If a visitor came to one of our Ordinariate communities, what would they see? Would they see warm, welcoming, joyful people? Or would they see contentious, negative and cliquish people? Would they see worship that makes them sense the Presence of a supernatural, Loving God? Or would they see a bunch of people reciting prayers by rote with hearts far from entering into the meaning of the words and gestures? Would they find people acquainted with the mercy of God? Or would they find self-righteous judges who believe others should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps the way they did? Would they see people who believe in miracles but also how even more important is desiring God’s will above their own? Or would they see people whose faith crashes and burns when confronted by serious challenges?
I’m thinking about this because of what I’ve seen over the holidays in how Christians are depicted.
Over the Christmas break I finally had time to catch up on my rest and spent many an hour on the couch reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.
This series of three novels immerses you in the world of Medieval Norway and depicts a deeply Christian society overlaying its pagan origins. This is a deeply Christian novel by an author who not only understands human nature and sin, but also understands the Christian faith. No cardboard characters, no mouthpieces for some kind of ideology—yet still Undset reveals the radiance of the true faith shining through the flawed human beings.
Contrast that with The Last Kingdom, a series we started watching on Netflix. It takes place in the 9th Century as various kingdoms in what we now know as England fight off invading Danes. It is loosely based on history, and one of the main characters is King Alfred of Wessex, who eventually unites the Anglo-Saxons and is later dubbed King Alfred the Great.
But oh my, the way Christianity is treated in this series, in contrast to how it is by Sigrid Undset in Kristin Lavransdatter.
What a much of moralistic, dour folk the Christians are, compared with the fun-loving warrior Danes! The main character is a Saxon who was kidnapped by Danes as a youth, then adopted by them, and part of the story is the conflict between his Danish and Saxon identities. In both the novel and the series there is an incident where a baby or young child is dying and out of desperation (and because of unanswered prayer to God), the characters resort to a pagan magic ritual that succeeds where God fails!
While Undset sets this act within a Christian understanding of good and evil, The Last Kingdom seems to be somehow applauding the pagan magic that works, while Christian miracles are so much humdrum. And while some Christians do accept martyrdom, others run from it in cowardice. And oh, the prayers! It was as if they had in mind some kind of Christian evangelical with his hands in the air making up an extemporaneous prayer for various ceremonies. No Latin. Not even a proper Baptismal formula where the main character is even re-baptized because his name is changed.
Then, there was this article I read today in the New York Times about Christians in the United States and their wonky views of patriarchy and of President Trump as the new Cyrus. In her opinion piece for the NYT, Katherine Stewart writes:
This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.
They want it all. And in Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause, but also satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership.
This article is laced with typical anti-Christian tropes.
Back to my first paragraph regarding what would people see if they visited our Ordinariate communities?
Would they see warm, welcoming, joyful people? Or would they see contentious, negative and cliquish people? Would they see worship that makes them sense the presence of a supernatural God? Or would they see a bunch of people reciting prayers by rote but hearts far from entering into the meaning of the words and gestures? Would they find people acquainted with the mercy of God? Or would they find self-righteous judges who believe others should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps the way they did? Would they see people who believe in miracles but also how even more important is desiring God’s will above their own? Or would they see people whose faith crashes and burns when confronted by serious challenges?
In some ways, I can see myself in both the positive and the negative here, depending on what day you catch me. I can be all these things, though I try to discipline the negative and contentious side—I renounce it—and I am well-acquainted with God’s mercy, but do I sometimes forget? And yes, sometimes, I do not enter into the prayers to pray them from the heart, in unity of heart, soul, mind as I would wish.
I think our community is joyful and welcoming. But I do think that people have their own preconceived notions and tend to look for evidence to confirm their prejudices.
In 2019, what can we do to be Catholics of Communion, of deep, joyful, full, loving Communion with Jesus Christ so that there is no doubt about the supernatural reality of our faith? How can we be better ambassadors of Christ’s love so those coming towards us with that dour, legalistic template over their eyes find it falls away like scales?
As for the miracle of healing accomplished through magical, pagan means—-what Undset does so well is show in her novel the price we pay for getting our will instead of God’s.