But of course, we are too close to events. The whole history of the last two generations, of the world corresponding to the time of my life, is too close to make much sense of. And things which are happening, “in the news” now, loom so large, that they are mostly invisible to us. That is why I instinctively ignore both religious and secular prognostications. If we do not know what is happening now, how can we know what will happen next?
This is more than a question of “information.” As I’ve learnt the hard way, again and again, in the practice of the rogue trade of journalism, we are working with unreliable information. Often, when everyone knows what has happened, everyone is wrong. The closer I’ve come to “breaking news” in my life, the more sceptical I’ve become that the circumstances have been, or could have been, correctly reported — especially by observers who could not write so much as an accurate précis of a Times leader to save their lives, because they were never taught.
More fundamentally, the “fog of war” lies thick upon all parties. Few men have the prophetic gift, to follow what is happening even in outline. It is a piece of luck when one of those happens to be a General. In peacetime, under conditions where politics are publicly disputed, and leaders command not from the tops of elephants like the sensible kings of Burma and Siam, but are carried on the shoulders of the seething mob, clear vision is unlikely.
Chastity is a virtue I have come to admire. I am left to enjoy it largely by myself. The mob thinks it applies to genital activity, if to anything. But it is universal, it applies to everything. No intelligent thinking is possible, and thus no intelligent decision can be made, without this virtue of chastity. One must extract one’s “self” from sin and situation, to make so much as a clean confession to a priest — to explain what one did without the usual syrup of excuses. Men who cannot accomplish that, will hardly outwit their own amour-propre, when they look beyond themselves.
Heroic chastity might take the form of declining to steer the willing wench into bed, but here I am considering the “high political.” And this includes the high political in humble stations of everyday life. The question, What is for the good? — aye, there’s a question. It is a masculine one, so that when a woman asks it she must play the man. (So much of mothering requires masculine decision.) But, par excellence, the father in the household must exercise a judgement in which his own interest is sublimated within the interests of his family. He must stand above himself to see what these are, and make painful personal sacrifice sometimes, without selfish whining or complaint. Or else, become a failure in the eyes of wife, children, and God.
And likewise, all leadership is in its essence chaste and masculine, whether the ruler be a woman or a man. The commander of the fleet — our Don John of Austria — has before him Victory in a holy cause, demanding all sacrifice together with the knowledge that he is in the service of Heaven. For all the private failures of his past, he must not fail now.
There is a distance from which some clarity is possible, perhaps; and then I fear a greater distance at which the subject shrinks and disappears. I am referring here to the Battle of Lepanto, whose 444th anniversary we celebrate today, in the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
The issue of that battle was not clear at the time. The fleet of the Holy League had destroyed the massed Ottoman fleet, but could hardly reconquer the eastern Mediterranean. The initial intention had been to recover Cyprus from the Infidel Turk, but this was impossible; and long after Lepanto the recovering Ottoman forces harried Catholic (chiefly Spanish) interests in the western Mediterranean. Tunis and Algiers resumed as centres of piracy, and long into the eighteenth century the European coast remained an open target for Muslim depredation. Indeed, as we were reminded on the 11th of September, 2001, the spirit of Islamic raid and conquest is far from quelled today.
It was only over time that the magnitude of the victory of Lepanto came plainly into historical view, as the most consequential naval engagement since the Battle of Actium — fought at nearly the same location, in 31 BC. In each, West prevailed against East, and had it not been so, the history of Europe would be much different.
True maritime skill, and the firepower of the new Venetian galleasses, played their part at Lepanto; but also the extraordinary morale, described by Cervantes (no dupe) who was present at the scene. For this was the last substantial naval engagement with rowed galleys — in which so much of the fighting was hand to hand on deck. In this, free Christians proved finally the masters of Turkish slaves, regardless of the numbers. The casualties were terrible on both sides, but far worse on the other; and our own were balanced by the many thousands of Christian slaves we freed.
I do not hesitate to refer to this battle in “us and them” terms. Consequential as it was, the war is not over. The same human facts remain in place; the low squabbling that undermined our unity; the broken alliances; the impulse under pressure to cut and run, as Don John’s southern flank almost did at the start of the engagement, until checked by Turkish galleys manoeuvring around them.
Yet that is part of the miracle, too: that the cowardice of a Genoese admiral (great-nephew of Andrea Doria) contributed directly to the sudden victory. He left the gap with the centre division through which Uluj Ali’s ships sailed — directly into the maw of the Holy League’s reserve, which chewed them up nicely.
It was a miracle that we prevailed, given the initial alignment of forces; and ingenious tactics are retrospectively admired. But the more I look at received accounts of the battle, the more I attribute to Our Lady; or an atheist might credit to “lady luck.” She levelled the watery field; the morale of the Christians tipped the balance.
The triple chaplet of the Queen of Heaven — the three rose crowns — are the mark of human homage it is our privilege to bestow. The term “Rosary” is derived from that. The banner of the fleet had been blessed by Pope Pius V (who supplied some of the ships); and before its setting out from the Kingdom of Naples, solemn reverence to Our Lady was offered. Across Catholic Europe, those in the know prayed their Rosaries for success, in what they knew to be no small adventure.
For long before the secular historians, the Church, through her faithful, did understand what was at stake: the preservation of Christendom. And long after the historians have decided that remembering the Victory is politically incorrect, the Church will recall it in her Mass. For she understood, and understands, that the issue hinged on an Act of Faith. And that our fate will always hinge on that.