Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

This Too Shall Pass

From the "Right on Carmine and Bleecker" series

(The Remnant, December 31, 2007)

Life at Rocco's is more hectic than usual in the last week before Christmas. The increased commotion is, of course, chiefly due to the normal seasonal hubbub. Nevertheless, it is also explained by the fact that fewer people have the means to go out to lunch or dinner these days, and tend to round off a romp in the city with a stop at a pastry shop for coffee and cake instead. Since the outrageously high rents that I spoke of in my last piece have also closed the curtains on Bruno's, the very good northern Italian cafe that long flourished right next door to my own much more southern hangout, bigger crowds than ever pass through its Calabrian doors. Their relentless march even threatens temporary occupation and partition of my very own Stammtisch, making me feel as though I am an inhabitant of Vichy France.

What dawned on me as I began preparing this article for the Remnant's New Year's issue is that I have not heard a single one of this year's invaders initiate the dismal "This Too Shall Pass" dialogue that has been a seasonal standard for almost as long as I can remember. Conducted in various ways, the "This Too Shall Pass" dialogue drives home the argument that Christmastide is a time of Total War; that it is a moment when trenches are to be dug, teeth gritted, and leaps over the top into the No Man's Land of holiday celebration endured until the festivities unconditionally surrender and there is a return to normalcy. "How are you holding up?", Mr. Caccianemici may ask, beginning one version of this multiform interchange. "It's tough, but I'll make it", Mrs. Herzschlager will then predictably respond. "Relief is just around the corner."

Many of the participants in the "This Too Shall Pass" dialogue reveal their reliance on a "duck and cover" strategy for dealing with the hostilities. Such an approach entails a retreat into the deepest recesses of their nuclear family shelters when the seasonal sirens begin to sound.

I myself felt the depressing sting of this highly disturbing tactic from around 1960 onwards. As that wretched decade began, fewer and fewer relatives appeared at my family's once quite large holiday celebrations. This had nothing to do with strange new transportation problems. In fact, some prosperous aunts, uncles, and cousins now seemed to have seventeen or eighteen vehicles at their disposal, and the opportunity of walking on car hoods from their homes to ours without ever stepping on one that was not in their possession. When I expressed a longing for the restoration of our formerly grand affairs I was told in no uncertain terms that everyone had simply ducked and covered; that holidays were a very trying experience that inevitably made everybody cranky; that one could not put demands on people when they were under such terrible and unavoidable tension; and, finally, that---due to an astonishing sociological revolution---"everyone had his own family now" and therefore had to stay put in his personal teepee. I drew the obvious conclusion that relatives and friends should only be visited when the "all clear" was sounded, the bunker doors were opened, and they were more relaxed: i.e., on ice-cold work days in January, after the memory of the misery of celebration had long been drowned in office drudgery.

Of all the explanations offered to me concerning why the enjoyment of Christmas was an utter impossibility, the one that I hated the most was that which called attention to a groundless "nostalgia" leading me to daydream that the season could be anything other than desperately glum. The anti-nostalgia attack even insisted that my memories of bygone years were clouded. No one had had fun at those earlier family celebrations. They, too, were but an outwardly boisterous horror show. Total War in Christmastide had always been the rule in the past, as it would continue to be in the future. The only sad gap in my life was the lack of a doctor who might deal with my mind-boggling failure to recognize truths known to the simplest of souls.

To be quite fair, this accusation of "nostalgia" was not leveled merely by relatives alone. Nor was its employment limited only to a condemnation of my desire for holiday mirth. Mutatis mutandis, the same charge has been repeated by many others and for a variety of seemingly different reasons. What's more, I am sure that it has been hurled at most Remnant readers on numerous occasions as well, and for other crimes than just their attachment to the Traditional Latin Mass.

I would argue that at the center of all such allegations of nostalgia lies an a priori rejection of three things dear to our hearts: 1) the conviction that individual and social lives ought to be lived so as to try to resolve (rather than hunt for) conflicts, and to "sing a new song unto the Lord" (instead of intoning a dismal gnostic dirge); 2) the insistence that there have been times and places where such an uplifting Catholic project has actually been attempted and obtained passably decent results; and 3) that one can entertain the hope that a civilization rooted in the development of the Protestant vision of nature as the realm of total depravity may some day finally end.

Such traditionalist "errors" infuriate the nostalgia-smashers. If, for them, Christmastide is akin to the Battle of the Somme, the rest of the year is an eleven and one half month long Verdun. They see no respite from that war of all against all which was brutally declared by Thomas Hobbes, rendered respectable to polite society by John Locke, and canonized by Catholic fellow travelers of the Enlightenment. In the minds of the anti-nostalgia zealots, holidays and life, like war, must be hell. Assertion of experiences to the contrary have to be exposed as painfully childish fancies. The wimps and sissies indulging in them need a bath in the true grit of "real life", with its woeful tale of unceasing struggle against the evil designs of "the others".

Now I like a good bath as much as the next man, and I enjoy reading while I bathe---everything from comics to opera libretti. One good piece that all of us nostalgics might pick up when forced to bathe in the gritty springs of enlightened ignorance is St. Bernard of Clairvaux's De Consideratione. This work was produced by that great medieval monk and preacher to advise his fellow Cistercian, Bernardo Pignatelli, when the latter became Pope Eugenius III in 1145. Unfortunately for our consciousness-raisers, however, a reading of its message cannot help but strengthen our ability to emerge from the tub to point out everything that is wrong with their presentation of the Inferno as the only realistic guide to the whole of the Divine Comedy.

The De Consideratione, one of the most influential treatises concerning the Papacy ever to be written, has many important points to make about the relationship of Pope to Church and Church to State. Its greatest significance for us in the present context, however, lies in the warning that it gives to Eugenius to "stand back" from the miseries and stupidities of the daily rat race in order to understand what his job---and his own personal existence---were really all about. Burial in and rumbling together with the "true grit" of the ecclesiastical machinery had at all costs to be avoided if the pope were to understand what honestly counted for social and individual transformation in Christ. This heartfelt warning came from St. Bernard after his own first-hand, disheartening experience of the lives and perceptions of the apparatchiks staffing the mammoth administrative apparatus and conducting the vastly increased juridical activity of the papal court of the middle of the twelfth century. As the great historian Walter Ullman's describes it:

The realistic appreciation of the papacy's jurisdictional function encouraged archbishops, bishops and other lower placed officers to submit as many controversial questions as possible to it for final decision. The result was an onrush, not to say a flooding of the curia with litigation from virtually every part of Christendom that was not subjected to Constantinople. No one gave a better or more vivid picture of this state of affairs prevailing in the Roman curia than Bernard of Clairvaux whose pupil, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Pisa had become pope as Eugenius III. What had become quite obvious by the forties of he twelfth century was that notwithstanding local Roman difficulties, the papacy as an institution had been accepted as the organ of government throughout Western Europe. In his work De Consideratione dedicated to the new pope, 'the uncrowned emperor of Europe' bitterly castigated the noise and the bustle which the visitor to the curia noticed: there was little evidence of meditation, of prayer, of life dedicated to the knowledge of God---in brief, the danger to which Bernard believed the papacy to be exposed was that of secularization. What particularly aggrieved the pope's former teacher was what he called the noise made by the laws of Justinian and the intermingling of the mundane with the divine. In Bernard's view it was not the function of the pope to descend to trivialities. The true vocation and function of the pope as monarch was to stand outside and above Christian society, so as not to be caught up in the myriads of squabbles affecting its members. Bernard's tract exercised a great influence on succeeding papal generations, because in inimitable and concise language he laid down a number of basic points which are clearly traceable in the official output of subsequent pontificates. (A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages, Methuen, 1972, pp. 181-182).
St. Bernard knew that the Church and mankind do not live by popes alone. He teaches that all of us have a crucial role to play in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ, each in his own appropriate sphere. The great Cistercian therefore suggests a universal application of his warning in the De Consideratione against excessive papal activity, and with very good reason indeed. After all, each of us has a daily routine tempting us to treat the unthinking labor that satisfies the particular demands of our specific sphere of life as the only real and serious action that we should undertake. Insofar as we succumb to this temptation, we, just like the pope and the curial officials serving him, risk becoming apparatchiks who cannot see the forest for the trees and thus miss the higher purpose of existence entirely. To avoid this fall from grace, we, like Eugenius, have to stand above the time and place in which we live, as well as apart from the function that we fulfill therein. We must learn to curb their excessive demands on our attention and obedience, and make them sit in the corner and behave themselves.

What, then, should we tell those who hurl the charge of nostalgia at us? That they are victims of a "modernity" that embraces as the unum necessarium precisely that approach to life which St. Bernard tells us to avoid: one requiring submission to the tyranny of the trivia of daily existence. We should tell them that modernity embraces this approach because it is the slave of a philosophical nominalism that orders man to look only to the individual "data" of life, piled up, one uninspiring and often wretched "fact" atop another. We should tell them that, while uninspiring and often downright wretched trivialities are the inescapable "stuff" of life, the "facts" that they reveal explain as little about the ultimate meaning of things as the first excruciating film of an entire wedding ceremony that I was condemned to view some twenty years ago. The individual scenes caught by the filmmaker exposed me to an interminable succession of facial twitches, fly shooings, and petty or hefty coughs and sneezes. An admirer of "true grit" might think that this introduced us to the reality behind the romance, but a "nostalgic dreamer" like myself, who actually participated in the event and knew the couple in question, could easily see the truth: that that film in no way captured the real spirit of the day or gave an insight into the future, successful married life of the two very happy people at its center.

St. Bernard preached that rising above the trivial detail of an existence that is admittedly filled with much struggle and evil, in order to grasp the true nobility of our vocation as individual and social Christian men and women, requires a great deal of effort. Everything that aids us in this effort to lift up our hearts is laudable. Prayer and meditation of course stand at the top of the list of the means available, with pilgrimages, such as that from Paris to Chartres, providing a wonderful "time out of time" to sharpen both such tools. But man is a creature of flesh and blood as well as spirit, and holidays, with their feasting and singing and dancing and mirth are part of the arsenal of weapons suitable for hoisting us out of our routine as well.

Certainly the proponents of life as a "war of all against all" have understood this truth since the beginning of their lugubrious and self-fulfilling campaign against hope and joy. This is why the student of the Enlightenment finds them doing their level best to abolish as many relaxations of the daily grind as possible, especially those connected with a religion aiming faith and hope filled man towards eternal joy. Name me a country where the Enlightenment has triumphed and I will show you a land with fewer days free for the workingman! And this is also why, when the eternal warmongers cannot succeed in destroying holidays entirely, one finds them busily sucking all that is truly good and enjoyable from their celebration, transforming them into nothing other than disguised workaday experiences, making people feel that they must slave like dogs to fulfill their Christmas shopping and spending obligations and take courage from the fact that January---with salvation---is just around the corner.

Man muss die Feste feiern wie sie fallen, the Germans say: one must celebrate the holidays as they come, and in a way that is truly fitting and just. This, at Christmastide, means proclaiming what the French call "the candy makers' truce"; la treve des confiseurs. The fact that such a truce can be called, so that joy, for a time, may reign supreme, indicates that there can indeed be a respite from the war of all against all. Have the temporary invaders of Rocco's understood this, shrugged off the modern command to bury oneself in the dismal trivia of an existence ruled by endless work, and dropped the "This Too Shall Pass" dialogue in consequence? I do not know, but I sincerely hope so.

Another, secular holiday will be upon us when this issue of The Remnant hits the press. People are wont to celebrate that holiday, New Year's Day, by making silly resolutions. But such resolutions need not be ridiculous. They can be catholicized. "Now it begins", St. Benedict said, when urging his monks on to make a renewal of their commitment to please God, even at the eleventh hour of their lives. Would that we, this New Year's Day, could make the resolution to rise above the petty, depressing trivia of our Enlightenment-shaped environment and its war of all against all mentality, and this for the entirety of 2008! That would go far towards making us regain a truly Catholic sense of the real meaning of life. And that would also gird our loins against the inevitable attempts that will be made in the coming calendar year by both our enemies and our misled Catholic brethren to mock our critique of an unnecessarily harsh vision of society as pure nostalgia and present their own romance with Trivial Pursuit as common sense. I'll take St. Bernard and De Consideratione for common sense above John Locke and Adam Smith any day of the year---not just during the candy makers' truce.

Email Dr. John Rao.

Return to main page.