Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

O Adonai

The Lord (Adonai in Hebrew) who made the Covenant with Israel, the Lord who delivered His people in that Covenant, is the Lord of the Creation, or as we say, Christ Jesus. My title this morning is that of the second of the venerable “O Antiphons” — responsories or little hymns of one stanza, each providing a mystical key to the Psalm or Canticle it accompanies — which began yesterday with O Sapientia. They carry us through the last days of Advent, at Vespers in the incomparably beautiful liturgy of old Holy Church: from the 17th to the 23rd of December, and thus to the threshold of Christmastide, in the Vigil of Yule itself. They are attached to the Magnificat — sung just before and just after this most audacious and electrifying of Canticles — and in the old usage of the Middle Ages, the church bells would sound and resound as they were sung.

Each of these antiphons turns on a title for Christ, prefigured in the Old Testament, and they are successively, day by day: O Sapientia (“Wisdom”), O Adonai (“Lord”), O Radix (“Root”), O Clavis (“Key”), O Oriens (“Dawn”), O Rex (“King”), O Emmanuel (“God-with-us”). The seven are knitted together and reprised in the song we still sing as an Advent carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

These O Antiphons are very old, indeed pre-mediaeval, for they are attested going back into what the anti-Christian scholars of the Enlightenment dubbed, “The Dark Ages.” They are mentioned for instance by Boethius in the early VIth century. Variations no doubt existed before that; as also long after in the parallels to the Roman rite, wherein other O Antiphons are added, on the same theme of Christ’s Hebrew titles.

They are sung at Vespers, because Christ was seen to come in the evening hour of the world, and they are sung with the Magnificat because it was by Mary that He came.

In my considered opinion — for I have pulled my hair working at it — these Antiphons must be sung in Latin, because they are untranslatable. To my mind, the best attempts may be found in the Marquess of Bute’s translation of the Roman Breviary (see page 243 of the Winter volume). They can be paraphrased, or elegantly glossed, with patience. As ever, in a problem of translation, the difficulty lies in more than the words, for there is a conceptual matrix that requires the original language for precision. Sometimes this will present small difficulties, sometimes very large.

Tomorrow, for instance, in the antiphon, O Radix Jesse, we are dealing with the tree of Jesse, which we might take for a family tree — which it is, glibly. We are faced with something that gobsmacks the modern reader, right at the start of the First Gospel: “The generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Our modern mind is arrested by the very notion of opening with a genealogical table — with any genealogical table, let alone one for God.

It is good for our modern mind to be astounded, for the beginning of wisdom is quite often a smack upside the head. We may be genuinely enlightened to discover that the old image of this “family tree” had more than a trunk and bare branches. The deep roots sank out of view, themselves branching in the mysterious earth; the foliage above this ground opened to the eye as a banner of revelation.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum — “O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people.” Today we stand, in our shrivelled “nuclear families” (supposing there survives so much as that) without anything much resembling the understanding of “family” shared by our ancestors. And here, for the benefit of the multiculturaloids, let me state that I mean all our ancestors from every culture; for this autochthonic sense of going back, “to Adam” as it were, is universal among pre-moderns.

This is just a blog; one would need a book to expand upon the “false consciousness” that encloses modern man, as he becomes severed from the temporal continuities which attach him not only to people he has met, but to his most distant ancestors, and to his and their most distant descendants. Our world is small, narrow, tight, breathless, and cornered in our rat-like self-esteem. The older one had the opposite of these qualities, and was not so abstract. What you did not know, you did not know; but what you knew led outward in all directions, and through that most acute, and most typically human of senses (as Thomas Aquinas pointed out): not sight, nor hearing, but the sense of touch.

The mortal clay of man was something entirely different to men intimately acquainted with the sources of their food. It was not some disposable raw material; there was no “dirt” in our modern sense, for everything had value. The clay was vividly alive, in the hands of the potter, and they could not be detached from their making. They were not some abstract “body plus a soul,” but integrated; the animated flesh was raised from living mud and ensouled. And body-and-soul would that Christian man be resurrected: as he truly was, and not as a ghost or any other heretical phantom.

Because these Antiphons are short — let me say almost Japanese in their brevity — it is worth praying them in the old Latin, even if gentle reader knows no Latin at all. He may piece them together, a little at a time, from the English prose in his missal, or easily found through a few Internet keystrokes, till he is praying them in Latin. Little by little they will reveal to him an extraordinary picture of the meaning of this Advent — of the many, many dimensions of it, converging in the unfathomable miracle of that first Christmas morning.

Somewhat feline

Christmas is coming: did you know? … (Gentle reader is instructed to hold that thought, while he considers what follows.)

*

The last message in the combox of this Idlesite, when I removed it some months ago, said something to the effect, “You have cut off your nose to spite your face.” It was a variation on Van Gogh, I suppose, to disallow Comments. By several experts in our aging “new media,” I was told that they are the key to building an audience: people enjoy reading their own stuff, and everyone likes to watch a mudfight. I was also taught, even before I started this thing, that it must have photographs and videos to catch attention; and that I’d be a fool not to take advertisements, or to go fussy about what kind to accept, or how they popped up or blared out. Twitter, Facebook, and other googaws were earnestly recommended. Too, I was informed that donations through PayPal would only become significant if I did frequent and highly visible begging campaigns.

“Statistics” come with the dashboard of a blog, and though allergy prevents me from consulting them often, I did notice that my “dailies” took a big hit after the combox closed. They’ve been crawling back since, but PayPal donations have not recovered. The good news, on the other hand, is that in shutting down an increasingly time-consuming and vexatious distraction (for me), I also closed the principal channel for spamming and DOS attacks; my remnant may have noticed that these Essays in Idleness have not been taken down for a while by the Evil Hacker Fairy, or fairies. This I would count as the blessing.

But clearly, I must do something to improve revenue, for I continue penurious. From the start of Advent, I began posting every frigging day — and intend to persist, whether or not I have something to say. That certainly seems to help the numbers a bit.

And today, I think it is time to try cat blogging.

*

A reader remembers “Puddy Cat” (1981–97), her favourite pet from a serene Catholic childhood in rural Quebec — preferred even to a dog named Monchou, and a quarter horse, named Gentle Ben. Taken in as a stray kitten, Puddy Cat was also adored by Monchou; and the horse, too, was enchanted by the little fur ball.

Once grown, she (the cat) slept all day, out of view except when eating. The other exception was when she (my correspondent) was saying the Rosary with her father. The cat disdained the saying of it at the dining table. Nor would she join them on the sofa for any general conversation. But when the Rosary was said on the sofa, by father and daughter from opposite ends, the cat would infallibly set herself in the middle between them — and this, from the minute they began the Creed.

(Sometimes she would bat at the dangling beads, but usually curl in sublime contentment.)

*

We have, up here in the High Doganate, a very large inventory of cat stories — larger, perhaps, even than the Russian or Chinese inventory of nuclear missiles. And let me fairly warn gentle reader, that if PayPal donations don’t step up, we are prepared to use them.

*

Another dangerous, arguably post-conciliar novelty that I contemplate, as a bait for cash, is the “Command Performance.” For the modest sum of fifty undervalued Canadian dollars, gentle reader may consider that he has paid, as it were, a “subscription” to my ramblings for a full year. But for Five Hundred Dollars, I will entitle him to assign me a Topic for one of these daily effusions, and promise to belabour it for at least five hundred words. Now surely, that is an offer which will appeal to every right-minded person, and only those less monied than I will be able to refuse.

*

Did you hold that thought right to the end? Well, if you didn’t, fear not, I will remind you: Christmas is coming!

Star dust

I see that the Curiosity Rover has been detecting little burps of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Cue the tabloids to announce, “Life on Mars!” Biomethation (methane production by microbes) is one possible explanation of the burps. There are a few hundred known alternative explanations.

Our wee mechanical toy landed on the bed of what was, long ago, a crater-formed Martian lake. There are indications of erosion, down the slopes of Mount Sharp in the middle of this crater, and along the crater walls. Thus, no surprise to find water molecules bound into the fine powdery soil. I gather there are a couple of pints in each cubic foot, though it might cost more than the USA could be sold for, to develop technology that could suck it out.

No fish skeletons, yet.

But let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that life is eventually found on Mars — even traces of the humblest microbes, extinct for a billion years. That would do, to surprise me. I would then expect to find signs of biological life, all over the universe.

That “intelligent life” (i.e. creatures who could appreciate Bach) would still not be found, might go almost without saying. For if life truly “evolves” by happenstance, as the Darwinoids do vainly preach, something approaching to human smarts would have appeared here and there many millions of years before us, wherever conditions were favourable. Indeed, given the speed at which humans suddenly “evolved” here, we could ourselves have appeared on Earth, millions of years before we actually did.

We are extremely recent, in geological terms; have been here less than two seconds, if the history of the planet were scaled down to one day. We’ve come a fair technological distance ourselves, since the last Earth ice age, a mere twelve thousand years ago, and the pace appears to be accelerating. Imagine what we could do given, oh, another million years, or hundred million. I daresay we’d finally figure how to get out and about.

The Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, did this thought experiment before 1950. He realized that we did not need expensive, incredibly sophisticated tools, to detect extraterrestrial life. If it was there, it would already have got here. He reasoned that, even if it could not defeat lightspeed, a sufficiently advanced material culture could send self-reproducing probes to colonize its home galaxy in a blink of exogeological time, then leapfrog galaxy to galaxy in all directions. It would transmit messages that could not be missed.

Any mathematical extrapolation of the number of planets in the universe that could, possibly, “evolve intelligent life,” is reversed by Fermi’s Paradox. The more possibilities there are, the less likely it has ever happened.

But of course, physics advances, and we now have a second indefatigable argument against ET. It developed from the “anthropic principle” in cosmology, which holds, tautologically enough, that the structure or “design” of the universe must be compatible with the existence of the conscious sapient creatures who observe it from within. (We would be they.) Over the last few decades we have come to understand that life on Earth absolutely depends on such an extraordinary number of extremely tight conditions, operating together at levels of coincidence that so stretch the odds, that the chance of finding another Bach-appreciating planet — even within something so large as our universe in space and time — is inconceivably remote.

Or to put this another way, it appears dead obvious that the purpose of the universe was to make us possible.

It would follow that our lives must be in some strange way — beyond any passing subjective enthusiasm — worth living. For, Someone went to a lot of trouble to put us here.

Whether He also planted microbes on Mars for us to find, in our season, is an open question. I can’t see why He would, but then, I am not privy to all of His intentions; only the ones He has told us about.

The blind eye

Hypocrisy, as we all know, is the homage vice pays to virtue. I dislike it very much, especially when I find it in myself, and realize that it will have to be confessed. It is bad, bad, bad. But there are worse things than hypocrisy, sometimes, and I’m inclined to wink at a little hypocrisy when the alternative is some ghastly catastrophe from which, it might seem, no one will recover. But then I find that the winks may also need confession.

A certain Miss Fleming, who was Principal in some (deliciously) backward school I once attended — faced with a proposal to break a Rule, to prevent something terrible from happening — replied in this way: “We never break the Rules! We only bend them.” She further explained that having bent them, we then bend them back the way they were before.

But this is not the preferred method. It leaves your ruler all dimpled and irregular, no matter how you try to hammer it flat. (I imagine a metal ruler for this analogy. A wooden ruler would require steaming; a plastic one would almost certainly crack.)

Should it come to that, my preferred method is rather that of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, which is to say, turn a blind eye. For among humankind, there are circumstances in which the spirit of the law is in conflict with the dead letter, and action cannot be delayed. Prudence might, conceivably, recommend this course: to tolerate, as it were, the lesser evil. But Prudence, the ranking Cardinal Virtue, would then feel badly about what she had recommended, and work at finding a path that requires no sin at all; and might therefore be acceptable to all three of the higher, Theological Virtues.

I am thinking of Rome, once again, for some reason. For two generations, or has it been eighty, clever people have been suggesting that we bend the rules, or even change them, to eliminate this or that inconvenience. At the Family Synod, recently, we had some ripe examples.

Given the fact, the plain fact, that a very high proportion of Catholics are not only breaking the rules on the sanctity of marriage — starting with the little matter of contraception, then going the rest of the way — shouldn’t the Church (“just slightly”) adjust the rules to make them — you know, more “realistic.” I mean like, yeah, “nobody” is following them, why don’t we move the line in the sand back a yard or three? And hey, look around. The people who are breaking the rules are getting away with it anyway, haven’t you noticed? … (“Hypocrisy, hypocrisy!”)

Now, fact-check, plenty of people I know personally are doing their level best to follow the rules, often to the point of personal sacrifice, and public embarrassment; and often, too, they are treated like neanderthal body odour by their “progressive” priests. (Anecdotes will not be supplied; there’d be no end once I got started.) And these faithful are the very people who are undermined, who are filled with desolation, who are even in some cases broken, every time some clever clergy suggest bending the rules to accommodate the legion who have nothing but contempt for the rules, anyway.

Beloved Cardinal Burke — so brilliant as well as stalwart in defending the Canon Law, yet recently removed from the Signatura — has repeatedly explained, in words not hard to understand, for anyone who happens to be listening — that Church teaching and practice are married. It would be monstrous if the Church taught one thing, and practised another. Verily, it would be hypocritical. And as the teaching itself does not come from any Pope or Council or Synod, but from Christ, it cannot be amended. It can only be more, or less, understood. To propose little adjustments in “pastoral practice,” to keep up with the times, is not helpful. It is instead unambiguously Evil.

The Church, from her beginning, has been at war with “the times.” She has, as I think those acquainted with Church History will affirm, never been at peace with them.

Now, fact-check, those who attend Mass may indeed notice that, every Sunday, the great majority of pew-sitters — almost all — go up for Communion. (This was not the case fifty years ago.) They may also observe that they are seldom, if ever, warned of the consequences — to them — of approaching the altar in a state of mortal sin. In other words, one is witnessing the terrible disorder in which we find, at present, our poor Church.

First, one goes to these little booths, to confess one’s sins. Which isn’t a simple matter of fessing up, if one is living in a state of mortal sin, and has every intention of continuing to do so. For then the sin cannot be absolved, and any absolution one may have obtained by lying, will be the opposite of valid. One will have to fix the mess one has made, before proceeding to the rail. (If the devils have not removed the rail and kneelers.) Unless: one wishes to call attention to oneself, by humbly approaching said altar for the pastoral blessing, as a divine “get well” encouragement. For that would require guts, moxie, pluck, daring, cojones, gallantry, fortitude, Courage.

For contrition invariably requires Courage (another of those Cardinal Virtues). Every decent priest in those booths knows this; the heart of every one goes out to help an honest sinner — who has slipped, fallen, on the demonic ice (adapt for latitude), … and must now get up. For that is exactly what Christ did, and Christ would do. He was a gentleman like that.

One’s obligation, as a Catholic, to attend the Mass on days of obligation, does not cease because one is not in a state of grace. But not being in that state, one compounds one’s sin — and very seriously compounds it — by taking Communion. And that is simply how things are, and have been for the last twenty centuries, and will be for however many more.

There are priests, alas — there are innumerable priests — who, in the current sorry state of the Church, will turn a blind eye. The worst of them will try to justify this, by claiming that they are being “merciful,” when what they are showing is the opposite of mercy. For they are helping people to compound their sins — they are doing their bit to ice the slide to Hell for these people. That is not merciful. That is flat-out Evil.

So what is the Church to do about this? The answer suggests itself: uphold the rules, with constantly improving rigour and vigour. Do everything in her power to make the people understand them. And live with the consequences, whatever they may be.

That is what Our Lord did, for our example: what He had to do. And then He accepted the consequences. That is the meaning of the Crucifix one may find still hanging, here and there — “the kind with the little man on it,” as some shop clerk once put it with unwitting genius, in a Catholic supplies store.

It is that very example that has through the centuries, paradoxically enough, attracted millions upon millions to conversion, even while scaring the cowardly away. For our Lord does not turn a blind eye. His “pastoral policy” is to make the blind see.

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Addendum: Revised the above, and removed the previous Addendum, after a gentle reader persuaded me that remarks aimed at certain bishops were, though accurate enough, … underhand, sidelong, and rather spoilt the tone.

Help is on the way

Gaudete! … Gaudete in Domino semper! … Iterum dico, gaudete! …

As a once-Anglican; nay before that, as an unreligioned boy who became utterly entranced by the Bell Anthem of Henry Purcell, I cannot look upon the Latin words in this morning’s Introit without the sung translation pealing forth, in my mind’s ear:

Rejoice in the Lord alway, / and again I say, Rejoice! / Rejoice in the Lord alway! / And again, again, again I say, Rejoice! / The Lord is at hand, the Lord is at hand!

Be careful for nothing, / but in everything / by pray’r and supplication of thanksgiving / let your requests be made known unto God;

And the peace of God which passeth all, all, all understanding / shall keep your hearts and minds / through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord alway! …

All Catholics should know the drill. In the middle of Advent, a season of fasting and sobriety, of abnegation and renunciation, of penitence and preparation — for the Christ-Mass, the Nativity of our Lord — there is this sudden and seemingly unseasonal upswelling, of the Gloria. And the reason is, that we are half way to Bethlehem.

There is nothing more than that to say; but there is so much more to sing. It does not matter that the world is dark around us, and that it can expect only darkness, because it is without Hope. We, for our part, know what is coming; and our Hope is not for what might be, by some obscure intellectual postulation, but for what is, and has been always, and will always be.

And we can know that we are not abandoned: that in the pitch of darkness, cometh He.

Gaudete!

Nay, nay

The world is full of blather. Some days I don’t want to add any more. I suppose the world has always been thus, but the blather wasn’t always copied and amplified. Gutenberg has a lot to answer for; but so do others.

In the New Yorker, or rather its website, I had just read a memoir of the Silicon Valley “CEO talk” that was given to writers and editors of the old American liberal magazine, New Republic. (Two-thirds of whom have quit, with their usual smug gestures.) The speech didn’t actually say anything, as I could judge from the excerpts. If I’d tried to write an old-fashioned précis, I’d be forever staring at a blank page. For it was just blather. Unwittingly, I’m sure, the Boss was “communicating”: that he had no interest whatever in the content side of his proposed new “vertically-integrated digital platform.” (Which means what? Turning the platform on its end?) But as his blather went on and on, his audience would have picked up a few hints. Chiefly, a patronizing insinuation that the way they’d been doing things, the last hundred years, was rather sweet, but must go into the trashcan tomorrow. For tomorrow, everything will be different. Executives like to talk this talk, when the troops are assembled. They are under the curious impression that it is inspiring.

And then, I followed a reader’s link to the Vatican website. There I found some kind of apostolic letter on the consecrated life, which I read with growing bleakness. For it was mind-numbing: page after page of “CEO talk,” in its current ecclesial form. Till I realized I should not be reading: it could only make one want to quit. (I see that the notorious Frenchman, Yves Daoudal, explains what is missing that should be present, and what is present that should be missing, here.) All the monks and nuns in the world were instructed, for example, to “go forth to the existential peripheries.” (If someone heard me say that, he’d know I was suggesting something rude.) Yes, it was all very sweet, that the Church had been praying in that outdated, pre-Vatican II manner, the last twenty centuries. Tomorrow we will all be tossed.

I should like to draught on this occasion some kind of apostolic exhortation, in six words. “Say the black. Do the red.”

Thirteenthing China

My piece over at The Thing today goes back to China (here). I, as others going back perhaps to Matteo Ricci, if not to St Francis Xavier, see a natural fit between the Thomist account of heavenly things, and the Confucian account of things under Heaven. This link was explored and attempted, in the past, by the Jesuits of the China missions. For many explicable reasons, it failed. I am exhilarated to see that it seems to be under exploration again, however timidly and tentatively, now from the Chinese side.

It strikes me that my view of China is analogous to my view of the Catholic Church. I did not join the latter because I was impressed by its current activities. Far from that. Well before joining, and since, I have been under the impression that the Church is in a serious mess — one which may be traced to circumstances clearly preceding Vatican II; and one which can and will be righted only by divine intervention: by Christ. I was instead received, coming up to eleven years ago, with a view of the Church through all twenty centuries, and more fundamentally, in view of her Founder and His promise to sustain her. But let me, for the sake of my point, set that “more fundamentally” aside.

The China for which I have a consistent, very high regard, is the China of more than twenty centuries. This is a civilization whose achievements over time — even without the Revelation, and as it were, only by natural reason — have been extraordinary, and are in some respects greater than any other civilization known to history. China is gutted today; gutted by the worst effects of both the prevailing materialist ideologies, “socialism” and “capitalism.” Her own best traditions were abandoned in seeking false goods. Of course, many of the evils were done to her by vicious external agents; but much more by a destructive envy of foreign wealth and power. (So much of the damage to the Catholic Church has been, in a parallel way, self-administered.)

Yet she is not dead. To my mind (and no other rules this Idleblog), the magnificent positives of the Confucian tradition are still accessible to some men; still comprehensible to them. The possibility of recovery is not quite extinguished. And my sense is that this — not foreign, in the end, but universal — “Thomist” or Catholic account of “the things of Heaven,” is the very stimulant that could raise what is most admirable in that “Confucian” or Chinese tradition out of its apparent grave.

A Catholic Christian China would, in this sense, become more, not less, “Chinese.” Her own Confucian tradition, wise and penetrating the heart of man, would be appreciated more, not less.

The gimcrack gourmand

For reasons any Punjabi would likely understand (and as a child of Lahore I claim some modest appreciation), pork curries are comparatively rare. But up here in the kitchen of the High Doganate, the problem what to do with your leftover fried pork-belly rinds arose last night, and I set about solving it in a characteristically Subcontinental way.

More candidly, I should admit that my approach was somewhat “fusion,” and that the product of my galley labour might be more accurately described as a “White Trash Pork Dal Masala.”

From greater India we get the spices (very cheap), and the patience to let things bubble away at very low heat. From America come ingredients that may be discharged from cans. We (in the sense of, I) drowned the rinds in a tin of Habitant pea soup, then simmered for an hour with whatever came to hand at half-attention: ground cumin, coriander, fenugreek, blackpepper, mustardseed, and turmeric to be sure; and little dollops of garlic and Naga chilli pastes. Oh, and a crushed dried lime leaf or two. All they need is time, to mingle.

That’s it. Serve in an elegant flat bowl, with store-boughten chapati, or better, fresh bread of one’s own manufacture. … (It was delicious.)

True, I cannot hope to compete with Father Zed as a culinary blogger — I am terrified of anything that requires French skills — but I’m struck by how well one can eat in relative penury, here in the Greater Parkdale Area, if one will muck about. I have no sympathy for these poor people, often with feral-looking kids, hanging about the hamburger franchises, when they could do much better at home for much less than half the price. And raise those children with memories of a family dinner table, and civil conversation, after the Angelus, and grace.

A Pennsylvanian correspondent reports that one must have the experience of a supermarket queue, behind a fat lady with food stamps on guvmint “pay day,” to properly appreciate the welfare state. “It cures one of tolerance for the whining of the poor.”

Surely part of our Christendom Restoration Project should consist of catechizing the impecunious on the art of good living, within their permanently limited means. We should also revive the distinction between the deserving and undeserving of our charitable ministrations, on which Saint Paul was clear.

The cosmic duh

There are some things that cannot be verified or falsified. These would include all axioms of logic; even those of post-modern “paraconsistent” logics, wherein the very Law of Non-Contradiction is (implausibly) denied, but which are axiomatic on their own terms. We are out of science and into faith territory when we discuss logic; or the principles of mathematics for that matter. All we can say is that the world makes sense if the axioms are correct; or if they’re not, then the world makes no sense at all and everything we know is illusion, including, “cogito ergo sum.”

From the point of view of “science,” or “human knowledge” more comprehensively, God is not an hypothesis, but an axiom. Start in Aristotle, if you will, to see it demonstrated: that the world makes no sense, has no purchase on sense, without that Unmoved Mover. The “Five Ways” by which the inevitability of God was demonstrated by Thomas Aquinas in my beloved XIIIth century, and the related ways in which this was done by others before and after him, are easily misunderstood, because they are not proofs of an hypothesis but, as it were, recursions to an axiom. They show that nothing makes sense without this axiom: motion or change, causation in itself, being in itself, gradation, direction to an end — none are conceivable except from the uncritically axiomatic Still Point. This cannot be hypothesized. It is too simple for that. It must be taken on faith, like math or logic. You need to assume it in order to get anywhere. And when you pretend you are not assuming it, really you are. For you need it even to contradict it: you need that metaphysical Still Point from which to proceed.

I should think that “post-modern,” or at least, post-existentialist developments in “natural theology” (not the theology of nature, but theology constructed without Revelation, from reason and experience alone) — thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion — are onto something when they say that we wrongly attribute  “causation,” “being,” “ends” and the like, to God. But as Marion and others suspect, they are onto nothing new: just a new way of expressing the same old inexpressibles. That, when we come to it, Christ the Messiah must be accepted as pure and perfect Gift; and that the Holy Spirit brings a peace that is quite beyond understanding.

There is not merely an extreme difference between our being and God’s being. It is instead a case in which, by our standards, God can have no “being” at all. He is prior to being; He is being’s ultimate cause; as, too, the cause of causation, the end beyond ends. These are not relative terms. To my mind, what follows is that God does nothing without angels; or nothing without mediation; or in some mystical sense, nothing at all. He does not in any way need his Creation, which lies necessarily outside Himself. There can be no gradations, between we and He, such as we are small and He is large. All such are only metaphors. Any other position implies pantheism, which is atheism by halves: it affirms immanence only to deny transcendence.

Yet we must affirm transcendence without denying immanence.

We are created in His image. What can this mean but that we are endowed with an irreducible “spark” of the same axiomatically perfect Stillness, from which we proceed, and would proceed inerrantly, were it not for the subverting Adam within us all. But that “spark” remains, and is ineradicable, immortal. (Or one might call it freedom: which is what makes the evil we do so terrible, for it is not involuntary.)

Too, we were made to resemble Christ: the perfect self-giving of this Triune God, prior to all being. The embodiment of Christ is beyond thinking. But so is the embodiment of ourselves. For even to begin thinking of ourselves as being, we must consider ourselves from a standpoint in which we are not, or could never have been — penetrating the counterfactual by means of this “spark,” which makes us unlike any other animal. The situation resembles what they call a “singularity” in physics, but is more fundamental. Through faith, we look beyond being.

Observe, now by Revelation, that God is Love, not being; and that on Love, all being depends. That in persona Christi, walking as He did, in history, upon this earth, we have Love, embodied. That God, beyond all being, brought Himself even into being, and for Love: descending below all His angels, and conceiving Himself in the Virgin’s womb.

For some time I’ve been trying to get my mind around that: about what is axiomatically true, bound to what is true by Revelation, and for that very reason beyond thinking, and beyond that beyond. Or to put this another way, it is the Mystery, in itself impenetrable, but out of which all things come; the Mystery presented in that little disk, given at the Mass, of Christ Incarnate.

This thought is not reducible, nor reductive. Were it so, there would have to be some original being, some primordial but particular egg or atom, to which God could be reduced. The universe might be so reduced, and was, in the hypothesis of Georges Lemaître (the so-called “Big Bang”); but the universe is not God. At one hundred billionth the breadth of a proton, that cosmic egg from which we were hatched would be far too large. Ditto, at one hundred trillionth, and with a whole multiverse tucked inside. We are NOT dealing here with gradation, and the relativists can all go fly.

Or, to bring out paradox in a season of folly: to be an atheist is to believe too much. It involves too much clutter. It is to deny a god who would first have to be created. It is to hypothesize a god, then deny or disprove one’s own hypothesis — missing the point that God is not an hypothesis; indeed, that without God, no hypothesis were possible, for there could be nothing to hypothesize about. Then, in the face of all this, to stipulate Nothing, from beginning to end. As the Psalmist pointed out, only a fool would do that.

____________

Addendum. Yes, yes, in reply to several correspondents, words can just be words; and if “being” is defined as an attribute of God, as an aspect not the whole of אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (“I Am that I Am”), then God might be said “to be.” For He, in Trinity, is not nothing or “nothingness.” I dislike this use of “being” because it is glib, however. My point (as Marion’s) was, that He cannot “be” in any creaturely sense (Christ, “begotten not made”), and therefore some other word is needed, or qualification, to make the distinction abundantly clear, between being and what is prior to being. Indeed: “I Am that I Am” does just this, in the most extraordinary way. St Thomas seems vividly aware of this distinction, carefully constructing sentences around the word to allow the required displacement. But “being” has now acquired the moisture and scent of XXth-century philosophical jargon, via Heidegger, et alii, and I am throwing it back in that context. (From cowardice, I omitted the term “substance”; yet it would have been useful, had I had the heart.)

I am bound to return to this point, let us hope more articulately: because I think it extremely important, and currently quite consequential; because, as it was put by the late Peter Geach: “We dare not be complacent about confused and erroneous thinking about God, in ourselves or in others. If anybody’s thoughts about God are sufficiently confused and erroneous, then he will fail to be thinking about the true and living God at all.”

Pests of this kind

The phrase in my heading is from the Syllabus of Errors, whose 150th anniversary we also celebrated, yesterday. It was published quite intentionally on the tenth anniversary of the Dogmatic Definition of the Immaculate Conception — tacked onto the encyclical, Quanta Cura, itself a magnificent condemnation of the whole, unqualified idea of “freedom of conscience,” and related “human rights,” “pluralism,” “democracy,” and so forth. It was a riposte to anti-clerical governments and movements that had been sweeping Europe. Outwardly, they triumphed, so that today, among the intellectually debilitated, incapable of thinking beyond popular cliché, the other side of the argument is invisible.

Yet the intent and actual arguments of the encyclical were misrepresented, then as now. Example: parents already had civil “rights,” and the idea that education should be secularized might conceivably be among them. If they wanted to found or support secular schools, they could. But this was not what the anti-clericals were doing. Instead they were seizing Church property, including Church schools, and forcibly secularizing them.

The exponents of the “rights of man” have always been totalitarians. As Christ taught, the Devil is not only the father of lies, but was from the beginning a murderer. It is no accident that the great revolutionaries and liberators of history were all dripping in blood: for all have served the Prince of This World, and all have been inhabited by demons.

Pius IX was a liberal, or at least, all Europe was convinced of this at his election in June, 1846: a “moderate liberal” in the political parlance of today. Many cardinals were absent, and the conclave was somewhat rushed, to make him Pope before vetoes could arrive from Milan and Vienna. He was the last Pope to serve as sovereign ruler over the Papal States in central Italy, and one of his first acts in that capacity was to empty the gaols of political prisoners. This was like closing Guantanamo: for there was no gratitude from the other side, and most of the inmates went right back into the field as subversives and terrorists.

Worse was to come. We may hold Pius IX responsible for the introduction of railways to central Italy, and the provision of street-lighting in Rome. He advanced many other “forward-looking” projects and institutional “reforms” in the districts he governed. This could only whet the appetites of the progressives.

Pius IX was also the convenor of Vatican I. (Broken up, as gentle reader may recall, when the jackboots of the Risorgimento marched into Rome, and made the Pope “a prisoner in the Vatican.”) And, the definer of the dogma of “papal infallibility” (which is to say, the Pope who drew its limits).

He was our longest-serving Pope (thirty-something years), which helps to explain why he’d acquired the reputation of a reactionary by the time he died. It is called on-the-job training. But long before the end of his reign, he had appalled many of his initial supporters by proving that he actually was a believing Catholic, with an obsessive regard for the salvation of souls, and no interest in compromising basic Catholic doctrine. He set his neck against the lies — both philosophical and theological — upon which opponents of the Church depended, both intellectually and spiritually. He was a very brave man.

The Syllabus of Errors, among my favourite papal documents of all time, condemns eighty propositions that “nice, liberal people” are inclined to take for granted, and gives directions in the literature to where they are confuted. There is a wonderfully masculine flavour to the thing: there is no shirking from plain fact and plain Latin. The document could perhaps be restated in the language of the present day, to expose a few more of the conceits of post-modern sloganeering; but there is nothing in the list that would need to be abandoned, nor anything essential that was overlooked. For the idiocies which govern the contemporary mind have been with us continuously since the Enlightenment, and were prefigured in the Reformation.

One of the remarks isn’t numbered. Between items 18 and 19 we find a blanket condemnation of “pests of this kind,” referring to socialists, communists, biblical societies, liberal clerical associations, and so forth. It is merely a reminder that there are cockroaches about, or rats spreading plague. The ideas they carry are the same as those enumerated through the rest of the document; but the passage adds a useful warning that they are vectors for these spiritual diseases in their most virulent forms.

Thanks to the triumph of secular education, current critics of the Church and her teachings — in media, academia, the law schools, bureaucracies, and elsewhere — may lack the intelligence of critics in earlier generations. But alas, so do many of her defenders. The revival of Christendom will require the reanimation of the battle of ideas which Pope Pius IX fought, so gallantly.

Sinless Mary

“To create Oneself out of nothing is an impressive accomplishment,” said an atheist friend, who enjoyed especially making fun of Catholics. “But to turn around then and create your own Mother, is flabbergasting.”

Not to my surprise, that man is a Catholic today.

It is the 160th anniversary of the Dogmatic Definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, by Pope Pius IX. And of course, a holy day of obligation, so if you haven’t been to Mass, get there now! … And if you are a United Statist, as many of the readers of this Idleblog seem to be, get there double-quick. Because, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Conceived Without Sin, is the patroness of your country. And was so proclaimed, from Baltimore, even before this dogma was formally proclaimed at Rome.

And was so, even before the proclamation of those United States, for she came north with the Spanish missionaries, and was embraced by the Indians of the Borderlands, singing the Alabado:

Y la limpia Concepcion
De la Reina de los Cielos,
Que quedando Virgen Pura,
Es Madre del Verbo Eterno.

Which makes her, of course, both Spanish, and Indian, as well as United States American; yet even more than that, for she is Queen of Sky and Earth.

Indeed the dogma, that our Virgin Mother was born sinless — free from the sin of Adam, free from original sin — was formally proclaimed long after — centuries upon centuries after — it had already been accepted throughout the Catholic world; and by the Church both East and West. It was not something Pius IX made up on the spur of the moment (as too many Protestants were taught to believe). Read, if gentle reader will, that Pope’s own explanation, in his apostolic constitution, Ineffablis Deus (which may be found here).

Those who do not think the dogma biblical, should go and read the Book of Proverbs, or better still, just go to Mass and have it sung to you. From the eighth chapter, beginning, Dominus possedit me:

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything, from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old, before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. …”

The United States, Canada, England, Australia and so forth — the English-speaking diaspora, “we” — were from our beginnings consecrated to Mary. Throughout Europe, in the later Middle Ages, England was known as the Marian land; and to this day it shows in the names of her parish churches. In the new (since 2011) Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, by which remaining faithful Anglicans may return to communion with Rome, along with their glorious liturgical heritage, this Marian tradition is again affirmed, restored and upheld.

To which I can only add: Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!

Kristin Lavransdatter

There are two translations of Sigrid Undset’s remarkable trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. That by Archer and Scott came out promptly after the Norwegian originals in the early 1920s. Undset had lived in London, spoke English fluently, and knew the translators. She would have been consulted on fine points. I am told by a native Norwegian that the (mildly) archaic English these translators used nicely echoes effects in the sentences of an authoress who was steeped in Old Norse, and intimately familiar with the old sagas.

The other, commissioned by Penguin Books three generations later, is by Tiina Nunnally. I’m sure it is quite accurate, but I put it down. I’d read the older version years ago, but did not return to it from nostalgia; at first the new version seemed a breath of fresh air. But Nunnally’s very “modern” English changed the atmosphere. It obscured nothing — passages touching on physical sex were if anything belaboured and spiced up — but everything seemed wrapped in cellophane. The protagonist Kristin herself becomes more “modern,” too, where in the older version she had struck me as “timeless”; and rather more immediate.

I dwell on this, for in articles and interviews, Nunnally sneered at the old translation, insinuating that it was grinding, stilted, anachronistic, loose, and bowdlerizing. She is herself a creature of “Scandinavian Studies” in current academia, who knows how to alienate readers from a rival text, by telling them they will be alienated.

For as long as I can remember, readers have been trained to associate literary archaism with the stuffy and Victorian. Shielded thus, they may not realize that they are learning to avoid a whole dimension of poetry and play in language. Poets, and all other imaginative writers, have been consciously employing archaisms in English, and I should think all other languages, going back at least to Hesiod and Homer. The King James Version was loaded with archaisms, even for its day; Shakespeare uses them not only evocatively in his Histories, but everywhere for colour, and in juxtaposition with his neologisms to increase the shock.

In fairy tales, this “once upon a time” has always delighted children. Novelists, and especially historical novelists, need archaic means to apprise readers of location, in their passage-making through time. Archaisms may paradoxically subvert anachronism, by constantly yet subtly reminding the reader that he is a long way from home.

Get over this adolescent prejudice against archaism, and an ocean of literary experience opens to you. Among other things, you will learn to distinguish one kind of archaism from another, as one kind of sea from another should be recognized in a yacht.

But more: a particular style of language is among the means by which an accomplished novelist breaks the reader in. There are many other ways: for instance by showering us with proper nouns through the opening pages, to slow us down, and make us work on the family trees, or mentally squint over local geography. I would almost say that the first thirty pages of any good novel will be devoted to shaking off unwanted readers; or if they continue, beating them into shape. We are on a voyage, and the sooner the passengers get their sea legs, the better it will be all round.

*

This is peculiarly so for Sigrid Undset. And the paradox here, in Kristin Lavransdatter, is that we must become fully immersed in the XIVth century — mediaeval daily life in the interior of Norway — to begin recognizing the timelessness of her characters and their situations. She is using the form of the historical novel to an extremely useful purpose: to crack through our “modern” superficiality; to take us out of ourselves in order to look about, in the strangeness of a strange new world, then find ourselves again in the costumes. This is Tolkien, for adults.

Undset was a formidable mediaevalist. Her father was a reputable archaeologist, and both her parents historically learned. From childhood she had heard this peculiar aesthetic call, and succumbed to the true historian’s fascination with what lies under things. In that field and from her eventual home of Bjerkebæk at Lillehammer — living surrounded by the landscape in which Kristin Lavransdatter is set, described with such a crisp poetical exactness — she was entirely on her own turf. Scholars to this day acknowledge her as genuinely expert: there are details in her XIVth-century reconstructions that were speculative, at the time she was writing, but have since borne out. She knew, as it were, where the old, pre-Reformation Norway was buried. For this alone, the trilogy — and the tetralogy that followed it, called The Master of Hestviken — is a pleasurable education.

It is partly because of this expertise that Undset is free of romantic illusions about the Middle Ages. She needed the background “Age of Faith” to depict human passions more sharply, to strip away the clutter and insulations of technologized and urbanized life. But her purpose was hardly escapist. By thirty pages in, we are not only bathed in this exotic environment, but exposed more directly to hard facts of life that tend to be ignored, today, until it is too late. We feel the winter cold and the demands made to survive it; we begin to understand that if the crops fail we will starve. The consequence of every human action is amplified, in the absence of our “safety nets.” The politics which Undset depicts are personalized, not abstracted: men of all classes take counsel of each other, not from lofty principles but out of necessity. The dependency of man on man, of woman on woman, of man on woman, and woman on man, ceases to be any sort of parlour game. We are about as far as we can get from the fatuities and asininities of “human rights.”

The book is about motherhood. (I think this is very well expressed, here.) It is also about everything else that comes into human moral experience — about childhood and fatherhood and priesthood and nunhood, belief and unbelief, marriage and aloneness, love in the kaleidoscope of shapes and angles, the power of eros beyond even lust, sanctity and devilry, work, dreams; and in multiple dimensions about sin and grace. But everything is refracted through the prism of motherhood, and by this a huge background statement is made. More than any other novel I have read, this one slaps me in the face with the Fact of Woman.

It is for this reason that it is never taught at Harvard or elsewhere in the Ivy League, as part of “Women’s Studies” — because Undset absolutely refuses to be shallow. She grew up as a feminist; her own mother had been by 1880 well ahead of the “sisterhood” today. Our authoress had written when quite young various feminist tracts, and short novels meant to be “contemporary” and shocking. In the face of reality, through the First World War, she had grown out of it. And from her own difficult life, full of man problems, and children not only her own, she was in no possible doubt that women are moral agents in the fullest and most absolute truth. Not only most spectacularly in her protagonist, Kristin, or in Kristin’s mother Ragnfrid, or later her daughter-in-law Jofrid, but in the little galaxy of other characters through the passing scenes, the theme of motherhood is revolved. Moreover, not only Kristin in the foreground, but other females in the story are wilful souls; and as we will see, for better and for worse, they will not be shackled. In the relations between the women, Undset tackles issues that even our best woman novelists tend to ignore: because Undset’s women live also through their men, their sons and their daughters, and therefore through time in a way post-family life has forgotten. This does not diminish but enhances their place in the world.

Yet too, this is no book “for women,” no chick-lit of any kind. For I would also say that I have never read a novel in which I could see men so clearly through a searching woman’s eyes; in which, as I hinted above, I felt so judged. The failures of men, and at the most painful, the failure of men to be men, is presented in light that is often excoriating. Indeed, the manner of a woman’s judgement must come as a revelation to men: not only the grown women but the girl children. Through that prism of motherhood, things are seen that men might not want to see, including centrally the scandal of being loved not for our virtues but in spite of our appalling weaknesses. And in this sense, women are stand-ins for God.

Conversely, the nobility of a man — Kristin’s father, Lavrans, in the first instance — is revealed in and out of season, and through all his naiveté and frailties. To me, the conclusion of the first volume, where the good will of the aging Lavrans is breaking down, while all the ground of his trust is shifting beneath him, and there seems nothing left on which he can rely, was a terrible reckoning. There is a moment of weakness, at which he cracks into pettiness over something so minor as the failure to return a cart; and the whole world seems to be lost, along with his heritage and a life’s labour. Then to top it off, in his occluding despair, his wife selects the worst conceivable moment to tell him that when she was young, she had been as false as his daughter. And how does he react? Incredibly, after absorbing this final blow, his first thought is for his poor wife, who has carried this burden so long and so secretly in her soul.

Or rather, not incredibly. It is the extraordinary gift of Undset to make that moment credible. And too, to make it pass as lightning that has illuminated all the landscape, and then, with the storm, passed on. How many novelists can depict sanctity, or the truest of true loves?

It is on this level that Undset operates. Her Kristin is not only wilful but “deeply flawed”; we cannot help identifying with her, nor fail to see objectively what is going, and is bound to go, wrong. She has set her heart on a man who lays waste to everything he touches; she allows herself to be seduced. She sticks by him even when he has proved his irresponsibility and unworthiness, again and again. This lover and eventual husband, Erland, must remind every male reader of what is small and faithless and predictably unreliable in his own soul; yet Undset also comprehends all of his excuses. She makes us see what Kristen sees in him; see even the virtues that correspond to Erland’s vices, for he can be a knight in his recklessness. His love, and their love, is neither casual nor empty. It only raises the stakes in every common endeavour, as they try to raise children in the world. Tragedy will necessarily befall them, but out of this tragedy Kristin’s redemption will be forged.

No: it is better than this. Kristin is no fool. She sees with a frightening feminine clarity precisely what she is getting herself into, and the growth of her contrition likewise follows the turning of this searchlight on her own soul. She sins knowingly, she makes what she inwardly knows is a catastrophic mistake by jilting the good man whom her father chose for her, and who loves as her father loved: selflessly. At seventeen, she is throwing herself away on a man well over thirty with a known, murky past and the earned reputation of a Lothario. She has, in every critical moment, enough “information” not to do what she will do, but does it anyway. In crisis, she does not seek help or absolution. Somehow Undset makes us understand that this is how it must be; that the smartest girl will do the stupidest thing; and it will make a kind of sense as part of something larger.

One might say, “life is like that.” This is a pretty limp cliché that Undset is confirming, but she raises it repeatedly to the visionary level. And in the second volume, where Kristin is now married and mistress of an estate, puzzling in her heart over the vagaries of her boys, who puzzle over her in their boyish understanding, the theme of motherhood deepens and deepens. She is left with very male responsibilities, by her wayward husband — the running of her husband’s estate, an enterprise for which she was never raised or trained, and on which the very survival depends, not only of her growing family but of retainers and families beyond them. And thanks to that feckless husband, that is lost, too.

She is reduced by circumstances again and again to one woman against the world; but she will not be reduced. Through that prism of motherhood, through the extension of family, through the finally mysterious relation of man to all men, soul to all souls, and through every adversity, she is rising. In the end, we may discern that it is a divinely-assisted passage.

*

The book is far from painful to read. As I’ve said, the “archaic” earlier translation will only be in the reader’s face for thirty pages or so, and the discovery that he is now at home in it will come as a pleasant surprise. As in the reading of any fine saga embracing generations, he will soon feel almost part of the family, emotionally invested in its fate.

There is a moment — and O Lord is Sigrid Undset the mistress of moments — when our heroine is “leaving home” for what will be the last time — the home she left by marriage, and to which she had returned as refuge with her children. Those children have grown, and scattered. A dark cloud of plague is descending upon Norway, but this is not so apparent yet. Kristin Lavransdatter is entering old age, but still has her health. She is setting off on pilgrimage to Trondheim — the grand mediaeval cathedral of Niðarós, shrine of Olav and tomb of kings, capital and spiritual seat of pre-Reformation Norway (still standing in its Gothic stone, so near to the Arctic Circle).

On the first leg, she is accompanied by her son, Gaute, now master of the manor and its future, carrying her “wallets” up the rise on his horse. She will not ride, being Kristin. They must part, Gaute in an explosion of tears, for the mother he will never see again; Kristin in mysterious containment. At the height of land, she looks back over the valley that has been her life, spotting in the far distance, her home. As Undset puts it, she is torn back, for one last home-sick glance; but also torn forward, by something very much like a home-sickness for heaven:

“It seemed as if these yearnings burst her heart in sunder — they ran hither and thither like streams of blood, seeking out ways to all places in the wide-stretched land where she had lived, to all the sons she had wandering in the world, to all her dead beneath the moulds.”

The story is not yet over; but I will leave it there. It is more than a thousand pages, and I have not even mentioned beloved Brother Edvin, or so many other characters brought to vivid life. Yes, it is a Catholic novel, though Undset was not yet a Catholic when she wrote it. Yes, it won the Nobel Prize, eighty-six years ago. Yes, there are many other works of Undset’s worth reading, including her extraordinary biography of Catherine of Siena, and many other penetrating essays and stories, should there be world enough and time; but this trilogy is all of a piece.

One might read, I suppose, any sort of novel; but as must have been said before, a truly great novel reads you.

Identity theft

There’s a lovely cartoon somewhere, showing a policeman with a handcuffed Santa Claus, bent over the hood of a car. Saint Nicholas stands near, in full Byzantine episcopal regalia.

“All good, your excellency. I’ve arrested the man who tried to steal your identity.”

The original Saint (Bishop of Myra, within modern Turkey; born about 270 AD, died on the 6th of December, 343) was an exponent of tough love. His vermillion complexion came from beatings in the Roman prisons, under Diocletian’s persecution. His title, “Confessor,” means he kept the faith. He was among the surviving Christians, suddenly sprung under Constantine.

Nicholas was an orphan, but of wealthy parents carried off in a plague. Throughout his life he distributed his inheritance, discreetly, to persons in need. Most famously he learned of a single father, with three daughters and no money for their dowries, thus no prospect of respectable marriages, so that from sheer penury they were in danger of becoming prostitutes. Like a thief in the night, he came to the man’s window, and tossed in a bag of gold coins. (By another account, he dropped the bag down the man’s chimney.)

He gave presents to poor children. He would sneak his coins into the shoes of paupers while they were at prayer. He was very widely revered and adored.

Saint Nicholas (who “evolved” into “Santa Claus,” via his elided Dutch name, “Sinterklaas”) was present at the Council of Nicaea (325), where the Church disowned the Arian heresy. Arius himself was present to defend his rather complex, “simplifying” theological ideas. He was a rationalizer, heir to Gnostic thinkers who acknowledged Christ not as Very God, but as a kind of super-prophet, and who therefore declared the Trinity all bunk. (This would reprise as Islam, three centuries later.)

The doctrine of Arius was more subtle than that. He was trying to square the circle, or cube it, by making Christ the creator of the universe, but God the creator of Christ, thus “God the Father” the only full immortal, from the beginning. The Logos was not a person, Arius insisted, but instead the spirit of reason from this God, by which men could figure out everything for themselves. (This would reprise in the Enlightenment.)

Plus much more intellectual ducking and weaving, unsuitable to an Idlepost. In the Nicene Creed, we recite the formula by which Holy Church disowned not only Arianism, but all versions of Trinity denial, in a way that has now held solid through seventeen centuries.

But at the Council itself, back in the IVth century, a lot was on the line. While Arius was weaving his verbal and speculative tapestry, Saint Nicholas lost his temper. He went over to Arius in person, and decked him.

This was considered behaviour unbecoming in a bishop, and Nicholas found himself back in the slammer. He’d been stripped on the spot of his gospel book, and of his pallium (liturgical vestment), the two marks of his office.

We consult the Byzantine iconography to learn what came next. Notice behind Saint Nicholas the small figures of Christ, carrying the book, and of Mary, carrying the pallium. In the miracle, of which the Emperor Constantine must have been convinced at the time, Christ had come to Saint Nicholas in his cell, to ask him directly why he had behaved in such a violent way.

To which Nicholas had replied: “Because I love you so much.”

At which Our Lord and Our Lady restored to Saint Nicholas the marks of his office.