Why do young people leave the Faith? I was asked that question the other day, and I replied, off the cuff, that it was two things: Their imaginations had not been formed by the Faith and our magnificent heritage of arts and letters, and they wanted to have sex.
Most of the reasons that people give are either variations of the first, or excuses for the second. The latter make no sense. For example, people will say that they had to leave the Faith because some priests did the same evil things with children that some people from every other line of work have done. It is as if you said, “Because that filthy vicious traitor stabbed Christ in the back, I’m going to do it, too, but I’ll be nicer about it and won’t use a knife.”
Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. In a world formed by the Christian faith, it might be well to ask why anyone would leave. It would be like turning away from Chartres to go make houses of mud. It would be like rejecting Bach to listen to crows. In this world, formed by the engines of mass entertainment—I used to add “mass schooling,” “mass marketing,” and “mass politics” to that phrase, but I see that they are all forms of the same thing—the question to ask is why anyone would stay. We should perhaps assume the worst, that is, that unless we are as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, they are going to leave. That is the default. Of course, our hierarchs as a group have not been as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Some of them, prostrating themselves before the political and sexual idols of the age, have been as wise as pigeons and as innocent as snakes.
From this point, we could with profit launch out in a number of directions. I will choose one direction today. In a room of ten or twelve adults, there should be a strong chance that the priest is the most broadly learned of them all.
I am looking at a copy of The English Hymnal (1933), and I am struck by how much the editors assume the rector and the cantor will know or might like to pursue. There is, for instance, an Index of Original First Lines of Translated Hymns, and the list is huge, made up of the following numbers of hymns from each language represented:
The names of the Greek hymns are printed in the Greek alphabet. Those in German are printed in Gothic script. The one in Russian is in the Cyrillic alphabet. The one in Irish is in Gaelic script. Those in Syriac are in Aramaic cursive.
Why would you have such an index? Only if you believe that the priest, for his homily, might want to hunt down the original text of the hymn he or the cantor has chosen for the service so as to link it up with the readings for the day. Or maybe the cantor and the choir might want to sing the hymn in the original. Or you know the hymn already in the original, and you want to hunt down its translation in the hymnal, if it is there. You say, “Where is the Te lucis ante terminum?”—the traditional hymn for Compline. You say, “Where is Christe, sanctorum decus Angelorum?”—because the Sunday happens also to be the feast of Saint Michael. The point is that you know things. You are in conversation with two thousand years of Christian poetry, liturgy, and hymnody. Ambrose, Prudentius, Bede, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Coffin, Dr. Watts, the Wesleys, and John Henry Newman are your contemporaries, because you are not trammeled up within the termini of this age.
We must always keep in mind that knowledge is powerfully attractive but also frightening, especially for the timid and easily directed souls that the engines of the masses help to make of us. The Evil One will tempt the young soul with what appears to be a higher knowledge than that of the Faith but is really a tissue of clichés, half-truths, misdirection, and intellectual dullness, sprinkled with the salt of apparent (but hardly genuine) rebelliousness and sexual delight (which itself will soon disillusion and disappoint). To snatch that weapon from his hands, we and our leaders should be in continual conversation with the titans, not to show off, but to invite and lead young people to the place where profound and beautiful things are, where, without having to point it out, we make the lame objections of the atheist seem old and tired, as in fact they are, and we show up the “edgy” and “new” and “bold” in contemporary art and social mores as dull, old, and craven, as in fact they are, too.
When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, I held on to the Faith as someone grabs onto a small jut of rock on the side of a cliff. I had had twelve years of Catholic school, and I knew absolutely nothing about Saint Augustine, or even of the patron of my home parish, Thomas Aquinas. When I first read the Confessions, I was astounded. Here was someone, sixteen hundred years ago, speaking about the nature of time, of primal matter, and of what it means for God to create, as well as how to interpret with subtlety and philosophical depth the first few sentences of Genesis. It was as if he had been standing by when the physicist Father Georges Lemaitre, of whom I had also never heard, was discussing with his friend Albert Einstein his theory regarding the origin of the universe. The book changed my life.
It was an invitation into an unexplored world of ideas, led by one of the mightiest intellects that ever lived. But Augustine was not the only porter at the gates of a real human life, a real life of heart and soul and mind. Shakespeare, that deeply Christian and clandestinely Catholic playwright, the greatest literary genius of them all, he, too, was there at the gates with his stories—and stories are always more powerful than abstractions, as they inform the young imagination and give it both direction and the power to go forth. These were the archetypal stories of sinful man in need of a redemption he cannot earn; of ingratitude and repentance; of the self-punishment of the wicked; of grace and forgiveness; of womanly heroines and manly heroes; of the deep goodness of the pure; and of the sanctity of childhood. We have Shakespeare. Why do we not call him from the slumber to which we have given him up?
Caravaggio was also at the gates. I had never heard of the man before I went to Princeton, and I heard of him there only because the man who introduced me to Boccaccio—Robert Hollander—was a great admirer of his work. That Caravaggio did not lead a virtuous life is an understatement. But who else, perhaps, than a man steeped in sin could appreciate the radical call of Christ as He enters a cellar to summon the tax collector Matthew from among his coterie of swindlers and profligates? Who else could give us a Mary Magdalene dolled up in the dress and the rich ornaments of a high-class whore, seated upon her chair in complete sorrow with the tricks of her trade scattered about her, while one tear courses down her cheek? We have Caravaggio, and Rembrandt his follower, and hundreds and hundreds of other artists who were on fire with things to show us, and we have hidden them and their works in an attic, resting silent and cold, to gather spider webs and dead flies and dust.
I teach literature for a living, adding art and music and film when I can. I do not have the privilege of speaking to a congregation about the word of God, although perhaps it is not a privilege but a dread responsibility, because any one passage from the Gospels is too rich for a lifetime of thought. “In the beginning was the Word”—who dares to say he can comprehend it? We do not need to be original, and perhaps we should not even try. We have the titans. Let them come forth to fight and show both young and old where the action is.
Author: Anthony Esolen
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer-in-residence at Northeast Catholic College. Dr Esolen has authored several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008), Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013).