The Falsification of the Good. Part Three: Mr. Cogito's Monster and the Prolepsis of Heaven and Hell

January 23, 2024
Communio Theology
The saint of today will experience a prolepsis of Heaven and Hell

Here are parts one and two of this series in case you want to reread them first:

“The notion of the end of the world recurs throughout history; but our time has renewed this theme by discovering not only how to distort phenomena, but also how to distort consciousness and thought. Nowadays, the end of the world is not so much feared or desired: it is palpable.”
Alain Besançon
The Falsification of the Good, (8)

I have spoken often of modernity as the nullification of the question of God which is itself the eruption into full view of a deeper metaphysical commitment to the aesthetics of nothingness. And is it not the specter of this deep and seemingly bottomless abyss of nothingness that most haunts our era? We can, albeit with great effort and despite the foul and fetid trenches filled with the 20th century’s mountain of corpses, rouse ourselves to a righteous anger that demands that the torturers not have the last word. But even here, even in the smoldering anguish of this affirmation of the existential demand for justice in the midst of carnage unimaginable, we sense a gnawing monster within. And it is a monster without a face, unnamable and hidden, refusing the light and recognition, even as its effects are diffused everywhere. The French historian Alain Besançon, meditating on those who witnessed the great genocidal catastrophes of our times, says:

“However, when one reads the witnesses best placed to feel and think, it is not murder that seems worst to them, neither is it oppression and poverty. These evils are as old as history, and we know them only too well. What such witnesses try to do, usually in vain, is tell us of an increase of evil which amazes them and which they cannot understand, an evil more evil than evil itself, because it is confused with goodness. … So, the shrewder witnesses try to make us see that the physical hardship of the camps, the hunger, the beatings, the executions, were not evil itself, but only its metaphysical expression.  What characterizes a certain strain of 20th-century literature is precisely the difficulty it has in defining and naming what it feels in its bones to be absolute evil.” (8-9, emphasis added)

The difficulty involved here is that we feel very deeply an abiding sense that something has fundamentally changed on a deep, deep level.  We sense that “something is about to happen.” But what? And from where?  It is something hard to name and to identify, and we sense that the monster we face this time is not like all enemies before which were openly visible as one “terrible in tooth and claw”.  We sense a more subtle beast, unlike all others, and yet somehow related to them all, and underneath them all, as the sullen and surly ontological raison d’être of the entire history of the communion of evil.  It is a beast which above all, resents. And as that which resents all that came before under the banner of goodness and transcendence, it presents itself as (at last!) the great liberator from all of the hateful constraints of the past. As such, it presents itself as a model of true love and human solidarity. It postures as our friend even as it is sucking the marrow from our bones and the thirst for God from our souls. This monster is a pickpocket with a beguiling smile who pilfers us blind as we fixate on its perfect, white teeth.  And is that not the most iconic emblem of modernity?  A society of utopian orthodontics and empty souls?

It is also, and therefore, a beast that refuses open combat lest it valorize the resistance of the few prophets who have the eyes to see that the beast is a vicious fraud and a marauding molester of the good.  Indeed, it refuses to engage the prophet in combat lest it also valorize the very concept that there is a crisis as such, and therefore of any sense that there is “justification” in the resistance on any level. The resistance of the saint therefore comes to be seen by the public as something clownish and cartoonish, the wild gesticulations of an overwrought apocalypticist drunk on tales of the coming desolation followed by an eschatological denouement.  And the dilemma he or she faces is that the more insistent is his public resistance, the more confirmed in the image of “hysterical overreaction” it becomes. Thus, with borrowed sword in hand, and with an ill-fitting suit of armor pilloried from an old castle that is now a B&B, the resistor stands alone in the street at the barricades waiting for an enemy who does not come.  He looks like a pathetic fool.  And perhaps he is. A fool of a certain kind whose progeny these days are far too few.

And I am not speaking here, nor is Besançon, of the death of God.  Because with the monster we face even the death of God is too much for us, thus fulfilling Nietzsche’s prophecy that the embracing of the liberation of God’s death by the übermensch will be undermined by a kind of scientistic and prosaic cowardice, leading to his famous “Last Man” who embraces nothing even as he “blinks” at happiness in an uncomprehending stupor.  Happiness itself – and even a happiness in the Nietzschean Dionysian register – is simply incomprehensible in the strict sense since nothing in the conceptual accoutrement of modernity has a category that can encompass it.  In our era, “happiness” is just the byproduct of consumer satisfaction, and even the deeper forms of spiritual happiness brought by things like family, friends, work, achievement and so on, are undermined as nothing more than my “personal choices” that have no deeper ontic or social importance.  

Therefore, even more so does the hidden monster of modernity seek to deconstruct the deep spiritual happiness that freedom brings when it chooses the Good. Because the inbreaking of an Absolute Good from a non-mundane Transcendence provokes a moment of decisional crisis that relativizes all other penultimate choices as secondary or even tertiary realities. Worse, they are viewed as epiphanic and sacramental icons of the Transcendence which would imply that they are not under our total technocratic and bureaucratic control. They must be assimilated.  

Thus, in this regime of the hidden monster of an anomic nihilism, Christians are labeled not as those who are simply “wrong”, but as those who are mentally unwell and perverse in their commitments since such commitments imply an anthropology that is consequential. The beast is committed to the proposition that only that which is inconsequential can liberate. And there is nothing more damning to an idea, thus rendering it “inconsequential”, than for it to be dismissed as the ravings of one who is both insane and evil.  The well is thus poisoned at its source and only a fool or a fanatic would drink from it. This is why moderns so love that anthem of nihilistic liberation that is John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, the basic message of which is that we will all only be happy when we stop giving a shit about anything beyond the prison walls of our pure immanence.

Here we can once again turn to Besançon. He continues his analysis of the strange nature of the furtive and shy monster of modernity’s pure immanence, and emphasizes that it falsifies the good and inverts evil into good, precisely while remaining hidden as that which frames our deepest unexamined assumptions about what constitutes the really real.  The monster thus quietly insinuates itself into our “logic” by affirming in our consciousness the alleged common sense of  “that which is obviously reasonable” or, more simply, by defining for us that “this is just the way things are.”  It is the tyranny of an everydayness that is the monster’s sock puppet.  And as such it robs us of imaginative wonder.  It destroys the very concept of imagination and wonder and mocks the poetic dreams of the romantics, thus gutting from within our ability to resist the descent into this anomic abyss via the path of imagining differently.  Therefore, John Lennon’s song should have been called “Unimagine” since it is precisely the realm of a suffocating and reductive materialism for which it agitates.  

Thus, we are left in the metaxu of an endless twilight with no exit upward, only downward. Therefore, as the philosopher Sebastian Morello states, “as a consequence we have gone to sleep a grey people in a grey world.” (The World as God’s Icon, p. 10). And along the lines of Morello’s “grey world”, Besançon turns to the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert who, in a poem entitled, “Mr. Cogito’s Monster”, illustrates the hidden nature of the beast we face. Besançon summarizes the poem as follows in a lengthy quote worthy of full citation:

“Lucky Saint George who, from high on his charger’s saddle, could observe the movements of the dragon and judge its strength! Mr. Cogito is not in such a happy position.  He sits at the bottom of a valley shrouded with thick fog. Through it, he can only make out a shimmering nothingness.  Mr. Cogito’s monster is difficult to describe and defies definition. It is like a vast depression covering the whole country. It cannot be struck down by the pen, by lance or by argument. If it only brought death and crushing weight from above, one could believe it to be the hallucination of a sick imagination. But it exists, for it destroys the structures of the mind and covers the bread with mold. Its victims are the indirect proof of its existence, but they are enough.   Sensible people say you can live with the monster: all you have to do is avoid sudden movements and strong words, act like a rock or a leaf, breathe softly and say it is not there.  But Mr. Cogito is not satisfied with only pretending to live. He wants to fight the monster in the open. At dawn, he walks through the sleeping suburbs, at the ready. He calls the monster down empty streets, he insults it, provokes it as though in the bold vanguard of some non-existent army. He calls it a coward. But in the mist he can only see the immense jaws of nothingness. Mr. Cogito looks for a fight, even an unfair one, and he wants it soon. But before that, inertia will be his downfall, and ordinary mundane death, a suffocation by shapelessness.” (9)

This paraphrase of Herbert’s poem, in my view, cuts to the bone of our situation.  It reminds me of the quote attributed to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, (in a rather liberal paraphrasing by the celebrity Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek): “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”  Something is indeed struggling to be born in our era. And my claim is that it has already happened.  Just as with the public obscurity and hidden nature of Christ’s birth, so too here. The simulacrum of Christ and his Church in modernity’s adoption of Comte’s “religion of man” has already arrived and is now the near-totalitarian ideology of our age.  Or, as Daniel Mahoney calls it, “The Idol of our Age”.  During Gramsci’s time perhaps the monster was still struggling to be born.  But no longer. The child is here, not in a manger or in front of Simeon’s gaze, but in the algorithmic reduction of everything to the regime of digital surveillance, commodification and bureaucratic suffocation. The reduction of everything we once thought of as “higher” to the flotsam and jetsam of epiphenomenal sea foam, followed by the reduction of the “remainder” of our humanity to the robotic. Our goal will soon no longer be to make robots more human, but to make humans more robotic. To define what it means to be human in purely mechanistic categories; Robots with perfect teeth who can make algorithmically perfect McNuggets and who can put your kid on the Dumbo ride at Disney.   It is the reduction of all Transcendent meaning into the regime of God’s nullification and the rise of the culture of metaphysical nothingness. The rise of an “evil that more evil than evil itself, because it is confused with goodness”.

And who would deny the goodness of perfectly symmetrical McNuggets and “wholesome” Disney but the most odious of curmudgeons? As the philosopher Antón Barba-Kay points out, the most insidious aspect of the beast that we face is precisely its ability to transform from its foundations the very nature of the conversation. Thus, to oppose the solutions to our problems offered by the beast is, by implication, to identify one’s self with the problems as such.  Speaking to the purely technological and digital aspects of the issue, he states:

“Shall we choose not to gather data that promises a measurable improvement … for the sake of protecting the ambiguous space of human freedom? … The desire to protect privacy (by arguing against self-driving cars, say), once quantified, amounts to a proposal to defend drunk driving.  The desire to preserve human judgment (by arguing against sentencing algorithms, say), once quantified, amounts to a proposal for protecting racist judges.  What we can measure simplifies our sense of what we can’t, forcing the latter into view in just such terms.” (“A Web of Our Own Making”, p. 11)

Just the other day a perfect example of this could be found in an execrable article on the MSN platform where the author (Louis Anslow) offered the opinion that the Vatican’s cautionary admonition that we be careful with the genetic manipulation of plants (e.g. GMO crops) is tantamount to the Vatican endorsing the death by starvation of hundreds of millions of people.  We see perfectly in this example that assimilation to this new sacramental ordo of techno salvation is viewed as the only proprietary watermark of our “worthiness” to participate in the social contract at all.  Extra techne nulla salus.

What we are witnessing, as I have said, is the birthing of a new sacramental ordo which dispenses efficacious grace in the form of technocratic solutions to problems which our culture automatically reduces to distortions in the technical relations of objects and agents which reside completely within the immanent frame.  This, as E.F. Schumacher pointed out long ago in his marvelous book “A Guide for the Perplexed”, privileges the non-living sphere over the living insofar as the freedom and subjectivity of a living being cannot be tamed and domesticated unless it is first annihilated as a separate, and superior, ontological category.

But few there are with the eyes to see what this hidden parturition of the monster has wrought. And, as with Mr. Cogito’s lonely and futile battle against nothingness, so too are those with the prophetic sense to “see” this most invisible of monsters dismissed as fear-mongering doomsayers battling against phantasms of their own making.  

What I am laboring here to forestall is the inevitable criticism that comes my way from those who see nothing particularly baneful or dangerous in our current cultural situation in the sense that there is “nothing all that new” in our era and there is no monster at all, save the imagined bogeyman under Chapp’s bed of nails.  But this is both empirically false and a bit of a strawman caricature.  Nobody who thinks as I do is claiming that modernity is something with no antecedent roots in what came before and that it is utterly idiosyncratic, novel, and sui generis.  And of course it is true that in the era of various forms of “Christendom” most Christians led lives of rather tepid evangelical zeal. Indeed, one can find saints in every era of the Church who lamented the dreadful mediocrities of both the lay and clerical domains in their time.  And it was precisely this generalized mediocrity which gave rise to the need for monasteries for those who wanted to live the faith with an ascetical zeal and existential seriousness. Folks like me also recognize that there will always be puritans and rigorists of the most fastidious kind ever ready to pronounce on the perfidies of the age from within the rather pinched-up categories of decorous bourgeois existence and its obsession with taming our ever-wayward private bits.

But the narrative of the total historical continuity and homogeneity of the various forms of spiritual lassitude requires its caricatures and sacrificial goats in order to justify its own blindness to the obvious difference from, and rupture with, the past that modernity represents.  “Today is no different!” they proclaim, and they denounce folks like me as nothing more than dyspeptic cranks of the highest order. “Same as it ever was” said David Byrne of “Talking Heads” fame in the 1980’s.  But he was wrong.  

There has been a silent birthing of new kings and queens. The powers of the air have returned, the archons and their consorts, who form a syzygy which is the nuptial coming together of pure immanence and the terror of a mortality that demands a worldly solution.  Things are constitutively different today from all before since what we have now is the recrudescence of the pagan apotheosis of the elemental forces but in an atheistic framework. The cult of Blut und Erde, so redolent with the pathos of pagan revels, is now just literally the cult of real blood and real earth, repurposed as the raw material to be manipulated at will.  We have become the archons of old, but in a manner that would make Feuerbach blush since we have done more than claim for ourselves the provenance of the gods.  We have declared that even that provenance is a land of fungible plasticity signifying absolutely nothing. We have destroyed the wild “glory” of the gods and replaced it with the “celebration” of all that is lower and most controllable.  

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, A Communio theologian of the Ratzingerian school and a former member of the Vatican curia, in a recent article makes precisely this point. (If you can read German, the whole original article is here.) His point is that we are in an epochal shift the likes of which the world has never seen before. The beast that is before us will either devour us in a transhumanist nightmare or, by some miracle, the Christian message will vanquish it and a new and reinvigorated Christianity will emerge from the ashes.  The age of “Christendom”, if not of Christianity as such, is over, in a cultural sense, as he makes clear:  

“The epochal change is perhaps most evident in anthropology. Religious references are being displaced, the authority of the modern humanities is growing; a panorama of contrasting perspectives on the nature of man has emerged. … between a spiritualism detached from the physical constitution and a materialism that reduces all transcendental endeavors to technically controllable biopsychological data. … Are we on the threshold of a qualitative leap in the human species, on the threshold of a transhumanist mutation? Anything seems possible.” (emphasis added)

It is imperative that we understand this point if we are to grasp fully the kind of sanctity, the kind of saint, that we need today.  In one sense true sanctity transcends all historicization and localization since it is not entirely reducible to anything other than a radical openness to the unique provocation and call of Christ.  And therefore this christological holiness is falsified at its root when it is reduced to a mere sociological construct invented in committees or synods by tired ecclesiastics, both clerical and lay, who speak incessantly of this or that movement of the Holy Spirit which they have now captured, analyzed, and reproduced in bureaucratic form as a manufactured “reform of structures and disciplines”. My friend Lewis Ayres cheekily describes this process as “salvation by Ph.D. alone” which is just another way of saying the kind of false deference to the “expertise of the elites” so common today.  Which, of course, means that we can only discern the meaning of holiness and of the basic demands of Christian existence after a rigorous round of coursework from various “scholars” and experts in hermeneutics, sociology, psychology, comparative religion, and these days, a few courses in how we can properly “Queer it all up”.

Seen in this light we can confidently assert that there is precious little in life more evil than a committee. And all humor aside I mean that most literally and almost ontologically.  It is the natural corollary to the Monster’s use of “experts” and “elites” to create an assemblage of the counterfeit 144,000 who nobody can touch.  This is a reality noted long ago already by the prescient and underappreciated genius that was Ivan Illich.  A committee by constitutive orientation creates anonymity via plausible deniability and the fog of “process”. It thereby sublates decision to contrived consensus thus negating the prophetic. And the “consensus” it reaches evaporates like Manna in the midday heat.  It hammers square pegs into round holes and then proclaims that everything has always already been circular. There is never ever anything angular, pointed, or sharp in a committee and the “facilitator” is always there to make sure that nobody ever runs around with scissors in hand.  

And that is as true – perhaps even more so – in ecclesial contexts as it is in secular ones.  For example, whatever one’s views on Vatican II – and mine are mostly positive at least in terms of some fundamental theological themes -- there can be no doubt that it did have one primary flaw.  And that flaw was precisely the effort to forge a consensus via committees where none existed.  The Pope sought to end the various theological divisions in the Church via the path of committee consensus, but it was a consensus grounded in little more than a desire to please the Pope and it evaporated as soon as everyone went home from the party.  

But one aspect of the conciliar “mystique” perdured and that was the very notion that the Holy Spirit putatively moves best in committees and does so regardless of the evangelical holiness or theological perspicacity of its participants.  The mere presence of “the committee” as a formal “process” that allegedly facilitates “democratic dialogue” is deemed to be the ex opere operato principle above all others.  It is also a form of pagan magical thinking since the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish these goals without the consent or holiness of those involved.  The pixie dust of modernity – democratic structures devoid of telos – creates the faux patina of “participation” which masks over what are in fact deeply totalitarian impulses.

All of this is key to my analysis here and is in no way tangential.  The hidden beast with which we contend in modernity is precisely a beast who hides in the shadows and who inhabits the cracks and fissures of traditional institutions thus undermining them from within. It is the “long march through the institutions” (as the modern Marxist adage goes) that hollows them out while leaving them seemingly intact outwardly.  Such co-opted and hollowed-out institutions are thus useful in the slow suffocation of the human race. This hollowing-out is therefore also a form of a cultivated cultural amnesia where, as in the case of the Church, what is forgotten, beyond the tradition, is Being as such.  And this means what is forgotten is Christ and the sanctity he is calling us to. And like a running kid with scissors, Christ is considered too wild and untamed to be allowed to lope around the Church at will.  And it is committees that tame him.

Louis Bouyer, one of the key theologians at Vatican II, in the light of what he deemed the bitter fruits of the post-conciliar era, in his memoirs turns a jaundiced eye even toward ecumenical councils.  While acknowledging their necessity at times of crisis, he is at pains to point out the inherent weaknesses of rule by committee and how they are so easily manipulated, especially in our modern world of bureaucratized everything.  And in an absolutely damning passage Bouyer, at his scathing best, concludes with regard to his experiences on various conciliar and post-conciliar curial committees:

“After these various experiences, it will be understandable that I no longer kept much of my youthful enthusiasm for ‘conciliarity’ in general and still less with regard to that pocket-sized conciliarity which is wrongly called ‘collegiality’ today, where a few shrewd ones pull the strings behind some good suckers who imagine later that they have made the decisions for which they were responsible but that others actually made in their place.” (“Memoirs”, 265)

Likewise, Joseph Ratzinger warned us long ago of the dangers of an “ecclesiasticism” that elevates ecclesial “process” to an idolatrous level.  There can never be a substitute in the Church for the lived sanctity of the imitation of Christ.  Everything must be geared to that and flow from it.  All else is vanity. All else is just spiritual junk food; The empty ecclesial calories of loquacious synods filled with the chatterings of prissy eunuchs and their lay courtesans.

Returning to Bouyer, he agrees with this analysis and concludes that evangelical holiness is therefore the only thing that matters:

"What then is to be hoped for from mere local councils, to say nothing of episcopal conferences, usually handled by more or less irresponsible offices, or of assemblies of so-called “experts”, and of all other commissions!  If the Church draws some good from them, it is only to the degree in which the “senior officials” … , extricate what is essential from its surface … .  But it is up to the sensus communis fidelium – understood to be those who truly are so – in the final analysis, to make it its own and, as a result, positive and effective by the benefit they derive from it on the level of the only spiritual progress that counts: that toward evangelical holiness. (“Memoirs”, 252, emphasis added)

Therefore, the monster we face knows that the saint of today, those possessed with a missional sanctity oriented to the resistance of what Balthasar called “The System”, is the only obstacle remaining in the path of total control of human destiny. It is the only thing that stands in its way of marching through the institution that is the Church.  Because as David L. Schindler points out, the saint is one so oriented to the perception of eternity in time that he “sees” things that others do not. Echoing the poetry of T.S. Elliot, Schindler states:

“Curious men attend closely to the passing of events all about them. But such men merely drift along on these currents of past and future, remaining on their surfaces.  It is the saint who truly penetrates the events of history. And the sense of the saint’s doing so is paradoxical: by apprehending time’s intersection with the timeless.  That is, only through awareness of the eternal dimension in time does the moment of time become truly attended.  And how is this awareness achieved? Only by ‘a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”  (Heart of the World, Center of the Church, 228, emphasis added)

Romano Guardini echoed this sentiment long ago and he grounds the perceptive “new eyes” that sanctity brings in the awareness that we are not now as we were intended to be.  That something is amiss, something is off-kilter, and that we can only be who we truly are by paradoxically becoming something new but in a mode of existence that goes beyond this one.  Again, what he means here is that the goal of human life is kenotic sanctity that leads to theosis. And this will in turn require that we are constantly swimming upstream.  He states, “Deep within man there lives the consciousness that something must happen to him, that this present existence is not the real and true one, that it must become new and different and so attain to its proper reality.” (“The Word of God: On Faith, Hope, and Charity”, 45. My thanks to Michael Liccione for alerting me to this quote).

The saint of today must therefore be one who can image this “new way” of living for the people of today.  But how cliché that sounds!  How anodyne and boilerplate!  We are told that we must “meet people where they are today”. But “where” is that exactly? What does that even mean? Because what if the person of today, existentially speaking, is nowhere? The Beast, after all, is that which removes all binding addresses. We can knock on the doors but nobody is ever “home”. Nobody actually “lives” there anymore.  Balthasar noted the ambiguity we face in this regard with deep spiritual precision:

"The slogan is much bruited about these days that we should try to meet modern man “where he is”. … So severe is this situation that most teachers of religion ask, with equal justice, just who these ruins are whom we should try to “meet” (against their will!) “where they are”.  A missionary … has it relatively easy: he encounters a perhaps primitive anima naturaliter christiana. … But where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? I for one certainly do not know. Some table-rapping, a séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough.  (“Epilogue”, 10-11)

What Balthasar is affirming here is that there is very little in the way of a “point of contact” between the Gospel and a vision of life grounded in a vacuous technocratic paradigm.  Because ultimately we are dealing with a conflict between Christ and the Anti-Christ (but not necessarily THE antichrist), between the Gospel as such and an anti-Gospel as such.  Put into eschatological categories one can say that what we are confronting in the world today is a theodramatic confrontation wherein there is a prolepsis of heaven and hell playing out in the conflict and its resolution – a resolution that can only happen christologically, which is to say, through christologically grounded sanctity.  

The saint of today therefore will be someone who can give to people a new kind of “binding address.” And that address will be the recentering and rehoming of life by rendering “where you are” at that time and place into the binding address of Christ. Because it is only in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection that we can discern the point of contact.  Only Christ can write into the transitoriness of our finitude something permanent. And only Christ can bring life out of death because He has first brought death into life.  His theandric death.  Only he can give us a home not built on sand.

This is what Alain Besançon is hinting at in the epigraphic quote where he says that today the end of the world is “palpable”.  This is not doomsdayism but rather a statement of the highest eschatological significance.  He is saying that something has happened today that has changed things at their root.  There is indeed a prolepsis of what Hell is.  And it is not a prolepsis of evil as pure privation, as the abstractions of the scholastics and the Platonists tell us, but of a privation that is somehow strangely sensuous and which we can somehow smell as an odor without origin that is seemingly everywhere.  We can feel the presence of absence now.  We can feel today like never before the fullness of the emptiness below.  All is exposed and yet still frantically strives to remain hidden like the demons of the Gadarene who were provoked into open exposure by Christ and yet begged to be consigned to swine who promptly drowned themselves.

The saint of today is therefore going to be one who has palpably felt this end of the world in his or her soul. The saint of today will also therefore be one who “sees”, even if just through a connatural instinct, the prolepsis of heaven and hell in his or her encounters with the world. And the saint of today, like Christ with the possessed man, will therefore of necessity “provoke” evil even while the saint is still “far off”. The mere existence of the saint will be felt to be both intolerable by the forces of the beast, and yet understood somehow, as with the possessed man, to be the only true hope for things.

The saint will be that “point of contact” between heaven and hell by entering into the drama of Christ’s passion and sharing in it. This is the Christian vocation. Yes, we are to seek “salvation”, but for us, for the baptized, salvation means participating via faith and grace in the cruciformity of Christ’s existence, which includes his descent into Hell:  “To whom much is given, much will be required.” (Lk. 12:48)

And it is a prolepsis of this Hell that Mr. Cogito’s monster brings. And the saint must enter into that prolepsis of Hell and yet bring Heaven with her when she does. There is great peril in this which is why we need prayer and fasting to cast some of these demons out. But the saint of today will be someone who lives in the metaxu between heaven and earth, who senses both heaven and hell within that “space”, that “opaque interregnum between regimes”, and who seeks to live in such a way that he is constantly stretched out, “poured out”, in both directions and toward heaven for the sake of the earth. We are to be “ad orientem” people with backs made for carrying the load of those behind us forward and upward.  And today that means carrying the load of nihilistic unbelief, despair, anxiety, fear, hatred toward the good, and the misery of a dreaded mortality devoid of meaning.

The modern saint therefore is going to be someone with a deep capacity for a supernaturally given level of em-pathy that leads to an equally supernatural embodiment of com-passion.  But both are to be so genuine that there will be no question of a false “toleration” masquerading as compassion and empathy entering in.  That sort of “kindness” is merely a veiled form of contempt.  The kind of empathy that leads to a compassion that is a genuine vicarious suffering through of the pit that someone else is in, will want only to lift everyone and everything out of that pit. And it will seek to do so by entering into the bottom of the pit and pushing all from below if need be.  And then, if need be, she will stand in the pit like Gandalf before the Balrog and proclaim to anyone who might venture in, “You shall not pass!”  My goodness, we risk our lives to save dogs from drowning after falling through the ice on a lake. But somehow it is deemed a shocking “Balthasarian heresy” to even suggest that Christ went into Hell to suffer, mystically and mysteriously, the existential weight of Hell, and that we are to do the same, and all with an eye toward saving our neighbor.

This brings me to the final point which is a concrete one. People ask me, “But what does this look like in real life? How can I do this with kids and a job?”  But does that very question contain within itself its answer? Maybe it is our so-called “real life” that is not so real after all and is that which needs to change.  We are never as busy as we think we are and if our claim is that “real life” renders us “too busy” for a spiritual life I would submit to you that we are just making excuses.  I say this with confidence since it is also something I say to myself all the time! And it is a grand deception and a lie.

If your life situation is such that you cannot develop the inner spiritual senses needed to enter into a life of prayer and penance for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the world, then your life situation needs to change.  This past Sunday’s Gospel reading was about the call of Andrew, Peter, James and John. Once called, they dropped their nets and immediately followed Christ.  So too must we “drop our nets” and follow Christ if what we seek is holiness.  We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say, “I desire sanctity for the sake of the world!” while feeling all spiritually gemütlich while at some grotto at a shrine, but then demand that this happen within the parameters of a safe, bourgeois existence. And then wonder why the kids leave the faith entirely when they reach adolescence.

I cannot tell you how to pound those square pegs into the round holes.  I cannot tell you how to be holy and bourgeois at the same time.  I have never been able to negotiate that truce in my own life so I sure as heck cannot tell anyone else how to do it.  I have found that those two things cannot co-exist in my soul.  Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.  And if your treasure is the cult of American style bourgeois well-being, then you will not only be unable to contend with Mr. Cogito’s monster, but you won’t even care to.  It will strike you as fanatical and “contrary to real life”.  It struck me that way for many years.  And I still feel its inertial tug and its entropy. Fight it if you wish to be holy. And help me to fight it too.

I am tempted to end here since this has already been overly long. But I will tell you what I suspect is true.  I suspect that the saint of today – and I mean the kind who really pisses you off inwardly because you secretly suspect them of being unhinged – is going to be someone who is a bit of an outlier who lives equally from within the heart of Christ and his Church, and from within the worldliness of the world.  In other words, I suspect that the hour of the weirdos has arrived. Because now is the time of monsters, so too is it the time for holy outliers who seek to redefine what counts as “real life”. Such a saint will most often find status quo Catholicism so unpalatable that they just can’t stomach it anymore, since that form of Catholicism has glued itself at the hip to social forms that are toxic to the faith.  And I doubt most of us have the capacity for such freakiness, but at the very least we should admire it, support it, and cheer it on when it appears. And perhaps in some small way to emulate it.

Vatican II sought to retrieve a robust sense of the universal call to holiness.  And I commend it for doing so. But its language in this regard was still too larded with the ecclesiospeak of words that sound great but really have little meaning.  Its words do not inspire and it reads exactly like a schoolmarmy lecture written by a committee of clerical theologians trying to “get the theology right.”  It needed to be more prophetic and to set aside the safe bromides about sanctity in an ecclesial context that makes it sound as if we are talking about “mere pieties” in a baroque tonality.  Now is the time of the laity. Now is the time for a revolution in the Church of a lay-centered spirituality and sanctity characterized by engagement with the world even if that engagement is that of quiet prayer in a “desert place”.  We need lay saints and we need them now.

Because to live in the metaxu is a peculiarly lay charism. And that charism is to live in the prolepsis of heaven and hell inwardly in your soul in order to prayerfully offer up the transformation of the latter into the former, and to live utterly “for others” without counting the cost, is to live in a zone that nobody claims these days, not even very much in the Church.

I further suspect therefore that the kind of sanctity we will see today is of a new kind that will give the appearance of a “worldliness” that many pious and tender souls might find shocking.  We will see more and more holy people speaking openly of their prolepsis of Heaven as requiring of them a “descent” into the prolepsis of Hell, with Christ as the point of contact that makes this action possible. And this “descent” can and will take on many different forms depending on your state in life.  But the one common denominator that will link all such “characters” together is their irreducibility to the old categories of piety and their struggles to give witness to a piety of vicarious suffering – either silently in mystical prayer or publicly in outward “actions” it matters not – and that this suffering refuses assimilation both to the world of the hidden beast and the world of the Church insofar as that Church is still one of power and wealth clinging to the last tired vestiges of its Potemkin village of institutional respectability.  

Here is where I find Pope Francis to be both unbelievably attuned to the need for the Church to move out of itself and into the metaxu of engagement with the beast (the Church as field hospital and all that), but also unbelievably obtuse as to what this means or how it is to proceed.  His response seems to hinge on participating in the prolepsis of Hell, but without bringing along Heaven.  He has lost the christological point of contact and has opted instead for the mythology of modern globalism and moral latitudinarianism.  As such he represents to me one of the greatest missed opportunities in the modern Church.  What could have been a papacy of energized lay sanctity for the sake of the world out of the heart of the Church became instead a papacy fixated on a quasi-Marcionite theology that pits the angry God of doctrines and commandments against the kind God of antinomian love.  

Returning to the main point I think it important that we understand the need for the Church, while remaining entirely herself as One, Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic, to repropose her ancient faith in far more prophetic and revolutionary categories in a manner that disengages her sacraments and offices from the moribund wrappings of institutional “success”. When Lazarus emerged from the tomb Christ instructed the bystanders to “unbind him”.  The saint of today needs to be one who unties such wrappings that bind the living flesh of the Church and to unleash the power of Christ over death. And this saint needs to be rude about it if need be.

I think by way of conclusion it best to repurpose and repeat something I wrote a few months back on the kind of sanctity we see emerging in the Church of today.  I beg your indulgence if you have read it before, but it says exactly what I want to say and so feel no need to reinvent the wheel:

“Thus do we see a double alienation from the modern parish. On the one hand you have the millions of “insider-outsider” Catholics as I have described, but you also now have the alienation of those Catholics who desire a more radical form of Christian life that takes the form of being both in the world and yet radically different from the world.  Call these Catholics whatever you want – avante garde Catholics, back to the land Catholics, dive bar Catholics, bohemian art colony Catholics, urban homesteading Catholics, classical education and homeschooling Catholics – the fact remains that their attempts at re-wilding are often at odds with the suburban, techno-affluence, and spiritual boredom of modern parishes.
But the grass is growing through the sidewalk and the Spirit truly does inspire new movements. And I am struck in particular by how many saintly women in particular have become beacons of hope for me in this regard.
I think here of the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil who, though profoundly drawn to Catholicism, remained at arm’s length from the Church for most of her life for reasons too complex to discuss here.  Nevertheless, she is perhaps one of the most profound religious thinkers of the modern secular era who is an example of the kind of alienated faith so common today.  She just had more intellectual honesty and clarity than most “insider-outsider” Catholics, and who, therefore, I think is a gift of God’s grace to the modern Church who is gifting us with truly modern saints who have taken into themselves the sufferings of transformed unbelief.  And her message is similar to that of other, more mainstream, Catholic thinkers of her time such as Romano Guardini, George Bernanos, and Francois Mauriac. And that is the message of a deeply christological solidarity with the agonistic unbelief and attendant nihilism of our era as we empathetically plumb the depths of its despairing loneliness. And in so doing to bring the true intimacy of divine suffering – the sufferings of love – into the cold and impersonal darkness of modernity.
This is the intimacy of the “transgression” of the resurrection which “violates” the “boundaries” of both suffering and death.  That which seemed impenetrable and ineliminable has been probed, breached, and exposed as the false boundaries of our postlapsarian naturalistic assumptions.  The torturers and despots do not have the last word.  The moldering stench of the grave does not have the last word.  And it was this resurrection transgression of the victory of the crucified Lamb that Weil sought to communicate via her own witness to an unbelieving world.  Gangly, unattractive physically, maladroit, often unhealthy, and who died young in relative anonymity, she nevertheless had a sanctity whose odor only grows over time.
I think of another French woman, Madeleine Delbrêl, whose life went from lukewarm Catholic to overt atheist and then back to a radical form of Catholic living.  She became a nurse in order to live in the world in solidarity with the poor but who also viewed writing as her vocation in order to communicate to the world certain spiritual insights. And those insights are so profound and cutting that one realizes in reading them that one is in the presence of a holy prophet of God. But she too often lived in a certain isolation from “mainstream Catholicism” and therefore a bit alienated from it.  
And of course, there is also Dorothy Day.  People often ask me what is it that most attracts me to her way of life and her thought.  And my answer is always the same.  She understood “alienation” and she was familiar with all the Marxist uses (misuses) of that often over used and shopworn category. And she wanted to retrieve the concept from the Marxists and to place it within a christological context.  In this regard, her sanctity took the form of a union with the crucified Christ who alone suffered the deepest alienation in his kenosis into death and Hell, and who therefore alone can bring true spiritual healing to all of the many ways that modernity creates a scarring alienation within us all. And insofar as the Church had accommodated herself to the alienating structures of bourgeois modernity Dorothy Day saw, presciently, that millions of Catholics would eventually come to feel alienated from that Church as well.  That modern people are in search of a spiritual solution they do not know and yet the Church fails to articulate that solution. That modern people are in search of bread, but the Church has given them stones.”

This quote comes from my blog post "I die on the grave of my God"

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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