409) The Black Mass… and the Rest of the Story

 Adapted from The Furious Love of God: A Story Behind the Black Mass by Eric Metaxas, May 23, 2014, at:

 www.breakpoint.org May 23, 2014

      As you may have heard, a club at Harvard had planned to reenact a “black mass” at the university’s Memorial Hall.

     For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of a “black mass,” my friend Timothy George, writing in First Things, sums it up nicely:  “A black mass is a grotesque, sacrilegious ceremony in which the most sacred rite of the Catholic Church is deliberately mocked.  Satan and his pomp are invoked, often in Latin, and a consecrated Eucharistic host is desecrated, often in vulgar, revolting ways.”

      The reenactment was the idea of the Cultural Studies Club of Harvard Extension School.  Naturally, the people sponsoring the event denied any intent to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs but, instead to “learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.”  The goal of the “performance,” they said, was to “explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.”

      Right.  That prompted Father Francis X. Clooney, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, to ask “What’s next?”

     Given the precedent set by the proposed black mass, Clooney wondered if we could look forward to “a public burning of the Qu’ran,” for example, or “a group of hooded Kluxers reenacting a mock lynching next to the statue of John Harvard,” or “a ceremony mocking gay marriage,” or “a group of neo-Nazis proposing to summon the spirit of Adolf Hitler from the dead.”

     The answer is of course not.  Christian beliefs are fair game in ways that other people’s beliefs aren’t.

     And let’s be clear, while the proposed reenactment parodied a specifically Catholic form of the receiving the sacrament, all orthodox Christian beliefs and practices are potential targets for parody and desecration.  Christians may differ on what happens during the words of institution, but we agree that Holy Communion was instituted by our Lord and that, as Paul told the Corinthians, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  Sobering words, indeed.

     In the end, the reaction of Christians and non-believers alike led to the cancellation of the proposed reenactment.  However, there were plenty of people who thought that allowing the reenactment to take place was a test of Harvard’s commitment to freedom of speech and thought.

     That the intended target was the object of what Philip Jenkins of Baylor once called the “last acceptable prejudice” in American life no doubt contributed to their commitment to freedom of speech in this instance.

     If that makes you angry, however, hold on.  Let me tell you a story about the man whose writings were to serve as the basis for the black mass being reenacted.

     The French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans was one of the most controversial writers of the late 19th century.  His book, Against Nature, was seen by many of his contemporaries as “decadent, pornographic, and vulgar.”  His subsequent book, The Damned, dealt with the subject of Satanism and served as the basis for the rite cooked up by the Satanic Temple that was going to hold the black mass at Harvard.

     Guess what happened after Huysmans wrote The Damned.  Well, he experienced a conversion, returned to the Catholic Church of his childhood, and died as a lay member of the Benedictine order!

     It’s a reminder that no one is beyond what G.K. Chesterton called the “furious love of God.”  It’s a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.

     The story of Joris-Karl Huysmans is a great example of why we Christians should extend that love even to those who denigrate us.

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Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907)

The young Huysmans once wrote:  “Worshiping the Devil is no more insane than worshiping God.”  Around 1895 his writing changed from what was called the ‘decadent’ literature of 19th century France, to books describing his conversion back to the Catholic faith of his childhood, and, a powerful defense of the Christian faith.  In his last days his eyes became diseased and it became necessary to sew his eyelids shut.  He considered this affliction to be a just punishment for the sins of his earlier years.

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Ephesians 2:13…17-18  — …In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Colossians 1:21-23  —  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.  This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

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Psalm 73:21-26  —  

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.  

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.