Monday, May 16, 2016

Dante, Rod Dreher, and Medusa

Medusa by Bernini (1630s or 1640s), Capitoline Museums, Rome
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Homiletic and Pastoral Review published a shorter version of this article on May 14, 2016, under the title "Sometimes It’s Best to Cover Your Eyes."
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How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life Changing Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Poem, by Rod Dreher. Simon and Schuster. April 14, 2015.

Rod Dreher is a best-selling author and blogger at The American Conservative and a well-known convert to Catholicism. After Dreher converted again from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, he published many articles in both Catholic and secular publications about why he was leaving the Catholic Church. In his latest book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, Dreher repeated essentially the same reasons for leaving the Catholic Church that he has written about extensively elsewhere.

Some pertinent thoughts that Father Richard John Neuhaus, First Things founder, wrote about Dreher’s conversion to Orthodoxy just before Father Neuhaus died, combined with Dreher’s own insights in How Dante Can Save Your Life, highlight some obvious contradictions and weaknesses in Dreher’s stated reasons for leaving the Catholic Church that are well worth examining.

Anyone who thinks of leaving the Catholic Church, perhaps for similar reasons to the ones that drove Rod Dreher away, should give this essay a read to the end, because, as the example of many great saints has shown us, there is another, better way to respond to evils in the Church than jumping ship from the barque of Peter.

Because Rod Dreher has been so public about his reasons for rejecting the Catholic Church, I don’t believe it is out of line for me to critique what he has publicly written in this public forum, not by trying to analyze him from afar, but by quoting from what he himself has written.

Among Dreher’s reasons for dismay about his experiences in the Catholic Church are what he and many others see as the lack of reverence in many liturgies, the uglification (my word, not his) of many churches, the destruction of sacred art, the watering down of doctrine, and the paucity of moral guidance, at least on the parish level. But Dreher was especially horrified by the truly appalling facts he unearthed as a journalist delving into the scandal of sex abuse by some Catholic clergy and the subsequent cover-ups by some members of the Church hierarchy.

After Dreher found a traditional Latin Mass parish where Catholicism was practiced in a more-reverent way than what he’d found at other parishes, he was shocked again when a charming priest in that parish turned out to be a con man. The priest had told everyone that he had been excluded from ministry in another diocese because he was too traditional. Then it came out that the priest had actually been removed from parish work because he was accused of being yet another abuser. The pastor had decided on his own that the claims against the priest were false, and had let the accused priest participate freely in the work of that parish.

Dreher has written that his family then began to attend liturgies at a little Orthodox mission because they felt they had no place else to go, not because they were convinced by the intellectual claims of Orthodoxy. They stayed because the community and its good priest gave them the spiritual goods he felt that he and his family needed, and they converted because it was the only way they could receive Communion there. Dreher donated a lot of the income from his New York Times best-selling book about his sister’s death called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming to build up the Orthodox mission where he and his family now worship.

In a beliefnet.com blog post in which Dreher first announced his conversion to Orthodoxy, he frankly admitted that much his loss of faith was due to his inability to control his rage.

“I have talked about how the Church itself failed me in all this. Let me confess how I failed myself.” He continued, “The pursuit of justice is a wonderful and necessary thing, even a holy act. But I became so tormented over what had happened to those children at the hands of the Catholic clergy and hierarchy that I could see nothing else but pursuing justice. And my own pursuit of justice allowed me to turn wrath into an idol. I didn't know I was doing this at the time. I came to believe that if I didn't stop, or if I let up, that I would in some sense be failing the victims, that I would be helping the perpetrators get away with it. Again and again, I kept thinking What if this had happened to our family? And over time, the anger, and my inability to master it and put it in its place, corroded the bonds that linked me to Catholicism.”

Notice the “What if” in the next to the last sentence above. I know from my own experience that the devil loves to lead us into sin by dangling “What ifs?” in front of us. For one example, I once got just as scared and upset when my four-year-old daughter impulsively dashed off the curb into an empty street as if there really had been a car coming, and she had been hurt. “What if a car had been coming?” “What if she had been hurt?” The “What ifs” that flooded my mind during that and many other incidens led me first to fear, and then to anger. So I think I recognize how Dreher fed his own corrosive anger with the “what ifs” that haunted him.

A Self-Help Book with Dante as a Guide

How Dante Can Save Your Life is, quirkily enough, a self-help book in which Dreher writes about how he used Dante’s Commedia, with its wholeheartedly Catholic world view, as a guide to healing and peace. I have been dipping into the Commedia off and on ever since my freshman Humanities class at Brandeis University, and I currently have three translations on my bookshelf. So I enjoyed having Dreher to read along with this time through, even though I disagree with many of Dreher’s conclusions.

One odd point I noted is that while Dreher followed Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, he had to do some doctrinal calisthenics to adapt some of the Catholic teachings in the Commedia with his now-Orthodox set of beliefs.

For one example, the doctrine of Purgatory is not held by Orthodoxy, so when Dreher writes about the many things he learned from reading Dante’s Purgatorio, he doesn’t give a satisfying answer to the question of how the imperfections that remain with a person at the time of death can be purged, since he no longer believes in a place of purgation after death.

While Dante had Virgil and then Beatrice as his guides, Dreher also had a Baptist minister-cum-psychologist in blue jeans and his bearded Orthodox priest as his guides. Dreher’s journey out of his own dark wood started because he was sick from Epstein Barr virus and sleeping all day most days. A doctor told him to get counseling, or he would likely die.

** Spoiler alert **: By the time he finished reading and writing about the Commedia and sharing his insights with his psychologist and his priest, Dreher’s health was remarkably improved; he was no longer sleeping most of his days away, and his life was no longer in danger from the poisonous brew of rage, disappointment, and resentment that had sickened him.

As he tells the story in the book, Dreher got relief from his symptoms because he learned that his resentment was sinful, and that he needed to forgive his father (more about this fraught relationship later). Unfortunately, it seems that Dreher has not yet learned to forgive the evildoers in the Catholic Church.

It’s striking to me that halfway through his book Dreher writes admiringly about how Dante dealt with his own outrage against clerical abuses of his day in a chapter titled “The Sins of the Fathers.” Dreher notes that in many places in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, Dante lashed out against the corruption of popes and bishops. Abashedly and with admiration, Dreher ruefully admits that Dante didn’t let the dismaying evils he saw in the Church of his own day destroy his faith.

Reading Dante showed him that “it was possible to be clear-eyed and outspoken about the wickedness of the men who run the Church, yet iron-willed in one’s commitment to the God within the Church.” And Dante, Dreher said, is his hero because Dante stared down the evil and still affirmed the Church. Dreher admits, “I had failed at this.”

Perceptive Thoughts from Father Neuhaus

I believe it is more correct to say that Dante didn’t stare down the evil so much as recognize it, and deplore it, and then raise his sights up to higher things. As Richard John Neuhaus noted in a “While We’re At It” piece at First Things published in January 2009, the month of his death—it would have been better for Dreher to have looked away instead of going away.

Father Neuhaus agreed that Dreher was rightly sickened by the scandals, but that “many Catholics feel the same way and, for sound reasons, believe Orthodoxy is not a place to go.” At the time Father Neuhaus was writing that, Dreher had recently admitted that there is also corruption within Orthodoxy, but that he didn’t want to know about it. Neuhaus’s comment was, “As with Dreher and Orthodoxy, there are things these Catholics really don’t want to know about their Church.”

Neuhaus supposed that Dreher might still be Catholic if he hadn’t tried to win journalistic kudos for delving into the terrible things that were done by some Catholic churchmen. Indeed, it does seem likely that Dreher might still be a practicing Catholic if he had heeded a priest who warned him at the start of his investigations that he was going “to find places darker than I realized existed,” and if he had resolved to turn away his gaze.

Medusa Warning: The Better Part of Valor

The hardening of Dreher’s heart against Catholicism is reminiscent of what happened to people in the Greek myth when they looked at the head of Medusa. Medusa was the Gorgon who had snakes for hair; men were turned to stone just by looking at her. Petra, the Latin word for stone, is the origin of the English word petrified, which can mean being turned into stone in either a literal or metaphorical sense.

In Canto IX of the Inferno, Virgil saved Dante from being literally petrified when the Medusa came towards him.

“’Turn your back.’ said the Master, and he himself turned me round. ‘Keep your eyes closed, since there will be no return upwards, if she were to show herself, and you were to see her.’ Not leaving it to me, he covered them, also, with his own hands.”

Meaning of Medusa

“O you, who have clear minds, take note of the meaning that conceals itself under the veil of clouded verse!”

Several commentaries on this passage of the Inferno say that the petrifying effect of looking at Medusa symbolizes the formation of a heart of stone that prevents sinners from humbling themselves to ask for grace. In a word, Medusa stands for the sin of obduracy. One commentator writes, “The veiled meaning of the clouded verse is simply that obduracy hardens the heart against God, and stifles the conscience, delaying repentance. It is a facet of spiritual anger and pride. ”

Still another commentator calls obduracy the sin of despair, which prevents us from confessing our own sins. Medusa can therefore be understood as a symbol of what happens when we persist in brooding over the outrageous sins of others, turn our gaze away from God, and find ourselves using our anger and pride to justify not repenting from our own sins.

Things could have turned out very differently if Dreher had a Virgil at his side to turn him around, and cover his eyes with with his hands.

Honor Your Father

Dreher wrote many pages in How Dante Can Save Your Life, and extensively elsewhere, about his life-long hurt about his father. He was disappointed with his strong, but tender and loving, Southern father, because his father was not able to accept him as he was—a bookish, sensitive sort of boy and man. Then part of Dreher’s extreme reaction against the Catholic Church came from disappointment because many of the men he had once idolized as replacement spiritual fathers did many objectively evil things.

The Fourth Commandment doesn’t say, “Honor your father and your mother if they haven’t disappointed or hurt you.” St. Paul reminded the Church at Ephesus of the fourth commandment in these words, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just. Honour thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth.” Ephesians 6:1-3, Douay Rheims Bible.

Dreher was deeply hurt at the betrayal of Church leaders and priests, and angry at seeing his idols toppled. His pride was also hurt for his not having been right when he thought he had, by his intelligence, found the perfect spiritual home he craved.

Metaphorically speaking, it seems that by looking deeply into the face of the sex abuse scandal, and by brooding over his own disappointment with his father, Dreher may have unwittingly allowed his own heart to be turned to stone. According to his own words, Dreher’s resentment and anger in violation against the fourth commandment was probably what was killing him. He finally confessed his sin and asked his father for forgiveness, but he has not reconciled, yet, with the Catholic Church.

Note that he inappropriately turned his rage against the Church as a whole. Here is one example of how he writes as if every Church leader is wicked, from a passage I quoted earlier, “It was possible to be clear-eyed and outspoken about the wickedness of the men who run the Church, yet iron-willed in one’s commitment to the God within the Church.” Note that he writes “the wickedness of the men,” with no qualifications. Not the wickedness of some of the men …

Like any other Catholic with a conscience, I too have been horrified about some of the things I’ve seen and learned about. I am not proposing an ostrich approach of sticking one’s head in the sand. Part of how I have been able to keep my faith in spite of great disappointments and scandals is to accept that evil permeates everything and everyone in this world, including some people in the Church.

I was helped a lot in accepting this reality when I came across a homily titled, "Answering Scandal with Personal Holiness," which Catholicity called “Perhaps the single best commentary on the matter.” The homily was given by Father Roger J. Landry on 2/12/2002, when he was pastor at a church in Fall River, MA. Father Landry is a Harvard graduate, a Rome-trained priest who now works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. Father Landry gave the homily on the Sunday after news had broken that perhaps seventy priests from the Boston Archdiocese had “abused young people whom they were consecrated to serve.”

One of the important things Father Landry pointed out is that, even out of the twelve apostles handpicked by Christ, one, Judas, was so evil that he sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. That’s one out of twelve.

In light of this homily and Dante’s own response to clerical corruption, it is easy to see there are other, better ways Dreher could have chosen to think about the scandal. One thing would be to realize that not every priest is evil just because some are.

"You don't judge something by those who don't live it, but by those who do." —Rev. Roger Landry

Father Landry said, “We can focus on those who betrayed the Lord, those who abused rather than loved those whom they were called to serve, or we can focus, like the early Church did, on the others, on those who have remained faithful, those priests who are still offering their lives to serve Christ and to serve you out of love. “

Don’t Commit Spiritual Suicide 

Father Landry pointed out that St. Francis de Sales warned his listeners this way, "While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal, who allow scandals to destroy their faith are guilty of spiritual suicide.”

Father Landry also spoke about St. Francis of Assisi's example. During his time, when abuses were rampant in the Church and some bishops lived like secular princes, St. Francis of Assisi lived his life simply, according to the teachings and example of Christ.

This holy St. Francis did not condemn, or point fingers, or try to bring down the current Church hierarchy, or leave brokenhearted to seek out another religion or to start a new religion himself. He set himself to love God with his whole heart. He also set himself to humbly live the authentic teachings of the Church, which he knew is Christ’s Body on earth. As a result, his example inspired millions to holiness.

Towards the end of his homily, Father Landry said this, “This scandal can be something that can lead you down to the path of spiritual suicide, or it can be something that can inspire you to say, finally, ‘I want to become a saint, so that I and the Church can give your name the glory it deserves, so that others might find in you the love and the salvation that I have found.’”

Far Better To Think on These Things

When Virgil protected Dante by covering Dante’s eyes and turning him around, Virgil was essentially teaching Dante the virtue of custody of the eyes. Everyone must be purified from the sinful vices of pride, anger, self-aggrandizement, lust, and covetousness, and to do so, we all must practice acts of self-denial, which include being very careful what we look at, and what we harbor in our thoughts.

St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians what we Christians should look at and ponder:

“For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline: think on these things.” [Phillippians 4:8].

Not incidentally, in Philippians 13, in his famous passage on love, St. Paul included the admonition that “Love does not brood over injury.”

Holiness is the Real Face of the Church

When priests are immoral or false to their calling in any way, it is a great evil and a great shame. Christ is grieved and angered that little ones have been molested or misled by priests who are supposed to be acting in His name. There is something much worse than a millstone around the neck waiting for priests like that, unless they repent and make amends by living humble penitential lives.

In the face of grievous evils, we have the obligation to continue to work faithfully on our own personal holiness, so that others will be able to see in us the love and glorious grace of God. We should not dwell on the evil things that have occurred, or brood over injuries to ourselves or others. Instead we should think of the things of God.

“The only adequate response to this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response to this scandal as St. Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as St. Francis de Sales recognized in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century is HOLINESS! Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial, because it is the real face of the Church.” —Rev. Roger Landry

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