Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The handcart chronicles

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, in his Erasmus Lecture for 2014:

“If we ignore the poor, we will go to Hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to Hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to Hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbours.”

This is so true that, it would seem, the opposite is also true. This is Christ’s dismissive reply to some liberal posturing from Judas, when He said, “the poor you will always have with you, but me you will not always have.” I quoted this recently, to the end of suggesting that if we ignore God, we will go to Hell.

The Nanny State, in which we willingly participate, provides us with a wonderful opportunity to ignore the poor, in our spare time while we are ignoring God. It allows every enfranchised taxpaying citizen to declare glibly, “I gave at the office.” Meanwhile, the bureaucracy itself ignores the poor, reducing them to an economic transaction, within an administrative routine, whose heartlessness must be experienced, to be believed.

That word, “heartless,” is underused today. It raises the stakes on our idea of “feelings.” We have too many feelings, most of them fake. The genuine ones tend to be quite selfish. We “hurt” easily, we indulge, easily. Empathy and compassion are reduced to “feelings,” and our “concern” is to make the rich pay. The actual poor are subject to our feelings of irritation. When cornered, rhetorically, we may write a cheque, but it becomes a kind of blood money. Living as I do in Parkdale, I am conscious of the ignorance of one street for another, one house for another, one apartment to the apartment next door. I can understand it. I don’t want to know these people, either.

So that my heart breaks — I am “genuinely impressed” — when I see examples of personal outreach to the neighbours. Most often I see this in the form of one rather desperately poor person, spontaneously helping another. Such as offering him a cigarette. (The smuglies in government have made cigarettes expensive.) Such as “being there” when a man is fallen, and not just calling nine-one-one. Such as taking care of the crazies, hands on. Such as — and this is the most impressive thing I’ve seen — teaching a hopeless wretch the use of a rosary. Because that can change everything.

It is no accident that the best work around here comes out of churches (and of course, not just the Catholic ones). That is where God is most likely to put ideas into people’s heads. It is a little known fact that helping the poor requires imagination; and that the average person needs divine help to acquire any.

We have a municipal election today, up here in the Greater Parkdale Area. It is a joke. Most will not vote [update: not so, turnout shot up to a "stunning" 61 percent thanks to the Rob Ford legacy]; most of the rest know approximately nothing about any of the candidates. According to some poll, 27 percent of the electorate are happy with the city council, and 95 percent of the incumbents will be re-elected [update: check, check]. For the school board positions, there are all-candidate meetings in which less than a dozen people show up, including less than half of the candidates, and everything said is a generality. This is the Nanny State at its most intimately “democratic” level: an indication of how much “society” cares, at the level where it claims to care most.

“Someone will take care of it.” This, in my experience, is the true basic attitude of the citizen today. And that someone will have to be well paid. And if he is not, no one will take care of it. We are, if I may speculate, all going to Hell.

Quietly from Rome

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI made a wonderful statement this week, some traces of which I have been able to find through such obscure media as the Catholic News Service. It was a letter to some students and faculty in Rome’s Pontifical Urbanian University, read to them, Tuesday, by his secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

At a time when modern, secular, revolutionary forces have again been unleashed in the capital of Christendom — when a synod on the beleaguered Christian family could be hijacked by a proposal to welcome polygamy and sodomy — it provided this reader, at least, with relief from desolation. The Emeritus Pope’s as-it-were “encyclical,” was about as long as my last Idlepost, but as ever, much holier in tone. It was one of several modest but characteristically penetrating statements that have come from him, since he went into his prayerful retirement.

Let me plagiarize the reports I have read. Benedict writes:

“The risen Lord instructed His apostles, and through them His disciples in all ages, to take His word to the ends of the earth and to make all men his disciples. …

“But is this still possible? Many ask this question, both inside and outside the Church today. Wouldn’t it be better for all religions to get together and work for the cause of peace in the world?  The counter-question being, Can dialogue substitute for mission?

“In this way of thinking, it is usually taken for granted that different religions are variants of one and the same reality; that religion is a common category, which assumes different forms in different cultures, but amounts to the same thing. The question of truth — that which originally motivated Christians more than any other — is here put inside parentheses. It is assumed that the authentic truth about God is, in the last analysis, unreachable; that at best one can represent the ineffable with a variety of symbols. Better to put the question of truth aside,  for the sake of peace among the world’s religions. …

“This is, however, lethal to faith. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness: everything is reduced to interchangeable symbols, capable of referring only distantly to the inaccessible mystery of the divine.”

End quote. The miserable Warren will now resume his diatribe.

The good, the true, the beautiful. Each opens the gates into each of the others, and into the heart of the mystery of the Triune God. Not one of these is expendable. And the Truth is indivisible.

Our English word “truth,” from its northern etymology, denotes steadfastness and fidelity, the genuine and consistent. It reaches beyond this to connote the apt, the fitting — in parallel with the old Greek aletheia (misappropriated by Heidegger in a gnostic way), which meant “the evident” — the being and becoming evident, connoting its presentation.

In our Christian universe, truth is manifested in the sublimity of holiness, so that in moments the word stands not for truth alone, in the narrowest “factual” sense, but for the convergence of the transcendentals: for goodness, truth, and beauty, all three. It is suddenly embodied for this world, in the very person of Our Lord.

Those who seek the truth may find it. The Christians of the ancient world announced that they had actually found the answer to the questions of the philosophers: the truth itself. They did not merely claim to have made a little academic progress. Conversely, they were very plain: that if this truth is not true, it must necessarily be a lie. “And if Christ is not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

This declaration is of course in Saint Paul’s first “encyclical” to the Corinthians (15:14); the same in which he was laying down the law on faith and morals and ecclesiastical discipline to a people who might strike us today as peculiarly “modern”; who were themselves rather inclined to substitute “dialogue” for mission. The proper purpose of “dialogue” is to lead us from error into truth; it is not to compromise on what that truth might be. And from the moment in which, through grace — and in “the peace which passeth all understanding,” that eureka of the deepest joy, deeper than mere “feeling” — we find ourselves in possession of the truth, our task is not “to deal,” but to proclaim it.

Yet — plagiarizing again — Pope Benedict writes that some religions, the “tribal” ones especially, are “waiting for the encounter with Jesus Christ.” And when they have found Him they have, in their turn, not only something to take, but something to give: “Christ is waiting for their history, their wisdom, their way of seeing things.” The Christian Church herself, “grown tired in its historical heartlands,” is waiting to be re-animated by them. (God bless Africa! God bless Africa!)

“We proclaim Jesus Christ not to procure as many members as possible for our community, and still less in order to gain power. We speak of Him because we feel the duty to transmit that joy which has been given to us.”

In the Eucharist — in the Adoration to which all men are called, including every kind of sinner — in the presence of the Truth — let us reclaim that unutterable Joy. For as the first apostles first proclaimed: We have found the Messiah!

*

Note: A full translation of Benedict’s remarks, by Fr Richard Cipolla, is now available at the Rorate Caeli website (here). I revised my own excerpts in the light of it.

Ottawa in the news

It is interesting to observe — in oneself — the power of media to implant false impressions on a lazy mind. I noticed this from listening to a television speech by Stephen Harper, after the terrorist event in Ottawa, yesterday. (Harper has now been Canada’s prime minister for almost nine years.) He was described as “shaken” by several of the websites I had consulted for news, and in quickly reviewing the tape of his short talk, I formed that impression myself. It was only when an American correspondent, who had perhaps missed this Canadian media prep, told me Harper did not look shaken to him, that I went back and watched the video again, this time paying close attention to his delivery in both English and French. I realized he was not shaken at all; that his pauses and swallows were characteristic, and would not have been noticed by anyone had he been speaking on any other subject.

Now, Harper’s genius, as a power-seeking politician, is the opposite of Obama’s (the once popular USA president). He carries the “Conservative” label, of a party slightly to the right of the others in our Parliament. Therefore he has most of the liberal media machinery against him. Obama, as perhaps we all know, has enjoyed until recently a compliant and fawning media, that do not criticize their darling, nor hesitate to suppress news that would be unfavourable to him. Obama’s tactic has been to draw attention constantly to himself. He has something to say on every subject, empty of content, but dramatically insistent in its repetition of the first person singular. By contrast, Harper goes out of his way to distract attention from himself, and when he can’t, to avoid vehemence of any kind, or anything resembling drama.

This is not to say he isn’t ruthless, as a political operator, and backroom settler of scores. Anyone associated with Christian causes, such as the defence of human life, will know how he rules his pro-life backbenchers. His intention is to keep the party “on message,” with a message that will not excite media attention, so he can get on with normal administration. His strength is his reputation for management: he has not, like Obama, made a hash of everything he has touched. The Canadian budget is actually in surplus, and while our cumulative debt is substantial, and we face the same unfunded welfare liabilities to an aging population, we have not the bottomless debt and fiscal chaos into which Obama and other irresponsible politicians have delivered the United States. (Notwithstanding, when they crash, it will be right on top of us.)

But of course, this is a “democracy,” and the great majority of our population, as those in all other countries, are almost entirely ignorant of public affairs. Like children, they get bored with good government, but unlike children they have, collectively, the power to do something about it.

At the next election a young political huckster, who happens to be the son of the late Pierre Trudeau, and enjoys something of his father’s winning ways with the women, and a matching cynicism, is likely to win. Young Justin Trudeau is unlike his father, however, in having little in the way of an agenda, beyond power and prestige for himself. Like Obama, he is not an ideologue, only a typical product of our public universities: a mind half-baked with “progressive” platitudes and clichés. He has no discernible discernment, and there is still a chance that the electorate will see him for what he is. Nevertheless, he can already count on the protection and support of our liberal media, which, like musk-oxen detecting a threat, instinctively form a stomping circle around the little fellow, knowing he will be unable to defend himself.

(The situation is complicated by the existence of a socialist party, which itself displaced the Liberals in opposition at the last general election, thanks to a demagogue at their head, who knew how to pander to Quebec. This man has since died, but the party may still be attractive enough to split the opposition vote. In the past, Harper has been rather good at playing the two parties slightly to his left against each other, but after years of isolation in the prime minister’s office, he may have lost his edge.)

*

What impressed me, was how easily I fell for the “media narrative” on Harper’s speech, simply by paying insufficient attention. At the back of my mind I was assuming there must be some truth in it, when I ought to be aware that the media specialize in analyses which contain no truth at all. When I am paying attention, with the benefit of my own long experience within the media, I am able to identify the game, and understand what the players are up to.

It is important to understand that, except a few, the journalists are not ideologues. They are, once again, typical products of our drive-in universities, and journalism schools which have, if possible, even lower intellectual standards. They know no history, nor anything much about the topics on which they write, and can be easily mesmerized by a narrative they have themselves written, by rote. Such is the nature of promotion within what has become a niche of the entertainment industry, that those of independent mind and moral fibre are quickly weeded out.

I’m inclined to use the term “progressive” rather than dwell on Left and Right wings, for there is some contrast between, say, MSNBC and Fox in the USA, between CBC and Sun News up here. There is a growing Right — an opposition within the media to itself — but it is not a significant improvement on the monotony that preceded it. The idea that, as a form of entertainment, news coverage should aspire to “tabloid” conditions, and avoid subjects which require knowledge, governed the rightwing impresarios from the start. The Right is fresher and feistier than the Left, and by its Pavlovian habit of reacting to Left agendas, sometimes traps itself in a principled position; but this is a random, not intended effect. Both sides continue to share the post-Christian worship of abstract “liberty,” “equality,” and material “progress.” They clash on who can deliver these empty buckets quicker. But the battle is fought from both sides with the same weaponry — platitudes and clichés — in a kind of unending spiritual Verdun. “Progress” invariably emerges as the victor.

*

“Democracy,” or populism, has always delivered the Nanny State — which to my understanding is something more than a centralized bureaucracy. The Communists tried to deliver it by force, but politicians in our parliamentary free markets advance it by appealing to the lowest common denominator. The two systems — falsely contrasted “socialist” and “free market” ideologies — are animated by the same Enlightenment ideals. Both claim to speak for the mute and anonymous “little man”: to stuff him with material goods, and inflate him with rhetorical gases. Both play, directly and indirectly, on the envy in that little man, and his resentment of his betters. Both are thus effectively in opposition to the natural hierarchical ordering of society (which made and would make most politics unnecessary). Both promise, as a matter of course, what the serpent offered to Eve and Adam: the fruit that will make the little men “like gods.”

The purpose behind this is not to build the bureaucracy, as an end in itself, but bureaucracy as the means towards moral debilitation. The excellence of bureaucracy, from the diabolical point of view, is that it reliably punishes the good, and rewards bad behaviour. Its weakness remains an inability to predict that human behaviour, including sudden manifestations of the “hostile inflexibility” mentioned in my last post.

For there is in nature something besides the original sin that felled our first parents, and has been the trickster of history ever since. There is also a positive, which I’m inclined to call “human decency,” or in its most extreme and inflexible form, Love. This cuts across all diabolical intentions, and in moments of grace even faces them down. It should be said that the free market approach to moral debilitation leaves rather more scope to this human decency, though it tends to draw the line at Love. Violent tyranny leaves no scope at all, but as a consequence of plugging every vent, triggers the response of pent-up forces. At some point, the signal from a fracture spreads, and in a kind of earthquake, Berlin Walls come down. The genius of the rival consumer democracy is that it releases the pressure, one riot at a time.

But democracies, too, are fated — like every material aspiration on this earth, to die and leave no traces. When they deny the immortal dimension of man, the unchanging reality of creature and Creator, they become dry husks. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and in every direction the dry husks are scattered away. Only by God is the living implanted, and only on God’s terms will it grow. That jealous God, who will have no other gods before Him; against Whom we have, in truth, opposed our little “democratic” pie-in-the-sky.

*

Returning to Ottawa, by way of virtual reality, I note the media headlines this morning. The lockdown is lifted from the middle of the city, and led by their progressive elites, Canadians are congratulating themselves on their “defence of democracy.” In fact the credit should go entirely to Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, in his wonderfully quaint neo-mediaeval costume; and to his 9mm pistol. He was fortunately pitted against only one Muslim psychopath and, laudate Dominum, had a good angle.

Thanks to such events, the mental lockdown of “political correctness” is also lifted, if only for a moment, allowing people to see what they can see. Muslim fanatics are running successful social media operations, recruiting openly in our prisons, and grooming terrorist hitmen in the mosques. To this I would add the phenomena of our universities, where many of the young have discovered it is “cool” to identify with the latest, Islamic, revolutionary cause. The old New Left are converting, or when not, at least giving their lip service to Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other enterprising group who will promise carnage. Indeed, direct anti-Semitism has come back into vogue among our cutting-edge progressive intellectuals: you’re considered a wimp if you say “Israeli” when you mean “Jew.” But these are people who all along have been, quite obviously, inhabited by devils, and as a Catholic friend observed, it is a great pity we have bishops in our Church who have never performed exorcisms.

“Our dear old bag of a democracy” (Auden’s charitable description) believes it has faced another challenge down. One editorial is headed, “Nothing will be the same again”; another declares, “After the attack, we’re still Canada.” These are two ways of saying the same thing, which could be combined as, “Everything will be the same again.” For we live in an age which gathers records, and stores them carefully away, but has no sense of historical time; when it is almost illegal to note that, for instance, “this sort of thing has been going on since the VIIth century.”

Our opponents are not after our dear old bag. “Democracy” is not relevant to their intentions. If we think it is, we have entirely missed their point. Our enemy is after us, body and soul; wants us enslaved, converted, or dead; and does not share in our nice sentimentality. I would further observe, that against such an enemy, platitudes and clichés are ineffective; that his will has embodied a demonic force; that it is encountering no spiritual resistance, whereas: we are going to need God on our side to defeat it.

Hostile inflexibility

All my life, it would seem, I have admired men (and “insolent women”) who have refused to be pushed on matters of doctrine — whether Catholic Christian or, long before, many other kinds of “doctrine.” I’ve mentioned in this space, perhaps, that my father was consistently a hero to me. This was because he would not budge on a matter of principle; nor would he “appear” to budge. He was extremely accommodating otherwise — I can’t remember him making an issue of anything else — but he lost many jobs by refusing to do what he believed to be wrong, or by telling people (such as his employers) what he thought. Of course, he hadn’t always been asked for his opinion. He’d just decide it was time to speak up.

In listening to interviews with the soon-to-be-demoted, and already papally humiliated Cardinal, Raymond Burke, this last fortnight, how vividly I recalled my father. For here is a man of courage and of truth, who will not be intimidated; perhaps our most impressive living bishop.

I was thinking of my own father again, when the pope used the expression “hostile inflexibility” on the weekend just past, applying it to “traditionalists.” Once again he insulted and belittled faithful and longsuffering Catholics, in the course of playing to the media gallery of current public opinion; once again he posed as “the people’s pope,” tilting against the hidebound reactionaries — the bogeymen of the popular imagination, who have stood in the way of “progress,” these last two thousand years. (I think of rednecks from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Karol Józef Wojtyła and Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.)

That the pope himself would not change Church teaching he has assured us on several occasions — when he has been under attack. As a hidebound person myself, the question increasingly comes to mind whether he understands the breadth and depth of that teaching. His extempore lapses are frequent and embarrassing; his association with, and promotion of “progressive” sophists such as Cardinal Kasper have alarmed everyone I know within the Church who is genuinely learned.

His sincerity need not be in question. As a product of Peron’s Argentina, and in many ways a typical Latin American bishop of his (failed) generation, it is often easy to see what he intends. Mixed, holus-bolus, with his many reckless, populist statements, are others entirely beyond criticism. I have no doubt of his “good intentions.” Yet I wonder, too, if he understands himself.

The Church has shed numbers and vocations just where she has tried to accommodate herself to the times: in Europe and the Americas. She has grown, like wildfire, in Africa and Asia where she has preached like the Church of the first centuries. Yet within Europe and the Americas there is a large constituency which believes that she still hasn’t compromised enough, and that she cannot compete with “secular humanism” unless she engages in a kind of moral disarmament, abandoning the “hostile inflexibility” of “traditionalism,” and marketing her wares in a more savvy way.

*

The sense of the Church as a dollar-store religion was brought home to me recently on learning that the Sistine Chapel is now to be rented out for “corporate events.” Porsche is the first client, maker of sexy cars. The rent is competitive with other venue operators, and of course the income will be “given to the poor,” as another publicity gesture. One is reminded of Paul IV — the crass and embarrassing pope who told Michelangelo to paint clothes over all those naked figures he’d scattered on the ceiling and walls — in the Sistine, among the holy shrines of Christendom. This shrine in which the whole story of the Bible is unfolded. It is a sanctuary, a temple of Our Lord. It contains an altar. It is His house, and it is not to be profaned. (It is already sufficiently profaned by a million sleepy tourists, paying Peter’s euros and pence to say that they’ve been there.)

Read, O ye hidebound traditionalists: what Christ himself did when he found a very similar situation by the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem.

For Christ did not do “corporate events.” Nor, I say confidently, will He be doing them when He returns. And it is the function of Holy Church to establish that He won’t be doing them in the meantime, either. (Ah for the good old days, when the Lutherans claimed to be even clearer on this point than we were.)

According to tradition, it was Judas who advised — in the anecdote of Martha and Mary — that the expensive ointment poured over Christ’s feet would better have been sold to raise money for the poor. He was, and remained to his self-euthanizing end, our first Church liberal.

“The poor you will have always with you, but me you will not always have.”

I’ve left out a clause, so to paraphrase it, as vulgarly as possible: Anyone can take care of the poor. Even the stinking Nanny State can take care of them.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars. I only do it for the love of Christ.”

Please take this in, for it is very important, and there will be a test.

*

A pope must show reverence to an office which is not his, but Christ’s. He sits upon the Throne of Peter, not on a garden chair. Nor at a cashpoint. He is not placed in this throne to pursue his own agenda, or exhibit his own “style.” To the world, especially the world of today, it is a “dinosaur” office. It comes with cultural accretions that speak of many centuries of self-denying Faith — including, incidentally, that of Michelangelo, a man of extraordinary talent, and almost certainly homosexual inclination, who lived a chaste and devout life, working himself to the bone for the glory of the Church in his later years, and actually refusing payment. That throne, like those monuments, like Christ Himself, is totally irrelevant to “the way we live now.” That is why the way we live now must change. The monuments of this past are not to be disowned, or hawked in exchange for “charitable contributions,” more than any other aspect of the Faith is to be squandered.

If Muslims, or Calvinists, or Socialists, or Capitalists, desecrate our heritage, we can make do with what remains. We do not desecrate it ourselves.

But again, I don’t think our current pope intends to divide and overthrow the Church of which he declares himself a son, nor to play the iconoclast. Instead, I think he has confused “the poor in spirit” with “the poor” in our contemporary, neo-Marxist sense of “people with low income.” He has confused the humility of the inner hairshirt, with the outward, flashy display of humility by which a politician awes the crowd. Saint Francis of Assisi could correct him on that.

He is not the Magisterium, in himself. He is, for today, spokesman of the Magisterium; but I fear he simply does not understand the majesty of it.

Do not stop praying. Do not for a moment lapse from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which Christ left to be our guide. Nor will Christ abandon us, though in moments He appears to be silent. She is His Bride, and the darkness of her servants will pass.

Saving grace?

Not previously, on this little anti-blog, have I devoted so much attention to an item of “breaking news,” nor for such a duration. My “obsession” with the Synod on the Family in Rome has been consciously pursued. Something of very great importance and consequence is taking place; and it is not only an internal Catholic affair. As many Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants are aware, as well as “conservative” Jews and others, including even some atheists who care about morals and cultural values, the Roman Church has provided both front and back lines of defence. I know people, for instance, who do not agree with the Church’s “absolute” positions on divorce, contraception, abortion, and more; who nevertheless think that without the Roman tenacity, their own more “moderate” positions would be blown away. Despite the failures of her own very human staff — which are not confined to horrific sex scandals  — she is often, indeed normally, the last institution standing against that “dictatorship of relativism” of which Pope Benedict spoke; the “culture of death” against which Saint John Paul preached so eloquently.

“If the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” We rely on the Catholic Church to hold her line; a line which if abandoned would portend the final disintegration of our constantly retreating “Western Civ.”

*

On Sunday, Pope Paul VI will be beatified. I am well aware of disappointment in him by many traditional Catholics — the belief that he let things happen that should have been stopped dead in the wake of Vatican II — especially the vicious things that were done to deface the Mass, by a circus of “liturgists” on his watch. He was surrounded and on many occasions overwhelmed by the worldly agents of the “principalities and powers” of whom the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians. He was by nature a shy and aloof intellectual — had not the sort of personality that would fit a man for heroism. Yet he was also unquestionably a man of deep faith. On one miraculous occasion, in which (to my judgement) his hand was guided by Christ, he performed an act of extraordinary heroism. This was his writing of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

I shall never forget a train ride I took at the age of fifteen, from Buffalo to Cleveland. From a newsstand, in the old Buffalo railway station, I had picked up a copy of the National Catholic Reporter, which contained the full text of the encyclical, in English translation. Note: I was then a fire-breathing adolescent atheist, and persecutor of nice Christian children in high school cafeterias. My intention was to provide myself with more ammunition against Christians generally, and Catholics in particular.

On the train journey I was reading the encyclical with attention, to this end. I recall having read it through twice. The first reading left me in shock: the document appeared to be very intelligently argued. At the second reading, still closer, I began to see that, given the premisses openly and honestly acknowledged, the argument which followed was irrefutable. In order to mock it, I would have to misrepresent it. On thinking it through I realized that I could dismiss the premisses; but that if I did, I would have to argue that Man was a creature of no moral significance; that human life did not matter. I was a reasonably intelligent child, I could see the consequences of that position: in Hitler, Stalin, and so forth.

Nineteen sixty-eight was for other reasons a memorable year. In so many ways it became clear that Western man was attempting suicide. The convulsions on American campuses, and in her streets, can be seen in retrospect for what they were. Parallel events were happening in Paris and throughout Europe. My native “conservatism” was such, even then, that I was appalled: especially by the wincing cowardice of “authority figures,” abandoning their stations. Suddenly I saw, clearly, that Pope Paul was making a stand.

My atheism was hard-boiled, if internally scrambled. It survived this encounter for a few more years. But I was no longer able to pretend that the Catholic and Christian position on human life was ridiculous. Moreover, I could see that the line had to be drawn at the moment and in the act of conception — at contraception, not abortion. Returning to Georgetown District High School (for my last year before I dropped out), I then added to my already growing reputation for eccentricity. In the student debating clubs to which I belonged, I was now arguing — as a florid atheist — that Pope Paul was dead right in Humanae Vitae; that if we did not draw the line at contraception, we would be on the “slippery slope” to real, murderous barbarism. (In a Protestant town that despised Atheists and Catholics about equally, this was quite the pose.)

Everything that has happened in Western society in the forty-six years since, has borne this out. Moreover, every Christian denomination that has abandoned that front line — on sexual morality — is now in advanced stages of collapse, from one thing that led to another. This is demonstrable fact, not rhetorical posture; just as the emptying of Catholic churches by the innovations of the 1960s is demonstrable fact.

*

My latest column at Catholic Thing (see here) attempts to get at a point on which “post-modern” man is obtuse: the nature of law, and of the sophistry which tries to undermine it. That: “What was true yesterday remains true today; what is true today will remain true tomorrow.”

It is too early, by far, to see what will actually emerge from the Synod on the Family, and more broadly from the papacy of Francis. But I should add to what I have already written on this subject, that a week that began in one of the dark moments for the Catholic Church — in the release of a synod Relatio profoundly evil and destructive — has ended fairly well. The response to it from the bishops assembled in the working groups of the synod has been stellar. They have made clear to the world, or at least, that part of the world paying attention, that it was a false and lying document, intentionally misrepresenting what they had been discussing inside.

The Australian, Cardinal Pell — whose “dayjob” is currently cleaning up corruption and incompetence in the Curia — made the initial stand, leading the overwhelming majority of bishops to demand the publication of internal proceedings which the pope’s own agents were trying to suppress. I was immensely cheered, once again, by the courage and clarity of such men as Cardinals Mueller and Burke. Cardinal Napier of South Africa showed in both his clarity and his instinctive statesmanship a wonderful example of what a Prince of the Church should be. And in the “hard lines” drawn by bishops from across Africa and Asia, we could see the future of our Church: that she can indeed recover from the filth and squalour into which she has been led by compromised and compromising Western bishops. In his bigoted remarks against the Africans, Cardinal Kasper also revealed the true nature of the liberal “reformers” — calling for “mercy” in their sophistical ways. “By their fruits ye shall know them”: it was a moment when the mask came off, and anyone with eyes could see what was lurking behind it.

Make no mistake, this is war. And it is a war now raging in the highest councils of the Church herself, where an attempt is being made to overthrow Humanae Vitae. The souls of many millions are at stake, and the trumpet must give no uncertain sound. We have real scoundrels embedded in our hierarchy; but as we have been poignantly reminded, Christ will not abandon His Church. Perhaps we have seen one of the great historical moments of intervention: of what is called, “Grace.”

Postscriptum

My brain hurts, from trying to follow reports from Rome, in languages I imperfectly understand, about the relatio mentioned in my post yesterday. Let me recommend this morning’s synod briefing by Robert Royal (here) as the best and most reasonable summary of the riotous proceedings. To my mind, it becomes more apparent that a coup is being attempted, to foist a load of liberal rubbish on the world, and give it the appearance of revised Church doctrine. But to my relief, the best of the cardinals left by Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, are aware of what is happening, and have begun to take action against it. We still have good men.

Let me also recommend a patient and attentive reading of Beati Immaculata — the long Psalm CXVIII — for some context on divine law, natural law, and ultimately civil law. It is an “ABC” on these matters, following the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and may be mastered through diligent prayer. (Our monks would break it down into eleven successive pairs of the eight-verse stanzas, to pray it carefully.)

And then, the remarkable encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on human liberty, Libertas (1879, here), which I don’t think has dated as an explanation of why the Church can make no truce with modernism. The modern man thinks he has a “right” to the manipulation of his own conscience. But our ability to err is not a right to err, and the perfect liberty which Christ bestows is freedom from the tyranny of sin and error. This liberty is ancient, indeed immortal, and can never be revised or “reformed.” On the contrary, the modern project to extend liberty — to discover and to legislate new liberties — is, “to tell the plain truth, of a vitiated kind, the fruit of the disorders of the age, and of an insatiate longing after novelties.”

“Insatiate.” There is no compromise to be had with the “reform” faction. Like the Islamists we have been dealing with, in another theatre, they will take each concession as a proof of weakness, and immediately press for more. It is suicidal foolishness to believe that one may negotiate with a serpent.

Set before me for a law the way of thy justifications, O Lord: and I will always seek after it. Give me understanding, and I will search thy law; and I will keep it with my whole heart. Lead me into the path of thy commandments.

Something to declare

There is a wonderful passage in a memoir by the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. (For the Islands I Sing, 1997.) He finds himself in a drunk tank in Edinburgh, with two other gentlemen: one a sailor, “who had damaged his hand in a fight in a respectable coffee-house”; the other an English tourist, pleading for a cup of tea. Brown himself had been arrested for “drunk and incapable” in Hanover Street. The three, though seriously hungover, and in some misery, spent much of the long day in laughter together.

Night came, and the policemen added a fourth customer: a gentleman blathering obsessively about his hatred of Catholics. When this became insupportable, the sailor declared himself a Catholic, in a decisive yet understated way. The Englishman then announced that he would be a Catholic, too. Our poet became the third to realize that he was a Catholic, even though he had not entertained the possibility, before. The scene ends with the fourth shrieking to the guards, to let him out of this cell full of Catholics.

I think it is the happiest triple conversion story I have read. I must thank my gentle reader, Lord Jowls, for sending the book to me.

*

My intention had been to write, today, about the bizarre document that came yesterday out of the Vatican. It is the relatio post disceptationem, for the first week of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. ​I’m scratching my head trying to guess what it was meant to accomplish, and whom it was meant to please — besides people who loathe the Church, both within and outwith her. Scratching my head till it is bleeding.

Questions come to  mind. Do the bishops not know what this is doing in the parishes? What doubts and divisions are being sown, by their posturing vanities? The discouragement they are spreading among Christ’s faithful and obedient? The encouragement they are giving to the wolves? About the rancid smell in the peanut gallery?

Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just want to pleasure one another.

It is statistically unlikely that all two hundred bishops are at fault. We know with certainty that many in there must be as appalled as many out here. But it is becoming apparent that a considerable number, perhaps even the majority, are devoid of shame.

We should pray for them, I suppose, as we pray for practising homosexuals, and the squalidly remarried, and others who find themselves trapped in a situation that is objectively and inherently disordered, just as they begin to realize that it is disordered, and there will be no easy way out. Bishops playing fast and loose with Church doctrine are especially in need of our prayers. Christ give them strength to confront their own degradation.

The press conference after the release of this relatio was, if possible, worse than the document itself: the sight of bishops tacking and weaving in the spin mode, which we rightly associate with sleazy politicians. Christ inspire them to begin answering direct questions, honestly.

Meanwhile: “Whatever they do in the Vatican, I’m staying Catholic.” Even if the pope should be objectively disordered — and we have had some right scoundrels in the past — we must stay the course. It is up to us now, to show an example to our bishops, and hope they come to their senses, soon.

My particular prayer is that, in the face of this Vatican abomination, people may react by Grace, as the gentlemen did in that Edinburgh drunk tank. I pray that Christ may come to us directly: in His unexpected ways.

To those sincerely Christian, but not Catholic, I would plead: come. Come into the Church now, and help us fight the contagion within.

Whom to thank?

Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October. It is earlier than American Thanksgiving, because we are farther north. Our growing seasons are shorter, and our farmers need more wit. Comparing available arable land between the two countries (which are approximately equal in total land area), a geographer could explain why the USA has ten times the population. It is because our farmers have approximately the same amount of wit.

Farmers: God love them. There was once a time when four in five of our Canadian workforce were farmers or fishermen; now they are perhaps one in fifty. Those still in the trade grow older; the median age of farmers in Canada is now fifty-six, and so retirements are accelerating. There are far fewer farms than a century ago; but much, much larger. The industrialization of agriculture, and the persistent growth of government regulation, has changed the nature of farming; and methods of distribution have been centralized to the point where I know country people who drive into the big city, specifically to buy fresher food. The transfer of population from rural to urban locations likewise changes consumer attitudes, including those towards politics. City folk tend to have no clew what is involved in food production; contemporary “environmentalism” depends upon this profound ignorance. We think there are “solutions,” that can be legislated.

According to the city dweller, the world has become over-crowded. It certainly uses a lot more electricity, as we may see from satellite photos, overhead. But over most of the world’s habitable surface, the density of population is actually less than it was a century ago.

When the cost of labour goes dramatically down, and the cost of materials proportionally up, the “natural environment” will be restored. All trends in the last couple of centuries have been the other way; yet it is easy to imagine combinations of circumstances which might restore that natural order, and meanwhile solve all the infrastructural problems in the cities: by depopulating them. (Do not allow yourself to wish for that.)

Assuming some memory of technology is retained, the situation would not last long. We don’t need old machines when we can build new ones. For that matter, the evidence of the past speaks for quick recoveries. In looking into, for instance, the Black Plague, I am often impressed by this speed. Within a generation, “normal” seems to have resumed, even in places that lost more than three-quarters of their people. True, many villages are no longer there, and open spaces remain available for market gardening within city walls; but life goes on as if nothing much happened. Glibness rules.

This is why, I think, we would have to choose to live differently: to make genuinely hard choices, collective as well as individual, towards a simpler and more independent way of life. We would have to agree to be, on balance, poorer in conventional material terms, to become richer in the moral, aesthetic, and spiritual. We would have to do something frankly faith-based. This is also why I think we are unlikely to choose, until, like illness or death, the choice is made for us. Human sloth — the habit of following the path of least resistance — is not an especially modern phenomenon.

The farmer had time to read, and make his own music; to enjoy his family, and make real friends; to attend to the requirements of God, and of his neighbour. He could afford to be “idle” in this way. Paradoxically, our sloth now dictates that we participate in a rat race, mostly on terms resembling those of old-fashioned indentured labour. It is not that we work as hard as old farmers; but our exhaustion, at the end of the day, is a spiritual exhaustion, that leaves room only for passive entertainment. It blights the lives of employees and employers, alike.

Notwithstanding, the sense of gratitude, for life and the means of sustaining it, seems innate. Even in the heart of the city, we want to thank someone. We live, necessarily, in a state of confusion. And yet the clock still hasn’t run out on us. If only we knew Whom to thank.

Kojo no tsuki

Twice this evening I have played through “Kojo no tsuki” — the jazz version by Thelonious Monk. It is nearly seventeen minutes, on the 1996 CD re-issue of his album, Straight, No Chaser, from 1967. The full recording was resurrected from the old tapes; time limitations on the original LP had made abbreviation necessary. On that LP, the piece was identified as “a Japanese folk song.” This it was not. It began instead as an offering by the Japanese composer, Rentaro Taki, to his high school music students around the turn of the last century. The title means, “Moon over ruined castle.” Several Japanese musicians had already adapted both song and lyrics. It became a popular hit in Tokyo, in the early 1930s, changed from B minor to D minor, and slowed to a dirge: impossibly exotic to my Western ears. Monk probably had heard this best known version, and instinctively sped it up again.

The correct attribution might have been supplied sooner, had Monk bothered to tell anyone where he had found the extraordinary tune. A musician, not a punctilious scholar, he did with the Japanese raw material what he’d done with standards by Ellington and Arlen. There was no intention of plagiarism. The very idea is missing from traditional art. He was doing just what “early musicians” did when, for instance, they picked up tunes from the street, and transformed them into profound Mass settings. “Classical music” tends to trickle upwards, or percolate. What emerges is shockingly original: extremely complex, and totally unified. But it began with some tune someone was whistling. (Sometimes it is an angel who has whistled the tune.) Great art is like that. Inferences are drawn from a simple mystery: a few notes strung together that mean more than they can ever say.

Monk’s setting of “Kojo no tsuki” was one of my mother’s favourite pieces. That’s why I put it on my machine, this evening: she died one year ago. It is Canadian Thanksgiving again; a year has passed. Mama seldom admitted to preferences in music; I did not know she adored Thelonious Monk, until she mentioned the fact, at age ninety. It was something I could not have guessed. There are many things people don’t say, or may not get around to saying unless they live a long time.

Time hurries on. I left home at the age of sixteen. Then four decades passed, very quickly. Then I was attending to my mother in a nursing home, around the corner in Parkdale, here. We had been around the world together, when we were all young (my father and sister come into this). She was in a bad way her last few years, after my father died; my hardest task was to jolly her. (My sister worked harder.) We drew closer to each other than we had been since, I think, she had been pushing me in a stroller. Her remarkable memory held out to the end. My memory was inherited from her: the ability to recall small things from many years ago, “as if they happened yesterday.” Between the two of us we could reconstruct quite a lot of pointless detail. Except, as one grows old, one begins to know that every detail is important.

That was one of the details: “Kojo no tsuki.” She didn’t remember the title, but when I asked for it, she hummed out the melodic line in her fading mezzosoprano voice. It was an “aha” moment: I loved that piece myself. “The two of us must be related.”

*

I have a picture here, of refugees, fleeing across France (I think it must be) in the last World War. There is a mother clutching a little baby; a boy fitted out as a beast of burden, carrying what he can; a girl, being yanked along, looking to one side. She’s a child, but there’s an adult expression on her face. There is no man with them. They appear to be walking fast, through open country. They look Jewish to me. No caption: and I have no idea what their story was. But there are four of them, and one can see they are related.

The picture fell out of a book. I was thinking about “family,” and there it landed. Horrible cruelties are endured in this world; the “culture of death” is all around us. But there are families; and there will be families.

Synod on the family

The Pontificium Consilium pro Familia has begun in Rome, God help us. This “extraordinary synod” will feed into a general synod next year, with plenty of opportunities for mischief along the way. Already, all over this continent, and I should think the world, liberal clergy are using the new signals from the Vatican — of which this unprecedented synod is the most spectacular — as their cue to “make a few changes.” We have a resurgence of the fever that swept the Church in the 1960s as “the spirit of Vatican II” — to my mind, a kind of spiritual Ebola that left churches closed and pews empty throughout the once-Christian West.

We now have two hundred bishops discussing e.g. how to deliver Communion to people who have failed to conform to the long-settled arrangements of Holy Church; and the dogma that follows, slam-dunk, from Christ’s plain words in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a marvellous opportunity — but only for the Devil to excite factional emotion and magnify dissension within the Church. Those who continue to adhere to what she has taught these last twenty centuries can now be cast as “a faction” in themselves, and faithful priests mocked as “old celibates.” (Jesus was a celibate male, incidentally.) Given our experience since Vatican II, our prelates should have known better.

There is no satisfying demands for “reform”; there never will be. It is a destructive force. It is a political rather than religious inspiration, directly opposed to reverence, and like a cancer it will attack every form of continuity which it is capable of reaching. It conducts the voice of worldly power — the howl of the wolf in his insatiable hunger — and when challenged it answers with a sneer. The vocation of the shepherd is not to negotiate with the wolf, but to guard his sheep. Read again the 10th chapter of Saint John.

“Reform,” in the sense of change and novelty, is what you wish upon your enemy. What you wish upon yourself is recovery.

Contrary to the argument of the wolf, circumstances have not fundamentally changed. Men have long been sinful, and long have tried sophistical arguments to justify themselves. It is for the Church to tell them they are in the wrong: the more brutally if they have convinced themselves they are in the right. The task of the Church, in this instance, is to change the squalid public view of marriage, not accommodate it. It is the task of restoration; of restoring Christendom. Paradoxically, it is most likely to begin again among the celibates — both male and female — rekindling the fires of the monastic life, and restoring the prayers by which the world is invisibly warmed and enlivened, against the cold shadow of the “culture of death.”

We might charitably argue the difficulty is that reading standards have sunk so low: an argument, I suppose, against spreading literacy too widely. Those who wish to finagle on the sanctity of marriage, point for instance to “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” in the same section of Scripture. No, Christ was not telling us to gouge out our eyes, immediately after noticing a pretty girl. This was an example of a rhetorical figure — it is called hyperbole — which Christ employed, along with many other figures of speech, and an array of parables. It was recognized as such from the beginning, for it required only moderate intelligence to get the point. It is indeed hard to help the clever types, who pretend to be unable to tell the difference between a rhetorical figure, and laying down the law. By context, and allusion to Moses, Christ’s ruling on marriage was made abundantly clear.

Modernists who imagine themselves very clever, as the Scribes and Pharisees before them, try to work around this unambiguous ruling by constructing hard cases. For instance, what about the guy who married some strumpet when he was very young and stupid, later resorted to civil re-marriage, and now has an adoring mate and five smiling children? Should the Church tell him to abandon them, now that he is starting to feel some compunction for his past mistakes, and instead resume his devotion to the little vixen who has moved to another country and is “married” for the fourth time?

No, the Church is not that obtuse. The man in this example should face the music, however. He should attend Mass like any good Catholic, and rather than take Communion in his present state, he should approach the rail and ask a blessing — alongside the mother of his children. And he should do so until his annulment comes through, and his marriage to her can be recognized.

Rather than demand the Church change her ways — which suggests the man is still too stupid to contract a valid marriage — he should use this potentially humiliating situation to wise himself up. He should set an example to his children of just how seriously marriage is to be taken; and Christ is to be taken. He should extract himself from the mess he has made in such a way to show — before Christ, and his fellow Catholic Christians — that he is now, finally, capable of love, and honour, and obedience. Likewise, this is an opportunity for the couple to show, before God and man, the sincerity of their attachment.

Demanding to have things both ways is not a sign of sincerity.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if the Church could clean up her bureaucracy, so that annulment decisions do not wait in piles of paper for months or years to be rubber-stamped. But Pope Francis is already doing something about this, I gather. And patience is a virtue.

Communion is not to be taken lightly. It can be a source of tremendous strength: but only if it is received humbly, and faithfully, and reverently. To acknowledge the truth in the presence of Christ is also a source of strength. This is why men and women in a state of mortal sin attend the Mass and do not take Communion — until they have fully confessed their sins, and received full absolution, after the restitution that this may require. To take Communion some other way — as if it were an energy wafer — is to compound the sin. And liberal priests are doing their penitents no favours by helping them compound their sins. Nor — need it be mentioned? — are they doing themselves any favours, with respect to the fate of their own immortal souls.

Hosers

My mention of Immanuel Kant, over at Catholic Thing yesterday, was to a single purpose: reminding the philosophical types of his role, anticipating Hegel’s, in shaping our modern or post-modern notion of History, and thus the full modern jet stream of “progress.”

Kant came late in the Enlightenment, as the Prussians generally came late to things, therefore had the advantage of his precursors. The hose of the Enlightenment was already flowing copiously. What Kant did was to choke the nozzle, in order to increase the spray velocity. He was a Christian, at least in his own mind: a forward-looking, “Evangelical” Christian (in the conventional Lutheran sense). But the fluid passing through the hose of the Enlightenment was not Christian. It was the aspiration to a pure Reason, which could be pursued without any need of Revelation.

Two things were being accomplished, by focusing this stream. The first was to make religious belief “optional.” Without, I think, intending it, Kant helped to re-set the default position of Western Civ to Atheism, from Christian Faith. This he did for the benefit of intellectuals and elites in society, who would actually be attracted to his impenetrable jargon. But the loss of faith is something that trickles down — like cowardice, from a field commander.

It would of course be devilishly unfair, to say nothing of untrue, to give Kant sole credit. As I say, he only worked on methods for narrowing the nozzle, at the delivery end of the hose. Many others contributed to the pneumatic adjustments (replacing water with air), and the swirling techniques.

Kant’s other transcendental accomplishment was to secure the triumph of “theory” over “praxis.” This latter term is inadequate, and perhaps a better juxtaposition would be, theory over knowledge. The latter presupposes, among many other things, an intangible which we might label “wisdom.” The former, to paraphrase Laplace, has no need of that.

In the old intellectual regime, which had largely survived the Reformation, hypothesis had not yet graduated in the elegant robes of Theory. I don’t think they even knew what it was. True, by acts of theological reductionism, the human brain had already been made self-idolizing. And the greatest accomplishment of all had been that of René Descartes — the man of awesome genius who had “split the atom,” of body and soul. (In the Anglosphere, Francis Bacon is usually credited with inventing our “scientific method” but, alongside Descartes, he was a conceptual bumpkin.)

This is rocket science. Normally one mentions these names as part of a paean to modernity — liberation, democracy, penicillin, and so forth. “Ideas have consequences,” as the Owl of Minerva mutters at dusk, and these were the men whose ideas cleared the ancient, church-ridden ground for the factory of science and technology. Their portraits are hung like those of Marx, Engels, Lenin, above the reviewing stand in modernity’s Red Square.

They are the prophets of speed; a speed disencumbered from the old constraints of wisdom and experience, anchored as they were in the hard goo of Revelation. While the utopian conception of where we are going can itself be shrugged, as a thing of the past, we may nevertheless boast that we are getting nowhere faster and faster.

Yet the signpost persists of that old destination: a cradle-to-grave Nanny State embracing the whole planet, from which everything “non-rational” has been scoured, by the hose of pure Reason. I mentioned Kant in this connexion for it was he who drew the arrow pointing “forward” in his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. Philosophers could thenceforth forget about God, and focus on the velocity issues.

We need to draw an X through that arrow, and scrawl underneath the words, “Wrong way!” For it is because we have come such a long way, that we have such a long way to go: backwards.

The necessary angel

It has been the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels today, with all that we associate with that, in Christendom. One cannot be Christian and deny that angels exist: the most literal will find several actually named in the Bible (Old Testament and New), and their messages received, and their presences acknowledged, page after page. Their choirs ascend, in greater and greater proximity to God in the highest: Angels, Archangels, Principalities; Powers, Virtues, Dominations; Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim.

There was a post on this topic one year ago. I tried to supply a suitable affront to the contemporary mind, which is indifferent to angels. Merely to mention them is probably enough, to set scientistic eyeballs rolling. The more poetic will accept them as figures of speech. But let us insist on a religious hard line: that angels be not only publicly recognized, but deferred to in their spiritual place, delectated in the liturgical order, and comprehended as Beings about whom we can know little, but much more than nothing.

In his poem, “The Necessary Angel,” written by an atheist about to lose his faith, Wallace Stevens accepts “the Angel” as metaphor, needed to save reality from cliché; then comes so close to prophetically accepting that angel itself as real, that he makes the reader’s hair stand on end. (He died Catholic, to the scandal of his wife, daughter, and the extended tribe of his liberal-agnostic admirers.) By reason alone, that is as close as one may come to angels.

In Christian teaching, the angels were created, as we were created; but prior to, or before us. They defeat our conceptions of space and time. But Love itself defeats our conceptions, and Faith and Hope are anchored in an Eternity that remains bottomlessly mysterious to our human minds — richly repaying contemplation, but solving no riddles. For a Mystery is not a riddle or puzzle, with a set answer waiting overleaf; and our modern attempts at this sort of reductionism all end in farce. Our own Being is anchored in Mystery, and what can we do about it?

As I grow older, I become more amazed by the “materialism” that must necessarily deny its own foundation; which cannot account for the primal existence of a single particle within the void. What once seemed merely glib, now strikes me as more deeply monstrous: a purposeful refusal of Grace.

*

I haven’t mentioned Darwinism in a while, let me dredge it back up.

There will be no comprehension of “the origin of species” unless we accept the reality of angels. William Blake came closer than Darwin, to an understanding of evolutionary process, in his depiction of the Soul of a Flea. From the Bible itself, and from early Christian literature, we receive a sense of the angels, assigned to their places in the cosmic order of things. (Consider, for instance, Saint Paul at Troas, receiving the “man of Macedonia,” in Acts XVI.) What Plato conceived as “forms,” Christians have perhaps discerned as “angels,” in their nested hierarchies. It could be said that they are “living forms.” That would not exhaust what could be said, but might serve as an orienting start. For in any broad view of things as they actually are — of the universe as we may perceive it — the place of the angels must not be overlooked.

I had a dream or “vision” of this once, which I will exchange for a small share of public ridicule. It had to do with the lemurs endemic to Madagascar, who filled the forest niches of that island near to, and yet isolated from, the great continent of Africa. Over the last sixty million years or so, they came to range over that large island: from wee “mouse” lemurs, barely an ounce in weight, to others (only recently extinct) on the scale of gorillas. For all this variety, each is unmistakably a lemur, perfectly adapted to its habitat.

In my dream I imagined the operation of an “Angel of Lemurs,” among God’s messengers to that place. I imagined that Angel, by whose higher and exalted consciousness each new forest niche was detected, as it appeared or developed in the unfolding narrative, told in earthly flesh by the descending choirs, and innumerable other agencies of the Divine Will. I imagined this Angel presiding over the metamorphoses of the lemur clade, filling each opening corner with another of these creatures, and therefore with its irreducible joy in the echo of its Maker; or parting one species from another to serve the forest in its overlapping heights, and from its variously breathing angles; and then withdrawing each species of lemur in its turn, upon the completion of its season, and place or station in the dance of Time. And the Angel itself: as perfect expression of the godly idea of lemur-ness, bearing the spiritual countenance of the Lemur-before-all-lemurs. And likewise I imagined the descent of the lesser Lemurian Angels: the guardians of these animals in each kind, and bearers of God’s love towards them, “telescoping” from that guardian spirit of all lemurs, through the wormholes of space and time.

And then, the tribes of primitive men who, living undisturbed in this place before its despoliation, honoured and instinctively propitiated these angels — because their ability to know them had not yet bled away. Who knew them in ways that could not be explained, to those who honour nothing; who understand nothing, and cherish nothing, and therefore despoil everything they touch. (As I write, I am listening to their jackhammers.)

The incredibly subtle and complex, yet often sudden adaptation of old species to new niche, cannot “just happen” — as we know a coin will not land consecutive heads, a million million times. Not ever, within a universe that was itself expressed into Being less than fourteen billion years ago — with all of its potentialities presented in a singular moment. A larger intelligence must not only invent but coordinate, as I imagine: provide the metaphysical “RNA” to choreograph the supernatural dance, from the boldest outward attributes of impossibly gigantic and sophisticated creatures, down to the finest flections within the molecules from which they have been composed. And from this we may reasonably infer the action of angelic forces.

Which cannot be studied by the dead reckoning of empirical science because — in biology, or even chemistry sometimes — we are not dealing with simple, predictable “laws of nature,” rather with living, sentient powers; with Beings, who turn and act according to a nature that is not ours, nor answerable to our wishes. Who cannot be approached, except by supernatural means. We may trace effects, solve technical puzzles, to the modest limits of empirical science; but above and beneath and beyond lie angels.

The world in small

Commending the works of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, in an article that was really about something else (see here), I mentioned the SMOM’s stamp issuing authority.

The Poste Magistrali was established as a modern postal administration only in 1966, but a philatelic survey would have to review a much longer history of mail delivery, as a function of the SMOM, attestable to the early XVIth century, and probably going back to the Crusades. Couriers have, after all, been employed by every sovereign order. Postage stamps were invented in England so recently as 1840, as a convenience; but in one form or another, the mails were being delivered in ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia; in Babylon and Egypt; in the Indus civilization, the Mauryan, across China, and everywhere else authority has been exercised on larger than the tribal scale. (From this information alone, we can see that the Internet is a shocking novelty, and guess that its implications go well beyond what we can discern or imagine.)

As a lad, in wonderfully backward British schools in Asia, I began seriously to collect and trade stamps. This was not really an option. All boys were expected to collect stamps, and those who tried to avoid the hobby were marked as dangerously odd. Other deficiencies — moral, material, spiritual, and intellectual — could be overlooked in a boy, but one who did not collect stamps was confessing to a more fundamental weirdness. This is because, I think, the collecting impulse is itself fundamental to human nature — especially, masculine human nature, and we are talking boy schools here. And, stamps and coins were until recently the most obviously collectible artefacts of human manufacture. Which is to say nothing against the collection of butterflies, or beetles, or books into vast libraries.

Or, works of art. “The aesthetic” was, from the beginning, my principal attraction to stamps, though it took some time for me to appreciate that it was. By mimicry, I quickly acquired the lust to complete a set. If a set of stamps had four members, and I had three of them, I could not rest until I’d acquired the fourth, no matter what its condition, or how unpleasant the underlying design.

I suspect this is at the root of the bureaucratic impulse. It is to complete, to collect everything that can be collected, to regularize and schematize the collection, and eventually to make everything the same. Nothing offends the sensibility of the bureaucratic soul so much as an omission, or an exception. It disturbs his sleep.

Towards the end of my boyhood, and with the help of my father, whose preaching on this topic I took to heart, my own views “evolved.” I developed the concept that certain stamps were TUTO (“too ugly to own”). Not simply stamps, but stamps beautifully designed, skilfully and ingeniously engraved (or sometimes typographed, or lithographed) called to me, cor ad cor. Had I a set of four, and three exquisite, but the fourth a poorly executed afterthought, I would actually get rid of that fourth. And I learned to take pleasure in the riddance. (This is how I became an “editor.”)

It was my great grandfather who began soaking stamps off envelopes; the man to whom I owe thanks for having provided a miscellaneous mound of Canadian orange three-cent “small Victorias” from which, many decades later, I was able to extract an inspiring range of local post office cancellations. His son, my grandfather, the cartographer and illuminator, became a systematic and obsessive collector, and evangelist for the hobby, which he pressed upon each of his innumerable children and grandchildren. My father’s mounted collection ends suddenly in 1940, when in an instant he stopped being a boy in a world at war; I keep it intact as a memento of his childhood. I, for my part, have never been able to shake off a kind of irrational exhilaration, at the discovery of a stamp shop or a stamp fair. My sons, however, escaped this fascination, despite my best efforts to enchant them. Alas, though fine upstanding young men, they were born into the age of email; an age too busy for truth, goodness, beauty, or the chaste solitude they often command.

Let me say that the quality of the SMOM’s stamps is not very impressive. I see missed opportunities in almost all their issues. Inflation now governs the world, and while conventional post offices are everywhere in recession, approaching bankruptcy, the number of new stamp issues constantly increases from almost all of them. This is for the most part a cynical effort to obtain a (diminishing) revenue from the (dwindling) horde of naïve stamp collectors; sometimes (as in the SMOM’s case) for charitable purposes. Hardly anyone puts stamps on letters, and even bills are now paid online.

Somewhere around 1970 (a little sooner or later, depending on the country), engraving was replaced with “modern offset printing” by almost every stamp issuing authority, and by now, at least ninety-nine new stamps in each hundred are complete rubbish — as may be seen immediately through any 5X magnifying glass. Instead of a finely executed, tiny work of art, which will acquire patina with age, you have under your nose what might as well be a square inch cut from a glossy magazine: a meaningless slur of tiny, multicoloured dots. Whereas, every minuscule stroke in an engraved stamp adds to, or subtracts from, its aesthetic meaning, and is potentially a delight in itself. For art is not a mash. Every gesture is significant.

What we see in stamps is generally the case whenever human handicraft is obviated by large-scale machine production. A world that has quite consciously discarded civilizational values, and replaced them with ruthless economic calculations, degrades everything it touches, and industriously replaces the authentic with the fake. It actually takes pride in doing this. Socialists and capitalists alike share in competitive zeal, as they seek out “the lowest common denominator.”

I thrill to examples of resistance, however quixotic they may be. The French, the Austrians, several Scandinavian countries, Italians, Germans, and some others from time to time, have mounted rearguard actions, sticking with or reverting to engraved stamps, in some cases even to the present day. The Czechs, even under Communist rule, were regularly issuing stamps of the highest craft standards, magnificent design, and genial spirit. All these authorities also issued garbage stamps, to keep up with the times; and the trend is certainly towards the bureaucratic consistency of all-garbage. Yet by the grace of God, some of the greatest stamp engravers have flourished within the last two generations, their art still in (shrinking) demand.

The Pole, Czesław Słania, died 2005, is widely appreciated as “the Picasso of stamp engraving”; the Austrian, Wolfgang Seidel, always takes my breath away; perhaps the Norwegian, Martin Mörck, is the most talented stamp engraver still fully active; but there are several dozen other living or only recently deceased stamp engravers, including an admirable disproportion of Frenchmen (and a couple of women), quite incapable of producing inferior or prostituted work. Yves Baril is, incidentally, the name of our greatest Canadian stamp engraver.

Let me add, before resuming my silence, that it was through stamp collecting that I absorbed the outline history of the (post-1840) modern world, and indirectly acquired many of my views on subjects superficially removed. For instance, I early developed an aversion to “propaganda stamps,” together with an awareness that they were not restricted to formally totalitarian regimes. I could say that my whole view of the evil of Statism, and the Nationalism on which it feeds, began with a mysterious distaste for certain kinds of commemorative stamp, as commonly produced in the United States as in the Soviet Union. My very preference for monarchic over republican constitutional orders may follow from the triteness and narrow, jingo viciousness displayed in the stamps of most republican regimes. And with that, a perception that the handmaid of our post-modern inflation — not only of money but in every other aspect of our lives — is the cancerous growth of Ideology. On a planetary scale it has been, with growing confidence, subverting and destroying Religion. Political ideology turns men away from the grace of God, and instead towards “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and all the poppycock and hogwash that flows from that. By accelerating increments, God is rejected, and Satan embraced.

But that is a larger topic.