Excavating a Spiritual Dinosaur for Lent

Taken from The Catholic Thing
by Dr. Christopher Blum

Excavating a Spiritual Dinosaur for Lent

In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis spoke of himself as a dinosaur, that is, as a “specimen” of the “Old Western order.” He was only partly jesting. Lewis considered England in 1954 to be separated from the ages of Arthur, Chaucer, and even of Dr. Johnson by a great “chasm” that opened in the time of Jane Austen and Walter Scott. To understand the world before Ivanhoe and Persuasion, he warned, one needed to “suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits” that one acquires by “reading modern literature” and inhabiting the modern world. It was precisely because he belonged to that older world as a native son, Lewis said, that he would at least be useful to his contemporaries as a specimen, if not as an authority.

If ever there were a representative of the Old Western order in its specifically Catholic form, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) would seem to be the man. When he’s known at all, it’s for what he opposed: political liberalism, Biblical criticism, the new spirituality of Fénelon and Madame Guyon, even the ultramontane interpretation of the papal office. Tonsured while still a boy, he lived entirely within the Church and northern France; he seems never to have traveled far enough to see the ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. A small-town bishop with decidedly traditional views, he has sometimes been called a “founder of the Counter-Enlightenment.” How could his innermost thoughts and aspirations possibly be of use to us?

The answer is that Bossuet’s mind was a model of judiciousness and balance. He combined excellences only rarely brought together in one person. As a preacher, he was both learned as well as fiery and dialectically sharp. As a courtier, he was both discreet and principled. Trusted as the tutor to Louis XIV’s son, he also rebuked the Sun King in veiled terms from the pulpit and with bold directness in private letters. He was a competent administrator but no plodding bureaucrat. No less a critic than Paul Claudel once said that his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688) was the book he would choose if only one could be saved to “bear witness to the world of the French language and spirit.”

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