Thursday, June 11th, 2020

To Grasp the Permanent Things: a Note About Psalmody and the Mysteries of June

{Originally written for the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat Group

In light of all that has been taking place over the past few months, a certain phrase recently came to mind: The Permanent Things. Especially during the last half of the twentieth century, the phrase was often used in the context of cultural commentary and conservative politics: the poet T. S. Eliot used it, for instance, and the political philosopher Russell Kirk. Taking the phrase simply on its own, however, we ought to let it ring in our ears a moment. The Permanent Things.

What are The Permanent Things? It isn’t a foolish question. After all, for so many people, there are no Permanent Things. For many of our friends, families, and neighbors, their thoughts are bent upon all things that change—public opinion, the economy, the latest fads, the newest scandal or controversy, the entertainment industry, and so forth. The inevitable result is that a people’s hope begins to rest, not in The Permanent Things, but in what is changeable. This is tragic, because we cannot place our hope in what changes, and this almost by definition. Little wonder, then, why clear-sighted hope seems to be in short supply today.

But we return to the question for ourselves. What are The Permanent Things? The fundamental dignity of every human life, certainly, is one of the Permanent Things. The nature of man, woman, and the family are Permanent Things. Beyond these, every Catholic knows many Permanent Things—or at least he ought to—because he spends his life in constant contact with them. In point of fact, every truth that comes to us by way of the Catholic faith is, in one way or another, a Permanent Thing. The Creed, the Sacraments, the Holy Scriptures, sacred Tradition, are all Permanent Things. And so we see that The Permanent Things are not just stuff for the mind, but matters that affect every part of us. Wherever we look deeply, the Permanent Things peer back at us.

It is why, for instance, the Church has always prized beautiful architecture. A Catholic church—from the smallest chapel to the grandest basilica—must express in visible form something of the solidity and permanence of the truths of the Faith. A finely built church makes us sense and feel the Permanent Things, even before we are able to explain them. Things like the value of creation, man’s place in the world, God’s work of salvation: all these and more are the Permanent Things that ought to cry out to us from the stone, wood, and painted glass of our churches.

And yet, a certain caveat appears before us. What happens, for example, when our churches are closed? Or what happens when we can no longer participate in our usual sacred activities—like the Sacraments or retreats or social gatherings? We each have our feelings to reckon with, that is true. But that cannot be all. No, indeed: we are to grasp for The Permanent Things.

Our example from sacred architecture is helpful again. We do well to note that our churches have a mediating function; that is to say, they communicate something beyond themselves. To be sure, they are important; profoundly important. But Chartres Cathedral, the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, Rome’s Saint Mary Major—all these exist because of The Permanent Things. To be metaphysicians for a moment, we ought to say that The Permanent Things come first, they flow out from the center of being itself; our participation in them comes second.—And because of that, The Permanent Things are always real, always ready for us to embrace them, no matter the exigencies and difficulties of the moment. We never really lose touch with The Permanent Things. In a certain sense, this is what makes them permanent.

But we should jump to the deepest level of the matter. In truth, God is The Permanent Thing; in fact, he is The Only Permanent Thing. And of course he is no thing at all, but Three ineffable Persons in One God. As if that were not enough, the God who is The Permanent One took flesh in Jesus Christ, hallowing our human nature and sharing our close company in order to save us. And from the moment of the Incarnation, he has shared his Heart with us.

Regardless of what the world around us is doing, regardless of what we can or cannot do, we do stand in the light of two mysteries in particular during the month of June: the Most Holy Trinity and the Sacred Heart—The Permanent Things par excellence. These mysteries are always available to us, because the life of grace makes us to grasp them; indeed, these mysteries make the life of grace possible. No amount of disruption or disorder can cast a shadow over them; all the change of the world cannot dislodge The Permanent Things.

We end with a practical suggestion. Pray Psalm 4. Holy Church prays this prayer every Sunday night during the Office of Compline. Thus, it is a prayer for our times, which can seem more than a little dark:

When I called upon him, the God of my justice heard me: when I was in distress, thou hast enlarged me. . . . O ye sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart? . . . For thou, O Lord, singularly hast settled me in hope.[1]        

Indeed, all the Psalms are gateways to the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and to the Sacred Heart. Therefore, because their author is God himself, the Psalms make us grasp—and with unshakable firmness—The Permanent Things.



[1] Psalm 4, i, iii, x.

{Image: Cologne Cathedral}