By ANTHONY ESOLEN
You are an eighty-year-old scout and trapper on the high plains far west of the Mississippi. You have with you an officer of the United States Army, a roving hunter of beehives, their affianced brides, an almost useless naturalist, and two dogs. Your means of transportation are two horses, a donkey, and your feet. The women have escaped from the camp of a courageous and unscrupulous family of whites, moving in from the east; one of the women they had kidnapped. Their eldest son has been murdered, and the people believe you are responsible. They’re out for blood.
Meanwhile, a band of Sioux warriors have stolen the white men’s cattle and are plotting to steal the rest of their goods. They do not know whether you are friendly to the settlers or not. You have managed to slip out of their grasp, with two of their horses. They know you are hiding among the tall grasses and have determined to smoke you out with fire. And that is what you see billowing around you, a ring of fire ten miles wide.
But this is not Sioux territory. It’s Pawnee territory, the enemies of the Sioux. They too are in the neighborhood, waiting their chance to strike at both the Sioux and the white settlers.
What do you do?
I’m describing the situation in the middle of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the last of his four novels featuring the noble and uneducated man of God and nature, sometimes known as Hawkeye, sometimes known as Leatherstocking, and christened with the apostolic name Nathanael. Though the man has four score years on his back and his eyes are bleary with age, the other men and the women defer to his judgment.
There is no notion of democracy here, or play-acting at Leader of the Escapees. The “intellectual” among them, that naturalist, can claim no precedence based upon a degree from Harvard. There is no special set-aside Women’s War League pitting white women with rifles against Sioux women with bows and arrows and tomahawks, and referees running back and forth across the prairie to make sure that the rules are observed. A job has to be done, and that is that.
If justice means that we give to each his due, for the sake of the common good, then justice here means that Hawkeye must be the leader whether he likes it or not, though he could easily save his skin and leave the others to fend for themselves. It means that the young men must obey him readily, though one of them is used to command and the other is used to being his own master. It means that the women accept their protection and do what they can to help, though they are ready to die. It means that the intellectual must keep his mouth shut and do as he is told, though he is ever apt to lose himself in the vagaries of his “science.”
The approach of mortal danger clears the head. We can imagine ideal men and women all day long such as the world has never known and never will, insisting that there is no such thing as nature where those are concerned. Once take away our food and our cozy shelter and our modern conveniences and surround us with wolves, and all those imaginations will vanish faster than a dream before the stark light of day. “What were we thinking?” we say, and shake ourselves to alertness, and get to work.
Now then: we Christians are not surrounded by a prairie fire and a band of Sioux warriors. All they could do is kill the body. Our situation is implied by the prayer that Pope Leo XIII instructed Catholics to say at the end of every Mass. I’ll translate:
Holy Michael Archangel, defend us in battle; against the snares and wickedness of the devil be our fortress; may God rebuke him, we pray upon our knees; and do thou, O prince of the heavenly army, by the power of God thrust into Hell Satan and all the other malignant spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Roaring flames stretching for miles, and warriors out for vengeance? If only our enemies were so few, so meek, and so feeble.
Am I exaggerating? The devil may scour the plains of America hungry for souls, but we are a Christian nation, and he is apt to sweat for nothing, especially since, as we hear from the spiritually fat and easy, that God in His infinite mercy will save us all. For God is the smiley face we paste upon our middling lives. He will take our sins as seriously as we do, which is to say, he will literally not give a damn. Isn’t that why Jesus was crucified, so that we might not have to give a damn?
The question suggests the bitter rejoinder. But we need not be theologians if we have eyes and look about us, and judge with uncompromising honesty. We are the Church Militant. What then is our military situation?
A few days ago I tried to watch a movie that had recently won an award for Best Picture of the Year. In a ninety second stretch I saw someone calmly put a bullet into the forehead of two men, one of whom had just offered to be his ally. I turned it off. I tried to watch a football game. There I saw a sluttish woman stretched out on a floor, talking in a sultry and blithely contemptuous way about men and their hydraulic problems; this for an audience of millions of sport-following boys. Trailers for television shows and movies suggest that the only “virtues” remaining in the world are avarice, ambition, aggression, scorn, lust, vanity, and wrath. That’s our mass entertainment, what is left of popular culture. That fortress has been reduced to sticks and stones.
What about our schools? I answer the question with a question. Which of the following would be least likely to occur there, or most likely to be condemned? A teacher instructs a co-ed class to put rubbers on bananas. The class reads a pornographic novel. A boy dressed as a girl is voted prom queen. Children are instructed to despise the history of their nation. A teacher explains an allusion in Paradise Lost by turning her pupils’ attention toward a passage in the gospels. Which one? I don’t have to answer. The brick walls of the schools may be solid, but their souls are rubble.
Our government? The one that declares that a people’s culture is illegal, and that appeals to human nature are inadmissible? The one that has subordinated its Constitution to the summum bonum of sexual license, with child-murder as the fail-safe?
In this military calamity, how have our Church leaders, the officers in the army upon earth, comported themselves? Where are the priests to lead us? Many men might be found if we understood that we must fight in love on behalf of a mad and lost world, and that souls hang in the balance. But no boy dreams of growing up to be a quisling, a lieutenant at the sufferance of the enemy, a temporizer at whom the enemy laughs even as he sends the wine and the crepes suzettes our way.
We need those priests. The Church is not a Spirituality Club. She is not the ecclesia impotens. But do we actually want those leaders? I’ll have more to say about this next time.
Anthony currently serves as professor of English at Providence College, and is perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. He has also authored several original works, including ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization’ and the satirically titled ‘Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child’. He regularly writes for publications including ‘The Catholic Thing’ and ‘Crisis Magazine’.