Catholicism’s Narrative of the World, and How to Rebuild It

(Image courtesy of John Cosmas, Charlotte Latin Mass Community)

In a 2015 interview with the noted atheist Sam Harris, Mark Riebling, another atheist and the author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, makes a fascinating connection between the Nazis and ISIS:

[T]here’s a reason that the first books the Nazis banned were not nonfiction, but novels. They wanted to destroy any possible counter-myths.

The word “myth” comes from the Greek mythos, which just means “story.” For 500 years, we’ve seen, in the progress of science, the demythification of the world – or the disenchantment of the world, to use Max Weber’s phrase. The magic’s all gone, but the monsters remain. But myths, or stories, and structures built on them can help fight those monsters.

That’s a lesson I draw from the story of the Church and the Reich. SS documents record the Nazis’ frustration with their failure to replace Christian myths – a failure that ran deeper, for instance, than their inability to remake Ascension Day into the Feast of Thor’s Hammer. As one SS report noted, “In exactly those areas where political Catholicism holds sway, the peasants are so infected by the doctrines of Catholicism that they are deaf to any discussion of the racial problem.” So if you wanted to fight Nazism, there was something helpful in the Christian myth – as also in the communist myth. For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories – but the magic’s gone out of that, too.

So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification. If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous – it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horse-whipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg – I think the personal hunger is the same.

As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else – which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for U.S. intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism – in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.

In other words, the appeal of ISIS is the same as that of Nazism: they both provide metanarratives – stories that define people’s entire worldviews – that many find more meaningful than the disenchanted one of the secular West. When the West lost the Christian metanarrative that gave cohesion to its diverse regions, and its title, “Christendom,” was consequently replaced by the emptier signifier “the West,” it became more susceptible to evil ideologies like National Socialism and violent jihadism, since such ideologies promise to replace the lost sense of transcendence. Indeed, for many people, the current metanarrative of the secular West, which portrays history as the story of progressive liberation from religious and traditional restrictions, is an inadequate source of meaning and consolation precisely because of its lack of transcendence.

Ross Douthat, a columnist at The New York Times, explains:

[A]s Philip Larkin knew early, the “long slide to happiness, endlessly” that allegedly awaits when you drop the old religious scruples often has something else waiting at the bottom, and the reality of death can be put off till a latter day, till tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow…, but never entirely denied. [In the words of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon,] “We love to dance and shout / and let all the feelings out, / and work to make a better latter day”…that’s a way to live, certainly, but it leaves some pretty big human concerns under-addressed, and when that “better latter day” isn’t all you hoped for fears creep in around the edges, and maybe you respond to them by injecting a little more utopianism into your secular liberalism…or maybe you’re a little more lost than that, a little more desperate, a little more existentially-adrift, and you make some new friends online who believe that God actually has a plan for you, that you aren’t just a mote floating randomly in sunlight streaming through high windows, that the eye that’s on the sparrow is on you as well, and if there’s a price to be paid for that belief, a price in blood and even savagery, well doesn’t everything worth anything come with a price?

So if savage ideologies like ISIS-style jihadism can overcome secular humanism due to their greater sense of transcendence, perhaps the solution is to promote an ideology that feels equally or more transcendent, one that offers fulfillment of the spiritual yearning behind those savage ideologies’ stories, but within a greater, more humane story. After all, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes, “that narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to include its rivals within it.” And perhaps that prevailing narrative is the one offered by the Catholic Church, the one that once bound the regions of the West together into Christendom.

Of course, re-establishing the dominance of that narrative would be difficult, since it has fallen far from its former place of power. Indeed, in the Western world today, orthodox Catholics – Catholics who put their faith in all the Magisterium’s teachings, not just the ones that happen to align with the values of secular culture – can often feel like recusants (i.e., the Catholic outcasts during the English Reformation), especially due to their dissent from the Sexual Revolution that currently governs Western society.

But maybe the key to reversing this state of affairs is to bring the Western world’s focus back to the liturgy, specifically the Catholic liturgical calendar. Rituals, after all, play a major – if not the major – role in establishing a story as a culture’s metanarrative; an ideology’s rituals, through physical and verbal repetition and the resulting habituation, can ingrain that ideology’s stories not only in a community’s mind, but also in their muscle memory, as it were, and thus in their total being. The rituals of the Catholic liturgy are no exception.

To persuade Western culture to realign itself with the Catholic liturgical calendar, we must make that series of liturgies seem attractive again, reversing the watering down of it – the banalization of it – that followed the Second Vatican Council. We must bring back the smells and the bells, the rituals that appeal to all the senses in welcoming us to a reality transcending all the senses, a reality tantalizingly out of reach. In short, we must bring back the sense of mystery and enchantment. The more everyday and ordinary the liturgy seems (as it has since the Second Vatican Council), the less it will stand out from the surrounding culture, and, consequently, the less it will attract people to itself. So it must regain its sense of extraordinariness, of otherness, in order to regain its grip on the cultural imagination. Only thus can it reshape the lived rhythm of our culture here in the West along its own lines.

That is precisely why the liturgical calendar is so essential: it ritualistically – and thus physically – maps the mysteries of the Church onto the lived rhythm of a community’s annual cycle. For instance, Sundays’ breaks from work become Masses of spiritual recharging, December’s winter darkness becomes infused with Christmas’s promise of divine light, and spring’s resurrecting vegetation becomes supercharged with Easter’s hope. But the liturgical calendar covers so much more than just Sunday Masses and Christmas and Easter, so much that has been largely forgotten since the Second Vatican Council: Rorate Masses, Candlemas, Septuagesima, Shrovetide, Tenebrae, Rogation Days, Michaelmas, All Souls’ Day, etc. Such days and periods can instill spiritual significance into the communal calendar, consecrating the year’s seemingly senseless series of events by mapping a sacred story onto it. The following true accounts of life before the Second Vatican Council illustrate this beautifully:

German Rorate Masses from My Brother, the Pope by Monsignor Georg Ratzinger:

Generally speaking, our family made a big thing of Christmas. The preparations already began with the First Sunday of Advent. At that time, the Rorate Masses were celebrated at six in the morning, and the priests wore white vestments. Normally violet is the color of the vestments in Advent, but these were special votive Masses that were supposed to recall the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to the Mother of God and her words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word’ (Lk 1:38). That was the main theme of these ‘liturgies of the angels,’ as they were also called, in which the appropriate passage from the Gospel of Luke was read. After we started school, we used to attend these Masses in the early morning, before classes began. Outside it was still night, everything was dark, and the people often shivered in the cold. Yet the warm glow of the sanctuary compensated for the early rising and the walk through snow and ice. The dark church was illuminated by candles and tapers, which were often brought by the faithful and provided not only light but also a little warmth. Afterward we went home first, ate breakfast, and only then set out for school. These Rorate Masses were wonderful signposts leading us to Christmas.

A Slovakian Tenebrae service from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor:

The candles, spiked on a triangular grid, lit up [the rustic faces] and populated the nave behind them with a crowd of shadows. At a pause in the plainsong one of the tapers was put out. I realized, all at once, that it was Maundy Thursday. Tenebrae were being sung, and very well. The verses of the penitential psalms were answering each other across the choir and the slow recapitulations and rephrasings of the responsories were unfolding the story of the Betrayal. So compelling was the atmosphere that the grim events might have been taking place that night. The sung words crept step by step through the phases of the drama. Every so often, another candle was lifted from its pricket on the triangle and blown out. It was pitch dark out of doors and with the extinction of each flame the interior shadows came closer. It heightened the chiaroscuro of these rough country faces and stressed the rapt gleam in innumerable eyes; and the church, as it grew hotter, was filled by the smell of melting wax and sheepskin and curds and sweat and massed breath. There was a ghost of old incense in the background and a reek of singeing as the wicks, snuffed one after the other, expired in ascending skeins of smoke. ‘Seniores populi consilium fecerunt,’ the voices sang, ‘ut Jesum dolo tenerent et occiderent’; and a vision sprang up of evil and leering elders whispering in a corner through toothless gums and with beards wagging as they plotted treachery and murder. ‘Cum gladiis et fustibus exierunt tamquam ad latronem…’ Something in the half-lit faces and the flickering eyes gave a sinister immediacy to the words. They conjured up hot dark shadows under a town wall and the hoarse shouts of a lynch-mob; there was a flicker of lanterns, oafish stumbling in the steep olive groves and wild and wheeling shadows of torches through tree trunks: a scuffle, words, blows, a flash, lights dropped and trampled, a garment snatched, someone running off under the branches. For a moment, we – the congregation – became the roughs with the blades and the cudgels. Fast and ugly deeds were following each other in the ambiguity of the timbered slope. It was a split-second intimation! By the time the last of the candles was borne away, it was so dark that hardly a feature could be singled out. The feeling of shifted rôles had evaporated; and we poured out into the dust. Lights began to kindle in the windows of the village and a hint of moonrise shone at the other end of the plain.

A Hungarian Easter Vigil procession from Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor:

Not a light showed in the town except for the flames of thousands of candles stuck along the window-sills and twinkling in the hands of the waiting throng. The men were bareheaded, the women in kerchiefs, and the glow from their cupped palms reversed the daytime chiaroscuro, rimming the lines of jaw and nostril, scooping lit crescents under their brows and leaving everything beyond these bright masks drowned in shadow. Silently forested with flames, street followed street and as the front of the procession drew level everyone kneeled, only to rise to their feet again a few seconds after it had moved on. Then we were among the glimmering ranks of poplars and every now and then the solemn music broke off. When the chanting paused, the ring of the censer-chains and the sound of the butt of the Archbishop’s pastoral staff on the cobbles were joined by the croaking of millions of frogs. Woken by the bells and the music, the storks of the town were floating and crossing overhead and looking down on our little string of lights as it turned uphill to the basilica again. The intensity of the moment, the singing and candle flames and incense, the feeling of spring, the circling birds, the smell of fields, the bells, the chorus from the rushes, thin shadows and the unreality of the moon over the woods and the silver flood – all these things hallowed the night with a spell of great beneficence and power.

German All Souls’ Day customs from Vertigo by W.G. Sebald:

The village of W., where I spent the first nine years of my life, I now remember, was always shrouded in the densest fog on All Saints’ Day and on All Souls’. And the villagers, without exception, wore their black clothes and went out to the graves which they had put in order the day before, removing the summer planting, pulling up the weeds, raking the gravel paths, and mixing soot in with the soil. Nothing in my childhood seemed to possess more meaning than those two days of remembrance devoted to the suffering of the sainted martyrs and poor unredeemed souls, days on which the dark shapes of the villagers moved about in the mist, strangely bent-over, as if they had been banished from their houses. What particularly affected me every year was eating the Seelenwecken, the special rolls that Mayrbeck baked on those commemorative days only, precisely one apiece, for every man, woman and child in the village. These Seelenwecken were made of white bread dough and were so tiny that they could easily be hidden in a small fist. There were four to a row on the baking tray. They were dusted with flour, and I remember one occasion when the flour-dust that remained on my fingers after I had eaten one of these Seelenwecken seemed like a revelation. That evening, I spent a long time digging in the flour barrel in my grandparents’ bedroom with a wooden spoon, hoping to fathom the mystery which I supposed to be hidden there.

Such communal liturgies could once again bring unity to our fragmented culture; they could once again reconcile the divided West into the more cohesive body of Christendom, the united front that is our greatest earthly hope against violent jihadism and other evil ideologies, the resurrected and magnified Holy League of Lepanto acting as our bulwark against barbarism.

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