By JEFF MINICK
(Below is a Christmas letter from the ever-feisty Uncle Samuel to his beloved — and often clueless — nephew Hobson.)
+ + +
It pleases me to no end that you will attend the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Basilica with Abigail. These last four months since you met my young friend have certainly brought about some remarkable changes in you. By placing Abigail’s happiness ahead of your own selfish concerns, you are discovering the true meaning of affection, friendship, and love. When I first introduced the two of you by mail, it was my fervent hope that you would see in the lovely Abigail those advantages faith and grace have bestowed on her.
Your criticism of Catholics, particularly the charge of hypocrisy among so many in the congregation, is valid. (By the way, dear nephew, please continue to work on your grammar. A university education should have taught you that “its” is a possessive pronoun and that “it’s” is a contraction meaning “it is.” To be frank, you should have learned this convention in elementary school.)
You write that when you have previously attended Mass here in Asheville while visiting Abigail, you were astounded to see nearly everyone receiving Holy Communion. Given the vagaries of the human heart, you wonder how it is possible that so many parishioners can be in a state of grace.
Your statistics are sound: The long Communion lines versus the short confessional lines — my own spiritual judge spends most of his hour in the box reading — reveal that a majority of American Catholics either fail to comprehend what they are receiving in the Body and Blood of Christ or are ignorant of the concepts of sin and sacrilege. Various opinion polls also find that many Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ, marking many communicants not only as benighted but also as heretical.
You write that you recognized three parishioners, know their stories, and wonder how on earth two of them can approach the altar and take the Eucharist without bursting into flames. You identify one of those taking Communion as a “gay activist,” another as a real estate agent who would hoodwink her own grandmother to make a sale, the third as a man who created a scandal by committing adultery with a co-worker.
The first two you report as receiving Holy Communion, with the adulterer declining by remaining in the pew. Here several comments are in order. The adulterer clearly has not yet made his peace with God through the Sacrament of Confession. The first two parishioners have either done so, in which case they are worthy of Communion, or else they have convinced themselves that they are innocent of any mortal sin, which would find them guilty of a second grave sin, that of sacrilege.
Your mention of the adulterer brings to mind the biblical account of the woman caught in infidelity. Because you have so rarely darkened the door of any church, let me remind you of the story. Some scribes and Pharisees bring a woman accused of adultery before Jesus. Hoping to trap Christ into breaking the Mosaic Law, they ask Him whether, according to the Law, they shouldn’t stone her to death for her deceit.
Christ replies: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one the men drift away. When only the woman remains, Jesus tells her that he does not condemn her and instructs her to “go, and do not sin again.”
Two points from this story are pertinent to your remarks on the Church. The first may be found in Christ’s injunction to the woman to avoid sin, a command aimed at all of us. The second point — His words to the Pharisees — dictates that we must be prudent in our judgments of others. Actions, Christ seems to remind us, may easily be condemned or praised, but to judge the state of the soul of another human being is nearly impossible.
Take your adulterer, for instance. He clearly knows something of his faith — after all, he has exiled himself from Communion — so we can surmise he knew he was sinning when he entered into a relationship with a married woman. He surely understood that discovery would bring painful worldly consequences: the destruction of a marriage, the concomitant damage done to children in that marriage, the loss of respect in the community.
So why would such a man enter into such an affair?
Catholic writer and thinker Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées deserves your attention, once wrote: “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point,” which translates as: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” To condemn the adulterer’s actions demands nothing of us — here the guilty parties have condemned themselves — but to try and understand what he was thinking and feeling offers deeper mysteries.
(Two of the world’s greatest novels, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, explore this theme, and Catholic novelist Graham Greene offers an exhaustive examination of the moral quandaries in The End of the Affair.)
Was the man cynically exploiting a vulnerable woman, a wife and mother unhappy in her marriage? Or was he so deeply in love that he simply couldn’t stop himself? (Think Pascal). With the affair revealed, why has he not made his Confession? Is it because he can admit his wrongdoing, but cannot yet forsake his love and confess his regret? We can’t justify any objectively immoral action, but how can we know the state of his soul?
Such questions bring us, oddly enough, to Christmas.
We Americans have turned Christmas on its head. We party and feast during Advent, which, as the Church tells us, should be a time of prayer and preparation. We rip open presents on Christmas Day, enjoy a huge feast, and then spend the Twelve Days of Christmas stripping the house of decoration and moaning over the status of our banking accounts in the wake of our spending spree. By celebrating this way, we have, as we have in so many areas of our public and private lives, brought disorder into the realm of the sacred.
Even so, the real meaning of Christmas remains clear to believers, and for me this evening, contemplation of the Nativity brings to mind one word: frailty. Think on it, nephew. Consider how the world was changed by a baby’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Think of how this newborn, fully human and yet fully God, forever broke history in half. (To further your literary education and my own argument, I would suggest Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.)
I wonder: Have you ever held a newborn baby? (A good friend, age 52, recently held one of my infant granddaughters in his arms. He informed me he had never before held a baby. The mingled astonishment and terror on his face made me howl.)
If you have held a newborn, then you know their utter helplessness. Other than being able to breathe, they are weak, fragile beings dependent for their every need on other human beings. They are, in a word, frail.
Christ came to us as a baby. Frailty — weakness, powerlessness — was His condition when He entered our broken world. In certain ways, this frailty, this vulnerability to attack without the power to defend Himself, remained His condition His entire life. On Easter Sunday He is triumphant, yes, but at Christmas He is a baby again.
His weakness as a baby reminds me of our own human frailties. As a Catholic and a man, I am certainly aware of my own shortcomings, my temptations toward sin, my sins themselves. With each passing year, Christmas thrusts itself more deeply into my heart, making me also more and more aware of the fragility of my fellow human beings. All of us, for example, are desperate for love, more desperate, many of us, than we know.
An example: This Advent season I posted a poem on my online site containing the line: “The one who loves you just the way you are.” (That’s iambic pentameter, in case you missed poetry in college.) That short poem received more hits than anything I’ve ever posted. At Christmas, I think, we become aware that a being exists who loves us and who wants the best of us.
But enough. My great wish is that your affection for Abigail, and hers for you, continues to flourish and grow. You have found a beautiful young Catholic woman. One caveat: As I have mentioned previously, Abigail is a close friend. While it delights me to see you courting her, I wish to remind you of the consequences should you ever mistreat her. I am an old man, and you are young, but we old men can be formidable when circumstances require. Should you hurt her, I guarantee you, beloved nephew, you will never see what hit you, but you will be eating the sidewalk.
With that gentle admonition, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.
With love and prayers,