My Irish grandfather, who lived in Cork, used to tell me when I was a child that he was looking forward to the annual Redemptorist mission at his parish. He cheerfully related how the Redemptorists preached hellfire and how much the attendees appreciated their bloodcurdling sermons. This was in the 1950s. I suspect that the Redemptorists preach less fiery missions these days, if indeed they conduct them at all. Looking back to those conversations with my grandfather, I recall that he spoke of these parish missions with pleasure, as if they were much-anticipated horror films; occasions to experience a deliberate theological thrill; to be terrified by speculative torments for an hour or two before returning to the comfort of home, overlooking the River Lee.
These memories have arisen as I have been reading Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness by Fr Dwight Longenecker (Sophia Institute Press.) Like the Redemptorists of old, Fr Longenecker is keen to impress readers with a truth that we often forget: every human being “is fighting either for heaven or for hell”, that Christians are called to be warriors for Christ and that the entire story of salvation is “a cosmic battle.” He is quite right in this, and I am glad that he doesn’t soft-pedal the Christian faith and make it about mere human kindness and niceness to each other.
Nonetheless, in the first part of his book he is so carried away by the appalling pictures of hell that he conjures up, leaning heavily on Greek mythology, the legend of the Minotaur, the Gorgons, and Cerberus, and adding descriptions from Dante’s Inferno as well as the nature of Satan shown by Scripture, that he risks turning the reader into a passive observer of literary thrills – and to switch off. If the author has the ‘average’ reader in mind, this reader will conclude such otherworld horror is so far removed from his own parish life that it is incredible; stirring stuff no doubt – but fantasy.
Longenecker has a tendency in his early chapters to describe mankind (including Christians) as “People of the Lie”, a description taken from a book by the late writer and psychiatrist M Scott Peck. I have read this book, particular case studies of evil as it is manifested in seemingly ordinary lives: individuals caught in the clutches of the “Father of lies”, Satan himself. But it is still a stretch to appear to denounce all of us Christians as trapped in this cosmic deception. Doubtless the Redemptorists hurled the same denunciations from the pulpit in their time. Yet, looking at my fellow Catholics in the pew, I don’t see a bunch of pharisees, hypocrites who think they must be “good”, “nice” people because they are not mass-murderers. I see people struggling with all kinds of crosses, generally cheerfully borne; people leading quiet, unassuming lives of sacrifice, charity and prayer.
This said, I wholly concur with Longenecker’s main thesis: that “The Christian life is a battle, or it is nothing at all. The baptised are warriors and the Church is not mild; it is militant.” He quotes St Therese of Lisieux on her death bed, saying “I will die with my weapons in my hand!” And he is absolutely right to emphasise that to be a Christian warrior we have to recognise our need for the Sacraments; and to practise humility, self-sacrifice and steadfastness. “Nothing great was ever accomplished quickly”, he observes. Do we need our priests to remind us that we are called to sanctity, not comfort, and that this is a daily unstinting struggle? Yes indeed.