Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Young, Un-Churched Man Meets Bishop Laval

We always go back to our roots eventually. Part of my Catholic roots include the first bishop of Canada.

File:Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame Québec.JPG
Notre-Dame de Quebec,
where the Blessed is interred.
The Archdiocese of Ottawa embarks upon its ‘pastoral year,’ themed: ‘Called to Holiness: The Saints Among Us,’ picking up on the significant event that is the canonization of Brother André, scheduled for October 17th. When I think of Canadian saints, my mind invariably turns to Blessed François-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval (1623 – 1708). Why the first bishop of Canada should mean something to me would not be immediately apparent. I was not raised Catholic, nor did I grow up in Quebec. But by providential design, in grade 12, I decided to write my history paper on this guy. Why, I chose to write about him, I don’t remember. What I do know, is that I was thoroughly impressed by his saintliness and apostolic witness. That the values of someone from a culture so far removed from my own could speak to me, that a French Catholic nobleman from the 17th century, could speak to a Atlantic Canadian, ‘Protestant,’ middle class seventeen-year-old from the 20th, requires some accounting. Nor was it just a model of that general kind of humanitarianism that easily translates from one era to another that impressed me – you know, feed the hungry, take care of the widow and the orphan – that kind of thing. No, one needn’t return to Lower Canada of the 19th century to find models of generosity. For this non-Catholic teenager, Bl. Laval was his first encounter with something he discovered went by the name of ‘asceticism.’

I could have stayed in the 20th century for models of generosity, but to encounter this other side of the life of virtue, it seems I had to go to a different age and time. I have learned over the course of time why this had to be so. The modern liberal Protestant milieu in which I was loosely brought-up had little regard for such things. Of course, this had everything to do with the theology of the very first Protestant, Martin Luther. In his mind asceticism was part of the ‘works-righteousness’ that he considered but an effect of infidelity, as if I could do anything to earn a place in heaven. To him, salvation was a gift from God, not something you worked toward with payments of time, talent and treasure. For the most part he was correct, yet he failed to consider some of the implications of his position. Salvation is a gift, but it is one that needs to be lived out daily, even with our bodies. But such was my world in 1992.

It is quite startling to think that it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I learned the word ‘virtue.’ This was, again, during an encounter with a foreign culture: I was reading Plato’s Republic. How could I have gotten through the first fifteen years of my life without ever having required that word? What kind of culture was I a part of? Sure, I read books – but what kind of books could they have been? What kind of movies did I watch, what kinds of conversations did I have, that made it possible to get through a decade-and-a-half without employing a word that has since become a staple in my vocabulary? There is nothing as bourgeois as a life lived without asceticism. But how was I to know?

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The Tomb of the Blessed
I recall reading about Alexander the Great, how he would deny himself certain pleasures in order to make himself a stronger person. Later I read equivalent things about General MacArthur. They impressed me very much, even if, objectively speaking, their motives were vain. It is not surprising that such displays of ‘manliness’ would register with a young man such as I was, living through this cultural crisis of ours in regard to masculinity. This is not to say that asceticism is a reserve of men alone. Solidarity with the poor and suffering is a legitimate component of asceticism, as we see so very clearly in the case of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta: and women are truly suited to that kind of sympathy. Women approach asceticism in a feminine manner, but I cannot speak to that. What called out to me in the example of Blessed François Laval was something missing thus far in my experience as a man.

Can there be virtue without asceticism? Pope Benedict the XIV, the great 18th Century pontiff, did not seem to think so when he drafted what was to become the definitive handbook on the processes of beatification and canonization. He argued that no one should be considered as candidates for these honours if their lives did not incorporate asceticism. Why did Christ so incorporate it? Why did Our Lord say the time would come when we would fast? (Mt 9:15) The Church has never understood this passage simply in its spiritual sense, but has always believed that the best way to fast spiritually, that is, to know Christ’s absence, is to feel it along with the body. So a Catholic does not fast only in order to put money aside for the poor; he fasts to remind himself of his emptiness without God and as a means of grace to disarm his rebellious flesh. A good life does not consist only in acts of charity. The will to give soon runs out of steam on its own. The will must be created, built up, and continually refreshed by grace working through an emptied palate. Perhaps in light of the modern, secular canon of holiness asceticism might appear a queer medieval vestige, but such ‘holiness’ is a mere shadow of true sanctity, based as it is upon an impoverished view of human nature. Across place and time, the example of Blessed François Laval could reach someone like me, someone totally unschooled in Christ, for the simple reason that his way was a true way. Like many poor throughout the centuries, but in this case as a consequence of his zeal for the Lord, lived out as it was in ascetic rigor, Blessed François died as a result of frostbite, a clear indication, not of prudence, but of love for Christ, which is the ultimate kind of wisdom. Should it surprise us that the admiration of some might still be won by the morality of a harder age?

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