We live in a world in which people think that enthusiasm fixes everything.
When I was a young man, I was enthusiastic, at least about one thing: women. I wanted a Love Affair that Mattered. And so I had an intense affair with a young woman who was as enthusiastic as I was and who I later referred to as my “Hitler Youth”. She was a college student who was keen on Ayn Rand and Nietzsche and that whole “might makes right” crowd. She had an undisguised contempt for the man in the street, including her chunky bourgeois father who was an utterly worthless human being, and she would have been happy disowning him completely (philistine that he was) except for one small detail: he paid her college tuition. Daddy was Sugar Daddy, but was Stupid Daddy nonetheless.
And one of the things Daddy got wrong was his lack of passion. He took it easy. He didn’t know that, as Nietzsche says, “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” Hitler Youth and I loved that quote. We didn’t know what it meant, but we loved it. Her fat father, who worked 40 hours a week to provide for his family, in this woman’s eyes, was beneath contempt; we sensitive artists and readers, we elite, we had chaos in ourselves and we would give birth to a dancing star! Yes, we would. You just watch us!
We were obviously mismatched, Hitler Youth and I, but we were both Emphatic, both Intense, both on a deliberate rocket of emotion and “spirituality” – and the rocket was all about the thrust. We didn’t know where we were going, but we were going there forcefully. We were going to the dancing star. But where the hell was the dancing star?
In Devout Catholic circles, you see the tragedy again and again of Misplaced Enthusiasm, of people who really really want their Faith to make a difference. That’s laudable, especially since the vast majority of Catholics are indistinguishable from the secular bourgeois suburbanites who worship nothing in particular. These Enthusiastic Catholics don’t want to be the typical parish soccer moms, they want to be Emphatically Christian.
Well, fine. But of course you can be Christian, even emphatically Christian, and still be a soccer mom, still live in the suburbs, still do all the boring daily things that ordinary people do.
And the problem becomes not so much the rejection of the ordinary, but the strange and fantastic shapes a misplaced enthusiasm takes.
For one thing, there are cults within the Catholic Church, which the bishops and the Vatican refuse to rein in, in any serious way. The great fraud of Fr. Maciel is the prime example, but there are others. And yet lots of well-meaning Catholics get sucked into these unregulated movements, including the most damaging of them.
But, beyond that, there seems to be no direction in the Church on practical matters. There’s lots of talk about the love of God, but not a word about how to put that love into practice, especially in the painful areas of our lives. People are more than willing to make great sacrifices in areas that are safe – missionary work overseas (Protestants in particular specialize in this), and time and effort set aside for devotions and prayer, while more pressing matters that Christ is calling us to address are ignored. It’s easier to pray a novena for your neighbor’s lumbago than it is to quit drinking so much and making your wife and kids miserable, for instance.
We are not able to imagine that Christ is willing to get down and dirty with us; that He wants to redeem not the easy stuff that we are willing to give to Him, but the hard stuff that we clutch at and refuse to bring to the light of day, keeping it hidden in the dark closets of our souls.
This is not to say that prayer or missionary work is wrong; what I’m saying is enthusiasm, like any form of love, needs to be channeled, focused, canalized, prioritized, made to work within boundaries, and that religious enthusiasm in particular should be focused on the very things we don’t want to deal with in our lives. And guidance in this is very hard to find within the Church. Giving your life for a cause is “sexy”. Being a faithful husband and changing dirty diapers day in and day out is not “sexy”. But most of us are called to the latter and not to the former.
The Parochial and Plain Sermons of Bl. John Henry Newman, which I am reading daily, are very good at making us aware of this. Enthusiasm, like any emotion, has a purpose. We don’t want to admit this; as with “art for art’s sake” we want “feeling for feeling’s sake”.
But Newman, nearly 200 years ago, told his Christian hearers what we never hear today …
Doubtless it is no sin to feel at times passionately on the subject of religion; it is natural in some men, and under certain circumstances it is praiseworthy in others. But these are accidents. As a general rule, the more religious men become, the calmer they become; and at all times the religious principle, viewed by itself, is calm, sober, and deliberate.
And he concludes, beautifully, solidly, simply …
One secret act of self-denial, one sacrifice of inclination to duty, is worth all the mere good thoughts, warm feelings, passionate prayers, in which idle people indulge themselves. It will give us more comfort on our deathbed to reflect on one deed of self-denying mercy, purity, or humility, than to recollect the shedding of many tears, and the recurrence of frequent transports, and much spiritual exultation. These latter feelings come and go; they may or may not accompany hearty obedience; they are never tests of it; but good actions are the fruits of faith, and assure us that we are Christ’s; they comfort us as an evidence of the Spirit working in us.