idolatry, the material well-being of said structure becomes more important than the Faith. Others so worship their own favourite Saints or devotions — as the old French-Canadian lady said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the Rosary.” Still other folk may elevate a given appurtenance of worship — chant or music, vestments, architecture, or the particulars of rubrical interpretation — to a higher importance than the Transubstantiated God who awaits them at the altar. “I would rather not receive Communion if…” should never come to our minds, unless followed by “…I am in a state of mortal sin (or am otherwise unprepared according to the law of the Church).” Obviously, the matter is different if we suspect invalidity in the Mass or would be party to sacrilege; but if we refuse to receive Our Lord purely because our aesthetic sense is outraged, we have placed it over God and made an idol out of it.
Having dealt with all of the things we might worship instead of God at great length, there is a second error which must be dealt with: the idea that none of them are at all important, and that we should ignore them in favour of the pure worship of God alone — an error that has infected sundry Muslims, Protestants, Iconoclasts, Zen Buddhists, and others throughout history. By virtue of the Incarnation, God came into Time and Space, and so sanctified them in a way they had not been before. He chooses to come to us through concrete means — the Sacraments — and chooses to be adored in specific ways, times, and places. All of the things we have looked at do indeed have an importance. He gave us the creative spark, and our first parents’ fall made it necessary to labour if we would live; so we should pursue the arts, crafts, and sciences (reverencing their various patron saints) to the best of our ability and respective talents — not merely to sustain and entertain ourselves and our fellows, but to honour and give thanks to Him. He has given us a rich inheritance, both of His creation and the works — material and otherwise — of our ancestors; in that spirit we should be good stewards of the natural and cultural patrimony we are heirs to — and well informed by its host of religious connections. He has placed us in a Time and Place assailed by many evils, spiritual and political; for His sake and that of our neighbour we should fight them with the Works of Mercy and whatever other means He gives us. He has put us in a world that has little or no Faith, so we must evangelise rather than conform to it. He has given us the True Faith and prescribed how He is to be worshipped, and so we must. If we constantly strive to see all lesser things in the light of their relationship to Him, we shall avoid idolatry.
In a sense, Christmas gives us an opportunity to put the right usage of created things into practise. We all know about the orgy of commercialism at this time of year; the faux mythology of Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, the elves, Rudolph and the other reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and the other denizens of the North Pole; the host of non-religious “Christmas songs” which have replaced real carols for the most part on the radio and in stores and elevators; and the seasonal decorations up in stores before Halloween. Even that is being replaced by the cult of “Holiday.” Nevertheless, you can turn it all to its proper object. Make sure your little ones know Santa is St. Nicholas — and cultivate in them (and yourself!) a devotion to that glorious bishop. Use the Advent Candles. Don’t throw Christmas parties in Advent — but don’t give angry refusals to ones you are invited to; even so, avoid overindulging at these affairs in the spirit of Advent (and nothing keeps you from observing this season as a little Lent — people will notice and ask about it). If you have the ability, throw a “real” Christmas (after the 25th) or Epiphany party — and make sure a Nativity Set is prominently displayed — and this goes double if you own a business; invite employees and clients alike. Send out only religious Christmas cards, and use any of the innumerable blessings for the Advent candles and Christmas tree and crib when these are set up. Make sure you invite friends (especially non-Catholic ones) to Christmas Midnight or Morning Mass even as you would to any Christmas observance.
Indeed, the scene when you come home from Midnight Mass, and all your guests and family are at last in bed, symbolises what should be our relationship to created things in general, all year long. As you sit, with (we hope!) the Graces of the Blessed Sacrament still very much with you, there is the Nativity Scene in its place of honour, the little figures of the Holy Family reflecting what we should all strive for in our homes. The beautiful Christmas tree stands nearby, and perhaps holly, mistletoe, and other greens are set about, in token of nature’s tribute to her Creator and utility to us. On that tree are beautiful decorations — some perhaps new, others homemade, and perhaps still others decades old, silent reminders of other Christmasses and friends and family now long gone — likewise reminders of human craftsmanship honouring our common Father. Under the tree are the presents, symbols of our mutual love for each other and — for some of the younger ones — tokens of St. Nicholas’ care. Stored away in the kitchen are the dishes and drinks for to-morrow’s feast — some traditional, uniting us to innumerable Christmas dinners past — and for which we will give thanks to God to-morrow. Be it a white Christmas or a green, on this one night of the year all is aimed at the Father of Lights, the Giver of All Good Things. May we never forget to venerate the Giver of Gifts, gratefully using them for His sake, and never to lose sight of Him among them.