Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

A direction for tramps

It is necessary to distinguish idleness from tramping. The latter is technically a subset of the former, but also they are opposites, mutually contained. One may be perfectly idle at a single location — Kenko’s mountain hut, for instance, where nothing of any significance is accomplished over the course of many years, beyond what we tediously call “spiritual growth.” In tramping, we take this show on the road.

In proper tramping the hut, which had maintained its stillness in slow decay, parallel to our own, is replaced by the knapsack or satchel (backpack, duffel, haversack, whatever) and the prospect from the mountain with the prospect to the mountain, along the open road. I hardly know which to prefer.

There is a problem with my feet, they get itchy sometimes, and I long for the old days of wandering and adventure. Though I should concede that I am homebody by nature, as evidence that even on the road, I seldom strayed very far from my knapsack, carrying it as a snail his shell, and moving not much faster, proportionally to size.

With Cicero, I keep insisting that a man needs a library and a garden, though the question of a kitchen often comes to mind. The world, however, can be taken as a garden, and the library can be carried along. While I’m opposed in principle to what used to be called the Harvard Five Foot Bookshelf, and more radically to the Man of One Book, it must be said that in tramping five feet of books is too heavy, and thus, some degree of fanaticism becomes unavoidable.

A Musulmán fanatic need carry only his improvised explosives. His Koran must be left home, lest it be damaged, but the rest of his equipage has enough to say. However the Westernized traveller, in addition to his missal, will need other works to occupy his mind. Orientalist by disposition, he may want, for instance, an authoritative guide to the country through which he is passing, with some hints to its geography and art.

Novels are useless, or of little use; I have seldom met a novel I could read more than five times, and many I could not bear twice. The same is true for any history of events, real or imagined; once one has the story one may leave it in a laundromat somewhere. But should one have a Virgil to carry — a Dante or a Shakespeare or a Bible — one has as much companionship as could be, with justice, demanded. Always, I assume, on India paper, made as light and compact as human wit may craft, and with some waterproof enclosure. Or other works, of some poetical depth and complexity, with which the long conversation may be had, when companions of flesh and blood are absent.

I have the happiest memories of reading on the road, and transcribing into notebooks when I was warm and dry. When young it was usually Penguins that I carried, very light and quite disposable, though I realized at some point they had all a common flaw. They were all in English, worse, contemporary English, and it seemed the world’s literary harvest had been reduced to a hamburger franchise thereby.

This is a terrible limitation upon the English-speaking tramp, that all the world’s voices have been monotonized for him. It all sounds inescapably English, whereas, from the moment of first glorious encounter with the meandering foreign tongue, we find that it doesn’t sound English at all.

Hence the importance, for the tramp, to become a humble visitor, and a mendicant of language, as he proceeds from his familiar mountain hut, towards the ineffable far countrie.

On statutory holidays

Today, the third Monday in February, is a civic low-traffic day in the Province of Ontario. It is called Family Day because some Liberal politician, good old Guinty McSquinty, decided we needed a day to spend with our families (however defined), to which end he would abridge our labour. I thought we already had at least 104 statutory holidays for that. In other provinces and territories, however, they celebrate different things: Yukon Heritage Day, for example, or Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. By some astounding coincidence, all these parochial politicians selected the third Monday that is Presidents’ Day in the sublime republic to our south. There, I suppose the holiday was proclaimed because Americans don’t pay enough ceremonial homage to their ancestral rulers.

Denizens of this “Fine Province of Ontario” (a phrase often on the lips of Former Premier Bill Davis, though never made mandatory) must regret that the party I founded in high school — the Very Conservative Socialist Monarchist Party, or VCSM — never came to power with me at its head. I thought it would be an easy romp, for the party was dedicated, like Mr Davis, to being all things to all people, simultaneously, and regardless of cost. Indeed, with great foresight, I began each of my campaign speeches (for the student council), “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Others,” providing a model of inclusivity far ahead of my time. Too, I proposed visionary infrastructure projects, such as building an aerodrome, so we could have a Parachute Club.

Had I succeeded, I would have put a complete end to unpleasant labour, and created more time for the enjoyment of our families, by declaring every day of the year to be a statutory holiday, with celebrations of Zoroastrian Awareness Day, Entomological History Day, European Dress Size Adjustment Day, Provincial Sleeping In Day, and so forth.

Well, I can’t go through the entire platform, for it seems I have lost the manifesto. But it contained many other thoughtful proposals, in clairvoyant anticipation of the twenty-first century. “Believe me,” as Donald Trump says.

*

Notwithstanding, it was less clairvoyant than this (here) remarkable document, from the hand of Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was). It was brought to our attention this morning by Rod (“Benedict Option”) Dreher, and shows that by age about thirty, years before Vatican II, and three score behind the present moment, he had already grasped the worldly fate of our Church, in times like these; and the futility of her worldly aspirations. And this simply by his characteristic method, of looking at everything sub specie aeternitatis. It is, incidentally, a method anyone may master, through the exercise of the brain, in constant rejuvenate sacramental prayer, with broad reading.

Note that, more fundamental than “the separation of Church and State,” which is merely a human legislative folly, there is a deeper separation between the sacred and profane. Every Christian must live apart, and live together, and live apart together, or rather, together apart, in ways essentially opposite to the ways of this world. We might call this some “Benedict Option,” but it begins on Calvary, in extension of the apartness of the Hebrews. And note that it requires no careful plan. In the pursuit of a Christian life, it happens on its own, by cause and effect beyond human tracing.

At my current more advanced age, I have begun almost to appreciate that nothing we could possibly do, by way of legislation, would make the slightest difference in the longer view. … He Is; we are.

Therefore I propose to rename this third Monday in February, with all other todays, the Centre of All Things Day, and hereby proclaim it, by Executive Order of the High Doganate, in defiance of all those by whom I am totally ignored.

Aphorisms for Saturday

Bedeutung is always richer than Deutung, as sage Balthasar says. He was not the first to say it, but I think he put it in a delightfully simple way. Notice the use of “always” as opposed to often, sometimes, occasionally, &c, as a journalist might write. The truth is embarrassing, because it is always true. The partial truths come and go, and the obsession with establishing them is a mark of mental fragmentation. What is, is.

Or let us stick it in plain English: “Meaning is always richer than Interpretation.”

Could there be any “problem” with this? Perhaps it is too obvious. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, a German Swiss who loved French, must have been thinking, how would this sound in that other language? For German can be so cut and dry. English, by comparison, is cut and drier.

And as Schelling says (I have this through Balthasar), “artfulness is part of the credibility of philosophy. An artless thinker can produce little truth.”

To the English mind, this is an outrage. We only find truth, we never “produce” it. From my slight understanding of the world, a Frenchman would have little trouble with this, and a Spaniard none at all. An Italian need not even be told.

“There are two kinds of aphorisms. The first answers the need for intellectual synthesis. The second, the need for an infinite perspective on things.” I add this to help my English readers along.

And in the hope of bringing it right home to our living rooms: “It is remarkable how little a wise man is concerned with harmonizing philosophical systems.”

We English (in which I include Scotchmen, Americans, Antipodeans, and the graduates of our colleges from wherever they came) are further obsessed with heresy. Or rather, it is part of the same mental fragmentation I mentioned above. Before we will go one step, towards giving a hearing to anyone, we want to know that he is on our side. We miss out on a lot of orthodoxy that way.

Indeed our minds, especially here in North America, are in thrall to various Scots Prebyterians, long dead and not otherwise missed. From Knox to Enlightenment was a hundred-yard dash. They were the real progenitors of our Enlightenment, absorbed by the rest of us almost as spectators. On the Continent it was a much different matter. The French, for instance, much given to thought, added no water, and swallowed the premisses as straight poison. One might almost say that, historically in the French Revolution, they died for our sins.

“The Enlightenment is always wrong, because its ultimate goal is to expose. Grace, by contrast, is founded on truth, because it covers a multitude of sins. What God once and for all does not wish to know should never become the object of human knowledge and investigation.” (Balthasar, again.)

Here, I think, is an exhilarating statement of the unEnlightened, reactionary view:

“Our existence, in its very foundations, is structured for sacrifice. As we grow up we want to become something, to grasp, to climb; but then the curve takes a downward turn. Quietly life takes from our hands everything we have snatched up. In the end we are granted the possibility of dying and, with it, that of performing the highest act of homage before the Eternal One.”

Up against the pipes

Does gentle reader enjoy being smeared? Well, I should speak only for myself. I don’t like it. Perhaps I am projecting when I guess that most members of the new administration, Stateside, don’t enjoy it either. Verily, I’ll go out on a limb, and say no normal person (is Trump normal?) delights in being viciously attacked. And yet our Lord said: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” (Note the qualifier.)

In such an exposed position, I would be wondering if there is any point in trying to alleviate ills and dysfunctions in public life, over the objection of spy networks within Deep State, the lawless courts, the organized rioting, the lies disseminated by the mainstream media and other votaries of the Hyena Left. I would find myself longing for retreat to some mountain hut, to resume the composition of these zuihitsu.

Or, quietly reciting to myself the “If —” poem of Rudyard Kipling, or maybe quoting it, as I gather the illustrious quarterback Tom Brady did the other day. It is true he is not a member of the Trump administration, but by now he might as well be. For this tweet, he was immediately labelled as a “white supremacist.” There are more manipulable Kipling texts than that, if you are an illiterate junkyard dog, who takes this author for a KKK wizard. But then, the message of the poem is so profoundly noble, I can understand why it drives progressives crazy.

“White supremacist” is, should gentle reader not have observed, the current vogue term among those devils in human flesh, who seem to have worn out “racist” and “fascist.” Anyone who opposes them is now a “white supremacist,” including moi, I should think, and every traditional Catholic. (I notice that the typical “white supremacist” in the Church wants Cardinal Sarah to be our next pope.) To be fair, I think there are some genuine white supremacists in North America today; perhaps thousands in a population of a few hundred million. Most of them south of the Rio Grande.

“It’s the thought that counts,” as I was writing on today’s Catholic Thing (here). The reality hardly matters, as the ideologues have discovered, in this age of triumph for politics over religion. But as I say there, the Enemy couldn’t succeed had he not first rendered most of the population unresponsive to godly reason. “I feel” has replaced “I think” more generally, as our criterion of judgement on the most important matters. And this is the very requirement for the advance of totalitarian evil, in society at large.

Let me mention that I am quite impressed by the calibre of most of Trump’s appointments — especially Steve Bannon and Betsy DeVos — and relieved that he has shaken off Mike Flynn. Most, in addition to high competence, seem to have “the right stuff” to endure the constant smearing from “media” in the broadest sense, and the threat of violence. I’ve begun to include several in my prayers.

As I suggested yesterday, I am and will be hardly in agreement with everything they do. But they are up against the pipes, through which the unmistakable stench of Hell is venting into our world, and thus in need of divine and human sustenance. As the Bible says, “Fear not!” in the battle.

The no-brainer chronicles

The Trump plan to Make America Great Again consists of some wonderfully simple ideas. One revenue-neutral plank is, for instance, to take taxes off exports, and put them on imports instead. (NB, there is no such thing as “revenue-neutral” in politics.) This will have a positive effect on the trade balance, while usefully smashing up a generation or more of international trade agreements. I selected it for this morning’s smile because, I’m neither for nor against. Better than that, I probably don’t have the right to an opinion, beyond: he got elected, let’s just watch. Perhaps thirty-seven years ago, I might have had the patience and current knowledge to analyse the proposed measures in detail, and guess at consequences ignored and unforeseen.

On the face of it, today, I can only say there are advantages and disadvantages to having a crass businessman in charge of your country, as opposed to, say, a malicious idiot from the political Left. On the other hand, it must be conceded that both my Iron Law of Paradox, and my Paradoxical Law of Irony, come bigly into play, and I recall the historical fields of carnage that followed from “no-brainers” of the past.

Put it this way. There are unexpected, and often devastating consequences to tampering with the market in any given way. And the same is true of tampering in the opposite way. It should not be the function of the government to play favourites, and the more it insists on playing “us versus them,” the more complicated our lives become in the subsequent fallout. Which is not to say that Trump started it. Indeed, he appears to be trying to match the existing nationalist policies of China, Mexico, &c, tit-for-tat.

Here is where I always disagreed, with pretty much everybody. A nation state is, with certain exceptions such as Kiribati, a very large entity. A modern “nanny state” is conducted on a scale beyond anyone’s comprehension. The single measure that might be good for a given town in, say, West Virginia, cannot possibly be good for another in Idaho, and adds debilitating paperwork at both ends. Meanwhile, the scale of the regulation is so great, that small family operators right across the country, lacking huge resources for lobbying and propaganda, will inevitably be scrood. For the truth is big guvmint and big bidnis interface only with each other.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I scrapped into one of these “no-brainer” political deals. The remains of the locomotive manufacturing business in Kingston, Ontario — whose century-old products I had glimpsed, still on the rails in India — were now on the block. A monster German corporation was offering to buy them, for the very purpose of competing, in Canada, with a (hugely subsidized, monopolist) Canadian corporation. The government stepped in, to “save” a Canadian industry, retroactively change the ground rules, and kick in more subsidies so that the Canadian monopolists, based in Montreal, could take over instead. This was accompanied by nationalist rhetoric, and Kingston was thrilled. Critics like me were unofficially deflected with bigoted anti-German blather held over from the last World War.

But I knew exactly what was going to happen. The local works, which would have been expanded by the foreign owner, were soon closed by the new Canadian owner, after studies had been commissioned to “prove” it was uneconomic. The latter’s last possible domestic competitor was thus snuffed out. The locals, whose lives had been for generations part of a proud Kingston enterprise, had been suckered. The politicians had told them it was little Canada versus big Germany. In reality, it was pretty little Kingston versus big ugly Montreal.

That is how the world works, with politics, so that whenever I hear of a big new national no-brainer scheme, my first thought is, which innocents are getting mooshed today?

In case you were wondering

“There are more than two genders.” This, according to a teeshirt with which I happen to agree. In many languages there are in fact three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In some languages there are duals as well as plurals, too. One has to get used to this. There are, however, only two sexes.

It was announced, in a recent number of the British science weekly Nature (here), that sex is quite complicated. And this, also, is true, too true. Anatomically, hormonally, cellularly, and chromosomally, we might sometimes say there is a continuum in sexual characters, or even, that there are continua. It happens that from some angles we find ambiguities, or even the odd nice flipover. One thinks of … (no, don’t say it).

There are, to be sure, some anomalies to be found in nature (the thing, not the magazine), such as garden snails, parrotfish, and cockles. I try not to let this bother me, being enough diverted by my own sexual preferences. Hermaphroditism in the gonochorous species (human beings, for example) has not distressed me either, since the days when I was trying to construe passages in Ovid. One is surprised whenever a customary either/or turns up as a both/and. But I found, with teacher’s help, I could cope with it.

In my own case, the sex wasn’t clear until about five weeks into my gestation. I should think this was true of you, too, gentle reader. We did not all start out “female,” however, as the pop scientists like to say. Instead, we started impossible to read. It is a conceit of scientism that what we find impossible to read is their open season.

There were other things about me that might have been overlooked, during that formative period of my biological existence, beyond the fact that I was the possible cause in my mother of cramping, nausea, fatigue, and an unpleasant tenderness. Yet it was not until later that I began to wonder how she put up with me.

Now, I do not like to go into the subject of genitalia in this family anti-blog, but let me mention that it is not until puberty that our sexual differentiation becomes almost ridiculously complete. I am generally in favour of waiting for it, in the case of smaller children. But long before puberty I, personally, have little trouble telling them apart.

Which is to say, as little as I have among humans much older. Though while it seldom happens, there are times when one can’t be entirely sure. I notice this is especially so outdoors, in the middle of the Canadian winter.

There is also the phenomenon of cross-dressing. Notwithstanding, my claim to be a little teapot, short and stout, does not constitute a proof that I am ceramic.

Now, the distinction between sex and gender is worth stressing, for the substitution of the grammatical for the biological term has contributed to the diffusion of much nutjobbery. Only “gender” can be honestly described as a “human construct.” A word might be feminine in French but masculine in German. It does not follow that a French girl becomes a German boy, while crossing a fluid European frontier. But even if she did, it would not follow that there are more than two sexes.

And let me add, vive la différence.

Jim & Florrie

[Brought forward.]

*

My parents’ wedding was today (in 1948). Though both are now dead, they were able to share sixty anniversaries. It is as if I attended the wedding itself, my mama told me the whole story so many times: such a rich farce, and such a glorious love anthem.

They weren’t intending to get married on Valentine’s Day; they thought that would be cheesy. But the day got selected for them by “events.” You see, my father-to-be was in a tuberculosis sanatorium. My mother-to-be had given up much better prospects, “much much better prospects,” and a life unfolding in another province, to fly to his side. They needed to get out of the hospital for one night — by way of the chapel, with a chaplain on call, and a few witnesses lined up for an almost military operation. The problem was the man in charge, at Christie Street. He had to wink, to make their escape possible. Happily, he was discovered to be an old sentimentalist, and so Valentine’s Day was the ticket. The dear old git contrived to have his staff look the other way, and off they ran to the chapel. Then out the door, with a few friends, to a memorably segregated reception in a hotel downtown. TB positives in one room, negatives in the other, and my future parents bobbing in between.

The wedding cake was cut with an aeroplane propeller, a keepsake of my father’s from the late War. I have the photograph, to prove this. I also have the propeller, for public inspection, up here in the High Doganate.

Sixty wedding anniversaries is a lot. I saw quite a few of them. In light of the world, as it has fallen out, I am amazed by what I saw. They were always lovers, and in a serenity thought improbable today. But also with a fierce passion. I cannot forget my embarrassment, once, upon stumbling into their kitchen. They were a couple of wrinkled oldies — octogenarians at the time — and they were kissing like a couple of teenagers.

Nor will I forget the last anniversary. By this time things had got worse. They were now in a nursing home, but still together. (Another administrative miracle had had to be performed, to pull that off.) It was their sixtieth anniversary, and both feeble; on top of which my father had lost almost all of his marbles. But character is the last thing to go.

My mama lost her composure, said she couldn’t bear it any more. Papa only sat there, gently smiling, with this look of unearthly benignity in his face. For months he had been unable to thread two words. And now he was dying. A pneumonia would soon carry him away.

Mama shrieked, “Jim! I have been talking to you all morning! I’ve been telling you everything, and you just sit there and don’t answer!”

Suddenly he put a whole sentence together:

“It will be okay, Florrie.”

Brain disease

Without naming anyone — my Enemies List is currently sufficient — I have been thinking lately of what went wrong with several old friends. Sensible when young, always articulate, constant readers and investigators: how is it that they came to be insane? Or perhaps that is an overstatement, for in each case, the subject remains capable of organizing his quotidian affairs, and by the common standard of income and acquisitions, has flourished well enough. I think of one particular man of “noble causes,” who has betrayed every cause he ever took up, yet never once without a plausible explanation. To this day he might pass outwardly for normal. But mad, nevertheless, for placed under the slightest emotional stress, he begins to utter paranoid rubbish.

For years I’ve been observing mental decline, not only in myself. An obsession with politics is often the triggering factor. A man (women, of course, never go crazy) may swing from right to left, or left to right, on the great mental gallows. He may even do this without altering his voice; the tone may remain constant all the pendular way across; but still we spy the disconcerting movement. He walks from his commitments, and betrays all his friends.

Politics offers a terrible spiritual danger. To think politically, is an out-of-body experience. One is trying to imagine how the machinery of policy may engage with the machinery of life. It is a Cartesian operation; always short of the necessary information. Something similar may happen in an ecclesial stance. The man becomes detached from reality, by all this machinery in his head.

Career politicians seldom wobble quite so much, for they have little brain to loosen. The characters I’m thinking of are thinkers, intellectuals of some kind. Most know better than to run for public office; or if they do, the voters put them back in place. They are in product development; they tend anyway to sneer at the people in sales. A successful politician knows his market, instead. He knows what his constituents want to hear, and tells them. He remembers what side of the aisle he is sitting, and whom he owes for his seat. He is caught in a matrix of personal loyalties, with hell to pay when he skivs. His eye is fixed on the pay-off.

Whereas, your typical intellectual is coatless against the winds of fashion. He courts allies with a different kind of vanity. His party loyalties are ambiguous, and the cost of his betrayal is seldom very high. Friends become a fungible commodity, if all you require from them is Facebook Likes. He may actually improve his prospects by defecting. Depending where you live, there is a path of least resistance.

I think of an especially poignant example; then realize there’s another much the same; and then a couple more just like them. But examples should be given one at a time.

Long ago I suspected there was something wrong with Mr Poignant. He was “on my side,” but I could never trust him. And this because, he always thought ahead.

“He has more brains than he can handle,” I once uncharitably said of him. By which I meant: a full head, and a rather straw chest. I could detect no spiritual anchor, no tethering of faith beneath his clouds. His principles were mere thoughts: fluff passing over. He was touched by some proselytizing impulse; but the more it “evolved,” the more self-serving it appeared. Old friends, once betrayed, were gratuitously smeared; they began to wonder, had he gone nuts? Yet he remains smart, by the current fashion, and maintains his status as a minor celebrity.

The head comes loose, when the heart is not screwed in.

Septuagesima

Today is of course Septuagesima Sunday; the season of fasting has come into view. Perhaps the “of course” can be omitted now, that the celebration has been suppressed for half a century, in the “ordinary form” of the Mass. But I think so long as civilization survives, even as a whisper, Septuagesima must stand. And besides, beloved Benedict XVI restored the old calendar to our use in the “extraordinary form.” Better, he explained in his motu proprio of 2007 that this Mass was never obviated. It had been guaranteed through the centuries; so that permission for its use could never have been withdrawn. It was not in the power of any bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, to take this birthright away from faithful Catholics.

But we live today in a difficult age when, even within the Church, men of power — great and small — cannot grasp their limitations. (Read this. And this.)

At the moment we are passing through an exceptionally destructive phase, in which the Church herself seems to have gone under strange management. Our best men are pulled down, replaced with sycophantic mediocrities. Vital theological questions are ignored. Public fornicators and adulterers are made to feel welcome, along with all smug in defiance of Church teachings. Politics are everywhere; especially leftist politics. Sworn atheists are welcomed as advisers to Rome; the Vatican hosts Hollywood whores and “settled science” crackpots. Only that dwindled minority of faithful are made to feel unwelcome, under a constant barrage of insults from the Holy Father himself. We watch, with confusion and enveloping sorrow, “a world turned upside down,” where ancient pieties are redefined, and progressively inverted.

I refer to ostentatious displays of piety, condemned on plain scriptural grounds (Matthew 6:5, &c). It is the great gate through which hypocrisy is imported, to the inner sanctum.

There are many reasons why I prefer the Old Mass to the New. Curiously, the worst I find in the latter, is in the aggressively pious tone of the modern congregational responses, open to easy parody and satire. They invite ridiculous pious gestures, such as the hands raised in declamatory prayer, instead of modestly folded; the replacement of God-directed chant with declarative babble. They encourage in the congregation at large, and in each of its members by infection, a habit that substitutes posturing for religion. This came with the turning of the celebrant, from God to “the people.” (God bless Cardinal Sarah, who put his finger directly on that nerve.)

So much followed.

Prior to the revolution of the ’sixties, in everything I can gather from memoirs and the missals, our liturgy was “flat.” By this I mean serene, tranquil. It expressed the eternal, through a language long adapted to meditative stillness. It focused our attention, not on a gesticulating preacher, but beyond him to the sanctuary of Our Lord. A Low Mass was low, a High Mass high, yet for all the musical profundity in the latter, and the drama of messianic seasons unfolding, the “narrative” remained elevate and constant. It never lapsed into a gong show.

I glimpsed, as a child, the old Latin Mass — as it was each morning in the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore, Pakistan. Being immediately adjacent to Saint Anthony’s School, where I was a day boy, it served as our chapel. I was from a nominally Protestant family; my schoolmates were mostly Muslim (some sang in the choir). By a misunderstanding, I was briefly compelled to attend this daily morning Mass. In retrospect I am hugely grateful for this “administrative error,” in which I was mistaken for one of the Catholic boys, shirking, for it gave me what slight experience I have of Catholic worship before Vatican II. Everywhere in the world, this Mass was sung, and nowhere very differently. The Greek, Slavonic, Assyrian, Armenian, and other forms (even the High English) were in a spirit compatible with what I saw there. I did not know this yet, but could have learnt it from only the one location.

Returning to Sacred Heart decades later, I attended the Sunday Mass in Urdu, with accordions and tabla drums. The Universal Mass had been Pakistanified. I love a squeezebox, I can bear tabla drums, I am intoxicated by the lyrical beauty of the Urdu language. I am thrilled like a native by anything that is distinctly Lahori. All of it belongs in a Christian wedding party. None of it belonged in the church.

Indeed the church interior, rather wildly decorated, had become more outwardly “pious” than anything I could remember. It was now, fully, an ethnic cell, suited to Punjabi tastes. Today, all over the world, our churches have become “safe spaces” for the ethnic spectacle, and for that kindergarten creativity that is invariably employed in its expression. The One Church, Holy Catholic and Apostolic, has outwardly devolved into a chaotic Babel. The house of God becomes a “house for the people.”

Pietatem, piety, connotes familial duty, in its ancient etymological forms. It was the genius of the Catholic Church to transform and universalize this, in the liturgical ordering of filial grace. As Saint Paul saith, we aren’t ethnics any more: not in the company of our Saviour. The spirit of demonstrative, external piety, enjoined by the oriental religions, was inwardly harnessed. Whether individually or collectively in the Body of Christ, we are in prayer detached from, not magnified by, the drumbeat of the world.

Lent is approaching, and I pray that, by whatever means He chooses, God will soon show us the falsities that we have embraced, and help us to restore the peace that we have shattered.

Milady Sue K.

Sadly, I lost my girlfriend this week (funeral today). She was Milady Sue K., among my late mother’s friends at the oldie home around the corner. She was only ninety or so (never parted with her age), flirtatious through all of her several marriages (by her own account), and a bundle of consistently mischievous good humour.

I write “girlfriend” with some confidence, for once, when asked who I was by some rather severe and starchy grand niece, she explained:

“This is David, my boyfriend.”

Then reached over to caress my knee.

I first encountered Sue jammed in the automatic door at “Lakeview,” as she was coming in from a smoke in the snowdrifts. (Unusual cheroots, by preference with wine.) Her wheelchair was locked into the glass and metal by the closing mechanism. It required all my cruelly limited engineering skills to extricate her.

Upon wheeling her towards the elevators, I asked if she liked to go fast.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “I’m a very fast woman.”

Arriving at the elevator, I said that I must abandon her now.

“Oh yes, and I have often been abandoned.”

An indomitable spirit; entirely indifferent to rules and regulations. We put young Father E. on her case, and she quickly converted to the Catholick Faith. Then proved almost as earnest as he, peppering us with embarrassingly difficult theological questions.

My mama and she were buddies, while they lived. I had chiefly Father H. (a Czech of superb height) on my mother’s case, but like cricketers the two priests often switched over. (I once entered mama’s room to find Father H. apologizing if he was being a plague. “Nonsense,” my mama replied. “I have no objection to being harangued by tall, handsome, Slavic men.”)

Both of these ladies uncharitably dismissive of the “mental corpses” around them, “especially on the staff.”

Both incurably vain. Never seen except fully made up, and by custom regal. Except, Sue’s lipsticks were alarming. She said her dream in life had been to become the mistress of some profligate French monarch; or now that she was Catholic, perhaps a Borgia pope.

She had the ability to quote reams of English verse. Sometimes she improved it in recitation, with little word substitutions to update the comic effects. A Wodehouse could easily have transformed her into a magnificent aunt. Indeed, anyone could. … Aheu!

Took the name Scholastica (whose feast happens also to be today), and was for her last eight years, without ceasing to be lively, a very sincere and devoted Roman Christian.

Requiescat in pace.

My life in the movies

This is admissions week in the High Doganate. I shamefully admitted to not having read Wodehouse on Tuesday; today I will admit to not watching movies. Never say never, however: I did see some movies as a young man (mostly with the object of taking girls to them), and am aware that they are still being made. I read about them sometimes. Why, just this week I have read two such articles. (This one, and this one; both recommended.)

In the event of war crimes trials, I shall have to admit that I reviewed movies once, for a daily newspaper. But that was a very long time ago, and let me assure gentle reader I made a fool of myself trying, and was soon fired.

My last effort in this regard was in 1987, when CBC Radio asked me to review a version of Little Dorrit that went on for six hours. Or maybe it was eight, or longer. They’d heard I had read the original novel, which no one else had, and perhaps thought I could sit still for the duration. My review consisted of explaining how much of Dickens’s sprawling, sentimental epic had to be omitted to fit the time; how unconvincing the (celebrated) actors were in the principal rôles; how inappropriate the Verdi soundtrack; how badly the director had captured a kind of poor-house Gulag, within which, as in Solzhenitsyn’s, the human spirit is rising. More generally: everything of value in the novel had been lost, and what a waste of time and money. I did however praise one passing animated backdrop of early Victorian London, so scrupulously accurate that it made me think, “Good Lord, this place once existed!”

Unfortunately, it turned out, the New York Times had just exalted the production, and so dissing it was now forbidden. I could not be persuaded to change my own views. At the last minute my pre-recorded comments were canned, and I was replaced by the programme’s producer, who used all my material to give the impression he had seen the movie himself, but methodically reversed each of my critical judgements. This did not bother me, for by 1987 I already knew what the CBC is, and besides, they paid me.

The last movie I had seen before that was, Blade Runner, in 1982. I was impressed by that but, alas, no one asked for my opinion. I would have said it was a brilliant and entirely successful depiction of modern urban life. Looking back, I still think so.

Snippets of movies I have seen on the Internet, when curious to discover what people around me are talking about. It takes about three minutes, I find, to gather everything one needs to know. Longer would involve unconscionable self-abuse. (Well, I think I slipped and watched several snippets of The Big Lebowski.)

Perhaps I have seen another movie, in the last thirty years. If so, I have forgotten.

Table manners

“Dining with sinners,” I am told by one of my neo-Southern correspondents, “is far more enjoyable than dining with the morally earnest, puffed hypocrites of the elite.”

I’m sure this was true twenty centuries ago, for some things on this planet never change.

Judging from the Gospels, Our Lord seems to have made something of a show — of his preferential option for dining with sinners — by way of subtly undermining pharisaic claims. He did not waste much time on the self-satisfied and “fulfilled”; focusing instead upon the hungry.

Of course, Holy Church proposes to feed everyone; but not everyone likes her food. It is prepared specifically for those customers who know that they fall short of moral and spiritual perfection.

This is not something that should be hard to know, supposing we have any idea of what moral and spiritual perfection might consist. (Hence the divine Example.) Today, this is a real puzzle, to our children exhaustively indoctrinated, from first contact with media or schools; as also to our parents’ children, taught that the only real crimes are the icky ones, and that those are entirely subjective. Each begins with a conscience unformed, but most continue to a radical deformation, so quickly that from an early age they are unlikely to detect the source of so much psychic pain.

It can only be found by that guided self-examination, which the “modern” is encouraged to avoid. Instead, he is launched on a career of blame-seeking.

The worst thing a doctor can tell a patient, in urgent need of help, is that his illness is imaginary. This is what the Church does, when she invites her members to approach the altar in an impure state. She is presenting the Mass as a quack prescription. By representing the Host as a remedy for what ails us, she is selling sugar pills. Or rather, the Church herself never does this; only the hucksters among her human agents.

A man aware that he is dirty will not be outraged by the prospect of a wash. Only the man who thinks himself clean.

Let him also consider the nature of the Feast to which the dinner bells call; and in Whose company he will eat. The Confessional “shower stalls” are on the way into a Catholic church, for benefit alike of rich and poor; because all carry in the dirt of the world.

The Muslim must both ritually and actually purify his hands, upon entering his mosque. The Christian must both ritually and actually purify his soul, upon entering his church. He is not entering a common diner. Neither is the Muslim, God save his soul.

Christ, in the Last Supper, was not doling out hypochondriac medications. Rather as He explained, His own flesh. Let us not pretend this wasn’t a shocking thing to do. We call it “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” and have so called it from time out of mind, because we take Christ at His word. We find him hanging above the very altar, the scapegoat for us all. There is no glib interpretation of this that can make any sense to the formed Christian, thick and sinful as he may otherwise be.

When, on the other hand, Christ dropped in for a common meal, He arrived as a man among men. I do not know how even the latest experts in Rome, can fail to distinguish a church from a diner.

The Bertie conversions

Today’s confession — I tell you, gentle reader, things I really ought to keep to myself — is that I have never read P. G. Wodehouse. I am surrounded by people who have, so that I sometimes feel as if I were the only person in a large room of jollies who does not get the joke. Have never read him at all. And this although there are among these Wodehouseans some with proselytizing zeal. At least one has called me a “classic” Wodehouse character, then added, “Not Jeeves, but Bertie Wooster.” Now another adds, “A Bertie lacking a Jeeves.” Verily, from his further explanation I learn that I may have been Woostering, these last sixty years — a Hamlet without a solid Horatio; a Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza. Arjuna without Krishna.

I mention all this from a peculiar coincidence. In email, over the last few days, in three, now four unrelated screeds, the name of this British comic author has come up, in each case without the slightest tip from me. And in each case, Wodehouse was mentioned in connexion with the Catholic religion, and even with conversion. It is a dark mystery.

The more when I reflect upon the little I know of the personal history of a Swedish friend: a refined, almost dandyish, pipe-smoking intellectual. Oddly, he is a Catholic. Very Old-Mass, too. With a beautiful Swedish wife, also very Catholic, and innumerable perfectly behaved, Swedish-looking children, whom she carries about, three or four at a time.

Converts! … No, no, far weirder than that. … Swedish converts! … I had to ask him what led to his conversion: what had he been reading? what thinking? who inspired him? what could possibly turn a harmless Scandihoovian, soap-loving, post-Lutheran secularist boy into a red-meat mediaevalizing Papist?

To which he smoothly replied, “P. G. Wodehouse.”

“Um, I don’t think of Wodehouse as especially Catholic.”

“True, but while I was reading him, I discovered what is meant by ‘a sense of humour’. Being Swedish, I had no idea such a thing was possible. But when that penny dropped, it all made sense. Everything fit together: I must go to Rome.”

Let me add that I am still assimilating this information. I have met many Chesterton converts, and C. S. Lewis converts. I have even met an Evelyn Waugh convert, which I can understand. I should like to put myself down as a Hilaire Belloc convert. That would be a lie, but I think, a good one.

There are days when I wish that I still had a Comments thread. This, for the purpose of eliciting reader suggestions on “how this could be so.” For we have Wodehouse converts, who aren’t even Swedish. (I am thinking of four Bangladeshi brothers just now, who, as all Bengalis, were born laughing at the ludicrous nature of life on this Earth.) So curious, that I am toying with the exercise of reading this P. G. Wodehouse myself.

For it would be just like God, to use a low-brow, popular farcical humourist as the means to accomplish profoundly serious, heavenly ends.