Embracing Reality in Hope

“The Rich Man and Lazarus.” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1620. Taken from wikimedia.org

Age quod agis, “Do what you are doing.” — St. Benedict of Nursia

Fr. Tom Hopko — may he rest in peace — responded to a question by a woman who asked whether or not God plays favorites. His answer was very long, but I thought I would share this section of it as it offers some really insightful wisdom on “blooming where you are planted.” It’s a transcription of a talk, so it has a wonderfully informal tone. The italics are used to reflect his use of an emphatic voice.

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St. John Chrysostom says if anyone in this life feels that God has intervened and miraculously healed them and made their life happy—let’s say gave them a good job or something, or healed them of a physical disease—then they have to answer to God for how they use that. And he says, when that happens, it always happens for more crosses, for greater suffering, for more service, for greater repentance, but it doesn’t have anything to do with who goes to heaven at the end, as such. And it doesn’t have to do with who may have some kind of experiences of God on earth before they die, as such. I don’t think that we can say that. I don’t think that that’s warranted to be said according to the Holy Scripture. And we do believe that God cannot save one individual person without saving the whole thing because we’re interconnected. That’s why when we say in church, things like “he came to save Adam,” it means he saves the whole of humanity and that’s why the saints say, “if anyone is saved, everyone is saved with them and in them,” somehow, interconnected, but then they have to deal with that fact. That’s why the prayers of holy people and the actions of holy people, they either contribute to the salvation of others, or, to use a scriptural expression, they pour more burning coals on their head because that person does not accept it.

So what we have to say is that there’s a fundamental will of God, but there’s a providential will of God. And the providential will of God is exactly what this question is about. We can ask, why is my providential will of God this way and someone else’s providential will of God the other way? And why does God deal with this person this way and that person that way? And I think, again, the rationalization answer—God forgive me, I don’t think it’s a rationalization—but I think the truth of the matter is because you are you and I am me and he is he and she is she. And, you know, I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, Fr. Tom, why couldn’t I have been your child? Why was I someone else’s child and my own father was so horrid? And I didn’t have a nice father like you are, and you’re a nice father for your children.” Well, I would say two things. Number one is: because you’re not my child. If you were my child, you wouldn’t be you. You are who you are because you are that guy’s child and that woman’s child, and you are produced by them, and they were produced by their parents and produced by their parents. I would also say, ask my kids how nice it was to be my child. I’m sure you’ll get an answer that will blow your mind what it meant to be my child.

I mean, but still as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, life for every human being on this earth is: how do we deal with what we’ve been dealt, and what we’ve been dealt makes us who we are; it makes us how we are. I am who I am, what I am, how I am, why I am, with whom I am, from whom I am because I was born from John and Anna Hopko on the north side of Endicott in 1939. That’s who I am. And then God will ask me at the last judgment, “What did you do with what you’ve been given?” But God also may ask that, will ask that same question in some sense—he’ll ask that same question to some—let’s try to think of somebody—son of a communist in the Soviet Union or some child of a mafia worker in the Bronx or something.

But God is not going to ask the same thing from each one. How could he? He wouldn’t. And my guess is that God is not even going to ask anything of certain people on this earth because their life was so damaged that he’s just going to love them, embrace them, and take them to paradise; and so the very fact that you just simply survived and endured, even though you yourself did lots of evils yourself perhaps—because as the saying goes “hurt people hurt people”; if you’ve been hurt, you’re going to hurt others; if you’ve been loved, you’re going to probably have a better chance to love others. But in the sight of God, the one who has had what you might consider a lucky or fortunate birthright—let’s say born into people who are basically sane, virtuous and believing, and who are trying to keep God’s commandments. Yeah, if that happens, that’s great! But then God still asks that person what they did with that. But that person is not better or worse or more gifted or treated more wonderfully by God. That’s not the teaching, not the teaching at all.

It doesn’t at all mean that if a person is born in an alcoholic family where there was just rage and abuse and sadness, it doesn’t mean that that person is worse in the eyes of God. And that person would not be asked by God to go out into the desert like St. Seraphim and kneel on a rock for 15 years. That’s not their calling. That’s not their vocation. They have to do something else with what they’ve been given. And maybe the best that that person can do is endure it, and endure it with some kind of faith, hope, and love. And even maybe endure it without too much faith, hope, and love, but still endure it. And maybe they’ll do lots of sins, but they’ll still be pretty good in God’s eyes compared to some other person who is greatly gifted. So I think that we have to deal with this issue of God’s basic will and God’s providential will. And the providential will, I agree totally, is a great mystery.

But one thing’s for sure that we must really, I think, just accept: you can’t say, “Why couldn’t I have been that other person? Why couldn’t I have had some other parents? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other time? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other place? Why couldn’t I have lived with other conditions?” Well, the simplistic answer would be: because if you did, you wouldn’t be you! You would be somebody else. That was not your vocation. That was not your cross. That was not what you have to bear in your earthly life, and we should remember how fleeting earthly life is. That’s one of the teachings of Scripture, too.

The Apostle Paul says that the glory of the age to come can’t even be compared to the afflictions that we suffer on this earth. Now, I know you could say, tell that to someone who is suffering, tell that to someone who wants to be St. Seraphim but is in fact a struggling mom with a difficult situation. Well, I would be careful not to say it so easily and glibly, but I think what would have to be said to that mom in a difficult situation is: you really must believe that God didn’t call you to be St. Seraphim—or St. Seraphima, if you’re a lady. He didn’t. He called you to be who you are and to enter into what you have to do.

I was naked…hungry…

The story goes that St. Martin of Tours (316 – 397), who was a senior officer in the Roman Imperial Horse Guard, and who had just come to faith in Christ, was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, France when he was confronted by a half-naked beggar. At once he took off and cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away, and heard him say to the angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

Jesus came to the main entrance today, under the guise of a poor young man. This young man, emaciated, barefoot and bareheaded, and with his clothes in tatters, was frozen because the day was cold and rainy. He asked for something hot to eat. So I went to the kitchen, but found nothing there for the poor. But, after searching around for some time, I succeeded in finding some soup, which I reheated and into which I crumbled some bread, and I gave it to the poor young man, who ate it. As I was taking the bowl from him, he gave me to know that He was the Lord of heaven and earth. When I saw him as he was, He vanished from my sight. When I went back in and reflected on what had happened at the gate, I heard these words in my soul: “My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached My ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from My throne–to taste the fruits of your mercy.” O my Jesus, now everything is clear to me, and I understand all that has just happened. I somehow felt and asked myself what sort of a poor man is this who radiates such modesty. From that moment on, there was stirred up in my heart an even purer love toward the poor and the needy. — St. Faustina, Diary #1312

I was hungry statue

Palm Sunday

“Lamentation at the Tomb” Taken from http://gabrielsmessage.files.wordpress.com/

Re-post from 2014

We have at last arrived at Holy Week. This week, culminating in the Three Days (Triduum), is the axis of cosmic time. Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the earth spins.”

I will share with you a paschal meditation I wrote sometime in the 1990’s for a priest friend, to honor the anniversary of his ordination. I wrote him, “As I think of the ministerial priesthood you’ve been consecrated with by the Spirit, I think of priesthood’s origin in Jesus’ Passion. There everything to be known is known. Thank you for saying Yes, Pater et Frater, to being ‘cast down’ for us with Him, that we might be raised up to His Father…”

Like a Dish Cast Down
In this world of shallow depths
only what is fair to the eye, and clean
is held aloft in high esteem;
but what is broken, unpleasing to the eye
we shun, we hide, we judge worth to be despised.

But should it be so for us in Christ?

No!

And God, to shatter such folly, chose
to stoop lowly, down from soaring height
far-low into a womb, hidden enclosed.
Highness fell down, God made mercy-crazed,
to shatter our binding, shackling chains
being-bound, flogged, crowned, dazed;
yanked along to the plotted slaughter
to rescue the Plotter: Zion’s captive daughter.

Behold: Immortal Spirit gasps!
Suffocating, ebbing, smoldering Fire:

Could it be that God would expire?
Only if love is mercy,
and justice be duly purged
in bloodied,
sullied,
spit-drenched,
mocked and cruelly crushed charity.

His priestly prayer is mercy:
Wailing, lamenting, crying,
gathering up our every “Why?”
Gurgled beneath our blackened sky,
Crashing into tear-drenched earth:
God labors, wailing: “Behold your second birth!”

O Icon of the blessèd Three,
Writ upon the cursèd Tree,
on you hung the One begotten. Eternally
shattering from an-Other!
O Substance dispossessed by piercing love,
wastefully Begotten before all ages,
now seen, now heard, now touched in time;
and drained – still now! – but here as chaliced Wine.
Drink, O Man, His immortal Blood; eat Flesh
raised as an up-offering oblation,
ever-ours, mine a consubstantial immolation
thrust deepward into the heart of Adonai…

O Fallen-God, now arise for us
and ever-plead for mortal flesh:
O Thou who art deathlessly undying!
Remember us before your Father’s fleshless Face
— O this is truly grace upon grace! —
and with our eyes look up and (dare I say?)
for us, evermore and evermore,
eternally smile our thankful praise. Amen. Amen.

Happy 500th, St. Teresa!

 

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Taken from socialhistoryofart.com

St. Teresa of Jesus—also known as St. Teresa of Avila—was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515. Thus, today is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

So much to say. I will tweak a three year old post for it!

Like all genuine mystics, Teresa appears as an unexpected epiphany of God’s Fire into our shadowlands. Her remarkable, extra-ordinary encounters with God are dramatic signs of what every Christian bears within under the ordinary form of concealed mystery. Here’s an analogy that came to me. Just as the earth’s homely, stable crust conceals beneath its surface a burning cauldron of molten rock and iron, so the ordinary Christian bears within, sealed beneath the economy of faith, the coming Kingdom, the lumen gloriae, “light of glory” that awaits us beyond death and final Judgment. All the baptized are re-created as a Temple of the Trinity, a Holy of Holies filled with all the Fire of Pentecost, and remain so as long as they remain in grace. Or, as St. Symeon the New Theologian memorably phrased it, each soul in grace is “a living Paradise, a new Eden” where God dwells. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19).

But in this life, this truth is only accessed through the inchoate darkness of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). However, on rare occasions — to exploit the analogy further — the earthen crust of faith ruptures, the magma wells up, the fire explodes and the blazing glory of the next world suddenly breaks into ours. Then the Church looks back discerningly, retrospectively and canonizes the site of the eruption. And we get a Saint. That is who Teresa is.

So to honor St. Teresa today, let me share here my favorite Teresa quotes:

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”

“It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.”

“Once after receiving Communion I was given understanding of how the Father receives within our soul the most holy Body of Christ, and of how I know and have seen that these divine Persons are present, and of how pleasing to the Father this offering of His Son is, because He delights and rejoices with Him here–let us say–on earth. For His humanity is not present with us in the soul, but His divinity is. Thus the humanity is so welcome and pleasing to the Father and bestows on us so many favors.” [mind blowing]

“You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him. And the greatest is love.”

“Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself.”

“God save us from gloomy saints!”

“Mental prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends.”

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”

“In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient inn.”

“The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.”

“Often, as you have read, it is to the weakest that His Divine Majesty gives favors, which I believe they would not exchange for all the fortitude given to those who go forward in aridity of spirit. We are fonder for spiritual sweetness than of crosses. Test us, O Lord, Thou Who knowest all truth, that we may know ourselves.”

“Seek the God of consolations and not the consolations of God.”

“Perhaps we do not know what love is: it would not surprise me a great deal to learn this, for love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything.”

“God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.”

“The devil frequently fills our thoughts with great schemes, so that instead of putting our hands to what work we can do to serve our Lord, we may rest satisfied with wishing to perform impossibilities.”

Amor saca amor, “Love begets love.”

“But here the Lord asks only two things of us: love of His Majesty and love of our neighbor. The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.”

“God has been very good to me, for I never dwell upon anything wrong which a person has done, so as to remember it afterwards. If I do remember it, I always see some other virtue in that person.”

“In order that love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that it lower itself and that it lower itself to nothingness and transform this nothingness into fire.”

“It is of great importance, when we begin to practice prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.”

“All the way to heaven is heaven.”

“Love turns work into rest.”

Please Pray for Colton Shaw

Dear Readers: I don’t usually use this Blog to post personal requests, but for those who have followed over the last few days, one of the readers (who is also my friend) commented on two different posts and left these successive prayer requests. Please keep this family and young man in your prayers. Thank you.

Young Colton Shaw, 14 years of age, from Valdosta, Georgia was struck in the head during a baseball game. He was taken to T.M.H. PICU. unit. Please ask your faithful readers to intercede in prayer to not only our blessed mother but to their beloved saints as well, that Colton’s family is rewarded for their faith their hope and their love of our LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST for the physical healing of young Colton.
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Please ask your faithful readers to keep not only the Shaw family, who lost their son Colton yesterday morning after he was removed from life support. Please also pray for the young man who made the errant throw that struck young Colton. I cannot imagine his pain.

Remain with us, O Lord

Icon of the Supper at Emmaus. Taken from boutique.flambeaux.fr

That priest I wrote about on March 25, who offered some guest lectures to the seminarians, had a few more insights he shared with me outside of classroom that he gave me permission to (anonymously) share here. He’s been retired for a number of years. This priest, whom I will call Fr. C here, is a phenomenal priest, salt of the earth. After he spoke, I wrote these comments to a colleague about him:

Father C was in rare form today.

Pure grit poetry. Wonderfully off point, but absolutely on point.

As he spoke, I couldn’t help but think of what an Anglican biblical scholar I heard in Tallahassee – Dr. Kenneth Bailey – said: “For Jesus, the story was not simply an illustration of some greater concept, an anecdote, as it was for the Greeks. Rather, for Jesus, and for Semitic minds in general, the story is the point because reality is really an extended narrative; and divine revelation is not an idea, but a sojourning event.”

So, I love to say: hearing him speak is an event you go to, but an event that happens to you; a living text that reads you.

His Mass this morning [he celebrated a private Mass I attended] – it was an event, words that happen in and to you, and leave you shaken to the core. Also, whenever I’m around him, I feel more human. Wild, eh? But faith makes us more human, not less, right? But how rare it is in my experience to be with someone who can really make that happen — seemingly — all at once. Divinization is so obviously humanization when you’re around Fr. C.

In fact the way he told the story of “Joe” in the psych-ward yesterday — so gut wrenching — was so compelling in its truth, I don’t think I’ll ever examine my conscience the same again with that inhabiting my imagination.

Wow.

Below is some of his simple, yet profound wisdom that I noted in my journal:

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Fr. C said:

At this point in my life as a priest, it’s clear to me that all our frenetic busyness — all our busy busy busy and all our talking talking talking — so often masks our emptiness. Our pain. We distract ourselves; we’re masters of distraction. Who wants to face it? … All I want now, all I hope for now, is that the Lord lets me sit at His feet and listen to His voice; and just let Him know I’m there, listening. All relationships fall in place when that one is right … If you can listen to Him, and stay with Him, you can speak with authority; with power. His power. But if you don’t listen, it’s all just blah blah blah and going to an early grave. But for what?

Many years ago I was called by a family to minister to a young man. He was 24. He’d been burned over 95% of his body because he ran into a burning house to rescue his roommate. His family had traveled from the other side of the country and called me to visit him in the burn unit … He was naked, strung out in the net over the water and the nurses were carefully picking the dead skin off of him with tweezers. His eyes were fused shut. I came over to him, told him I was priest and asked if I could anoint him. He painfully nodded. I anointed him, as I could, and as I did I could see the nurses all were weeping. Then I absolved him and gave him communion. I told him I would come every day to stay with him. His family left and never returned again. Not even for the funeral. I don’t know why. One day, while I was with him, he tried to pull the tubes out of his throat, and I asked him to stop. I got the nurses. He gasped toward me and said in a gurgling voice: “Tubes-not-in-YOUR-throat.” But we stopped him. He slowly died over those two weeks, suffocated from the fluid build-up. I was helpless to do anything but be with him and pray. That’s when you really get to know Christ, in your face, at your nose. No sky-Jesus. Nailed-Jesus. The Cross. I could see Jesus slowly dying in him, helpless with him. There’s nothing to say, or do. You just stay with him. Emmanuel. Mane nobiscum, Domine, quoniam advesperascit, “Stay with us, O Lord, for evening comes…” (Luke 24:29). That’s our faith. It’s awesome. So much pain without hope in the world. If only Catholics knew this and lived the Gospel, this Gospel, what a different world we’d have.

Someone was telling me recently about the elaborate strategic plan their parish had devised .. I know you have to be prudent and plan and make it all practical; I get that … but I said to him, “That’s all fine, but don’t forget we have to start by reading the Gospel! The Gospel is where it’s at. It’s all there. The whole strategic plan of God.”

That last quote totally reminded me of a line in St. John Paul II’s Novo Millenio Inuente, where he says in #29:

“I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). This assurance, dear brothers and sisters, has accompanied the Church for two thousand years, and has now been renewed in our hearts by the celebration of the Jubilee. From it we must gain new impetus in Christian living, making it the force which inspires our journey of faith. Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37).

We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!

It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new program”. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This program for all times is our program for the Third Millennium.

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

Re-post from 2013, with the addition of a 1 minute video a friend sent that relates to this post. But first, let me share with you a recording of my wife singing during yesterday’s Annunciation feast at our daughter’s all-school Mass. She is mortified when I do this, but that’s too bad. You see, I teach about God, but she sings to Him. She has the greater calling. Click here if you want to listen, and here are the words of the text:

Here am I, O God,
I come to do Your will
Here am I,
I come to do Your will

I’ve waited for you and you heard me, O God.
You have put a new song in my mouth.
A hymn of praise to the God of my salvation.

You opened my ear to your word, O God.
You take no delight in empty sacrifice.
To do your will, is my life and my delight, O God.

I sing of your justice, I sing of your peace.
I sing of your faithfulness and love.
I chant your praise in the midst of all your people.

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I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. What great pleasure I take in reading his celebration of the English language that requires me to have my dictionary always at hand! I wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me beg you to believe me when I say it’s worth the effort…

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection — resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence — is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

Watch here: