“Let us eat and make merry.”
“This has been a happy time: I’ve spent all day with my family, eaten a fine meal, played with my grandchildren, been to a baptism, and I went to communion.” These were the words of my uncle—with their telling rhetorical climax—on leaving his sister’s house in Eastern North Carolina one Sunday evening last fall. I was back visiting, and the family had converged for the baptism of a little “first cousin once-removed.” The baptism had been held on a communion Sunday at the Methodist church. After, there was a reception at home, with the preacher and his wife, friends, and the usual compliment of children running around the yard on all four sides of the house, messing up their good clothes.
At the buffet table, groaning with biscuits, tiny butter beans, field peas, squash, green beans, chicken, gravy, rice, “congealed salad,” chess pie, and sweet iced tea, my favorite cousin declared, “Well, John and Anne [the little neophyte’s parents] didn’t do any better than Adam and Eve, but we fixed that today!” As a true theologian, the embarrassment of bodily delights laid out before us did not distract him from contemplating in concreto the lofty revealed truths of the Gospel. I sat down and took in the beautiful scene, breathing in that specific and memorable fragrance, a combination of cool forced air and dried eucalyptus, blended with coffee, perhaps, or a whiff of tobacco, that tells one he is at home in the South.
Such words and such a picture are as hard to imagine among such tradition-minded, observant Catholics or Protestants as there still are in the Southern California where I live and work, as they are (still?) not unusual in the South. Yet there are, in the scene so briefly described, indications of what it is that they need to obtain and preserve, if they are to survive in any measure at all.
At first glance, it might seem that the principal thing to be noted is the persistence of faith in the power and worth of the Christian Sacraments. This surely is the most important aspect of life—the means to eternal beatitude beyond this world. Yet the Sacraments as signs are rooted in the stages and needs of human life, both individual and common: birth, growth to maturity, nourishment, hygiene and healing, procreation and education, and government. In order for them to be significant enough in the lives of the faithful for them to persevere in their celebration, it is usually—barring moral miracles that do, in fact, occur—necessary that the natural sense of these rhythms be felt. This sense should become instinctive and not reflective, taken for granted, not subject to doubt or skepticism.
The most serious and dangerous challenge for Christians today is not precisely the loss of faith and religious practice among the fallen away, but a more material, basic human threat—namely, the lack among believers of a human cultural foundation capable of disposing them and their offspring to persevere in the Faith. I mean here not a lack of cultural Hochformen, but a lack of culture in its everyday, domestic, and social sense. This deficit produces among devout Christians a “mere” religiosity, a reduction of Christian life to explicit devotion and moral uprightness, and the sense that these things suffice, and that culture is at best an accidental thing, harmful if secular and amoral, helpful to the extent that it is or can be made explicitly religious.
In this case, religious practice either takes the place of culture or is indifferent to it so long as it is not clearly contrary to faith and good—especially sexual—morals.
These two extremes are easily found among pious Christians today. Both of them discount the essential continuity between faith and culture: the former, by way of defect; the latter, by way of excess. On one end of this movement between contraries of the same genus, I have found pious people who educate their children at home. In order to keep their little imaginations free from dangerous phantasms, they do not let them play any games or sing any songs that are not explicitly religious. I recently witnessed such little children in a group of others at a reception, unable to sing “Three Blind Mice” or “Do, Re, Mi.” On the other end, I have found among the same homeschoolers enthusiasts for “Christian rap,” science fiction, or advertising, to whom it seems that cultural forms are neutral and that anything can be “baptized” for use with the young. These can be seen wearing “Got Jesus?” T-shirts or holding coed youth conferences with such slogans as “Chastity is Hardcore.” In the case of either extreme, there is an inability to sense a distinction between the sacred and the profane: If everything must or can be sacred, nothing will be clearly and securely so.
Accidentally, some might persevere in the Faith through—or better, in spite of—such excesses, but they are utterly incapable of guaranteeing the perseverance of most of us. Yet traditional Christian culture—particularly in the quotidian, familial forms described in the scene depicted above—always has and still can assure this perseverance in all but the most depraved. This is the culture in which we must strive to educate our children, and in which we must strive to live ourselves. I say “strive,” since, in most places, what was once taken for granted is now a conscious choice. This is itself a great disadvantage, but such is our lot in these latter days.
How are we to maintain this balance and continuity? I offer here an insight that may guide us in the concrete. Saint Augustine sums up the efficacious power to persevere in the good with the expression delectatio victrix, “the pleasure which overcomes”—overcomes, that is, all resistance to the good proposed. While he is careful, as are all the Fathers, to stay miles away from any Epicurean speculation, Saint Augustine expounds the working of grace in terms of a concretely irresistible attraction and enjoyment. The notion derives directly from the psychology of classical rhetorical discourse. The separation of the pleasures of daily life from the practice of religion, either by eliminating them or by pursuing them independently of the Faith or incompatibly with It, makes perseverance in the Faith difficult indeed. In order to believe in the higher delights offered by the mysteries of faith, one must experience the reasonable, ordinary pleasures of earthly life as good and as readily available. This continuity is what is seen in the Sunday-afternoon scene illustrated above.
In the second part of the Summa Theologiae (I-I, q. 34, a. 1, ad 3), Saint Thomas responds to the notion that all bodily pleasure is evil. He, of course, rejects this opinion, and with considerable practical psychological insight. An objection has been raised that there is no virtue or art whose purpose is to produce pleasure, and, thus, no pleasure can be good. The Angelic Doctor responds:
Art is not concerned with all kinds of good, but with the making of external things . . . But actions and passions, which are within us, are more the concern of prudence and virtue than of art. Nevertheless there is an art of making pleasure, namely, “the art of cookery and the art of making arguments,” as stated in the Nicomachean Ethics vii, 12.
Here, “the art of cookery and the art of making arguments” are the chief components of culture at the higher and the lower ends of human happiness. Simply put, if, in a believing family, there is close attention to the quality of meals in both their culinary and their social aspects, and if, in the same family, care is taken to read and discuss the best sources, then the pleasure concomitant with these bodily and rational requirements of our nature will serve as a strong motivation for the will to retain the revealed Faith and moral virtue celebrated and proclaimed in the same family. Passing pleasures form the memory and stir up a nostalgia for the good things that never end.
The miracle at Cana, the double multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the Last Supper, the supper at Emmaus, the Risen Savior’s eating in the Upper Room, the lakeside breakfast of fish grilled by the Lord Himself—all of these accompany His most sublime teachings and promises. Similarly, the sharing of food in the circle of the family and the sharing of thoughts in conversation are like two brackets between which all that is of any value in our culture can be contained. If we do not form our children after this evangelical model, is there any wonder that they fall away? The authority of our teaching is founded on the concrete care we take of those we educate. Alumnus means “one who has been nourished.” The analogy is telling and immediately intelligible. A father must ask himself what the quality is of his children’s experience of the taking of bodily nourishment. Do they eat with him? Do they speak of what they have learned as they eat? Does he listen and respond? Burdened with the responsibility of teaching his children mysteries so sublime, he dare not fail to give them the most fundamental motives of credibility for what he asserts. Why else would Our Lord sum up all our requests for good things with, “Give us this day our daily bread”? Dad may be a frequent communicant, but if he hopes that his son will be one, he should ask himself when the last time was that he passed him the bread at his own table.
Christians of orthodox profession should not leave the natural analogies for Christian life to the left. Feuerbach—whose influence in the English-speaking world, sad to say, can be attributed to his translator George Eliot, of whom I would have expected better, or at least not so bad—began the whole materialist reduction of the Gospel miracles and Christian Sacraments to signs and celebrations of nature and life. It did not take much to vulgarize his already banal analyses, and so they can be heard in “religious ed” and liturgy workshops anywhere and in any mainstream denomination (among whom, I sadly admit, Catholics must be included), repeated by those who have not the slightest idea that they are heirs of the great low-church Hegelian protocommunist. The shallow emoting and mediocre religious enthusiasm of current approaches to worship, so ugly and destructive, would not, perhaps, have been possible, if the right-believing had taken seriously the necessity of attending to the quality of the rhythm of family observances. Our people lost an instinctive revulsion to the shallow and shoddy. Television took them away from the table and became the measure of their mealtimes—and the limit of their conversation.
Today’s Christian parents cannot presume on a renewal of the miraculous interventions narrated in the Gospels. They have already occurred for our instruction. Those charged with the education of children must do what they can, not tempting the Divinity to supply for things that He has given them the power to provide. That which is truly beyond our power He gives us as a free gift, but, nonetheless, there is much that we can do. Xenophon’s Socrates has no patience with those who rely on higher powers to do what is in a man’s own ability to accomplish. In his Memorabilia, he tells us that
It is . . . irrational to seek the guidance of heaven in matters which men are permitted by the gods to decide for themselves by study: to ask, for instance, Is it better to get an experienced coachman to drive my carriage or a man without experience? Is it better to get an experienced seaman to steer my ship or a man without experience? So too with what we may know by reckoning, measurement or weighing. To put such questions to the gods seemed to his mind profane. In short, what the gods have granted us to do by help of learning, we must learn; what is hidden from mortals we should try to find out from the gods by divination: for to him that is in their grace the gods grant a sign.
In the Sacraments, which are at the apex of Christian culture, God has truly given us a sign that is in His grace to give. So we need not seek to divine more. The rest (and it is a great deal), He has given us to accomplish. When our children know the content of the divine oracles of Sacred Scripture and share the graced signs thereof, we cannot then count ourselves as having done all we can, for that is profane presumption, evidence that, far from appreciating heavenly gifts, we expect even earthly things for free. They will surely notice this lack of effort—literally, of “study”—on our part, and so the authority on which our teaching rests will be undermined. Constant care and sustained effort go into providing a setting like that described at the beginning of this article. True pleasures, pleasures which make it easier to believe, and carry one safely through the challenges of daily life (what other kind is there?), are obtained with a lot of work. Delectatio victrix, I said, is the Augustinian expression; it might be translated as “pleasure which comes with struggle.” These are the pleasures that bring our children home and make them want to be good. One does not have to be a Luddite or a Hobbit to put these insights into practice. Our children simply need to learn in a context where the basic needs of human life are met with care.
A word to the parents who have done all they can, and whose sons and daughters have fallen away. There is a parable for you, that of the prodigal son: a parable of a successful domestic education. Was it not the basic human pleasures found in his father’s house that moved him to come to himself and return with a heart full of hopeful compunction? Delectatio victrix: If there is a fatted calf, and music, and dignified vesture, and paternal discourse, we will all persevere until that Sunday afternoon at home comes which no evening shadow will follow.
Father Hugh is prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Trabuco Canyon, California.
This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.