Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Certitude of Father Brown



“I wish we could have all Devonshire here to see you do it.”
“To see me do what?” asked the Duke, arching his eyebrows.
“To see you take off your wig,” said Father Brown.

The Duke’s face did not move; but he looked at his petitioner with a glassy stare which was the most awful expression I have ever seen on a human face. I could see the librarian’s great legs wavering under him like the shadows of stems in a pool; and I could not banish from my own brain the fancy that the trees all around us were filling softly in the silence with devils instead of birds.

“I spare you,” said the Duke in a voice of inhuman pity. “I refuse. If I gave you the faintest hint of the load of horror I have to bear alone, you would lie shrieking at these feet of mine and begging to know no more. I will spare you the hint. You shall not spell the first letter of what is written on the altar of the Unknown God.”

“I know the Unknown God,” said the little priest, with an unconscious grandeur of certitude that stood up like a granite tower. “I know his name; it is Satan. The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it. I entreat your Grace to end this nightmare now and here at this table.”

“If I did,” said the Duke in a low voice, “you and all you believe, and all by which alone you live, would be the first to shrivel and perish. You would have an instant to know the great Nothing before you died.”

“The Cross of Christ be between me and harm,” said Father Brown. “Take off your wig.”
GK Chesterton, The Purple Wig
Reflection – Happy Feast of Christ the King! It is by happenstance that I include this rather absurd bit of a Fr. Brown story on this feast where it actually fits quite nicely into the mystery of the Kingship of Christ.

First, the absurdity—this is, of all the Fr. Brown stories, one of the most strictly comical ones. No one is murdered; in fact, if memory serves no crime is actually committed. There is simply this nobleman and his ridiculous purple wig supposedly hiding a monstrous accursed Ear, the sight of which will drive men man. There are few authors who can get away with writing a thoroughly entertaining story in which the dramatic action revolves around whether the duke will or will not take off his wig, but GKC manages it, and in pulling off the wig, pulls off some deft social criticism at the same time (but I won’t spoil the story for you).

But as always in the midst of the rather goofy story, Fr. Brown lets fly with profound stuff, and it happens to work in nicely with Christ the King. Namely, that in Christ and by the power of his victory over all sin, evil, and death through the Cross, there is nothing whatsoever to be afraid of. We are not to be foolhardy in our engagement with evil—‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ remains foundational in our prayer—but when we are plunged into the thick of the battle, we are to do so without any fear or need for fear. This is the certain and sure truth of the matter.

This is the Kingship of Christ in our world, one expression of it anyhow. This is one reason why horror movies are not, perhaps, the most spiritually wholesome thing to watch. It’s not so much the violence and gore, although this is not so great, either. It is the sense, so prevalent in contemporary horror cinema, that evil is in fact stronger than good, that the real structure of reality is in fact too terrible to behold and destroys us once it is ‘unwigged’, so to speak. That a deformed ear is in fact a greater evil than the Paschal Mystery is a great good—this is the conceit of modern horror narrative, and Chesterton does a lovely job taking the wig off of it in this story and showing it for the silly empty boast that it is.

So, Happy feast day to you. Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe. He is king over all the vampires, the zombies, the werewolves, the krakens and aliens and boogey men. He is king over you and me, and anything in us that is ‘deformed’, that we would prefer to hide under a purple wig. He is king over everything that we don’t want to bring under his lordship, and He is king over the whole world, even as it seems to be a kingdom in something of a state of civil insurrection right now.

He is King, and so the world is actually a much better place, more full of goodness and light than it sometimes seems to be. He is king, and we have nothing to fear, and everything to be glad about, and great cause to be brave and bold and eager to go out into the world bearing his Gospel and working to make his kingdom more and more visible by lives of charity and works of justice and mercy. Happy feast day.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - November 15-22

This week in Madonna House was not a normal quiet week. Anything but, really. We were very blessed this week with the visit of the papal nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, who came for 24 hours over the weekend.

The papal nuncio is the official representative of the Holy Father in Canada, both representing him as a sort of ambassador to the Canadian government, and being his eyes and ears and liaison to the Canadian Church. So this was an event of some importance and a certain excitement for us.

He arrived just at lunch time on Saturday, and participated in the spiritual reading afterwards. Then Fr. David May, the director general of the priests, and one of the lay woman staff gave him a thorough tour of the place, going up to the farm, to the handicraft centre, to St. Mary’s, to Catherine’s cabin. In the evening he met with the three directors general. Sunday he was the celebrant for our community Mass, then stayed at St. Mary’s for brunch. He stuck around for a little while afterwards, just visiting informally with people, and left in the early afternoon.

It was all very informal and low key and friendly. Archbishop Bonazzi is a quiet, gentle man, very observant and very much interested in people above all—no matter where we took him, his entire focus was on the people there and their stories. He was impressed at the wide range of ages here—from our elderly members in wheel chairs to the very young guests and applicants. He was also impressed and surprised at what an international community MH is, with guests from Korea, Brazil, Australia, and all over Canada and the USA (in point of fact, we are actually less international than usual at this point, and quite often have quite a few more countries represented. Europe, where art thou?).

Upon leaving, he told us that he really came here just to breathe the fresh air, and that we were that air for him. He also had encountered us previously in our house in the Yukon, and so had a good idea of what we do in our missions. He told us that we should open a Madonna House in every city in Canada. To which Susanne, our DG of women, replied, ‘Well, pray for vocations, then!’

At any rate, it was good to have such affirmation and friendly support from high places. Somebody mentioned to him that I have a blog, so Your Grace, if you are reading this, please know that you are welcome in our home any time you need to breathe that fresh air again. God bless you!

Besides that, what else happened? Snow happened, of course, as it has for much of North America this week, and so out come the snow shovels, plows, snow blowers… all the gear of winter. The ‘bush crew’ – the men who work at harvesting our forest fire wood and lumber – are in full swing, doing the heavy labor of felling, limbing, and bucking up trees in various locations.

St. Raphael’s, our handicraft centre, is abuzz these days. We built a wood-fired pottery kiln this summer on the lawn next to St. Germaine’s guest dorm, and it was fired last week for the first time, primarily to cure the cement, but also with a few pots thrown in. This has been a project discussed and planned for many, many years by our potters, and now it is a reality.

There has also been great activity in the handicrafts with Christmas card-making classes. One of our priests makes cards from birch bark and gave a class on that one Sunday; another of the staff gave a class on other card-making techniques. And of course the early Christmas baking is already starting—we are a big family, and it takes a lot of work and organization to prepare the extra traditional foods of the feast in advance. I’m already scratching my head a bit trying to figure out when to make what has developed as my annual contribution to the feast—200-300 butter tarts, made with a little help from my friends (whoever shows up to help roll out the dough).

Besides that, what else? We had a couple of meetings to plan out the dates and themes of next year’s summer program, so that we could print up posters and brochures to send to various campus ministries and student events. There have been a number of transfers of staff in the last while (those who get our newspaper Restoration can read the details there), which always makes for a certain flurry of activity as people shift jobs and train replacements and others arrive back from their mission assignments to Combermere.


There’s been quite a lot else going on in the various corners of MH—really, for the ‘quiet’ time of year, we do manage to keep awfully busy. Know that we are offering it all up for the world and for the Church, and that all of it is blessed in that offering.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Bible of Father Brown

N., as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs. 

N. was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental Book. 

Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted — lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?
GK Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword


Reflection – Leaving aside GKC’s regrettable prejudice (typical, alas, for an Englishman of his day) against the cultures and civilizations of Asia, this little bit of Brown-ian wisdom really pertains to the whole question of how we read the Bible, how we read it wrongly, and how we are to read it rightly.

‘It is useless to read your Bible unless you read everyone else’s Bible’. Chesterton really has a way of putting very complex matters into pithy little epigrams. This is precisely the mind of the Catholic Church regarding Scripture. We read it, not as isolated individuals getting bits and pieces of random sense out of it as we can, but as a community of believers united in a common reading guided by a common faith.

It is fashionable these days, among the New Atheists, to take all the cruel bits and pieces of the Bible—and there are many of them—and parade them around as proof of what a horror religion is, and particularly the Christian religion. The practice of haram warfare, where all living creatures from babies at the breast to animals in field are slaughtered to the last one, the death of the first-born in Egypt, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter—if you want horror, the Bible can deliver horror.

And if you are simply reading ‘your Bible’ and no one else’s, you may come to any kind of conclusion about all that. In the story quoted above, the sad character concludes that cruelty and vice are acceptable to God; for the New Atheists, the conclusion is that religion is evil nonsense.

Catholics read their Bible as part of a community of believers who extend 2000 years into the past (Sacred Tradition) and across the entire world in the present (the sensus fidelium), and who gather in their reading around a divinely mandated authority (the magisterium of bishops under the Pope). And the Catholic reading of this whole complex messy book is thus remarkably nuanced, thoughtful, careful, and yields profundity of insight and depth of reflection such as a New Atheist would not dream possible.

While it is far too much to go into the whole thing in a blog post, our basic Catholic sense is that we read all the earlier Scriptures through the later ones, and elevate the four Gospels in particular as the interpretive key to the entire Bible. The Old Testament is fundamentally the story of humanity—messy, mixed-up, ugly-beautiful, good-bad, chaotic, tumultuous, passionate, violent, lusty, hungry, hopeful, despairing humanity—met at each turn by this most mysterious God who only gradually reveals Himself to them in full.

The earlier parts of the Old Testament—haram warfare, etc.—are a very incomplete and poor revelation of this God. The later parts—the late prophets with their extension of God’s promises to all the nations, for example—are a more complete one.

But it is the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ that gives the right sense and proper meaning to every bit of the Scriptures, and we have 2000 years of comprehensive sweeping commentary and lectio divina on just how this is done, from the most horrific tales of violence to the most obscure precepts of the Mosaic Law. In Christ, and only in Christ, do we read these and understand anything of what they mean here and now.


So that is the Bible of Fr. Brown, and of Chesterton, and of myself, too (not that that matters much). And that is our answer to that aspect of the New Atheist critique of religion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Diagnosis of Father Brown

“What on earth is that?” asked Father Brown, and stood still. “Oh, a new religion,” said Flambeau, laughing; “one of those new religions that forgive your sins by saying you never had any. Rather like Christian Science, I should think. The fact is that a fellow calling himself Kalon (I don’t know what his name is, except that it can’t be that) has taken the flat just above me. I have two lady typewriters underneath me, and this enthusiastic old humbug on top. He calls himself the New Priest of Apollo, and he worships the sun.”

“Let him look out,” said Father Brown. “The sun was the cruellest of all the gods. But what does that monstrous eye mean?”

“As I understand it, it is a theory of theirs,” answered Flambeau, “that a man can endure anything if his mind is quite steady. Their two great symbols are the sun and the open eye; for they say that if a man were really healthy he could stare at the sun.”

“If a man were really healthy,” said Father Brown, “he would not bother to stare at it.”

“Well, that’s all I can tell you about the new religion,” went on Flambeau carelessly. “It claims, of course, that it can cure all physical diseases.”

“Can it cure the one spiritual disease?” asked Father Brown, with a serious curiosity.

“And what is the one spiritual disease?” asked Flambeau, smiling.

“Oh, thinking one is quite well,” said his friend.
GK Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo

Reflection – I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted this bit of GKC before on this blog, at least the last exchange of Flambeau and Fr. Brown. ‘The one spiritual disease is to think one is quite well’—this is just about as good a definition of pride as has ever been come up with, and it is a throwaway line in a detective story that is about something else entirely.

Well, it’s not exactly about something else, as the practitioners of this religion in the story proceed to stare at the sun and presume to defy gravity, with tragic results. And, as is so often the case, the haughty pride of human mastery and dominance is at the service of rather baser drives and motives.

But I promised not to spoil the stories in this series of Brown posts. It is, though, quite an insight on the part of GKC. Elsewhere, he has written that just in the normal course of human affairs we are generally ready to excuse people of all sorts of weaknesses and forgive all manner of sins, if the person himself regards it as a weakness or a sin.

It is when this blasted pride enters in, when the person is not only a lecher, but is puffed up and proud of himself as a lady-killer (to use good old fashioned language), when the person is not only tight fisted with money, but is proud of her thrift and sneers at the profligacy of others, when the person is not only prone to outbursts of temper, but flatters himself as a brave truth-teller—it is when human weakness is wed to human haughtiness, that it is harder in the normal course of affairs to be merciful.

Pride is of the devil, and it is an ugly thing indeed. It seems paradoxical that the most healthy thing we can do is readily admit our lack of health, the most sane thing we can do is admit that we are a little bit crazy, the strongest position out of which to live is to know and accept one’s own weakness.

But the fundamental reality here, the reality that this haughty arrogant pride of complacency and self-sufficiency denies, is that we are made for relationship, for communion first with God, then with one another, and indeed with the whole of the cosmos in its created structures (this is why the healthy man would not bother to stare at the sun). And so the condition of the human person, fundamentally a condition of neediness, of dependency, is in fact a healthy and happy state of being.

‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ The first thing in the Bible, in all of creation really, that is ‘not good’ is this deadly isolation of the human person. We are not made to be ‘quite well’ on our own terms and according to our own efforts and will. We are meant to receive wellness—in Biblical Greek, the word is soterios, which is the same word used for ‘salvation’—as a gift from Another. And the condition for receiving that gift on our part is the deep humility of knowing we need it, of knowing ourselves to be ‘not well’ and hence seeking and longing for the wellness that comes from our God.


Complacency, and the pride that underlies it, kill the spiritual life in us like nothing else can. Humility, and the eager open receptivity it engenders in us, is the very life of the soul that brings us to faith, hope, and love. We are not well, and so we become very well indeed. We are well, and so we perish everlastingly.