Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Oyster sauce chronicles

There are three essential ingredients in a Chinese oyster sauce, so far as I can make out from the labels: oyster juice, sugar, and monosodium glutamate. Corn starch is needed to adjust the texture, but I should think rice or potato starch might serve equally well.

In the Chinatown grocery I most frequent, bottles of this delicious substance are available for around two dollars each. But I found one brand in a special section — marked in Chinese, I had thought, for a “sale” — that was six dollars. The label included a delightful wood-engraved depiction of an oyster, from which I guessed what the bottle must contain. It was set within classical Chinese typography (no simplified characters). Judge the book by its cover!

Now, don’t get me wrong. The venerable Hong Kong company, Lee Kum Kee, which has, over the last six generations, built a fortune on oyster sauce, and at least fifty-seven other popular sauces and condiments, so that it might be considered China’s answer to Heinz, makes a very acceptable oyster sauce for around two dollars. And for a fact I know it is bottled under hygienic factory conditions, or was when (as a hack business journalist) I once visited one of their plants. I will offer no criticism of this worthy commercial establishment.

And while I do not know this for a fact, I did once purchase a cheaper variety of oyster sauce, which could not have been made from oysters. Perhaps some more plentiful marine mollusc was inducted, to provide a “fishy” taste, but I doubt even that. From the aftertaste, I’d have guessed industrial by-products from some other Mainland source. It did prove an excellent toilet cleaner, but I wouldn’t use it on counters.

Never cut corners like this yourself, gentle reader! If the market rate for a substance is around two dollars, acclimatize yourself to the expenditure. Less will not be more — not in the world of food processing and packaging!

Conversely, I found the idea of paying six dollars for a bottle of oyster sauce too attractive to pass up.  My reasoning was, that if I could derive such pleasure as I had from the basic commercial product, what ecstasies might await at treble the price?

Too, this more expensive variety had been slipt to the shelves in an admirable way. The bottle entirely ignored Canadian labelling requirements, including the usual incomprehensible health and nutritional warnings, and made no use of either official language. It had to be good.

And it was, … and I am writing this only to express my lament that the bottle is now empty, and my regret that its fellows are now removed from display in Chinatown, perhaps by our NFG (national food gestapo), so that I have no idea where to find another.

There was indeed no list of ingredients on that bottle that I could discover — though my Chinese is imperfect — so I am left to speculate what the secret was. Here, if gentle reader will permit, is my theory of the matter.

It is that, the bottle contained oyster, and nothing but oyster, patiently reduced and carmelized, conferring an enchantingly natural sweetness, with nothing superadded except, of course, salts from the seawater employed in the boiling.

That, it had been made from intentionally selected, superior specimens of the beautifully elongated and large Crassostrea angulata — the oriental oyster par excellence — probably sun-dried in preparation.

That, there was no hurrying in the course of this preparation.

That, for the very love of a fine oyster sauce, a great deal of attentive labour had gone into the production, by men of skill and experience and indifference to competition.

Well, as they say, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Down lunchpails

If I deviate from my admired R.S. ever or at all, it is because from my own “life experience” I cannot derive any pleasure from leftist twinkling. This is a slippage I have observed in many otherwise reliable dinosaurs. I attribute it to the drought of fashion. That is, we (dinosaurs) are always out of fashion. The twinkle comes when we see an opportunity to strike a transgressive, progressive pose, and therefore put ourselves in fashion with the smuglies, if only for a nanosecond. We seize upon it, as a dinosaur would, on something very small. But there is never much protein in the thing, and soon we must resume the hunt for something bigger and chewier.

I give initials, not a name, because examples are legion, and why should I pick on one guy who happens to be the most recent to annoy me? We see it in church pulpit as well as in politics: the soi-disant “conservative” who makes a spectacle of his one liberal view. If he lives in, say, Washington, and makes enough of it, he may still get invited to some parties. The Enemy will remember his little peep of statism or feminism or environmentalism or anti-Semitism or whatever it may be, and ignore everything else he says. He will be called, perhaps even to appear on television sometimes, but only to show that “even R.S. thinks we ought to” … euthanize our grannies, or what have you.

May Morning is when they all come out.

Had I not been criticized myself, for doing something of the kind this morning in my column over at Catholic Thing (here), I would perhaps not mention this. I stand accused (not publicly, just in email) of sympathizing with liturgical reform. I allowed that Pope Pius XII might have had good intentions, when he tried to appropriate the socialist May Day for Holy Church with his new feast of “Saint Joseph the Workman,” which replaced “Pip’n’Jim” in the missals for this day, back in 1955. That is, the venerable Feast of Saints Philip and James, Apostles, was displaced (to May 11th), to accommodate this papal wink to the labouring masses.

His Late Holiness ran that up the pole (“1st class – white”), but hardly anyone saluted. In the Novus Ordo it is now downplayed, but we’re stuck with it in the 1962 missal for the Extraordinary Form. … Aheu! … Father Hunwicke explains how to get around it, however, with a quick feint to Ordinariate usage (see here). … Bravo, bravo!

In general, it is a mistake to play to anyone else’s agenda. Let them play to ours. Our agenda is transcendence and salvation. It is not global warming or “workers of the world.”

For as I tried to hint in my Thing squibble, there is no call for celebration of “workers,” per, as it were, se. They labour for cash, and for cash alone. Who would work on a production line, in factory or office, if he (or she, alas) didn’t need the wages? We may empathize with slaves, including wage slaves, but must stop short of celebrating the institution of slavery. The whole scheme of Capitalism and Socialism, of Management and Labour, needs to be reviewed.

And I say, godspeed to that, and by all means let Saint Joseph the Carpenter help us show the way. Work, in a necessary craft, out of one’s own house, making use no doubt of available child labour, is the ancient and honourable way to proceed. We could start by striking down all the labour laws and city by-laws that make this impracticable, trash the income tax and so forth. For note, that the surrogate father of Our Lord was not homogenized. A carpenter, perhaps even a joiner, and thus a guildsman, a craftsman; not a “worker” waiting for a strike. There was no lunchpail in that scene.

But we could think about all this some other day. In the meantime, give us back May Morning.

Saint Catherine of Siena

Upon being received into the Church, at the tender age of fifty, I took the Christian name of Anthony, after Saint Anthony of Padua. There was good reason for this, for as I looked back, he had been encouraging me to join for a long time. Of course the first reason was my alma mater, Saint Anthony’s School in Lahore, Pakistan, where I first came in contact with Catholic Truth. (The less fashionably I put that, the better.) But on two other occasions something happened in proximity to brick and mortar, and in both cases the church in or by which I was standing happened to be named for the same Saint Anthony. Both times I was spooked: call me superstitious.

Had I not felt this compulsion, to give Anthony his due, I would instead have taken the name Catherine. Indeed, I almost did, before some petty thinking got in my way. It was a small, unmanly, puritan hesitation at the prospect of “cross-dressing” in a woman’s name; along with some confusion about her life and times, mostly since cleared up. Other coincidences hearken from that side, too: we share a “birthday,” for instance.

Catherine Benincasa, or as we now know her, Saint Catherine of Siena, was then, and has grown since, among my greatest heroes; or I would write “heroines” except I wish to make clear she belongs in no sub-category. She is among the largest figures in Church history, but also in worldly, political affairs; a paragon for sanctity in absolute terms; a font of spiritual knowledge communicated in hundreds of extraordinary letters, prayers, meditations — and her Dialogue of Divine Providence, a formative work in the Tuscan vernacular. She stands astride the fourteenth century as a beacon to all ages: patroness of Italy (with Saint Francis Assisi), mystical counterpart to Dante, and angel of reconciliation across Christendom.

Yet more extraordinary, to us glib moderns: everything she accomplished remains within sight of the demonstrable historical record; everything witnessed with conventional human eyes, and surviving in evidence still physically available.

Were nothing holy allowed to her — nothing the agnostic historian will recognize as miraculous — she must still be admired for having, often single-handedly, by the boldest imaginable acts of persuasion, on the basis of no formal authority or title, achieved astounding things.

These would include healing the Great Schism of the fourteenth century; bringing the papacy from exile in Avignon home to Rome (with Europe-wide ramifications); negotiating peace between warring Italian states; quelling insurrections; reforming the incorrigible; and turning the whole worldly activity of the Church once again healthily outward — back on mission and crusade, after a period of institutional self-immolation almost as shameful to recount as our own times. And this before she died, “under the whole weight of the Barque of Peter,” at the age of thirty-three.

The twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa — and not the last — she was raised in the household of a cloth-dyer, in a city ravaged by the Plague. Alas, many of her siblings predeceased her, including the twin with whom she was born, quite prematurely.

Everything about her is larger than life, to the modern observer. By the age of twenty she had already cut a figure that might justify a footnote in the historical record, for she was also larger than life to her contemporaries, and the more so the closer they came to her. She was “possessed” by a will that could not be brooked, and the only question in the mind of those who met her was whether she was possessed by Christ or Satan. The answer, however, presently emerged.

“Build a cell inside your mind.” This was her advice, even as a teenager, to persons much older who sought her advice, including her own remarkable spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua. Make it an impregnable cell of self-knowledge, to abide whether you should live in a cloister, or out on the highways. At her mystical marriage, to Christ, she was told to take the latter course: to go out into the world.

Her mystical visions began at age seven; she was often found in a state of ecstasy, throughout her life. Having vowed perpetual virginity as a child, she had renounced marriage and motherhood — cutting off her hair when her family tried to marry her off, and breaking out in an atrocious rash, that helped to conceal her sublime beauty. (It disappeared the moment they gave up.) Yet she also rejected the life of a nun, becoming instead a Dominican tertiary. To a modern witness she would seem a madwoman: speaking with familiarity to an invisible Saint Dominic, for instance, and various others residing in Heaven, as if it were nothing odd.

We might call her an anorexic, for she went long stretches without food, claiming the Host sufficient from daily Mass, finally confessing that the thought of eating disgusted her. She died of a stroke that a modern medical man might say was brought on by her peculiar mortifications. She did not herself have much use for doctors.

Her secret was of course to be recognized, by those who met her, from an early age, as an undeniable instrument of Christ. In an age still of faith, this was still possible: for even men notorious for their arrogance in daily life, will suddenly stop short from belief, when they truly believe Christ is “messaging” them.

Catherine could speak with an authority that made powerful men fall silent and think again through their actions; she could command obedience from the most unlikely malefactors; and walk straight into the most dangerous situations with a placid self-confidence that inspired unqualified trust. For she seemed to know not only what people should do, but how they should do it: to have a praeternatural understanding of the “realpolitik” in their situations, too; of how things actually work in the backrooms of Power. No threat or promise could deter her from a purpose; but more, no trick fool her into abandoning a cause. She is thus my model for the sort of “insolent woman” I have always admired, and also feared sometimes: the one who does not lie.

Yet in her correspondence, with great and humble alike, she can be as soft and gentle as the purse of rose petals that replaced her head (in one of her posthumous miracles). Or she could blaze with a fire that would scald the unapproachable, lash with words to make them jump from their skins. As statesmen and prelates eventually learnt, there was no point in trying to resist a woman, who dealt with them as with servants, from a life full of exhausting acts of charity, towards the poorest of Christ’s poor.

She was disturbing enough, by reputation, even in that quotidian life: for she had a gift for appropriating whatever she needed, often in a hurry, from sheer charm. There are those who will part with the shirts from their own backs: easy marks for any saint. But Catherine could talk those who would never dream of doing such a thing, into doing it, promptly.

Even her writing partakes of the miraculous, for she was never taught to write, if even to read, and her scintillating prose was usually dictated. But suddenly, as an adult, retiring from company, she began to copy her own thoughts in an elegant scribal hand. This was one of many casual accomplishments that staggered her companions. It was, too, a seemingly encyclopaedic, exact knowledge of things never known to have been taught, that was ultimately acknowledged when she became one of the four female “Doctors of the Church” (the others being Saints Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen). For her teaching still lives; it is immortal.

Such women do not themselves die. We can also know their present address. We may still ask their help; still reach them in purposeful prayer. At the moment our need is especially urgent, for it seems we have a lot of foolish old prelates in Rome once again, who need some stiff talking to. And who better than Saint Catherine to confront them?

Chronology

Oddly, several correspondents have asked me to write my autobiography, unaware that they have been reading it. Any curious or amusing event from my life may fall into this space, eventually. True, the account is intermixed with my opinions, and general reflections, but that is the case in more conventional autobiographies. The individual chapters are sometimes short, but I compensate by the number of them.

There are stories which insist on being told in a certain order. Often that order is chronological, but novelists, even filmmakers, delight in playing with this. Historians are more strict, but then they are boring. Poets cannot help themselves: only balladeers ever stay on track, and Homer often nods, intentionally. I tell my own stories in the persona of an old man, jumbling the order of events, omitting necessary connectives, but generously supplying very fulsome repetitions.

Many years ago (note: autobiographical fragment approaching) I was sacked from a job I briefly held as a movie reviewer (in Bangkok). True enough, I knew nothing about movies, had watched only a few, and wouldn’t have thought of writing about them had I not been asked. It wasn’t my expertise that got me the assignment; rather my willingness to say “yes” on a lark. That is the journalist’s usual qualification.

I was sent to see some Italian movie, by some famous director with a name like Antinomianly. As later I learned, it involved flashbacks. It was almost what you’d call an “art movie” — you know, sort of European. There were subtitles in English, perhaps, but nobody warned me about the technique. A female lead was, I now think, portrayed at three different ages. I took her to be three different people. I took the whole film to be one continuous narrative roll — forward when it moved mostly backward. This produced in my mind a most intricate plot, which I had much trouble expounding. But I went about the task manfully enough. Newspapers being what they are, it was all printed.

A friend, himself a filmmaker, reading my piece, said that even though he hadn’t seen the film, he could tell I had written nonsense. “Not even an Italian could have made such a movie.”

His remark was prophetic. The next day, in the rival newspaper, a movie reviewer named Bernard Trink devoted his space to mocking my review. He advanced the theory that I was on drugs, which had caused brain damage. He left no doubt that I was a fool. The same day, my own editor decided, in light of that and a few other complaints, to assign someone else to the beat.

Ah, now I remember: the director’s name was Antonioni. Thinking he might be amused, I found his address, and sent him copies of both my review, and Mr Trink’s methodical demolition of it.

Months later, I received a reply. In elegant English, this Antonioni thanked me for forwarding the clippings. And then, with wry mischief aforethought, he added: “Congratulations, Mr Warren! You are the only reviewer in the whole world who understood my film.”

Of course, I contrived to bring this to everyone’s attention.

*

Now, that was an exceptionally self-indulgent little anecdote. And gentle reader will see, it comes in no particular order. My whole life seems like that, when I look back. Lots of things happened, but in no particular order. I must not misrepresent them by creating some specious narrative into which all the pieces might somehow fit. This would only increase the confusion. Someone might write in the next day, showing I’d misunderstood the plot.

Had I more time, I might dig out the title of the film, and like information. One wants to get the smaller details right. But not today. You see, it is my birthday. The whole morning was already lost to Shakespeare class, and I have errands to run this afternoon. Moreover, there are some lads prepared to drink with me in a public bar, as the afternoon evolves into evening. So gentle reader must take this Idlepost as it stands. For already I am feeling thirsty.

Sixty-two pints for sixty-two years?

Maybe just half-pints at my age.

Self-love & stupidity

This notion, that malice need not be assigned as an explanation, when stupidity could serve as well, is so Christian as to be almost attractive. I say “almost” illegitimately. There is much pagan left in all of us, or perhaps I should say so much in me, that I resist certain Christian attractions. I’d rather hang the malefactors than teach them. But there you go. It takes charity to recognize stupidity in another; intelligence to spot it in oneself.

Self-love does not come into this, incidentally. Except that, implicitly, it does.

It doesn’t come into much in the outward Christian analysis, so far as I can see. That is to say, Christ had little and perhaps nothing to say on this topic, as he had little or nothing to say on politics. A few points can be taken as implied, but Our Lord never appears for the cameras in the lab coat of a scientist or the smileyface of a politician. That is to say, He does not offer the heavenly service as an interpreter of nature. He lets nature speak for herself.

We are born with self-love. It comes pre-installed, so well that it cannot be removed without destroying the whole creature. That is to say, you can tell when a person has succeeded in removing his self-love, because he is dead, from suicide.

Now, perhaps I have put too many Christian ideas on the table at the same time. But they are all to a single purpose, I swear. That I might possibly gum up the works, should always be considered. (I assume people read other writers, too.) For it is not always easy to see what one is doing when trying to make Christian connexions, in an environment neither Christian nor aspiring to be.

But here is where I should like to go: self-love is not stupid. For if it were, we should have to question the celestial mechanics of our own being, along with that pertaining to all other creatures. My little finches, on the balconata, breakfasting again, are as full of self-love as I am, or perhaps a bit less since I am bigger and arguably more sophisticated. This self-love is discernible in their desire to preserve their little lives, from buzzards and so forth. Their occasional cries of alarm would indicate a certain fellow-feeling, too: a kind of love for one another. For self-love is not incompatible with love for others.

Indeed, it may be the analogical basis for it. In love, we might say that it is actually possible for a person to love another more than he loves himself. It happens, even in Canada. And, “greater love hath no man,” &c. This is not a suicidal disposition, as the pop psychologists might suspect. One loves oneself a lot, and loves another even more. If one hardly loved oneself at all, loving another more wouldn’t be so remarkable.

Humility comes into this, but only to make what I am saying clear. It is not the opposite of self-love. This is becoming a hard point to make only because we have generally been lapsing into a state of abject stupidity. The two qualities — humility and self-love — go together like justice and mercy. They are not “alternatives” to each other, as the liberals vainly preach, who believe there is such a thing as “altruism”; that it is Darwinian or something like that. But no, each pair is more like the cross hairs in a gun sight. The just act will also be merciful; the merciful act will also be just. And humility is implicitly self-loving. It is not a choice between shooting high, or shooting wide. It is a question of finding the target where the hairs meet.

Self-love is not shallow, or does not need to enshallow itself, any more than mercy should be steering for the shoals. It is the guardian of a self-interest, that should run very deep. When fools suggest that Christians are selfish, for wanting to get themselves into Heaven — for adjusting their behaviour to that imagined “self-serving” end — I am at a loss. (But of course, they don’t know any better.) We want to be saved. We want others to be saved, also. We cannot help them if we are lost ourselves. This is pretty much the opposite of selfish.

It is not shallow, to have some regard to one’s ultimate, personal fate; it is as deep as any absolute. Therefore it may be mysterious. Or rather, it is mysterious, for it is at the heart of the mystery of our being — at what the meaning of “is” is, and how we are not, so to say, “not.”

I think of a woman, married several times and with a child by her latest soi-disant “husband.” Lapsed beyond laughing from her Catholic upbringing, she suddenly decided that her son must be baptized. This presented a problem to her mind, because she had not darkened the portal of a church for a very long time. She asked advice on this, from me of all people. Could I suggest a priest who would baptize her child without asking her any questions?

Out of the blue sky she said to me, “David, I know that I am going to Hell. But I don’t want my” — insert name of little boy, here — “to go there.”

“Now look, lady” — in real life she has a name, too — “I think you might be fooling yourself. Are you sure you want to go to Hell? Because, from what you asked, it would seem you hadn’t entirely made up your mind yet.”

We’ve probably gone far enough into this case. Even priests who don’t know Latin often know what baptism is about, and that there are times to just shut up and not ask questions. They may also realize that each case is special.

My point here is to make an exhibition of a strange little fact — that to love another more than oneself may be, unknowingly, the highest form of self-love. Even into the well-hole of human error, light may suddenly shine. And the interesting question comes back up: who is saving whom? Christ alone saves, but in proximate causation, I would score that lady’s little boy, first. For he seems to be the means for saving his mother.

And she has never been especially evil, except in rather conventional ways. Turn on any television and one will soon see that. On the contrary she is one giant step above her fellows. She has some intellection that she has done wrong, that the course of her life has not been altogether excusable. Perhaps it is a signal from her own distant past, her own experience of childhood, when she once dressed up in white, for church; and the Catholic teaching went in one ear, without quite all of it coming out the other. It is something, to be raised even a little above the condition of “invincible ignorance.” Though of course it makes life more complicated.

(Great news: only one of those previous marriages could possibly be valid. So she will need, at most, only one annulment. )

It could be said, in a sense, that the ladder of stupidity reaches up to Heaven. That is to say, from its grounding in that invincible ignorance, the rungs go higher. They must be climbed, however.

Am I making any sense? That we, too, are enabled to climb the rungs of Bethel — the ladder seen by the Patriarch Jacob — and that it is in our self-loving self-interest (though the opposite of self-serving) to help each other up. For that is the message of Love, beaming angelically downward; and as it were, the angels coming down the stairs themselves to help us. And it is when we look up, that the light finally catches our sunless hidden faces.

Properly understood, I would say that self-love is quite the opposite of stupidity, and so far as it is the real natural thing, cannot involve malice at all. It might be described as our countenance itself. And, even better than to be condemned in darkness, is to be shown upward, towards that Light.

Saint Peter Canisius

Characters like today’s (usus antiquior) saint, Peter Canisius, turn out to be quite relevant, forty-six years after the Vatican Vandals (™) stripped him from the liturgy, to make more space for kumbaya. A pioneering Jesuit, later recognized as a Doctor of the Church, he served through the reigns of four popes in the sixteenth century. His task was to save the Catholic Church from extinction in the German-speaking realms of Europe’s near north. How desperately we need another one like him today.

Saint Peter was all his life, from university days in Cologne, an itinerant preacher. He was an inhumanly tireless one. Wandering Germany at the height of the Protestant Reformation, as it was pushing all before it, he realized an important thing about preaching. It was little use to attack the Reformers, or to list heresies few would understand. That only meant a mud bath, and one for which his own side was badly outnumbered. The common people, and many of the better educated, too, were simple and often honest, he believed. They did not actually know what the Catholic faith was. No one had been teaching it for a while. They’d been taking on faith, instead, that the nasty caricature of Catholic doctrine the Reformers were imparting must be true, having heard nothing to contradict it.

This is what makes Saint Peter Canisius so modern. His situation is parallel to what we find today — in Germany, especially. A large part of the catastrophe of the Roman Church in our own time is likewise the direct consequence of failing to teach the faith — to children, to adults, even to seminarians. (In fact, teaching children is not really the Church’s job; it is the parents’ job.)

People can’t always be blamed for not knowing things of which they’ve never heard. On the eve of the Reformation, the Church had fallen into smugness and indifference of the kind we get from our bishops today, in too many places. It was time to find clergy who would teach the faith as if their lives depended on it. (Please take the hint.) This meant, creating them; for then as now there was what is called a “crisis in vocations.”

With his Jesuit colleagues — very few to start, but a remarkable lot — he got this show on the road, positively teaching, teaching, teaching. That is not to say Saint Peter Canisius avoided debate. He was on call to debate any Protestant theologian, in any venue — the more formidable, the better. He acquired a reputation for making fools of them — very public fools. He then leapt upon each opportunity to go after their patrons — the local rulers who had bowed to pressure, including mobs sometimes, to appoint such men to the leading pulpits. He became considerably resented for his success in bringing them around, from confusion, or to where they had left their cojones.

Yet he carefully avoided the ad hominem: refused to attack persons, including the persons of Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin. It was their teachings he wished to debate. Attacking the man cannot cure him, he reasoned; it will only make him incurable.

Penniless, for the most part, he contrived to found Jesuit colleges out of thin air. For the first time, the teaching was in German as well as Latin. He wrote catechisms, in German and Latin, suited to all sorts and conditions. He was a major figure behind the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Schools, everywhere — he launched schools to teach those at all ages, the Catholic religion and much besides. Rome occasionally wondered what he was up to; he seldom found time to reply. Offered bishoprics and other opportunities to become a Prince of the Church, he’d refuse, saying he didn’t have time. Sometimes he’d pause just long enough to clean up a mess the last bishop had left; but only until the new bishop arrived.

The Rhineland, Bavaria, Austria, beyond — all these heartlands of German-speaking Catholicism were, arguably, saved by the efforts of one man, who was recognized in the Mass as the second apostle of Germany, after Saint Boniface. We cannot afford to forget such men.

*

This Saint Peter was Pieter Kanis, in his native Dutch. He was raised in the Guelderland. I cannot resist a quick aside on his native place. It was one of several Dutch towns shown to me … many years ago.

Nijmegen, or Nimeguen as we used to say in English, was once a jewel on the River Waal in the beautiful Rhineland. Founded by the Romans, it had two millennia of artefacts to show, until the Second World War. An important entrepôt even in the first century, it remained so through Charlemagne and into the age of the Hanseatic League. It was a major art centre in the later Middle Ages (the Limbourg brothers came from there), an urban bouquet of Gothic craft and architecture. But moving right along. …

It was the first town to fall to the Nazis on the Western front, as the Blitz began. But that was not the worst of it. It is near Arnhem: not a good place to be at the end of that War, either.

Perhaps gentle reader has heard of Operation Market Garden. Stop me before I wander into a long disquisition on the Allied advance after the Normandy landings — which was heroic, on the part of so many of the individuals involved; but also, usually a farce, of the kind which reminds us that the army was the original bureaucracy. But that was not the worst of it, either.

Owing to navigation errors, American bombers mistook Nimeguen for another town — one actually in Germany — and pulverized it in the afternoon of 22 February 1944, killing quite a number of people, and giving Nazi propagandists a huge boost. The back-and-forth on the ground in the autumn helped smooth those ruins. Pockets of well-armed German resistance remained, even six months after that, with consequences gentle reader will imagine. Little was standing by VE Day.

But there were measured drawings and photographs, and much could have been patiently rebuilt. Saturation bombing is a setback, to be sure, but worse things can happen. And worse things did.

I refer to the city planners, who went into action after the War. And what they did to Nimeguen, … I don’t even want to talk about.

Jubilate Sunday

“Happiness is a feeling, joy is a fact,” it says here, in this (usus antiquior) pamphlet for the Third Sunday After Easter. I would go farther than that, in extension of something I said yesterday in passing (and often say). I would say happiness is a theory. A modern theory.

Check out your Psalms (4, 15, 42, 50, 67, 93, 96, &c, always Catholic numbering on this Idlesite) and it will be seen that there, as elsewhere through the Old Testament, and also the New Testament, joy is a gift of God, not dependent upon external happenstance, or passing events. It is the gift that gives, for it is likewise directed back to God, in glorification (9, 63, &c). Joy, in the heart of human being, is thus, in comparison to our transient “nice feelings” — inexplicable, inscrutable, impenetrable, enigmatic, unaccountable, undefinable, unfathomable, and astonishing — like any fact that does not fit a theory, and cannot be made to. Or in the last earthly analysis, joy is inexcusable.

Whereas, happiness always has its reasons. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad.

I could imagine, only for the sake of argument I assure you, being made quite happy by the death of my worst enemy and oppressor. The feeling would be perfectly sincere, it would not have to be faked. To make this familiarly modern, and thus especially sordid, let us think of a divorced spouse, for instance, or some other person who has cost us a lot of money, and promises to cost us a lot more, but who, suddenly, won’t be bothering us any more. Please don’t tell me this isn’t genuine happiness.

But I would not call it joy.

Or a modern thinks, winning the lottery. I have never bought a ticket, and thus cannot reasonably expect to win, but if I had, and my numbers came in, I can plausibly imagine being happy about it. This, anyway, is my theory. But such is the paradox of life, that winning the lottery is, practically speaking, the worst thing that can happen in most human lives. Again and again I hear stories of people utterly destroyed by wealth for which they were not prepared, as much as they would have been by some semi-natural disaster for which they were equally not prepared. Governed, like typical moderns, by theory, they set out to spend it on what will make them happy: extravagant luxuries and pleasurable indulgences of every kind. Bad move. Very bad move.

There are rich people who are reasonably happy. I’ve noticed most of those inherited their wealth, which is a different thing from winning the lottery, there being no “before” and “after.” They are simply contented in a way of life. There are poor people equally happy; I have met quite a few. The contentment itself is an augury of joy: a fact not a theory.

Money is what we usually count in, but currencies are in many forms. I am thinking now of a right fool who, for his sins, managed to attract the attention of a ridiculously beautiful society girl: “eye candy,” as they say, with whom to inspire envy in one’s fellow males, and awe in some of the females. … Hooo, what an unhappy man he is today. Had he been my son I might have counselled him to avoid “high maintenance women.”

Now, square this, and imagine the lives of “beautiful people,” which is to say, stunning on both sides, and well-paid for our pleasure in looking at them. It is not, however, happiness we are looking at, here. Not if we read the Daily Mail. We are only looking at happiness “in theory.” In practice all the beautiful people grow old and wrinkly. And then they die.

Joy is what I associated with the (gorgeously wrinkly) Mother Teresa: the one who said she wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars. Only for the love of Christ. As we now know from her diaries she had very little happiness to run on. And her supply of joy was from a moment in adolescence, when she received her calling; it was never once renewed. But it was enough to see her through to sanctity.

For joy is something that just happens; a surprise. It is not from this world, and so, it cannot be ordered from a catalogue. It cannot be earned, and in its absence, it cannot even be imagined. One has it, or has it not. It is a fact, bestowed by God, like every other thing He has bestowed, a list which incidentally includes oneself, and the universe. So if you don’t have it, but want it, how do you get it?

One possible answer is, I don’t know.

Perhaps a better answer is to ask politely, and more to the point, humbly and prayerfully out of a flowering of good works, of Him who bestows all unwithering gifts. In doing which we might discover that this was offered from the start, that it never was denied to anyone who asked. (Psalms 33, 36, &c. … Matthew 7, Luke 11, &c. …)

But they didn’t ask. It may not even have occurred to them. For they were too busy pursuing a theory of happiness.

Armenians

An Armenian lady I know is hardly speaking to me after a column I wrote five weeks ago (here) on the word, “genocide.” I dislike the word, for reasons I gave there: it is legalistic, and to my mind, while claiming to increase, it actually reduces the weight of terrible atrocities, to the small and tidy parameters of “due process.” It was consciously invented, by a legal scholar (Raphael Lemkin towards the end of the Second World War), as if a new word were needed to describe a phenomenon not new to history: attempts to wipe out a whole tribe or people. It is what I call a “boxcar” term: carrying freight to unknown political destinations. The old expression, “Armenian Massacres,” was adequate, once we accept that language cannot substitute for realities. It happened in fact, and past events cannot be altered by new vocabulary.

But post-modern man prefers words to things, and theory to fact. The controversy is now over the word “genocide,” which the Turks, as a people, are commanded to accept. Insofar as they remain unmoved, by what was done by Turks to the Armenians one hundred years ago, they are in a sense off the hook. The debate is now about whether the word “genocide” applies, no longer about what it applies to.

My Armenian friend is swept up in this argument about nomenclature. She insists that because I oppose the word, I deny the thing. I am very far from denying it, and very much wish the story to be told, truthfully and completely from what can be known. Horrific crimes were committed, in the last years of the Ottoman Caliphate, against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other captive Christian communities. They resumed within successor states, and may be said to continue to the present day in such countries as Syria and Iraq. All these stories should be told, and remembered.

The annihilation of more than a million Armenians (and their descendants) cannot be disputed. The larger estimates seem to be justified. April 24th, 1915, is recalled as a conventional opening event — when leading Armenian figures were arrested in Istanbul, on the pretext that they sympathized with the Russian enemy — but there were events before that. One could mention the Adana massacre of 1909, the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s (hundreds of thousands killed in these), and so forth.

This “Red Sunday” in Istanbul was itself immediately preceded by redder ones in distant Van. The official charge that Armenians were working with the Russians was occasioned by the fact that Russians had come to the aid of the Armenians in Van, threatened with imminent slaughter. In the end, Djevdet Bey, the murderous governor, was anyway able to exterminate more than fifty thousand of the Christians living in that vilayet alone.

Curiously, or not, the events of “Red Sunday,” then many similar as prominent Armenians were rounded up all over the country and sent to holding camps at Ankara from which they would never emerge, is closely connected with the other centenary we are celebrating, today. That is Gallipoli. The Ottoman authorities were acting under the impulse of war, in a moment when they began seriously (and reasonably) to doubt their own survival. But lest this seem an extenuation, it should be remembered that the same authorities had repeatedly turned on the Armenians each time their own global inadequacies had been exposed.

Under the notorious Tehcir Law, a model later for Hitler, all property belonging to Armenians could be seized, and arrangements began for their deportation to — undisclosed locations. These were prison camps which pioneered the methods of Auschwitz and Belsen. Germans and Austrians in the region, as allies of the “Sublime Porte,” were horrified  by what they saw, using such descriptors as “bestial cruelty.” There was no possible question that the authorities intended to exterminate, not incarcerate. The Turkish people at large could also see what was happening around them, when not themselves participating in the slaughter. There is no extenuation for them.

The Treaty of Sèvres, after the War, proposed restoration of Armenian native lands within the defunct Sultanate to a new Armenian republic, but in turn triggered another campaign, now by the Turkish nationalists who succeeded the Ottomans. Their law allowed any remaining Armenian property to be seized by the state on the glib ground that it had been “abandoned.” During this later, post-Ottoman phase, perhaps another hundred thousand Armenians were massacred, often in places to which they had fled for safety. Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” the great secular Turkish patriot, was direct commander in the later stages of this Turkish-Armenian War, and much progressive effort has been expended washing the blood off his hands.

Still between the Devil and a very hard place, the Armenians were pressed into the tiny quarter that is their state today, in which they were then “rescued” by the Bolsheviks. There followed three score years and ten of slavery, now under Communist apparatchiks. In the course of delivering them to this fate, Western hypocrisy had a good airing, and guarantees of life, liberty, and security to the Armenians from Woodrow Wilson and other liberal, rhetorical stuntmen, were shown for what they were. But this is an Idlepost, not a history.

It is noteworthy that Djevdet Bey and others of the Ottoman court seldom if ever referred to their victims as “Armenians,” however. Rather they were called, “Christians.” The “genocide” wasn’t against a race, but a religion; against persons of Armenian ethnicity not because they were Armenian but because they were Christian. Likewise, the Greeks not as Greeks but as Christians, and so forth. This is not a small point, and it is overlooked for the very purpose of misrepresenting the history. Conversely, not only the Turks but the Kurds and other Muslims participated in the massacres.

*

The term “genocide” is used in this misrepresentation. It reduces everything to racial terms, thus paradoxically echoing Hitler. In doing so, it neglects the longer relevant history.

From the time of the First Crusade, the Christians of Egypt were similarly under threat, from the fear that they would side with the invading Christian Franks. They did not, and history would of course be rather different if they had gone over, but the Franks proved as alien to them as to Egypt’s rulers, who wisely decided to treat their Christian subjects better, as their own best defence. For the Christians were then still the majority in Egypt — a large part of the reason they could still command respect, or at least caution. (This is an aspect of history no longer explored: that it took many centuries of ratcheting for Islam to become the majority religion in most of the lands the Arabs had conquered; and that meanwhile, Muslims were hardly the only contributors to what we now view as the “Islamic golden ages.”)

Persecutions of dhimmi-status Armenians by Muslim Turks and Kurds were already old hat in what was once Armenia — where Armenians were still in local majorities, but now a minority in the larger state. The persecutions were more and more frequently rising to pogroms. Economic causes came into this, owing specifically to that advance of Islam. The wealth generators were in decline, and the wealth appropriators in proliferation.

Throughout the western (i.e. formerly Christian) Dar al-Islam, from their status as dhimmis, Christians and Jews had paid the taxes. As their communities shrank proportionally, often from conversion to avoid the Jizya, the Islamic realms fell into poverty; for they were killing their golden geese. This in turn helped inspire the pogroms, as the remaining Christians and Jews became scapegoats for an increasingly dysfunctional social order, in economies based essentially on rapine. The Ottoman state in effect nationalized the pogroms, their soldiers systematically shooting Armenian men of military age (all those from twenty to forty-five), then killing off the old, the women and the children, in forced desert marches without food or drink. (Rape of the women was also officially encouraged.) Armenian districts were thus “ethnically cleansed.” But the result was also Muslim starvation.

Greeks, too, carry their memories of parallel ethnic cleansings, as they were run out of territories that had been settled and occupied by Greeks through millennia before the arrival of the Turks, and indeed the whole of modern Turkey is ultimately an artefact of Turkish Muslim conquest and subjugation.

It can also be said that whole centuries went by when the various communities lived in relative peace and cultural autonomy within the Ottoman and other Turkic realms; though Christians, Jews, and all other religious minorities always with that dhimmi status. It can also be said that Jews and Muslims were the equivalent of dhimmis when under Christian rule. History is not simple or formulaic, and my opposition to such terms as “genocide” is also resistance to attempts to make it into a morality play. And I will not play the game of our campus Islamic apologists, who change the subject to real or imagined Christian failings the moment Islamic failings are mentioned.

One crime does not excuse another. But neither is everything “relative” and grey, even in the general view of history. Turkey, as Iraq and Syria, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, were once highly civilized Christian lands. The Armenians, displaced in stages from their considerable ancient homelands, are among the ancient peoples who retain some part of that older Christian heritage. As traders, they were known in distant places through all the centuries, but the common view is that the bulk of the Armenian diaspora today was scattered as a consequence of the First World War. This, alas, is another myth, perpetuated by political proaganda.

*

Boarding once in an Armenian hostel in Calcutta, I learnt something of the complexity of that diaspora. Armenians had come to India in the armies of Alexander the Great; perhaps before. They were famed as entrepreneurs in Kerala and Malabar in the seventh and eighth centuries centuries of the Christian era. Vasco da Gama found them still there. By the time of the Mughals, they were known throughout the Subcontinent as traders, and as merchant princes they flourished under the British Raj.

They built their first Calcutta church in the swamps of the Hooghly, to the north end of what would become that vast, sprawling metropolis (“the second city of the British Empire”), at the end of the seventeenth century. Five old Armenian cemeteries survive in the city today. Many refugees arrived after the Ottoman massacres, but the suggestion that the community dates from that, is obtuse. On the other hand, it had received migrants from previous Ottoman pogroms. But Armenians have been part of Calcutta for as long as there has been a Calcutta.

As Catholic Christians may learn from the Armenians and Jews, it is important to preserve the diaspora. Never leave your eggs all in one place.

The Armenian Massacres loom large in Armenian history, but they cannot delete the rest of that history, and must not be allowed to do so. Armenians must not be cast as mere victims. Nor should even their history as victims be confined to a single era.

Armenians have travelled everywhere in joy, admixed with grief. It is a history so deep that it has conferred a peculiarly ancient quality: an ability to assimilate without assimilating, without forgetting, wherever they may go; a certain aloofness that is carried almost like a genetic marker; a knowledge that things will happen and they will once again have to move along. I have an especial love of this sabra quality, carried with them in Armenians as in wandering Jews. Often they are rude and prickly.

This was perfectly expressed by my lady friend, the Armenian one, who in her irritation with me, ignoring my attempts at appeasement, communicated something along the lines of, “You are not one of us, don’t pretend to be.”

In my youth I travelled also through eastern Turkey, enjoying many adventures, including a narrow escape from murder while being robbed, on the road east from Erzurum, at Agri. Two English girls had, according to a then-recent report, been pulled off the street in broad daylight and raped in the same town. In my own case I was struck by the indifference of bystanders, watching the assault on me as if it were televised entertainment, and mildly cheering when a knife came out. I was aware that I was moving through country once inhabited by Armenians, and was acquiring my own prejudice against those who slew them by my experience of their grandchildren. I anyway acquired a small taste of what it would have been like, to be an Armenian in those parts, perhaps on one of the better days.

Like being a Jew, being an Armenian has not been entirely convenient through most recorded centuries. Which is an indication that God especially loves them, in His mysterious way.

There is little to find in this world beyond injustice, unless one is looking to God. I don’t believe the crimes of this world can ever be adequately punished or atoned, and moreover the attempt leads invariably to new crimes. There is a Heaven; and there is a Hell. The best we can do is remember, disguising nothing; hold what we have learnt for as long as we can hold it. And plead, “Father, forgive.”

A sister

It is galling to take out one’s winter clothing, after having packed it away. I say this as a Canadian, but from the banana belt of Canada — the extreme south. In the north they never put anything away; just dig things out of the ice every morning. Let me add heated words for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the USA. These shysters have announced the warmest year since planetary record-keeping was first impostured in 1880. NASA joined in with the same ludicrous result.

Both agencies receive huge amounts of public money to “prove global warming,” and both have been caught fiddling the books in the past. It would be quite impossible to get a reliable average from the system of spot readings they use, at carefully selected, changing locations. But this aside, their raw data is further “seasonally adjusted” like the unemployment figures. Too, like the communists of old, they keep adjusting the records from the past, to make the present ones look better. They retain credibility only among the credulous. Among those who have lived in North America recently, their po-faced announcements can be greeted only with guffaws.

My finches are with me on this. These would be the raspberry juice-dipped “purple finches” who breakfast on my balconata (Haemorhous purpureus). Surely I have mentioned them before. My balconata has become a truckstop for several species, ranging up in size to that buzzard I mentioned a few weeks ago. An ornithological friend tells me they must be house finches. They are not. (I suspect he is in the pay of the NOAA.) They have been driving the sparrows of Parkdale into the pigeon niches. A country bird that can beat an urbane sparrow at his own game has got to be banqueted, and prized.

These finches are erratic migrants, who may winter in Florida like many other Canadians, but breed in our north woods. From my limited observations, they would seem to have chosen the city not as a place to live, but as a kind of free public foodbank in which to loiter and bulk up, en route both ways.

Their breeding success may have some small part to do with this adaptable foraging, but in the main I attribute it to the jealousy of the male. For I’ve noticed that, having entrapped a female, he will not leave her in peace, nor let her out of his sight for a moment. (Anecdotes could be supplied.) He will even push sunflower seeds on her, as if the delicate little creature couldn’t pick them out of the trough for herself.

Any one of these finches has taken more spot temperature readings than all the satellites in the sky, and from much closer to the ground in question. And as I say, they get around. They aren’t stuck like machines in fixed orbital paths: they can out-change NASA not only for locations, but for skill in selecting the warmer ones. And while the males may have their thoughts fixed on other things, the females are quite philosophical.

Now, I’ve consulted my finches on global warming, and they reject the idea completely. I’ve asked the question often enough, and each time, without fail, they just fly off dismissively, in their droll, slightly looping way.

*

My spine having improved from its condition in Advent through Lent, I am out walking again to my own selectively warmer locations. Was walking, and shivering, through an abnormally chill spring, till I relented and retrieved my winter gear. We have clear skies and temperatures to shoot up into the fifties today (Fahrengrade; I don’t do centiheit); but that is from the Weather Network, whose predictions of what will happen in the next six hours are about as useful as those from the United Nations for the next six decades.

Among my moral flaws, manifested in my urban ambulations, is the inability to keep away from secondhand bookstores, antiques emporia, street stalls, and other provisioners of junk. In this respect, I am something like a bird. Money I have little, but this is the golden age of recyclement, when for instance the best books may turn up in the general house-clearing mounds, sold off to dealers by the large cardboard box, or rather, mischievously insinuated into boxes falsely labelled, since the booksellers sure don’t want them.

French books, for instance, are at the opposite of a premium in Parkdale just now. Earlier this week I walked off from one basement, hardly lighter in loose change, but with a rucksack of Pléiades including Alains, Balzacs, Camuses, Valerys, even a Descartes and a Spinoza. I couldn’t help myself: I couldn’t leave them there absorbing cellar-rot. And these were all older editions, before the pointillistes of the Académie française got at them, fluffing out each volume with hundreds of pages of mostly irritating textual and interpretive notes, making them too fat for a jacket pocket. For gawdsake, I cuss, has no one ever heard of an editio minor?

Older they are than the current hundred-dollar editions, but too often with leather covers cracking from a simple cause. The poor things were never read. (Except sometimes the first five prefatory pages, where 99 percent of ballpoint pen marks will be found.) Those acquainted with book-leather may understand the problem: leather requires treatment. Old leather books that have been properly read and handled, have by and large endured.

This is demonstrated by a beautiful missal, also found this week — that by Provost Hussenbeth of Cossey, in Latin and English, first published 1871. (The supplements show it is a later printing.) It contains dozens of exquisitely cut engravings on biblical and symbolic themes; and too, the latest revisions from the Rome of Pius IX (“the Infallible”). Needless to say, it is my latest guarantee of avoiding the Bugnini desecrations that began in the 1950s.

My eye had been drawn to it (lying in a heap on a dirty concrete floor) by the patina of the leather; then when I picked it up, by its wonderful state of preservation. Internal evidence of Mass cards, inserted notes, and devotional passages neatly inscribed on blank pages at both ends, suggest the book was much used, but always gently, almost certainly by a nun. Those passages show her special mystical devotion to the Holy Family. The oils from her clean hands treated the leather, over many years. That is what preserved it.

From the saddlers and connoisseurs of horse tackle, one learns the use of first-pressed neatsfoot oil. This must be applied sparingly and skilfully at regular but not too frequent intervals. Neatsfoot is made from the lower legs (but never the hooves) of cattle. It may also be known to the keepers of precious baseball and other gloves. Though it will darken the leather over time, the oil makes it ever more supple.

But here is the strangest thing. God seems so to have arranged the universe, that the oil from human hands is even better than neatsfoot, and does not darken. It would seem to be the best possible treatment, not only for calfskin, but deerskin, sheepskin, goatskin, and all other fine book-leathers.

The missal now in my possession was printed on a superb bible paper, thinner and lighter by weight, yet more opaque than that used for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I am no Victorian, and the typographical and decorative features are not to my taste, yet every detail of the book’s manufacture has been done with such durable care and craftsmanship that I love it to distraction.

I seem to have become a missal collector, without quite intending it. Like the Duke of Wellington before me (who learnt Spanish from a missal purchased in Dublin, on his way to the Peninsular War), I look out for foreign missals especially. They make wonderful language textbooks. They were indeed the old method for learning a foreign language, unless one was an anti-Catholic bigot. For if one has fully mastered Latin (a claim I can never make), or become familiar with the Mass, one may pick up any modern language from the close translations in the parallel columns. Better yet, the language one picks up will be elevated, not coarse.

Likewise, those who know their Bible well, have the inestimable advantage when seeking a reading knowledge of any other language into which they find it translated. And with that, the perfect preparatory tool for reading any national literature new to them, for the greatest works in every Western language depend on biblical allusions. A facility in the spoken language can then be obtained, upon arrival. (There is no nation on earth whose people will not generously help you in this task.)

All such advantages are alas lost to the modern, fast-food, cafeteria Catholic, along with the Latin Mass itself and the eloquence of the Vulgate, that were until recently his birthright. Nevertheless, this will all be recovered when our generation of Vatican Vandals has finished passing away.

*

One thing was omitted, from the many things written in my latest missal (acquired for a price so low I am embarrassed to state it). The owner failed to write anywhere in it her own name. I found memorials in the book for eight deceased nuns, whom I suppose to have been among her friends; but of course, no one lives to add her own final Mass card. Still, on the possibility some kindly fellow nun slipped it in while clearing her possessions, I will ask gentle reader to say a prayer with me for the last of those remembered: Sister Mary Gertrude of the Convent of Notre Dame, at Birkdale (in Yorkshire?), née Agnes Collingwood, who died 3rd December 1918, in the 55th year of her age, and 34th of her religious profession:

“O Gentlest Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever consumed with burning love for the poor captive souls in Purgatory, have mercy on the soul of Thy servant Mary Gertrude; bring her from the shadows of exile to the bright home of Heaven, where, we trust, Thou and Thy Blessed Mother have woven for her a crown of unfading bliss.”

Saint George

“God for Harry, England and Saint George!” It is the 399th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, after a drinking bout with Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, and perhaps a few other old pals at a Stratford inn. It may also be the Bard’s 451st birthday, and — who knows? — perhaps the 416th anniversary of the performance of Henry V. Numerologists may further be reminded that, come Saint Crispin’s Day this year (October 25th), it will be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

That play, incidentally — the concluding work in a tetralogy which offers an extended meditation on the nature of kingship in both world and soul — contains more ironies than the modern mind can keep up with. We are genuinely naïve if we accept Henry V as the model of a noble Christian hero. The resolution, in blood, of human inadequacy, has been undertone through all four plays, and the “patriotism” attributed to the dramatist in this case is very far from triumphal. As I’ve been teaching my young charges in the seminary, quite apart from paper evidence for his Roman affiliation, Shakespeare is a deeply Catholic thinker, a child of the lost world of Thomas More, and no Little Englander. For all the splendour of his love, chiefly for his native Warwickshire, his allegiance is consistently to the Far Countrie.

*

Saint George himself is much bigger than England; and patron in many other places beyond his native Cappadocia. Venerated both in East and West, he was a figure of holy significance in Palestine long, long before his red cross was raised on the standards of the Crusaders. A soldier in the retinue of Diocletian, born around 270 AD, he was “about the age of Christ” (as Robert Southwell put it) when he went to his death as many another Christian in the Middle East — dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lod) and beheaded. For he had ignored the instructions of his caesar, to persecute other Christians in that way, resigning his commission instead.

Diocletian was not an emperor to be toyed with. He was the tenth in the line of Roman emperors persecuting Christians, starting with Nero. To this day the Copts of Egypt count the years in their calendar from Gregorian 284 AD — the year of Diocletian’s ascension to imperial majesty. Many other Christians throughout the region mark with especial gravity, too, the great moulid of 23rd February 303. For this was the date of Diocletian’s most definitive Decree.

(Moulid means “birthday,” in this case the day a martyr is born, in Heaven. The Khedive Ismail formally imposed the Gregorian calendar on Egypt in 1875 — he was a modernizer — but in rural Egypt the Anno Martyrum calendar is still observed, not exclusively by Christians. It preserves the old procession of the year through the three seasons of the Nile — flood, planting, and harvest — in months named for ancient Egyptian gods, reflecting an order of life continuing from the Pharaohs.)

Note, carefully for justice, that this Decree came centuries before the launch of Islam, for the Muslims have never had a monopoly on monstrous behaviour. Then consider the details: All churches to be demolished. All scripture to be burnt. All suspected Christians to be removed from public office. All clergy to be arrested and tortured.

The Emperor Diocletian himself came to Egypt, to supervise the slaughter of Christians, vowing to remain until their blood reached the depth of his horse’s knee. Hence his especial infamy in Egypt.

Yet strangely enough, we and even they “owe” Diocletian. In a similar way, we owe the heretics for the development of Christian orthodoxy. It could not have been expressed with such spiritual depth and rational consistency had the antitheses not been stated with such force. Developments were inspired by the most painful “events.”

There is no evil in this world from which good cannot be drawn. The treasures of Egyptian and Syrian monasticism, and all that followed through that first Benedict, of Nursia, and even before him through the Irish saints (with their Egyptian contacts), and other coenobitic movements finally from all around the world, are indebted to Diocletian. This is because so many Christians fled his ministrations — were driven out into the deserts in pursuit of obscure wadis, and up into mountains beyond the pagan soldiers’ reach.

Only today, these eighteen centuries later, aided by modern Western inventions such as GPS, are the Islamist fanatics able to locate some of Diocletian’s monastic descendants, still out in the wilderness. I pray some may remain too far away for them to bother.

*

Martyrdom is ours, and births out of this world, but alongside runs the train of memory. Time and memory are elusive things, which, as Augustine explained, we may think we understand, until our thinking is examined.

In my experience, the people of the Middle East have long memories; not only the Muslims. I have myself a strange memory, for I experience flashbacks to moments in my former life, of a seemingly eidetic precision. (This dubious gift was inherited from my mother.) Often, in Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land wherein they overlap, I had the sense of whole cultures with this curious condition, able suddenly to refer to an event many centuries before, very much as if it had happened yesterday. How often, too, the papyrus fragments that wash up from the desert sands, seem to participate in the same “dream,” by confirming little details.

Saint George on his charger, rescuing the maid, is known as a European invention, an expression of our antique mediaeval whimsy. It is dismissed as so much poetical fluff. But it is the echo of something much older, of which I became aware in my travels. There is a bay just north of modern Beirut, where something like this event is said to have happened. It is recorded in speech, and also in the disintegrating frescoes of ruined Christian chapels, in the hills some miles inland. My mental archaeologist is still working on those details. In the narrative I think it was a small Christian boy whom Saint George rescued, descending from the skies. Not the earthly biological Saint George, but the posthumous one, if I understood correctly.

The saint is often invoked in this way, to this day, in Syria and Iraq. He acts out of a kind of whirlwind, comes from nowhere to intercede in the most fearful circumstances, as an angelic soldier — now retired from Diocletian’s command and instead in the retinue of Saint Michael. And as the satanic spirit of Diocletian has returned, so too that of Saint George — now as adversaries within this theatre of the battle that rages in the heavens as well as upon this earth. Many saints, many angels, many evangelists in many kinds, were once recorded on those walls, and illuminated in the monastic scriptoria — now fully eradicated from everything but memory. But nothing is lost, for that includes the infallible memory of God.

*

The tourists used to find such art in, for instance, the monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (“Saint Moses the Abyssinian”), a wonderful elaboration of square-turreted masonry crooked into the hills, fifty miles north of Damascus. The ruin of it was meticulously restored — the roofs replaced; missing stonework patched with exactly matching stone-cutting methods; ancient frescoes patiently cleaned of coverings and reset in the traditional plaster; and all conscientiously recorded in modern scholarly form by Jesuits from Aleppo, led by the Italian archaeologist and priest Paolo Dall’Oglio. They made it into a retreat for “Christian-Muslim dialogue.” (A dialogue that had left off in the nineteenth century, when the paintings were whitewashed over, and the old Syrian monks fled, in deference to local Islamic sensibilities.)

A fine art historian, Erica Cruikshank Dodd, and her team, wrote a handbook of the history of Syrian Christian painting from the remains still traceable in that monastery — reflecting styles marrying Greek and Oriental traditions together, reaching back long before the Crusades. (Huge compositions such as the Last Judgement on the west wall of the monastic chapel have the quality of unfolding, as if from a grandiloquent Chinese ancestral scroll.) This work was published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto (2001). Robert Mason, an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, found evidence in the vicinity of its much longer history as a sacred site, going back to Neolithic times. Of course all this was cut off by the war.

Father Paolo, previously on the enemies list of Bashir Assad for his (rather pointless) peace activism, was captured by the Daish in July 2013, and not heard from after. An eyewitness reported that he was beheaded, and his body thrown into a hole with … many other bodies.

Having glimpsed this Deir Mar Musa myself, I have been eager to hear any news of its fate. The last mention I can find is a Christmas letter from 2013. A certain Sister Houda Fadoul confessed the bitterness, pain, and sadness in her heart, leaving us to guess at specific causes. Previously she had written: “Few of us come to a deep experience of faith other than through a profound depression. Often it seems that men are only capable to open themselves to the Lord through hopelessness and vulnerability of a complete disaster.”

Again, the Christians, in strident opposition to the wisdom of this world, look for good in the uttermost pit of evil, and beg forgiveness for their worst enemies, and seek deliverance from unseen places.

To which end we might pray, to Saint George on his “birthday.” For he is an old centurion, “a man under authority,” now under Christ’s, and thus like the faithful soldier to whom Christ said:

“Go! And as thou hast believed, be it done.”

Propos

A correspondent tells me that these daily lucubrations are “too long and involved.” Another asks if I could “keep it short.” A third, who is a veteran journalist, says the important thing is to hold the reader’s attention to the end.

____________

NOTE. The last of these correspondents now writes: “Overkill. The third sentence is unnecessary.”

The valour deficit

When I am asked, “So what would you do?” about the circumstances I touched upon yesterday, I reply by looking glazed. Fortunately for me, if not for others, I do not hold a powerful political office, and am quite unlikely ever to do so. As a pundit once, I believed it my duty to think in these terms, however: not only negatively, to describe what is wrong, but positively to propose or imply what is right. Yet one must acknowledge limitations of view. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton said, but only from within a position of power can one see many of the pieces in play. From outside one must use the projective imagination.

That we have difficulties in and from “the Middle East” — essentially a continuum from Morocco to West Irian, as Christendom was once a continuum from Ireland to, say, the Urals — is the consequence of our own failings. Prior to the Great War we had few problems on that geopolitical front. This was because we occupied most of it. Extraordinary acts of self-destruction were necessary to get ourselves into the position of weakness in which we are now found. What led to August 1914 is too long a story; what led from it is too long a story. The transformation of Europe by that War, or rather, the completion of its transformation, is too long a story.

Recently, breezing through Margaret MacMillan’s blockbuster, Paris 1919 (2003) — the kind of book I am apt to pick up from the Salvation Army thrift shop — I considered her mildly revisionist account of the Peace Conference that held the world rivetted through the first six months of that year. Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Georges Clémenceau are rightly absolved of responsibility for everything that happened in the next twenty years; for there were clowns after those clowns.

I think of them as the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse.” They were themselves not causes but symptoms of a disease, which for a word we might call post-modernism. President Wilson did the most permanent damage. He was the Barack Obama of that historical moment, enjoying an immense charismatic popularity in Europe. A moral and intellectual simpleton, he had handy to his lips a short list of glib progressive nostrums that appealed to great masses of the war weary.

All three were men of terrific ego, and little substance: models for the new kind of politician that would emerge more fully from the War. Each was from his own peculiarly desiccated cultural background a man largely free of any religious conviction. Wilson had the Calvinist Puritan sensibility, to the degree that he was privately well-behaved; Lloyd George and especially Clémenceau were just old rogues and whoremongers, charming from a distance. Paradoxically, it might have helped had Wilson been more corrupt, and less “principled,” for his principles were exactly those on which post-modern liberalism was awkwardly erected: democracy, equality, bureaucracy, national self-determination, and all the rest of that rot.

To the point, the British and French dealt out pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire between themselves like patches on a Monopoly board, except for the Turkey of Ataturk’s fait accompli. Wilson watched with mild distaste while focusing his own efforts on rewarding every poisonous little balkanic European nationalism he could find under a rock. Other problems, like the new Soviet Russia, that could not be painlessly fixed, were progressively ignored. The Old World of aristocratic family orders, above nationalism, was unceremoniously trashed for the new one of seething demagogic republics, and all that would follow from that. It was a Brave New World that would be implicitly, and often explicitly, post-Christian.

This was the opposite of what was required. The Great War was caused by demagogic politics, and the real problem of statesmen was to find a way to put nationalism back in the bag. Instead they emptied the whole bag out on the table. Too, the agonizing economic decisions needed for the generous settlement of unpayable debts, and the restoration of hard, gold-based currencies, were omitted for a first frolic in the new fairyland of Keynesianism. It was the birth of that perpetual “creative destruction” that now endears itself to the adepts of “change,” both Left and Right.

A worse mess resulted than even war could cause, and while they hardly foresaw it, the Three Stooges and their vast supporting casts opened the road to the roaring ’twenties and the catastrophe of the ’thirties that would inevitably follow. Yet invincible error forgives the participants.

There were superficial, material effects, which in themselves contributed to the moral and spiritual disaster of the twentieth century, but something deeper had happened. The cancer beneath the skin was not addressed. Western man had abandoned his religion as a factor in public life. The very idea of Christendom — of an order larger and more consequential than that of any nation state — had been definitively buried. We had done to ourselves inwardly what we had done to the Ottomans outwardly. We had emasculated ourselves.

I cannot tell the history of a hundred years in an Idlepost, but I can insist on a single point, and this would be it for today. Western, and once Christian, man has lost his ability to man up in the face of evils he cannot avoid in this world. He has become chestless, he has lost the convictions of his Christian heart. He has, practically, no stomach left for the long haul, for maintaining permanent institutions, for keeping boots on the ground even where they must be kept (in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth). He cannot face any large problem, in other than a mechanistic way, looking for the quick fix.

And this is one of those problems: the re-irruption of a violent, seventh-century tribal religion from beyond the civilized frontier, after centuries of effort to contain it (as much by noble effort from within Islam, as from active external resistance).

The spirit of the Crusades, persisting over so many generations, and likewise of the Reconquistas in the Iberian peninsula and across the Hungarian plains, were those of a manly civilization, self-consciously determined not to be rendered extinct. Western Christendom stood up to the Islamic threat, over centuries, though deficient in wealth and resources, through a kind of “holy will.” We would not accept any setback as permanent, we would not adapt to the consequences of defeat, we would keep fighting. Curiously, the much admired, but only slightly Christian, Winston Churchill briefly embodied this old, “mediaeval,” knightly ideal: that we must “never surrender.” He was also among the last statesmen to speak of Islam without an affected awe.

Without a conviction that our own civilization is worth defending, or even imposing in response to attack, I don’t know where we are. The idea that we must not only resist Islamicization, but roll it back, is inconceivable to contemporary Western man. He is incapable of stating: “No, your religion is wrong, and this is why. Yes, our religion is right, and this is why. Therefore you must abandon Muhammad, and follow Christ.” (That, incidentally, is what the real Saint Francis of Assisi did.) Without that, Western man is defeated before he starts. For his vague belief in “progress” carries no real conviction, only the convenience of avoiding thought, commitment, labour, and risk.

Let me add, to avoid confusion, that by “manly” I do not mean specifically, “ready for military action.” That is only part of it. I mean more fundamentally, ready to uphold the Christian standard in heart, soul, and mind. This is a multi-dimensional proposition, and requires valour in every dimension. But we have abandoned the Source of that valour.

Camp of saints

In their latest promotion video for Islam, just released, the Daish proudly show a fresh atrocity: the murder of thirty kidnapped Ethiopian Christians, who had been working in Libya. The slaughter is presented in two parts: those beheaded by the seaside, and those shot in the desert, respectively. A narrator introduces the film with a message to all Christians:

“To the nation of the Cross, we’re back again! … We swear to Allah that you will not have safety even in your dreams until you embrace Islam.”

But lest that message seem a little harsh, an elderly captive is shown in Iraq: a Christian who has been allowed to live because he is paying the Jizya. One wonders whether the many thousand Christian women and children, kept alive as sex slaves, are deemed to be paying their Jizya, too. Perhaps there are Shariah rulings on this.

Meanwhile Europe’s conscience is troubled by the failure to provide sufficiently prompt and generous welfare assistance to the Muslim refugees, streaming across the Mediterranean in flotillas that may help us to recall Jean Raspail’s apocalyptic novel, Le Camp des saints (1973). The headlines currently focus on one of the larger boats, the latest to capsize with the loss of hundreds. This drowned the news from a smaller boat whose survivors had been rescued by the Italian navy two days before. From that one, the Muslim refugees had tossed a dozen Christians overboard. They had been praying to Jesus Christ. They’d been told they must pray only to Allah.

There is no country with a Muslim majority or even a significant Muslim minority where Christians are not now living under threat of lethal violence. This includes countries like Egypt, where the government is in fact trying to protect them; or like the Philippines, with its strong Catholic majority but a significant Muslim presence in the south.

In Syria, the Christians overwhelmingly support the monstrous dictator Bashir Assad, against his opponents. This is because his opponents are worse. (Some are called “moderates” by e.g. the Obama administration, which specializes in terms that are void of meaning.)

From once-Christian Lebanon — a country carved out of Syria by the French for the express purpose of giving Levantine Christians a safe place to live — the remaining Christians now look for a way out. Beirut, once the cultural centre of the entire Arab world (Christian, Muslim, and “other”) because of the freedom it offered to artists, musicians, writers, is finally an Hezbollic shambles, Christians having been pushed out as from once-Christian Bethlehem. It is an understated preview of what will happen to the Jews of Israel should they ever make the peace the liberals have prepared for them. Once beaten, Lebanon’s Maronites focused on getting out quietly before the worst of the pogroms. In the Israeli case, however, the ones who get out alive will be extraordinarily lucky. Their enemies don’t want them fled, but dead.

As we have been reminded in Yemen, recently, the battle goes to the most ruthless. What the majority of Yemenis think and feel is of no consequence. The civil war is now being conducted between Shia Muslim fanatics under the sponsorship of Iran, and Sunni Muslim fanatics under miscellaneous Arab sponsorships. The Saudi air force is selectively bombing the Shias, with discreet Western support. Elsewhere, we hardly know which side to bomb. In Iraq, for variety, we have decided to help the Iranians by bombing the Sunnis. In Libya, we are trying to decide which of our five or six major allies in deposing Gaddafi would be most suitable for bombing now; all are murderous. The massacre of Christians is a shared enthusiasm among all Muslim “militants”; we might be accused of an unconscious bias against the faction that is massacring most Christians at any given moment.

I am skimming the surface. It is a commonplace that other minorities are under siege, too, throughout the Dar al-Islam (“realm of submission,” i.e. to Allah). Christians are hardly indifferent to their fate, and Christian charities have come spontaneously and universally to their aid as well as to the aid of their fellow Christians. (This is one of those stories our media find too boring to report: that in all of the world’s most dangerous “hot spots,” Christians are risking their lives to deliver food, shelter, and medical services, from out of the inexplicable motive of religious faith.)

*

As I have written before, the major battle in the Middle East, threatening to become a region-wide conflagration, is between Shia and Sunni factions — the former likelier to be first in bringing nuclear weapons into play, via Tehran. Both sides understand this battle is winner-take-all within Islam. Yet both agree on their primary external enemy. Curiously enough, it is not “the West,” not “the Zionist entity,” not “infidels” of any other kind — neither the “great satan,” nor the “little satan,” but what they call “Rome.”

This aspect of the Muslim matrix — a compound of myth, legend, and some actual history — has been ingrained through several dozen generations. It is not “an artefact of the Crusades,” as is falsely taught by liberal apologists for Islam in the West. The conflict preceded that. Eastern Christendom was overrun. African territories were overrun. Central Asia was overrun. Hindustan was overrun, from what is now Pakistan to what is now Indonesia (where Bali is the only surviving enclave). Everywhere Islam marched, it conquered, and everywhere it conquered, it scoured. (For example: not one ancient Hindu temple was left standing across the plains of northern India.)

Only Western Christendom withstood the successive tides of Islamic conquest; only “Rome,” though it was often touch-and-go. (They almost managed to keep Rome after sacking it in 846 AD.)

We, Catholics, have the honour to be their ultimate enemy, in their apocalyptic scenario (in which their Koranic Jesus comes down from the clouds to slaughter all the remaining Christians).

In the absence of historical memory, or even basic intelligence, the “infidels” of the European Union will not grasp nor consider what is stated plainly in video after video from the Daish and other Muslim incendiaries. Again and again they state that their target is “Rome.”

Even the swords dripping with blood from the slaughtered Copts on Libyan beaches are raised towards Rome, with the pledge that Rome, across the water, will soon also be awash in blood. (Depictions of Saint Peter’s, remodelled with minarets, are a standard conceit of Islamist propaganda.)

That the great majority of Muslims around the world would rather live in peace, may well be true. This is certainly my own overall impression. But whether true or not, it is irrelevant. The great majority of Muslims have no standing in the Islamist scheme of things, and will never be consulted.

Samuel Huntington famously wrote, “Islam has bloody borders.” As historian, he had noticed this phenomenon was not new. It is fundamental to Islamic teaching: that outside that “realm of submission” is only the Dar al-Harb (“the realm of war”). He had also noticed the complementary feature of Islamic civilization: that where Islam has conquered, and humbled or destroyed all rivals, it becomes just as remarkably placid. Well within those bloody borders, inanition rules. The society becomes quiescent in its obedience to absolute rulers. It falls asleep, for centuries on end. Only the prospect of Jihad can awaken it again.

For this reason, it seems to me, we are witnessing something historically unprecedented. By increments the usual violence around the circumference of the Dar al-Islam is spreading, but unusually, more inward than outward.

I cannot see the future; I merely speculate, as I have done for many years now, that an even greater crisis is overwhelming the Islamic domains, than is overwhelming the old Christian ones, in response to “modernity.” Our primary rival, when not our real and present enemy through the last fourteen centuries, may well be collapsing even faster than we are.

As I have also argued, violent Islamism in this generation is an expression not of hope in conquest, but of despair. For centuries now, the evidence has been accumulating that the old rivalry was decided, and that the West won. In its wake, Western Imperialism left no doubt. To the apocalyptic Muslim mind, it was Roman Imperialism. It wasn’t “technology,” but the despised Christians who had humiliated them.

The “Islamism” of the twentieth century was a response to this. It was founded in the last ditch. Its proponents are on the edge of atheism themselves. They are in effect tempting Allah: demanding that he prove himself the True God by granting them the most unlikely victories. In the lives of the terrorists we find little that resembles religious faith. They go out on the town before committing mass murders. They may recruit in mosques, but hardly ever pray there.

Whereas, the older victorious Islam had confidence — whether merited or not — that it would prevail in righteousness. It carried some sense of honour onto the battlefield; there were certain atrocities it hesitated to commit. It is that righteousness, that honour, that is missing from the current onslaught, both without and within the Dar al-Islam. What I can discern is only desperation.

Materially, the threat may be terrifying. These modern-day desert savages are armed with vastly destructive weapons, which unearned oil wealth has paid for. Yet they hardly know how to use them. Spiritually, they can make some appeal to the “home-grown terrorists” of the West: loners and psychopaths converted in prisons; the fatherless young and hormonally unstable; or at the very bottom, intellectuals in our universities craving radical chic. Yet this is all empty show. They rise above the dysfunctional only with luck. In proportion to the evil they intend, the terrorists deliver little. Most of their schemes end in farce. They can succeed only against the defenceless. Their cause could itself suddenly blow over, the way Arab nationalism did.

*

This, anyway, is my sense of the matter: that we witness the last flail of a dying enemy, in the final act of his old rage. He is locked in a fantasia, a wild gesticulation against a “Rome” that should surely have fallen by now; yet which is still, despite everything, somehow, unfallen. It is a “Rome” that has now converted sub-Saharan Africa, right under his nose. Which is converting China. Which is even converting Muslims who have settled in defunct Christian Europe. Which just will not die, no matter how many heads he cuts off. And which lacks even the decency to fight back. How incomprehensible! How ridiculous!

(The pagan Romans asked themselves questions like this.)

And mysteriously, to my mind, this Muslim enemy reaches out to Rome, to Europe and the West, for a purpose he does not himself understand. For the truth, expressed in history but larger, is very mysterious in this case. It must necessarily include the fact that Islam was, in its formation, the development of a Christian heresy. It arose from an errant, monophysite Christology: a classical inability to cope with the whole idea of a Messiah who was (and remains) very God, and very Man.

He comes, and he keeps coming, to Rome, to conquer. Yet there is more to it than that. He comes in a sense to “crucify Christ” — what he imagines a false Christ — to where this false Christ is presumed to be living. It is the very Christ whom the Christians claimed was crucified before, but they were lying — that crucifixion was faked. This time the fake Christ will be really crucified, and the lying Christians put to shame. The score with them will finally be settled. And when Rome falls, the Christians will all surrender. Including, of course, all the lapsed ones, and the lapsed beyond lapsed.

Outwardly the intention is violence, but inwardly and at a more profound level this Muslim enemy does not come to defeat Rome at all. Instead he is drawn to that strange and unaccountable “City of God,” for another reason.

It comes finally as a terrible shock to him, a paradox even more invincible than the singularly Triune God, or the singularly dual nature of the Son, whose own Mother has been leading him here. The long path of carnage behind him, he has come to collapse into Christ’s arms.

And that is how he defeats us.