Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

How to raise children

We need to pay more attention to the neglect of children. They are not being neglected nearly enough, and the consequence is that they grow up neurotic, and asthmatic. Also, foolish. And I’d mention narcissistic, but everyone does.

A model mother of my recent acquaintance boasts of the success of her own neo-mediaeval parenting style. For example, she would not help her children with homework, and left them to the consequences if it was not done. She would not drive them to more than one extra-curricular activity. She was more or less never at their beck and call.

“I was not their best friend or their chauffeur or their social secretary.”

She did teach them to read and write, since the schools don’t do that any more; and was able to inculcate clear thinking in that way. She did take them to church, and made sure that their Catholic faith was exact and articulate, since the priests no longer teach anything. She was reasonably careful to set an example of backwardness, and perfect indifference to passing fads. And she put wine in them from an early age, so they would not grow up to become alcoholics. For total neglect would be excessive.

The children turned out well, and judging from the blog the eldest is keeping (she has three children of her own now), they are proper reactionaries. In the olden time, most children turned out reasonably well — only a few juvenile delinquents, as compared with the overwhelming majority today. And while perhaps not all lived to adulthood, the demographics balanced out, for hardly any were aborted.

In dealing with my own pair of lads, I tried to imitate my father. He was a busy man. When I came to him with an interesting question, he gave all his attention. If I came with a dull one, he could not hear. He never came to me. He had no interest in sports, whatever. (I adored my father.)

My mother needed help in the kitchen, but otherwise I was left to read and roam. If I have a criticism, she was a bit of a soft touch: she could have worked me much harder. (I adored her anyway.)

Of course, I am so old that I was not subjected in childhood to many of the evil temptations of today. There were no computers, only books and periodicals. Pornography was not easily accessible, so I had to make do with D.H. Lawrence. I was not forced to join a club, or play soccer, or any other silly and demeaning games. I was allowed to collect stamps, at my own expense. Today, a child could become addicted to any number of low hobbies. But won’t if you resolutely refuse to buy him anything.

When I decided that I was bored with school, both parents would be happy to write notes. They were quite truthful, along the lines of: “The boy had something better to do last week, and so was absent from classes.” True, I would tell them if I was going out of town (defined as involving a bus journey). But usually I was just hiking within ten miles or so.

Children are naturally curious about their parents, and this is the basis of moral education. They want to know if you are proud or ashamed of their behaviour. Let them know by fairly subtle indications. (Always: make them reach.) And you may not even need to beat them. Help them thus to develop a profound sense of guilt, and low self-esteem.

God made each child the way he is, however, and it is unwise to tamper overmuch. Some, indeed, may benefit from beatings — God having designed them for beating into shape. One must take them case by case. But I can’t imagine how any can benefit from being crowded by their parents.

It is best to have so many children that there is not enough time to coddle, anyway. Children almost invariably turn out better in the larger batches.

One should begin to ignore their whimpering when they are in the crib. I am appalled by what I see all around me: an only child, or sometimes two “only children,” who get their parents’ attention the moment they begin to whine. And if they don’t get what they want, promptly, they sit there pouting, feeling sorry for themselves. When my children whined, I ignored them. If they kept it up, I mocked them, mercilessly. You can’t start early enough, undermining their nasty little egos.

While I am not opposed to corporal punishment, I think psychic punishment is more effective. Humiliate; teach them how to feel shame. Manners need not be taught, for those will be acquired by emulation. Well, a few hints might be dropped at the dinner table.

Do your kids come when dinner is called? They will if they are hungry enough. (It is amazing what children can do, once they discover they have no options.)

Do they go to bed at a reasonable hour? They will if they are sufficiently tired.

For having fed them, you can put them to work. Children are a useful part of any labour force — they are small and can get into the corners adults are too big for. Lots of energy, too. Minimum instruction, maximum responsibility: that’s how children learn to do things. Wait until they’re begging for advice, to advise. And never hesitate to disparage failure — for again, it is important to make them feel badly. Hitting just makes them feel aggrieved.

How proud I was when my elder lad read some newspaper story about an irritating boy in Alberta, who was leading some UN-sponsored campaign against the exploitation of children in the Third World. My boy said that for a school project, he might start a counter-campaign, promoting child labour.

I left him to it.

We learn by doing, and part of childhood should be learning to work. Especially, how to do unpaid work, since all the best work is unpaid.

Clabber

The cow I do not keep on my balconata, up here in the High Doganate, is a thirteenth-century animal. Some of these advanced breed cows they have today can squirt fifteen gallons of milk into your buckets, just after lactation. (Daily.) Half that is more common, however, and even that requires beasts that eat seventy pounds of hay, grain, silage, and so forth, a couple more of “protein supplements,” and drink maybe forty gallons of water. (Daily.) That’s too much to lug upstairs when the elevator isn’t working. A full-grown Holstein can weigh the better part of a tonne, herself, and should she lean against my railing, there could be a terrible accident.

Whereas, your typical high-mediaeval milch cow, which stood less than 45 inches in the whithers, weighed perhaps one-third of your modern monster cow, and would be a more manageable proposition for the apartment dweller. She would be something very like the Dexter, that survived in Ireland as the “poorman’s cow” into the Victorian era — whenupon she was spotted by the entrepreneurs for her remarkable domestic qualities, and bred with a vengeance all over the world.

Your Dexter will yield maybe two gallons a day, maybe more if she is in an expansive mood — but how much milk do you need? She is of a sweeter disposition than a Holstein, produces better milk of a higher butterfat content, and is, quite frankly, an easier calver.

However, one of her several eccentricities may complicate arrangements on an urban balcony: for when the calf is born she will try to hide it. But she is generally docile, and also versatile, doubling as beef for her retirement plan, and meanwhile happy to serve as a beast of burden. Young human mothers with small children will find that a Dexter will not try to kill them. Better yet, they can hitch her to a small wagon to pull the kids about, which frees up the hands while shopping. Awkward getting them on the transit bus, though.

Now that I think of it, keeping a cow might be easier on a homestead than in most modern urban environments. There will also be by-laws to contend with, or an unfriendly super in your apartment building. The liberal busybodies in your neighbourhood are sure to report you, the moment they spot your cow. (You’d think a goat would be easier to conceal, but no, a nanny-goat has climbing abilities, seems to know how to open doors, and in no time she’ll be stopping traffic in the most embarrassing locations.)

Still, up to about the Great War, plenty of cows were kept in the city.

Lord, I hate by-laws.

*

Now, I won’t say a thing against Louis Pasteur. He was a devout Catholic, and meant well in almost everything he did. (I insert “almost” as a precaution.) This is the man who died with a Rosary in his hands, having declared, “The more I know, the more nearly is my faith that of the Breton peasant. Could I but know all I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman.”

Moreover, he is seldom appreciated for his actual discoveries and inventions, as the father of bacteriology, and much else. We say that milk is “pasteurized,” but the truth is that the methods he developed were for beer and wine. And those, too, were properly speaking rediscoveries, for the Chinese, we have since learnt, were using the same methods in the twelfth century to prevent their wines from souring. No: Pasteur’s accomplishments were much more in the “why,” than in the “how” of things, and it is interesting that he attributed all of his innumerable scientific advances to that Breton peasant quality. Which is to say: to a childlike religious Faith, in God and thus in the cosmic order.

The French government offered to put him in charge of vast industrial operations to which he could apply his technical insights. He refused, with something like disgust. He was a scientist, not a man of commerce. He felt insulted by the offer.

He did not think of his discoveries as his own. They were for anyone to use.

*

A great deal could be said against the modern dairy industry, little of it directed at the farmers. My diatribe against, for instance, government regulation of the dairy industry in the Province of Ontario could go on for years. And while I hold no brief for the pathogenic microbes that can proliferate in aging raw milk, nor for their effects (diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, brucellosis, Q-fever and the like), I am not under the naïve impression that the dairy conglomerates introduced what they called “pasteurization” (not to “honour” the man, but to cash in on his reputation) only for the sake of public health.

It was rather to delay milk spoiling, so they could take more time getting it to market, and thus ship it from farther away — making huge syndicates possible to enslave dairy farmers in the interests of Capital. (Do I sound like a Marxist? Pfft!) A bonus, discovered in this work, is that pasteurized, and better, homogenized milk is useless for the housewife souring it to the purpose of making the whole range of traditional creams, butters, and cheeses. Thenceforth she would have to buy these products separately as branded goods off the shelf at the supermarket, for an inflated price from the same large industrial concerns. And soon, she would need a refrigerator.

The diatribe against big guvmint I have omitted would mention all the laws put in place to protect the syndicates against small private enterprise, which extend finally to making it illegal for the owner of a cow to drink the cow’s milk; and quotas to prevent him from producing so much that the price might fall. Indeed, today, not only in Ontario but most other jurisdictions, your government is committed to making you pay at least double for a semi-sterilized product of inferior taste that will not elegantly sour, but putrify. All in the name of progress and democracy.

In the name of regress and monarchy, let me point out that the health dangers in raw milk can be mostly obviated by keeping the source of your milk fresh and close at hand. And all you need for that, is a cow.

*

“Clabber” is the word I remember from my grandparents for what you did with much of the milk that came from your household cow. It is what was done wherever lactose-tolerant people lived on the planet, until the day before yesterday in historical time. With nothing more than the benign bacteria already in the milk, it could be left under recognized conditions of warmth and humidity to curdle into the thick, beautiful clabber that tastes something like (extremely high-end) yoghurt today. This could in turn be eaten as a glorious food in itself, used as leavener in baking, and … well, we’ll leave cheese-making to another day.

But practically speaking, you will need not only a cow, but discreet indifference to the dairy regulations. Which is why I haven’t installed a modestly-sized thirteenth-century milch cow on the balconata of the High Doganate. But might if I thought I could get away with it.

The roundest wheel

I mention cars so much because they occupy so much of my brain, such as it is. And this, although I do not own one, hardly ever ride, and would rather shut them out. (I still limp, slightly, from one of them that bumped me while I was road-crossing on a green light, ten years ago.) I am living in Car World, 2015; and if, as more than one gentle reader has suggested, I were to remove myself to the country, I would need a car. For it is now almost a century since the public transport systems of this continent — which could move one from almost anywhere to almost anywhere, urban or rural, with a short walk at each end — began to evaporate. Thanks to cars.

A reader who was once an engineer writes of a winter evening on the Long Island soi-disant “Expressway”:

“I was on a slight rise, looking at probably 20,000 pairs of headlights and taillights. Idly I added up the horsepower coasting at walking speed in both directions: roughly 2.4 million horsepower, just in my field of vision. Here then is one aspect of the tech-liberal paradox. The more autonomous we become, the more we are squeezed into a collective.

“The old alternative would have been the Long Island Railroad. But in the days of communal cars, before the great social atomization, people had to respect each other and dress in a reasonable fashion. Now a trip on a public conveyance is an iffy and edgy undertaking. Tattooed gangbangers and their legions of wannabes, the desperately sexualized, the purple-haired life-stylists (in goosestep with the other alternative life-stylists), the mutilated, the slovenly, the unbathed, the abusers of substance, the trans-gressives, the ear-budded. …”

He enumerates the maladaptive. Sometimes I think the adaptable are worse.

In Toronto, I’ve noticed that even in their absence, cars build our world. A “renaissance in downtown living” has pushed house prices, even for a dive, towards one million dollars; and skyscraper condominium apartments (“condoms” as I call them) have sprouted in glassy jungles around all the major rapid transit points. The same thing is happening out there in the satellite towns: the “sleeper suburbs” now going vertical.

This is not pressure of population, for Canada is fairly large. It is a concentration of population, now trying to avoid the rush-hours by piling into commuter trains. The density in a few blocks downtown approaches Hong Kong levels, and yet, … walk through at most times of day and there is little crowding on the sidewalks. Only the roads full, from the compression of cars, one human in each, trying to reach the ramps of the “expressways.”

For there is no community. The public spaces are sterile, the surfaces all designer-paved, and elaborate by-laws prevent anything human from growing in the cracks. Restaurants outnumber groceries; each is a fake, in menu and decor; the groceries flog ready-made microwave meals. The people themselves are permanently “in transit,” many throughout their lives, on a journey that is the opposite of a pilgrimage. They have allowed themselves to become almost pure economic factors, with a job and a place to sleep, plus free time for demeaning entertainments. It is an environment in which there are more dogs than children — especially those small, yappy, and spoilt, on which the females ladle their maternal instincts. (On one recent walk I counted specialized retail outlets: eight for pets, and two for children.)

More fundamentally, Christ is not welcome there. It is hard, anyway, to see Him in the city glare; just as it is hard to see the stars. But the flip side of social atomization is the extraordinary peer pressure it brings to bear. The place is religion-free, as it is germ-free. Look from the window of the rush-hour train over any new patch of sprawling suburb, with thousands of balloon-frame, ticky-tack houses, and you will see not one church spire; only the occasional minaret. For the white people (often my least favoured race) to acknowledge Christ would be to lose one’s defensive anonymity. It would be to acquire some personhood, of the most inconvenient kind. It would put one in a church, surrounded by the weird, united in a mysterious “body.” It would take one out of oneself. It might expose one to germs.

Cars: one of my happiest memories was of a Saturday morning, decades ago, riding down Oxfordshire country lanes in a little, rusting one, packed with six people. I was thrown in with a family of amateur musicians, and they were all singing — in baroque counterpoint, too.

People today want solutions to their problems, and I think this is the first step.

The longest spoon

Let me extend yesterday’s effusion; for judging from th’email, my point was incomprehensible. And this was not quite my intention. Let me restate the argument in a slightly different way, thus providing a stereo effect.

The point was not about cars, but made through cars. They are a physical nuisance, to be sure; a source of noise, distraction, and invasive ugliness in our material landscape. Imagine men chained to big metal boxes, and one begins to descry the reality. They are a means of “access” which, to be McLuhan about this, change everything they touch. Our cities are now built for cars; the most remote shrines can also be turned into car lots. And in the example with which I began, so ancient and human a thing as a serious conversation, while walking, must be sacrificed to awareness of them.

Driverless cars are the coming “game changer.” The full implications will not be thought through. For instance, most moving cars have only one passenger, who is also the driver. This creates urban sprawl, and rush-hour phenomena that are horrendous. But with driverless cars we will now have many more in motion, without even one person aboard — summoned to fetch a person or a thing from a distance. We will also have increasingly sophisticated drones and so, the effect of cars in three dimensions instead of two.

Cars are an instrument of control. This is brought home by the transition from drivered to driverless. The hands-on “freedom” associated with hopping in a car, and driving off wherever (itself purchased at the cost of more basic freedoms), will now have to go; for drivered and driverless cars don’t mix. Clearing the former off the public roadways will require legislation, that will be negotiated between the large commercial interests and government departments. “The people” need not be consulted; they’ll adapt.

Note that our whole way of life was already out of our hands, and now becomes more so; that our dependence on the benignity of the masters of technology has dimensionally increased. And that, as with the Internet, every movement, every keyboard stroke, becomes susceptible to computer tracking and recording.

Forget “privacy” — we are talking about Control.

By these masters I hardly mean the inventors. Those are harmless dreamer types, unless like a Tom Edison or a Bill Gates they have the drive to become rich and powerful. The myth of capitalism is in the “get rich,” an innocent enough ambition. But that is a fuel, not the machine. You don’t get rich by inventing something; more people get poor that way. You get rich by controlling the invention.

The sort of person who gets rich, in the “real world” as presently constituted, will be ruthlessly focused not on “creativity,” as the promoters of capitalism tell us, but on the opposite act of appropriation; on the “corporate takeover,” in its many overt and subtle forms, starting with the takeover of the corporation by oneself. The person who wants to become a “success” must live for that: be every hour alert to the possibilities, and constantly manipulating to his ends.

It is a game of nerves, which usually begins with a confidence trick, and continues with forms of leveraged finance that closely resemble kiting. The successful entrepreneur has the face to borrow and apply large amounts of other people’s money, to a project that may or may not earn them a return. (Usually not; but then he tries again.) The “trust” of investors and lenders is in his very cockiness. His “idea” might well be cracked; it certainly need not be original. But he has the “charisma,” the “fire in his belly,” the willingness to do “whatever it takes.”

Similarly, in politics, power is to the ruthless and cocky; the “take charge” types who say, “follow me.” It has little to do with where they are going. Indeed, the very destination is adaptable: a pragmatic assessment of what the “follower” types can be persuaded to buy. In this sense, capitalism and socialism are interchangable: both founded on the will of men, emancipated from humility and deference; and both in their nature revolutionary.

At the top of our contemporary “mixed economy” is that nexus of commerce and government. They are bureaucracies on both sides, the one usually more efficient than the other, because more responsive to accounting conventions, but that’s beside the point.

They interface. The deals are struck, through the lobbying process, very little of which involves controversy. Market territories are negotiated: Who gets control of what? It is hardball, but the players can benefit by remaining sane. It is not usually in their interest to destroy or impoverish one another — so long as everyone continues to play by the (constantly “evolving”) rules. We call this, “enlightened self-interest.”

High tech is not about whiz-bang gizmos; that is just advertisement, for show. It is instead about granting and withdrawing access; about controlling the machinery to which the great mass of society are connected, through things like those metal boxes. At one remove, it is about controlling lives. The captains of industry and the captains of government are alike the human, ego-driven creatures who get their satisfaction from being in control.

They are not in it for money alone, but for the broader power: the satisfaction of “making things happen.” A shopping mall or skyscraper can come into being at their command; so can a huge new wing of a hospital, or a mandatory pension plan. Too, we have the phenomenon of “total war” — a continuation of this “total peace” by other means.

Here we are far beyond cars, but still in our earthly terrain. We have a machinery tremendously complex, that makes comprehensive management seem necessary, creating the argument to perpetuate itself, along with the lure: for the prizes of wealth, power, and fame are made extremely visible. Yet freedom always lay in the simple.

Too, we have a system that is vulnerable to catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale, for everyone depends on the machine working. Yet real security always lay in personal independence — of a kind for which modern management has no time. No time at all: for little people getting in the way.

With material arrogance comes moral arrogance. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Donald Trump was revealed in a remark that he “doesn’t ask God for forgiveness.” Trump is unusually candid; such things are seldom baldly said. Yet that is the attitude of most men today, not only those of wealth and power. They “believe in God,” but “don’t ask forgiveness.” In other words, they don’t believe in God; or they would be down on their knees.

I am neither prognostick, nor prophet. In mentioning, yesterday, that “Carrington Event” — an inevitable, recurring fact of nature — I was pointing to the ease with which the whole machine could be smited. In a moment our worldly masters would be disarmed of their means of control, leaving only their legacy: a population of abject dependants, unable to feed themselves.

My worldly hope is not extravagant. I do not think I am in a position to “warn” anybody, let alone assemble a “back to the earth” Crusade; only in a position to help each gentle reader rethink his relationship with the worldly powers.

For they are tin men. Their works are not beautiful, and their technology is not impressive. They control us only so far as we agree to be controlled. So many are, knowingly or unknowingly, agents of the Prince of This World, who must not be served, but rather avoided; or when we are trapped, directly resisted. One might almost say that, “living simply is the best revenge.”

The highest tech

Some years ago, as we prepared to cross something called Maple Avenue in a small Ontario town, John Sommer and I were nearly run over by an ebullient young driver. We were too deep in conversation to notice the muscle car gunning down (quiet, residential) Charles Street behind us; it swerved with a tremendous screech of rubber onto Maple about two feet ahead of our toes.

John, watching the car recede, said, “Beautiful things, some of these cars. Too bad they will not be with us much longer.”

Neither of us has ever operated one, though I had the privilege of paying for a couple in my days as a bourgeois paterfamilias. John, a remarkable man from Germany who founded the late (and lamented) Gallery House Sol in Georgetown, Ontario — of which more, perhaps, some day — is old now. All his life, like me, he has preferred to walk, or if the distance is great and the need urgent, take some public conveyance. (And there were coaches and ships two centuries ago.)

I suppose the best thing that could be said for cars, is that they are totally unnecessary. But not useless, I fear. Some, as John noted, are rather attractive feats of engineering and styling; and I can see the fun in racing them. In a sane and stable society, they would of course be banned.

As to the proposition they will be not long with us, two practical observations. The first is pedestrian, indeed.

From what I understand, “driverless” cars, trucks, and buses will replace the drivered kind in the near future: much sooner than we realize. (“Ten years,” a self-styled expert told me.) Truck and taxi drivers will all be out of work. Those who actually enjoy driving will find that the practice is now illegal, and their old roadsters will be legislated into extinction. A large part of the population will not know what hit them, but there will be no vote, any more than there was when motor vehicles first came into the world. The new laws will be worked out between the large commercial interests and government departments, and “the people” duly taxed to pay for vast new infrastructure. Those opposed will be laughed off as “Luddites.”

This is the way business is normally done in a modern, progressive democracy. Some may organize, and if their numbers merit, they will be bought off. If their numbers don’t, they can be imprisoned.

But there is a second proposition, to which the first merely contributes. All motorized vehicles will now be vulnerable to a universal computer crash, which will come with the inevitability of the subduction earthquake that will sooner or later level Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and, by extension through known, charted faults, SF and LA. But that will be a local story, compared to the next “Carrington Event” — a reminder of which I was pleased to see flagged on the Drudge Report this week.

The last one happened in 1859. The Earth was hit by a cloud of magnetized plasma from a “coronal mass ejection” — something that our Sun often does. Most fly off in other directions; the last that barely missed us was in July, 2012. (You can tell it missed from the fact that the Internet still exists.) The last bullseye on our beloved planet was named after the brilliant English amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington (1826–75), who, in the course of figuring out what happened, demonstrated the existence of “solar flares.”

He was trying to explain why telegraph operators all over the world, on the 1st of September, 1859, were suddenly getting electric shocks; and then, prior to the whole cable system going down, why some had been able to send and receive messages even after disconnecting their power. Too, why auroras had lit up the night sky at temperate latitudes so bright people could read newspapers by it; or why those at higher elevations near the equator could enjoy the aurora borealis and the aurora australis — simultaneously.

Now, the world a sesquicentury ago was not so dependent upon electricity as it is today. And the system of telegraphy was so ridiculously simple, that it was soon repaired. I daresay Morse Code is worth learning in preparation for the next Carrington Event — which, when it comes, we will be able to predict, at best, a few hours in advance. (Other cosmic events might impinge on our lifestyles meanwhile, but I like to consider my apocalypses one at a time.)

Gentle reader may do a mental inventory of the gizmos in his environment that are connected directly or indirectly to the power grid. Then add in anything that contains a computer chip, whether it happened to be “on” or “off” when the Earth’s magnetic field was impacted. For I assume it will all turn “on” of its own, for a brief but memorable interval.

The “beauty” (as they say in Cape Breton) is that we have no back-up system, and moreover, there can be no back-up, except what we can rig from horse, or paddle. For we have made ourselves totally dependent upon sparks.

On the plus side, the environmentalists may exult, because the quick reduction of the world’s population to post-Plague mediaeval levels could prove a lucky break for the other endangered species.

It will, even more happily, improve national security for the survivors in USA. For the same magnetic storm that makes the cities (and towns) of America uninhabitable will also have disabled the military capacities of Russia, China, and Iran. If they want to come at us they will have to do so in sailing ships. Moreover, the depopulation of Mexico will probably reduce the invasion threat from there, whether or not Donald Trump is President.

But most visibly, the congestion problem will be solved, from all these cars. For even if we have the chance to enjoy a Carrington Event before the changeover to “driverless,” I should think only those motor vehicles made before about 1970 will ever again start. And then, only after chance stores of petrol have been carefully ladled into their tanks; and for as long as their spark plugs hold out. (Unless, of course, they’ve been fritzed, too.)

Perhaps this effusion was not really about cars. Perhaps it was instead about the arrogance of post-modern man, who turns to technology, where more sensible people would build with stone and, rather than to Progress, direct their more important petitions to God.

Sister lived long enough

Today, within the Mass of the Ages, we commemorate Jane Francis Fremiot de Chantal (Saint, 1572–1641), whose husband died on her when she was twenty-eight. It was a hunting accident: the Baron of Chantal failed to duck when some clutz aimed an arquebus in his general direction. This left Jane, who had already lost a mother, stepmother, a couple of kids, and sundry other close family and friends, all “out of season” — and was rather attached to her late husband — to cope with a large but vexing estate, and four kids half-orphaned as she had been. Over the next decade she acquired a big reputation for her management skills, and as a home educator.

She also met Father (later Saint) Francis de Sales, visiting Dijon from Geneva, in the course of his remarkably successful campaign to retrieve (innumerable) Calvinist schismatics for Holy Church. In fact, as readers of the spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, already know perfectly well, he became her spiritual director.

Jane just wanted to become a nun, but Francis persuaded her to put off that decision. The vow of chastity she had already made; it is clear from everything about her that she was an extraordinary character. Also, incidentally, extremely beautiful, and given the wealth, I can imagine one of her vexations was importunate men.

“Whatever,” as the post-modern saying goes. Jane used the decade well, to raise and settle her children, and put all her worldly affairs in good order. And then her Separation from that world finally came through: she took religious orders. Under Saint Francis’ “gentle but firm” direction, she founded, indeed, what would become a new Order, at Annecy in the Rhône Alps — the first house of what by her death had blossomed into many convents for her Visitation Sisters.

God, I am sometimes given to observe, gives not only spiritual but rather worldly talents to his children for a purpose. Saint Jane Chantal had a very practical genius for organizing things, that she applied to a kind of “human gardening.” A “green thumb” for that, if the simile is not too coarse. This necessarily requires a more than natural humility — “poor in spirit” in the phrase of Our Lord — and a capacity to listen to the inward beat of the human, thinking heart, for the rhythms of the Sacred Heart. While forgetting not one detail of the schedule and accounts.

Jane is buried at Annecy, near her spiritual director. The two of them were a pair such as the Catholic Church has discovered on other occasions, to do her work through both sexes. One thinks of John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila; of Francis, but also Clare of Assisi. Too, one thinks of Jesus of Nazareth, and also of his Mother, Mary. “Male and female, created He them.”

Saint Jane Chantal lived long enough to accomplish amazing things: to found those Visitation Sisters on the hard rock of Faith. To this day they are performing favours which the world can never appreciate, not least those of intercession, between errant man and his Maker, both this and the other side of the boundary between our country, and the Far Countrie.

There is for instance their monastery of Mont Deux Coeurs, in Tyringham, Massachusetts — one of a couple dozen convents of these cloistered, contemplative nuns, hidden beneath the life of North America, and a couple hundred scattered around the world, “to give to God daughters of prayer, and souls so interior that they may be found worthy to serve His infinite Majesty and to adore Him in spirit and in truth.”

Sister Anne-Marguerite was — verily, is — one of these nuns; the former Sally Anne Potchen, of Philadelphia. I never met her or knew anything about her, until a reader of this website drew my attention, yesterday, to her recent death from cancer, at age only fifty. She was quite widely known, however, and very much admired, in a world that flourishes “under the skin” of what we have mistaken for the real one. Many, many souls indebted to her, for act and example; many saved through her.

And many would think that she died too young; that the world needed her more than it needs some others; so why would God take her away?

My correspondent has forwarded the letter of thanks that went out on behalf of the Sisters at Tyringham, and of Sister Anne-Marguerite’s own parents and family, in response to many gifts and inquiries. It assures all that, “She loved us in this world; she will not forget us now that she is in Eternity.”

It also replies to those who, like most of us, glibly and without thinking, regret that so fine a lady died so young, and painfully. Who imply, without thinking, that perhaps God made some mistake.

Let me excerpt from this letter, below:

*

“Sister was here just long enough for all of us to ‘get used to the idea’ and come to terms with illness, and then just long enough for most of us to come to the greater understanding that she would be leaving us soon.

“Sister lived through her health crisis exactly long enough to provide a Godly example of what it means to suffer in the truest meaning of the word.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to reach and touch the hearts of a number of folks who might have never known her, had she not been ill and her story not shared with countless others.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to release numerous souls from the pains of Purgatory each time she ‘offered up’ her suffering for their intentions.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to enkindle even greater compassion among caregivers, long enough to enkindle deeper relationships with the Lord in prayer, long enough for an increase in Faith among those who might have felt crestfallen, long enough to nurture a belief in a merciful and loving God, long enough to bear witness to the Truth, and long enough for many more to hear or recall Sister’s beautiful voice, see her beautiful smile, or admire her great beauty that radiated from the inside, out.

“Sister lived long enough for her parents and loved ones to fondly and indelibly remember tender and other memorable moments of Sister’s short but very full life, including her positive response to God’s call for her religious vocation.

“Sister lived exactly long enough according to God’s will but admittedly, the timing of her death may have fallen short of our own private expectations. Any measurable sense of loss may have more to do with the dashing of personal hopes or the erroneous belief that if anyone is ‘entitled’ to live a good and healthy, long life — surely if anyone has the ‘right’ to live — it must be someone like Sister who has so much potential to do even greater good here on earth.

“Sister lived exactly long enough for some to embrace the profound realization that God’s schedule/timetable doesn’t always align with ours; that life is a precious gift; that God is still the ultimate decision maker when it comes to matters of life and death; that God always knows what is in our best interests, even when we try to persuade Him to see things ‘our way’.

“Sister lived exactly long enough for some to realize that when we try to hold on too tightly out of our own selfish desires, we risk even greater hurt or greater pain.  God Our Father, knows that, of course, and gives us comfort and encouragement through the words of Jesus who said, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light’.”

Pigeon digest

There are days (today would be an example) when I file these modest Idleposts late, usually because I had something else to write, teach, or otherwise deal with, earlier in the day. By noon, I have lost confidence in anything I could say, on any topic, and so fall into “Schopenhauer mode.” That is to say, whatever topic I propose to myself, the only thought that comes to mind is along the lines of, “Whoo-hoo-whoo.”

By Schopenhauer, incidentally, I refer not to the author of the Parerga and Paralipomena, but to a pigeon who has been following me about. He is a darkie: deep indigo entirely, even across the tail bar and to the tips of his feathers — the classic “Andalusian chicken.”

I cannot be mistaken about his identity; I have seen no other like him around here, even among the crowd attending Parkdale Collegiate. I have wondered if he might be an escaped breed bird, who prefers human to avian company. But I don’t think there are any pigeon fanciers, in Parkdale.

Distinctly a loner. Or perhaps he is in bad odour with the rest of his flock; possibly because they find his aphorisms insalubrious: febrile and ungodly. Or maybe they are racists.

While I’m no expert in pigeon sexing, the one rather commonplace city pigeon who sometimes joins Schopenhauer on my railing is obviously a young hen. Willena, I have called her: “Willena Zumleben.” A sad case. She seems quite infatuated with Schopenhauer. He doesn’t care. The more he ignores her, the more she pines. And the more reckless she becomes, lifting her tailfeathers to get his attention. In disgust, he looks away.

I have pled her case: “A nice girl, Schopenhauer. She could make you happy.”

He only wobbles his head.

Why, gentle reader must wonder, has he attached himself to me? I have shoo’d him off repeatedly; he keeps returning. I have contrived to feed my finches in a pigeon-unfriendly way. The rest of the tribe have taken the message; but Schopenhauer will not be discouraged. I have even waved a broom at him.

But it isn’t food he wants. No, it is conversation. He considers me to be his intellectual equal. I’d swear he is manoeuvring to land on my shoulder, to get a closer look at my brain.

So what can I do?

We talk about books. For the most part, I talk and he listens. He seems especially interested in my views on “the art of not reading.” They are Schopenheuristic. Life is short, and a precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones, I explain.

With age and wisdom one finds more and more things not to read, including Schopenhauer (the author). I flattered Schopenhauer (the pigeon) by observing, that in the wisdom of his age he has achieved a kind of perfection. For he reads nothing at all.

His only comment on this was: “Whoo-hoo-whoo.”

A Trifluvian philosopher

There was a man named Alexis Klimov, who lived in Trois-Rivières. He was of Russian ancestry, but Belgian birth, if memory serves. More importantly, he was a contributor to my Idler magazine, in its heyday of the mid-to-late ‘eighties, when it appeared that pre-industrial, mystic Toryism was going to work out. (By Christmas of 1993 we were “liquidated,” as the accountants say.) I liked this man very much, even though he was not a conventional Christian. But then, I was an Anglican myself, at the time. Still, more Thomist than Klimov; more Aristotelian; and less Existential.

His first essay, within the old Idler (April 1985), was entitled, “In Praise of the Useless Man.” It had been self-inspired by the confusion he created when, in an effort to honour the Serbo-Canadien mathematician and storyteller, Négovan Rajic (also an Idler contributor), he had called him — publicly — a useless man; a truly superfluous man; a man who is, in some cosmic sense, unemployed and relentlessly unemployable.

Rajic himself was abashed by such high praise; but others in the audience did not understand it. Thus it fell to Klimov, in the tradition of the half-mad, prophetic Russian thinkers, to explain. The terms come, I believe, from Vasily Rozanov (1856–1919), who died of starvation in a monastery soon after the Bolshevik Revolution.

“Will it be Shakespeare, or a pair of boots?” as Klimov echoed.

His essay for us (a whole book in French) surveyed the history of uselessness in modern man, and in particular the eschatological nature of this uselessness, from Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus to the clairvoyant dwarf in Fellini’s Juliette of the Spirits. It ended with a noble cry for pointless activity, even in academia.

I mention him now because I learnt, by old-fashioned hand-writ snailmail letter over tea this morning, that Alexis died in 2006, age short of seventy.

“What a useless thing to do!” was my first thought.

The second was to recall his use of the adjective, “Trifluvian,” which he made into a bilingual portmanteau on “tri-fluvial,” and on “trifle” or “trivial,” in honour of both his residence in exile, and his ideological stance. He referred to himself as, “a Trifluvian philosopher.”

The third was to cross myself and pray for the repose of his soul: one of us moderns, or post-moderns, trying to find some sense in this world that is directed to purposes above “efficiency” and “planning.” Or rather, does not look only above, but around and through, under, and behind, these irritant obstructions, to purposes that are not purposes like those purposes.

This had, when I was last following, taken Klimov back through Berdyaev and Dostoyevsky to his Orthodox roots; though I lost track of him. I pray he ended not only uselessly, but well.

And in commemoration I have brewed a fresh pot of smoky Lapsang Souchong: in a small clay pot, for multiple infusions; made of Yixing purple clay, and warm like a little being. Perched squatly on my plank bench, like a soulful silent bird.

*

Tea, I would tell the Klimov called before me — in a rather pagan, whisp-bearded, and squint-eyed sort of Way (recalling that of Taoist sages) — is non-efficacious. For the fact appeals to me, that the proteins and carbohydrates in tea leaves are not water-soluble. It is useless, thus, for nutritional purposes: a scientist would be lucky to find one calorie in the whole cup. The vitamins are also destroyed by the boiling. Anything of dietary value can come only from the adulterants some people put in.

On the other hand, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other chemically-detectable substances in the drink, including a wee galaxy of amino acids.

It thus falls in that category to which Christ alludes, in His recollection of the Prophets: “Not by bread alone.” … Or, inside the outside, in that category which is outside the inside of the outside, as it were.

Not by bread alone; but by every word, by every “useless” word, that proceeds from the Father.

Here, it seems to say, at the head of the chapter on the chemical components:

“The act of drinking Tea must be appreciated for its own sake, without seeking any other justification, for only thus can the tea-drinker taste the sunlight, the wind, and the clouds.”

Know-nothingism today

Everywhere I turn I see that an election is happening. But I can’t think of a way to stop it. … Aheu!

I gather that the term “low information voter” originated in Democratic Party circles in the USA, about one-quarter of a century ago. They applied it to members of the underclass who had voted Republican, possibly by mistake. But the term deserved a broader application, and by now it is used by all sides, and all sorts, including the poorly informed.

There is a long, international tradition of choosing bigotry and stupor, in a conscious and enthusiastic way. People are funny like that: the more you tell them they are ignorant and crass, the prouder they become of their opinions. It has been suggested that my own casual and frequent references to the “idiotization” of the general public are unlikely to charm them. I fully agree. Flattering them would be morally wrong.

One thinks of the Know Nothing Party, that flourished south of the border during the 1850s. This lot of “Nativists” took such pleasure in persecuting Catholics and (arguably legal) immigrants — the Irish and the Germans especially — they almost forgot to pick on the Negroes. In fact, they were neutral on slavery. They didn’t think it was terribly important. The important thing was to get rid of the Catholics.

The party did not get its name for stupidity, per se. Rather it began as community-organized secret cells. They were ancestors to the (rabidly anti-Catholic) Ku Klux Klan. Members were instructed to say that they knew nothing, should anyone ask about their secret activities. Hence, “Know Nothings” is what they were called, behind their backs — until they came to wear this title, proudly.

It is interesting to trace their political successes. Demographic research has shown that they appealed to a constituency that was above the average, in income and formal education. (I find this remains true of the real idiots, today.)

They did well, at first, among the Southern Whigs, and then swept polls in Pennsylvania and New England. They missed out on Congress, but for a time were carrying one state house after another — with campaigns much enlivened by church-burnings, lynchings of priests, attacks on Irish neighbourhoods, &c.

With power — in Massachusetts, for example, where they won almost every seat — they passed the sort of legislation we would hail today as “liberal,” “progressive,” and “ahead of its time”: a blueprint for the twentieth-century Nanny State. All women’s rights, market regulation, prohibitions on this and that, welfare measures, and wild overspending.

They were not in power for long. Yet it wasn’t the violence that hurt them. Rather, I believe, it was the Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1857. It split the Know Nothings into warring camps, with all the prim opponents of slavery going over to the Republican Party, leaving the rank-and-file in the care of the complete dunderheads, who quickly found themselves pro-slavery in the North, and pro-Union in the South. It is one of history’s little paradoxes that Democrats a century later would verbally tar Republicans with the Know Nothing ancestry — for they were the worst of the know-nothing bigots, who laid down the later Democratic base.

The amusement currently is to see Democrat flunkeys, such as Cardinal Dolan of New York, spreading the word that Donald Trump is a latter-day Nativist and thus — by a process of his hocus-pocus reasoning — a potentially virulent anti-Catholic. (See his recent column in the New York Daily News, here.) His Eminence, who has little to say on Planned Parenthood (for instance), is of course drawing on a long tradition of Party sleaze, in making his insinuations. Democrats have been trying to pin this tail on prominent Republicans for decades. But it came off the back end of their own donkey.

It is true that Trump (whom I despise) appeals to “low information voters.” So do all the other candidates, of both parties. So do all the politicians up here in the Far North. Because “low information voters” is what we have, in an overwhelming majority. The politicians rehearse statements every day that could not possibly survive a moment of intelligent scrutiny. They know they are not going to get any.

But what disturbs me about Boy Trudeau, say, or Marxo Mulcair, is that they may actually believe what they are saying. This would place them more than half-way to insane.

At least, with Harper (the scumbag currently in power), one has a reasonable assurance that he knows better; that he is fecklessly telling people the kind of nonsense they want to hear. Or in a word, lying. Also, buying people off with their own money in a corrupt and utterly cynical way.

(I sure hope he wins.)

Instructions to the housewife

A book has fallen into my hands from the flea market, that happily expresses an important aspect of my ideological position — which, to review, consists of three planks: 1. Catholicism. 2. Birdsong. And, 3. Good tea. It is a reprint of The Farmer’s Wife, or The Complete Country Housewife, published originally in the 1770s by Alexander Hogg, in Pater-noster Row, London. My copy was however lithographically reprinted, very nicely on laid paper at The Job Shop in Woods Hole, at the command of the publisher, Messrs Longship Press, of Crooked Lane, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, in anno 1976. … (Let no one accuse me of bibliographical vagueness.)

The little volume (of 128 pages) delivers what it promises in successive chapters to the young lady, of almost any rank, settling on a farm. It expounds her duties. It provides, that is to say:

“Full and ample Directions for Breeding and Management of Turkies, Fowls, Geese, Ducks, Pigeons, &c. … Instructions for fattening Hogs, pickling of Pork, and curing of Bacon. … How to make Sausages, Hogs-Puddings, &c. … Full Instructions for making Wines from various Kinds of English Fruits (as Cyder, Perry, Mead, Mum, Cherry-Brandy, &c). … Directions respecting the Dairy, containing the best Way of making Butter, and likewise Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Stilton, Sage, and Cream Cheese. … How to pickle common English Fruits and Vegetables. … Full Instructions how to brew Beer and Ale. … Ample Directions respecting the Management of Bees, with an Account of the Use of Honey. … To which is added the Art of Breeding and Managing Song Birds. … Likewise a Variety of Receipts in Cookery. And other Particulars,” &c.

Gentle reader must forgive me for having condensed this sub-title, to give the quickest possible overview of the contents. The book itself omits mention of other tasks, which even the town girl would know how to do (bread-making comes to mind); being meant, I think, partly as a “back to the land” exposition. Nor, of course, does it touch on the range of her husband’s duties on the farm, which would be more arduous.

Such was the advance of “technology,” in previous centuries, that the book might equally describe English farm life in my preferred thirteenth century; for all these tasks were performed by the women then, and in much the same way. It stands as an evocation of the last moments before the Great Disruption — for those last moments that would continue even into the twentieth century, in some locations, until the Farm Machinery suddenly arrived, along with the totalitarian Experts.

Charming is the author’s love for the beasties, conveyed in verbal sketches of them, from the intelligent and social young Hog of fourteen stone, down to that skilled and industrious little animal, the Bee, who weighs a tiny fraction of a drachm. Each has his creaturely soul and personality, and must be addressed cautiously in view of his own understanding of things.

Diplomacy is the rule in the barnyard: one must remain on good terms with them all. Granted, we intend to eat some, and relieve others of their possessions, but when was this not also an object of Diplomacy?

The penultimate chapter, on the Song Birds, raises country labour to the ideal of Idleness I have been trying, tirelessly, to promote. For here are instructions not merely on feeding the vagrant avians of the countryside, but actually for breeding them, nurturing to strength, and graciously encouraging the stock of Canary-Birds. As, too: the Sky-Larks, Wood-Larks, Tit-Larks; and Nightingales; the Robin Red-Breasts calling forth; and the echoing Linnets in the furze; the Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Bullfinches, stoutly; the Sterlings, that whistle as they walk; the Thrushes and the Throstles; and the mirthful Twites; the Red-Starts; and the little piping Wrens.

I regret that the Nut-Hatch was excluded, whom some may think too shrill and intemperate for a choir, but I find rather pleasing. Among all the little birds, I am most attracted to his squeeze-eyed, chisel-spiked visage, under that lumpen brow — his look sometimes of droll darkling doubt and dapper disapproval, in the intervals of his song — a kind of Evelyn Waugh figure: short, plump, and opinionated. Perhaps our author, in the eighteenth century, meant to include him among the Wrens; or perhaps to reserve him for the orchestra, with his sound like a tin trumpet, and sometimes a gazoo; or post him for entrances and exits, in the mantle of a page, or butler.

Or were he from around here, the author might be saving his Nut-Hatch to pair, chastely, with a Chick-a-Dee. The two understand each other’s calls, at least in Greater Parkdale (which extends at the moment from Ottawa to Winnipeg); and one can describe a predator to the other, in minute detail of size, shape, and speed — entirely in song. What finer operatic duet can be imagined? … Ah, the drama! … Oh, the non-humanity!

But returning to the book: delightful depictions of the respective choristers, their manner of life, their eccentricities of flight and nesting; their degree of liveliness and merriment. Too, hints are dropped of their society together, for the full Bird Choir is a liturgical institution, with its own conventions, peculiar to each farm; and one kind of Bird sings company to another, hearing his notes and responding with his own, in thoughtful syncopation.

Let them sing for their supper!

It is this aspect of birdsong that has been most completely lost upon generations of crass Darwinoids, obsessed as they must be with mere principles of survival. And likewise, with the other post-moderns, who despise work because they have scientifically extracted all of the possible joy from it, so that their whole lives become, by increments of displeasure, a dreadful curse on themselves and all around.

For this book is premissed on the notion that country life — for the woman as the man, and most certainly for their children — is joyful in its nature; that country labour is part of that larger, mystical joy: as the choir in its voice of Praise, reaching Heaven. Why would one want to destroy this with “efficiency”? Why should we agree to live in misery, instead? … (The first instinct of the mechanical factory-farmer might be to pesticide the birds, lest they eat his crop; but part of that crop was meant for their feeding.)

Nothing is perfect in this world, and the book has two important shortcomings against which I must warn. There is nothing in it on Catholicism, whatever; and with all due respect to the need for wines, ales, and other liquors to be flowing, there is no mention of tea.

For which reasons it will have to be revised.

Rendering time

The extended Holy Family comes into sight today, in the wake of the Assumption, through the commemoration of Saint Joachim, carried under the surface of the Mass for this Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. (Were the day not Sunday, it would move to the fore.)

Joachim is not mentioned in the Gospels, but he is known to us through Tradition as the husband of Saint Anne, and father of Mary Immaculate. He is thus, in human succession, grandfather to Our Lord. Some of what we know was however recorded in the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of Saint James, a very early writing. A little more information may be obtained from any good Catholic missal, published up to 1962.

And more from Dom Guéranger, the fifteen volumes of whose magnum opus, The Liturgical Year, have been banked into the Internet. (Here.) Hard, stitch-bound copies would ideally be part of every fully literate Catholic’s household library; but they are hard to find, in English or French. They are invaluable, in conveying the extraordinary depth and range of the Catholic Mass, as it was before the hideous desecrations of the 1960s; and as it is and will be through the current revival of “traditional” Catholic worship.

We need a new Guéranger; though the old one still serves. Another century-and-a-half has added to the store of knowledge about our liturgical heritage. Much more could be added to acquaint the intelligent modern reader with what lies slightly beyond the Mass, yet is inseparably attached to it: the heritage of Catholic music, literature, and art, through these last twenty centuries. And more still could be added to draw parallels to Orthodox and other ancient Eastern Rites, which often cast light on the most antique Roman practices. For the living Catholic wants to know more about this Eastern dimension of Christendom, and should be taught more of the harmonies between the Greek and the Latin — different ways of expressing the same thing, dissonant (when at all) only on the surface.

I began with the mischievously suggestive phrase, “extended Holy Family.” In truth, this is something that leaves me more often in confusion than better informed. Of course we cannot know much about the broader family life of Our Lord, in his time and situation; and we do not need to know much more than that it existed. Catholic dogma, on the Immaculate Conception, and on the Assumption, gives profound insights into the purpose and means of the Divine Intervention into the “natural” order of human life and history.

Less obviously, it instructs on “the family,” itself, by putting before us an order of succession that is not, strictly, biological, but lifted out of that condition by a stupendous action of Divine Grace.

One might say, for instance, that the whole life of the Church is prefigured in these “strange” arrangements, by which an episcopal succession is created that is not hereditary. For the idea of a celibate priestly apostolic succession can be seen as an Imitation of Christ, who jumps Himself out of hereditary succession. We have, as those acquainted with monastic orders may glimpse, a new kind of family life raised in parallel to the old family life of the community — designed, too, from the beginning, to raise the community in turn.

The monks and nuns in their respective houses; the whole hierarchy separated from worldly “intercourse” — using that term in several of its meanings — is not entirely unique. Buddhist monastic tradition, for instance, is full of curious resemblances, including attention to an often visible line between the sacred and profane: drawn not vaguely, but precisely. This is done, too, in each of the Eastern Christian communions, with slight differences from one sect to another in how the line is drawn; but always with precision, and the insistence upon celibacy at the highest level.

I shan’t write more on this, for fear of flying over my own head; I only want to point towards something easily lost in our contemporary appreciation of religious life — coming into the Church as we do, today, out of a sexual rainstorm, wading knee-deep through its cumulative pornography. The recovery of sane family life, it seems to me, depends on the recovery of a sense of succession that goes, decisively, beyond the carnal.

We are more than just animals — at least, some of us aspire to rise above the level of the animal, shrieking in its cage. And we can, if we try, become better than casual roadkill to our own (often sordid) passions.

Eros, itself, is not reducible to sex acts, and a whole dimension of human life is lost on us because we cannot imagine what might be numinously erotic, and at the same time, numinously chaste.

*

Prosper Louis Pascal Guéranger (1805–77), the Benedictine abbot flagged above, was more than an author. His grand, rolling encyclopaedia of the Roman Rite — posed in its era against a Gallican Rite that had been made a little too compatible with revolutionary nationalism — was for him almost a pastime in a busy life. His principal employment was restoring not only the Benedictine Order, but monasticism generally to France, after it had been wiped out in the French Revolution. (It would be all but wiped out again by the “laicizing” devils in human flesh, one generation after his death.)

Indeed, the failure of Catholicism to die in France is, properly understood, among the most inspiring stories in the history of Christianity. For the “eldest daughter of the Church” has been subjected, over the last three centuries, to wave after wave of unctuously “progressive” rape, murder, pillage and rapine; and this in gratuitous addition to the spiritual asphyxiation we all experience in the modern, ferretsome, sleaze economy.

And yet more than a million “traditional” French Catholics were still found to march along the streets against sodomic and sapphic “marriage” — the latest aspiration of the laicizing state — only a year ago.

It was in the nature of Guéranger not to be much impressed with numbers. He was not defeatist; he could not have accomplished anything had he allowed himself to be intimidated by them.

Should sixty-five million biologically animate Frenchmen and Frenchwomen opt publicly for Hell, then they will if they please fall into it like snowflakes. But if one million remain faithful unto death, something remarkable has been accomplished. We should not focus our attention on the demographics; rather on the man, woman, and child.

*

Yesterday, somehow, by a last-minute agreement, the bells rang out in France, from the churchtowers across sixty-six dioceses, in solidarity with the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

As the “mainstream media” are eager not to tell you, this was done in the face of plausible threats from Muslims, to do violence against Catholic targets in response. Attacks on Catholic churches and cemeteries in France have become commonplace (as on Jewish synagogues and cemeteries), and these threats are no joke. Some of the recent attacks, such as that on Charlie Hebdo, strike the “laics” just where they live, and thus cross the threshold into “mainstream” news. In contrast, attacks against conspicuously religious targets tend not to be reported; or when big enough, to be reported in a systematically dishonest, “politically correct” way.

But in despite of that, the bells were ringing, right across France.

*

Such huge events go almost unrecorded in the history of our own times; yet will stand in the recollection of later generations; and ultimately, in the view of human history transcending time.

The past is often obscure to us; the future does not yet exist and so contains nothing, clear or obscure. The present is instead the greatest puzzle, for it is the period in history we know least about. And it is the belief that we are informed by omnipresent media that stacks our ignorance higher and higher.

This is one thing I learned again and again as a journalist, whenever I found myself at the frontier of “events”: that even there, with all the klieg lights glaring, the true story was not being told. For everything of real significance was happening in the shadows, and behind the walls. I learned, I hope for all time, that the “great events” are at most only the occasion for greater events, far more interesting, in the small places where the narratives of sin and redemption are being resolved.

In this sense, the largest wars and revolutions are only a popular distraction; mere wheels turning in a giant, soulless machine. It is not the machine that is important; it is the movement, rather, within immortal souls.

And it is against the clanking wheels of murderous human industry, that we posit this Liturgical Year — rendering time, sub specie aeternitatis.

Mater Dei

Victory over sin and death is not a theme of consuming interest to my contemporaries, so far as I can see. (There are individual exceptions.)

“That the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” has lost something of its dogmatic edginess, since Pius XII proclaimed it in 1950. Rejected then as an outrage by many of our separated brethren in the Protestant folds, I should think it would be greeted by their grandchildren today with bored incomprehension. And by the grandchildren of the Catholics, too, I am grievously sorry to add.

And yet in still, quiet places — within the Church, within her churches — this mysterious Feast of the Assumption (of Mary into Heaven) continues to be celebrated, as it has been for sixteen centuries at least.

You can’t even argue about these things any more. It has been decades since we had our last dust-up with the Orangemen, and quite frankly, the average surviving “traditionalist” Catholic misses them, and remembers them with affection. But the Orange Parades are gone, replaced in the evolution of far-western society by Gay Pride Parades. (And a day may come when we miss them, too, and chafe about what has replaced them.)

I remember (happily) from childhood a very stiff proper uptight Protestant lady (from the United Church, now almost extinct), condemning the dogma of the Assumption of Mary as an example of Catholic eccentricity. It seemed, from what she was saying, that no rational person could entertain nonsense like this for a moment. The Catholics, she did not say but rather strongly implied, were all titched.

Later, I was surprised to discover that while, indeed, many Protestants might think that way, they were a tiny minority within Christendom, and had always been. There was no problem with this teaching, not only in the Roman lands, but anywhere in the East. Monophysite Copts, strange wandering Syriacs, and even the anathematized Nestorians (who resisted the title “Mother of God”), had no trouble with the Dormition of this Theotokos, as the Greeks call the very same thing the Romans call the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(Theotokos means, “birth-giver of God.” Mater Dei is a Latin translation. Her perpetual virginity is affirmed both East and West.)

Reading, recently, Gregory of Tours (sixth century), I found the controversial 1950 dogma taken serenely for granted. Ditto in many other “pre-mediaeval” sources. It may not have been spelt out in a dogmatic formula until much later — centuries and centuries later — but what Pius XII was spelling, was hardly something new. Rather it was an affirmation of something old; a defence of it against very recent assertions to the contrary. For that is the central function of the Pope: to stand guard for us against deviations from, and compromise of the true, unchanging Faith.

The early Church knew of the fate of Mary, not from the Bible but from an earlier source: that of the Apostles themselves. A lot of things were known like that, well before the Canon of Scripture was established within the same Apostolic Tradition. It was among many things not directly mentioned in the Bible: probably because it did not need to be mentioned. Doctrinally, too, it was dead obvious, it was self-evident: that a woman not conceived in sin, not subject to the corruption of Adam, cannot “die” in the conventional way.

For Death is the wages of sin, and were it not for sin, Death would have no dominion.

“They” (really, we) tried to kill sinless Christ, after all — and the Paschal Victim simply rose from the dead. For Death had no purchase on Him; and likewise, no purchase on Mary. What might look complicated, seems so only because it is too simple for men to understand: that Death is merely an artefact of corrupted biological nature.

Hence, the curious attitude of true Christians, faced with the worst that could come to them today. “You can try to kill us, but it won’t work.”

Not, as our martyrs to the Da’ish must have observed, among the legitimate children of the Virgin Mary — of Our Lady, Mother, as it were, to Allah; who points for salvation only to her Son; and was there, at His side, as His own Cross was carried; and is at our side when the Evildoers come; whispering words which have filled the Cosmos: then, now, and always,

“I am here.”

We might quote the earliest known papyrus fragment of a Christian prayer, to some special effect on this Feast today. The fragment is in the Rylands Library at Manchester now, if I am not mistaken. The prayer it records had long been assumed a late mediaeval flourish. But no, like much else attributed to the Middle Ages, it turned out to be a lot older; a lot, lot older; and then a lot older than that:

We fly to thy protection, O Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.

A tale of origins & renewal

We are “living off the fat of the land,” up here in the High Doganate. The phrase retrieves to mind the shade of a certain Jorges Orgibet, Californian, met in the Far East nearly forty years ago. He was, too, an Old Asia Hand, who seemed to have been everywhere the U.S. Army went, in India, Burma, China and so forth, towards the end of the last World War — slightly ahead of them, by his own accounts.

A dear, gruff and cranky old soul, with a joyfully boyish sense of prank humour, and one arm slightly longer than the other, he was pillar of the Press Club, in Bangkok if not other cities. There he had settled in 1945, and there he was still when I last had sight of him, in the early 1980s. (One might read something of the interval in his memoir, From Thailand to Siam: Backdrop to the Land of Smiles — a work now “uncommon” in book dealer’s parlance.)

Jorges and I were once both Editor, simultaneously, of the same magazine; Big Boss had hired the one, without mentioning it to the other. This led to an unfortunately vexed personal relation, as both Jorges and I had outsized egos. But we did gradually work it out. For it was impossible not to love the man, even if he did countermand one’s every order.

The mark of a great American, in Asia in those days, was refusal to learn a single word of any local language; not even taxi directions. Jorges was extraordinary in this respect: decades of residence without the slightest concession to servants or staff. Old British Imperialists would deny knowledge, not only of the language but of everything else. Yet sneak up, unexpected, and one would find them prattling to the natives — in Hindi, Malay, Cantonese, whatever — with a street fluency that was quite disturbing.

But Americans weren’t hypocrites like that, in the heyday of their own Imperialism. They never told lies.

And so it was that I believed every word of what Jorges ever told me, no matter how implausible on the face of things. His life was larger than life, and he had the anecdotes to prove it. And my favourite of these was how he lived, when still very young in some small town proximate, if I remember correctly, to the Mojave Desert in sunny California.

Newspaper ink was in his blood, from birth apparently, and his first act as a responsible adult (which one became about age fourteen in those days) was to start a local weekly. This involved not only writing the news, but selling the advertisements. For a few years he “lived off the fat of the land,” as retailers and farmers, generally short of cash, paid him handsomely in kind. He found that he didn’t need cash, either. Whatever he required, he would call the appropriate debtor, and soon be swimming in excess supply.

Dear, dear Jorges: dead now for twenty-nine years. And he wasn’t exactly young when he died. He had a faculty for love of his fellow man — for all men, all sorts and conditions — that he kept decently concealed, beneath his reflexively brazen exterior. But put into him some whisky and some soda, and the defences were carried away.

He would perform acts of kindness and reckless, foolhard generosity, with a perfectly saintly self-unawareness. These were acts for which the American Imperialists were generally renowned, among their passing subjects, and secretly — not so much admired, as held in cargo-cult awe.

*

I thought of him on receipt, yesterday, of a box from Portland, Oregon. It was from a lawyer who has sent me, in lieu of cash subscription, two remarkable Chinese teas. One is a large, pizza-shaped cake of the most sublime, Emperor-grade, Pu-erh tea leaves from Yunnan; the other a more modest sampling of a first-flush Tieguanyin wulong tea, from Anxi county in Fujian. These are the most spectacular Chinese teas to fall into my custody in thirty years.

The Chinese, for millennia the world’s most assiduous tea sippers, have also been among the most reticent exporters. The British had to trick it out of them in return for reliable shipments of opium; the French and others used more devious tactics. Even the Japanese were more obliging, in parting with their teas upon request; and under Dutch ministrations, the Formosans became downright open-handed.

But this changed when the Maoists came to power, and needed every penny of hard currency they could acquire. The export of rubbish tea from China was pioneered by them. Later, under the diminutive commissar Teng Hsiao Ping, it was greatly expanded on quasi-capitalist principles. The Communists had also assured that, except choice specimens for the Party nomenklatura, the great masses of Chinese would also drink rubbish. But with prosperity, some of the old ways return, and the revival of China’s specialist tea trade is a thrilling phenomenon. With this the instinct has returned, as with wine in France, to keep the best production at home, where it will be properly appreciated.

Now, lawyers in Oregon can do anything, apparently, and how this one (a notorious reactionary) got his hands on these teas is a mystery into which I had better not inquire. The Pu-erh cake I have not yet touched, wishing to admire the calligraphy on the wrapper for another fortnight or so, before I break in; but the Tieguanyin I have attacked, already.

The leaves, in dark shades of asparagus green with faint silvery slivering in the folds, are hand-rolled into pellets which unravel and expand beautifully in a white porcelain tea bowl. The taste is a je ne sais quoi of floral and vegetal, of savoury and sweet somehow exhuding each other, while hinting at some deeply recessed memory of lily-of-the-valley. The “mouthfeel” is a most exquisite, knowing velvet, in contrast to the sometimes childish, silk-rope exuberance of other wulong teas.

Perhaps I have some readers who do not know the legend behind the discovery of this tea, by the devout Buddhist peasant, Wei. I shall tell it, the more enthusiastically because I think it provides a moral for contemporary Catholic edification.

*

Now, Wei was a poor farmer in the Anxi hills, struggling as his neighbours to extract a living from a small plot of uneven land. He was of a philosophical disposition; a walker and a muser. He contrived almost every day to take himself by a ruined Temple of Guanyin — which still contained an iron statue of this female Bodhisattva, who is a Mahayana “goddess of mercy.”

Wei, as already hinted, was devout, and it pained him that the temple was abandoned, and dilapidated. Yet he was poor and could do little about that. He could, however, afford incense and a broom, and often he would go to sweep the temple, and light joss-sticks before the figure of its patroness. He addressed his prayers to her, on his own behalf, and that of his poor family and village. He did this at such length that, very tired on one occasion, he fell asleep at the iron statue’s feet.

In his dream, the Boddhisattva came to him, saying, “There is a treasure in the cave, behind this temple. If you share it with your friends and neighbours, it will bring you prosperity through many generations. Never forget to be generous with it.”

Night had come when Wei awoke, and he stumbled home in the darkness. Early the next morning, however, with the sun now slanting into the mouth of this cave, and the mists now rising with the heat of day, he searched inside. What he found was only a small tea shoot — but that, conspicuous upon bare ground. Cautiously he uprooted this delicate plant, taking it home in an iron pot he had found amid the rubble of the temple, to plant it within his own garden. He cared for it as if for a child, and after a couple of years it had grown into a fine bush — budding before his delighted eyes, and bearing the loveliest tea leaves he had ever seen.

Three of these he plucked, and steeped them in his earthenware zhong. The aroma and the flavour were extraordinary. They filled him with a sense of purity, and calling; and when he boiled his water freshly again, he found that the qualities of the leaves stood through several infusions.

Soon, from the original tree, he had grown hundreds of new bushes. In little time, the reputation of this tea spread, among the connoisseurs and gourmands in ever more distant cities. Wei, as a consequence, grew rich. But he did not forget his spiritual obligations; he gave seeds to all the other planters in the district, so all might share in his prosperity.

And so, with all this money at his command, he returned to the temple. He hired the finest craftsmen, and had both the temple and its statue restored to the highest possible standards, all set within a beautiful garden with walking stones, ponds and fish. And prayed to his patron till his old age; till finally he was buried, in that cave by the temple, where he has lain while the centuries have passed; and is remembered to this day, even up here in the High Doganate, as a gentle beneficiary of mankind.