Sense and Nonsense: Pensees Pour Le Temps Penitentiel

1. Lent, le Careme in French, begins On Ash Wednesday; this year it falls on February 2.4. February is the shortest month, thus an appropriate time to state briefly what we think, thoughts, not just because we think them, but because we think them true. Pensees remind us of Pascal, Ash Wednesday of T.S. Eliot, whose poem of the same name we should faithfully read each year on this day—when time is only time and place only place.

2. The late Allan Bloom remarked that the most unhappy souls in our society are those of the young men and women at the 20 or 30 best universities, where they are not taught that they have souls and have not, independently, discovered it for themselves. Bloom thought that they were unhappy, I take it, because they mostly believed what they were taught, a multicultural and personal relativism that evaporated any possibility of meaning in life except what man gave himself. What they were taught had little to do with reality, with what is. But these good students had to praise their education, as it cost them so much. Still souls, their very souls, remained distressingly empty. Bloom first entitled his book, “souls without longing.” No man can give himself meaning.

3. The only really liberal people are those who are free to discover the truth and who are brave enough to affirm it. Liberty will not make us free. The only way to shock us is to affirm that the Ten Commandments have a point that corresponds to our only possibility of happiness, to the way we are among all the beautiful things we discover, the existence of which we had nothing to do with.

4. The most dangerous thing one can do today, if not in any day, is accurately to describe a political regime in terms of what it actually is, not in terms of what it says it is. No one is accurately describing democracies today, describing what it is they actually are in terms of what is, of what they do, of what they have actually become. It is much too dangerous. Neither the Athenian nor our democracy, even though it was designed to do so, has escaped the problem of Socrates.

5. For the first time in my lifetime, indeed perhaps in modern times, one must begin to wonder about the essential orthodoxy of one’s own clergy and bishop. They may be perfectly orthodox, but then again they may not be. One can no longer just assume it. Obscure journals maintain that the third Fatima Secret has something to do with theologians and bishops betraying the faith, that is, confusing us about what it teaches.

6. Most of the practices we associate with Sodom and Gomorrah are now civil rights and actively promoted as proper ways of life, not to be criticized, especially not by quoting the Bible.

7. Woodrow Wilson has finally won. We are going to make the world safe for democracy. This effort may well be the legacy of George Bush, with Iraq and Somalia. We are still not sure if the kind of democracy into which we have now evolved, with its grounding in a freedom based on nothing higher than our own choosings, is safe for the world.

8. The poverty of the world is not caused by a lack of resources, nor by a lack of energy, nor by a lack of anything else except a lack of those ideas—religious ideas often—about the nature of the world and man’s institutions in it that allow us to eliminate poverty. Poverty is caused by the ideas and beliefs that we have, ideas that often sound noble and are held by pious men of good will. Socialism is the world’s greatest and most pious idea that never worked.

9. Our era is one in which we are trying, earnestly, to put into effect the egalitarian ideas about family, sex, and property that were proposed in the Fifth Book of the Republic. What we do not want to know is that these ideas are not meant for us to establish through our governments. These ideas work, however, in the City of God, but in ways quite different from the way in which Plato envisioned them.

10. We will live to see the Tomb of the Unknown Woman Soldier. And we will be told that this Tomb is a sign of civilization and not of its decline. With our technical means, however, she will be known, like the men on the Vietnam Memorial. Today, real anonymity is reserved to the unborn. We will have no public monument to the unborn until we repent. This monument to the unknown woman soldier will be the sign of democratic corruption of nature. The monument to the unborn will only be erected when the unknown woman soldier turns her sword in for her babies. But we will not, as Augustine taught, find any time in which we do not need soldiers.

11. The disorders of our souls are being lived out in the public forum, in our laws, in our diseases, in our poverty. Mother Teresa said that the worst poor were found in the richest lands. The poor in the Third World, she thought, only lack things. The spiritual poor in the rich world lack virtue. They lack it because they have read philosophy books that taught them that virtue did not exist. They had no places to go to hear otherwise after the churches began to preach the social gospel that maintained that our faults lie in our institutions, rather than in ourselves. When Rousseau came to be the teacher of theologians, there was no place to which to escape.

12. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “To have time means, for Him [Christ], to have time for God, and is identical with receiving time from God. Hence, the Son, who has time, in the world, for God, is the point at which God has time for the world.” God has time for the world—that is the meaning of our history and our lives.

13. The world exists so that love can be completed in itself and multiplied in its intensity, not fused together in one general equality. What we discover about God is that He loves us all, but He loves us all differently. God begins as an egalitarian but ends as an elitist. He will have nothing half-hearted. Blessed be He. God directs all His attention to each of us in our singularity.

14. The greatest of problems is not that we want too much but that we want too little. It is God Who maintains that we are made for eternal life. We tend to think, if we think our lives have any meaning at all, that we are made for some society down the ages after we are dead and gone. We are fortunate. His ways are not our ways. None of us will ever live in some perfect society down the ages. But each of us, with grace, can choose the Kingdom of God in whatever era or society we live in, even the worst.

15. What we do is important, but only because we are already important, from the moment of our conception. If we are not important then, we are not important later on, but only subject to the manipulations of the states and sciences that want to make this the best possible world. We are already in the best possible world. This is why we are told to love one another. We do not give worth to others, but discover it already in them. Still, since we have worth, we can increase it.

16. Why all these outlandish thoughts in February, the shortest month, when Lent describes the meaning of time for us? It is because I cannot get over all those sad students in the best universities whose souls have never been touched by the grandeur of what is.

17. Doesn’t this what is stuff smack of Saint Thomas? Indeed! John Paul II said to a meeting of Thomists in 1986 that

the problem of the soul is linked to the question which man always asks himself about the profound meaning of his experience and of the principle of his life, thought, and actions. In every age, man is a great mystery to himself. Man is born for truth and he restlessly seeks the truth about man, the answer to the question which Saint Augustine posed in this way: “What then am I, my God?” [Confessions, X, 17].

The reason that the pope is dangerous and thoroughly mistrusted in many places is because he insists on asking these wrenching questions which the universities and media refuse to pose. The Holy Father is dangerous on TV or in the universities because he has an uncanny knack of speaking directly to souls, even to those in the media audience or universities who do not know they have souls.

18. “Man is born for truth and he restlessly seeks the truth about man.” We are not allowed to say such things about ourselves. If we maintain that we are born for truth, we are called fascists who seek to impose our truth on others. If we relentlessly seek the truth about man, we are said to waste time, because no one’s truth is better than another’s.

19. “What then am I, my God?” If we do not believe in God, to whom do we address this question? To ourselves? But we, individually or collectively, we do not know, do we?

20. Environmentalism is the ideology that is rapidly replacing Marxism as the system for justifying statism. The scientific status of the former approximates that of the latter, and the results are about the same in placing arbitrary power in the hands of the state.

21. Am I a pessimist? It is hard, in fact, to be a pessimist and a Christian. Indeed, it is not possible. We still need, as the pope said, a little of Saint Thomas’s metaphysics to understand the reality of our personhood. “The greatest perfection is given to being, understood as the ‘act of being’ (esse ut actus). Here, the person, much more than ‘nature’ or ‘essence,’ by means of the act of being which sustains him, is exalted to the very height of the perfection of being and reality.” Again, I worry, the problem with Christianity in February, on this Ash Wednesday, is that it promises us too much, not too little. No wonder it cannot be heard in the universities or in the democracy. This doctrine is dangerous; we should not doubt that.

22. It says in the New Testament that some devils can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. The devils are everywhere but the only fasting we do is called dieting.

23. The Archbishop of San Francisco has warned us of upcoming persecutions and sufferings for Catholics, the causes of which he has spoken little about, even in his own city. But will the persecutors be able to find any believing Catholics? Will Catholics when challenged about their beliefs sound pretty much like the graduates of the best universities and followers of the media?

24. Saint Ignatius said that “man is made to praise, reverence, and serve God and thereby to save his soul.” Creation, it seems, is subordinated to man, and man himself is subordinated to the purpose for which he exists, that is, for a joy he cannot be prepared for, only promised.

25. Thoughts for a penitential time…. The unhappiest souls are in the best universities. “Some devils are only driven out by prayer and fasting.” “Man is born for truth.”


  • 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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