The first thing I learned from writing book reviews is that it’s much easier to write a negative review than a positive one. The same goes for profiles of people or institutions. Perhaps this is because we open ourselves to criticism when we praise someone in a way that we don’t when we blame them. My post last week was an attempt to explain—within the format of a non-fiction short story—my negative feelings about the Catholic Church. This week, I examine the positive feelings I have for that same institution. You can judge for yourself which story seems more convincing. For me, the debate continues, as it probably will continue, to the very end.
On the first Sunday in January, I took the streetcar to the eight o’clock Mass. The sky to the east was a luminous grey, and the air smelled fresh. It had snowed earlier, and the side streets were perfectly white, the trees in front of the houses black. The streetcar sped through most of the stops along the way, but just before Bathurst Street, the conductor stopped, put on the flashers, then went for coffee without a word to the passengers. It turned out that there was another streetcar, disabled, just in front. I walked the rest of the way and got to the church about five minutes late. Father Gourmont was just mounting the steps to the altar.
The gospel was on the visit of the three Wise Men to the Christ child, and in his sermon, Gourmont talked about the meaning of the word “wisdom.” Perhaps he was tired, but it was the first time I noticed a thickness in his voice, as if he couldn’t quite get his tongue around the words. To deliver his sermon, he came down into the transept and spoke without the benefit of a microphone. He held his right arm up and waved his hand outward in short movements that didn’t so much punctuate his sentences as brush them towards the congregation.
“Now in the time of the Old Testament,” he said, “when they first used the Hebrew word for wisdom, the Jews applied it to anyone who did something well, who demonstrated a certain skill. A woman who was good at making clothes for her family was considered wise. A man who was good at fixing things, or a carpenter who could build a house, he was also thought to be wise. But as time went on, this word for wisdom, like everything else in life, evolved and it was applied more and more to the people, the seers and the prophets, who meditated on human experience and could put the results of their meditations, their insights, into words. The proverbs originally represented the collective experience of the people. But it was the writers of the Book of Proverbs and of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, who could put those thoughts into a form of expression that was memorable, that would live in the minds of the people and inspire them to act in a certain way.
“So this was the tradition—the wisdom tradition—that Jesus came out of. When he preached to a crowd, he filled his sermons with little stories called parables that were always based on common experiences of the people of the day and would be easy to remember. A man went out to sow grain in a field. Or a woman put yeast in some dough. And in the Christian tradition, the saints and the scholars, all the great thinkers, they meditated on these parables, these stories, and reflected on them for the light that they throw on human experience. In the nineteenth century, the English scholar, John Henry Cardinal Newman, once wrote, “Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children.” Newman, he was one of the most highly educated men of his time, but to avoid dwelling in a state of ignorance, of spiritual darkness, he turned to the gospels as a source of wisdom. He turned to the parables, these simple little stories, in the hope of enlightenment, of learning the truth about the way things stand in the world where we live.
“Now in France in the 1930s, there was a man, a writer, who married at a young age, and he and his wife had several children. To support his family, this man worked as an insurance salesman, and in his job he had to travel through the countryside of France, and he was always very poor. But at that time in France coffee was cheap, so he used to go into one of those cafés in the small towns and sit there for hours over his cup of coffee. And while he sat, he would read the Bible and meditate on what he read. One of the things this man wondered about was the gap that existed, the great difference he could see between what Jesus preached in the gospel and the way people behaved in the world around him. He could see that instead of loving each other, as Jesus urges us to do, people compete with each other for money and possessions and for the status, the social status, that great wealth seems to bestow on those who have it.
“As a salesman himself, this man, this writer, wondered about the way that businesses, great corporations, convince people to buy their products. And the more he thought about it, the clearer he could see, that to sell somebody something, first you have to capitalize on their self-loathing, on their low self-esteem. And that’s one of the insights into human nature that the advertising industry is based on. If you make people feel that they’re lacking or deficient in some respect, then they’ll buy any product that promises to fill that particular need. This is one reason that advertising is so successful today, that it’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, that most people don’t love themselves, they don’t accept themselves for what they are but instead compare themselves to other people who are richer, who have more possessions or a finer house than they do.
“The American writer Henry David Thoreau lived as a hermit in a wooden shack for two years on the shores of Walden Pond. While he was living there alone, he had time to think, and he came to the same conclusion. Maybe the most famous sentence in Walden, the book he wrote in that shack of his, is this: ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Obviously, the word ‘desperation’ comes from ‘despair,’ which is the loss of all hope and a grave sin according to Christian teaching. Because when Jesus preached, one thing he was saying to the people who gathered to listen to him was that you have to love yourself, that it’s only once you accept yourself with all your failings that you can see clearly, that you achieve some measure of wisdom and can begin to understand the relative disposition of things. In the name of the Father, etc.”
When Mass was over, as Gourmont came down the steps of the altar, he looked at me and signaled with his hand that I should follow him into the sacristy. I waited for a minute, then went around and found him taking off his vestments. An older woman came over and said, “Happy new year, Father.” Grasping him by the shoulders, she kissed him on one cheek. “Mary,” he said. “Happy new year to you too.”
We went into the rectory and then the dining room, and Gourmont asked what I wanted for breakfast. Another priest was already sitting at table. He had a young-looking face and said he’d worked for the last eighteen years in the campus ministry. Then he said, “Where did all this snow come from?”
“It was about one-thirty in the morning,” said Gourmont. “I fell asleep watching that hockey game, and when I woke up, it was coming down.”
“Uh-huh,” said the other.
“Yeah, I fell asleep. That’s how exciting that game was.”
I had a bowl of cheerios, and Gourmont ate toast and jam. Afterwards, we took our coffee into another room so he could smoke. I asked who the French writer was that he mentioned in his sermon.
“That was Bernanos,” he said. “Oh yeah, he was a fascinating guy.”
He talked at some length about Etienne Gilson, the renowned medievalist who had lectured at St. Michael’s College, where Gourmont taught in the Theology department. Apparently, Gilson and Bernanos had had some contact with each other when they were quite young in Paris. This intrigued Gourmont, and he asked Gilson once what Bernanos was like as a person.
“He was a snot-nosed little kid,” said Gilson and changed the subject.
Gourmont put out his cigarette and laughed. His laughter was soft and wheezy, barely audible. He held his hands out with the palms up, then moved them back and forth. “Well, that’s the French for you. Georges Bernanos, the genius who wrote Diary of a Country Priest, he was just a snot-nosed little kid.”