Zacchaeus must have had a burning desire for Jesus. By climbing a tree he makes a fool of himself. That childlike behaviour is a good example for us.
We can ask ourselves, do I want to see Christ that much? Do I do everything I can to see him? Or do I avoid encounters with him? Or, if I already see Christ, do I prefer to keep a distance?
I’m reminded of Graham Greene, a famous twentieth-century novelist, and a famous on-again off-again Catholic. In his twenties, he married a Catholic and converted. In the subsequent years he wrote some outstanding Catholic-themed novels.
But Greene was not a faithful husband, and as his marriage collapsed, his faith lapsed. He stopped going to confession and stopped receiving communion, though for many years he continued to frequent Sunday Mass.
In 1949, Greene and his mistress visited a Franciscan monastery, where they attended Mass offered by by Padre Pio. Greene later wrote that this encounter with the famous mystic “profoundly moved” him, and during the Mass, Greene lost “all sense of time.”
But when Greene had an opportunity to personally speak with Padre Pio, he beat a hasty exit. “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint,” he wrote. “I felt that there was a good chance that he was one. He had a great peace about him.”
Greene was obviously awed in the presence of holiness. He recognised that “great peace” is the mark of a saint. But he feared it too, because he knew it would transform his life.
It’s quite a contrast to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus climbs a tree, and from that safe distance he can observe Jesus. But when God approaches he doesn’t back away like Graham Greene. He hurries down the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home. Sure enough, his life is transformed, but we can be sure that Christ’s peace becomes Zaccheaus’ peace too.
Perhaps Greene discovered this for himself 40 years later. By then, he had returned to the sacraments, and the man who famously described himself as a “Catholic atheist,” died a holy death.
Graham Greene and Zacchaeus are both outstanding witnesses to the mercy of God. The Lord does not forget his own.
Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus singles out the chief of the tax collectors. An outcast. A traitor. But also son of Abraham. A child of God.
We must never doubt God’s goodness and mercy — for ourselves, and for those whom we love. God’s mercy will always eclipse our human limitations.
As Graham Greene famously wrote in one of his Catholic novels (Brighton Rock):
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
So I drank some toxic lamp oil on Saturday. The oil was mistaken for water, and I drank it while purifying the chalice at Mass. My weekend wasn’t pleasant, but I’m totally recovered now.
The chapel in the house I’m staying at eschews wax candles. Instead, the altar is adorned with oil lamps made to look like candles. That probably sounds weird, but it looks fine:
I like these oil lamps pretending to be candles. They’re a neat and elegant solution to wax spills and wastage.
Now here’s a picture of the oil used to fuel the lamps:
This oil is clear, it is odourless, and its viscosity is similar to water. In other words, it looks and smells like water. At Mass on Saturday morning, one of the cruets was mistakenly filled with lamp oil instead of water. I purified the chalice immediately after communion, first with wine, and then with the lamp oil. It was only after I had swallowed the oil that I realised.
I went straight from the altar to the bathroom to rinse my mouth out with water. And then I did a very foolish thing. I returned to the chapel for ten minutes of thanksgiving. In other words, I resumed my normal routine.
Office workers at New York’s World Trade Centre who survived the collapse of the twin towers on September 11 fled the buildings as soon as the first plane hit. They were bewildered that co-workers carried on as normal, some making phone calls, others walking into meetings. But under such circumstances, head-in-the-sand behaviour is surprisingly common:
Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.
I read that quote years ago, and memorised it. It startled me. It took no effort at all, to recall the article from which it comes: The Fire Alarm is Ringing. What Are You Waiting For? And yet, when the proverbial fire alarm sounded on Saturday, I stood around. I felt fine, admittedly. But still, I had ingested poison, and then I resumed my routine. (You have permission to yell at me.)
Finally, when I had finished praying, a full fifteen minutes after I swallowed the oil, I returned to the sacristy and inspected the label. It warns:
“HARMFUL OR FATAL IF SWALLOWED. If swallowed, call a Poison Control Centre or physician immediately. DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING.”
A call to the Poison Information Centre was reassuring. Fatality arises when the oil enters yours lungs, which happens if the oil goes down the wrong way, or if one aspirates during vomiting. In my case, I had sculled the oil in one gulp, without coughing or spluttering, and so the poison was localised to my gut. In there it’s painful, but there’s no long-term harm.
Hopefully, next time I will remember the lesson of September 11. When faced with unexpected danger, break routine. Don’t be an ostrich. Keep your head out of the sand and react immediately.
But apart from that lesson, the poisoning episode has also given me a new talent: I can now smell odourless lamp oil! I remember the taste of the oil vividly. In the immediate moment, the taste was not unpleasant. Yet when I recall the taste now, nausea overwhelms me and my stomach aches. Yuck.
Because I know the taste, I can smell the oil! It is subtle. Very subtle. But where others smell nothing, and so still mistake the oil for water, I smell the oil. I’m all over the proverbial Pepsi challenge. Point unscented lamp oil in my direction, and I will dry retch every time!
I see this as a positive development. My very own spidey sense, by which I can always avert repeat accidents. I’m virtually like Spider-Man. But actually, I think I’ll answer to Iron-Gut from now on.
“Good morning Fr John.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that. Call me Iron-Gut Corrigan.” 😉
So I’m on my annual course this week and next, which mostly consists of study. We’re studying Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis, and doing some always useful revision of the Catechism and moral and pastoral theology.
But the annual course isn’t all work. There’s a few sight-seeing trips, and an occasional movie. I don’t watch many movies — the annual course and long haul flights is it, generally. I think this makes me more discerning, and demanding, than less. I used to persevere with average movies (— and mediocre books, and bad wine —) until the bitter end, but now I walk away much sooner. Life’s too short for bad wine. And the rest.
Hence I’m very confident that anyone who heeds my advice on this occasion will not be disappointed. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a great movie. It’s laugh out loud funny and fast paced. It evokes a sort of Harry Potter universe, wherein the kids are responsible and the adults are insane. But it’s not fantastical — it’s mostly observational humour, and occasionally absurdist.
It’s also unmistakably Kiwi. Anyone who liked Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby will love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s much more family friendly than Gormsby, which is also a big plus. Rotten Tomatoes gives this one a very fresh score of 98 per cent. It is a very safe DVD purchase. I guarantee you’ll love it.
And — refreshingly — the trailer is very true to the movie. So here’s a useful preview.
One thing’s for sure: the 2016 US Presidential election has ruined my interest in future campaigns. Other election cycles will never be as interesting as this one.
In the meantime, though, I can enjoy reading and thinking about what’s left of this campaign. Scott Adam’s prophecy of a landslide victory to Donald Trump may not come to pass. If the lewd hot mic video in the present media cycle isn’t enough to kill Trump’s candidacy, the release of similar tapes may finish it.
Or maybe this is a storm in a teacup, which won’t impact voters who have already made up their minds. All will be revealed soon — on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, when Americans vote.
Here are my thoughts.
1. The video should surprise nobody
What Trump says in that video is gross and indefensible, but none of it is surprising. Everyone knew already that Trump is a womaniser and an adulterer. His sexual immorality is notorious, and so is his crass language. As soon as I watched the video, I recalled an article published ten months ago, wherein Trump is quoted saying something similar:
About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day.
The quoted message, like the hot mic video, is lewd. Follow the link at your discretion.
Many people are offended by Trump’s personal values and sexual behaviour. I’m one of them. But his values and behaviour isn’t news. Trump has been a playboy since, forever. The hot mic video doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I doubt this will sway Christian voters who were already holding their nose to vote for him anyway.
That ten-month-old column makes the point well:
You read surveys that indicate the majority of Christian conservatives support Trump, and then you see the video: Trump on stage with pastors, looking pained as they pray over him, misidentifying key books in the New Testament, and in general doing a ludicrous imitation of a faithful Christian, the least holy roller ever. You wonder as you watch this: How could they be that dumb? He’s so obviously faking it.
They know that already. I doubt there are many Christian voters who think Trump could recite the Nicene Creed, or even identify it. Evangelicals have given up trying to elect one of their own. What they’re looking for is a bodyguard, someone to shield them from mounting (and real) threats to their freedom of speech and worship. Trump fits that role nicely, better in fact than many church-going Republicans. For eight years, there was a born-again in the White House. How’d that work out for Christians, here and in Iraq?
2. Much of the criticism is transparently opportunistic
I like Senator John McCain. I’ve followed his career since his presidential run in 1999, when he almost vanquished George W. Bush. I think he would have made a good president. But I think his recent conduct towards Trump is cynical and opportunistic.
The same goes for all those critics on the right, who initially endorsed Trump, only to rescind after the hot mic video was broadcast. If what Trump says on that video disqualifies his from office, then so does his myriad of public affairs and serial divorces. If Trump’s character is a problem to them, McCain and the others had no business endorsing Trump in the first place. They were either insincere in the first instance, or insincere in the second. Or, most likely, they were insincere both times.
Trump’s critics on the left, meanwhile, are hypocritical. The progressives who insist Trump’s private vices have disqualified him from public office, have previously insisted that Bill Clinton’s private vices had no bearing on his public office. But even more galling is the progressives’ pretence at offence, when most of them are moral relativists. Here’s a well-reasoned article which calls out the double standards:
For years, Christians in particular have been attacked and silenced as they’ve tried to challenge the immorality that is pervasive in today’s society. When they tell people casual sex is wrong, they get the inevitable, “You have no right to tell me what I can or can’t do.” If they oppose sexual immorality in any form, including adultery, they’re maligned as sanctimonious puritans by lovers of libertinism.
Those who are complaining about Trump today have no basis for their moral outrage. That’s because their secular amoral worldview rejects any basis for that moral judgment. Any argument they make against the “immorality” of Trump is stolen, or at least borrowed for expediency, from a religious worldview they have soundly rejected.
The faux outrage of the unapologetic architects of our cultural decline is almost enough, in itself, to compel a vote for Trump. If I could vote. Nonetheless:
3. #NeverTrumpers deserve an honourable mention
A month ago, another priest and I debated the merits of Trump’s candidacy. I think, if I was American, I would probably vote for Trump. My friend could not countenance voting for him, because Trump’s character flaws are disqualifying.
I see his point. It’s one shared by Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that only the most virtuous should lead the polis. Many #NeverTrumper conservatives have invoked this rationale for their position.
Joshua Mitchell put it well (again, last month, well before the hot mic video), in an excellent survey of the intellectual currents informing this year’s election campaigns. He called it ‘The Aristotle Problem’:
One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.
Kudos to the #NeverTrumpers, whose criticism of Trump is consistent, and depending on the election results, may well be vindicated.
The last word goes to Scott Adams, just because his blog posts and tweets have so enhanced my enjoyment of this very long election campaign. He’s good at one-liners:
On Friday I was privileged to assist with a nine-day novena organised by the Legion of Mary.
The novena, which prayed for world peace and deliverance from the ISIS scourge, concluded with a Mass and Holy Hour celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. This feast commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, wherein a Western alliance initiated by Pope St Pius V repelled an Ottoman invasion of Europe.
Here’s my sermon, which is really an historical survey of that great victory:
The Defence of Malta — 1565
Soleiman the Magnificent was the greatest sultan in Ottoman history. He reigned for 50 years, and he expanded the Empire’s borders in every direction. His greatest dream was to conquer Rome. Then history would truly judge him as an equal to Caesar. Moreover, the conquest of Rome would permit St Peter’s Basilica, then under construction, to be converted into a great mosque – just as Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia had been converted a century earlier.
It was the dream of Roman conquest which caused Soleiman to turn his attention to the island of Malta in 1565. From the harbours of Malta, the Ottomans could bombard the western coast of the Italian peninsula, Rome included. By 1565, however, Soleiman was an old man. He recused himself from battle, but sent, in his stead, an army of 45,000.
Malta fielded an army of 6,000 to defend the small island. The rest of Europe looked on, presuming that Malta would fall as Rhodes had, at similar scale, decades earlier. On the eve of battle, 700 Knights of Malta assembled in their chapel. They each made a good confession, and assisted at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. Afterwards, the Grand Master addressed his men:
“A formidable army composed of audacious barbarians is descending on this island. These persons, my brothers, are the enemies of Jesus Christ. Today it is a question of the defence of our Faith. Are the Gospels to be superseded by the Koran? God on this occasion demands of us our lives, already vowed to His service. Happy will be those who first consummate this sacrifice.”
Many of the knights did just that, laying down their lives. Nonetheless, during the four month seige, Malta’s small army of 6,000 withstood the Ottoman barrage. Three quarters of the Ottoman forces were killed during the assault, and eventually the Turks returned home, defeated and exhausted.
Land invasion — 1566
Soleiman was furious. “I see that it is only in my own hand that my sword is invincible!” Twelve months later, he assembled a massive army of 300,000 soldiers, and marched them towards Vienna. He would take Rome by land, using one of the largest armies assembled since Antiquity.
When the Count of Szigetvar, a Hungarian fortress east of Vienna, led a successful raid on Ottoman supply trains, Soleiman wheeled his massive army around. Szigetvar, he declared, would be wiped off the map.
For nearly a month, wave after wave of Turkish infantry were thrown back from the walls. Soleiman tried to bribe the Count. He could be puppet king of Croatia, if he would yield his city. The Count refused: “No one shall point his finger on my children in contempt.”
Eventually, the Ottoman artillery breached the fortress walls. The Count assembled his last 600 men and, holding up his sword, he rallied them:
“With this sword I earned my first honour and glory. I want to appear with it once more before the eternal throne to hear my judgement.”
He charged his men into battle, and the small band was quickly swamped by superior numbers. Soleiman, however, did not live to see the final battle. He had died four days previously, of dysentry. His soldiers, furious at the losses they sustained, and grieving their sultan, slaughtered the civilian population and razed the city to the ground. But the Ottoman army was exhausted, and turned home. Although the city of Szigetvar was eliminated, it had saved Europe.
The conquest of Cyprus — 1570
Soleiman’s heir, Selim II, was cruel and barbaric. The new sultan invaded Cyprus in 1570. Although the garrison of 500 surrendered on terms, when the city gates were opened, the Ottomans rushed in and slaughtered them. Then they set on the civilian population, massacring twenty thousand adults. The children who survived were shipped to Constantinople and sold at the slave markets.
But in 1566, God had raised up one of the Church’s greatest popes. Pope St Pius V solemnly declared:
“I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers of priests of pure life.”
The state of the Church in 1570 is comparable to the Church of today. Corruption and laxity were rife. But then, as now, a cohort of holy and virtuous clergy endured. Their prayers sustained the pope in his negotiations, and in 1571 he formed ‘the Holy League’ — an alliance of Christian kingdoms and city states which set aside rivalries and jealousies to join forces against the Ottoman threat.
To their shame, France and England excused themselves. (Perhaps this is why Lepanto is not so well-known in the English-speaking world.) Both kingdoms, in fact, furnished assistance to the Ottomans, for tawdry political and economic gain.
Selim’s forces, meanwhile, performed atrocities which are comparable to the modern day efforts of ISIS. In 1571, still in Cyprus, the Ottomans again violated terms of surrender, and enslaved men who had laid down arms. A commander was cruelly and horrifically tortured — his nose and ears cut off, and his bleeding wounds cauterised by hot irons. He was bridled before his men and terrified civilians, and dragged around camp on his hands and knees. He was strung up for many hours, and skinned alive.
It is a mistake to think the scourge of ISIS is without precedent. History is full of cruel horror and sinister evil. Just as the challenges are similar, so are the remedies. The Holy Rosary has saved the Church before. It can do so again.
The battle of Lepanto — 1571
Pius V had granted a plenary indulgence to the soldiers and crews of the Holy League. Priests of the great orders — Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits — were aboard the Holy League’s ships, offering Mass and hearing confessions. Every man was assigned standard weaponry, and also something non-standard — a weapon more powerful than anything the Ottomans possessed: the Holy Rosary.
On the eve of battle, the Holy League’s soldiers knelt on the decks of their ships and prayed the Rosary. Back in Rome, and all over Christendom, the lay faithful responded to the pope’s request, and filling their local churches, they too prayed the Rosary.
At dawn on 7 October 1571, the Holy League’s fleet sailed east, against the wind. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the four navies assumed a cruciform. The massive Ottoman fleet sailed west to meet them. Again, perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the Turkish forces assumed a huge crescent.
As the fleets grew closer, the Christians could hear the gongs and cymbals of the Ottomans. The soldiers stood on deck, silently praying. Priests held large crucifixes, walking up and down deck, exhorting courage and hearing last confessions.
The forces met at midday — the hour of the Angelus. The hour of the Incarnation. Perhaps all those rosaries, and the intercessory prayers of our Lady herself, had something to do with the wind. It changed suddenly. Abruptly. Radically. The wind turned 180 degrees, filling the sails of the Holy League, and causing disarray among the Ottomans.
Battle ensued for 5 hours. At first, the outnumbered Holy League and massive Ottoman force fought as though evenly matched. One soldier of the Holy League, driven to despair, took his sword to the ship’s crucifix. The blade instantly shattered. Years later, the sword was re-forged, but when the new blade was pulled from the fire, it too fell to pieces.
The crucifix aboard the main ship twisted itself to avoid a Turkish cannonball. It is now displayed and venerated in Barcelona’s cathedral.
Another of the ships carried aboard a unique gift from the king of Spain: a rare image of our Lady. Exactly forty years before the battle of Lepanto, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a peasant boy, leaving a miraculous image of herself on his smock. The bishop of the region commissioned an artist to paint five copies of the image, and he touched each image to the original. Our Lady of Guadalupe was present at Lepanto.
Eventually the battle turned in the Holy League’s favour, and then a rout ensued. Thirty thousand Ottomans perished. Not until the First World War would the world again witness such carnage in a single day’s fighting.
In the days that followed, news of the victory made its way back to Rome. But Rome knew already. On the day of the battle, St Pius had been consulting with his cardinals when he paused and peered out a window. He was favoured with a supernatural vision which he then related to the cardinals present:
“Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory.”
Lessons for us
The courage and fortitude of our forebears should inspire us. The men and women in Malta, in Hungary, and at Lepanto are owed our remembrance and gratitude. But we can also imitate them, and engage in our own battles against sin and evil with equal fervour. We should fear sin more than death itself. We should rather die than offend God and goodness.
Let’s resolve, too, to renew our spirit of prayer, and devotion to our Blessed Mother. She told the children at Fatima that the Rosary has the power to save the world. The world had learned that previously, at Lepanto. But the world too easily forgets. Let’s not forget again.
Holy Mary, Help of Christians, Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.