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To a Friend, on Persevering in a Most Unholy and Unchristian Age

Dear Friend,


Judging from what you say on social media, you seem to be in a theological and spiritual tailspin. Are you letting yourself get consumed with negativity?

In the Church—as in the world at large—there is plenty of evil, no doubt about it, and therefore plenty of cause for despondency. The political trends are ranged against the divine law and the natural law, from which we are receding at warp speed; our shepherds are either asleep on the job, cavorting with wolves, or busy lycanthropizing themselves. I need not go on about the many particular problems that afflict us on all sides.

The question, always, is: What are we going to do with the negativity: will we face it down by the power of the Holy Name of Jesus, or will we let it enter into our house like a rot or a nest of termites, take up residence in our fibers like a cancer—and finally dominate us?

I can’t help thinking of Denethor in The Lord of the Rings, the steward who gazed into the Palantir and saw the inevitable defeat of the good (which was making a pathetic showing at best) and the irresistible triumph of Sauron—seeing, in short, just what the enemy wanted him to see, and despairing.

You came to mind when I was at Mass in the traditional rite on Passion Saturday and read the end of the Gospel of the day:

Yet a little while the light is among you. Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you. He who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them (Jn 12:35–36).

In the enveloping darkness, we still know where to find the light. It’s true that Our Lord speaks as if the light is available only for a certain time and will then be taken away. But He also implies that those who believe in the light become light themselves—as when He says, using a different metaphor, “the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting” (Jn 4:14). And then He hid Himself. There are times when He does hide Himself in the world or in the Church, but the light is not extinguished in itself or in the believing and loving soul. There, the light can burn even more brightly in the darkness, like a mighty Paschal candle whose single flame is enough to banish the shades of night.

Catholicism isn’t primarily about “the Church”—that is, the Church on earth in her structures, laws, works, affairs. It’s about union with Christ, which is the Church’s reason for existing. In baptism I died and rose with Him; in the Eucharist I receive Him. There is no other reason to belong to the Church except to guarantee life from the Life, light from the Light. The Church gives me access to Him by divine guarantee, and that’s why I’m a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic in order to have access to clergy or even to glorious liturgies; I welcome the (good) clergy and the (good) liturgies because they lead me closer to Him, Who is my life and my light. He is the measure, the meaning, the goal, of all of it.

The Church on earth has been corrupt in her hierarchy in some other ages, too, but we survived those centuries—by God’s grace, the Church is still here, and more importantly, Christ is still among us and within us. Because of that abiding Presence, periods of renewal followed, ignited by this or that (good) reformer or reforming movement. Not everyone who lived during the dark times got to see the renewal that came later. Human beings usually don’t live long enough to see major changes from good to bad or bad to good, which tend to move at a glacial pace in comparison with a normal lifespan.

Unlike certain voices out there who think they are “putting things in perspective” by reassuring us that we are passing through “just another crisis, and not the worst, among the many crises that the Church of God has had to face over twenty centuries of history,” I believe we are looking at the historic nadir of the Catholic Church on earth, next to which the Arian crisis of the fourth century or the Protestant revolt of the sixteenth look like rough drafts. Yet anyone living during the life of St. Athanasius of Alexandria could have placed what would have seemed like a highly probable bet that Nicene orthodoxy was doomed and would disappear as a matter of course; and anyone living in the middle of the sixteenth century might have been tempted to make a similar prognosis for Europe, congested with ecclesiastical corruption and ravaged by false reform.

The same is true now: There are those who are asserting that the Papacy is empty, or that there’s no chance of recovery; we are too far gone; we are doomed. Tradition-loving orthodox Catholics are holding an impossible position; they are a trivial minority; they can be crushed in an instant by the gears of power.

That is what our Catholic Denethors see in their internet Palantirs.

But why should we think Satan finally has God “stumped”—has Him backed into a corner from which there is no escape? Do we think so highly of Satan’s power—or so poorly of God’s?

At the end of the day, there are two alternatives: faith or nihilism. For the thinking man, it comes down to these two, and the only goal in life is to become a saint or to die trying.

The saints are madmen, but so are the Atheists (e.g., Marx, Nietzsche, Derrida, Dawkins). I would rather cast my lot with the saints. Call it an updated Pascal’s Wager: I would rather take all my chances on the promise of eternal life with Christ than throw away the hope of it for the sake of ephemeral gains. I would rather bet on the hidden power of Christ, which bursts forth in flower in every soul that prays, sacrifices, and loves, than surrendering to the skepticism that looks around at the world and says: “That’s right: it’s a gigantic, meaningless mess…”; or “The Church is a gigantic, hopeless mess. It’s not what it claims to be. Either Christ lied, or He’s abandoned us…”; or: “Christianity is a gigantic system of guilt-driven repression and exploitation by which pastors profit at the expense of the sheep.”

Reading the biography of the Trappist abbot Dom Gabriel Sortais (1902–1963) taught me a valuable lesson. Sortais had a fiery temperament, was politically involved, was engaged to be married. Then he heard the call to monasticism, dropped everything, and became a Trappist (a member of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance).

After his simple vows, he entered into a total darkness, where he could no longer think of God or religion without distaste. He kept making acts of faith. And after three years, one day the darkness simply vanished like clouds giving way to the sun.

Shortly after, at the age of 33, he was elected abbot of the community and took up a burden that he most certainly didn’t want. He then entered a second darkness—this time of the virtue of hope. He could not believe that God loved him or wanted him to be in heaven; in fact, he believed that he was predestined to be damned, and nothing could shake this conviction.

This darkness lasted much longer than the first, but he kept on with determination, praying simply out of love for God—as he said at the time, even if I’m a sinner and a castaway, God is still good and deserves my love, so I will give him all that I can. His fidelity and love throughout this time of interior misery won the day, and when this darkness was lifted at last, he emerged into a peace and confidence that nothing could ever shake again, in spite of terrific trials.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux suffered a similar dark night at the end of her life: She said “only someone who has passed through a tunnel like this could ever understand what I have gone through.” Other saints have spent years in the absence of any feeling or awareness of God. They kept praying and working as they had done before. The light did not fail them in the end; they became even more the “sons of light,” and they went on to see the Light in person—but with this advantage: they had already been purified and needed no further purgation. The saints we now revere as paragons of virtue knew massive interior crises while they were in this mortal life. They held on even when they couldn’t see through the fog or the darkness. That’s why they became saints (no one starts out there).

One could look at people like that and say: “The saints are insane. There’s no humanly good reason for them to keep believing, to keep hoping, to keep loving, when all is darkness, emptiness, meaninglessness.”

There’s something true about that reaction: they are madmen. But so are the nihilists and Atheists. In fact, all the most sane people are mad, because they can see that either God exists and therefore gives meaning to everything, including the darkness of suffering and deprivation in all its forms—and this makes them become “fools for Christ”—or there is no God and life is a sheer absurdity from which the most consistent will liberate themselves by suicide (except that there is no such thing as consistency; any action would be equally pointless).

I have read searing accounts of the hell through which certain Catholics have been put by abusive clergy. I would not dare to give such a victim trite advice: “Chin up, man, it’s not so bad as all that. Forgive and forget. Move on.” That would only be a new form of cruelty. But if a Catholic stops believing or if he stops going to church, what will he find? A Christ beyond the visible Church? A God beyond organized religion? That’s been tried: It’s called Protestantism, which evolved into liberal Protestantism, which collapsed into liberalism plain and simple, which is now consuming itself in sick and ugly passions (to say nothing of casting your lot in with one of the Greek schisms).

We interact with God religiously, and we receive and adhere to Christ in and as a body, in and as His Body. We put our faith in Christ, not in the Church; the Church is the means, not the end—the opening, not the destination. We are saved by Him, and we will not be saved apart from Him. That is the basic faith of the Christian. Even in the worst of times it has a lot to be said for it, especially because, while no one who walks the earth is perfect, there are good, holy, generous, and wise laity, religious, and clergy still in the Church, and there always will be. It is not all a wasteland.

Anyone who is trying to follow Christ will experience trials—as He assured us we would—and if Christians are serious enough about discipleship, or if they are in a position of leadership, they can be guaranteed to face massive interior crises. The question I have to ask myself—the question you have to ask yourself—is this: Am I doing what I need to be doing in order to nourish my faith?

I heard a priest once say in a homily: “Faith is a like a muscle: it grows stronger when you exercise it, and weaker when you don’t.”

At one point when I was in college, someone recommended to me that I read a bit from one of the Gospels every day, to get to know Christ better, to meet Him anew. It sounds way too easy and simplistic, but there’s much truth in this advice. As I said earlier, He is the reason I am doing all that I am doing—or at least, I want it to be true that He is the reason. And why? “No man has ever spoken like this man!” (Jn 7:46). He’s the only one in the human race, in human history, who seems to know reality through and through—mine, yours, everyone’s, everything’s. If He’s not the real deal, the One worth following, the One worth living and dying for, then nothing is, because nothing else holds a candle up to Him. Or rather, all the other good things are candles, and He is the Light itself from which they are ignited.

I find that reading from just about anywhere in Scripture, and especially praying the Divine Office, has a strengthening, focusing, and elevating effect. It brings us into contact with the meaning of things, with the origin and the goal of reality, with the One who says: “I Am Who Am.” The daily contact with God in prayer and spiritual reading does not cause problems to evaporate, burdens to lose weight, or evils to cease. Rather, it gives us the power of sight to see through them and past them, the capacity to endure until we rest in Him, and the certainty that the world’s evils are finite, temporary, and conquerable. That holds for the evils in the Church, too.

We all need a lot of grace to persevere in a most unholy and unchristian age. Let us pray more than ever for an increase of faith in God, hope in His promises, and love for His goodness—kindled from the burning furnace of charity that is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Yours in Him,


A Fellow Laborer in the Vineyard


Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

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