Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Day Of Hope

The two great preparatory seasons of the liturgical year, Advent and Lent, are intended to stimulate reflection and resolution among the Christian faithful. Sadly, Advent is shrugged aside by many, owing to the huge secular demands the "holiday season" imposes on us. Scarcely are Thanksgiving and its indulgences behind us than the time has come Buy and decorate a "Christmas tree?" Festoon the house with garlands of red, green, and gold? Inundate the Postal Service with a blizzard of Hallmark's finest? Arrange our schedules to accommodate as many of our relatives' and friends' seasonal celebrations as possible?


I finished the first draft of Freedom's Fury just yesterday afternoon. Sent it off to my beta reader with the last of my energy. It was a draining, emotionally wringing experience. I'll be awhile recovering from it. That's what completing an emotionally and spiritually evocative story does to me. But in this case, it did something else as well: something for which my gratitude knows no bounds.

Those of you who've read Which Art In Hope and Freedom's Scion know how I tried to weave gentle Christian themes into those tales of a wholly ungoverned world. It wasn't easy. The political and sociological motifs were so compelling to me that it was a rearguard struggle to meld them with the spiritual content I've tried to incorporate into everything I write. I'm not wholly satisfied with those efforts -- what writer is ever wholly satisfied with a completed story? -- though for the life of me I can't see how I might have done better with them.

Freedom's Fury, a tale of love, war, and the emergence of political conflicts and structures on Hope, a world populated by the descendants of Spoonerite anarchists, was an even greater challenge. As the conclusion to the Spooner Federation saga, it had to complete the evolution of the sociopolitical mechanisms developed in the earlier novels. That took quite a lot of hard thought and careful character motivation and orientation. Figures who might not have "had it in them" when they first appeared on Hope's stage had to be brought forward and animated with the most powerful of fuels. In one case, they fashioned a seemingly ordinary man into a king; in another, they burned the unfortunate vessel to a crisp.

But on every page, behind every act of the tragedy, stood the Cross and the shadows it casts upon men.

I'm not going to elaborate further on that just now. You'll see what I mean when you read the novel. God and my cover artist willing, it will be out in eBook format no later than mid-February.

It's massively unfortunate that Ayn Rand so polluted the meaning of the word sacrifice. Rand was, of course, a case-hardened secularist who held religion in contempt. She was unable to cope with the cleavage between the teachings of the great figures of the Christian tradition, highest among them Jesus Himself, and the exploitation of those teachings by men who cared more for worldly authority and stature than for God's love and mercy. Thus, she declined to deal with the fundamental meaning of sacrifice as expressed in its etymology: to make holy.

Christ Himself introduced a measure of uncertainty into the Jews' traditional interpretation of sacrifice:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Matthew 9:9-13]

Indeed, the point was so important that He repeated it:

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick the grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry—how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” [Matthew 12:1-8]

Judaic practice, of course, followed the tradition of the burnt offering: the deliberate rendering of food, animal, vegetable, or both, unfit for human consumption as a symbolic offering to God. I've written about the revolution in religious thought Jesus's words and deeds wrought upon this subject in particular. That revolution culminated with His Passion and is commemorated at every celebration of the Eucharist by mortal men.

Holiness is the supreme expression of wholeness: of congruence with God's Will as expressed in the laws He has written for this universe. Among those laws is one we rail against at every turn, despite its obvious immutability: that all things have a price. As a somewhat less exalted figure has written:

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain....The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself--ultimate cost for perfect value.”

They who most highly valued freedom, during the years of our Revolution, had to risk their lives for it -- and many paid the ultimate price. They who value justice are often compelled to pay the same price. Many a mother has paid that price in an attempt, successful or not, to protect her children. And throughout the two millennia behind us, many men, including most of the Apostles, have been compelled to surrender their mortal lives for the sake of remaining true to their faith.

Let him who dares condemn those men and their sacrifices.

A human life is an organic whole. Its events are connected to one another by bonds of causation and ripples of consequence that can sometimes be difficult to see. Yet the connections are always there. We would be unable to make sense of our experiences, learn the lessons they bear for us, if it were otherwise.

Each of the protagonists of Freedom's Fury confronts a point of crisis, a fork in his life where he must either sacrifice or admit that what he values isn't as important to him as he'd claimed it to be. A superficial reading of the book will leave the reader puzzled by that description. They win, don't they? They get what they seek from their enterprises, don't they? Yes, they do. But they pay a price for each such gain. Sometimes the price isn't obvious until long after it's been "rung up."

A man's continuity of values and commitment to them, including the price they demand, is what elevates him above the common run. It's the fee for his admission to the halls of greatness. The highest and most dramatic of such figures are our greatest heroes. We see their lives as expressions of their values, despite the obvious truism that any mortal, however dedicated, will have his lapses and his intervals of doubt. In identifying them with the values they championed, we contrive to see them whole. We measure ourselves against their integrity of purpose, dimly aware that in that wholehearted commitment to something greater than oneself lies the true meaning of heroism.

In that wholeness resides the holiness of life.

I've written in the past about the "private experience" that, coupled to the desire for transcendence, will allow one to complete one's journey to faith. From time to time a Gentle Reader will write to me inquiring -- sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding -- what constitutes an experience of that sort. It's an impossible question to answer in any way but this one: When it happens to you, you'll recognize it at once.

In these latter years, I've come to believe that to open oneself to such an experience, one must live in full commitment to one's values, whatever they may be. Commitment that complete implies that when the price for upholding and advancing them is presented to the holder, he pays it willingly and without attempting to haggle. He recognizes that the price is inseparable from the value itself.

You might think that's oversimplified. Aren't there bad values, of a sort that God frowns upon? Of course. But bad values lived with full commitment tend to evoke corrective forces. Those forces charge a price that reduces the transaction to a pure loss. Afterward we are reoriented, made aware of our errors, and equipped to do better. That, too, is an aspect of the wholeness of life. With a single necessary exception, there are no saints who were not also sinners.

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is the Sunday of Hope. We are counseled to elevate our hopes above our fears, to petition God confidently for sustenance in facing our trials, and to look forward with the optimism of persons who really, truly believe in the possibility of admission to eternal bliss in His nearness. Christmas, the commemoration of the birth of Jesus and the second highest of all the holy days, is almost upon us. The season is His and ours, for He came to free us from the chains of sin and open the gates of heaven to us.

It's not a sacrifice of shopping time, or decorating time, or time sending out greeting cards or responses to party invitations, to spend an hour reflecting on that. It's an admission that above the secular trappings of the season there are values that stand infinitely higher: values to which we can and should commit ourselves, not only for the "holiday season" but for all time to come.

May God bless and keep you all.

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