Twice in the past week I have forced myself to not write. This has been much to my discomfort, for two reasons: first, because a full 97 percent of the time, I am in the mode of forcing myself to write, which makes not doing so when I actually desire to quite irritating — like an itch you can’t scratch — and second, because in both cases the topic was near to my faith and dear to my heart.
In the first instance, I had just finished a thought-provoking novel and wanted desperately to blog about it. The book, Shusako Endo’s Silence, was cautiously recommended to me by my friend Fr. Tyler as a great book, but dark and terribly sad. He was right, and as I finished, I wanted immediately to engage someone — anyone other than myself — on what it all meant.
The book is a relatively brief account of a Portuguese priest who travels secretly to feudal Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians to discover the truth of rumors that his mentor, another Catholic priest-turned-missionary, has apostatized, or renounced, his faith and vocation. In broad terms, it deals primarily with the younger priest’s own thoughts about his priestly vocation, the poor Christians around him, the very real possibility of capture and torture, dreams of a glorious martyrdom, the brutal reality around him, and his own weaknesses.
I’m being purposefully vague. The final chapters cannot be revealed without diminishing the power of the book and straying into areas of faith of which I am ignorant, so I will go no further at this point. Suffice it to say, these final chapters are what threw me into a tailspin — what made want to talk first and think later, and what made it impossible for me to do so in good conscience. Ordinarily, I write quick, from-the-gut reviews shortly after completing a book, while it’s still fresh. But in this case, there was simply nothing I could say about the book that would not a) show my own ignorance and potentially stumble into error about our Catholic faith, or worse, drive someone else to error; b) spoil the story in order to get answers (Fr. Tyler!) and peace of mind; or c) both.
In the days since, I have thought a great deal about the book, and have regained my footing — though I still hope to discuss it in greater depth with someone who has read it and is better formed in the faith than me. I have also had a brief exchange with Fr. Tyler via Facebook — I brought myself to say this much: “[I]t’s masterful at making you ‘hate the sin and not the sinner’…” Father replied: ” For Catholics, it is a book that should contain the warning, ‘Handle with Care’.”
My caution in neither recommending nor casually reviewing this book, it appears, was not ill founded.
The second instance of holding my proverbial tongue came this morning, when I noticed a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education holding forth on the Natural Law and the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (The blogger in question is not supportive, surprise, surprise.) As I read his post, I felt the blood rise in my cheeks, and my mind raised ahead, formulating the response I would write: witty, pointed, deftly picking at the holes I saw in his arguments until they were gaping and obvious even to his likeminded readers.
My first reality check was the sheer volume of work I had to do today; I simply didn’t have time — especially to engage someone I didn’t know, personally or professionally, in an environment that was likely to be full of hostiles who were unlikely to be persuaded by wit or wisdom (let alone my own writing).
I felt a momentary pang of guilt for not standing up and being heard, until I finished the piece and reflected on my formal knowledge of the Natural Law and Aquinas’s writings (relatively little). I don’t know what the blogger knows — I feel like his expertise is not deep — but going off half-cocked might leave my own weaknesses exposed, even to someone who’s knowledge is only slight deeper than my own. A poorly formed effort would make this “Defender of the Faith” a liability, easily dismantled and dismissed — and the Church, by association.
So I said a prayer and sat on my hands. For a half-hour or so, my heart actually hurt, so badly did I want to speak out. Then something else came to mind: a passage I read yesterday, ostensibly for work, but with strong ties to my faith, written in 1852 by Blessed John Henry Newman and published in the preface to The Idea of a University (the underlining is mine, for emphasis):
“This is the emblem of [boys’] minds; at first they have no principles laid down within them as a foundation for the intellect to build upon; they have no discriminating convictions, and no grasp of consequences. And therefore they talk at random, if they talk much, and cannot help being flippant, or what is emphatically called ‘young.’ They are mere dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.
“It were well if none remained boys all their lives; but what more common than the sight of grown men, talking on political or moral or religious subjects, in that offhand, idle way, which we signify by the word unreal? ‘That they simply do not know what they are talking about’ is the spontaneous silent remark of any man of sense who hears them.”
Cardinal Newman goes on to talk about the importance of impressing “upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principles, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony.”
“Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.”
Cardinal Newman’s words resonated with me as I re-read them this morning. Starting from fixed points and making your ground good as you go enables you to keep your feet even as the world spins around you. This is why, in both instances this week, I hesitated – I was (wisely, I think) looking to the placement of my feet.
Newman goes on:
“Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of ‘views’ on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism.”
Indeed. When was the last time you heard anyone in a suit answer a question with a simple I don’t know?
“This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of the year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subject of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practiced on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. …[T]he journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.”
Again, he wrote this in 1852 – well before the cable TV, the internet, and the 24-hour news cycle, let alone Twitter. If the constant fluidity of views was eroding the foundations of Newman’s society, how much more so today, when the weekly or daily trickle has become an incessant torrent? (And yes, I recognize the mild irony that I am posting this on a blog.)
Today, everyone’s got an opinion. We know too much, perhaps – and we often think we know more than we do. We think we know better – especially, better than those “ignorant” souls who came before us. Poor saps. Poor Cardinal Newman.
At Yale I learned to argue, among other things, and not always in an honest manner. Unfortunately, strength of conviction and principle often seem less valued than compromise or an ill-defined “progress.” Partly in concession, partly to defend my views, which in college were considered quaint and outdated, I learned to bait-and-switch. I learned to massage my meanings as I went. And when I’m angry or impatient, I still do these things today.
But these days I find I trust people more who stand firm, even if in opposition to me, and I hope to solidify my own stances. More importantly, I hope to cultivate in myself the tendency to “spout off” less and listen more, read more, think more first. Indeed, this week I’ve found Lenten inspiration not only from Newman, but also from the Book of James (in the daily readings for this whole week) and this post from Catholic Drinkie. This Lent and thereafter, I hope to better embody the proverb, often attributed to Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”