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The Search For God
Larry Chapp and the quest for a flowering blackthorn bush in winter
Larry Chapp is a Catholic theologian who always has interesting things to say. In this long piece, he reflects on a visit he made to a monastery for a retreat, and what it made him think about the long and deep crisis in the Catholic Church. It’s an essay about Catholicism, but it’s also about religion in America. He begins by telling a medieval miracle story about a flowering blackthorn bush on a site where the Virgin is said to have appeared and saved a girl from predators. Chapp goes on:
I begin my reflections with this story because the image of flowers miraculously blooming in the dead of winter seems like an apt description of the emotions I felt during my visit to the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York last year. And not just because flowers are beautiful and can brighten up almost anything that is dreary, but because, as in the miracle, the wholly gratuitous, unexpected, and life-affirming eruption of the authentically supernatural into our lives is genuinely shocking and provocative. I went to Genesee weighed down by the clerical sex scandals of the previous year expecting very little beyond a quiet period of reflection during this Christmas season. I went, to be blunt about it, with a cynical and strangely attenuated heart, feeling metaphysically desiccated and fragile, hoping for a small, spiritual consolation of some kind in the midst of this agonistic winter in the Church. I was expecting little more than the spiritual equivalent of a jolt of caffeine in the morning to get you going again, but what I found there instead, like a man on his way to debtor’s prison accidentally tripping over a pot of gold, was hope. Not the trite and emotionally shallow hope that one gets from a “good trip” somewhere, where you meet “good people” and have a “good time”. Here I mean hope in the sense of the theological virtue that one encounters very rarely in life, if at all. You can read all about the theological virtue of hope in the theology books of course and you can “know” a great many things about it through such study. But until one actually lives it or encounters it, it remains an abstraction offering nothing of real life-changing substance. That is the value of the saints. They are blackthorn bushes blooming out of season. And I met them at Genesee.
Like many of my fellow Catholics, I have experienced the “winter” of the sex scandals as a period of sadness, pain, and a demoralization caused by disillusionment. However, in my own case—a theologian and former seminarian, aged 62, who came of age in the post-Vatican II silly season—the sex scandals were not so much a shock as they were a confirmation of something my wise, seminary spiritual director (a German, Jewish convert who had fled Hitler with his family) told me all the way back in 1981: “Enter the Church’s ministry with eyes wide open. Because let me tell you, the rot is very deep.”
Chapp is very, very hard — justifiably so — on bishops, priests, and others within the institution who, in his telling, knew what was going on, but turned a blind eye. What’s interesting here is that he also blames the laity in part. He says that the sex abuse scandal cannot be understood apart from the more general crisis of Catholic Christianity:
My claim, therefore, is that the fundamental crisis in the Church today is not rooted, primarily, in sexual perversion. It is rooted, rather, in the idolatry of worldly comfort, which I take to be the very essence of the bourgeois spirit.
It is an idolatry made respectable (and therefore unrecognized as idolatry) by the Church’s modern acceptance of the Enlightenment’s co-optation of the Kingdom of God by politics and economics. This entails as well the de facto, practical atheism that ensues when God’s Transcendence comes to be viewed competitively over and against our worldly fulfillment. In such a bourgeois regime, where Christianity has been tamed and has become just one more aid or help to our self-improvement in this life (Alexander Schmemann’s genius insight), the Kingdom of God has to be gutted of its true supernaturally transformative power and replaced with either the ridiculous Gospel of prosperity or the totalizing social/political Gospel of the Left. And, as Schmemann further points out, our status as homo adorans, as primarily in our essence “worshipers of the true God”, is thus replaced by homo faber, or humanity viewed as a mere economic commodity, either as a producer or as a consumer, and as a forger of brave new worlds in the here and now.
He cuts very deep in this essay, condemning the way we all live as Christians today (and doesn’t spare himself). Chapp’s visit to the monastery occasioned an epiphany:
But beyond all of this talk, and beyond the discursive and rational elements of the conversation concerning all of these “issues”, is the simple witness and example of the monks in all of its power. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is not the Church that attracts and speaks to the soul, but God. The human soul is made for God and is ever restless until it rests in the divine heart. The first pagan converts to Christianity did so because they felt liberated from the despairing and brutal world of the pagan divinities as they encountered the rejuvenating purity of the God of Jesus Christ. They felt the power of this God in a concrete and tangible way.
And this encounter gave them new eyes for reimagining reality, for reimagining the manner in which society could be different. How people could live differently and treat each other differently. And that latter point is important. For what Christianity preached was not a private spirituality of enlightenment and flight from the world. That was the gnostic perversion. It preached instead the conversion and transformation of the world along the lines of the cruciform God of unlimited love. This new faith in the cruciform God created entirely new pathways for reimagining what the love of neighbor entails.
Chapp says that the reform and rebirth of Catholic Christianity is going to have to be a long-term project, and is going to have to be led by the laity. Read his entire essay. Again, you do not have to be a Catholic to learn from it.
This essay speaks to me right where I live. Yes, it confirms my broad diagnosis of our general religious crisis — and by the way, on that point, I emphatically recommend Carl Trueman’s recently published masterpiece, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self as an exceptionally powerful analysis (aided by the fact that Trueman one of those rare academics who really can write). But it also gets to me personally. I’m the bougie guy Philip Rieff had in mind when he wrote in The Triumph of the Therapeutic:
Difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible. The philosophers of therapeutic deprivation are disposed to eat well when they are not preaching. It is hard to take Schopenhauer at his ascetic word when we know what splendid dinners he had put on, day after day, at the Hotel Schwan in Frankfort.
I am entirely hobbit-like in my enthusiasm for comfort. But I don’t think blooming like a morning glory at the aroma of a cup of fancy tea is at the core of what Chapp is talking about when he speaks of “the idolatry of worldly comfort.” Rather, he speaks of what Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” People forget that the subtitle of Rieff’s book is “The Uses Of Faith After Freud.” Rieff, a Freud biographer, writes in Triumph that Freud both identified and helped to create a new cultural type: “Psychological Man,” who was the successor to Economic Man (the Enlightenment ideal), who himself was successor to Religious Man. Rieff, who was an unbeliever, wrote, “Religious was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.” Life, for this new type of man, becomes nothing more than a quest for satisfying desire and managing anxiety. For Psychological Man, religion is not a prophetic call to repentance, or the irruption of the eternal into the temporal, a theophanic manifestation of the transcendent into the immanent; it’s mostly a therapeutic, self-help strategy.
Rieff, a social theorist, taught that ordering our lives, individually and communally, by “sacred order” was the sine qua non of any culture. There is no culture without cult, no meaningful way of life without the ability to say, and to enforce, Thou Shalt Not. But Rieff was himself an atheist, which put him in the tragic position of diagnosing the sickness of a godless civilization without offering the means of its cure. God might be good for you, but you can’t force yourself to believe in Him because of it. And God can only be good for you if you really do believe.
What does this have to do with Larry Chapp’s essay? Chapp tears into the modern Church — not just the institution, but all believers — for turning God into spiritual sanctification for worldliness. When I read his piece, what came to mind was a story that appeared in The Dallas Morning News around 2004 (I worked there at the time), in which local priests, pastors, and rabbis talked about how they were seeing marriages break up and families suffer from the urgent quest among their congregants to outdo each other in status and acquisition.
Along those lines, an upper middle class Dallas friend once told me about a prayer request sent out on a conservative Christian women’s e-mail list to which she belonged, in which the author said she and her husband’s fertility treatments had been successful, and she was now pregnant with triplets. But they were praying about whether or not God was calling them to be parents of three, and whether or not they should “reduce” the pregnancy down to two, via abortion. The fact that it had not occurred to the author — also an upper middle class woman — that there was anything problematic, from a Christian point of view, about conceiving a life intentionally then taking it to design the perfect-sized family — well, if there is a better illustration of the bourgeois spirit conquering Christianity, I don’t know what it is.
Chapp doesn’t let his reader get away with judging others. How do we live captive to that same spirit? When my family lived in Philadelphia, we had to withdraw our son from peewee baseball, because the league scheduled some games on Sunday mornings, when we were at Orthodox liturgy. I was shocked to discover that this was common now, and that there were plenty of Christians who thought nothing of missing church so their kid could compete in athletics. Honestly, there is not much a parent can do that demonstrates the true importance of Christianity to their child than subordinating religious worship to sports and related middle-class tribal activities. In 2012, when we helped start a Russian Orthodox mission parish in my hometown, our priest, who came to us from Washington state, told us in his little flock that if we expected to receive communion on Sunday morning, we had better be at vespers the evening before. We were all disgruntled by this — think of the events we would have to miss — but he said this was non-negotiable. It turned out to be good spiritual training for us all.
How am I captive in my religious life to the bourgeois spirit? It’s a difficult question, not because I’m not worldly — I surely am — but because it’s hard to navigate between a simplistic, moralistic dualism about pleasure and comfort, and self-deception. Christians are called to be prepared to suffer for the faith, but misery itself is not a synonym for holiness. God can be known in the splendor of His creation, and through taking pleasure in beauty and goodness. The trick, as Dante makes clear, is making sure that we take these things iconographically — that is, as symbols through which the holy is made manifest, and signs pointing to God. When good food, romantic love, professional success, and so forth, become our gods, we are guilty of idolatry.
The other day, I wrote in this space about Terrence Malick’s movie To The Wonder, and how it explores the difficulty of keeping alive the initial awe at the experience of Love — both the love of God (in the example of a Catholic priest struggling with faith) and romantic love, as seen in the inconstant relationship of a pair of lovers. Malick suggests that we cannot live in ecstasy all the time, but we have to try to capture the experience in art, architecture, ritual, and habit. It is not the same thing as God, but it does serve as an ever-present reminder that He exists, is with us, and calls us back.
If God is only an abstraction, we can’t relate to Him; he is the god of the philosophers that St. Paul warned about. We must have this-worldly instantiations of our initial experience of Him; if we don’t, then we will come to mistake ecstasy for God, and make an idol of searching for that high. The challenge, though, is to keep from falling into everydayness, and coming to mistake culture — and for us, the middle-class way of life, including political ideology — for God. Again, this is not easy, not easy at all. When I was a young man, I was quick to judge the hypocrisy and lassitude of older people. But as you age, and learn through experience how damn hard life is, you may become more merciful. The danger is to be merciful without growing complacent.
Chapp says that having examples of monastics — men and women who have surrendered everything worldly to worship God in community — is what we need to remind us of the radical call to discipleship, and to show us that another life is possible. (A shining lay Protestant example that I have seen myself: the Anabaptist communalists of the Bruderhof, about whom more people should know.) Chapp writes:
In other words, we cannot allow our faith communities to be defined by what we are against. There has to be a positive proposal that is rooted in an authentic alternative. And if we are able to live that alternative, we will become powerful witnesses to the fact that a different way of living is indeed possible, that it isn’t a fantasy like unicorns and pixie dust. We will have won half the battle if we can just give people the hope required to reimagine the deeper contours of reality beyond the drab and pinched confines of bourgeois modernity and into the deep pool of God’s profligate love.
I tried to say the same thing in my book The Benedict Option. We live in a time of radical skepticism of all authority and tradition. You aren’t going to argue anybody into believing in God, or changing their lives on the basis of syllogisms. And this culture is post-Christian; there is nothing to be gained by association with a church. If Christianity is going to survive, it’s going to have to be because people see it as something truer than what the world offers. In my book, I wrote about both the Benedictines of Nursia, and the nearby Italian lay community of the Tipi Loschi, as examples of vivid and life-giving Christian discipleship. I’ve never been there, but Chapp and his wife started a farm named after Dorothy Day, and wrote about it here. Maybe it’s that kind of place.
Quaraere Deum — to seek God. (That’s also the title of this gorgeous 40-minute documentary about the Norcia monks.) It’s what the Christian life is about. One doesn’t search for what one doesn’t believe one can find. But when we stop the search, believing that we have found Him, we will surely lose him in everydayness. That is to say, the search for ultimate unity with God — the Orthodox say theosis — is the work of a lifetime, and can only be fully realized after our earthly death. The paradoxical point (one St. Benedict taught in the Rule) is that our spiritual pilgrimage requires rooting ourselves in communities of prayer and practice. How do we establish roots while continuing the search in spiritually beneficial ways? How do we bring order out of chaos without succumbing to the acedia of static formalism? How do we keep the quest alive without dissipating it in the fetishization of emotional experience? No man is more lost than the one who, making an idol of searching, denies himself the possibility of finding. He exiles himself to forever skittering along the surface of things.
It’s a lot to think about, God knows. This awful year, 2020, has been apocalyptic in the sense of revealing much about our true condition, spiritual and otherwise. Church leaders are worried that when Covid passes, a lot of people won’t come back. These are the people for whom church was merely a habit — the cultural Christians. Among those who remain, there might be a temptation to think ill of the ones who drifted away. Maybe they were weak and uncommitted after all. But maybe, without meaning to, we allowed our churches and the way of life that has grown out of them to become not places where one can find God, but rather places where one can cultivate the Self, which is the true god of the modern bourgeois.
Let’s not forget that, as the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson has written, we are all bourgeois today. A man may be working class, but if he regards the point of life as accumulation of money, things, and/or experiences, then he is bourgeois in spirit. Dawson ended that 1956 essay like this:
Today Christians are faced with a no less heavy responsibility. There is always a temptation for religion to ally itself with the existing order, and if we today ally ourselves with the bourgeois because the enemies of the bourgeois are often also the enemies of the Church, we shall be repeating the mistake that the Gallican prelates made in the time of Louis XVIII. The Christian Church is the organ of the spirit, the predestined channel through which the salvific energy of divine love flows out and transforms humanity. But it depends on the Christians of a particular generation, both individually and corporately, whether this source of spiritual energy is brought into contact with the life of humanity and the needs of contemporary society. We can hoard our treasure, we can bury our talent in the ground like the man in the parable who thought that his master was an austere man and who feared to take risks. Or, on the other hand, we can choose the difficult and hazardous way of creative spiritual activity, which is the way of the saints. If the age of the martyrs has not yet come, the age of a limited, self-protective, bourgeois religion is over. For the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.
What, then, is to be done? Besides repenting, I mean. People like me are talented at identifying what’s wrong with the world. How to make it right again — well, that’s hard work. Like Philip Rieff, I know what I’m against. Unlike Philip Rieff, I have a pretty good idea of what I am for. But how to make the ideal more real?
Cooking With Megan McArdle
We move now from maximum heaviosity to something more pleasant and, like, totally bourgeois. If you like to cook, I urge you strongly to subscribe to Megan McArdle’s Cookery Monster newsletter, especially for her multi-part holiday gift guide for the home cook. It’s really useful, and just fun to read. When I was a little kid, I loved the Sears WishBook. Now that I’m a middle-aged fat bourgeois, I love Megan’s Christmas gift guide. I joke about the shopping thing, but seriously, learning how to cook well, enjoy tasty food, and to share that gift with others through hospitality is an exercise in grace, generosity, and gratitude to God for His good gifts. If you want to see how this is done, watch the great 1980s film Babette’s Feast, which is an exhilarating depiction of the sacramental principle, namely that grace is mediated to us through materiality.
Resisting the bourgeois spirit does not mean being perpetually po-faced and glum. Traditionally, Christians fast and feast in season. As we Orthodoxes are in the Nativity fast right now (we spend Advent fasting), my supper was a bowl of spicy cauliflower rice. Sinner that I am, at this point, I’d just about give the key to the city gates to the Saracens in exchange for a plate of chicken enchiladas.
Anyway, from Megan’s Part II, I was pleased to discover that she buys her herbs and spices from the same place I do. She writes:
Spices, The Spice House. One more reason I wanted to buy spice jars is that I actually buy a lot of my spices in bulk. The Spice House is my go-to for bulk spicing. They will mail you spices in flat-pack envelopes with free shipping, and as you can see from the above photograph, I may be somewhat abusing their generosity. I have even gotten enthusiastic about their proprietary spice blends, something that’s very rare for me—I bought one of their salt-free sets for a relative on a low-salt diet, and fell in love with it, particularly the Parisian Shallot, which is amazing on cottage cheese. I can also vouch for their curry powder, Aleppo pepper, and most of the other spices you see above.
The Spice House is owned by a member of the same family that started Penzey’s. I used to buy from Penzey’s, but I got worn out by Bill Penzey’s constant political harangues. Someone suggested to me that I try The Spice House, where you get the same high-quality spices, without the snotty lectures. My absolute favorite from The Spice House is their Oktoberfest Bavarian Rub. It’s a blend of mustard, rosemary, garlic, thyme, sage, and bay leaf. And it is magical. It is best on roast chicken, I find, but also terrific on pork tenderloin, and in white beans. My grandmother didn’t actually cook with this, but there’s something about this stuff that makes everything taste like Oma’s kitchen.