By Fr Seamus Griesbach
In the fall of 1939, as the Second World War raged, C.S. Lewis stood up in the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford to give a sermon to returning students at the university. The sermon is known to us as “Learning in War-Time:” an articulate defense of the timeless value of study and learning, even in the midst of the calamity of war. He felt the need to speak to his students who were returning to their studies, questioning whether it was right or even possible to pursue knowledge in the midst of international events so dire and dramatic as the great war. Should not classes have been canceled and everyone sent to the trenches to battle it out?
As American seminarians return to their studies this fall, they do so in the midst of a great calamity engulfing the U.S. Catholic Church. The summer of 2018 has ignited what some fear may become a great “civil war.” Revelations from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, former Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation, and Archbishop Viganó’s letter have thrown the Church into disarray. Thousands of lay faithful have called for resignations, priests have voiced frustration and anger, and bishops and cardinals are showing little unity or resolve as to how to face the crisis. Battle lines seem to be forming across every level of the Church, as shrill voices call for war. Pope Francis, who has been outspoken on so many issues, cannot or will not wade into the conflagration.
What does a seminarian, or a man who is seriously discerning a vocation to the priesthood do in such a time, when the very ground beneath him rocks and sways? Is authentic discernment possible in such a polarised and unpredictable terrain, or should the quest be put on hold? To where can these men turn to find solid ground and sound guidance?
In answer to these critical questions, C.S. Lewis’ guidance to his embattled students in Oxford some 79 years ago offers some helpful insight. Those who are discerning the priesthood today will find in his thoughts a helpful path forward as they seek to navigate these troubled times.
War is a New Revelation of an Old Enemy
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” This principle, articulated by C. S. Lewis in his sermon, is certainly true in the case of the abuse crisis afflicting the Church. The devastating revelations of this summer have thrust the reality of sinful and perverse clergy into the light of day, a reminder of just how sick and twisted, cowardly and duplicitous human beings can be – even those who are entrusted with great spiritual responsibility. In the face of such horrific revelations, we run the very real risk of thinking that evil becomes real when it begins ‘trending’ or after it hits the 24 hour news cycle, and to think that it goes away once the coverage has ended. But this is obviously a great illusion. The evil one is always at work attacking and seducing priests and bishops and any other person he can get his claws into, and many times has succeeded. The life of Judas Iscariot makes this very clear, as does that of St. Peter and so many other sinful Christians. The reality of sin and malice and perversion is not new. Our world is a spiritual battleground. “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice,” writes C.S. Lewis. Christianity is a fighting religion. Christ came to save us from an all-too-real enemy, one that has always existed, and has always been “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” Christ, in turn, strengthens us to resist him, strong in our faith. The fight against evil, against Satan, is a Christian duty whether there is public outrage or not, whether there are worldly consequences or not. This summer’s revelations of the devil’s workings inside of the Church hierarchy should remind us of the larger spiritual battle that is being waged around us and spur us to recommit ourselves to fighting alongside Christ against evil, particularly in our own lives and in the areas of life where we have moral responsibility. To the extent that they have responsibility or awareness of the Church, laity and clergy must take this battle against evil wherever it leads, even if it leads deep into the hierarchy. Yet for most of us, our battle against evil plays out more directly and immediately in our own personal lives and in the lives of our family and community. Those who are discerning the priesthood, whether living in the world or in a seminary, should be careful that the very public battle against evil now unfolding within the hierarchy not distract them from the hidden spiritual war they must fight against sin and temptation and evil in their daily lives.
Resisting the Drama of Conflict
Waging war can never be the goal of life. War is always a means to an end, and as such must always be in the service of the good. G. K. Chesterton once said that a moral soldier fights, “not because he hates who is in front of him, but because he loves who is behind him.” And yet, from the beginning of the fall of humanity, this requirement to defend the good, even sometimes through violence, has been twisted into something else entirely. In every age and in our day there are many people for whom waging war becomes a way of life, and even something that they find enjoyable. There is a “rush” of war, a kind of “euphoria” that many soldiers experience in surviving a life or death situation and coming out alive. We can think of the many “professional” soldiers and mercenaries who have, over the centuries, become so twisted as to take pleasure in asserting their dominance by killing or torturing others, even innocent people.
This can never be the case for a Christian soldier, no matter how many battles he must fight. Any authentic crusade engaged in by a Christian must be a battle undertaken as a last resort to protect or secure a good. In order to keep this perspective, the Christian soldier must often allow himself to be reminded about what and who he fights for. He must make sure to get his head up above the fight often and take a breath of the clean air of truth, beauty, and goodness. One cannot be all fight and remain a true Christian soldier for long.
What does this mean for someone who is discerning in the midst of Church conflict? It means that balance must prevail. No, we should not ignore the conflicts and troubles that assail the Church, sticking our heads in the sand. Yet at the same time, it is a spiritual disease to be constantly searching for enemies to slaughter, to the detriment of neighbors to be served. Just as a traumatized soldier discerns less and less who is friend or foe and can fall prey to a kind of blood lust that turns even against his own allies, so also a Christian who constantly immerses himself in the scandals and failures of the Church can begin to thrash about the pews, injuring those of simple or weak faith or innocent devotion. How often those who make it their life’s work to destroy every evil that threatens the true faith end up destroying the faith of many people around them and their own faith in the process?
I have watched this play out in the Church among faithful Catholics and clerics. Injured, sometimes grievously, by the sins of someone within the Church or frustrated by the weakness of its members, they begin to grow more and more obsessed with calling out the sin and corruption within her. This preoccupation grows and becomes an obsession, blocking out their ability to see any good or to enjoy the goodness of life in the Church. Nothing seems as important to them as fighting the enemy that they are convinced threatens at every corner or lies hidden in every closet. A kind of ecclesiastical paranoia takes over, removing their ability to trust anyone in the Church. Those who dare express joy in the face of their desperate shadowboxing are viewed with suspicion. Peacefulness and contentment is treasonous to their all-consuming cause. These poor souls pile upon their shoulders an ever-increasing weight of darkness, sin, and misery, and become bowed down and resentful of those unwilling or incapable of doing the same. Their lives are swallowed up by war against evil – all that remains is the fighter, but a fighter who can never return home because he no longer recognises the home he fights for. Consumed by hatred for the devil, he has lost his love for Christ.
Like the emperor Constantine learned, the Christian must keep his eyes fixed on the sign by which sin and death is conquered and affix it like a shield before him. He must recognise that every battle in this world is, in the end, a battle for his heart. To win an earthly victory but lose one’s soul in the process is exactly the sort of tragic triumph that the devil relishes more than any other. The Christian who is discerning in wartime must be very careful to guard his heart, ensuring that through prayer, leisure, friendship and loving service it remains warm and beating. As C.S. Lewis encouraged his students in the midst of World War II: they should not feel guilty or lazy for living a normal life in England during the midst of the fighting; for that life was exactly what men and women across the channel were dying to protect. In their daily study and normal routines of life, they were a reminder to the soldiers in the field of who they were and why they fought. So too, Christians must remain faithful to their daily work of prayer and service in the midst of ecclesial conflict. In fact, they should be especially vigilant to the normal, daily life of the Church: their prayers and reception of the sacraments (particularly the Eucharist and confession), their study, their engagement at the parish and in the corporal works of mercy, their attentiveness to their primary family and ministry responsibilities, and their diligence at work. As Christ the Lord taught in so many parables and through his own example, our task is to follow the will of our Heavenly Father by loving him and our neighbour. If we are faithful in this task, our victory is assured even in what seems a disastrous earthly defeat.
Prioritising the Immediate Circumstances of your Life
C.S. Lewis raises in his sermon a critical question of discernment: how should students know, in such a trying time, whether they were called to leave behind the tranquility of the classroom and take up arms against the enemy? When it is clear that some are called to front lines of the battle, how does one who is capable of being a soldier determine whether or not he should enlist? Lewis’ response to this question is quite simple and straightforward:
A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.
Healthy discernment looks to immediate circumstances as a key indicator for what God is asking of us at this time. Yes, it may very well be that there is a great need for troops out on the battlefield, but that does not mean that we are called to take our place among them. Discernment requires a clear-headed look at where we stand: who are the people, the circumstances, and the implications of the terrain that we walk upon? For in the end, the raging of even a great war not far removed from us has relatively little bearing on what we are called by Christ to do each day. A mother in Syria, just miles from the bloody fighting and bombardment still finds her day comprised of waking at a regular hour, assisting the children with getting ready for the day, cooking breakfast, shopping for food, visiting the neighbours, cleaning the home, loving her husband, taking care of elderly parents, etc… The same is the case for the butcher down the street, or the engineer a few doors down. Society does not come to a screeching halt, even in the midst of conflict, because our daily lives depend directly on the simple efforts of others, and their lives depend directly on the simple efforts that we make.
In discerning what to do in a time of conflict, then, the answer is usually quite simple: do what is needed of you in the place and time where you are, just as you normally would. It can be assumed, barring exceptional circumstances, that where you are is where God needs you to be. If you were needed elsewhere, someone would come to tell you – someone would make a request – there would be a sign. If that has not happened, then stick with what lies before you and do it as well as you can, humbly offering your efforts to God. If you are a layperson raising a family, do your best to live a life of prayer and virtue that you can share with your spouse and children and seek to grow and deepen your knowledge and love of God. If you are a young person in high school or college, be diligent in your prayer and study and in building up strong and healthy friendships. If you are a priest, look to those entrusted to your care in your assignment and care for them with as much skill and generosity as you can. If you are trying to discern your call in life inside or outside of the seminary, continue to discern as you would otherwise: pray, read, speak with wise guides, and be generous and courageous in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
How do you know if it is your time to fight? How can you ensure that you are not being a coward and seeking solace in selfish trivialities? When should evil be called out? When should letters be written? When should demands be made and warnings issued? We must ask ourselves constantly: What is Jesus asking of me? What will he hold me responsible for at the end of my life? How much do I, in good conscience, need to say or do in the face of this evil? Is it enough for me to pray and to go about diligently doing my work, or must I step into the conflict to protect one who is innocent or to strengthen one who is failing? Can I engage in this battle without neglecting the primary responsibilities of my life or greater goods that I could be pursuing? Is this fight the best use of my gifts, my time, my energy, or should this battle be left to someone more capable than I?
In the end, I would submit that even in times of great conflict and turmoil in the Church the overwhelming majority of the People of God are not called to be in the midst of the fight. Most of us are called to the daily work of sowing and reaping, of shaping and building, of putting out into the deep and lowering our nets for a catch. This is the work God sets before us as the pathway to heaven, the talent entrusted to our care until he returns. Only rarely are sheep called to take up arms and fight off the wolves. Normally we are called to find the green pastures and to stay close to one another and to our Good Shepherd.
The Three Ways Conflict Wages War on Discernment
In what I think is the most helpful section of his sermon, C.S. Lewis examines important mental exercises that he says are important defences against three particular ways that war threatens the scholar, and in our case, the discerner. The three enemies that Lewis identifies are excitement, frustration, and fear.
Excitement. Lewis writes: “If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.”
There will always be something urgent to distract us from doing God’s work, particularly in our time of mass communication and social media. Drama abounds, and it is particularly easy for one who cares deeply about the Church to think that following every up and down of the latest ecclesiastical crisis is a kind of Christian virtue. But it is not. At the end of our lives, Christ will not quiz us on how many cardinal’s names we know or on which bishops have been the most courageous in their teaching. He will ask us about the responsibility that he entrusted to us, the talents that he left in our care. C.S. Lewis acknowledges that in war time there are some events that one simply cannot ignore – certainly this is the case for the horrible revelations about the Church in the U.S. over this summer. There is nothing wrong with being aware of what is happening and of doing what we can to contribute to a positive and good response through prayer and good works. However, we must always be on guard against things that disquiet and distract us from doing the primary tasks that God has set before us.
Frustration. Here, C.S. Lewis speaks of the heightened sense in war-time of not having time to finish our work, or of one’s work not being able to come to fruition. Again, Lewis points out that this sense of the tenuousness of our efforts, heightened in war, is the manifestation of a reality that is part of life even in the most peaceful of times. The future is never ours to control – it belongs to God. We never have any guarantees about what will happen as a result of our efforts. Lewis encourages us to remember that we pray each day for “our Daily Bread,” and to keep our eyes fixed on the work of each day, entrusting the future to God. This is a critical lesson for all of us, and especially one who is working to discern his or her vocation: do the good today, and trust that God will lead you where you need to go and will bring your efforts to happy effect. Scandals and conflict in the Church do not change the fundamental obscurity of what the future holds – there is still as much opportunity to become a saint as there ever was and ever will be. God’s will is not circumscribed by the natural order of things and his ways are not our ways. We must do the best we can with each day that is given us, trusting that in the end nothing offered to God will be wasted. Even though our efforts may be frustrated in this world, we know that his eternal designs will never be frustrated.
Fear. In the midst of conflict, fear raises its ugly head to menace even the strongest of us. As we see our Church racked by sin and division and beset by a thousand scandals, a deep inner anxiety can begin to take hold. What will become of the Catholic faith? How will people hear the good news of Jesus Christ? Who will provide the sacraments? How many innocent people will suffer because of this great scandal? How long will this go on, and how much can people endure?
Fear is a natural and good response to a threat. Yet we must think clearly about the true nature of the threat posed to the Church by any scandal. The Church is not a human institution that survives based on institutional strength or efficiency. Her presence on earth is of divine origin and is sustained by the very life of Jesus Christ, continually poured out among us. His life and his mission of loving service is so much greater, more complex, more beautiful, and more compelling than any particular earthly instantiation of the Church. The liturgy of heaven is only faintly echoed in our paltry liturgies on this earth. The truth of Christ’s teaching is only clumsily, disjointedly, and dimly hinted at in the teaching of the Church. The beauty of life and the sacredness of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, has not even remotely been captured by the thousands upon thousands of human attempts at creating the beautiful in fine art and music and architecture. And our shepherds, our leaders in faith – they are generally miserable wretches, just like St. Peter and the first batch were. They can barely get out of their own way, and we disciples who are caught up in our own selfish concerns only trip them up more. The Church is a big ol’ sinking ship, and she always has been. Jesus didn’t make the Braque of Peter watertight, he made the water holy and life-giving so that when she sinks we will not die. The Church was given the gift of eternal life in Christ, her head, but that does not mean that she no longer dies in this world. Indeed, if Christ himself had to die in order to rise to new life, so too his body the Church must suffer death as part of her earthly pilgrimage. Indeed, the Church has died a thousand deaths with Christ already and sunk beneath the waves of sin more times than can be numbered. C.S. Lewis reminded his scholars:
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.
Yes, Christ dwells with us and is alive in his Church, which is his body. But Christ is also infinitely greater than any earthly institution, any earthly epoch of his Church. Because of this, we should fear no earthly power, nor any evil that rails against the Church in this world. Jesus will continue to provide us with his teaching and sacraments, no matter how weakened the power of his earthly bride might become. Compared to his power and majesty she has always been weak and miserable. What makes the Church strong and beautiful is not who she is, but whose she is. The Church’s life is Christ, and so the various deaths and sufferings endured in this world can only be for her a deeper sharing in the life of her beloved. For those for whom life is Christ and death is gain, there is no need to fear.