Some Serious Thoughts about Pop Novels

Dear Readers,

“In his own humble way, this kid makes Pope John Paul in his fancy clothes and Las Vegas hat look like an Easter-and-Christmas Christian” (Stephen King, Desperation, 385).

This reference to Pope John Paul II was interesting, coming in a pop novel of all places. But it makes me think about the nature of holiness – holiness can be outlandish or ordinary, but it strikes people just the same in both cases. It also reminded me of something else I read about yesterday – eruv. Eruv is a Hebrew word for “enclosure” surrounding a Jewish home or community. The idea is that, from Jeremiah 17:24-26, the Jews are prohibited from carrying burdens on the Sabbath. So, with Rabbinic commentary and judicial decisions, this command grew into a general mandate that Jews could not carry any items over the property of another. How, then, do Orthodox, observant Jews fulfill this mandate? There are two options, essentially, on the Sabbath. First, one can deal with that command straightforwardly. In that case, you don’t carry any items – change, keys, etc. – in your pockets if you go out on Sabbath. Second, you can not cross any property lines. This is the option taken by most Orthodox Jews – as far as I can tell – but they utilize the restriction in an interesting way. Their alternative is to create a larger area of property – an eruv enclosure – around a specific area where they live. Thus, according to Mosaic law, they own the entire area. Then they can carry property around on the Sabbath without violating any commandments. To do this, they share property in a commune-renting arrangement, but they also make the whole area a single symbolic house. They create door posts and walls for their symbolic house using telephone wires and other natural landmarks in the area. To see an example of this, see the Saint Louis Community Eruv.

While we as Christians might initially be rather confused by both the restriction and the attendant ways to modify the restriction, I tend to think we religious men and women have an inside-track on the whole matter. We religious set up in our homes a cloister – which would be a Latin equivalent, ironically, to the word “eruv” in Hebrew. It means an “enclosure.” A cloister is an area of our religious houses (in the Dominican case, houses or priories), where silence is kept and outsiders are not permitted. It is mostly around the cells of the religious, but often includes things like the laundry rooms, etc. The cloister not only shuts out the outside, but assists by exteriorizing the silence that should be within – to bring the monk face-to-face with God in his heart. Thus, in more contemplative orders, the cloister also shuts in the monk/nun. The two examples that come to mind immediately are the Carmelite nuns and the Carthusian monks. Both are not allowed, by their constitutions, to break cloister except in certain definite situations. While the Jewish concept came from a prohibition of slavish labor, it also divides their world from that of the world much that same as Catholic cloister does.

And what’s the value of that? French anti-clericalism in the 19th century caused the expulsion of many religious orders from France, my own – the Dominicans – being one of them. The Orders that provided education or some other identifiable “public service” were allowed to stay, but the contemplative orders (those who prayed in a monastery but provided no explicit exterior ministry) were dissolved or made to depart the country. It is interesting, I think, how the world feared most those Orders that did the least exteriorly. They did, of course, eliminate preachers in the course of their pogroms, but they saw as a key enemy the silent ones who did, exteriorly, nothing.

Why? Because, like the Jewish practice, their voluntary enclosure is a witness. A witness against the claims they made that human authority is supreme. A witness for a transcendent and peaceful Kingdom where the lamp will be required no longer, for the Lamb will be its light. A witness against needing everything that the world deems important. In the face of the contemplative, the world’s speech is no longer persuasive, for He is shown to be the Word that puts an end to all words:

Speech and silence are not opposed: they do not exclude one another. What is opposed to silence is not speech but words: that is, multiplicity. We confuse the silence of Being with the silence of “nothingness,” which knows neither how to speak nor how to be silent. All that it can do is to become agitated, and then it dissembles. And it does this by its superficial movements reflecting the nothingness within it. Lip service which has no deep thought to support it; physical posturings; facial expressions with no corresponding reality or that flatly deceive — such is the language of “nothingness”.

And that is why it is garrulous. It says little in many words; or it uses words that do not say what it thinks. God needed only one Word to express himself fully, and it is toward that unity (of the Word) that we tend when we are alone with God. He has become all, and we tell him so-what more can we say? It is the silence of the soul recollected in itself and occupied with him whom it finds there. It is the silence of those long nights that Jesus passed on the mountain side during his prayer to God. It was the silence of Gethsemane or of Calvary, broken only by a few words for us.

People often forget that the thing Jesus most liked was to go off by Himself and pray in silence.


Yours in Christ,

Br. James Dominic, OP

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