Having spent a few years practicing the theatrical arts, I have come to appreciate the sudden miracle of the costume change. In plays, day turns to night turns to day, while we move from the street to the cellar to the soup kitchen. Here is George Bailey, dressed in a summer suit at the train station. There is George Bailey dressed in a black poncho during an air raid. During a variety show, I had the good fortune of portraying Mr. Bailey, though to save my legs, we staged ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ as a radio broadcast, a la ‘A Prairie Home Companion’. Why did this save my lower appendages? Because the artisans of the theater put their pants on two legs at a time, while changing their shirt and combing their jelly-laden hair into a new style. The spectacle of seeing one George Bailey and then another is nothing compared to seeing how the first becomes the second. The costume change is almost miraculous for its’ speed. Yet even Broadway cannot compete with the instant metamorphosis that occurred just a short time ago among the women religious in the Church Catholic. In the two-hour time-span of a show, the actors can change costumes in under a minute. In the two-thousand year time span of the Church, our sisters have pulled off a costume change in under a second.
I came to see this as I stood in the hallways of a Benedictine Monastery just a couple of days ago. Lest someone suppose I am attacking the sisters and not the ugly snare of secularization, I shall tell neither the name nor the location of the monastery; for these sisters welcomed me with open arms. They put a roof over my head and gave me food and drink. I am not attacking them, for I think they are already being attacked. Even the sick can serve, and it is remarkable when they do, but they are still sick. The illness here is an idea. The idea that religious habits are merely optional parts of a wardrobe seems to me to sap the religious life of its saltiness and its strength. As the sisters served me, I hope my words might (in some fashion) serve them.
What I saw in their hallways was a motionless catalogue of the community’s history; a series of pictures fastened to the wall. Beginning with a photograph of a stern-faced Archbishop and seven women with high, white foreheads falling in folds of black to their shoulders, each successive frame- from silver plate to Polaroid- showed the same severe framing of a heavily starched habit around a growing variety of soft and lively faces. Some were smiling; some were somber, some were practically giving off light. Personality burst forth with each successive generation, all framed by the same black and white costume. The Catholic Church used to keep to that most basic of aesthetic values – the importance of an unassuming frame. The Mona Lisa is beautiful, her frame is bland. These sisters were alive, their habits were decidedly dead.
The variety of their faces ends with the introduction of variety in their frames. Habits of different shapes and sizes appear in the mid-sixties. Some wear just a veil over a cardigan. Some wear simple blouses with jewelry, sporting cropped haircuts where their veils rested not a year before. The sisters in the pictures become identical in their expressions as they become individual in their outfits. Everyone smiles somewhat blankly out into the hallway, where I stand and the old inhabitants of the monastery shuffle past. It is a scene indistinguishable from any Christian old-folks home.
Yet, even with as much attention as I have paid to the clothing of the nuns (which may earn me some criticism as being a misogynist, a bigot or both), I suspect the problem is deeper than mere appearances. I humbly suggest that the change in outward expression came only after a much more severe change in inward disposition. The answer to the riddle of the split-second costume change, I suggest, is hanging on the wall of the Mother Superior’s office. There I glimpsed, printed in meticulous needlepoint, the words: “God hugs you.” In even more meticulous needlepoint, on the same scrap of fabric, was an image of a teddy bear; tiny hearts circling around him.
At the most basic level I agree with the artist of this particular work. It is quite obvious that the human soul is hugged by God. The cast of characters in the Gospels were often embraced by our Lord. Mystics and saints on down the ages have confessed to the sublime touch of God’s hand. Yes, I am quite confident the stitched verb of the predicate is accurate. I do, however, wish to inquire about the noun in the subject.
“The essence of monotheistic belief is this,” bellowed the late Christopher Hitchens, “that we are commanded to love someone whom we fear: the essence of sadomasochism.” As usual, his hyperbole manages to be both infuriating and hilarious, a quality which earned him the admiration of many religious thinkers, even as Hitchens told them their religion “poised everything.” I cannot adequately respond to this second point, but the first seems manageable. After all, like most heresies; it is mostly true. Christianity does ask us to love someone whom we ought to fear. But Christianity (until recently) proposed the formulation slightly differently. It is not we who do the loving. Rather the ever ancient and ever new creed is this: Someone whom you ought to fear loves you.
Turn back to the teddy bear in Mother Superior’s office. Teddy bears are soft, warm and these days smell of detergent and dryer sheets. What then of the bears found in the wild? They are quick, fierce and can get ferociously angry with the slightest provocation. Working in the woods of Wisconsin two years ago, I had a bear cub jump in front of my pickup. I had no fear of the cub, it was only the size of a beanbag chair; but my head was immediately filled with the image of the mother, jumping into the bed of my truck, clawing at whatever stood between her and her young.
Having met the mother before, when she cleaned out my kitchen, I knew she could have killed me and my fellow passengers. That is the supreme thrill of beholding a bear in the wild: your very life is in jeopardy. Faulkner, for all his faults, knew this one truth and wrote a whole story about it. Teddy Roosevelt, it should be noted, killed the bears before they were given the honor of carrying his nickname. Teddy bears are safe because teddy bears are dead.
No child is surprised to be hugged tenderly by a teddy bear. Parents place these stuffed creations into their baby’s cribs because they know the teddy bear will play nice. Thousands of children sleep in the presence of teddy bears every night and no one bats an eye. Yet, on those rare occasions when a child emerges from the wild having been raised by real bears, the whole world loses its’ head. Stories are filed, pictures are taken and books are written. I suspect I know the reason. We go crazy when bears are nice precisely because they don’t have to be. The mother bear I met tended by her nature to growl at me and steal my food. Imagine my surprise had she brought me a fish and lovingly licked my face. Why, I might have become a pagan just to pay back the compliment.
Reserved strength is the origin of all romance. Knights aren’t heroes because they kill other knights, but because they return home and tenderly kiss their ladies. Giants are only praised when they are gentle. Lions are exemplary only when they lay down with lambs. God can only be all-loving if he is firstly all-powerful.
I am now reading the Diary of St. Faustina, who lived as a nun in the Catholic Church. In those pages, Our Lord does not appear as a soft counselor to comfort the young novitiate. Rather, he appears as a bloodied and bruised man. Appearing with bare and torn flesh as Faustina dances at a party, Our Lord makes the room go dark so she is left alone with Him. Later, his face appears, slashed with new wounds, in the curtains over her bedroom window. He does not appear in soft gentleness. He appears in all the gore of Gibson’s movie. He appears in the style of Dickens’ ghosts. That the Diary was written after a ‘Christmas Carol’ should not surprise us. Aristotle preceded Aquinas. Cicero preceded Augustine. Jacob Marley, an angel of death, preceded Jesus Christ, the Lord of Life.
If there is one thing in common between the bears in the wild and the Lord in Faustina’s window, it is that both are something upsetting, something to be feared. Yet from this comes the shock of heaven, the glorious mystery of something to be frightened of embracing our very souls. That seems to be the essence of all orthodox Christianity and until recently, the daily experience of our women religious.
The main point here is, perhaps, an aesthetic one. I confess I love to look upon the edifice of the Cathedrals. But I have never been so silly as to think they could stand without the cellars. The copper dome of St. Paul’s can reach the sky because the iron-streaked stones of the foundation are set deep in the ground. A relative, some years ago, looked to sell his beach home. The floor of his living-room was slanting slowly, and living became more and more difficult in that space. Though the problem as observed was a problem merely with the floor; the problem to be solved was a problem with the foundation, or lack-thereof.
It does no good to think, as the young Roger Scruton did, that this most commonsensical relation of external appearances to internal realities becomes null and void in the realm of religion and the human person. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scruton, it should be noted, was attempting to marry into the Catholic Church and had no intellectual problems with any of the doctrines or dogmas, “save for the major premise of God’s existence.” But, as he reasoned, the “whole” of the Church was beautiful and did not allow for individual pieces to be removed for examination. The Church clearly was standing, though he suspected it stood on nothing.
This was a strange idea, and praise God he abandoned it. It is one thing to approach a man and cleave off his head to measure it, it is quite another to suspect he has no head at all, but to go on treating him as if he did. The matter then of what is most important in religious life must be considered very carefully. Whether God exists or not, He is not the sort of thing that can be held up by a couple billion sinners, a few thousand cathedrals and the dusty books of dead theologians; rather all these things must be held up by Him.
The question I noted at the outset, as to the loss of vitality, life, variety and (dare I say) saltiness from this particular religious community arose as a question of appearances, but became a question of essences. Flying buttresses can only fly because the foundations upon which they rest are settled and firm; the soul can only exult in the love of God if God truly loves. Making the Divine into something soft and manageable, so as to make Him more loving, always results in a loss. Turning God into a teddy bear is not just a bad theology; it is bad spirituality. Only a truly powerful God can be truly loving, and as St. Faustina learned during her difficult novitiate, only a truly just God can be truly merciful.