I’ve written often about Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most prominent atheist. Most recently, I did a piece on the CNN blog, urging Christians to pray for Hitchens as he battles a very serious form of cancer—and to my astonishment, this benign recommendation was met with an extraordinarily negative reaction from atheists. But that’s a story for another day. On my recent vacation, I took two books with me, Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, which I had begun and wanted to finish, and his brother Peter Hitchens’s The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, a stunning account of the younger Hitchens’s journey through militant Trotskyite atheism to a robust Christianity. It was a fascinating, and I must admit rather unnerving, experience to overhear, as it were, the brothers Hitchens debating with one another in my own head. Things got so intense that Christopher Hitchens actually appeared in one of my dreams during the vacation!
So many people had urged me to comment on the new film “Eat, Pray, Love” that I felt obligated to see it on its opening weekend. The theater in which I viewed the movie was pretty much full, and the gender ratio was approximately 92% female, 8% male. The storyline of “Eat, Pray, Love” adheres fairly closely to the classic spiritual quest trajectory. As the narrative commences, our heroine, Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts), finds herself in a sort of mid-life crisis. Her marriage has lost its spark, her job is going nowhere, and her friends don’t know how to help her. In one of the most affecting moment in the movie, Liz kneels down and, with tears, simply begs God to show her the way.
Our Catholicism Project film crew arrived at the shores of large lake in far northwest Ireland, in the county of Donegal. We stepped onto a ferry and were taken to an island in the middle of the lake. On the island was a collection of buildings, which in both architecture and color reminded me vividly of Alcatraz prison. The weather that day was horrific: temperature around 50, heavy winds, and a steady cold rainfall. Our hosts offered us tea and scones and then we made our way onto the island to begin our work. Out of the mists and the rain emerged the figures that we had come to film. They were swathed in raincoats, hoods, and jackets, but their feet were bare. Most of them carried rosaries in their hands, and some of them were praying aloud. A few were making their way, on their knees, around rude “beds” of stone, and one woman was standing against a wall in the attitude of the crucified Christ. Some of the more elderly denizens of the island were walking with a halting, pained gait. We had come to Lough Derg, otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory.
In 1879, the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the heart of Africa, in what is now the nation of Uganda. They catechized and preached and in a few years had made a number of converts, especially among the young. The most prominent of these were a group of men and boys who served as pages to the court of King Mwanga II. This king had initially been supportive of the missionaries, but his attitude quickly changed when he discovered how seriously his Christian pages took the moral demands of their new faith. Accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, Mwanga solicited sexual favors from several of his courtiers. When they refused, he presented them with a terrible choice: either renounce their Christian faith or die. Though they were new converts and though they were very young, the pages, to a man, refused to deny their Christianity. Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe was killed outright by the king himself, and the rest were led off on a terrible death march to the place of execution, many miles outside the capital city. On the way, the condemned passed the home of the priest who had baptized and catechized many of them. One can only imagine the profoundly conflicting feelings of pride and anguish that the priest must have experienced as he watched this procession. Witnesses said that the young men showed enormous resolution on the march and that the youngest, a boy named Kizito, actually chattered and laughed with this friends as he walked. When they arrived at the place of execution, a spot called Namugongo, they were put to death, some by spear but most by fire. The leader of the group, Charles Lwanga, all of twenty-five years old, asked permission to prepare the pyre himself. After arranging the wood, he lay down and endured a slow torture in silence, crying out “Oh God!” only at the very end.
I grant, of course, that the BP oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been an environmental disaster, perhaps the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But I also think it might carry a certain spiritual value. How would I explain this gnomic remark? Well, the gusher a mile below the surface of the ocean has confounded everyone. BP executives look and sound befuddled; the crews using the most advanced technological tools to stem the tide of oil are ineffectual; our smartest scientists can’t seem to come up with any solutions; and the President who was hailed, just a few months ago, as The One, is stymied by his daughter’s plaintive question, “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?” I don’t point all this out in order to mock the scientists, businessmen and politicians who are, presumably, striving to solve the problem; I do so in order to draw attention to our profound vulnerability and our inescapable finitude.