Confessions of a Catholic Puritan

If I’d been alive in the 17th century, I probably would’ve been a Jansenist. Not that I’m bragging or anything. That’s just the way it is; I’m at peace with the fact.

My thinking naturally tends toward a kind of anti-rationalism that borders on irrationalism. I’m a convert to Catholicism, but mine was a conversion of the heart, not the mind. I could’ve spent ten years reading nothing but Thomas Aquinas and not felt the faintest desire to swim the Tiber.

I would’ve been a Jansenist in the 17th century for the same reason I would’ve been a nominalist in the 14th and a voluntarist in the 13th. There’s something irresistible about the idea that God isn’t bound by the puny mortal categories invented by our puny mortal brains. God is good; He is wise; He is just. But that doesn’t mean He must conform to our definition of goodness, or wisdom, or justice. Something is good because God says it’s good, and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

It’s kind of an Old Testament idea, I guess. When God tells you to do something, you do it. You don’t stop to debate Him about the metaphysics of the thing. You just do it. When He told Abraham to sacrifice his on son on the altar, Abraham said “Yes sir!” and marched poor Isaac up the mountain. It’s dark stuff, but the message is clear: you don’t second guess God.

I’m learning (slowly) to overcome my Jansenist and nominalist tendencies. Yet I could never be a Calvinist. I know, because I’ve tried.

I come from Puritan stock. My first known ancestor lived in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the 1600s; I was born in Newburyport about four centuries later. My grandparents left the Congregational Church to join a more conservative Presbyterian parish in the town over, and that’s where I was baptized.

When I was in middle school, I decided that I wanted to become a minister. So, our pastor very kindly offered to meet with me once a week and teach me about our faith. It was kind of like AP Sunday school. And, at first, I loved it.

Then, one day, he asked me: “Mike, do you think God is sad that some people don’t go to Heaven?”

That seemed like a no-brainer to me. “Well, yeah.”

My pastor shook his head. “Of course He isn’t.” He then gave me a very basic reading of Calvin’s idea of predestination. Since God is omnipotent, if any sinner goes to Hell, it’s because He wants them to go to Hell.

That struck me as… not right. So, I broke off my studies in divinity then and there. Pretty soon afterwards, I stopped going to church. It wasn’t until I discovered Anglo-Catholicism in high school that I became a Christian again. But that’s a story for another day.

Having said all of that, I remain more than a little infatuated with my ancestors’ Puritanism. It always has been, and always will be, one of my guilty pleasures.

This is where a lot of my fellow Catholics are going to start chucking tomatoes. Folks, please! Let me explain. There are five basic tenets of Puritanism that I think we can all get behind, which I’ll give in this helpful listicle.

1. Simple Worship

Even as an Anglo-Catholic and a “traditionalist” Roman Catholic, I’ve never been a ritualist. I’ve never been terribly interested in the finer points of liturgy. I still have to ask Google to explain the difference between a thurible and a thurifer. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy liturgy. I love incense, Gregorian chant, and the little mallet the priest uses to sprinkle everyone with holy water. (Aspergillum—that one I know.)

But I enjoy a High Mass the way an infant enjoys a game of peek-a-boo. It’s a complete mystery to me. I’m always baffled the grown-ups are so calm as they go about this sublime and awesome task.

Still, I find the High Mass a bit overwhelming. Maybe it’s because I need to study the liturgy more. Maybe it’s because I first learned to love God at a little Presbyterian summer camp here in New Hampshire, reading the Bible in an old barn and singing old hymns by a campfire. Or maybe it’s because I’d spent so much time in the Anglican Church. I knew that, on a purely aesthetic level, the average Anglo-Catholic parish will beat ninety-nine percent of their Roman counterparts.

That’s apparently how Evelyn Waugh felt, too, and I take some consolation in knowing that he also preferred the (Tridentine) Low Mass. As he wrote in the Catholic Herald circa 1964,

“I am old now but when I was young I was received into the Church. I was not at all attracted by the splendour of her great ceremonies—which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love.”

Ditto.

I’m not a “Catholic Puritan” in the sense that I want to purge the Church of ritual. Not in the least bit. I’m just grateful that, on any day of the week, I can pop down to our FSSP parish and see our priest “stumping up to the altar” to ply his trade. For half an hour, I can sit there and watch as something extraordinary happens—something more extraordinary than any chant or incense. God Himself comes down from Heaven to the altar, to feed me with His flesh and blood.

It’s the simplest thing in the world. And yet it’s also the most sublime.

2. Sacramental Nature

Like all Calvinists, the Puritans back in Blighty talked a good game about Creation having fallen with man and being utterly in Satan’s thrall. But when our Pilgrim Fathers arrived in the New England—when they gazed into those endless, darkening woods; when they tried (and failed) to feed themselves off the frozen, rocky soil—nature must’ve really felt like enemy territory.

I’ve always loved the bit in The Scarlet Letter where Hester and Pearl are walking in the woods, and Pearl begs her mother to tell her the story of the Black Man: “How he haunts this forest, and carries a book with him,—a big, heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black Man offers his book and an iron pen to everybody that meets him here among the trees; and they are to write their names with their own blood.”

It’s a kind of funhouse-mirror image of G.K. Chesterton’s idea of Elfland. Like all Catholics, the big man saw the world as a place of magic and mystery. So did the Puritans. The only difference is this: Catholics believe that nature is suffused with grace. Puritans thought it was haunted by sin. Like us, they viewed nature as sacramental—though, granted, theirs was rather a dark sacrament.

Still, whatever its faults, I prefer the Puritans’ supernatural view of Creation to the dreary materialism that replaced it. The Puritans might’ve been wrong, but at least they weren’t impious.

By the way, that’s where all the Yankee superstitions come from. You might’ve noticed that we can identify about a hundred bad omens for every one good omen. Black cats, broken mirrors, walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, knocking on wood, etc. Even the good omens tend to be pretty morbid. Whenever a cardinal lands on my mom’s birdfeeder, she says it’s my grandfather’s spirit coming to visit her. It’s nice of him to check in, but… yeesh.

That might be the last remnant of Puritanism in old New England: this idea that nature is absolutely ruled by some kind of higher power. St. Francis of Assisi believe the same thing; he just thought that power is a little more benevolent. Maybe that’s why I love the Franciscans.

3. Everyday Mysticism

Speaking of Chesterton, he was awfully fond of using “Puritan” as a slur. G.K. was thinking of dour moralists like Oliver Cromwell, the Roundhead who stole Christmas. And there was a fair bit of that in New England, of course. But we’ve been handed down a very incomplete idea of what everyday life was like for the Puritans.

If I use the phrase Puritan spirituality, you’re probably going to think of some benighted farmer shivering on a cold wooden pew, quaking in his buckled shoes as some bully at the pulpit tells him all about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And, again, there was more than enough of that to go around.

But as the late J.I. Packer explained in his book The Quest for Godliness, the Puritans’ daily spiritual practices were strikingly wholesome. They placed emphasis on two daily practices: Scriptural meditation and the examination of conscience. Not unlike St. Ignatius of Loyola, actually.

If you’ve ever wondered how a lovely group of people like the Quakers could originate from a bunch of guilt-ridden dullards like the Puritans—well, that’s how. Like the Quakers, the Puritans believed in a kind of “inner light.” They believed that, through prayer and introspection, they could they develop a personal relationship with Christ and be transformed by His grace.

I guess it follows from the doctrine of predestination. How do you know if you’re one of “God’s elect”? It’s not something you can choose or refuse. It’s stamped on your soul for all time. So, you have to dig a little. Once you find that mark, you can give your “public testimony.” You can out yourself as one of the frozen chosen, and become a full citizen of our glorious theocracy. Or so they might say.

Still, there’s something attractive about constantly striving to live constantly in God’s presence—to find the grace buried deep in our fallen nature. It wasn’t unique to the Puritans, of course. Catholics (and all Christians) are encouraged to do the same. But the Puritans placed that divine intimacy at the center of their lives. That’s not so bad, is it?

4. Total Detachment

Sociologists are given to using the phrase “Protestant work ethic.” It stems from the Puritan idea that worldly prosperity is a mark of divine favor. The trouble is, Puritans had no such idea. Really, their attitude was exactly the opposite.

I never cease to be amazed by how stupid smart people can be. I mean, guys, it’s right there in the name. They sought to purify Christian civilization of all luxury and decadence. And, unfortunately, they were pretty successful for a while there.

Yet, despite their excesses, there’s something commendable about the Puritans’ commitment to detachment from worldly goods. Partly, it was born of necessity. The standards of living weren’t very high in colonial Massachusetts. But the Puritans were also inspired by Christ’s commission in Matthew’s Gospel: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts…” They saw themselves as a new generation of apostles sent to re-convert a world that had fallen into sin and error. If that meant living in total destitution, so be it.

They certainly weren’t looking at King Charles and saying: “Wow, that guy’s doing pretty well for himself. God must love him a lot more than He loves me!”

America’s first great poet, Anne Bradstreet—a Puritan, of course—summed up the Puritan ethos in an autobiographical poem, which she aptly titled “Upon the Burning of Our House”:

There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store;
The world no longer let me love.
My hope and treasure lie above.

If this topic strikes anyone’s fancy, I heartily recommend you pick up a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of old Puritan prayers bound in a slim, handsome leather volume. In one of my favorites, called “Heaven and Earth,” a minister writes:

Give me to know that heaven is all love,
   where the eye affects the heart,
     and the continual viewing of thy beauty
     keeps the soul in continual transport of delight.

Give me to know that heaven is all peace,
   where error, pride, rebellion, passion
      raise no head.

Give me to know that heaven is all joy,
   the end of believing, fasting, praying,
      mourning, humbling, watching,
         fearing, repining,

And lead me to it soon.

It might be easier to say these prayers if there’s about a sixty percent chance you’re going to starve to death come winter. But these guys could’ve packed up and gone back to England whenever they wanted to. The United States of America only exists today because they persevered. We can’t begin to fathom what kind of hardships they suffered in order to live out (what they believed to be) God’s mission for them. You can’t help but admire the gumption.

5. The Politics of Charity

In my book The Reactionary Mind, I talk a lot about the “politics of charity.” A country isn’t united by a common set of laws. Americans aren’t Americans simply because we all happen to answer to the same politicians in Washington. We’re certainly not united by “market forces” or “rational self-interest,” as the capitalists believe. No: a healthy society is bound together by Christian love, otherwise known as charity.

This is a quintessentially Medieval idea. It comes from the belief that the king, having been appointed to rule by God the Father, is our patriarcha: a kind of step-father to the nation. We’re all children of God and step-children of the king. That means we’re not just countrymen: we’re brothers and sisters.

The Puritans were some of the last holdouts of this idea of a Godly brotherhood—a society bound together by bonds of fraternal love. So, when the Arbella set out for the New World in 1630, its leader, John Winthrop, vowed to create in their colony “a model of Christian charity”:

“These we see are extraordinary, therefore we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go…. As in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.”

That’s the thing I admire most about the Puritans. They came to America seeking forge a new society based on the old Medieval ideal. This new-old society would be free of the decadence, corruption, poverty, and exploitation that characterized old England. America would renew man’s commitment to his fellow man. In this country, I am my brother’s keeper.

This wasn’t a kind of proto-socialism. The Puritans had no need for a new -ism. The “politics of charity” is the basis of all Christian social thought. It’s not an ideology: it’s faith in action.

If only we could all be a little more Puritanical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: