IF I FORGET THEE, O JERUSALEM
“Without memory there is no culture. Without memory there would be no civilization, no society, no future.… That is my major preoccupation, memory, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom, and serve it.”
At night, looking North Along The coast from jaffa, the Tel Aviv skyline rises out of the sea like a circus of light against a black sky. Termed “the Mediterranean capital of cool” by the New York Times, the city is Israel’s economic and creative nerve center, a brash sibling to its elder brother, Jerusalem, just forty-five miles up the road.
The average age of Tel Aviv’s populace in 2019 was thirty. A flourishing social life fuels five-star restaurants and hotels. Foreign embassies and government offices dot the streets. High rises of steel and glass shape the horizon. Violent crime is rare. In a region of chronic conflict, the city is remarkably safe. Greater Tel Aviv enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East.
Its founders would be proud. They built better than they knew.
Tel Aviv-Yafo, the city’s full name, began as an empty sand dune and sixty Jewish families. The year was 1909. Tired of the crowding in nearby Jaffa (“Yafo” in Hebrew), the families moved outside the ancient town. They set about creating, from nothing, a modern, self-run Jewish community, the seed of a new Israel. They designed it on a modern urban model. It had proper streets, sanitation, and construction. And their labors took root. Inspired in part by the dream of a revived Jewish nation in the historic Jewish homeland, they committed themselves to building a source of hope for Jews everywhere. After Israel declared independence in 1948, Tel Aviv annexed largely Arab Jaffa in 1950.
The key to Tel Aviv’s DNA is its pride in a new Israeli identity. It rejects any captivity to the past. Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, keeps alive the memory of Jewish suffering at the hands of a hostile world, especially in the Shoah. But Tel Aviv is young. It turns itself firmly toward the future.
The trouble with the future, though, is that it’s tied inescapably to the past. It grows from our choices and actions here and now. The future gestates in the present, and the present is formed by the past. Jaffa, the womb that birthed Israel’s “capital of cool,” is vastly older than Tel Aviv. Humans have lived in the place now known as Jaffa for 3,500 years.
Jonah set sail for Tarshish from Jaffa in his flight from God. Solomon brought cedars from Lebanon through Jaffa’s port in building the First Temple. Peter healed Dorcas in Jaffa and had the vision that convinced him to preach to gentiles. Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim caliphates, Crusaders, Turks, French, British: All have ruled here. All have disappeared into history. All have added to the weight of the past.
As in Jaffa, so throughout Israel—or Palestine, or the Holy Land; the name itself is a source of friction. It varies according to how one views this small strip of geography at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Trade routes have curved along the coast here for millennia, like arteries feeding the limbs of a body. So too have armies. Sometimes their goal has been wealth; sometimes imperial ambition. But something more precious than gold is in the soil here, especially in Jerusalem. The land is God-haunted, soaked in meaning and often in blood. It is qadosh, the Hebrew word for “other than,” set apart, sacred. Both Jews and Palestinians see this geography as their home. Both have arguable claims. But their political conflict is compounded by a religious history thick with rival notions of purpose and destiny.
Americans tend to be bad at history. We’re a nation founded as a novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. Israel is different. In Israel, the past is a living force.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, marveled at his people’s—the Jewish people’s—profound “desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.”1 For Jews, modern Israel incarnates the biblical Promised Land. Jerusalem is Israel’s historic capital and Judaism’s sacred city, immortalized in the longing of Psalm 137: If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. And the Temple Mount is Jerusalem’s holiest site. Solomon built the First Temple here nine hundred years before Christ. The Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BC. Rebuilt in 516 BC, the Second Temple was enlarged by Herod the Great in the decades before the birth of Jesus. The Romans leveled it in AD 70, during the First Jewish Revolt. They then destroyed the city and exiled its people during a second revolt some sixty years later.
After AD 70, Jewish religion shifted from temple worship to synagogue. But Jerusalem’s Western Wall—the only surviving remnant of the Second Temple—is a site of constant pilgrimage. To this day, at the heart of the Temple Mount lies a rock known as the Foundation Stone. In Jewish tradition, this rock is where heaven and earth meet. It’s where God began the creation of the world, and where Abraham tried to sacrifice his son. And therein lies a problem, both political and religious. Because the stone sits under the Dome of the Rock.
Built in AD 691, after the Muslim conquest, the Dome of the Rock is one of Islam’s most sacred sites. Like the Jews, Muslims see the Foundation Stone as the place where God set creation in motion. But they also revere it as the spot where Muhammad began his Night Journey to heaven. The Al-Aqsa mosque, also on the Temple Mount, is linked to the same belief. The result of these conflicting claims for the Mount is a chronic state of tension with political implications and no solution.
And then, of course, there are we Christians.
The land now ruled by Israel and the Palestinian Authority includes Bethlehem, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, where he grew to adulthood; and all of the towns and villages where he preached, healed, and taught. In Jerusalem he was circumcised as an infant and visited with his family as a child. It’s where he wept over the city, taught in the Temple, and harried the moneychangers. He ate the Last Supper there with his apostles, prayed and suffered arrest in Gethsemane, was judged by Pilate, was scourged and crucified, and died. And in Jerusalem, he rose from the dead.
Every day of the year, pilgrims choke the city. The Christian population has dwindled here and across the Middle East due to war and persecution. But the Holy Land has a uniquely strong pull on the global Christian community. The pull is so strong that it can trigger a peculiar mental state: Jerusalem syndrome.2 Israeli authorities report about fifty cases each year of visitors who suddenly believe they’re King David, or John the Baptist, or Mary about to give birth to the Messiah. These are aberrations. But the yearning to touch the supernatural, the hunger to be in the presence of the eternal, is buried deep in human nature. Thus the holy sites have been a magnet since the earliest days of the Church. The evidence is everywhere: strewn about the land are reminders of the Holy Land’s holy wars—Jewish, Muslim, and finally Christian.
In 1095, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade. His goals were simple: to aid the Byzantine Empire; to free the Holy Land from Muslim control; and to protect Christian pilgrims, who were often murdered or enslaved. As the great Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith noted, motives for joining the Crusade were often a mix of Godly and baser appetites. But the main spirit was intensely religious—for the Crusade’s leaders and faithful, it was an “armed pilgrimage.”3
It’s hard for many moderns to understand the scope of the Crusade enterprise, the sincerity of its purpose, or the sacrifices required. Men walked, starved, and fought their way for four years across three thousand miles of alien terrain and climate, against great odds, to finally retake Jerusalem, Jaffa, and other cities of the Levant in 1099. Warfare of the time involved fierce brutality on all sides. Suffering on the march was intense. Disease was chronic. Confusion and fear were constant. Many thousands died on the way. Few saw any material gain. Most returned home in poor health and penniless. And all risked their lives, at least in part, for things with no monetary value: the remission of sins, the defense of fellow believers, and a passion for their faith and the honor of God.
Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land: The names differ. The claims differ. They share a present—sometimes glittering, too often painful—that sits atop very different versions of the past. But it’s a past oddly uniform in its memories of things worth dying for.
* * *
IN THE FALL of 2019, just before starting these pages, I turned seventy-five. For bishops in the Catholic Church, that marks retirement age. As canon law requires, I offered my resignation to the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
It was a curious moment. Maybe endings always are. Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and memory is the tool for the task. It’s the diary of our experiences and their lessons. One of the great blessings in my life was to serve, for a time, as bishop of Rapid City, in South Dakota, then Denver, and finally Philadelphia. Each of those communities is a great city. Each lives in my memory. Stepping down from that kind of life-giving work brings with it feelings of both gratitude and nostalgia.
The good news about turning seventy-five is the time that becomes available for rest and reflection. The not-so-good news is what sooner or later comes after it. By a person’s mid-seventies, the road of life in the rearview mirror is a lot longer than the road ahead. A theme like “things worth dying for” takes on some special urgency. As a sardonic friend likes to say, dying is a one-way off-ramp.
Or that’s one way of looking at it. My own feelings are rather different.
My dad was a mortician in a small Kansas town. As a family, we knew and were known by nearly every other family in the community. Many were warm friends. Home was a good place with a lot of happiness. We lived upstairs from the funeral parlor, and for me, that never seemed strange. As I grew older, I would, on occasion, help my father receive the deceased. In our home, death and all of the complex emotions that surround it were a natural part of living. There was nothing dark about it. Death in the community mirrored the cycle of seasons and farming all around us. I learned early, by seeing very intimately, the beauty and sacredness of life, and also its fragility. I learned that mourning is a good thing. It acknowledges that someone unique and unrepeatable has left the world; a life filled with its own universe of joys, sufferings, and loves has passed; a life once linked vividly to so many others is now sustained only in memory.
I also learned, from my parents and many others, that death isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. God and his mercy are real.
Time has a purpose. The meaning of a sentence becomes clear when we put a period at the end of it. The same applies to life. When we talk about things worth dying for, we’re really talking about the things worth living for, the things that give life beauty and meaning. Thinking a little about our mortality puts the world in perspective. It helps us see what matters, and also the foolishness of things that, finally, don’t matter. Your hearse, as my father might say, won’t have a luggage rack.
Thus this book: less a methodical argument or work of scholarship, more a collection of thoughts on a theme that seems to grow in importance along with the years. There are two great temptations that I’ve seen people struggle with over my lifetime. The first is to try to create life’s meaning for themselves, which translates in the end to no meaning at all. The second is to live and die for the wrong meaning, the wrong cause, the wrong purpose. The world is full of disguised and treasonous little gods that demand our full attention and in the end betray our deepest longings. But there is only one god, the God of Israel. And only in him, as Augustine said 1,600 years ago, can our hearts finally rest. So we begin.
Socrates was one of history’s greatest minds. He’s often seen as the founder of the Western ethical tradition. He said that his philosophizing was best understood as a preparation for dying. It sounds like an odd claim, but it makes perfect sense. He had a passion for truth telling, for the wisdom that comes from it, and for the life of integrity that results. The very word “philosophy” captures his love for truth. It ties philia, the Greek word for “friendship-love,” to sophia, which means “wisdom.” Socrates didn’t “study” wisdom. He pursued it as the framework of his life. He loved it as a friend.
Love is demanding. It draws us outside ourselves. The more we love, the greater our willingness to sacrifice. When we know, honestly, what we’re willing to sacrifice for, even to die for, we can see the true nature of our loves. And that tells us who we really are.
We’re surrounded by examples. Families, at their best, are an exercise in self-denial for those we love. An extreme and heroic example is the Jewish mothers and fathers during the Holocaust who gave their children away to Christian families to save them. They knew the cost of that sacrifice. To offer a more common example: even with the power of modern medicine, every woman who bears a child puts her life on the line. And raising children always requires sacrifices from parents in time, attention, and resources.
Instinct obviously plays a big role in the bond between parent and child. When viewed from the outside, this can make the sacrifices in a family seem “easy.” That’s because for most people they come naturally. But it’s also important to note that as religious belief recedes, and communities of faith decline, the individualism at the heart of modern societies becomes more selfish and corrosive. It breaks down even family bonds. It tempts parents to treat their children as ornaments, or, even worse, as burdens. It also saps the ties between grown children and their parents—who, as they age, can often become dependent, and thus a heavy expense in time and resources.
Another example: Friendship is generally a milder form of love than family, and the notion of dying for a friend might seem remote. But as Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). History is full of stories of soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way to save their comrades. And all true friendship requires a readiness to die—if not literally, then in the sense of dying to ourselves, dying to our impatience and our reluctance to make sacrifices for others. The willingness to be with our friends when they’re not easily lovable, to accompany them in their neediness or to share in their suffering: this is the test of true friendship.
Yet another example is the love of honor. The legends and myths of antiquity often hinge on it. In The Iliad, one of history’s great epic poems, Achilles withdraws from the Greek army because its leader, Agamemnon, has offended his honor. For centuries men dueled to the death to defend their honor. Women too struggled to prevent their honor from being violated. Protecting one’s honor is something that untold thousands have been willing to die for.
“Honor” is a word that can seem theatrical or outdated to the modern ear. But that’s simply a defect of our times. Honor is profoundly important. We expect it from others, and we want it for ourselves. It’s linked to the idea of dignity or integrity. When a man stays faithful to his wife, he honors his wedding covenant and secures the integrity of his marriage. The same goes for our deepest convictions: they also need to be honored. We all have a hunger—even when we fail at it—to live as honorable people, people of principle willing to speak for what we know to be right and true.
The novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are filled with people who strive to live honorably in the toxic world of Soviet communism. A gulag survivor himself, his work echoes with disgust for cowards and flunkies, and with reverence for persons who honor their consciences even when doing so risks dying. The settings for his novels are bleak, and today the great murder regimes of the last century are history. Their perils can seem remote. But wickedness, like a virus, has a genius for mutating into new and appealing forms, and Solzhenitsyn’s themes are still instructive. Evil is real, even when it’s masked by soothing words and excellent marketing. Thus it’s always vital to honor our convictions. And doing so usually has a cost.
We live in a time of vindictive political discourse on matters ranging from sex to the meaning of our national history. Our politics often seems gripped with amnesia about the price in human suffering extracted by the bitter social experiments and poisonous Big Ideas of the last century—always in the name of progress and equality.
Obviously our courage needs to be guided by prudence. In the early years of Christianity, the faithful suffered waves of persecution. Church Fathers criticized those who were too eager for martyrdom. The account of St. Polycarp’s martyrdom tells us that, at the urging of friends, he initially withdrew from his city to avoid the civic leaders who required Christians to offer sacrifice to pagan gods. Polycarp’s discretion is contrasted with the actions of a man who was foolishly eager to defy the authorities as a show of faith. Polycarp, not the rash man, is advanced as the right model of faith.
Life—all life, no matter how poor, infirm, unborn, or disabled—is a precious gift. We should never unwisely risk it. The same can be said for professional success, or even just the ordinary good of earning a decent living and providing for a family. Avoiding situations that force us to state our convictions can sometimes be the prudent course of action.
But we need to be careful. The key word in that sentence is “sometimes.” Cowardice is very good at hiding behind prudence. Too often we twist ourselves to suit what we think is approved behavior or thought. We muffle our beliefs to avoid being the targets of contempt. Over time, a legitimate exercise of prudence can degrade into a habit that soils the soul. No person of integrity betrays his or her convictions; mouthing lies we know to be lies murders us inwardly. Even silence, which is sometimes prudent, can poison our integrity if it becomes a standard way to avoid the consequences of what we claim to believe. Jesus urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love can never involve accepting or joining in the evil of others. The self-love proper for a Christian includes the love of personal honor, the kind that comes from living with integrity in a world that would have us betray our convictions.
* * *
FAMILY, FRIENDS, HONOR, and integrity: these are natural loves. Throughout history, men and women have been willing to live and die for these loves. But as Christians we know that all human loves, like the human instinct for beauty, flow from the Author of love, from the heart of God himself. Thus the highest, purest, supernatural love is love for God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as his Son. For this reason, St. Polycarp, for all his caution and prudence, eventually did choose martyrdom rather than compromise his Christian faith.
The issue at hand in these pages is this: Are we really willing to do the same, to follow the example of Polycarp—to be “martyrs” and public witnesses to our faith—and if so, how must we live to prove it? These are serious questions. They’re brutally real. Right now Christians in countries around the world are facing the choice of Jesus Christ or death. The German novelist Martin Mosebach published an account of twenty-one migrant workers in Libya who were kidnapped by Muslim extremists in 2015 and beheaded for their faith.4 Twenty were Coptic Christians from Egypt. One was another African who refused to part from his brothers in the faith.
The murder of those twenty-one men was captured on video. It’s hard to watch—not just because the act is barbaric but also because, in our hearts, we fear that, faced with the same choice, we might betray our faith to save our lives. Put bluntly, the martyrs, both ancient and modern, frighten us as much as they inspire us. And maybe this makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s a version of the biblical principle that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of martyrdom is the start of an honest appraisal of our own spiritual mediocrity.
So we should ponder this fear more deeply, rather than repressing it, as we so often do.
The Christian men beheaded on a Libyan beach are not so remote from us. The worry we naturally feel, that we might fail a similar test, is a concrete version of the anxiety we rightly feel when we think about coming before the judgment of God. If we’re honest, we know that we’re likely to fail that test too. We’re barely able to live up to the basic demands of the Ten Commandments. Many of us have trouble following even the minimal norms of a Catholic life: regular confession and Mass attendance, kindness to others, and a few minutes of daily prayer. If those simple things are struggles, how can we possibly have the courage to face martyrdom? Or the judgment of a just God?
The Christian faith we share doesn’t deny or excuse our failures. Sin is serious. It separates us from God and requires conversion. The Church calls us to repentance. But in doing so as a mother, she wants us to see that our hope lies not in our own strength but in the unrelenting fidelity of God’s love. As St. Paul says in one of Scripture’s most moving passages, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39).
What I’ve learned looking back on my life is that all of us, in all of our strengths and weaknesses, are powerless to defeat God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Our flaws, our mistakes, our mediocrity, even our most ingenious acts of self-sabotage—all are impotent to part us from God’s love, if we turn to him with an open and humble heart. For this reason, the martyrs do not bear witness to their own moral strength as remarkable men and women. They point instead to the relentless love God has for each of us in Jesus Christ. As the Preface for Holy Martyrs reads:
For you [God] are glorified when your saints are praised; their very sufferings are but wonders of your might:
In your mercy you give ardor to their faith,
to their endurance you grant firm resolve,
and in their struggle the victory is yours,
through Christ our Lord.
What that means is this: those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life’s ending, no matter how extreme the test.
Grace illuminates nature. The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us to better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor, and integrity. The power of these loves—a power so great that we can live and die to remain true to them—doesn’t come from within. A mother doesn’t conjure love for her child out of her inner emotional resources. The same holds true for friends, honor, and integrity. Love’s power draws us out of ourselves. It comes from what is loved, not the one who loves. Created in the image of God, the unborn child is worthy of a mother’s love. It’s the worthiness of what we love, its lovability, that enables us to sacrifice time, comfort, wealth, success, and even our lives.
Those of us in the so-called developed nations, even in the midst of our many challenges, live in an era of stunning wealth. For many of us, the entire globe is open to travel. To a degree unimaginable in earlier ages, many of us can choose our own path in life or even reinvent our identity. As a culture, we seem to float in a fluid world of limitless choice. This can seem like a blessing, but it often turns out to be a curse. That’s because only a life without weight, without substance, can float.
The most telling feature of our era is that it weakens bonds. It curves us in upon ourselves. It seduces us to live without love. We’re smothered in sweet-sounding slogans like “Love wins” and “Hate has no home here.” But so often these words are merely masks for resentment, weapons in a culture war filled with more poison than honesty. We’re promised celebrity on social media; escape through our products, technologies, and travel; and riches by virtue of professional success. But we’re not really allowed to love. Authentic love turns us away from ourselves and toward the Other. It’s ordered to truth: the truth about human beings, human nature, and Creation. It’s demanding and self-denying. It anchors us to realities that are deeply human, deeply rewarding, and the deepest sources of joy—but also inconvenient and easily seen as burdens.
It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to ask what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even pose that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age. And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who—with God’s help—will someday redeem a late-modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.
* * *
AN ARCHAEOLOGIST ONCE quipped that digging in the soil of the Holy Land is as delicate as brain surgery. It can enrich our understanding of the past, and therefore of ourselves. It can also threaten both. The memory of a religion or a people, like the memory of a person, gives shape and purpose to life. The Holy Land is filled with sites revered by three great religions and central to their identities. Some sites have pious tradition for support. Others have hard evidence.
Over the millennia, the original site of King David’s biblical capital was lost as Jerusalem grew, was destroyed, and grew again. In the late nineteenth century, excavations to search for it began on a ridge just south of the Temple Mount. The location was an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem now known as Wadi Hilweh. After Israel took control of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, archaeological digs sharply increased. And with them, so did tensions between Arabs and Jews. Today Wadi Hilweh shares its soil uneasily with Israel’s City of David National Park. The site is a treasure trove of Jewish history and a global tourist attraction. Its ancient ruins and artifacts are stunning.
Even more striking is the work underground. The great Pilgrimage Road that linked the Pool of Siloam, where Jewish pilgrims ritually purified themselves, with Herod’s Second Temple was discovered, cleared, and restored. The importance of the find can’t be overstated. This was the main thoroughfare of Jewish worship in Roman times, six hundred meters long and eight meters wide. Jesus walked this road, both as a child and as a man. So did his family. So did his disciples and friends. But these wonderful discoveries also pose a problem. The City of David’s priceless excavations damage the equally precious Arab homes above them. And many Arab families see the project as a threat to their own long religious roots and an effort to “Judaize” their community.
In a skeptical age, the “Holy” Land can seem like an icon of unholiness—with religion the villain at its root.
The late British scholar and skeptic J. H. Plumb, like many in his discipline, argued that the historian’s purpose is “to see things [in the past] as they really were.”5 Much of the past, he believed, is framed in fabricated storytelling. Real history is thus “basically destructive.” Celebrated and influential in his time (he died in 2001), Plumb had little use for grand narratives or the claims of any religion. He saw all past systems of belief as mythologies used to justify power and dominate others. For Plumb, history should be liberated from inherited prejudices. It should destroy illusions. As a tool of social science, it should weaken the imagined past with the hard reality of facts, undermining the stories told by earlier generations to interpret the purpose of life in historical terms.
History, he claimed, “is not the past.” Rather:
The past is always a created ideology with a purpose, designed to control individuals, or motivate societies, or inspire classes. Nothing has been so corruptly used as concepts of the past. The future of history and historians is to cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visons of a purposeful past [that have so often been used for] the subjection and exploitation of men and women, to torture them with fears, or to stifle them with a sense of their own hopelessness. The past has only served the few; perhaps history may serve the multitude.
And yet, despite his views, Plumb had a grudging respect for the legacy of Jews and Christians. These particular believers “gave a new significance to life.” They trusted in an unfolding human destiny. They worked a revolution in human thought and culture “more dramatic, more far-reaching, more absolute, than that experienced by any other great civilization.” Plumb feared that many of his own secular colleagues, in contrast, had taken refuge in the meaninglessness of history. He saw that destroying the coherence of the past could cause a paralysis in social matters. He knew that humans “need a compulsive sense of the value of man’s past,” not only for themselves as persons but also for the world at large.
In the end, Plumb’s distaste for what he called the “old past” was largely a dislike for the Christian content that filled so much of it with purpose and shaped it so deeply. In its place, he hoped history would “step into its shoes, help to sustain man’s confidence in his destiny, and create for us a new past as true, as exact, as we can make it, that will help us achieve our identity not as Americans or Russians, Chinese or Britons, black or white, rich or poor, but as men.”
On the question of how a “basically destructive” tool might build that new destiny, Plumb remained silent.
Which brings us to another, more immediate question: What do all these words about memory and the past have to do with you and me? As a historian, Plumb granted, reluctantly, that “the Christian myth dies hard.” He saw that as a problem, as irritating rubble on the road to a better future. But in reality, the “Christian myth” dies hard for a reason.
Like Plumb, C. S. Lewis in his atheist days felt that all religions were essentially myths about who we are and why we’re here. For Lewis, all myths were lies—at their best, beautiful lies “breathed through silver.”6 It was his friend and fellow scholar J. R. R. Tolkien who showed him that truth exists whether we like it or not, that truth is always more than a bare collection of facts, that myths can sometimes be true, and that one very particular myth actually happened and was Truth incarnate.
Jesus of Nazareth really did live. He was a man in history, a man of flesh and blood, not a legend but vastly more than one. He preached and taught and healed in the land we call “holy,” just as the Gospels say he did. He really was the Christos, the Anointed One, the Messiah. He really did suffer and die and rise for us. And the proof is the fire he left in the hearts of those who knew him, a passion that reworked the course of the world. When he took Jerusalem’s Pilgrimage Road for the last time, riding a donkey and cheered by a mob, Jesus knew the malice, betrayal, and crucifixion that awaited him. He knew that some in the same mob would very soon call for his death. Many others would see no meaning in his sacrifice. And yet he still gave his life for us, out of love for us. In the mind of Jesus, we—despite ourselves, despite our failures, despite the confused creatures we so often are—were worth dying for.
And since that’s so, and if we mean what we say when we call ourselves Christians, surely we can at least try to live and die for others.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. The French mystic Simone Weil once said that “the destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”7 Along with all of its achievements, the world we’ve built ensnares us today in a permanent present, a narcotic cocoon of distractions and appetites, here and now. It erases our past. It makes us forget. It steals the memory of who we are as Christians and why we’re in the world.
St. Paul tells us that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control. Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord … but take your share of suffering for the Gospel in the power of God” (2 Tim 1:7–8). As Christians, we have a future because we have a purpose and a destiny beyond ourselves, a mission passed down to us to renew the face of the earth with God’s love through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to reclaim those gifts—each of us in our own lives as individuals, and together as a Church. And this means that as believers we can expect a difficult road in the years ahead on a whole range of issues. There can be no concordat between the Christian understanding of human identity, dignity, and sexuality and the contempt directed at our beliefs by so much of our emerging culture. The world and its hatreds won’t allow it.
The structure of the pages ahead is simple.
Chapter 2 speaks to how we should think about death and the verdict it passes on the lives we live. Chapter 3 examines the culture we have now—a culture of irony soured into cynicism, a culture of deriding and refusing the questions that death raises, and the desert of meaning that results. Chapter 4 is about the Author of our lives, the true God and our source of meaning, and our chronic temptation to evade him. Chapters 5 through 8 examine the things—sometimes ennobling, sometimes idolatrous—that so many of us consider worth living for and dying for: nation, ideas and ideologies, family and loved ones, and the Church herself. Chapter 9 speaks to the nature of our earthly pilgrimage and the “four last things” we each inevitably face. And an afterword reflects on friendship: friendship with God and friendship with each other—the essence of Christian life, and a foretaste of the life to come.
My thoughts these days often turn to the author and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien. The drama of the Christian story shaped everything Tolkien wrote; the intensity of his Catholic faith grounded his entire life and genius. Near the end of The Two Towers, the second volume of Tolkien’s great Lord of the Rings trilogy, Samwise Gamgee says, “The great tales never end, do they, Mr. Frodo?” And Frodo answers, “No, they never end as tales, but the people in them come and go as their part’s ended.”8
At seventy-five, my part in the tale is ending. But the Church, her mission, and the Christian story we all share: these go on. And so the greatest blessing I can wish for those who might one day read these words is that you take up your part in the tale with all the energy and fire in your hearts. Because it’s a life worth living.
Copyright © 2021 by Charles J. Chaput.