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Of Faith & Futile Horses

Learning to see the hidden greatness in donkeys


A king is not saved by great might, nor shall a giant be saved by the magnitude of his own strength.

Futile is the horse for salvation, nor by the magnitude of his might shall he be saved.

– Psalm 32

In France, I was often introduced as a Christian who had begun life as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, and who was now Orthodox. This fact fascinated folks. Often in the Q&A period that followed my talks, someone would ask me why I had left the Catholic Church (most of the people present were Catholics, I gathered). Here is what I told them. This won’t be news to those who have been reading me carefully over the past few years, but it might be useful to have this stated clearly and in one place for new readers.

We didn’t practice the faith with much seriousness when I was a child. There was never a doubt in our household that God existed, but ours was mostly a cultural Christianity. I lost the faith as a teenager, and only began to take it seriously again after a theophany in the Chartres cathedral at age 17. I began a slow but steady pilgrimage towards a mature faith.

When I was 24 or so, I decided to explore the Catholic faith with an intention of conversion. A Catholic woman at my office heard about this, and invited me to join her one weekend volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen downtown. That sounds very Catholic, I thought. I told her I would do it.

And so, I spent that Saturday afternoon peeling potatoes, scrubbing pots, the usual soup kitchen thing. After it was over, I was rather pleased with my proto-Catholic self. But it occurred to me that in truth, I was more of an intellectual type, and that my time would be better spent reading theology and apologetics. I never went back to the soup kitchen.

I formally entered the Catholic church on Easter Vigil, 1993. I don’t want to overdo this little confession. My conversion was serious and profound. Yet it was shot through with pride, though that was not clear to me at the time. I was proud to be on John Paul II’s side. I was proud to be on Team Neuhaus. And I was proud to be a young journalist in Washington, becoming part of a tribe.

Understand: this says nothing about the pope, Father Neuhaus, or Washington conservatism. This says a lot about the kind of young man I was. I sincerely loved Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith, but my eagerness to be part of what C.S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring” was there at the beginning of my conversion. I was blind to this.

I prayed a lot in those days, and read a lot about the faith. I quickly allowed myself to be swept up in Catholic church politics. If someone would mention a particular bishop to me, my first question was always, “Is he orthodox?” I had to know if they were part of my tribe, or at least an ally. I was ready to argue with anybody about this stuff. Cheering for the right people within the church, and staying mad at the wrong people – for me, that was a much bigger part of my faith life than I realized at the time. It was also true about my politics, but politics didn’t mean nearly as much to me as religion did.

This went on for a while. Eventually I married and moved to New York. Being a media Catholic in New York City gave me an identity that I quickly came to cherish, especially when I was given a column at the New York Post. The highlight of my Catholic life came when the Post sent me to Jerusalem to report on John Paul’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I knew I was witnessing history, and that I was doing so not simply as a journalist, but as a Catholic pilgrim myself.

But it was there that I had my most shameful moment as a Catholic. One afternoon, I stood inside the courtyard of the Latin Patriarchate’s compound, waiting in the crowd for the pope’s motorcade to arrive from Bethlehem. It was taking a while. Surveying the throng, I saw an American cardinal on the far side of the courtyard. I recognized him as one of the Good Guys. I hustled over to him, introduced myself, took his hand and kissed his ring. That’s a perfectly fine thing for a Catholic to do, though certainly old-fashioned and even ostentatious, at least in our culture. I didn’t do it out of genuine respect. I did it because I wanted to demonstrate to this cardinal, and to myself, that I was the kind of Catholic who respected the hierarchy. I wasn’t like those terrible liberal Catholics who would be ashamed to do that.

How lovely it is to be here in Jerusalem, I thought, waiting for the Pope, and to kiss an orthodox cardinal’s ring here in front of everybody else. The idea of it made my heart fill with pride.

The cardinal was Bernard Law of Boston.

A year or so later, in 2001, I wrote my first story on clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. A colleague of mine on the Post news desk and I fell into the story. He was a dogged beat reporter; I was the Catholic who knew my way around theologically. We started unraveling threads in a parish in the Bronx. It quickly spread. Tips started coming in. Then one day we were pulled off the story by our superiors. No reason given. The story got back to me that Cardinal Egan had intervened at a very high level, but I never could prove it.

While I was reporting those stories, I spoke to Father Tom Doyle, the Catholic priest who made a name for himself speaking out for victims and testifying in abuse trials on behalf of those victims and their families. After the interview, he said to me, “You sound like a Catholic who takes his faith seriously. I need to warn you that if you continue going down this path” – of investigation — “you will go to places darker than you can imagine.”

Well, maybe so, I said, but I’m a journalist, I’m a Catholic, and I’m a new father. How can I not pursue this?

“I’m glad you’re doing it,” Father Doyle replied. “I’m just telling you to be ready for what you’re going to encounter.”

I ended up leaving the Post at the end of the year, and moving to National Review. The John Geoghan trial opened in Boston in January. The judge in that case broke precedent, defying the request of the Archdiocese’s lawyers and releasing all trial documents into the public record. That blew the scandal sky-high nationwide. It became a constant source of material for me, not because I took any pleasure writing about it, but because I felt a deep sense of crusading mission to clean this rot out of my church. The more I dug, the more shocked and appalled I was that so many people – so many people – knew what was going on, and had known for years, but done nothing. I wasn’t all that shocked by the sins of the corrupt priests. What shocked me was the behavior of the bishops, and not just the bishops, but laypeople who knew what was happening, but turned a blind eye. Don’t believe for a minute that all of the laity was in the dark. I came to believe in time that a lot of laypeople chose to ignore the signs, because facing reality would have made them responsible for doing something, and that’s not something they wanted to deal with.

Anyway, I was on fire, and especially angry at Cardinal Law, precisely because I had so looked up to him, and to what he represented. I felt wrathful, and the stern talkings-to I received from certain establishment conservative Catholics about my work, and how I was giving aid and comfort to the Church’s enemies by my writing, only made me angrier.

There’s no need to go over the details of how my faith was slowly stripped away from me, like a flaying. I’ve covered that in this space in the past, but let me simply restate here that plunging deep into the details of what exactly was done to little children and to their families, and what precisely bishops, church lawyers, and others did to protect child rapists – well, it destroyed my ability to believe in the integrity of the institutional church.

Three years on, the day came when I simply did not believe any longer that my salvation depended on maintaining communion with the Roman see. I had not seen that coming. Honestly, I hadn’t. I thought my reason would protect me, that it would make my faith invulnerable. That was a fatal self-deception. People who have never gone through a serious trial of faith can’t imagine what it’s like. It’s horrible. It was the worst experience of my life. In 2006, my family and I formally left the Roman Catholic Church and became Orthodox.

I make a point nowadays, when I am asked about this in public, of focusing the blame on myself for what happened to me. I do this not to minimize the egregious sins of Catholic priests, bishops, and others who perpetuated the scandal, but rather to examine the role I played in my own undoing. I’ve been thinking about this for the 11 years I have been an Orthodox Christian, all to keep me from falling victim to the same bad habits.

What happened?

First, my faith was far too intellectual. With my Catholic belief in ruins, I was able to reflect bitterly on the fact that I ought to have spent less time in books and more time in the soup kitchens – that is to say, engaging in practices that sedimented my faith into my bones.

Second – and more difficult to face – was the role pride played in all this. As I said above, I was proud to be a Catholic, for several reasons. For one, I was proud that I was part of the most intellectually deep Christian church, not like those lesser churches. For another, I was proud that I was on the right side within the Catholic Church, not like those dissenters. And for still another, I was proud that I was fully engaged with living my faith out in the public square, both inside and outside the Church, not like those slackers who didn’t seem to care about the struggles. And most broadly, I was just flat-out proud of my identity as a conservative Catholic.

God ground all of that into fine powder. And as much as it hurt, I thank Him for it.

I became Orthodox not because I believed the Orthodox Church was free from corruption, but because I believed it was the only other church that had a strong claim to apostolicity. I came into the Orthodox Church as a survivor of shipwreck. I was exhausted and grateful to have been delivered from that boiling cauldron of anxiety, fear, and wrathfulness that my Catholic faith had become. The real problem wasn’t the Catholic Church; the real problem was me, and my pride. I was determined not to be the kind of Orthodox Christian that I was as a Catholic. Despite one serious stumble, I have managed to succeed so far, not out of any special virtue on my part, but only because of grace, and because I don’t have it within me to idolize bishops or the institutional church as I once did.

As I write this, I am reminded of something a Catholic priest friend once heard an old monsignor say about a group of seminarians going off to study in Rome: “Those poor boys. They leave here in love with Jesus, and come back in love with the Church.” That was me back then, and I didn’t see it happening to me. I didn’t see how much I swooned over the sense of status and power that came with my Catholicism. I didn’t appreciate how much in my mind my particular kind of Catholicism was bound to a kind of political triumphalism of the American Right. It is not a coincidence that my loss of faith in the Republican Party’s competence and integrity dissipated around the time my faith did (the Iraq War played the role of the abuse scandal there). To repeat, my zeal for God was fatally compromised by my zeal to join the Inner Ring. As C.S. Lewis put it:

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.

People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from all the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

Yes. This. As a conservative Catholic who was part of the NYC-DC crowd, I mattered, at least in my own mind. My vanity really was appalling. Once, as a young journalist who had had a little too much to drink, I approached Newt Gingrich at a big hotel dinner and flattered him nauseatingly. Look at me, standing side by side with Speaker Gingrich, changing the world! Look at me, kissing Cardinal Law’s ring in Jerusalem! Et cetera.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with working with a Speaker of the House or a Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. Lewis again:

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an Evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organisation should coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people held the highest spots, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. It is necessary: and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous. As Byron has said:

Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady.

The painless death of a pious relative at an advanced age is not an evil. But an earnest desire for her death on the part of her heirs is not reckoned a proper feeling, and the law frowns on even the gentlest attempts to expedite her departure. Let Inner Rings be unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life, though certainly not a beautiful one: but what of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?

I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable.

I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

I never really penetrated any kind of Inner Ring, but that’s not the point. The point was that I wanted to do so. I really, really did. It’s probably true that one of the main things that infuriated me about the scandal was discovering that the Inner Ring into which I wanted admission, and whose leaders I was eager to serve, were so utterly unworthy. It is a terrible thing to learn that one has compromised one’s own conscience for cretins.

That is my fault, and mine alone.

It is possible to make this mistake as a Protestant, as an Orthodox, as an atheist, as anything. I did it as a Roman Catholic Christian, and paid a terrible price. One of the really helpful things about following the Orthodox way is that it forces you to focus on humility, and gives you the tools to become wary of your own pride (which God will be breaking in me every day of my life, I am sure). Catholicism is not without these resources too, of course. Benedictine spirituality is a treasure trove of them. But you have to want to make use of them.

The allure of the Inner Ring is insidious. I am thinking of a particular holy man, since gone to his reward, who had a reputation for sanctity. He deserved it. But he was also a passionate pursuer of the Inner Ring, and I have personal knowledge of an act he committed to protect a very bad Inner Ringer in the Church from discovery. I’m sure he thought he was doing what needed to be done to protect the institution. Here’s the thing: I could so easily have been that man, and thought myself virtuous for doing the same kind of thing.

And: I am not at all convinced that I couldn’t be that man again. “Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). The moment you think you are free of that temptation, you put yourself in danger.

I’m bringing this all up now in context of my recent Paris trip because events there, and the people I met, made me think of how much genuinely liberating power there is in deciding that you would really rather be a faithful Christian than worry about rising in the world. This is not the same thing as indifference to the fate of the world. It is rather a way of being in the world while guarding against the world being in you. This passage from Gary Saul Morson’s new essay on Solzhenitsyn is worth quoting:

One lesson of Gulag is that we are all capable of evil, just as Solzhenitsyn himself was. The world is not divided into good people like ourselves and evil people who think differently. “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The core chapter of Gulag, entitled “The Ascent,” explains that according to Soviet ideology, absorbed by almost everyone, the only standard of morality is success. If there are no otherworldly truths, then effectiveness in this world is all that counts. That is why the Party is justified in doing anything. For the individual prisoner, this way of thinking entails a willingness to inflict harm on others as a means of survival. Whether to yield to this temptation represents the great moral choice of a prisoner’s life: “From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other descend. If you go the right—you lose your life; and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.”

Some people choose conscience. To do so, they must believe, as Solzhenitsyn came to believe, that the world as described by materialism is only part of reality. In addition, there is, as every religion has insisted, a realm of objective values, which are not mere social constructs. You can’t make the right choice as a postmodernist.

Once you give up survival at any price, “then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in astonishing ways. To transform it in a direction most unexpected to you.” You learn what true friendship is. Sensing your own weakness, you become more forgiving of others and “an understanding mildness” informs your “un-categorical judgments.” As you review your life, and face your bad choices, you gain self-knowledge available in no other way. Above all, you learn that what is most valuable is “the development of the soul.” In the Gulag I nourished my soul, Solzhenitsyn concludes, and so I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

Very few of us will have to suffer anything as brutalizing as the Gulag, heaven knows, but one way or another, we had better learn that there is nothing more important than the soul. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” There is no other way.

As an outsider in France, it was perhaps easier for me to perceive things that are true, or at least coming true, about our own society in America. France is a country where God is dead for most people; the pursuit of money, power, and pleasure rules. And, as the unbelieving writer Michel Houllebecq shows us in his unsparing diagnostic novels, it is a society that is sick unto death. But at least many French Christians — especially of the Millennial generation — are not bound by illusions concerning their relationship to power. They are not deceived by fantasies that sail-trimming winsomeness or making better arguments might win them admission to the Inner Ring. That’s gone. What I saw emerging in France is the church of which one Father Joseph Ratzinger prophesied in 1969:

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

Those Christians who bet on their relationship with presidents, popes, and other powerful horses, will gain nothing worth having — and in our post-Christian settlement, they will likely gain nothing at all. This is a lesson I had to learn in a particularly hard way, but in so doing, I regained a purer love for Jesus Christ as He is present in the hearts and lives of all His people: Catholic, Protestants, and yes, Orthodox. It took falling out of love with the Church to get to this place. I could not really love the Church in a rightly ordered way until I learned to love Christ above all.

Let me leave you with this bit from The Benedict Option:

As the sun went down in the western sky, we spoke once more about the challenge facing orthodox Christians in the West and how daunting it seems. Marco [Sermarini] left me with these unforgettable lines.

“In Italy, we have a saying: ‘When there is no horse, a donkey can do good work.’ I consider myself a little donkey,” he said. “There are so many purebred horses that run nowhere, but this old donkey is getting the job done. You and me, let’s go on doing this job like little donkeys. Don’t forget, it was a donkey that brought Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.”



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