Sense and Nonsense: A Good Answer

The other day I received from Terry Hall at Catholicism in Crisis something of an assignment. During Lent, it seems, Terry had been reading The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes. A certain passage kept recurring in them which went, in the Morning Prayer, “A good answer at the dreadful and fearful judgment seat of Jesus Christ Our Lord, vouchsafe, O Lord.” Obviously, certain kinds of theological persuasion make such a passage meaningless — those which save us all no matter what we do or hold, for example, or those which think being is nothing, or those which make all guilt corporate or social.

But Terry Hall is a Christian. He wanted to know this:

The thing that strikes me about this particular evocation is, simply, what can it mean? To put the problem bluntly, I found myself asking, “but what can one possibly say in one’s own defense on the fearful Day of Judgment?” All of our sins will be laid at our feet, and it will be clear that we are responsible for them — so in what could “a good answer,” consist? It is not as though, I take it, that there will be extenuating circumstances which we can claim. So what is the meaning of the phrase?

When I thought about these lines, somewhere in me I recalled reading something on this topic, something that had to do with the idea of judgment, that no act is complete until it is finally judged. But I will come back to this.

Terry Hall had mentioned that Walker Percy took the name “Lancelot,” for his novel of the same name, from this English divine. Now, it just happened that I have been reading Conversations with Walker Percy (University of Mississippi Press, 1985), a wonderful book, which Dean Clancy had given to me. (I have good students who force me to keep up with them!) Lancelot received a good deal of attention in these conversations. And there is a silent priest in the same novel. Percy reflected:

At the end of Lancelot, I was trying to present two radical points of view, neither of which is accepted by most Americans. One is: Lancelot goes to Virginia for the third revolution, he rejects the world. The other is: Percival [the silent priest] goes to a parish in Alabama, and he hears the confessions of Buick dealers. They couldn’t be more different, and yet they have something in common: they both know there is something radically wrong with the world.

Earlier, Percy had remarked that what drives his Lancelot to madness and puritanical revolts (Voegelin’s gnosticism here) “is the increasingly bland, permissive Christianity that regards sin as merely a sickness . . . The book is an attack on the middle ground. It’s saying the middle ground is not going to work.” That is to say, there is a black and a white, a true and a false, while our system is now based on the principle that nothing matters save what we think makes truth. We thus “cheerfully accept the challenge to the womb posed by women’s lib” because we think it is a “right,” for sociological reasons, to have dead babies.

In thinking of Lancelot Andrewes himself, I vaguely recalled too that at a bookstore my first year at Georgetown, I had somehow bought, at a greatly reduced price, a splendid book called, In God’s Name: Examples of Preaching in England from the Act of Supremacy to the Act of Uniformity, 1534-1662. I wondered if it contained any Andrewes. Sure enough, it did; three sermons, in fact: “The Meaning of Immanuel: A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majestie (James I) at Whitehall on Sunday XXVC December A. D. MDCXXII, being Christmas Day”; “A Sermon of Thanksgiving for Deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot 1605, Preached before His Majesty on the 5th of November 1615”; and the famous, “A Cold Coming: A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty at White-hall, on Monday XXV December A.D. MDCXXII, being Christmas Day.”

Indeed, the editor, John Chandos, had a bit of introduction to Andrewes. He lived 1555-1626, was Bishop of Winchester, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. He had also been Bishop of Chichester, later of Ely, and participated in the work resulting in the Authorized Version of the Bible. Reading this over, I noticed that Chandos began with a reference to an essay T. S. Eliot wrote on Lancelot Andrewes in 1926. This too made me curious,

I had a couple of books by T. S. Eliot someplace, and after checking my shelves, I managed to locate Eliot’s Selected Essays and, sure enough, the essay on Andrewes. “Andrewes’s emotion is purely contemplative; it is not personal,” Eliot wrote. “It is wholly evoked by the object of contemplation, to which it is adequate.” This seemed somehow to relate to Terry Hall’s question.

And what about this notion of “a good answer” about which I had been asked? There were two things I further recalled having read of late. The first was an essay of Hans Urs von Balthasar called “The Unity of Our Lives,” in his Convergences. The second was an essay of C.S. Lewis called “Historicism,” which I had found in his Christian Reflections, and this interested me because I had been reading Leo Strauss’s remarks on the same topic.

Von Balthasar wrote:

There is someone in whom the elements of our existence, which are cast forth, lost, wasted in the emptiness of time and the impersonal space, are brought together — in their complete deficiency, their powerlessness and their failure. If we are really loved by the eternal Father, then the hairs of our head are numbered by him, our needs are known, our mistakes are regarded with kindness and — through this tireless love which makes up God’s essence — compensated for.

“A good answer” at the dreadful Judgment, then, would first of all be a frank recognition of the existence of these acts of ours. I believe the ultimate evil remains not so much in the doing of evil, but in calling evil good. This is what Walker Percy understood to be the real problem with our popular and especially academic religion today.

C. S. Lewis added, “By far the greater part of this teeming reality [of individual human actions] escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the past twenty-four hours.” Yet, this full accounting, on von Balthasar ‘s premise, ought to be part of what it is we are, the judgment.

Recently, I had occasion to give a lecture on Aristotle and friendship. A perplexing problem kept recurring. Do we want to know everything about our friends? Do we want to know their faults? Or want them to know ours? In a sense, of course, the answer to this is “no.” Yet, if evil is indeed a lack, as Aquinas held, following Augustine, the reality that is there, the being in which this evil existed, is good. It will remain before the “dreadful and fearful Judgment seat.” The only alternative would be for God to reduce us to nothingness. Yet, the whole mystery of creation, including our own, is continuance in being, even in being that fails. The failures are part of the reality we are. Without them, as it were, we are not we.

Probably the passage in Scripture most pertinent to this problem is that one wherein Jesus began to write on the sand. One by one the accusers went away, presumably because Jesus wrote enough of each one’s life for him to recognize himself. “None left?” Jesus inquired. “None, Lord,” was the reply.

That, I think, was “a good answer.” For it was a judgment of what is. There is no middle ground. Judgment is the condition of the everlasting life of each of us.

“I was doing a teary reading of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ ” a friend wrote, “when Father [an elderly priest friend] died — just stopped breathing. Death is familiar to us all, but somehow it’s out of sync — humans should not die. Well, we don’t really, except [that] at some point we are not materially present.”

That, too, is “a good answer,” preparing us for that “full account” of the unity of our lives without which what it is we were and are — “humans should not die” — could not continue to be. “What say ye, to drinke vinegar and gall?” Lancelot Andrewes exclaimed before James I on “the meaning of Immanuel” that Christmas Day in 1614. “That is much more (I am sure:), yet, that He did: I cannot (here) say with us, but for us. Even drunke of the cup with the dregs of the wrath of God: which passed not from Him, that it might passe from us, and we not drinke it.”

As Lancelot Andrewes put it in the Evening Prayer: A good and acceptable answer at the dreadful and fearful judgment seat of Jesus Christ, vouchsafe, 0 Lord.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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