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The Heroism of Faith

Despair abounds. A bleak hopelessness seems to be permeating our world, perhaps at more and deeper levels than most of us realize. The pandemic and the ensuing tyrannies are but the very surface, immediately beneath which we find tectonic fissures down to the core of our institutions. The culture wars are really only a skirmish in secular society’s slow-burning war with itself. A utopian society whose salvation was always in this world and not the next, which now suddenly faces the collapse of economic globalization along with that of political legitimacy, as well as a mounting energy and resource crisis with no possible solutions. All infused with a pervasive spirit of nihilism and despondency that began about the time of Voltaire and now is constantly reproduced by the achingly false promises of postmodern consumerism. As Andre Vltchek writes in his 2017 essay, Love, Western Nihilism, and Revolutionary Optimism:

Wherever you walk, all around, the buildings are monumental, and boutiques are overflowing with elegant merchandise. At night, bright lights shine brilliantly. Yet the faces of people are gray. Even when forming couples, even when in groups, human beings appear to be thoroughly atomized, like the sculptures of Giacometti.

Talk to people, and you’ll most likely encounter confusion, depression, and uncertainty. ‘Refined’ sarcasm, and sometimes a bogus urban politeness are like thin bandages that are trying to conceal the most horrifying anxieties and thoroughly unbearable loneliness of those ‘lost’ human souls.

And at the heart of it all are the troubles plaguing the Church. The Barque of St. Peter, braving the unruly seas of the darkened Earth, at once part of her and beyond her, seems to many of us foundering in the waves.

We speak of crisis and civil war. There is talk of actual schism, a questioning of inerrancy and of the very legitimacy of magisterial statements. Some of us even experience a collapse of faith, personally and collectively.

But the Faith has died before. At several occasions through history, the Catholic Church has faced its demise. She has time and time again stood as a broken shell of her true self against insurmountable odds, with every reasonable mind in the world fully expecting her end to be close at hand.

G. K. Chesterton, reminds us, in his apologetic, The Everlasting Man, that

… at intervals, there passed across this endless life a sort of shadow of death. It came at the moment when it would have perished had it been perishable. It withered away everything that was perishable.

And every time, she has passed through this dark night. Every time she has reached her breaking-point, yet without breaking, and returned resplendent with a life not of this world. Unlike any other thing in human history or experience, with her divine Spouse she has risen once again, improbably and incredibly, her gold purified as if by fire.

I was brought into the Faith from “mere Christianity” partly through the artistic work with my friends in the Catholic black metal ensemble Reverorum ib Malacht. The seeming contradiction in terms of Catholic evangelization within the framework of the quintessentially anti-Christian genre were to us belied by the imperative of serving where the line is thinnest. Here, faith is always dead, and here, Christ always seems to rekindle it in the most surprising of ways.

Looking closely, the paradox fully dissolves in light of the genre’s core ethos of renouncing the fallen world and its false promises; of interrogating secular modernity and a worldly, lukewarm Christianity’s more blatant hypocrisies. Black metal, with all its puerile arrogance and imbecilic celebration of sin, nonetheless sees this world for what it has become, rejecting its garish promises for the lies that they are. It rightly maintains that the final reign of peace is not yet at hand, and that we as Christians really are hypocrites for play-acting as the Church Triumphant while contentedly partaking in Mammon’s gifts and leading comfortable lives against the backdrop of one and a half billion abortions and the global substitution of a secular utopianism for our perennial values.

In this hard but not unsuitable ground, we are striving to plant the seeds of the true Faith, and struggling in a context explicitly hostile to Christ, and it has, over the years, fostered certain insights. First of all, I am no stranger to the horrors of doubt, nor the insatiable emptiness of depression. None of us are. Bearing witness to His Love in a faithless world that constantly despises it comes at a price.

But most importantly, even if He always rekindles the hope in our hearts and brings us countless comforts which raises us above all despair, orthodoxy is not therapy. The truth cannot be sought for any other reason than truth itself. And the truth does indeed bring peace – but the cost is, in a sense, everything. C.S. Lewis knew well the apparent contradiction:

He says, “Take up your Cross”—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp. Next minute he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” He means both. And one can just see why both are true.

In other words, we must learn to love the cross if we are to follow Him. We must learn to embrace the suffering He wants us to face, for it is always ordained to purify, and to never forget that we, the Church Militant, ever since Pentecost are locked in a struggle of spirit against flesh that will not end until He finally comes.

Instead, we have been indulgent. We have been complacent, we have been effeminate, and the world is so much worse for it.

When temptations abound, God is really asking us if we trust Him. When everything is chaotic and incomprehensible, when the dry truths of philosophy do not console us, and when it seems like He is not really there at all, He is always closest at hand, shrouded in His ineffable holy darkness, asking us thrice, with His voice of sheer silence: ”Do you love Me?”

He wants us to firmly accede to our utter and absolute dependence upon Him and nothing else, to let go of all our attachments and all of our fears. To surrender to Him completely and with perfect confidence. And this is where the heroism of faith comes in. From Lewis again:

You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed—that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if—let’s make an impossible supposition—His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, “They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending”— would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: “The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.”

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if everything seems to crumble all around us. If the Church seems to be wavering, if our faith is exhausted, and if doubts cloud our hearts, we should run towards the cross. We should ask for the grace to embrace and rejoice in our suffering, and while fearing all from our own malice and weakness, in constant prayer, place our entire confidence in Him.

It really doesn’t matter if we are Athanasius against the whole world, for “at the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”

He never promised it would always be easy. If we would take up our crosses and follow Him, He promised us that which is infinitely greater than any temporal consolation.

Scourges of various types and forms, physical as well as spiritual, thus seem to be an inherent part of the human condition. Our only choice regards the manner in which we face them.

A few days ago, intending to gain a bit of perspective on our current global situation, I went to see the old abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium of my home province, pictured above.

Like many similar institutions, the sanatorium was built during the 1920s in an effort to combat the widespread presence of consumption before the advent of effective antibiotics. The excursion was a surprisingly oppressive experience, the remote and derelict edifice like a mansion of lost souls.

In the empty wards and hallways, strewn with broken glass and plaster, the despair was almost palpable, even with the gentle sunlight filtering through the burning autumn foliage. This was a place where you came either to die or to be cured. About half of the thirty thousand admitted ever came home alive.

And I realized that this is very much our world. A place where people once came to be saved, but which now stands dilapidated, and seems almost devoid of life. A broken down sanatorium, where none but a few pallid haunts are even hoping for redemption anymore.

But give Him a faithful little remnant, and He will build a New Jerusalem.

Up on the roof in the glorious afternoon, the tour guide pointed out a nearby hill. It was known as the “mountain of revelation,” for it was here the dying were taken to meet the pastor and receive their very own terrible news.

I assume that my own great-uncle, Sigurd, was also brought up this hill some time before his death at the facility in 1947. And I pray that in the stillness of his heart, to the tidings of his approaching end, he responded:

“You are wrong. Death is no more, and this is just the beginning. For I know my Redeemer lives.”

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

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