|Illustration from Ship of Fools|
So is described Mr. Hooper, a young officer in the Army despised for his lack of culture and imagination by the novel’s narrator. The problem with Hooper is not so much wickedness as it is insensibility. He is, in terms of being a man of Western formation, neither hot nor cold, but passive-aggressively lukewarm.
Sadly, we all know too many Catholics similarly uncultured in their own past. We have an excess of flowchart-smart apologists, but few who have pondered the depths of Augustine’s De civitate Dei contra paganos. Our artists chase after every faddish movement, but few contemplate much less venerate the depths of our iconographic tradition. Lovers of the old Roman Rite too frequently possess an irrational hatred of oriental rites. Devout laymen glory in thoughtless repetition of things written in books meant for the formation of children. Yeats was assuredly correct concerning passionate intensity.
Would not our compatriots in religion be better served with stories of saints and sinners than with mere catechesis? In preconciliar times Catholic youth could rattle off their Baltimore, but was their historical education anything beyond sanitary hagiography and polemics against the enemies of the Church? I do not know what young Catholics today actually learn, but my brief experience with teenage preparation for Confirmation suggests that it is nothing much beyond vague sentimentalities about God’s love.
Hooper would not be roused to joy at the justice of Phinees against the initiates of Beelphegor. Hooper would not laugh at the mockery of Elias towards the prophets of Baal. Hooper would not weep at the self-effacement of David. Hooper would be barely sensible to the shipwrecks of Paul, the exile of Athanasius, the trial of Formosus, the conversion of Augustine, and the death of Joan of Arc. Annoyance and sentimentality are the only passions left to the Hoopers of the world. Greatness is quite literally unimaginable to them, whether that greatness be heavenly or hellish; Paradise is bland and the Inferno desolate. Heroism and hedonism alike hold no appeal for Hooper.
The intellectuals of Christendom were set alight by the verses of Virgil, seeing in them the preparation for the salvation of the Gentiles and a symbol of our own spiritual conquests. The poets of Europe sought to imitate Virgil and build upon his foundation, reviving the epic form for retellings of the crusades and the legends of Charlemagne’s court. The Roman poet ends his invocations to the gods in the Georgics with, “Look with favor upon a bold beginning.” How can we inspire our fellow Catholics to boldness in deed and thought? Charles Ryder despairs at the arrival of the Age of Hooper as if it were the destruction of Jerusalem, and he is not roused to action against it. What can be done to convince the Hoopers of the Pews that there is an immense scope of being beyond what they have comfortably accepted?
Virgil himself explains the fate of the indifferent damned to the Christian poet Dante, “This miserable mode / Maintain the melancholy souls of those / Who lived withouten infamy or praise.” But fear of punishment is not an effective motivator for our Hoopers; they have too many defenses against it. One hopes they will be attracted to the immensity of the Good when it is shown to them more clearly, but this is difficult to predict. If these things are not imposed upon them in their formative years, it is doubtful they will expand their appetites as they age.
I do not have much in the way of recommendation. In my own experience, the unimaginative and lazy are heroically valiant in their rejection of change, like the Trojan women burning the ships of Aeneas in Sicily so that they can cease their difficult journeying. But probably no one is entirely immune to wonder, that species of fear which is the catalyst for great change. Probably.