Horrible Sermons & Cogency at Risk

Really, the title refers to two seemingly unrelated, provocative quotations this morning, from one of James V. Schall’s books. I recommend all of his books to you.  The first quote from a chapter called “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life” simply is striking, I think it holds its power even out of context:

On August 22, 1957, Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter about her cousin’s husband, a man who taught at Auburn University. The professor finally had come into the Church. Flannery O’Connor explained his conversion as follows: ‘We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible (when he had gone to Mass with his wife), he knew there must be something else there to make people come.’ The mystery of conversion remains not merely a question of successful rhetoric.

The second quotation follows a Chesterton comment on Thomas Aquinas, “It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One.” (i.e., he was a realist who told others to “get real” in their thinking and believing).  So, then:

Not everybody needs to be an intellectual. Not everybody is a saint. Yet we must acknowledge that it is dangerous for ourselves, for the public order, when there are no philosophers. We suspect it is even more perilous for there to be no saints. When we wonder why, the answer returns to “receptivity”, to the realization that the highest things, which we rightfully seek because of what they are, are not for us to “make” or concoct. Aquinas wrote:

Nature is a prelude to grace. It is the abuse of science and philosophy which provokes statements against faith. These mistakes can be confuted by showing how impossible or unconvincing they are. Remember this, that as the truths of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, so the denial of them sometimes cannot be demonstratively disproved, though any lack of cogency can be exposed (Exposition, de Trinitate, 2, 3).

It is well to make note that Aquinas was referring to proof on the mystery of the Trinity, just for context’s sake. Schall has much else to say, about the compatibility of the spiritual life with that of the philosopher (contrary to the presuppositions of many a twentieth-century philosopher), the “liberty of the sons of God” in seeing that “what is is larger than what we are,” (contrary to the modern era’s rejection of “a God larger than itself.”) He writes that “This openness we possess to all being is our grace and our blessing, what we have accepted because we receive, not make, our own being. When wonder is addressed by grace, we are. This is the spiritual life given to intelligent beings.”

We receive, not make, our own being. I wonder at, and like, that statement. The truth of it is strength for me today. I hope it is for you also.

Schall quote from Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 347, in James V. Schall, “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life,” in Another Sort of Learning–Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found (Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 260-1; on Chesterton and Aquinas, pp. 267-8.