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Letter to a Friend

On the need to sing and keep going.

Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.

I love you. I am so sorry. I feel your pain.

Normally that last one is trite offensive nonsense when people say it. But this time it happens to be literally true: I am feeling just the same pain that you are, that dozens of our friends and thousands of our acquaintances and untold numbers of Catholics the world over are feeling today.

I’m at a loss for words, my friend. I am so upset that I’ve barely been able to see straight all day. You say that you feel “slapped in the face and spat on like a bastard child,” hurt that you have been “relegated to some disgusting gymnasium somewhere to worship God.” I might not have put it quite that way for myself, but I get it. Believe you me, I get it. This is the Mass that drew you to God. It’s the Mass that brought so many of our friends to the Church, or back to the Church. This is our worship. It’s our community, and we know that it is joyful and alive. Our friends have met their spouses here. They’ve discovered priestly and religious vocations here. Oh friend, I am especially sorry for that aspect of this for you: I realize that your already messy discernment of the priesthood just got a whole lot messier.

I’ve seen all the takes—the Mexico City Policy take and the Cadaver Synod take and the Humani Generis take and all the rest. I don’t have a take today. My brain is not functioning well enough to have a take today. So I’m afraid I can’t offer any magic answers or helpful hermeneutics in this letter.

What I thought maybe I would offer you instead—if only to give my eyes a break from my phone for long enough to write this, and yours for long enough to read it—is a poor little attempt at theological consolation. I’m probably not going to tell you anything you don’t already know. But sometimes it is worth our thinking over the things that we do already know, things that are already certain (just as it is worth praying for things that are already certain: Maranatha). Don’t worry: I’m not going to try to talk you out of your sadness and anger. Today sadness and anger are right and just. Instead, I thought it might be worth reflecting on a profound truth: thanks to the mystery of the Incarnation, the God we worship has been sad and angry too. This is a day to spend with the Man of Sorrows, consumed by zeal for His Father’s house.

It’s pretty wild to consider that, in addition to His perfections, our Lord also assumed defects of body and soul (or, to be precise, He “co-assumed” them). It’s a good thing He did, since this is what made it possible for Him to suffer and so to save us. Saint Thomas Aquinas lays out a bunch of these defects in the Tertia Pars, but specifically for our purposes: Jesus could be heartbroken, and He could get pissed off. My soul is sorrowful even unto death, he says. And a few chapters earlier in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the chairs of them that sold doves: And he saith to them: It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves. Jesus knows what it is like to be sad. And He knows what it’s like to be angry since anger is an effect of that sadness, a natural craving to right what’s wrong, to eliminate the cause of the sadness with justice. In a real way, then, our Savior knows how we are feeling.

For my part I can’t help thinking that this would all be so much easier if we just knew less. The people who know less today have such an easy way out of this pain. For example, imagine if we did not know the traditional Mass at all, if we did not know these vigils and octaves and Ember Days, these mode-VII graduals and mode-II tracts, the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel and the Leonine prayers. If we had never experienced this, or at least if we hadn’t lived it from the inside for all these years, we could write this off as just another political move—good or bad, depending on our priors, but nothing too personal. We would not know what was really at issue. It would not hurt like this.

Or imagine, at the other extreme, if we did not know the divine constitution of our ecclesiastical hierarchy. The nutjobs who think that the pope is not the pope have it easy too, as do those who think that Vatican II was fraudulent or heretical rather than a pastoral council. They get to console themselves that today changes nothing. If anything, they feel vindicated by it, and they’ll keep defying the Church and her prelates with reckless abandon just as they’ve been doing for years (or since they woke up and decided they wanted their own rad-trad grifter blogs the day before yesterday, depending). But they’re wrong, and we have the emotional misfortune of knowing it. The pope is in fact the pope, and his authority is from God. But this is not going to be easy.

You and I don’t have the convenient escape route of ignorance. We know too much: Prime and trattoria napkins and the Vidi Aquam and the Chartres Pilgrimage, Matthew 16:18 and Hebrews 13:17 and St. Denys’ eighth epistle and Pope Boniface’s Unam sanctam. We know the best, and we know the worst, and we’re stuck in the middle with the exquisite anguish of holding them all together.

We have it harder than the lib-Caths and the rad-trads, fine. But our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had it infinitely harder than we do in this regard. He didn’t just know the liturgy and the theology and the history and the politics: He knew God! He is God, of course. But I mean that, even in His human mind, while He walked upon this earth, He was seeing His own divine essence. Jesus had the beatific vision from the first moment of His conception. And while a lot of revisionist theologians have complained that that knowledge can’t have been there because it would have made Jesus’ life too easy, we know from this, our pitiful little share in His experience, that it was precisely the opposite: The better He knew the best things, the worse it hurt to know the worst things.

Our good Father Thomas Joseph White puts it this way:

The fact that Christ foresaw these realities in the heights of his soul was not a substitute for his more ordinary human way of thinking and feeling about them: The latter coexisted with this higher knowledge. Thus his vision was not a consolation for the absence of the human experience of these specific objects of desire. In fact, it could be the source of an existential dissatisfaction: the desire for something known to be in the future but as yet unattained.

The Incarnate Lord had to endure knowing the most extreme contradictions possible. He was, in Saint Thomas’s phrase, simul viator et comprehensor, simultaneously wayfarer and comprehender. He had the beatific vision in the loftiest height of His soul, but He kept it contained there, never letting it flow down to satisfy his lower nature.

Think of this, then: Christ was looking upon the face of God, His own divine face, as his human face was kissed by the betrayer. “Friend,” Jesus called him in that moment, and he meant it, knowing full well what Judas was doing to him. That tension would rip any lesser man apart! But Jesus’ soul, in anguish, endured it. Again, our Lord’s beatific vision makes the Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani worse, not better. He cried those words while seeing His Father most clearly. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? He knows that in a way He hasn’t, but that in a way He has. The worst suffering is in that combination.

We are not Jesus. We do not possess the beatific vision. There’s a ton we don’t know, and what little we do know we know only by his gift. But on this awful day, when our souls feel like they are being violently ripped in two, torn between our best knowledge and our worst, I hope we might take some consolation in the assurance that he has been here first. For we have not a high priest, who cannot have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin. That realization will not remove our pain and anger, and he wouldn’t want it to. But I hope it might help sanctify it.

I don’t know what happens next, my friend. There’s no talking ourselves out of this one. It’s really that bad, worse than any of us had expected. How it will play out in the coming days is anyone’s guess, but who could deny that we’re in Guardini’s last age now:

The surrounding “Christian” culture and the traditions supported by it will lose their effectiveness. That loss will belong to the danger given by scandal, that danger of which it is said, It will, if possible, deceive even the elect. Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will that love be which flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ.

I’m a lonely person, and as of today I am significantly lonelier. But I do love you. Our God knows what He’s about, and He would only permit such an evil as this in order to bring about an even greater good. Believing that hurts as much as it helps, I know. But our God knows that too. He has known it intimately, and He is with us.

Pray for me. I really need it. Count on my prayers for you. And needless to say, let’s keep praying for His Holiness, as he continuously asks all of us to do. To borrow a phrase from Saint Augustine: Canta et ambula (sing and keep going).

I love you, my friend.