“What is Truth?” Pontius Pilate
I may be exceptionally naïve, but I began to understand the unreliability of the communications media only when I reached my late twenties. One day, my wife and I and our first-born son were on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, among a crowd of 12,000 pro-life demonstrators, listening to a speech by the British journalist and convert, Malcolm Muggeridge. His words were nothing short of brilliant and prophetic. At the far edge of the crowd a group of about twenty pro-abortion protesters campaigned for attention, chanting slogans and marching in a circle. That night I was astounded to see the event grossly distorted on the television news networks. There was not a single excerpt from the pro-life speeches, no view of the crowd, no mention of its size, only brief close-up snippets of individual pro-life demonstrators-and the networks seemed to have an eye only for tongue-tied people in funny looking hats.
Ours is the second generation in the history of the Church to experience the turn of a millennium, and it is to be expected that the uniqueness of the event will have its effect on our perceptions of what is occurring and will soon occur in our midst. It would be high drama in any historical context, yet the unprecedented crises and crimes of this century have injected into the situation a tension that in many people approaches the level of cosmic dread.
Natural disasters are increasing exponentially; the economy is tottering on the brink of disaster; the y2k problem threatens the vulnerable infrastructure of the computerized developed nations, raising the specter of widespread social collapse in the immediate future, with ensuing famine and lawlessness; wars are increasing in number and ferocity; world-class magazines give plenty of attention to the outbreak of pandemic plagues and the possibility of comets and asteroids smashing into our once secure little planet, thus ending civilization with whimpers and bangs.
It is certain that until we arrive in Paradise we shall not know the full account of the Christian martyrs in Russia, yet we believe that not a drop of shed blood is hidden from the eyes of God. Many stories have been told and appeared in print, much of it reaching readers in the West. Yet only a fraction is known about the suffering of Christ’s disciples during the Soviet era.
Although I had read many books on this subject during my youth, it was not until I was thirty years old that I met anyone who had seen first-hand the evidence of how brutal that persecution really was. In the early 1980’s my wife and children and I lived in a small village in the Rocky Mountains of Canada.
The children are lying on the living room rug, their stomachs distended with turkey and Christmas cake. Our guest, Fr. Brian, turns a beaming smile on them, lights his pipe, and seats himself with a sigh on the old rocking chair beside the wood-stove. He is content just to soak up the family atmosphere and listen to our children’s after-dinner banter.
“Tell us a story, Father,” they cry before long. The priest has a reputation for stories. More than that, he has all the time in the world for children.
“What kind of a story?” he asks.
“A Christmas story!”
“Well,” he says, pondering, his eyes growing thoughtful, “I think I do know a true story about a gift that was given on a Christmas day many years ago. But no, it’s too strange.”
Now they’re hooked. “Yes, yes, that one! That one!”
“It’s full of grown ups, “ he murmurs, “Nazis and war and things like that.”
“Yes, yes,” they squirm with anticipation.
His eyes go far away and his brow furrows. He rocks back and forth slowly, slowly, and the room grows quieter.
“I’m quite serious, when I tell you,” he says, “that this is a true story. I saw parts of it with my own eyes. I lived with the family to whom it happened.”
Like many well-intentioned parents of our generation, my wife and I believed that child-rearing was largely a matter of finding the right method. Oh, we believed in prayer and grace well enough, and we knew there were variations in temperament that made some children a little more difficult to raise than others. But we were convinced that no child could resist the high-octane mixture of our faith, our affection, and our parenting skills.
Then the Lord gave us Ben. I will not belabor you with a long list of his crimes and misdemeanors. Only let me say that from the moment of his birth he was an utterly delightful, exhausting, exasperating, and fascinating phenomenon whom Heaven had decided to drop into our laps for the good of our souls. He was strong-willed, imaginative, utterly charming, very energetic and . . . and . . .
In the storm of confusion and misinformation which has greeted the question of a papal definition of the dogma of Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s well known question regarding the Mother of God, “Who are you, O Immaculata?” takes on new poignancy and urgency.
Who is she? Who is she really, and what is God doing through this unique woman? At first glance it is often assumed that God’s desire to enter creation through the womb of an immaculate virgin was a case of spiritual hygiene: If one were God, would one not wish to be conceived in the purest possible receptacle? While this is true, it is only the beginning of our understanding of the relationship between God and Mary.
Is she only a model of fidelity, an exemplary disciple, a saint (albeit the greatest of saints)? Is she no more than a sign? Yes, she is a sign. But much of the confusion about her in the modern mind derives from the peculiarly one-dimensional character of Western society, which has fractured the great harmony of the hierarchical cosmos so severely that the fault lines in our thinking and perceptions now run in all directions.
Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, edited by Clifton Fadiman, Doubleday, New York, l990.
Six decades ago Clifton Fadiman published a book called Living Philosophies. In it several distinguished men and women set down their personal speculations, faiths and doubts. The present collection retains one of those essays, Albert Einstein’s rejection of an anthropomorphic God and his declared love for beauty, mystery and contemplation of the “marvelous structure of the universe.” This piece deserves reflection, but then so do most of the thirty-five other credos in the collection.
The word totalitarianism usually generates impressions of dictatorial systems which crush civic freedoms and negate the humanity of their subjects in an effort to achieve complete control. Images of barbed wire, jack-boots and thought-control are conjured up in our minds. 20th century literature has given us some powerful works of fiction which suggest a variety of possible totalitarian futures: one thinks immediately of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Common to these dystopias (utopias which have collapsed into tyranny) is the absolutizing of the power of the State, or systems controlled by the State.
Totalitarianism invariably strives to do away with genuine absolutes and to establish false absolutes in their place. Genuine absolutes are fundamental, ultimate, unqualified truths, independent of the ebb and flow of cultures, fashions, myths and prejudices.
The words of the 17th century religious poet Thomas Traherne have stayed with me ever since I first read them twenty five years ago. I have never forgotten them because they express in a few potent phrases a fundamental element of our Faith: we are a people who stand as a sign of hope, and a sign of contradiction, in the midst of this confused world.
I know little about the climate of England, where the poet wrote these lines, but I assume the British oak must be famous for standing sturdy against the North Atlantic rain; must shake its arms in defiance against the occasional fall of swift-melting snow. The poet’s metaphor is a powerful one, and I have always loved it, though it lacks a certain accuracy for those of us who live in sub-Arctic regions.