It has been interesting to note what other people are reading during the lockdown. One friend, facing with an unusual amount of leisure, is tackling Vasily Grossman’s long novel, Life and Fate; another has turned, inexplicably in my view, to Arnold Bennett. Others are taking refuge in escapist literature, such as Tolkien’s epic or Wodehouse’s endlessly funny alternative version of Eden.
I can’t read novels at the moment. Over Easter I re-read some of the chapters in Lord Teach us to Pray: An Anthology; the writings of the late Fulton J Sheen, compiled by Al Smith (Sophia Institute Press). On the evening of last Maundy Thursday I read from “The Holy Hour: Meditations and Reflections”, in which Sheen lists ten reasons why we should try to spend an hour a day (as he did, from the day of his ordination) alone with Christ. He asks, why is this so necessary – and answers “Because we are living on the surface of our souls”; a comment so simple and yet so profound that one could spend an hour meditating on that alone. His other reasons include that Our Lord has appealed for it and that “It helps us to make reparation for the sins of the world and our own sins.”
On Good Friday I read the chapter, “The Seven Last Words”, taken from The Catholic Hour, a radio address broadcast by Sheen on Good Friday 1935. One of the reasons Sheen is so often quoted is his knack for articulating an arresting thought in a few well-chosen words. This from “To the Good Thief” reminds us that “There is no hope like the hope the thief gives us: paradise may still be stolen.” Or this from “I thirst”: “I thirst for you because your love of this world needs my love of heaven”. Or from “It is consummated”: “The world is full of half-crucified souls. Few there are who stay until the very end.” By this last I take Sheen to mean those who come down from the cross of their own personal suffering because they can’t bear it any longer – not realising that if they struggle to stay the course Christ stays with them.
Alongside Sheen I have been re-reading The Captive Mind, the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s study of how the minds of East European intellectuals were gradually corrupted by Communism when the Russians occupied their countries at the end of the last war. It reminds one of the slowly boiled frog, gradually introduced to ever hotter water, showing how hard it is to retain the courage not to yield one’s inner integrity for the sake of survival. Milosz himself stuck it out as a member of the Polish Foreign Service between 1946 and 1951; then, disillusioned with “The New Faith” as he called it, he defected to the West when a cultural attache in Paris. This book was published in 1953.
As he notes, forcing oneself to agree with what one knows to be a lie induces a kind of mental schizophrenia. And, surveying the West’s attitude towards Communism, he comments “One does not defeat a Messiah with common-sense arguments.” All this might now seem dated, given the collapse of Communism in 1989, but Milosz’s arguments have universal application, leading one back to Fulton Sheen’s reflections: if we don’t want to live on the surface of our souls, to whom do we turn? No political philosophy, good or bad, can ultimately satisfy the human yearning for truth.