Finding what should never have been lost

The Roman Missal’s readings for the summer took us through the adventures and misadventures of the kings of Israel and Judah, and so I have come upon what I see as one of the most remarkable and baffling events in all of scripture.

King Josiah has come to rule in Judah, about whom the Chronicler says that he “walked in the ways of David his father: He declined not, neither to the right hand, nor to the left” (2 Chr 34:1). He was only eight years old when he was anointed king, so no doubt Judah was ruled in the meantime by his priests and counselors, but “when he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of his father David” (34:2), which makes one wonder what on earth everyone else at that time was doing.

The answer may not be far to seek. At the age of 20, Josiah ordered the dismantling and the destruction of all of the altars and groves and “high places” and idols of the Baalim and Asherah and the hosts of heaven, “and strewed the fragments upon the graves of them that had sacrificed to them.

He also burnt the bones of the priests on the altars of the idols, and he cleansed Juda and Jerusalem” (34:4-5). We learn from the Chronicler’s source or parallel in the second Book of Kings that “the vessels that had been made for Baal” had been housed within the Temple itself, along with “the pavilions of the effeminate,” semi-private chambers for ritual sodomy, also within the Temple (2 Kgs 23:4, 7). Call it the multiculturalism of the time, I guess. That is what everyone else was doing.

Eight years later, during some massive repairs to the Temple ordered by the king, the high priest Hilkiah finds something interesting: “the book of the law of the Lord, by the hand of Moses” (2 Chr 34:14). It is a little like saying that you were rummaging around in the church while the workmen were shoring up the walls, and you found a Bible. Or you were directing some improvements to the plumbing in the chamber of the House of Representatives, and you found a copy of the Constitution. Why did that book have to be found?

Hilkiah brings the book to the king, and Josiah hears its words and tears his garments, commanding the priests thus: “Go, and pray to the Lord for me, and for the remnant of Israel, and Judah, concerning all the words of this book, which is found: for the great wrath of the Lord hath fallen upon us, because our fathers have not kept the words of the Lord, to do all things that are written in this book” (34:21). That begins in Judah a temporary restoration of the true worship of God, at least during the life of Josiah, who died too soon, at the age of 39.

We may wonder at the strange negligence of the people of Judah, who had something so precious, and who apparently allowed it to remain unread, unobserved, gathering mold and spiders in a closet somewhere, while the women were busy knitting pretty banners for pagan fertility gods, and priests were leading people in happy worship of stars and planets and mother earth, the womb and tomb of all.

We should not wonder too long, though. That is mankind for you. A dog remembers; we alone can be mindful, can recollect, can mark something as a memorial. A dog forgets, though rarely; we alone can by negligence allow the truth to fall into oblivion, we alone dismiss truth from our minds, obstruct it, cover it with dust, bury it so deep that we can persuade ourselves that nobody will notice, not even God. It will be as if it had never existed at all.

The people then had one or two books they lost sight of. What about us? We have thousands, any one of which might do for us what the book of Moses did for Josiah and his people. Let me give an example. One of the churches on the island off the coast of Nova Scotia where we live during the summer has been turned into a “pastoral center” with a chapel inside, some offices, a room for children, and a kind of museum-corner. There I found a book in French, a manual for confessors, written in the 1800s.

I asked the good man in charge whether the book actually came from one of the priests’ libraries, and he said no, they put that book on the table because it was representative of what priests at that time would have been reading. If so, and I don’t doubt that it was, it should come as a shock to us. The book is some 600 pages long, in small print, covering exhaustively every question you could possibly conceive, regarding the care and cure of wounded souls. It is filled with wisdom from the great confessors of the past, and from centuries of men and women who have written about the spiritual life, its lush valleys and arid plateaus, its challenges and consolations. It is organized just as a summa would be—and as a practical manual must be.

If there is any comparable book out there now that seminarians must read and priests use for advice, I don’t know about it. It is as if not a book but a whole science—a whole field of knowledge—were to have fallen out of the mind of the Church!

This sort of thing, as I’ve said, is common in the history of mankind. Why it should be, I don’t know, but it explains why so many movements of social, cultural, and artistic renewal do not come from people launching out in a “new direction” (which is usually some same old way of getting things very wrong), but from people who do as Josiah and Helkiah did. Treasure is right there, on that shelf. As the voice of the child said to Augustine, “Pick it up and read it.”

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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