What the meek inherit


You wince, and turn away. It is the natural human reaction.

"I can't do anything about it." It would take courage to make a stand; and courage is in some sense "unnatural," or perhaps, "supernatural." Whichever, the rewards for courage are seldom to be found in this world, wherein the meek survive, by keeping their heads down and not getting involved.

So much of the Christian teaching, of which we are reminded as we approach one of the two days in the year when many of the bourgeois still go to church – Christmas and Easter, family dress-up occasions – consists of paradoxes that only begin to resolve in the eye of faith. Christ himself preached some very hard things, and some very puzzling things.

When I was a strident young atheist – now a long time ago – I was also a Bible reader. This was because I recognized the Scriptures as the lodestone of English literature; and in my pride, I fancied myself a poet. To those unfamiliar with what my Protestant ancestors called the "Good Book" – a little grimly – all the literature of our English language is murk.

I puzzled over so many things, and especially this saying: "The meek shall inherit the earth." There is so much irony in it. And the seemingly facetious: "My way is easy and my burden is light." And the bottomless resonance of: "Let the dead bury their dead." Now, after 35 years of being a Christian, and seven as a Catholic – and thus in a sense "inside" these mysteries – I continue to mull such extraordinary phrases. How empty my life could have been, without them.

The ancient Greeks had their Homer; the English (and all the other European peoples, including the modern Greeks) had their Bible. It was the formative story book of each language; the common currency of "myth," iconic imagery, music, poetry, and moral instruction. Without a thorough grounding in Scripture and the Tradition of belief, not only English literature is incomprehensible to the reader. Ditto, most of Western civilization is incomprehensible. We are left with a cultural blank.

Among all the European peoples, the English (after perhaps the Scots and the Welsh) had been the most assiduous Bible readers. Curiously, this seems to have been true even before the Protestant Reformation made the Bible quite formally the centre of English public life.

The English, whose political institutions we inherited, are par excellence what the Arabs call, "a people of the book" – a phrase they copied from the rabbis, as Christians did. At the heart of all "faith traditions" is this studious and prayerful humility; for in all genuine religion we seek to still our own troubled hearts, and discern the Will of God. In the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done."

We enter now on what is anciently known as Holy Week – Megale Hebdomas; Hebdomas Sancta – from today's palm processions, recalling the palms thrown before Jesus upon his donkey, as he entered Jerusalem gate, in ironic worldly triumph, along His road to the Cross. We who still observe will pass this week, through the ghostly service of Tenebrae, where the candles are extinguished, one by one; through our contemplation of the mystery of Gethsemane in that darkness; through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and the Easter Vigil; to the trumpet Gloria of the Resurrection.

We have ceased to be a people who believe that we need praying for; we have ceased to be grieved by our sins; we have ceased to care for our own immortal souls – in exchange for a few pieces of fake silver.

This is the most important week in the Christian liturgical calendar – the crowning conclusion to the long, solemn, abstinent season of Lent. From the West, all roads once led to it. In a Christian country, everything would shut down for it, and all productive labour be extinguished with the candles. For here is the heart of the whole Christian teaching: that there is Hope, Joy, Freedom, Grace. But that the source and destination of these things is not of this world.

This Ottawa was once a very Christian, and mostly Catholic town. Pockets of it remain so, almost in spite of the deliquescence of our Church. For those who have lived here, over the last two generations, have watched this glorious heritage folding down.

One thinks of the lapsed convent, in Westboro, where the last, superannuated Sisters of the Visitation were until recently still cloistered and praying for our world; of its beautiful garden behind high walls; the architectural magnificence of the buildings that had served the Sisters for 135 years. Now they, too, are going under "upscale" glass condominiums, and a seniors home.

It is as if the last candle were being extinguished, in our historical Tenebrae. And the prayers likewise snuff out, with the last old nun. We have ceased to be a people who believe that we need praying for; we have ceased to be grieved by our sins; we have ceased to care for our own immortal souls – in exchange for a few pieces of fake silver.

Are we the meek who have inherited the world? Have we found the way that is easy? Are we the dead, burying our dead?

What do we build on the old foundations?




David Warren. "What the meek inherit." Ottawa Citizen (April 19, 2011).

This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.


David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled – especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.

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