A reading of the “Prelude” of my newly-published novel — the first in a trilogy, set in the “heroic years” of the Reformation in Germany. This is the first of several recordings of the first book of the first volume of that trilogy.
By Christopher Zehnder
The following the second part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You may read the first part here.
The Common Good and Community
Thus we arrive at the common good, which we can define as that matrix of goods that is productive of happiness for man as man. In other words, the common good is good for everyone, no matter who he or she is. Yet, there is another sense in which we can speak of the common good as common. The common good is common, not simply because we all seek it, but because we can only achieve it together, in community. Despite the ideal of the self-sufficient, self-made man, the fellow who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, each of us is really dependent on each other to attain even to the least of the common goods.
This becomes apparent when we consider our marvelous weakness as individuals. A naked human is a very vulnerable creature, and we are born naked. We do not come ready-made with any of those tools other animals have: we don’t have fur coats or feathers, the swift feet of a greyhound, wings to fly, claws for digging like a sloth or clawing like a cat, strong jaws for grinding like a goat. There really is not much to us, on the physical level. Unlike other animals, we are born into a state of utter weakness. As infants, we require the care of others for our very survival – the food, shelter, and warmth necessary for life, the most basic of the common goods. Young children, too, are very helpless. As we grow, we gain in knowledge, experience, and skills; yet, for all of these, we depend for the most part on others. Everything we learn, we learn from others – our parents, primarily, but other adults as well. By these means, we achieve various perfections in the mastery of our bodies and the education of our minds. Yet, even for that rather natural and, as it were, automatic biological perfection – our ability to reproduce ourselves – we must rely on another. To reproduce another of our kind, a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. Without the other, a man cannot be a father or a woman a mother. Continue reading
By Christopher Zehnder
The following is the first part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In our concern for a more just and honorable world, we can easily get distracted by details. Week after week, news stories sting us to anger; or, like the gray skies of late November after the leaf-fall, oppress us with a sense of drear and world-weariness. It all never seems to end. Scandal follows scandal; injustice follows injustice. Rage and passion contend with each other like the wrathful in spirits in l’Inferno that, as the Dante says, in the black, muddy River Styx “smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.” We long for renewal, for an awakened sense of justice, for the righting of present and past wrongs, and for love. But the world today offers none of this to us. Even the Church has hidden her mother’s face from us. Rather, we are forced to look on what seems utter and irrevocable collapse.
This is a cheerful way to begin a talk, no? Yet, though these are not happy words, they are, I think, a true description of the time. And we cannot hide from the truth. Yet, I don’t think these words are the last word; for, if each of us feels this sorrow and helplessness in the face of events, we can trust there are others who feel it, too. We in this room are not alone in seeking for better things – for justice, goodness, humane compassion, a human-scaled world that responds to human need, beauty in creation and art, a restored Christian devotion: in a word, a renewed creation. That others seek these things with us is a sign of hope. Late November does not have the last word. Spring, we can hope, will come.
Yet, if we are to discover where true hope lies, we must cease, as T. S. Eliot put it, to be distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to step out of the rush of events, at least for a little time, and think about what is constant and enduring, rather than what is passing. Only in what is can we, I think, discover the beginnings of a response to the ills that confront us today.
The root of our malaise today can in part be found in a decayed understanding of who we as human persons are and what our relationship is to society, our earth, and, finally, the cosmos itself. We are all seeking for happiness – in the maelstrom of the news cycle and the swirl of events, this remains a constant. We all want happiness, which we know can only be fulfilled by our appropriating the good – what is good for us – for no one desires evil for its own sake. Yet, if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot know what is good for ourselves and, therefore, what will make us happy. And by “us” here, I do not mean us primarily as individuals, but as members of the human family and, even, the wider community of the natural world. Continue reading
This year our family did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Why?
It was not to protest the effects of colonization on Native American peoples, for which, some say, Thanksgiving stands as a symbol. Much less was it out of a spirit of ingratitude toward God for his blessings. Nor was it from an ascetical disgust for feasting and drinking. We Zehnders are no ascetics; it does not take much to lure us to the pleasures of the board and barrel. This year, we in no way eschewed the feasting associated with Thanksgiving; we merely held off on it until the Sunday, which, this year, was the Feast of Christ the King. We even had the traditional turkey, with all the usual side dishes, and apple and pumpkin pie. The wine, beer, and port flowed freely.
But we did not celebrate Thanksgiving.
This was, in fact, the first Thanksgiving we have sat out. In past years, we would gather with family for the day; this year, too, we planned to do the same, until circumstances of a practical nature prevented it. But, when the occasion permitted it; when we had no one else with whom to celebrate the day, when were effectively free to say yea or nay to Thanksgiving, we said nay. Why?
One reason is that I have never quite seen the point of Thanksgiving. I know what it’s supposed to be about –giving thanks to God for all his blessings, but that rationale has long struck me as an excuse for the day, not its real meaning. If Thanksgiving has had anything to do with God, it has been reduced to a curt nod to the Big Guy, soon to be forgotten in the fevered amnesia of the Holiday Buying Season. It seems no accident that Black Friday follows Thanksgiving Thursday – and now Cyber Monday, only two days later. Continue reading
By Christopher Zehnder
What follows comes from my book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For more information on this book, please visit the site of the Catholic Textbook Project.
It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.
Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that in such marriages some children had to be raised Catholic and others, Protestant. This had been the custom in Prussia. The Catholic Church in the Rhineland, said the Prussians, also had to go along with this custom. But, no matter how long-standing the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church—and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.
The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest.
By Christopher Zehnder
I have long been fascinated by folk customs arising out Christian Europe — in part, because their origins often were not Christian, but pagan. The genius of evangelization (I think) was how the Faith could take pagan practices and incorporate them into a Christian ethos. Of course, all elements of pagan superstition were not expunged, for the process of Christianization of whole culture was never complete — how could it be?
An example of such a pagan remnant was the customs surrounding the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). The Church, it seems, placed the feast near the spring equinox, when the days reach the apogee of their lengthening. A most fitting moment for the one who said, of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
In my novel, A Song for Else, I describe the protagonist’s memories of the bonfires ignited on the feast. Here is the excerpt from the book:
Lorenz took the bottle and moved just outside the firelight. He sat down on the cool ground. He drank. He could hear the students wrangling, but he paid them no heed. The wine that now warmed his body was withdrawing it from everything around him. He was there but not there, hovering as it were in a sphere of air that his spirit filled with its own life, forcing out all that was not its own.
He cared nothing for what happened to Holzhaupt. Instead of the tawdry drama working itself out only a few feet from him, Lorenz found himself considering the fire. Its strength was declining; it was beginning to settle itself down in its coals. The orb of light about it was contracting. The fire was losing its battle against the night.
It had only been a fortnight since Lorenz saw fires – far larger than this – burning on the hills that rose above Erfurt. It had been Sankt Johannes’ Eve. The Thuringian peasants danced about the fires, he knew, just as his own people did.
The fire kindled memory. He recalled a Sankt Johannes’ Eve now, it seemed, so many years ago. Inge had placed a purple-flowered garland of verbena and mugwort about his neck; he recalled his delight in the sweet scented blossoms. She handed him a sprig of larkspur. “When you stand before the fire, look at it with this flower before your eyes. It will keep them from failing.” The verbena, he knew, would protect him from witches.