Off the Shelf: Good Friday

Michael Brendan Dougherty

By popular demand, after the birth of our third child, and nearing the birth of my own first book, it is time to return to writing a casual books column.

Sohrab Ahmari, the energetic opinion editor at the New York Post, has had enough ideological, physical, and religious journeys for three lifetimes. His memoir, From Fire, by Water (great title!), is the story of a precocious young man with a restless heart, and a story of Providence acting upon his conscience. The book is a conversion narrative, and like the best of this genre it is a love story.

Born in post-revolutionary Iran, Sohrab desired the freedom and quality of life promised by the West, a world he discovers through translated French comics, and American movies. He writes:

My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rose-water. There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure. But when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia. I desired something more.

Or rather, he seemed to desire a democracy-whiskey-sexy version of the West. And in his boyhood he emigrates to conservative Mormon Utah, and finds himself embracing “the opposite extreme: a cantankerous, and equally facile, opposition to nearly everything about America and the West.” Underneath the surveillance of morality police, Ahmari wanted to be a free man of the West. Among the wholesome white-bread world of Utah Mormons, he becomes a Marxist and atheist. Readers who are historically attuned may recall with a laugh another Iranian who was educated in the West and radicalized by the experience, though in a different direction:

If one allows the infidels to continue playing their role of corrupters on Earth, their eventual moral punishment will be all the stronger. Thus, if we kill the infidels in order to put a stop to their [corrupting] activities, we have indeed done them a service. For their eventual punishment will be less. To allow the infidels to stay alive means to let them do more corrupting. [To kill them] is a surgical operation commanded by Allah the Creator.

Those are the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Although, in a sense, Ahmari’s teenager infatuation with Nietzsche and later Marx are not so far apart from the Ayatollah’s reaction. Each disdains bourgeois life in the West. I myself have been accused of the same disdain. But whereas I would seek to re-enchant life in the West — adding something that has been lately subtracted — a nihilist and revolutionary Islamist would seek to negate the modern world which is marked by phoniness, and compromise.

But there is a sternness to Marxism that can be unlovely, especially to one as aesthetically sensitive as Ahmari. And so our author passes through other phases and moods. He develops a fascination with a different, gentler mid-century rebellion, that of the Beatniks: Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs.

I was as much fascinated by their dissolute lives as by their prose and verse. The Beats, it seemed to me, had transfigured their debauchery into an authentic style. Perhaps I could do the same.

It is a step back in some ways, back toward the democracy-whiskey-sexy version of the West. But with the beats, the pleasures of Western dissolution that once attracted him as a child are married to the kind of intellectual pose that attracted him as a rebellious teenage goth in Utah. And together they become an authentic “style.” While no one could confuse Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg as systematic thinkers, certainly not compared to doctrinaire Marxists, Ahmari’s attraction to these writers is a sign of his own maturing vision, one that desires to fully integrate the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the moral impulses. The problem was, Ahmari could admire Jack Kerouac when Kerouac was drunk. But he was disgusted with himself when he was drunk.

And conscience-striken young atheists can never be too careful about their reading says C. S. Lewis. One day Ahmari reads the Gospel of Matthew and finds his imagination and worldview arrested by the Passion narrative. And it is here that we see that From Fire, by Water combines lush stylish writing, intellectual clarity, and moral beauty into the story of a soul:

The persecution and killing of a Jewish man two thousand years earlier amounted to a speck of dust in the enormous heap of rubble kicked up by the dialectical storm. It was nothing next to the injustices suffered by multitudes who had toiled under various regimes of exploitation, only to perish unknown and unheralded. Or next to such marquee modern calamities as the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars. Next to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. (Never mind the many millions slaughtered by Marxist regimes.) The Marxist takes in the whole pile unflinchingly. He knows that history works in and through these tragedies, to bring each age to its fullness and prepare the way for the next. As Benjamin put it: “That which we call progress, is this storm.” And yet, my mind protested, here is one good man unjustly put to death—a man whose nobility is apparent even to his executioners (Mt 27:14).

The rest of Ahmari’s journey is too good to give away in a review. As in all good love stories, love is first attached to the wrong things. At first Ahmari loves the idea of personal liberation the West, then he loves a kind of image of himself, as a prophet denouncing the West, through Marxism. Later, as a writer for the Wall Street Journal in London, he returns to love of “the West” once again, as an ennobled political abstraction. Only in the end does he recognize in his longings a connection to his personal consciousness of sin. And we discover, as in all good conversion memoirs, that the author is the object of the story, and it was God who was the subject, in pursuit of his beloved.

Ahmari’s story, which results in him announcing his conversion to the world on the day that Fr. Jacques Hamel is unusual for being a beautiful spiritual memoir — a genre that lends itself to personal mythmaking and pious trash. Ahmari’s sins, like St. Augustine’s in the Confessions, may appear small. But it is the experience of an conscience convicting him of sin that suddenly and radically expands his worldview.

It is also revivifying to me to reflect on this memoir as Lent draws to a close. Ahmari is just a few years younger than I am, and he feels so intensely the shames and desires I once felt, shames and desires that seem to have dimmed in my own soul with the onset of middle age, and a year focused on achieving one of my own lifelong career ambitions.

And yet, Providence still finds a way to move the heart. Reading Ahmari’s book was like a providential breeze blowing over the embers of faith, and giving the fire a gust. And then came the story this week of another French priest, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier. He went into Notre Dame cathedral as it was burning in the center of Paris and on millions of television, computer, and phone screens across the world.

Fr Fournier’s account is extraordinary:

As I was on duty, I was called on the scene, and right away two things must absolutely be done: save this unfathomable treasure that is the crown of thorns, and of course our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament.

As I entered the cathedral, there was little smoke and almost no heat, but we had a vision of what hell may be: like waterfalls of fire pouring down from the openings in the roof, due to the downfall not only of the spire but also of other smaller debris in the choir. …

The time when the fire attacked the northern bell tower and we started to fear losing it, was exactly the time when I rescued the Blessed Sacrament. And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.

Here I am completely alone in the cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home.

I saw, as so many others did, my co-religionists in France — many of them likely backsliders, lukewarm, or in some way discouraged — suddenly moved to pray and to sing hymns to Our Lady in public. As one French intellectual put it, France may be secular, but here was saw the operation of a “Catholic muscle memory.”

And I will shortly participate in a liturgy — the Mass of the Presanctified. Next to me will be my four-year-old daughter. We both are acquiring the muscle memory of this recovered and ancient rite. And I will remember the first time I saw a man serving in the liturgy, fitted with a folded chasuble — made to look like a transfigured version of the Roman soldier, wearing his bandolier. Recognizing as Ahmari did, that the broken man being executed on the Cross truly is the son of God. And at that, the knee remembers to buckle.

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