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The Ways of Confucius and Christ

On Chinese Catholicism.


“My conversion is not a conversion; it is a vocation.” That reflection, which I find in my diary under the date of May 23, 1934, sums up the religious history of the Chinese politician who has been led by God, much more than by himself, toward the Church, toward the Benedictine Order, and toward the priesthood.

I am a Confucianist. The intellectual and spiritual tradition of Confucianism, the cult of the Most High, the practice of filial piety, the eagerness to give proof of virtue, in order to come to understand man better and to make progress in a practical manner in the acquisition of wisdom, all that makes up the spirit of the Chinese race since the time of Yao, of Shun, and of Yu, the contemporaries of Abraham, in submission to the master of ten thousand generations, Confucius, and to that other great philosopher, Mencius—by all this I have ceaselessly desired to be molded and nourished, all the more because I am not a doctor or a licentiate or a bachelor in letters; and because I have spent almost all my life abroad, often very isolated in the midst of the varying surroundings in which I have found myself and having to carry on a constant fight for my country, whose past, present, and future has been the object of every derision and of every contempt. The making of these moral efforts had no other object than that of obedience to my duty as a man, and I found the reward for it in the filial joy given by the duty itself, whose accomplishment made it possible for me to be not too unworthy of Heaven and to not dishonor my country, my parents, and my master.

You know to what extent Chinese literary studies have been slandered, and how much it has been said that they stultify the minds of the students, and, moreover, that Confucianism itself was an obsolete system that had disintegrated and could not stand up to modernization. Those who have used and those who use this language have confused Confucianism with the distorted and pharisaical use that has been made of it by certain people, and they have not perceived that, whatever may be the modernization that was necessary, the old Chinese system of schooling had at least the merit of not teaching the exercise of reading without teaching at the same time the exercise of judgement; for the man who knows how to read and does not know how to judge is in danger of laying open his mind, his memory, and his heart to whatever the first comer wishes to plant there.

In spite of some appearances, Chinese classical studies offer much to compare with European studies of the humanities. If today in Europe a man confined himself to studying Latin and Greek, he would be inevitably a backward man. But if, in no matter what country, a man is ignorant of and despises the intellectual and literary foundations of civilization, he is very near to being no longer civilized, and one must ask not only in what degree he can know man but in what degree he is a man.

The Confucianist spirit led me to see the evident superiority of Christianity, and that without regard to the personal shortcomings of Christians—or rather in the very field of human qualities and shortcomings. The Confucianist spirit led me to recognize the superiority, so very plain, of the Holy Roman Church, holding a treasure from which, from century to century, the believer draws riches, ancient and new; a living treasure that, from century to century, increases and bears fruit.

At the center of Catholic worship, we find the celebration of a sacrifice of which the august character infinitely surpasses all the sacrifices that, in whatever religion, have sought to express the relations between man and God and to render glory to God.

It was instituted by Jesus Christ on the eve of His death. It commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. It is the mysterious renewal of it. Daily all over the world the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass groups round more than three hundred thousand altars those to whom the death of the Lord appears as the principle of their spiritual life. Has ever a man died who knew, in the souls of hundreds of millions of human beings, a resurrection so profound, so enduring, so intimate, so renewing?

That spiritual life, which flows from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, the Church manifests and dispenses to Her faithful by the ministry of the seven sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ to signify the gift of grace and to dispense it. By this sacramental ministry, the Church gives life and sustenance to man from the cradle to the grave, giving a constant maternal support to the human person and, through that person, to the family and to all society. This fact of the Mass and the seven sacraments alone calls for observation and reflection and compels admiration and respect.

However little informed a man may be in religious matters, if he comes at a given moment of his existence to leave the setting of that ignorance and of the limitation that it involves, he enters upon horizons that have nothing of fantasy about them and that are immense. He is given an insight into the condition of the human race on earth in an incomparably more profound and more living light, happier, greater, and more peaceful. To resolve the apparent contradictions of human life, it is no longer necessary for him to take refuge in subjective ideas; for he has the power to embrace the whole of life as it is, its worth and its mediocrity, its weakness and its strength, its suffering and its joy, its freedom and its dependence, its misery, its sin, and its sanctity, its brevity, and its immortality. And this life appears to him then unified by the sanctity of its origin, which is God, and by the glory of its final end, which is also the One True God.

Confucianism, whose standards of moral life are so profound and so beneficial, finds in the Christian revelation and in the existence and life of the Catholic Church the most illustrious justification of all, human and immortal, that it possesses, and it finds there at the same time the fulfillment of moral light and moral strength, which solves the problems before which our sages have had the humility to draw back, understanding that it does not belong to man to penetrate the mystery of Heaven and that it is necessary, in venerating the Providence of Heaven, to wait until, if He deigns to do so, the Creator Himself reveals Himself.

But what, then, is the ambition of the Church, and what is Her secret? Whence came to Her that interior strength that can, at this point, convince and “convert” a Far Eastern? How has it been possible for a bridge to be built between Her and me? How is that bridge to be built between Her and the whole yellow world, in order that we all may be able to feel the divine order of this institution, of Her doctrine, of Her morality, and of Her very existence, of which the eminent superiority, de facto and de jure, is universal? How can Christianity, which has grown up in the Western world and, while always distinguishing itself from it, has penetrated it to the extent of being identified with it—how can Christianity be in a position to become identified in the same way with the Eastern world and to retain, in again thoroughly imbuing it, Her own identity? The unity, the universality, the disinterested ambition and the secret of the Church find their principle, of necessity, in the origin of that institution.

I should like to say to my countrymen: “Read, then, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles; read the history of the persecutions of the first centuries of the Church and the story of her martyrs; take all the pages of the history of the Church, including those blemished by the weakness or the malice of certain men who lived otherwise than they spoke or preached; take also those countless pages wherein Christian charity has been practiced and is being practiced with a tireless and so often heroic maternal solicitude. Distinguish between what is of man and what is of God, and you will end with a social fact absolutely superior and unique. Perhaps, then, you will ask yourself the question: ‘Has the Creator here revealed Himself?’”

Faith is a gift of God, but the act of faith presupposes information, an investigation. Observe the work of the Church in men’s consciences and Her vitality in the fields of family and social, civic, and political life. Jesus Christ said to His disciples, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Weigh those words; they show a sure way to that summit of human grandeur and greatness of mind that is the millenary ideal of Confucianism: “To bring peace to the universe.”

I repeat: independently of the personal deficiencies of those who are members of the Church or of those who hold one or another position of authority in Her, independently of the errors and the faults that they may commit in their daily life, is it imaginable that such an organization ought not to be studied from within, examined and thoroughly investigated, by every reasonable man and ought not to be respected and desired—without the least prejudice to the full liberty of consciences—by every society solicitous for the well-being of its members and by every state zealous for the human greatness of its citizens? What an incomparable assistance, what a remission of labor and of responsibility for the civil authority it is to see such a work accomplished in the midst of families and populations; and how greatly ought not that authority to exert its every effort to ensure that an institution of such grandeur, of such rich fertility, all of whose services are known to be disinterested, might flourish in the midst of its peoples and for the greatest good of all!

That is how, little by little, freely and slowly, the Confucianist tradition and the grace of God led me to enter into a more and more intimate relation with Christianity and with the Catholic Church.

I believe that in the development of the thoughts that, day by day, drew me toward the Church, I remained entirely independent of all external influence; and I have already told you how my wife, that exemplary Christian, had made that approach easier by not speaking to me about it; if she had spoken to me about it, above all if she had insisted, I should have recoiled; for the very nature of the religious act demands above all that it should be freely made. God shows man his duties, but man remains free to obey or disobey. It is ordained that man shall pray to the Most High to enlighten him and to give him strength, to perceive his duty and to carry it out. All this took place within me in evident fulfillment of a divine Providence, to which I received the grace to endeavor to respond.

That is why I said, “My conversion is not a conversion.” It is not I who was converted, under some external influence or by some personal design. “My conversion is a vocation.” God led me; He called me.

My task for myself has, then, been extremely simple: it was enough for me to recognize what I saw, what events and circumstances and the grace of God plainly showed me, and, to this constant and clear vocation, to respond by fulfilling the first duty of conscience, which is to obey God. It is by obedience to the truth and to duty that I have been unable to do anything else but to become a Christian and a Catholic. May God alone be praised for it!

You ask yourselves a question: How did the principles of Catholic dogma, at first sight intricate and involved, appear to me? How did I give my adherence and my faith to that dogma?

In proportion as I studied the Holy Church did I have confidence in Her and did I believe. In believing I advanced, and at each step of the way I saw the light increase and I felt that love was swelling within me. As I have already told you, Confucianists distrust certain kinds of intellectual speculation that, when it comes to the problem of life, are rather jeux d’esprit than a search after truth and wisdom. Before the mystery of the hereafter and all that it means, Confucianism adopts a personal attitude of respect and reserve, for it recognizes that that is indeed the domain where the imagination runs freely to the creation of phantoms and idols at every turn.

Having recognized in the Church a human and a superhuman character, a spiritual and moral coordination and balance that are unique, an influence for good that is inexhaustible, and a setting in which spiritual health and heroism spontaneously flourish, I believed in Her divine origin, and I sought, in being drawn toward Her, to take in with an eager eye everything that my eyes could see or discover or penetrate; but at the same time I was quite resolved not to judge a priori, not to make up my mind in advance about higher things that require consideration and reflection, competence and impartiality, and that I was scarcely beginning to know. My wife, in a somewhat summary judgement, told me that I had the faith of a charcoal-burner. At least I had tried to avoid presumption; and experience has taught me that I was not mistaken.

It was, following my wife’s death, in entering the monastery that I really approached Catholic dogma, in the first place by prayer and, more especially, by the prayer of the liturgy and by the teaching it gives.

It makes the divine ordering of human life live and live again, and it leads, step by step, to the very center of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. It reveals that work in the life of Christ, in the life of the Church, and in the souls of the saints: the liturgy of the living and the admirable liturgy of the dead. Let it be said in passing: instead of discussing the Chinese rites, why did they not show to all Chinese the incomparable liturgy of the dead, which is perhaps only displayed in all its marvelous and sober grandeur in the churches and cloisters of the monastic Orders?

The liturgy of the Mass, the Divine Office, and the sacraments led me to know the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who reconciles man with God, Who has given us the Spirit of God by which, a thing well-nigh inconceivable, we become children of the Most High, from Whom comes all fatherhood and Whom we ourselves can call “our Father.”

I approached the Passion of Jesus Christ, and I was enlightened on this subject by an exchange of letters with one of my eminent compatriots, who thereby became a master in the Christian life for me, namely, Father Ma Liang, who, as you well know, at the age of ninety-five, universally venerated, has translated and published in the Chinese language the most beautiful words of our Divine Redeemer. In my maternal language did I approach my Savior and the Savior of the human race.

That meditation on the life, the work, and the moral and physical Passion of Jesus Christ was the strength and the support thanks to which, at the age of fifty-six, I was able to initiate myself into a manner of life entirely new to me: the life of a Catholic monk.

This essay is adapted from The Ways of Confucius and Christ, recently published by Ignatius Press with a translation by Joshua Brown.

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Lu Zhengxiang represented China at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and afterward became a Benedictine monk.