Thursday, April 2, 2015

History Proves It: God Sets Us Straight

Passover 30 AD was not exactly the best night of Peter’s life.

Set aside his boo-boo of lopping off the ear of the soldier in the Garden—quickly corrected by Jesus, who told Pete to put his sword away. Set aside, too, the three denials before the crowing of the cock.

Turn the clock back a few hours and you’ll see: The whole night was a cock-up where The Rock was concerned.

Here it was, Jesus’s last meal with his closest followers, they were all gathered in the Upper Room, Jesus was fixing to wash Peter’s feet, and Peter wouldn’t let  him.

Then when Jesus insisted that he must wash his feet or Peter would lose his “inheritance,” Peter demanded an all-over bath instead!

Earth to Peter! This is the Lord!

And we are supposed to believe that Peter was the one man Jesus chose to lead His Church? How does that figure?

It does figure, after all.

It figures when you read Church history, as I have been doing recently, and you realize that every time the Church goes off track, as Peter repeatedly did on the night before Jesus’s Crucifixion, God finds a way of setting things straight.

When we read history we can have a bit more faith about the present situation. When you look around the cultural landscape and see scandal, secularization, and apathy—the worst filled with passionate intensity while the best lack all conviction—take a deep breath. Don’t despair.

God will straighten things out. He has done so before. Two examples from Church history show this pretty clearly.

Example #1: Joan of Arc.

I wasn’t ready for Helen Castor’s new book Joan of Arc to be so good. I was bracing myself for some sort of feminist revision. Pre-pub notices acclaimed Castor as “the best-selling author of She-Wolves.” Really, what could that mean?

Instead, I am getting straight history of the kind most other books on Joan don’t offer. The saint’s story usually begins from Joan’s point of view: her humble village background, her voices in the garden, her repeated attempts to get the attention of someone in authority to take her to the dauphin.

But if you were living in France in 1429—say, at the court of Charles VII in Chinon—that’s not how the story would have begun or how it would strike you in retrospect. You would remember the utter chaos into which war had plunged the most Christian kingdom on earth. You would remember Agincourt (1415) and the confusion of loyalties among Armagnacs, Burgundians, and Englishmen, to name only the three most prominent groups vying for control of the territory.

Castor dedicates the first 86 pages to laying out this chaotic backstory, and does so effectively with the help of several extensive family trees (The Valois Kings of France, The Dukes of Burgundy, The Plantagenet Kings of England, and so on). And then—wow! (the word I wrote in the margin of my book)—Castor introduces the Maid:

And then, on 23 February [1429], just eleven days after the massacre at Rouvray, a little band of six armed men arrived, dusty from the road, at the great castle of Chinon. With them rode a girl, dressed as a boy, her dark hair cut short. Her name was Joan, and she had come with a message from God. 

Castor’s lack of irony is remarkable throughout. She tells her story, which includes other visionary women of the time, as it would have occurred to contemporaries. For example, when describing the crown of King St. Louis IX, Castor writes:

His circlet—fittingly, for this blessed monarch—contained a fragment of Christ’s crown of thorns and a lock of the Saviour’s hair.

Other modern historians might snicker at the alleged authenticity of these relics. Castor rolls them off her tongue as a fifteenth-century Frenchwoman would have done.

But back to my point: Just when things looked like they couldn’t get worse for France, a girl appeared with a message from God. Personally, I am inclined to take this literally. I have read enough about Joan of Arc—my favorite female saint—that most of my skepticism has been chipped away.

Example #2: St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have been participating since November in a layperson’s version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. But I was not aware, until I read Christopher Dawson’s The Dividing of Christendom, just how central a role St. Ignatius had played in Church history—specifically in putting things back on track following the Reformation.

Dawson lays this out clearly. And he makes Ignatius’s appearance on the scene—in Rome during the Council of Trent—read very much like Joan of Arc’s appearance at the court in Chinon:

Providentially, just at the moment when the cardinals were debating their proposals for reform, there appeared at Rome a little group of Spanish and Savoyard pilgrims, ex-students from Paris, led by an ex-soldier from Navarre, who had come to offer themselves as volunteers to serve the Church and the Papacy wherever and however it was most necessary. They met with the same opposition as the reforming cardinals, and it was through Cardinal Contarini himself that their proposals for a new society were submitted to the Pope. 

This was the origin in 1540 of the Society of Jesus, which was to become in a very few years the most effective instrument for the reform of the Church. 

Joan of Arc, a girl from the village of Domrémy. Ignatius of Loyola, a casualty of war from the Basque country. With the help of such nobodies God resets the entire direction of His Church.

Casting about the landscape for hope, we may be looking in the wrong direction. History says hope will appear when and where we least expect it.

Happy Easter.

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