Migrants

Elijah fiery chariot

We read in Sunday’s gospel about how the Lord and the Apostles took an unusual route to Jerusalem. Galilean Jews, like Jesus and the Apostles, usually crossed to the east side of the Jordan River to travel south by a safer and more welcoming road. In other words, pilgrims from Galilee generally took the long way.

Because the straight way passed through Samaria, the lands occupied by the remnants of the northern tribes of the Hebrew people. Nearly 1,000 years of history had passed since all the children of Jacob had been united. The northern tribes had never accepted Jerusalem as a capital or site for the Temple. And the northern tribes had interbred with the Assyrians. Hence the use of ‘Samaritan’ as a term of opprobrium among Jews.

But for His own mysterious reasons, the Lord decided on this particular trip to take the more direct route, straight through Samaria. Which meant risking harsh treatment and rejection at the hands of the unsympathetic natives.

I think maybe we can relate to the emotions that the Apostles experienced when the Samaritans mistreated them. It hurts when the natives mistreat you, when you are a stranger and a sojourner in a land that is not your own.

NT Holy Land mapAs we read, the Lord would have none of the Apostles’ angry reaction. He insisted that everyone stay focused on the one thing necessary: to keep moving toward the goal.

Now, maybe we Catholics are just silly idealists on the subject of immigration. After all, in church, we exercise no border controls at all. All of us seek ‘asylum’ in church. Every baptized person belongs, no exceptions. And any un-baptized person can join our church by receiving Holy Baptism. There are no other criteria. Our Lord commanded His Church to embrace all nations. Every human being needs Jesus Christ, so our doors must stand open to every human being.

As you know, we read the same Sunday readings every three years. So let’s look back over the past six years, and see where we have come as a nation, when it comes to strangers and sojourners entering our lands–like Jesus and the Apostles entering Samaria.

Six summers ago, the US Congress labored long and hard on “immigration reform.” A lot of people spent a lot of energy to try to find a solution to the problem of immigrants living in the shadows here in America, unprotected by our laws. Many of us here had high hopes; the Catholic Church in the USA had high hopes for a good compromise. But the immigration-reform compromise never even came up for a full Congressional vote.

Then, three summers ago, the last time we read this reading about Jesus and the Apostles getting rejected by the Samaritans, we Americans were getting ready for a presidential election the following fall. We were struggling as a nation to decide what kind of future we wanted for ourselves.

US Mexico border wall

Would we continue to welcome immigrants? Would we treat the immigrants already here more fairly and protect them by law from abuse and exploitation? Would we Americans continue to see ourselves as a nation that has enjoyed extraordinary blessings–which therefore imposes a duty upon us to help others? A duty to keep our doors open, and to rejoice in the gifts that immigrants bring to America.

Now, it’s three years later, and we read this gospel passage again. We have to face the ugly fact. We chose the other path. We look back over the past six years, and we see a stunning transformation. We have become like the Samaritans who refused to welcome the pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. I would say that we have lost ourselves as a nation; we have forgotten who we really are, when it comes to welcoming immigrants.

But before we get all depressed about our political situation, let’s put the whole business in perspective. Let’s remember why we frequent the church. Namely, to commune with the mysteries of our faith. And the mysteries of our faith teach us an important fact: Here on earth, none of us have a lasting city.

A whirlwind carried the prophet Elijah from this world up to heaven. Our Savior, when He walked the earth, had no home in which to lay His head. Christ revealed to us what our life here really is: a pilgrimage. An arduous journey toward a goal. All Americans are immigrants, to be sure. But even more so: All Christians are emigrants. We are on our way somewhere else. The Church makes Her way forward as a caravan of migrants, on the way to heaven.

We do not see our destination. We believe in it. Why can’t we see it? Why can’t we see the heavenly Jerusalem? Because it is invisible? No. The angels know how brightly that city shines—a million times more splendid than the Manhattan skyline on a starry night.

We can’t see the heavenly homeland now because our eyes do not possess adequate seeing power. Our minds, which see by faith—our minds perceive reality more comprehensively than our eyes. That is, provided we live by the Spirit and not by the flesh.

Let’s pray that we will always love our neighbors with pure hearts. And that we will welcome strangers–since that’s the distressing disguise in which Jesus comes to us. In the heavenly Jerusalem, chaste and true love of God and neighbor is the very light and air by which everyone sees and breathes. May we always serve that love, as we make our way as migrants, pilgrims, towards the Kingdom of God.

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Pater Noster

cloister of the Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem

At Holy Mass this summer, we get to hear the Lord Jesus teach us the Our Father not once, but twice. Today we read about it from Matthew 6. On Sunday, July 28, we will read about it from Luke 11.

Anyone ever visit the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem? The walls display the words of the Our Father in 100+ languages.

The closest we can get to the original is… Greek. Anyone know the Our Father in a language other than English? Latin? Spanish?

After Mass this past Sunday, an earnest soul asked me: ‘Father, when will we change the Our Father? Because of Pope Francis.’

Knowing this dear person as I do, I thought I knew the source of his slight confusion. So I googled: “Fox News Our Father Pope Francis.” I immediately discovered a report about the pope changing the wording of the Our Father. Unfortunately, the reporter failed to grasp that the change this year affects only the Italian-language Missal. Not the English.

Here’s what the Catechism says about the phrase they changed in Italian. They changed it in French in 2017. The German bishops voted not to change it.

It is difficult to translate the Greek verb. It means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation,” and “do not let us yield to temptation.” God cannot be tempted by evil and He tempts no one. We ask Him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin. This petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength. [para. 2846]

If I were pope, I certainly wouldn’t encourage any bishops’ conferences to go around changing the words of prayers that we all learned at our mothers’ knees.

The pope learned it a certain way: no nos dejes caer en tentacion. “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

I think the Italians will find it quite confusing when the priest tells them to change the way they pray their most-familiar prayer. The new Italian version introduces the verb abandon which no one has ever thought the original Greek word means. I certainly don’t envy the poor Italian parish priests, who have to deal with this.

But so far we English-speakers don’t have to worry about it. When it comes to adding reasons to get mad at the pope, o heavenly Father, lead us not into temptation.

 

Hidden Visitations

tabernacle

The Blessed Mother traveled eighty miles to visit her cousin Elizabeth and help her. By comparison, regarding distance: my twice-weekly trips between Rocky Mount and Martinsville would get me only halfway there. Our Lady would have continued on, as far as Greensboro.

Rocky Mount, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina are the same distance from each other as Nazareth, Galilee, and the Judean hillside town where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. And, of course, our Lady had no Nissan Juke to use on a well-maintained four-lane highway.

Now, exactly nine weeks have passed since… Holy Thursday. So today we would keep a Solemnity in honor of the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. But here in the U.S., we will keep Corpus Christi on Sunday instead.

Corpus Christi and Visitation Day go perfectly together. Because:

The Lord visited Elizabeth and Zechariah–and baby John the Baptist in the womb; Christ came in the flesh to their home. But you couldn’t see Jesus at that moment, because He still dwelt in His mother’s womb.

Likewise, the Lord visits us in the Holy Mass. He comes in the flesh, to every Catholic church or chapel, whenever we carry out the ceremony which He instituted on Holy Thursday. He bridges a gap of much more than eighty miles; He brings heaven to the earth.

But He veils Himself from our eyes. Like He did in Mary’s womb. The Holy Mass, the altar, the tabernacle–like our Lady’s womb, during those nine months: a place where Christ dwells, but hidden.

Unremarkable Fountains of Grace

jordan
At the Jordan River, just south of the Sea of Galilee, ten years ago, with Father Tim Meares of Raleigh

There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:27)

Lord Jesus’ point: familiarity breeds contempt. Prophets tend to exercise their powers when people revere them from afar. Up close prophets look too much like regular human beings.

What about Naaman’s cleansing? Elisha ordered him to bathe in the River Jordan. Is the River Jordan some kind of unique, amazing river? A splendid spectacle, like Niagara Falls, the Blue Danube, the mighty Hudson, and the holy Ganges all rolled into one? Hardly. The Jordan looks like other, familiar rivers, like the Shenandoah, the Roanoke, the Smith, or the Dan.

So Namaan the Syrian got mad. ‘Why did I bother with this Israelite prophet, who I thought was awesome? He just prescribes the same remedies I might have found back in Syria.’

But the servants reasoned with their valiant general. ‘Sir, if the prophet had ordered you to scale Mount Everest with your hands bound in oily gauze; if he had demanded that you do hot yoga, or a juice fast, or a coffee purge and a Japanese tea ceremony—you would have done these things. So why not go down to this little Jordan River, unimpressive as it is, and just see what happens?’

And Naaman’s leprous flesh was cleansed; it became like the skin of a little child. And the Syrian learned that the world has no god other than the God of Israel.

Tried and true remedies actually have a way of bringing about wonderful results. To find God, you don’t necessarily have to go to an ashram, or a Chumash sweat lodge, or on a pilgrimage to a remote Mongolian yurt. Confession and Mass at the friendly neighborhood parish church might do the trick.

History and Heaven

galilee-boat
Sea of Galilee

Lord Jesus reigns in heaven, and we have a heavenly kind of connection with Him. In His flesh, He conquered death and ascended to the right hand of the Father. From there, He pours out the Holy Spirit. He gives us grace: He helps us pray. He helps us do good. He reconciles us, when we sin and confess it. He makes Himself present on the altar, to be our sacrifice to the Father. He feeds us with His Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. [SPANISH.]

In other words, we have a supernatural connection with Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the God-man Who reigns as King over the choirs of angels. We believe in the mystical connection we have with Him—we believe in it, because it’s real.

But Father! Jesus of Nazareth was a regular guy. He started out as a carpenter, then became a rabbi. He made friends in the fishing town of Capernaum. He cured the fever of the mother-in-law of one of His friends, and she proceeded to give them a meal.

All of this sounds homey and down-to-earth, not mystical and otherworldly. His reception by Peter’s mother-in-law sounds like Jesus of Nazareth finding a kind of “home-away-from-home,” once He struck out as a teacher and left His own hometown behind. We can relate to that. Father, instead of going on about heaven and invisible stuff, why don’t you come back to earth and talk about Capernaum?

Ok. The city of Capernaum sat right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Fifty years ago, in 1968, a team of archaeologists did extensive excavations of the site. They discovered that Christians had gathered and worshiped at one ancient house beginning in the first part of the first century AD.

Here the Son of God had His kind-of home-base during his three year ministry. The house where people crowded to see Him, hear Him, touch Him.

excavation of house in Capernaum
Where God took naps while in Capernaum

We know the site; I’ve been there twice myself. It’s walking distance to the peaceful shore of the sea. Actually, Galilee is more like what we would call a lake. It is exactly double the size of Smith Mountain Lake. Lake Michigan could hold 350 Seas of Galilee.

The Galilean shore is just the kind of peaceful place where we could easily imagine the Lord Jesus strolling of the evening, rapt in prayer to the Father.

The gospels and the science of archaeology, therefore, come together to unite us with the enchanting facts of history. Jesus was a real man who slept in particular places. You run into plenty of “George Washington slept here” signs up and down the East Coast, and you can’t believe them all. But we can confidently believe that the house the archaeologists excavated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is in fact a place where Jesus of Nazareth slept.

The point here, I think, is this: We have a connection with Jesus on two levels. On the one hand, our connection with Him is real and verifiable on the basic historical level. We’re connected to Jesus of Nazareth by the normal handing down of human memories, through the writing of books and the building of memorials in important spots.

Yes, He walked the earth a long time ago. You wouldn’t usually expect to have much solid information about someone who lived two thousand years ago. But, in this case, we have a huge amount of solid material. Plenty of smart, forward-thinking people knew at the time that everything Jesus of Nazareth said and did had decisive importance. So they took note, handed it down, kept records, marked important spots, etc.

washington crossing delawareSo we don’t have to get all mystical and transcendent in order to establish that we have a connection with Jesus of Nazareth. That said, we do, of course, have a mystical and transcendent connection with Him. He triumphed over death; He ascended into heaven; He gives us grace through the sacraments. His heavenly graces transcend history; they put us in touch with the eternal reality of God. But all of them have their origin in the facts of history.

The two kinds of connection we have with Jesus, then—let’s call them the historical and the mystical—these two connections go hand-in-hand with each other. Our faith in the mystical connection isn’t blind or purely “spiritual,” since we base it on the facts of history. At the same time, we don’t think of Jesus as just another historical person, like George Washington. We know that Jesus is the living God, and that all the facts of His life two thousand years ago have meaning for us, here and now—they connect us with God.

Hopefully this reflection can help cure us of the shallow and dumb idea that “all religions are the same,” or that “the details of religion don’t matter—what matters is being a spiritual person.”

All religions are not the same. Our religion has to do with one particular Spirit-ual Person, Who lived on and off for three years in a particular house in the little city of Capernaum. We have zero interest in anything “religious” that doesn’t have to do with this man. He is our religion.

And every detail of His life has theological meaning—every detail deserves our meditation. Being vague and uninformed about religion, or about Jesus—what a waste of time! When He has given us so much to go on—so many specifics.

Sometimes it’s okay to be vague. If anyone asks me about which team I will root for in the Superbowl—I’m prepared to fudge that answer. I’m prepared to say something vague about that.

But not when it comes to Jesus Christ. When it comes to the Savior of the world, let’s always work with precise facts.

The View from Mount Nebo

Pope Benedict Mount Nebo

If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted. (Matthew 18:19)

If two of you agree. Sounds pretty easy. But if you think so, you’ve probably never attended a parish council meeting. And you’ve definitely never been married.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw the entire Holy Land, from Dan to Beersheba, from Naphtali to Idumea. To be sure, the view from Mount Nebo is majestic, like the view from McAfee’s Knob, or Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, NC. But no human eye could see the entire Holy Land from Mount Nebo. The Lord must have given Moses a share in His own divine vision, in order for the prophet to see the whole expanse of the land.

Then Moses died, and Joshua assumed his office. Now, two popes have stood at the same place on Mount Nebo and taken in the same view as Moses, at least the part that can be seen by the human eye.

At Holy Mass a week from Sunday we will hear the Lord speak about the Church’s authority to bind and loose (we hear about that at Holy Mass today, too). Our spiritual Mother, the family formed by God through the sacrifice of Christ, governed by Christ’s Vicar on earth: She possesses the holy concord, the agreement, the harmony of spirit which the Lord promised to reward. She teaches us how to pray and how to live.

We human beings rightly cherish our sacred personal independence. But this does come as good news: our Creator has not left us on our own to seek Him. He has not made us religious free agents.

Yes, we only truly find Him when we have the courage to enter into the depths of our consciences to find our true selves, the saints He made us to be. But our true selves never stand alone. We always belong to the family God forms from the flesh of His only-begotten Son.

Feast of the Holy Cross

holy-sepulcher
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14?  (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*

On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called…  Golgatha.  After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19:  “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb.  There they laid Him.”  Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there.  Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity.  St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:

[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth…  The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.

Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.

But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were.  We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.

So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.

Tenth Station of the Cross

So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.

And let’s focus especially on this:  our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue.  The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.

Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true.  The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts.  And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.

After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.

Let’s look at it this way.  A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell.  If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution:  zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs.  The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave:  zero.

little last supperIn other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man.  Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten.  And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.

Except for one fact:  He is God.

He rose from the dead.  He poured out His Holy Spirit.  He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass.  He is the hope and the joy of mankind.

This is what Christians have known from Day One.  So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection.  They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.

At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours.  The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity.  The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago.  And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.

We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them:  We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…

Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!

————–

* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.

Upcoming 1700th

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew anointing stone
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew arriving at the Holy Sepulchre, May 2014.  They agreed that they/their successors should meet in Iznik in 2025.

At Holy Mass, we remember the death of the hero* of the Nicene Creed, St. Athanasius, 1,643 years ago today.

Now, some of us will live to see the summer of 2025.  The 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

Not too many meetings bear commemorating after 1700 years.  I think we can say, even before it happens, that the Republican convention of summer 2016 (memorable as it may turn out to be) will not live in anyone’s memory in AD 3716.

Lake-İznik Turkey Nicaea
The place where the bishops met in AD 325, currently under the waters of Lake Iznik

We might even wonder if the Synods on the Family, conducted these past two autumns in Rome, will bear remembering in the years 2184 and 2185.

But the Council of Nicaea will demand solemn commemoration until the end of time.  Even in AD 170,325 (if we reach such a year ) Holy Church will remember the ecumenical Council of Nicaea.

But Father!  We already recall the Council of Nicaea every Sunday!  When we recite the Creed.

Good point.  But it just makes my point.

Namely, that the summer of 2025 will offer us an extremely important occasion for commemoration.  In the immortal words of Warren Carroll, at Nicaea the Church took “her first great step to define revealed doctrine more precisely in response to a challenge from a heretical theology.”  Bishops came from as far as India and France.  They also decided that Easter must fall after the spring equinox, no matter what the Jewish calendar said.

If you paid close attention at Mass yesterday, you heard Lord Jesus say, “The Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)  And you probably wondered, isn’t that Arius’ very position?

Negative.  The Father is greater than the Son in two ways.  1) The Father, God, infinitely transcends the Son, in the Son’s human nature.  2) The eternal Father alone is innascible–unbegotten, not born.  The divine Son, perfectly equal to the Father, is begotten–eternally begotten.  Which is to say:  the eternal relationship of the Father with the Son means that the Son can say of His unbegotten Father, ‘He is greater,’ even though, as eternal God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly equal.

Nicaea w arius
icon of the Council, with Arius defeated

Anyway, it’s not too early to start thinking about appropriate ways to commemorate the 1700th of Nicaea.

___________

*The villian’s name was Arius, who taught that there was a time when the divine Son was not.

Church Burned in Holy Land, Medieval Encyclical

Your unworthy servant at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves on the Sea of Galilee

Happier days for the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, in 2008.

The snapshot above shows how the church rises behind an atrium building, which leads to a beautiful courtyard, from which the pilgrim enters the church proper.

Thank God, the arsonists did not destroy the church itself. But the right arm of the building immediately behind the mophead in the photo above now stands as only a smoldering shell:

smoke at tabgha

No place on earth could be more peaceful than Tabgha, of a cool evening, the Sea of Galiliee lapping at its banks. Disturb this peace? Why?

Guns and fires blazing in churches on either side of the world, on the same day. Lord, help us. May the dead in SC rest in peace.

“The lamp of the body is the eye,” said the God-man Who fed the 5,000 in Tabgha.

Mysterious words, since, when the power goes out after a storm, it can be hard to see, without a flashlight or a candle. The eye would seem to need a lamp, not be a lamp.

Perhaps what He means is: What we choose to gaze upon is what makes us who we are.

Let’s choose wisely and meditate on this beautiful paragraph at the beginning of Holy Father Francis’ encyclical:

Our sister, Mother Earth, cries out to us… We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Anyone who thinks that they have a more traditional and conservative outlook than this: you’re living in a dreamworld, dear friend.

T.S. ELIOTThe thesis: Our moral failures wound the earth herself; she is our partner, our friend, the womb of our birth, the bride of our labors, our legacy for our children–this thesis is utterly ancient.

Off the top of my head, I can think of references to this idea in the Old Testament, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, and in the poems of T.S. Eliot–who had more bona fides as a ‘conservative’ than every man, woman, or child who has run for the Republican nomination for President (since Lincoln), all rolled into one.

And, of course, the magnum opus of all Mother-Earth poetry: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Laudato Si’ arrives as Vol. 4 of The Lord of the Rings.

Yes, the encylical urges international agreements, UN discussion, etc. Some might regard this as ‘liberal.’

But, more than that, the encyclical urges reverent submission to God and contemplative wonder at His handiwork. Many would regard this as ‘medieval.’

Let’s forget liberal vs. conservative and stick to pure medieval. St. Francis (medieval), pray for us!

Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams

Above all, I recommend keeping the Ten Commandments. Secondly, I recommend reading Trollope.

I have three of his Barchester novels under my belt. But I will defer commenting on that particular shire for now. (In Trollope’s Shire, the hobbits are Anglican clergymen.) The years march on with the relentless hope of the fertile earth in Barsetshire. We will consider that fundamentally happy world some other time.

In 1859, Trollope took a break from publishing Barchester chronicles. That year he gave us a novel which his devoted fan Cardinal Newman found to be disturbingly “melancholic and skeptical.” Trollope more or less said that he came to dislike The Bertrams himself. But I think it is a heartbreaking masterpiece.

My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope
My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope

Near the end of The Bertrams, the two bachelors around whom the plot revolves find themselves on-board ship, returning from Egypt to England. (This novel involves a couple elegant interludes in the Arab world.) Also aboard the ship: two young widows, homeward bound, having lost their husbands to disease in colonial India.

One of the widows is particularly pretty. Both take vivacious advantage of the quick intimacy of shipboard life. They need husbands, and they have no intention of losing the chance.

Both of the bachelor-heroes love women back in England. But one of those women is married to a third man, a rising star of Parliament. And the shipboard bachelor who loves her could have been a rising star of the world himself, had he not flailed his way down another path. He resorted instead to bohemian circles and tried to understand the meaning of life and find true religion.

This bachelor has a nasty, aging, avaricious Croesus for an uncle. But the principled young man will not try to curry favor. He has no concern one way or the other whether he winds up in his uncle’s will.

The Bertrams TrollopeIn other words, this young man—George Bertram—has shown himself a willful, splenetic, self-destructive, and irresolute vagabond. He can manage to be faithful to only one thing: his unshakeable desire to live in the truth.

He finds himself on deck with the prettier widow. His future opens before him like an impenetrable night. He rolls the dice, and offers himself to her. She bats her eyelashes, but she hesitates. Maybe this fella doesn’t have quite enough money?

In the nineteenth century, young people had to contend with the question, love or money? Like they do in the twenty-first century. Of course, in the nineteenth century, divorce involved such agonies and ruinations of oneself that is was best regarded as all but impossible. Like in the twenty-first century.

In 1859, the National Review (of England, not the USA) excoriated the newly published Bertrams for unfairly portraying the profession of a clergyman as morally superior to that of a lawyer. We might find that criticism rather laughable now.

What I do not find laughable at all is the beautiful and heartbreaking climax of the novel, which actually occurs near the beginning. (All good stories are at least two-thirds denouement.)

Trollope knew the Holy Land. He despised the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, like many Protestants of his day. We will leave that to the side for now.

But Trollope, like me, loved the Mount of Olives. Twentieth-century Barluzzi churches dot the hill now. But in the mid-nineteenth century, pilgrims just sat on rocks amid the Jewish graves and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount, and the city beyond, where the Savior carried His cross and was crucified, and rose.

Trollope put George Bertram on that spot, had him gaze at Jerusalem, had him choose to dedicate his life to the service of Christ and His Church, in a humble country parsonage, fame and money be damned.

But George abandoned his resolution.

The rest is the heartbreaking tale told in The Bertrams, peppered with delightful comic relief, and insight as deep as I have encountered into what truly makes a human soul independent and free.