At Christmas there is invariably the usual talk about the gospels being myth. As C.S.Lewis (who as a literary critic understood myth) observed, those who say the gospels are myth have probably not read either very many myths or the gospels.
One person who did understand myth was Joseph Campbell. I’m fascinated with Campbell–who was brought up as a Catholic but left the faith. By the way, I met a fellow who gave good anecdotal witness that Campbell was reconciled with the church on his deathbed. I’m intrigued by Campbell for several reasons. First, because of his encyclopedic knowledge of world religions, myth and story. He really did master the subject. I’m also delighted that he went his own way and, like Russell Kirk, never really fit in with the academic establishment. They were both genuine intellectuals and scholars, but not academics. I’m also interested in the reason Campbell left the Catholic Church.
I don’t remember where I read it, but he said (and I paraphrase) that he was terribly excited by the power of myth and ritual. He understood how myth shows truth through a supernatural story and that religious ritual applies it to ordinary life. He then added that the Catholic Church was the only religion which still in any way kept this alive in the modern world, but at the Second Vatican Council he felt they had turned their back on the whole thing and turned the Catholic faith into an insipid religion of clericalized social workers. He was disappointed and disgusted. This one religion which had the power and history to re-live the great myths through ritual and liturgy had forgotten what it was for and turned itself into a troop of girl scouts selling cookies.
So Joseph Campbell–despite his lapse from the faith–remains one of my literary heroes. What Campbell never managed to do was to replicate what the Catholic Church did have to offer. In The Power of Myth he waxes on and on about the depth of myth, the power of myth to unlock the mysteries of life, the psychological depth of myth to reveal the meaning to human existence, but he never found any way to apply it to ordinary mortals. He never finds any way to make it work. It all remains an interesting intellectual and psychological theory.
Then as I was hearing confessions the other day and saying the rosary and celebrating Mass I realized again that despite Campbell’s criticisms and disappointment, the Catholic Church is still there doing her job.
We are still there bringing the great myths alive and applying them to ordinary people’s lives in our week by week, day by day routine.
What do I mean by this? When you explore the great myths of humanity the same themes come up again and again: the dying savior, death and resurrection, victory over hell and the underworld, virgins and gods, sacrifice and blood and death and birth and life. These themes arise in virtually all ancient religions and cultures in one way or another. Then in the Hebrew religion they all start to come alive within human history. Throughout the Old Testament the great myths become real until at last the greatest myth comes true in the incarnation of the Son of God. I have several chapters on this theme in my book The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
What happens is that all the great themes of human mystery and meaning come alive in the Old Testament stories and then are fulfilled in the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.
This then, is where the myth is for the masses. Within the practice of the Catholic faith these ancient and profound themes are brought to life and applied to ordinary people by ordinary people. When we say the rosary millions of very ordinary people, through the mechanics of meditation, integrate their minds and souls with the events of Christ’s mysteries. Through the practice of confession Christ’s forgiveness is brought into the present moment and applied by an ordinary priest to the ordinary shortcomings of everyday sort of folk. Through the mystery of marriage the great mysteries of love, sacrifice, sex, birth and life are made real and lived out on a mystical level by ordinary people. So with all the sacraments: a boy is made into a mystical and eternal priest, a child is baptized into the eternal mysteries of light over dark, birth over death, resurrection and new life. Through confirmation a child receives the fullness of that same Spirit by whom all things are created. Through holy anointing the mysteries of death and sickness are encountered and overcome.
In a word, this is the practical application of the ancient mysteries. It is myth for the masses. Joseph Campbell and the psychologists, the theoreticians and intellectuals have no way of doing this. They have no ritual, no mechanism, not practical means of application, no access to the ordinary peasants and aristocrats who need redemption.
Neither have the Protestants anything like it. Neither have any of the other religions apart from (in a truncated way) Hinduism. All the other ancient religions have died out. Only in Catholicism is there still a priest, still a sacrifice, still atonement and reparation for sins. Only in Catholicism are there prayers offered for the dead, a squadron of saints, a phalanx of angels and a fearsome cohort of demons. The modern Catholic faith may be watered down.
With her scandals and sad modernism, with her rock music masses and lazy, ignorant, heretical people she may be a sad vestige of her former self–she may have become in many places a pale image of the church triumphant, but there is life in the old girl yet, and like some stubborn old crone clinging to her rosary beads, statues and scapulas, with knees worn out from kneeling–there’s faith and grit and spiritual power in her that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against.