The day after
Well, I can come out of the High Doganate now, I think St Patrick’s Day is over. Toronto, or as I prefer to call it, the Greater Parkdale Area, was once well supplied with essentially peaceable, law-abiding bona fide Irish immigrants who went to their jobs in the morning, and to Mass on Sundays if not other days, and you knew where you stood with them. Owing to the passage of several asteroids, they have been replaced by a new species of surely fake Irish, wearing silly hats and putting green dye in their beer on the 17th of March, and while the great majority of these are entirely non-violent, you’d best not go near a pub that day. Any pub: for on that day even Outer Mongolians seem to think they are Irish, and behave according to some unedifying national stereotype. Best to stay home, and drink tea, and read Dostoevsky.
A correspondent kindly favoured me with a collection of Irish sayings for yesterday’s occasion, which I of course deeply mulled. In reply I offered this quick batch of Scots proverbs:
He has a hole aneath his nose.
A penny hained’s a penny clear, and a preen a-day’s a groat a-year.
It’s past joking when the head’s aff.
Twa blacks winna mak a white.
Sodgers, fire, and water soon mak room for themsels.
God help the rich folk, for the poor can beg.
The first step to virtue is to love it in anither.
Nae man can thrive unless his wife will let him.
An idle brain is the deil’s smiddy. …
Gentle reader is requested to memorize them. All will prove pertinent to the disquisition ahead.
Only the first of these came from my mama (may she rest in peace), the rest from perusing the Scots literature, such as it is. And I have a cheat: a book of Scottish Proverbs (compiled by Andrew Henderson about 1805, rev. James Donald; Glasgow, 1882) with which, should battle ensue, any number of additional may be pressed into combat. (“Another for Hector,” as they say.)
We were discussing marriage the other day, from the sacramental angle, as it has been disintegrating in Ireland, Scotland, England, America, across the European continent, and elsewhere. To a Catholic mind, the sacrament stands apex to a wide range of human experience — that between a man and a woman — but the human experience in itself comes to something, and has been worked with, in itself, by every known culture and through all religious traditions. It can be considered, as Thomas Aquinas would consider it, in its philosophical as well as its theological aspect, by the light of the human reason, with which we were by our Creator endowed.
Why do so many marriages fail, once the social and religious pressure that used to help hold them together is withdrawn? For if the full problem is to be properly addressed, it must be considered, too, from this low angle.
My late wise mama, from whom I should have been taking notes, once provided the formula: “Never get married because you want to be together. Only get married because you can’t be apart.”
The advice was of course not original to her. It had belonged to many generations, in the free countries, among their free classes, where marriages were not strictly arranged. But from my own generation down, it seems to me that it is now omitted. It is often nevertheless understood, and what seems like “luck” may operate, but the idea in itself is not consciously taught, not driven into the young until they cannot forget it. The alternative idea, rather scientistic in the sense that it honours “experiment” as an end in itself, is that we should home in by trial and error. Sometimes we are invited to be fully rational: very poor advice indeed for the young, when they are hormonally challenged.
By now, among those young who are consciously Catholic, there is some unintended additional confusion. I will have my wrists slapped here for resisting what is now received as almost catechetical instruction. The young are exhorted to pray on the matter, a practice of which I wholeheartedly approve. Christ, and Mother Mary our Queen of Hearts, most certainly come into the judgement, and can be reached by earnest prayer. But their operation cannot be confined to the prayer stall. It must be put into service in the rough and tumble of everyday life. The mistake is to assume that marriages can be “arranged,” by miraculous cosmic forces — when these will only ever be discerned in retrospect, not in prospect.
Hence, to my mind, the high failure rate, even in marriages between “traditionalists.” They have put too much emphasis on the abstractly and externally “divine,” not enough on what is divine within, or in terms of, the human; on “rules” in the plural beyond rule in the singular. They are not living in a culture wherein “arranged marriages” are easily sustained. They should look every seemingly heaven-sent gift-horse in the mouth. They must instead go out in the rough and tumble and find mates for themselves. Or better, let the heavenly forces secretly find them, while they are not actively looking.
We are given to recall a very simple moral rule: so simple that anyone can remember it, and in any situation. It is the crucial rule, from which all lesser rules in this subject are derived. In a word, it is chastity. My own quite unCatholic mama would have affirmed this. The prospectively married couple are fatally blocked from discovering whether they might actually be compatible — through all the ages and stages of man — from the moment their “relationship” has turned sexual. And if this happens on the second date, they may never know each other at all: since first dates are, by surviving custom, given over to projecting illusions.
This has incidentally to do with why the Church must hold the line on contraception, as Paul VI did so courageously, even against the mockery that would be offered to him back in 1968. He had thought it through, not only from the divine angle, but from the human. That is what makes Humanae Vitae such a profound document: as I realized on carefully reading it, long, long, before I became a Catholic myself.
Almost any young, hormonally loaded couple can imagine themselves inseparable for a moment, while they are in bed. It is rather the aspect of friendship, within marriage, that they will overlook. And to make this more complex: the friendship that can exist between a man and a woman is itself different in kind from “friendship” in the generic; for it is in itself more in the nature of eros than amicitia, or rather, the two are mysteriously fused. It goes deeper than animal copulation; raising even that to a level that is not merely animal any more. Which is why, incidentally, the Church has always allowed marriage between those of years so ripe, that child-bearing can no longer come into the expectation. And why she has also smiled upon “natural family planning,” which unlike the artificial kind, involves conscious restraints between two persons, who have become one flesh.
On the other hand, I think the Church has always looked suspiciously, and rightly so, on the cult of “the single.” The world does contain natural bachelors and old maids, of no special religious calling, just as it contains other less mentionable kinds of loners. Luck, including bad luck, may come into this, too. “No one ever asked me,” was the response I used to get when, as a boy, I queried certain old ladies. The alternative reply would be given by the ancient photograph of a young man in uniform, atop the piano. “He died in the War.”
Christ can work with anything, but that does not make all stations equal.
There is, both in secular feminist life, and in traditional religious, today, a specific cult of single women. That is, the state of singularity dressed up as a quasi-religious calling. I specify the sex, for I have found nothing similar among men, who for whatever reason seldom ideologize or theologize their single status. My guess is that this is undermining marriage to a greater degree than anyone realizes. A great show is made of the spiritual opportunities available to those who live alone. But if there were a religious calling, I doubt that it would be to contemporary single life.
There is danger in being too much alone, which some may try carefully to avoid through church and acquaintance. Family life is full of distraction, but it is also full of spiritual opportunities not available to single persons; in a sense monastic life is also familial in nature. The aspect of Christian marriage: that intimacy founded not only between two united in mutual regard, but in the aspiration in each to get the other into heaven, is lost on our contemporaries; the daily mutual spiritual direction, even more lost: the masculine and feminine spirituality which balance and even mutually correct. As well, there is discipline in family life, from responsibilities that go beyond one person; for that person is required to put spouse and children and perhaps the surviving oldies ahead of himself. I think the Church has always looked upon those who are decisively “single” as self-indulgent, even self-obsessed; as laws unto themselves under no vows or regular external observation. And today, even if she had consistently good spiritual directors, she would not have enough to go round.
But “not wanting to be alone” is a very poor excuse for a “relationship.” However mild, it is a form of fear. Whereas, love is active, directed, positive, even in its most intimate stillness. We know that from prayer; it is also true “in life.” We are between Scylla and Charybdis here.
“Most men struggle more with being alone than women do,” according to one of my sage informants, a single woman now entering middle age.
There’s a fine essay topic, in itself. It is probably true, with the usual one-in-five exceptions. Speaking as the thumb in this digital arrangement — the male who finds himself living singly after the usual catastrophes of the post-modern era, and coping for all that reasonably well — I think of two things I knowingly sought, for having seen in my own parents, but did not find. One was the intimacy that could only exist between a man and a woman; the other the inspiration that comes to a man from the love of a woman. Both have been subtly marked as acts of selfishness on the part of the man: his need to love, and his need to be loved. In my sons’ world, both have been “moralized” by some version of the feminist ideology nearly out of existence, and I watch the young men wither from it.
Many are actually called to the celibate life, in both sexes, and I think in present circumstances the Church has great difficulty accommodating them; and they have difficulty accommodating themselves. Do women handle this better than men? Probably. But from the little I know, most are involuntary members of this class: for most truly wanted children.
It is probably easier for a man to find a woman than for a woman to find a man, under present circumstances: or so I am assured by many women. For a woman cannot be a woman with the post-modern male: he has had the “paternalism” — the good husband qualities — kicked out of him before he has even grown up, and so he stays not-grown-up forever. He is a Lothario, a “playboy,” and given his failure at that, more usually just a pornography addict. The women in turn become more masculine not only from the dictates of feminism, but from what those dictates have done to the men. Women are now stuck playing by men’s rules in “the economy,” with which only a power-hungry few feel comfortable; and as I’ve been told by more than one female corporation executive, who may never be married, it is wives these successful working women want, not husbands: someone to take care of “home.”
“Home” is here a very large concept. It includes that sense of place, also overlooked in the rush of our economic and social “progress.” It includes many, many other things, which are now disparaged. We live in urban caravans, always ready to move. As a person who has actually “travelled the world,” and therefore feels homesick for quite a few places, I can only triangulate to the original condition, and see it in old photographs of a certain farm near Louisbourg in Cape Breton — where my mama’s people once settled, and to which they were rooted for a century-and-a-half. (Nothing left of that now but a collection of fading tombstones overgrown by woods.)
Against this, we pose the attraction of working nine-to-five, which is I think no one’s natural calling — male or female.
Christ is Christ and this earth is transient. We will all be dead soon enough. But I do feel wistful for what has been lost, and desolate for the terrible spiritual cost of what has been lost, and could take centuries to recover. In particular, that outwardly recognized hierarchy of Love, which made among other things the Church more sustainable.