When the Catholic Church Makes Merry
A Pilgrimage Reflection From an Internet Cafe
(The Remnant, June 30, 2006)
This is the day when the Catholic Church makes merry.” Such was a common phrase used in the early centuries of Frankish Christianity to describe each Sunday and major feast of the liturgical year. Was such a statement just a cavalier call to meat and ale by flippant and still semi-barbaric secularists merely playing at being servants of the one true God? Given the unremitting exposure of all of the inhabitants of Gaul, high and low, to the insecurities of life; given the reverence with which the Franks approached the relics of the saints and the ceremonies of Holy Mass; and given the enthusiastic response of a significant part of their nobility to the rigorous demands of St. Columbanus when he wandered into their kingdom with his brand of Irish monasticism at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries, I somehow think that this was not the case.
Rather, I believe that it reflected a real appreciation of the basic Gospel teaching that Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. Yes, the Frankish Christians were saying, the drama of life is generally a laborious and often gruesome spectacle. Still, for those who are ready to play their role in it properly, even its sufferings and tragedies can be seen ultimately to be part of a Divine Comedy. How could merriment not be an integral aspect of one’s response to an Easter Sunday or a Christmas Day, when the entirety of the supernatural plan, both its passing sorrows and its glorious eternal end, were presented to men, women and the community in which they lived with full liturgical splendor?
Fortunately, the members of the Catholic Church can experience something similar whenever God’s plan and the proper hierarchy of values are pinpointed accurately for them. Such clarity of vision is very much offered on the pilgrimage that has serpented its way from Paris to Chartres on Pentecost weekend for the past twenty four years, with a delegation from The Remnant tagging along.
Now, everyone who has taken part in that pilgrimage will readily admit that it promises nothing other than three days of almost unremitting misery. The food is always monotonous and meager, the sleeping accommodations atrocious and the pain often mind-boggling and bloody. By the latter half of the second day, many pilgrims look like Chinese women with bound feet, hopping, in kangaroo-fashion, from one point on the route to Chartres to the next.
The campsite that second wretched night resembles the moon. This year, with my baggage temporarily lost, I had a chance to bop my bound feet back and forth along its mile-long campus of craters seven times before I was finally able to find my pallet and take it off to The Remnant tent to sleep. Sleep? Sleep? The tent was pitched on the slopes of one of the campsite’s craters, so that pilgrims slid slowly outside its confines, becoming sitting ducks for the operator of a waste disposal truck seemingly determined to drive his vehicle over their helpless bodies and prevent their ever seeing the great Gothic cathedral almost visible over the horizon. And all this after repeated prayer had led them to think deeply about their personal sins and their pitiful failure to live up to the mission that God had given them.
The upshot? Why, as the Franks of old could have told them, sheer merriment of course! It is always “the Catholic Church making merry” which wends its way through the fields and woods of northern France, her sons and daughters laughing like children skipping through Oz as they do so. I do not think that I have ever felt as uninterruptedly happy and carefree about life as I have on those days of pain en route to one of Christendom’s most beautiful temples.
I finally had, even if for just a few wondrous days, “eyes to see and ears to hear” things---not as I, with all my limitations, conceived of them, but as they ought to be. I knew, for a brief moment in time, what God wanted of me and where I was going. The route was long, laborious, and, for many, filled with blisters. But it would come to an end. And then one could, perhaps, learn how to make merry for the duration of life and be rewarded by nothing less than a seat at the eternal High Table of the Lord.
Pre-revolutionary Catholic Christendom was a civilization on permanent pilgrimage to God. It was outfitted with institutions that made God’s plan so crystal clear and so integral a part of the framework of people’s existences that they could keep their eyes and ears open and live a life of merriment through all their terrible pains and tragedies.
Every year, The Remnant Tour provides its participants a chance to glimpse what such a civilization actually meant in practice. Our visit this June to Ireland was no exception. Anyone temporarily awakened by pilgrimage to Chartres to that which really makes men and women happy and fulfilled in this valley of tears could not have failed to see in the historical structure of Ireland, in the demeanor of its more tradition-minded inhabitants and even in the terrain of Counties Clare and Mayo themselves that basic happiness which the Franks understood to emerge from a true submission to the will of the Incarnate God. So very much was still in its proper place, neither too packed nor too spread out, too rich or too poor, too sober of too intoxicated. And this in a land which had known so many hardships, ranging from invasion and expropriation to the unfathomable horrors of years of body-killing famine. There was no endless crescendo of cavalier giddiness, typical of the songs and jingles of Our Global Fatherland, to be found in the good cheer of the true sons and daughters of Hibernia. Everywhere, it was the hard-earned and long-lasting joy of the children of the merry but realistic Catholic Church which was on prominent display.
I am writing these brief comments in an Internet Café on a traffic-packed road in modern Rome, next to a cinema playing the Da Vinci Code. No one is merry around me, though some are laughing loudly. A truly joyful Frank from Merovingian Gaul would probably be thought to be stark-raving mad by the staff and ejected from the premises as a public nuisance. In fact, I notice that I am snarling at the man across from me as much as he has begun to glare at me. Everyone seems well-off and free from bodily pain. A vision of the shopping malls, mega-houses, pornographic entertainments and calls to false happiness which I saw advancing everywhere on the Emerald Isle is rapidly killing the memory of the doomed, chain-free towns and merry Catholic people which had filled my eyes and ears during my brief stay in and amidst them.
My three-day eye and ear opening to God’s reality, to the way that God sees the earth and His children on their pilgrimage through nature, to the true vision of life which we, in our false wisdom, dismiss as impractical and nostalgic, is fading. How I long for the hungry days of the march to Chartres. How I yearn for next Pentecost, my dilapidated tent, my hard bread rolls, and my crater-filled campsite where the Catholic Church makes merry!
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