Essays in Idleness


Of halcyon nests

The halcyon days were not in our fondly remembered past, but occur in the dead of winter, according to the best ancient and mediaeval sources. They are named for the bird who nests on the sea. That bird — which we might mistake for a kingfisher — has the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. The Indian Summer of the north — or I think it is Saint Martin’s Summer on the Water’s other side, or Saint Luke’s — may last a week in December. But in the Aegean, Halcyon (or Alcyone as I like to call her, daughter of Aeolus), may take a fortnight from the mariner’s busy schedule.

But here in the Introduction à la vie dévote, of François de Sales, I get further information. Halcyons make their nests like a ball, he says, leaving only a small opening at the top. They build them on the sea shore, and they are so strong and impenetrable that should the sea wash over them, no wet comes inside. Even should they be swept to sea in a storm, they will float upright.

This spiritual director counsels his penitent, Philothea, to be like that: open only to Heaven, and impervious to things that pass. Specifically he refers to the riches of this world, for he is expounding to her that first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Saint Francis of the Château de Sales (ruined by politics) is famously the patron of writers and journalists. A nobleman, from the old Savoyard aristocracy, he had in addition to his classical education good instruction in riding and fencing, and knew how to dance. He was born a gentle soul, in the full meaning, for memories of him before he took orders were of a young man strong and tall, with piercing blue eyes, but reserved and modest. Not all the saints were like this; some, like Saint Vincent de Paul, were short, squat, bulbous of nose, cantankerous, and pushy. (Also ridiculously selfless, and kind.) Francis himself tells us repeatedly, it takes all kinds. But he who retrieved ten-thousands of souls from the Calvinists around Geneva, had that “halcyon” quality.

By the time this man, with a law degree from Padua, was made Bishop of Geneva, he was living almost on air. Without ever making an issue of it, he adopted habits of extreme simplicity, tirelessly visiting his parishes like a pilgrim. He needed every sou for his urgent mission. He could establish his episcopal palace in a gardener’s shed. It was because he conducted his mission cor ad cor, and from the pulpits of little village churches — not as the Calvinists in preaching before huge forcefully-assembled crowds — that he achieved a success finally shown in great numbers.

I have before me my copy of that Introduction to the Devout Life: the Everyman edition translated by the late Edgbaston Oratorian, Michael Day. It fell into my hands many years ago, in some foreign city, when I was looking for something “improving” to read (long before I became a Catholic). Since, I have been unable to say enough about the translator. He adapts and modernizes for the “common reader” without any discernible impairment of sense. (The typical paperback translator makes wanton sacrifices and reckless paraphrases in the vain hope of “popularizing.”) It is the presence of author, not translator, that grows upon one, as if four centuries had left nothing in our way. For those whose French is as bad as mine, this is the perfect crib.

Is it a book only for girls? That was, as I recall, my first impression, but it was corrected as I went along. The brilliance of the book is that the soul to whom it is addressed is feminine, yet in that unearthly way in which all souls are. In the male reader, something is summoned that is feminine, too, yet in no way “girlish.” Quite apart from its high authority as a source of Catholic teaching (Saint Francis is a “Doctor of the Church”), there is a poetry in it which conveys a quality once familiar to men: not fey in the slightest but rather gallant, even “brave” in the older meaning of that word. It corresponds to the masculine ability to cherish. We retrieve it by reading, as it were, over the shoulder of Philothea; it recalls us to all our protective instincts for everything that is beautiful, and chaste. It is opposite to the coarseness and vulgarity we associate with masculinity today; for it is stalwart, tenacious, redoubtable; trusting, and trustworthy, and in itself, truthful and chaste.

Journalists should seek this masculine honesty (to be found, too, in every fine woman), that distinguishes between holy and unholy things. Saint Francis is patron to a journalism that would not be tabloid and crass. It would be one with the spirit of the Confessional, asking at every turn, “What is going on here? What does it look like, and is it really that? What is it quite apart from my own interest in the matter?”

And so the writing proceeds, in the next paragraph of Saint Francis on the virtue of spiritual poverty. He explains what it is, and what it is not. He uses the metaphor of the chemist, who stocks many poisons on his shelves, but does not take them into his body. Each has a purpose, not poisonous in itself, yet which can be turned against its purpose. It is not material wealth that makes us “rich in spirit,” and therefore damnable in some way. It is the ingestion of that wealth into the spirit. Those who are poor, and covet such a wealth, are rich in spirit. As well: those who make a virtue of their wealth, and the risks they have taken to obtain it, until they become insensible to their fever, and to the rapacity with which they commandeer what justly belongs to others. As well: those too distressed by what they have lost, in a season when they lose their old possessions. For everything we have here is only for a time.

Perhaps these points could be made plainer with a practical, contemporary application. Let me provide one.

“Liberation theology” was from its beginning an invention in the spirit of the Great Lie. It is a vicious and an ugly lie — this nonsense about “Christ’s preferential option for the poor” — to the stench of which we have been too long subjected. It still reeks, through almost all “engaged” contemporary journalism, and poisons every clarion call for “equality.” It dishonours the poor. There should be no surprise that there are few vocations, and that the Church withers wherever it is taught (as she has done throughout Latin America). For it is not to make the rich poorer, nor the poor richer, in any worldly sense, that Christ came to us. It was instead to teach the rich and poor alike, from that first Beatitude, to be poor in spirit. Unless this teaching is made clear, our Christian leaders turn their backs on Our Lord, and defraud us of our true heritage — giving their children who ask bread of Heaven, the stone of an earthly avarice and resentment.

Saint Francis of Sales pray for us, and for the restoration of our Christian heritage. Pray for us who write, that we will serve the truth, and expose the lie.

The ransomer

The plight of refugees, fleeing the hell-holes of North Africa to reach Europe in whatever boats will take them, is sometimes in the news. The Pope has often drawn attention to their needs, and chastised the unnamed for not helping them. The shocking truth is that Europeans have shown a diminished enthusiasm for Muslim immigration.

Traffic across the Mediterranean was formerly different in kind. For at least seven centuries, constantly, and sporadically through four more, the life of southern Europe was disturbed by violent raids. There are stretches of coast in France and Italy that were not repopulated until the nineteenth century, because of these razzias. The Saracens, as we once called them, had an economy based on plunder. All Christian lands within reach were scoured, not only for portable wealth, but also to replenish their stock of slaves — both for domestic use, and trade. The Christians got into the act, too, taking captives for exchange when they could; but except some happier years during the Crusades, remained basically on the defensive. (I tired of apologizing for the Crusades about thirty years ago, which is why I stopped doing it.)

Students of American history may recall that the first foreign adventure of those United States was against the Barbary pirates. Indeed, one of the first acts of the new U.S. Congress in 1784 was the appropriation of money to pay tribute to the Barbary princes, to secure safety for American sailors and shipping. Thomas Jefferson, when U.S. minister to France, tried to negotiate a “coalition of the willing” — which at the time included Portugal, Naples, the two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark, and Sweden — to put an end to depredations all had suffered. Gentle Yankee reader may know the hymn of the United States Marine Corps, which begins, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” Yes, it was that Tripoli, in Ottoman Tripolitania, where they landed in 1805. They and their mercenary allies marched hundreds of miles through desert to Derna (recently back under Islamist control) in what we might take as the first dry run for the march to Baghdad. (Shout-out to my USMC buddies: Semper fidelis, and Deus vult!)

To those of broad mind towards pirates — for after all the Elizabethan English economy was based on piracy, too — at least some grudging admiration may be offered to the other side. In their mediaeval heyday, Muslim raiders struck as far north as Iceland; and in earlier modernity, as far west as Brazil. As Osama bin Laden used to say, people are attracted to the winning horse.

Home-grown terror is also nothing new. One thinks of Jack Ward, a.k.a. “Birdie,” a.k.a. Yusuf Reis (1553–1622), the Briton who assembled a sparkling little fleet, starting with the capture of a few French vessels — one reputed to be carrying the belongings of English Catholic refugees. He sailed to Tunis, converted to Islam, and did much lively business thereafter. He taught his new colleagues the latest navigational arts, which gave them a new lease on life. They’d been falling behind the European competition in this department, so that “asymmetrical warfare” — a traditional Muslim specialty — wasn’t working so well for them any more.

Where am I going with this? Ah yes, Saint Peter Nolasco (1189–1256), whose feast is today in your usus antiquior missals. (I look forward to celebrating Saint Thomas Aquinas on the anniversary of his memorably good death, March 7th; our Calendar in the High Doganate being state-of-the-art 1962.) It is a pity the former was trashed in the liturgical “reforms” of the hippie era, for he is so relevant today.

The founder and first commander-general of the Mercedarians — the Order of Our Lady of Ransom — was an old companion of Simon IV of Montfort against the Albigensian heretics. Tutor to the orphaned child James of Aragon, the king whose protection he later enjoyed, Peter proceeded to Barcelona, and lent his formidable organizing skills to the gathering Reconquista. The new order, fully patented in Rome by 1230, consisted of a heady mix of muscular lay monks or knights, with choir monks to prayerfully support them. In addition to the usual three vows they added a fourth: to lay down their lives with joy, or willingly become prisoners themselves, in exchange for the freedom of their brothers in Christ held by the Moors.

The order spread quickly through Europe, and later through the New World, to found convents and perform acts of mercy on behalf of the afflicted faithful. I am told it is still busy in seventeen countries. My thought is that with a little imagination, it could be put back to work on its original task: the ransom, or better still, straightforward liberation of Christian captives in the Middle East.

Saint Peter Nolasco, pray for us, and remind us in our lethargy of how things are done.

Deflationary asides

One generous reader put it best: the reason I’m a “complete idiot” is that I’m panicking about inflation when everyone else is panicking about deflation. We need to “print” money faster so people will spend. (It’s now done electronically, I’ve heard.) We ought to fear a downward spin through the drainhole: unemployment leading to less spending, leading to unsold goods, leading to lower prices, leading to lower production, leading to … more unemployment, even lower prices, and so on. We did that once before, in the 1930s. It cured the inflation of the 1920s.

We have gone into withdrawal from the heroin of inflation, and the answer is to get back on heroin again. Central bankers argue about the right dose, and scold us for not taking our meds.

Larry Summers: “We need to move beyond the Calvinist idea that more savings is always good and borrowing is bad because what we have right now … is a chronic excess of saving.” He accuses Calvinists like me and the Prussians of fostering the “green eyeshade accounting mentality.”

A note for the ages: when someone is lending, someone else is borrowing. … And did you know money saved in banks is lent out? … And can you guess who is borrowing? … Or what a “bond” might be? … And have you ever wondered where all the money that goes into stock markets comes from? … Or why people flip shares, when they used to live patiently off the dividends?

I’m trying to make these Idleposts shorter, I’m not going to write an economics textbook today; maybe I never will. Suffice I say that deflation and inflation are twin heads on the same beast. And that the Japanese have pioneered a system in which we can enjoy both at the same time, and thus have perfect economic stasis, through generations of demographic collapse.

Curiously, as a man of the thirteenth century, I “believe” in the price mechanism. (You know: wheat crop fails, price goes up; too much wheat, price goes down.) As a visitor to the twenty-first, I believe it is no longer working. Nearly one full century into the experiment of unlinking money from things, and linking it to “policy” instead, not one person is left on the whole planet with the fondest idea how our system works.

Some years ago I assembled a little team to study what had gone into the price of a loaf of bread. We had to give up. It was too complicated. Bread was officially “untaxed” in the jurisdiction; yet about the only thing we could establish with any confidence, after looking through the production process, was that more than half the price was cumulative direct and indirect taxes.


And did you know that William Shakespeare lived for several years in Southwark, in the Liberty of the Clink? This was the ward of the (Anglican) Bishop of Winchester, named oddly after his famous prison, not his pretty palace. The Globe and other theatres were also in it, and too, a “red light district” populated by ladies known colloquially as “Winchester Geese.” (Their unconsecrated graves lie under the urban asphalt today; the expression “goose bumps” survives in our language, though no longer with reference to venereal disease.) We also have it, on more than the authority of the Puritans, that bull and bear baiting was also going on.

Gentle reader will know I think Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, but that’s not the only thing I admire about him. He was also a serial tax evader. The beauty of this Liberty of the Clink was that it lay outside the jurisdictions of both the County of Surrey, and the City of London. It was thus a tax refuge. If you owed taxes on the other side of the river, as it seems Mr Shakespeare usually did, the sheriff couldn’t arrest you there.

From what I can see, we lack exhaustive documentation, but have enough to get the gist of the story.

101 household uses

On the subject of usury, I see the Greeks have voted to owe the Germans less money, in the latest triumph of democracy. They were a brilliant people, as we all learnt in school — further improved by South Slavic immigration, and honed through centuries of enslavement to the Infidel Turk. And good luck to them: for surely one way to undermine usury is to ignore debt. Why wait for a mortgage-burning party until after the last instalment is paid, in an age of instant gratification? The Germans invaded in 1941, but circumstances were different then. I doubt they’d have the nerve to invade again.

Any sangfroid which remains in the EU, ECB, and IMF (the leading institutional creditors) should disappear as the Italians, Spaniards, French, and finally the Germans themselves wave their national wands. Each in its own way is maxed out on usury — according to the international department of the High Doganate — and this explains the rise of all the new parties in Europe, which liberal media characterize as “rightwing” and “neo-fascist.” Actually they are populist. In fiscal matters, they are invariably on the Left. They understand that once given a taste of free money, no electorate can be weaned. The hand-outs are not merely expected; through political rhetoric they become first “entitlements,” and then “human rights.” It is because they can’t do anything about the majorities in their respective countries, that they turn attention to the minorities, instead.

Note that the Leftists who triumphed in Greece weren’t campaigning about the debt. You don’t score a landslide on a downer like that. Instead they were campaigning for relief from “austerity.” The defeated government had tried to keep agreements with creditors. It was for maintaining the national honour, that they were annihilated at the polls.

As History hath reported before, hyperinflation is the answer. Give the people everything they demand, and see how it works for them. Restore the paper drachma: let them have all they want of a worthless currency, since they can’t handle the hard stuff. (The modern drachma had quite the history of decimal-place adjustments, as I recall from stamp collecting. It is almost as if Greek governments were incontinent in some innate way.)

The bloody stuff comes later, when the people realize they have been cheated (by themselves). That is when they go looking for scapegoats. (Any more parentheses on modern Greek history and this could become invidious.)

Here is an old-fashioned banking idea: grab every Greek asset you can, and hold a fire sale; apply the proceeds to the principal, and write off all the rest. Then don’t ever lend them money again. (If they’re starving, we can send them food at no charge, the way we do to Haiti.)

No politician will think like this, however — nor any banker now that banking operations throughout Europe and America have been methodically politicized. Rather they will go back to the conference table, and resume their efforts to square the circle, until the roof falls in. It is like the Two State Solution for Peace in the Middle East. Because it is both impossible, and irrelevant to every real problem, it will take a lot of time.

For this is the world. It is how the world works. “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind cannot bear very much reality.” This is why the truth is offensive; why genuine humour is in very poor taste: because, like vinegar, it cuts through the grease. But this is no argument against brewing vinegar.


Vinegar is also useful for fruitflies, by the way. In the kitchen of the High Doganate we had, recently, a bowl of plums, which weren’t very good, and so weren’t being eaten. Fruitflies collected. Gentle reader may know that all species of Drosophila can be irritating. Their brains may not be large, but are cleverly programmed to elude most commonplace smooshing tactics. The plums had to go, but in their place I put a dish of cider vinegar. To this I added a few drops of dishwashing liquid, to break the surface tension. Within hours, my fruitflies were all at the bottom of the dish.

(Please do not tell the animal rights activists.)

Be it done

To more than the usual degree, the other day, I found myself puzzled by comments on an article I had written (here). For a change, I wasn’t annoyed. Most had missed my point so widely that I could retreat into my private phantasmagoria, secure in the knowledge I had covered my traces with impenetrable gobble-de-goo. The topic was anyway what is called “technical.” In a moment of potential financial meltdown, on a global scale, it seemed worth mentioning that Church teaching on usury, as expounded in Thomas Aquinas, might be somehow relevant to, even mildly explanatory of, “events.”

What I thought my most interesting point was ignored. It was that in studying the articles on usury in the Summa, I found the Angelic Doctor had anticipated a modern economic idea. This was how money might be created, out of nothing, as a function of lending and borrowing with interest. His critique of usury might be more sophisticated than is usually assumed, the more so since the institution of pure “fiat” currencies, untied to gold or any other anchor. Too, that quite beyond the classical distinction in Roman law between commodatum (a moveable property to be returned intact) and mutuum (something fungible to be returned in kind), Thomas was adeptly distinguishing between what is for investment and what is a consumer loan — relating the latter to beggary.

I may return to that point, or not; perhaps I hallucinated the whole thing. For the moment I am only interested in the nature of the responses to my broader insinuation that usury is a morally destructive economic force — which could be a problem when the whole world’s economy is built on it. Now, the possibility that I was taking a longer view of the matter than, say, what had happened in Zurich last week, was missed by several observers.

Too, I had not mentioned “just price theory” or various other things that happened to be in the minds of readers, who then assumed they must be in my mind, too. It is surprising how wrong one can be, when arguing with what an author has not said.

Naturally, I stood accused of great naiveté: of offering simplistic remedies to complex problems; of demanding commie-style interventions in the markets; of not knowing that the current foreground worry is about deflation, not hyperinflation; and of not realizing that fiat currencies are now here forever. To which I reply, that I wasn’t offering any remedies at all, and my thickness consists entirely of suggesting that we might get a better view of present economic arrangements nearly sub specie aeternitatis, from the serene distance and elevation of a mediaeval platform. And anyway, consult Euromoney (the magazine): the banks are now totally regulated and micromanaged by agencies of the State down to the sub-molecular level — so hey.

But there was a more fundamental misunderstanding. Readers assumed I was giving my opinions, and thereby misconstrued my intention. Rather I was attempting what has been my hobby for some time now: guessing at what might lie beyond my own pettifogging opinions.

I might get things wrong, might misrepresent Church teaching, might myself misunderstand the subtle reasoning of St Thomas, or read something into it that isn’t there; but I wasn’t actually trying to do any of this. I was trying instead to expound something along the lines of, “Creating money from nothing to fund gluttonous lifestyles on mountainous debt cannot be good,” under the impression that Holy Church would agree with me.

Often I find myself at cross-purposes with readers. Commenters say not only, “This is how things are today, stop being quixotic and get a life,” but also, “I think this,” or “I want that,” or “this is how we should do it.” We have something called “freedom of speech,” and I am reliably informed that everyone has the right to an opinion. Not being in a position to take that away, I seldom even phantasize about it.

I think, want, and truth be told, have opinions, too. But since I can suppress them, I more and more find it is worth a try. This is because they get in the way. Another thing that gets in the way is my plans: I’ve wasted too much time trying to advance them. When I look back, I find that my thoughts were wrong, my wants selfish, my opinions vain, and my plans rather silly. The hole is deep enough, as they say: I can stop digging now. Perhaps walk away. “Let the dead bury their dead.”

I had, for instance, when I was younger and mixed up for a time in economic journalism, in Asia, many fairly “original” opinions about how things should be done. Most put me on the side of “free markets” against Statism in its various forms; my guru was Friedrich Hayek. I knew more then than I remember now, about how things work in economic theory and practice. Verily: once upon a time I subscribed to Euromoney, and followed big bank asset tables as if they were major league sports standings: cheering some banks, booing others. I had strong views on which methods of investment would cause “emerging markets” to emerge (I actually worked for the guy who invented the term), and bless me, I wanted the best for Asia. I wanted “economic growth,” which is to say, more wealth, and less poverty. I had in common, even with people who disagreed with my opinions, a certain basic perspective: that winning is the most important thing; that it is even more important than the second most important thing, which is to avoid losing.

I will not say this experience was worthless; only that it wasn’t worth much.

Habit alone makes me leap to conclusions, on news reports to the present day. I find opinions I held thirty years ago suddenly reviving on Pavlovian cues. Opinions wire one’s brain, and rewiring may require industry and patience. Of course one will always have opinions, but whose will they be?

Today I find the criterion for my thinking has changed. Winning and losing have drifted out of the picture: of course we will lose, we always lose. I am no longer trying so much to make up my mind on the “what to do” questions, as asking (if I may put it so crassly), “What would Jesus do?” Less crassly: what does the Church think; what has she always thought? For as Jeanne d’Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

This hardly means I would like to put bishops in charge of the central banks. Hooo, would I not like to do that. Bankers should run banks, statesmen should run states, potters should run potteries, and farmers run farms. It would help if they were all burningly sincere, faithful orthodox saintly Catholics, and none were “freethinkers.” I doubt, however, that that could be arranged. Still, it is interesting to compare notes with those writing in an Age of Faith.

Meanwhile we (you and me, gentle reader) are discussing premisses here, and establishing the ground conditions to think anything through. To work out more fully how to do something specialized, specialists will have to be called in. But the end to which we are all working is not a job for specialists.

My gradual embrace of something resembling “Distributism” is not premissed on the belief that it would be a more efficient economic order, that it would grow the GDP faster, or anything like that. (Inflation it would cure, but that is a side issue.) Rather, I am trying to imagine an economic order that would be compatible with Catholic teaching, and contribute to rather than detracting from the salvation of souls. That it would, in some practical sense, “work,” if we got it even half-right, I take for granted — and this for the same reason that in faith I take for granted that God knows what He is doing. My challenge is to find out, thus, not what I want but what God wants, even in the field of macroeconomics.

Indeed, I rather wish I could cash the cheque for one billion dollars a friend at my church gave me for Christmas. (He has a long beard and mischievous eyes and looks like a Scotchman.) I hesitate from the fear it may not be covered, and I really hate unnecessary bank charges. Still, I thought one thing to do with the money might be set up a Distributist think-tank, to which we might invite the more ingenious economic specialists to consider, “What would a truly Christian economy look like?” For I think many of our difficulties spring from failure of the educated imagination.

Not, be it noted, the economy we want, but the sort of economy God might smile on. If it would make us materially poorer, overall, then so be it. If it would restrict our freedom to acquire certain things, then we do without. If it did not deliver perfect equality of opportunity, so what? Yet a way of life that left everyone starving, and encouraged usury, hoarding, and theft, would not be acceptable. This is because God wouldn’t want that.

A secondary question would be, how do we get there? How, rather than waiting for agencies of the State to do things not necessarily in the interest of the State as currently conceived, could people who are, say, Catholic, work towards such an alternative economic order, entirely through voluntary acts on their own? … I am of course imagining an institution in which the Angelus bells are rung thrice daily, at beginning, middle, and end of shift, and all work pauses to consider the Incarnation, and everything that follows from: “Be it done to me according to Thy word.” (Here is a nice video.)

For the point in all this is to accommodate, both individually and in the commons of the Body of Christ, not our own plan but God’s plan for us; how we might live within His prescriptions, and not stray ever farther outside.

Yes, yes, perhaps I am naïve. … But so was Don Quixote. …


What makes this scheme so ludicrous is that, not at the corporate but at the individual level, people who include most Catholics don’t think like that. They wake every morning with their own plans. And while it may be reasonable to keep appointments, and earn one’s bread from day to day, or even to save for retirement, the question is seldom asked: “What might God want me to do: today, tomorrow, and forever?” Or even, “What if the universe in which I am currently participating is not all about me?” For you know, it isn’t.

Deep inside lies the fear that God’s plans may not be congruent with my own. Yes, this is rather likely — as, too, that the fear of God might be the beginning of wisdom. We cling to what we cannot keep, in the nature of time’s passage; to what no one has ever kept. And we make ourselves sad in our aloneness.

Our plans presuppose things as they are, in the glib sense of what is all around us. We have no choice but to accommodate at least some of that, for the State has cops and tax collectors, and The People have rapacity. Yet even as mental exercise, the imagining of “things as they are not” has a certain value. It suggests possibilities that our environment does not of itself suggest: Beauty, Goodness, Truth, things like that. It might provide glimpses of the kind of social solidarity that would help to lift us out of ourselves. We might not feel so terribly alone.

Imagine a town whose primary collective economic wish were to build (in the words of some quixotic Spanish mediaeval architect), “Such and so great a cathedral that those who look upon it in the future will think that we were mad.” And then built it. (As they did at Seville.)

That “we cannot know God’s plan” tends to arise as the first objection; and it is true that we can’t begin to understand the full majesty. How could we, given the scale on which we are operating? But within that plan we can, like the miner with a lamp on his helmet that does not light the view around corners, know enough to be getting on. For the passage we walk is immediately before us, and the light on that works just fine. And it may still be working when we turn the corner.

And here I am thinking of another passage in Thomas Aquinas, his Questiones disputatae de caritate:

“In this life we cannot know perfectly what God is, but we can know what he is not, and in this consists the perfection of our knowledge as wayfarers in this world. Likewise, in this life we cannot love God perfectly so that we are permanently turned towards Him in act, but only imperfectly so that our minds are never turned towards what is contrary to Him.”

To arms

Have we lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity? … You betcha.

The line above is paraphrased from memory; it is surely from Josef Pieper. (Actually, the “you betcha” was added by me.) It came to mind while reading Barbara Kay’s review of When Everything Feels Like the Movies, latest winner of a national children’s book award. (Here.) It would be counter-productive, I suppose, to launch my own tirade against a work that, by Mrs Kay’s account (and I trust her as a witness) is so morally repellant. I might quibble with her term, “values-void”; for it seems the book is laced with values, which I would characterize as poison. The author celebrates masochism, for instance, as his protagonist incites people to bully him. The whole sordid enterprise is to get a reaction. Provide what he wants, and of course the organized forces of political correction will come down on your head with a tun of bricks.

It would moreover be redundant to observe that by giving the book a Governor-General’s Award, the obliging arts committee holds it up as a model for imitation by young readers. That the G-G himself didn’t pick it, could go without saying. That, like one of our frightened bishops, he hasn’t the intestinal fortitude to stand against these tax-monied operators acting in his name, we may also take for granted. They would make him the scandal if he tried, count on their friends in liberal media to smear him, and raise his intervention to the status of a constitutional crisis. We would get smug lectures about “censorship” of a book no one dreamt of censoring, simply because it was prevented from receiving a big public payout. I can imagine the new stickers bleating, “Je suis!” The publicity would meanwhile increase sales of the book more effectively than the award.

But so what? … (“They have their reward.”)

Can you imagine a Governor-General, nominated by a politician, having the courage to draw such obloquy on himself?

Can you imagine him prepared to resign his office, rather than allow both himself and the office to be used in this way?

Can you imagine what effect it could have, were such a line drawn? For it would inspire others to come out of hiding, and show some spine. How often in history has a battle turned, on the gallant gesture of a commander.

Challenging a moral order that has already disintegrated — thanks to cowardice, over generations — is today a cynical means to wealth and advancement. There are no risks, and the worst that can happen is, the audience will become bored and ignore you. This is increasingly the case: we yawn when we see another pervert strutting. The shock value is now close to nil, and we needn’t worry about the exposure of our children, because they’ve already been got at through every other channel of secular indoctrination, both in and out of school. They’re bored, too; they have seen it all, and are world-weary even before adolescence.

If we wanted to shock them, we would confront them with books that give compelling accounts of heroic chastity; that depict sincere devotion under the stress of persecution; that recall the many instances in history when sanctity prevailed against evil, even through death. We would champion, with examples, the joy of standing as the last man on the field of battle, or in the chamber as a Minority of One — for Love does not care about numbers.

The imam of a large Ottawa mosque recently warned that every time there is a terrorist hit, such as the recent one in Ottawa, he sees a spike in young men coming forward, to convert to Islam. (See here.) He worries most about those whom he never sees again, after he has explained the tenets of his religion, and questioned their motives for converting. We may guess that “moderate Islam” was not their cuppa chai.

On the day of this feast of Saint Timothy (old missal), bishop and martyr, to whom Saint Paul wrote two scriptural Epistles, expounding the task of bishops, this is worth bearing in mind: “Impose not hands lightly on any man.” The young generally, and the testosterone-charged young men especially, are drawn to bravura acts — whether they should be for good or for evil. And they are easily bored. Set an example of true heroic self-sacrificing goodness, and they will come to you. Set an example of murderous rage, of blood and fire and wanton destruction, and they will also come to you. Each tilts in the balance; and this is so whether or not nature has endowed them with better than average smarts.

It is useless to mumble about the filth, stench, and septic degeneration of our public life and culture; plain speaking is required. Every intelligent observer can know what is before his eyes, ears, and nostrils. The calling is to raise that consciousness above the environmental slime, and show the pleasure in being washed of it. This cannot be done by shrinking half measures. We need an appeal that is equal and opposite to that which inspires the next Muslim fanatic. This is what Christians, from our bishops down, must find in our hearts to teach, by word and by deed: holiness, in an immortal cause.

The purity required for this task is no superficial hygiene. It is rooted in profound truths, and expressed in a heroism so paradoxically meek that often it is visible only to God. Heroes do not wait for applause, like politicians. They do not make a show of their humility, either.

My father used to exhort me to take cold showers. “You will feel like a million dollars,” he’d say. But there is no price that can approximate to the pleasure of a clean conscience. We must preach cold showers: send them to the stalls for the Sacrament of Penance to wash them clean. And then we must teach them the modesty and wisdom of the truly brave. We must draw our swords in the spiritual combat and, as Saint Paul famously advised his beloved old travelling companion, “Fight the good fight!”

Yes, that Saint Timothy, Bishop of Ephesus, who died in the combat, around AD ninety-seven: Pray for us, in the same battle.

Richard Lubbock

“The moment I was born, I knew that William James was right. The world of the new-born baby is indeed, ‘All one great blooming, buzzing confusion.’ I was alarmed and baffled by the tumult that raged around and inside me. Intuition told me, ‘Here’s something that matters greatly.’ Had I possessed language, I would have demanded, ‘What the devil’s going on here?’ That’s the prime philosophical question, and I’ve been trying out different answers ever since.”

The words are quoted from my old Idler magazine, back in 1989. The man who wrote them, at the head of a long article about Alfred North Whitehead, was our “chief cosmological correspondent,” Richard Lubbock (1928–2015). When he died, Tuesday night, I was sent like most survivors on a little journey, backwards through time. I knew him only for his last thirty years, much of it spent arguing about beginnings and endings, sometimes of magazine articles, but usually of the universe. He was an endearingly cranky polymath, a broadly read and studied amateur of the sciences (in the best sense), freely invading almost every province.

When he first walked into my living room, near the beginning of that publishing enterprise, he came on the recommendation of a journalist friend, who didn’t know what to do with him. Richard had made his way as a hack, but owing to eccentricities of mind, and peculiarities of subject matter, he was no longer welcome anywhere else. The late Doug Marshall sent him over, I think. He loved Richard, and thought the Idler might be the perfect home for him; for as Doug knew, the whole point of the magazine was to publish writers who were excluded from other Canadian media, whether for an excess of talent or because they had something interesting to say. (This sepulchral quietude of mind and spirit has since been restored.)

Richard had all the qualifications to be our chief cosmological correspondent, and literary adviser in natural philosophy. He had been copywriter at Young & Rubicam in London, Fleet Street photographer, producer for the British version of Candid Camera, book reviewer in obscure journals, columnist in other short-lived periodicals, and once in Canada, writer and broadcaster for everything from the CBC to the Grope & Flail — however briefly. He came self-described as “extinct volcano, patchwork theologian, soi-disant luftmensch.” At the national magazine of luftmenschen he would fit right in.

To the view of a man then young (moi) he was old, wizened, small, goateed, indefatigably impish, and disturbingly curious about everything. Worse than curious: for one would tell him something, and if he liked it, he would immediately cross-examine in an exceedingly thorough and distressingly sceptical way. From some ancient famous Jewish scientific family (his father, Isaac, was quite literally a rocket scientist), he had also something of an aristocratic air, of the kind that survives generations of punishment. Truly, I loved him at first sight.

He went on to decorate our pages with beautifully rambling and droll essays — he’d been touched by the prose-writing angel — most of them on cosmological themes, but never self-consciously confined to the requirements of any “beat.” His first piece was entitled, “The Last Days of Darwin”; his best-known perhaps, “A Universe of One’s Own”; but the one open before me just now is “The Smithereen Foundation,” in which he takes on an economic question: How can we utterly destroy wealth? It demonstrates that there is nothing we can do to destroy it that won’t benefit someone in a material way, and expresses his curmudgeonly frustration with this.

His fascination with Whitehead was enduring, for Richard had a mind that worked like Whitehead’s, but in some parallel, more whimsical world. He had the Whiteheadian genuine respect for everything that is ordering, regardless of source or angle, starting from an essentially aesthetic position; as well as the Whiteheadian aloofness. Or in Richard’s own rendition, “If you listen carefully, you will hear, hidden beneath the screeches, squawks, and thwacks of the cosmos, the melodies and counterpoint of breathtaking music. Conscientious philosophers should try to experience that underlying beauty, to understand it, and to add to it.”

Among many secret passions, beneath a disinterested exterior, he was a devoted student of the anthropic cosmological principle — the works in physics of Frank J. Tipler and friends — and shamelessly enthusiastic about Tipler’s “Omega point” (which is offered as a plausible mechanism for the resurrection of the dead). But this he approached as pure science, and could be enthralled without the slightest temptation to give it a religious twist. In recent years, cross-examining him in a nursing home, I could find no diminution of his curiosity about “where it all leads” — but still no hurry to reach a conclusion.

In a similar way, he was a life-long bachelor, of the old-fashioned, heterosexual kind. This wasn’t any sort of plan or intention, as he explained around his eighty-fifth birthday: “I just haven’t met the right woman yet.” He thought Whitehead had, however — for the woman would have had to endure a man who, though outwardly serene on most occasions, would fall into frightening moods, “in which he addressed injurious objurgations to himself,” or remained pin-drop silent for days. (Mrs Whitehead would cure this by e.g. hurling herself on a sofa and feigning a heart attack.)

To the end, Richard was working on some bootstrap system, that would enable the universe to create itself, yet not exclude God. Over tea one day in his final earthly home of Christie Gardens he was delighted by the notion that God’s “method of creation” might consist of letting only those things happen, that were both self-consistent and exquisitely entertaining in and of themselves — each of the “multiverses” a new kind of self-winding toy. Yet at other times, he had despised the grimness of any such mechanical model, and condemned Edmond Halley for correctly predicting the return of his comet, thereby imposing physical machinery that could predict the future and retrodict the past. He also condemned Einstein for believing in it, and praised quantum theory for getting us out of the jam.

Verily, he had written in the Idler a wonderful attack on the “Occam’s Razor Gang,” metaphysical nominalism, and “all those ontological beggars” that hung out at Cambridge when he was a lad; and all his life he had longed to do things that would scandalize and upset them. Certainly he was theist enough to mock the pomposities of all the “new atheists”; but it would be going considerably beyond the evidence to claim him for the Catholic Church. (Aheu! there were moments in his last years when I thought he might get there.)

It was typical of Richard that, given at most six months to live, about three years ago, he paid no heed, and retaliated against his doctors by becoming a little more cheerful. Too, that he left his body “such as it is” to science. He told me he was doing this a few years ago, I think just to annoy me — “in instalments,” he added, with reference to an amputated leg.

Gentle reader: please say an Ave for my dear, dear friend.

Marching to nowhere

It was quite the spectacle in Washington today. Several hundred thousand had gathered for the forty-first annual March for Life, and the Republican Party —  bristling with its new majority in both houses of Congress — were tabling a bill to limit child-killing to the first twenty weeks in the mother’s womb. (The Judgment of Solomon comes to mind.) They pulled the bill after a party tussle over … O Lord, it is too absurd. The upshot was handing a huge propaganda victory to the pro-abortion side, with liberal media gleefully headlining that Republican “women and moderates” had stopped the thing.

The truth is that the whole party consists of gutless gnomes. Even with polls showing three-in-five electors supporting the bill, they could not man up. Tens of millions of children have been slaughtered, and they slip over a rape exemption, and whether women should have to report the rape in order to be exempted — after twenty weeks! Republicans may claim to be pro-life, but it counts for nothing when they are morally and intellectually unserious.

Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade, it is imagined that Americans are still “having a debate.” But this is nonsense. There never has been a debate, and in the nature of the case, there never could be. Perhaps a debate is possible over capital punishment. But you cannot debate about killing babies, who have committed no crimes. Either one grasps that this is invariably morally abhorent, or one does not. That only three in five should be opposed to abortion — instead of five in five — is a national scandal. (The scandal up here in Canada is worse.) That many even of those against abortion would consider exceptions, then make them sticking points, reveals a society depraved.

And whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad. I must insist on this point: that what is morally abhorent will also prove obtuse, intellectually. We do not take a crime off the books, because someone can think of a circumstance in which it might be extenuated: not when the principle of mercy in hard cases is itself compact in our entire legal tradition. By turning an extenuation into a waiver, the very possibility of mercy is foregone.

It is perhaps more obvious that no one can draw a line at twenty weeks, between what is human and what is to be given legal equivalence to an unwanted cat. The premiss of the Republican bill, that after twenty weeks the foetus can feel pain, was a monstrous farce. We are not discussing cruelty to animals. Yet I would seize on the distinction if only to defend one human life.

Either that life has absolute value, or it has not. If it has not, no one is secure in the law. There can be no middle ground on this. We see this in the polling of the young. While it is probably true that a growing proportion of them oppose abortion “on balance,” those who approve it take increasingly radical positions. My information is that a high proportion of those who call themselves “pro-choice” now also support infanticide at up to five years of age, and “euthanasia” at any age on almost any excuse.

These are mere opinions, however. Many people entertain horrific opinions, but would not act on them. And the young, as they learn in the course of time, are exceptionally stupid.

Opinions are worthless when it comes to the test. That is when we find if the voluble pro-lifer will actually carry the baby to term. The same technology that shows it is human, also shows irregularities and risks. I note estimates that suggest nine-in-ten Down’s-syndrome children now get aborted. There are many other temptations to take what first appears the easy way out, and in those moments opinions will not help the girl. The question is no longer abstract, and she must turn to the grace of God.

And when she turns there, she will know how things really stand. Whether or not from her own fault, her life will be harder, but look around: every human life is hard, all of us must carry crosses. She still has a life, and in this child who is growing inside her, and out of her very womanhood, she now has more reason to live. It is not just the life of the baby, but the life of the mother that can be redeemed. What she in her despair has taken as the means to her damnation, could instead be the means to her salvation. And in the moment she has discovered that, she will love that child with a mother’s love, so great that rather than kill the child, she would die for it. This is the reality that feminists sneer at, and abortionists deny.

The opinions of males come to less than nothing, for the fathers of these defenceless children are removed by law from any say in whether they will be slain. In the public mind, at the present moment, the “choice” is who stands higher in authority: women, or God? For those who think, whether publicly or privately, that God is a fairy tale, the answer is a snip.

Yet all along, through this last ignominious half-century, regardless of the overall level of support or opposition to abortion, women have been more likely than men to oppose, and for an obvious reason: because women can actually become pregnant. It is on this very account that they feel more vividly what is at stake. A man is more likely, in current circumstances, to feel what the pregnancy of the woman might cost him, in child support. For this reason I have long thought any referendum should be restricted to women.

In this, further, we see the “auld alliance” from the 1960s, still unshakable, between feminists and playboys. The young man seeks his sport among women who have freed themselves from the “oppression” of the old morality. (Every moral demand is oppressive to the sinful will.) He supports “women’s issues” with a smirk on his face; or that earnest look, as his quarry draws near.

But again, referenda are meaningless, on questions of right and wrong that transcend the interests of any one generation. And even within that oscillating congress of the living, babies can’t vote — when their very lives depend on the outcome. That is why we had unchanging laws: to protect the defenceless against fleeting “public opinion” in their immediate vicinity. That is what Roe v. Wade blew away in 1973, with consequences far beyond the issue of abortion. Their glib decision (on the level of legal reasoning, it was a sick joke, making one human’s life subject to another’s passing idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) unshackled the American courts, to rule by fashionable whim on every other matter of good and evil, life and death.

Such that even were a referendum held, and an overwhelming majority voted to restore the law as it once was, the result would be quickly obviated. It would be made irrelevant, just as the results of referenda that opposed same-sex marriage, by large margins, in every one of the thirty-one states that held them, were swept aside by a few liberal judges — creating the latest fait accompli for the U.S. Supreme Court to acknowledge, in June. We live today in a lawless society, bound in by multiplying laws on every side — like waves, on a sea of triviality. (This result is less Orwellian, than Kafkaesque.)

We are told that the many pro-life marches — though largely ignored in the liberal media, which put far smaller liberal-themed rallies at the top of page one — have had an influence on public opinion. The evidence is that the abortion rate has fallen. Frankly, I don’t believe the pro-life explanation. I think the truth is that the phenomenon is hollowing out: people who would abort have been aborted; and morning-after pills are now available. Nature is taking its course as the overall birthrate plunges, in North America as in Europe and elsewhere. Fewer women of child-bearing age means fewer having abortions: the rate should continue to fall. I see no sign of a moral recovery, and will not celebrate the statistics until they show the birth rate rising and the abortion rate falling at the same time.

This result will be achieved when America begins to re-Christianize, or when it is put under Shariah. These are the available options; a secular America will simply go extinct.


A contributor to some other anti-blog makes up for my indiscretion of yesterday by congratulating the Holy Father on his adherence to the traditional teaching of the Church, with respect to human breeding levels. His suggestion to reporters in the usual airborne scrum, that Catholics should not “breed like rabbits,” is thus well taken. While the (pseudonymous) commenter did not provide supporting scriptural or patristic references, I’m sure plenty could be found. All one needs is a free afternoon and good wrists, thanks to recent technology; and the distinction between humans and other animals is anyway implicit throughout the literature. Nor can I think of a single place where the imitation of rabbits is proposed to the faithful; though of course it is notoriously hard to prove a negative.

Now, the gestation period for rabbits is about four weeks, and litters can be as many as fourteen, though I believe the average is a paltry six. As induced ovulators, the females can be impregnated again within minutes of giving birth. The offspring become sexually mature in six months; so we may now do the arithmetic. If, in defiance of papal advice, Catholic women were to breed like rabbits, the demographic effect would be significant. From our present base of perhaps 600,000,000 females — but subtracting half as too young or too old — we could draw level with the rest of the world’s population in a month, and reach our first trillion well inside the year.

Even at the Pope’s recommended average of three (per month, I assume, given his rabbit analogy), I should think Canon Law will have completely displaced the Shariah by summer, everywhere.

It is odd, though. Carrying my binoculars to my balconata this morning, and searching the neighbourhood for my buzzard (see antepenultimate Idlepost), I did not spot him. But more interesting, I did not spot a single rabbit, either. Could there be something wrong with my math? Impossible. Could my buzzard have eaten every rabbit in sight? (Or, that would have been in sight?) He did not look so hungry. There must be other factors, limiting the rabbit population; other factors which, it seems to me, we could overcome should we ever experience a deficiency of protein.

Malthusian worries about overpopulation have been discredited by greater authorities than I; let me spare gentle reader a reprise of their arguments. In the case of Catholics, I suppose the reason we have so few, is that so many go off to the nunneries, these days. (There may be other explanations, but this is the one I prefer.)

My own recommendation, in accord with Rome’s, is that Catholic families breed only like people. My fear, perhaps echoing the Pope’s, is that anything faster would necessarily involve reproductive technologies that, as Christians, we could not accept. One per litter should be adequate, as a minimum, and as to the cumulative total, well, I am on record. I think, enough boys to make a cricket team, and as many girls as comes with that. This should be enough to maintain our population, through any foreseeable environmental catastrophe.


The Gates of Hell shall not prevail, but perhaps it will be a close-run thing. This unpleasant thought occurred, hardly for the first time, in reading the latest rumours and “analyses” (it is getting harder to tell them apart) from the Vatican watchers. My worst fear, or rather, my worst fear that could be expressed in crisp broad strokes of black on white, is that the current Pope might, in his characteristically spontaneous way, suddenly convoke another ecumenical council and, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” announce a “Vatican III.” Under present circumstances, I cannot think of a bigger catastrophe: one so likely to provoke open civil war of the kind we previewed last October. Imagine the effect of a sprawling, hugely publicized convention, going on for years, at which national and regional factions within the Church tear each other apart, in response to the manipulations of a highly politicized, consciously organized, and papally blessed group of “modernizers.”

My unstated fear began with a reading of Evangelii Gaudium — the apostolic exhortation published in November 2013, which was lauded in liberal media as the Pope’s “wake-up call,” and can be read as a personal agenda for the Church. Traditional themes for such exhortations were included, and there were standard references to Scripture, and to Fathers and Doctors of the Church — but these were remarkably thin and often put into strange contexts. I was distressed by the conversational style, and the amount of trite and “progressive” rubbish on economic and social questions far beyond the papal remit. I was alarmed by a slovenly ecumenism, effectively proposing to “dumb down” Church teaching for mission purposes; by persistent deference to agencies of the State; and by the casual disparagement of traditional worship. While most such statements were qualified, in light of received doctrine, I could see where the emphases were and what was being rhetorically privileged. In moments it was as if the Church were to become a kind of holier-than-thou NGO; and I could imagine what would happen if such prescriptions were presented to another ecumenical council.

In Andrea Gagliarducci’s usually informative Monday blog, I read yesterday of rumours that, “a first draft for the announcement of a Third Vatican Council is circulating.” I pray this is untrue.

The Pope can have no intention of altering Church doctrine, to suit the times. But I reflect that this is the inevitable consequence of delivering “pastoral policy” into the hands of voracious “reformers” with their own unmistakably worldly aspirations. Should the focus of the Church be redirected from Jesus Christ to “the poor” — defined in strictly material terms — most of the institution would collapse as quickly as it did in e.g. Argentina.

Indeed, as across Latin America, the poor will be the first people leaving, for exactly the reasons they gave recently to Pew pollsters. Asked why they had abandoned Holy Church for various Evangelical sects, the most common first answer was consistently: “seeking a more personal connexion with God.” And if one looks through other answers, one finds reproach of a hierarchy too closely tied to the civil powers. Radically increasing the Church’s participation in worldly, agenda-driven causes, at the unavoidable expense of “traditional” spiritual concerns, is only a way to enlarge the plughole.

People do not come to church looking for social science lectures. They come seeking Christ. Of course the current Pope knows this in his heart, and says it aloud often enough, but says it among many other things that contradict or distract from it. These may make a splash and be popular for a time, but only among people who will demand ever more concessions. At the end of the day a man whose stomach feels empty has a heart that feels empty, too: a heart that Christ alone can fill.

Let us hope that all of my information is wrong, all of my inferences are misconstrued, and all of my fears are illusory.

And meanwhile, Saint Sebastian of the arrows, pray for us.

Teaching Shakespeare

I have the grimmest memories of being taught Shakespeare. It happened in a high school in Ontario in the ’sixties. I’m sure that my teacher meant well. It was on the curriculum, and what could she do? It started with Romeo and Juliet, in connexion with which we were taken to see a movie. This was also called “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Tell the truth, I fell in love with the actress — for hours; days maybe. But then I’ve always been a fool for women. We were taught not the play, but the movie; then as we moved on to The Merchant of Venice (I think it was, I wasn’t paying much attention) we were taught not the play, but “what it all means.” I can only bear that when the teacher has some notion of what it all might mean, herself.

My interest focused curiously enough not on Romeo, nor Juliet, nor any of the powers at play in Verona, but on Friar Laurence, and his charitable if somewhat naive efforts to prevent bad things from happening. Shakespeare here and elsewhere had the nerve to present Catholic monks and nuns in a good light, after they’d been scoured from the English landscape. Pay attention, and know anything at all about his times, and one will see that he has consistently reversed the “stereotypes” promoted in Elizabethan England. There, as here today, the traditional practitioners of religion were satirized for corruption and hypocrisy. In Shakespeare, instead, the monks and nuns scramble about trying to fix one mess or another that the worldlings have created for themselves, and somehow reconcile them with Our Lord. We see plainly who the real Christians are, and who are not. And if we want real hypocrisy and corruption — we find for instance Angelo, in Measure for Measure, with his parade of fake asceticism, and lines to echo those of contemporary “reformers.”

I mention that play as extremely topical, in light of recent events at Rome. Also, because it was once taught to me as an exposé of religious life, when it is — shriekingly — the opposite.

But by that point in my life (age fourteen) I was already a Shakespeare votary, and no high school teacher could kill my enthusiasm for him, much as she might (unwittingly) kill it in everyone else, by making a drudgery of the subject. The basic clew was missing among the pedagogues, as it still is: that this subject teaches itself. It needs only a stage, only to be pronounced, for the “music” in verse and prose to begin explaining all the words. The less prepared a student is to resist Shakespeare, the faster he will succumb to the charm. This has been tested: even before audiences in India with little knowledge of English in any dialect; or in Germany a long time ago, where English strolling players took Shakespeare when London theatres had been closed. The story of Shakespeare’s conquests, in English and a hundred other languages, is one the English themselves have hardly understood, and exhibits to my mind the truth of Kipling’s: “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

In another school, in Pakistan, I’d been introduced to Shakespeare at age seven. It wasn’t a formal introduction. The class teacher, a Miss Quinn (with whom I’m still in love), had the habit of quoting him. She would also give us short passages to memorize, in a spontaneous, gratuitous sort of way. Often they were printed in her century-old reader. (Well, less than half-a-century, then.) She gave the impression that Shakespeare was the meaning of her life, though never trying to explain him. She would even give us a word — a word from Shakespeare — and dwell lovingly on its pronunciation. And then not explain what it meant. She did the same for Milton, sometimes, and if my recollection is correct, for someone called Alexander Pope. (Just think, she must be 110 years old now.)

I’m sure I have mentioned this life-affirming experience before, here or somewhere; how she presented me with my first copy of Shakespeare, and so forth. I could go on to recall the miniature stage my grandfather made for me: with standing characters cut out flat in profile, to be moved about with hooked wires, and three sliding background panels for generic scenes — painted from Shakespeare. The one which represented the Forest of Arden has the power to put me under a spell, even in memory. I could tell of the puppet plays; the neighbourhood theatricals among the children of Edith Street in Georgetown. There is more, but I think I’d better stop now.

Never will I be a teacher like Miss Quinn, alas; for I, too, have that weakness for trying to explain “what it all means.” Be warned, I’m about to prove this.

Long before I became a Catholic, I realized that Shakespeare was one: as Catholic as so many of the nobles, artists, musicians and composers at the Court of Bad Queen Bess. I did not come to this conclusion because some secret Recusant document had fallen into my hands; or because I subscribed to any silly acrostic an over-ingenious scholar had descried, woven into a patch of otherwise harmless verses. My view came rather from reading the plays. The Histories especially, to start: which also helped form my reactionary politics, contributing powerfully to my contempt for mobs, and the demons who lead them. But with improvements of age, I now see an unmistakably Catholic “worldview” written into every scene that is indisputably from Shakespeare’s hand. (This recent piece by another lifelong Shakespeare addict — here — will spare me a paragraph or twenty.)

That our Bard came from Warwickshire, to where he returned after tiring of his big-city career, tells us plenty to start. The county, as much of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Country, and some other parts of England, remained all but impenetrable to Protestant agents and hitmen, well into Shakespeare’s time. Warwick’s better houses were tunnelled through with priest holes; and through Eamon Duffy and other “revisionist” historians we are beginning to recover knowledge of much that was papered over by the old Protestant and Statist propaganda. The story of Shakespeare’s own “lost years” (especially 1585–92) has been plausibly reconstructed; documentary evidence has been coming to light that was not expected before. Yet even in the eighteenth century, the editor Edmond Malone had his hands on nearly irrefutable evidence of the underground commitments of Shakespeare’s father, John; and we always knew the Hathaways were papists. Efforts to challenge such forthright evidence, or to deny its significance, are as old as the same hills.

But again, “documents” mean little to me, unless they can decisively clinch a point, as they now seem to be doing. Even so, people will continue to believe what they want to believe. In Wiki and like sources one will often find the most telling research dismissed, without examination, with a remark such as, “Against the trend of current scholarship.”

That “trend” consists of “scholars” who are not acquainted with the Bible (to which Shakespeare alludes on every page); have no knowledge of the religious controversies of the age, or what was at stake in them; show only a superficial comprehension of the Shakespearian “texts” they pretend to expound; assume the playwright is an agnostic because they are; and suffer from other debilities incumbent upon being all-round drooling malicious idiots.

Perhaps I could have put that more charitably. But I think it describes “the trend of current scholarship” well enough.

Now here is where the case becomes complicated. As something of a courtier himself, in later years under royal patronage, Shakespeare would have fit right into a Court environment in which candles and crucifixes were diligently maintained, the clergy were cap’d, coped, and surpliced, the cult of the saints was still alive, and outwardly even though Elizabeth was Queen, little had changed from the reign of Queen Mary.

The politics were immensely complicated; we might get into them some day. The point to take here is that the persecution of Catholics was happening not inside, but outside that Court. Inside, practising Catholics were relatively safe, so long as they did not make spectacles of themselves; and those not wishing to be hanged drawn and quartered, generally did not. It was outside that Queen Elizabeth walked her political tightrope, above murderously contending populist factions. She found herself appeasing a Calvinist constituency for which she had no sympathy, yet which had become the main threat to her rule, displacing previous Catholic conspirators both real and imagined. Quite apart from the bloodshed, those were interesting times, in every part of which we must look for motives to immediate context, before anywhere else. Eliza could be a ruthless, even fiendish power politician; but she was also an extremely well-educated woman, and in her tastes, a pupil of the old school.

Indeed the Puritans frequently suspected their Queen, despite her own Protestant protestations, of being a closet Catholic; and suspected her successor King James even more. A large part of the Catholic persecution in England was occasioned by the need to appease this “Arab spring” mob, concentrated in the capital city. Their bloodlust required human victims. The Queen and then her successor did their best to maintain, through English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the mediaeval Catholic inheritance, while throwing such sop to the wolves as the farcical “Articles of Religion.”

The question is not whether Shakespeare was one of the many secretly “card-carrying” Catholics. I think he probably was, on the face of the evidence, but that is a secondary matter. It is rather what Shakespeare wrote that is important. His private life is largely unrecoverable, but what he believed, and demonstrated, through the media of his plays and poems, remains freely available. He articulates an unambiguously Catholic view of human life in the Creation, and it is this that is worth exploring. The poetry (in both plays and poems) can be enjoyed, to some degree, and the dramatic element in itself, even if gentle reader has not twigged to this, just as Mozart can be enjoyed by those who know nothing about music. But to begin to understand as astute an author as was ever born, and to gain the benefit from what he can teach — his full benevolent genius — one must make room for his mind.


NOTE: The Tudor historian, Gerald Bowler, writes to mention “the Ridolfi Plot; John Somerville’s plot; William Parry’s plot; Francis Throckmorton’s plot; the Babington Plot; the rising of the Northern Earls; the machinations of the Duke of Norfolk, with perhaps the involvement of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the writings of the exile Jesuit Robert Persons and Cardinal Allen,” as examples of threats to Elizabeth that did not come from Calvinists. “To an aficionado of papal decrees such as yourself, I need only mention the bull Regnans in Excelsis (1570) to recall to your mind that Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth a heretic and absolved her subjects of their allegiance to her.” … Fair enough, and I have revised a sentence to make clearer that I was referring to Elizabeth’s main opponents during Shakespeare’s public career, and not earlier in her reign. … Prof Bowler incidentally agrees that Shakespeare was “at some level, a Catholic supporter.” And goes slightly beyond me in describing Liz Tudor as, “a hideous rat-bag, a mountain of selfishness, redeemed as a politician only by a wonderful gift for dithering and a genius for public relations.”

A buzzard

In the middle of a mind-bending technological transaction yesterday, which had him stuck on a telephone, my son gently nudged me, pointing to the window. With a slow swivel of my head, I saw. There was, perched majestically on my balconata railing, an Buteo lagopus. That’s a rough-legged buzzard (or “hawk” to the Yankees). Though slightly bedraggled and unkempt, he appeared nevertheless serenely self-confident, surveying the street scene a hundred feet below. He held still quite a while — only the head slightly shifting like an owl’s — as I tried to memorize every possible distinguishing feature. Then suddenly without warning he dived out of view.

I had never seen one before, anywhere in the city, though on checking with the ornithological authorities I see his kind are not that uncommon here. Most of them are spotted in the outer suburbs, especially around the airport with its open fields, full of little rodents for the taking. Those who stray downtown do not usually do balconatas, or take in the opera either I suppose, preferring roof-edges which are more like cliffs, and where the pigeons make plenty of room for them. To my northern buzzard, this is down south for winter: in spring he will return well above the tree-line.

Entirely an arctic bird: lagopus means “hare’s foot” and refers to his feathered legs, that fit him for extreme cold. The talons looked well-suited to the immediate dispatch of a lemming or a vole; and the eyes, which I caught from an acute angle, belonged in a Ted Hughes poem.

Definitely male, though even so, the largest bird ever to alight on my railing, during my watch. The ladies are bigger, and half-again the weight. You don’t want to steal eggs from them, I learn from a source I am not inclined to challenge. (But stealing them from chickens is no fun at all.) Makes a sound like a cat, I gather — a cat with anger management issues — and should you earn some mother’s ire, I’m told, she can come screaming down deafening on your head, pass after pass like a goshawk. For birds of prey seem generally to have quite advanced family values (including monogamy).

Though fearsome, I was also endeared by the eyes, which spell death on their food sources, yet may never be seen by them. Those eyes had also the earnest attentiveness of a fine student. I thought of the eagle of Saint John on Patmos, symbol of courage and contemplative faith; and of the Psalm — “thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

I spoke once with a falconer, who said his bird could convey a remarkable range of perceptions through his eyes, and an emotion like companionship. Too, he said there is no companionship like two creatures who would kill for each other.

But they are not sentimental. It goes deeper than that, and even in the eyes of so fierce a predator, there is also something of the rudiments of love.

Into the desert

I have done it again, gentle reader. This “essay” (actually a four-bead string) which I posted at 1600 words, grew mysteriously overnight to more than 2300, in response to queries from puzzled and affronted readers. More than one has begged me to flag all changes. But no, I won’t do that, it would make a dog’s breakfast. Best thing I can recommend is not to read any of these febrile squibs until I have posted the next one. Then you have some reasonable assurance that the man who rivals Joyce and Proust, if only in his fussing with the gallies, has at last moved on.


Everything is coming out of Egypt these days, just like in the Bible. The Paris demonstrations were a throwback not only to the grand gatherings of a century ago, when the masses in each European capital were demanding war, but also to the recent “Arab spring,” when the masses in Egypt and every Middle Eastern capital were demanding “democracy.” Mobs often get what they want. The best that can be said for the Jesuischarlies, is they haven’t a clew what they want, beyond making an emotional display of their own vaunted goodness.

And yet, large demonstrations are expressions of despair. They bring momentary relief in a false exhilaration: the idea that something can be done, by men; something that will not cost them vastly more than they are now paying. Verily, it is the counsel of despair. I don’t think I can provide any example from history in which mass political demonstrations did any good; only examples when they did not end as badly as they could have.

I hardly expect agreement on this point, especially on non-violent demonstrations that affirm some simple moral point, such as the wrongness of racial prejudice, or of the slaughter of unborn children. But these must necessarily politicize something which should be above politics, and cannot help bringing an element of intimidation into what must finally be communicated cor ad cor. Pressure politics change everything, such that even when the cause is indisputably elevated — the American civil rights marches of the 1960s are a good example — the effect is dubious. What came out in that case was not simply the destruction of an evil, but its replacement with new evils: welfare provisions which undermined the black family, the poison of race quotas and “reverse discrimination,” the canting and excuse-making and radical posturing that has wreaked more aggregate damage to black people — both spiritual and material — than the wicked humiliations they suffered before. (Read Thomas Sowell.)

“Be careful what you wish for.” Be mindful of what comes with that wish. Be careful whom you ask to deliver it.

To my mind (which rules this space) the Europeans have already accepted too much counsel from the Devil. The Devil likes to lead people into situations where anything they do will be wrong; where any way out will be too painful to consider. They are now in one of those situations, hemmed on every side; though the Devil still tells them they have soft options. He lies: they don’t. Wishing very hard won’t help them, that only works in Peter Pan. And despair won’t help them, either. They may demonstrate all they wish: a million fools are not an improvement on the judgement of one solitary fool. But try telling that to a million fools.

Try telling them that every Muslim in Europe is ripe for conversion; for every person is. Or that it is the duty of every baptized Christian to evangelize. And by the way, good luck!

Men love to make grandiloquent gestures. These never work. God might conceivably fix “a problem” with some memorable piece of performance art, but that isn’t His style. His direct interventions in history may for all we know be numerous — must have been, considering the number of inevitable catastrophes averted — but those interventions are invariably subtle. He does not “compel us to believe.” Even His own coming down, from Heaven to Earth, was done with minimal fanfare. That was what the ancients found most striking about it. An angel told a few shepherds; a few others were tipped off in dreams, though no human except Mary could have been fully “in the loop.” Indeed, the Devil was left to make the first positive identification of Our Lord and Saviour. (And for once, the Devil was a reliable witness.)

There is very little statesmen can do, though at their best more good than evil. Demonstrations achieve nothing good. Mass demonstrations, and mass idiocy, provide us only with facts, which every statesman must work with. The wise place themselves outside such facts, so far as they are able. What can be done, given what has happened? The intelligent political mind is something extremely rare, and its appearance at any location, in time of crisis, must appear sheer luck. The typical politician keeps no distance at all. He will go with the flow, ride with the tide, mud with the flood. One thinks, for instance, of the forty truly contemptible politicians who were leading that Paris demonstration, and the hundred more heads of state and government who now rue that they weren’t there, too, elbowing to get in front of the cameras.

What can be done? Perhaps call Egypt.


My chief western Ireland veterinary correspondent writes to ask if I think we can “do business with” General Sisi of Egypt, a man who is not easily readable, but whose heart seems to be in the right place. He seems to know how to deal with Muslim fanatics. He was installed as head of the Egyptian military by his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi; and (like Sadat before him) is known to be a devoutly observant Muslim. Notwithstanding, he has been heard to attribute Egypt’s political difficulties to Islam, of all things. He has also made gnomic remarks about his own past, and the pleasures of his childhood in a neighbourhood of Cairo where he could watch Jews going to synagogue, and hear the bells of the Christian churches, and enjoy the riches in the library of al-Azhar. He is the son of an antiques dealer in perhaps Cairo’s finest bazaar, and has the sphinx smile: it would be hard for me not to like the man. I am also well-disposed to generals, provided they are sane.

So far as I have been able to follow events, Sisi was behind the overthrow of Morsi, although he was not immediately installed as his replacement. It was Sisi who decided, in effect, that Egypt had had “enough democracy now,” and it was time to bring all demonstrations to an end. His boss had turned one half of Egypt against the other half, and that meant he had to go. That the American patrons of the Egyptian military were now siding with Morsi on “democratic principles” was a matter of no consequence: for the American government had already made a hash, and was led by a gutless zero. I admire clear thinking.

The answer to the question of my Irish veterinarian is, “I don’t know.”

I take it as a two-part question, for I am deeply suspicious of the phrase, “do business with,” when applied to international politics. In one sense a head of government should do business with everyone, in another sense with no one. To the degree he interferes in the political life of another state — plays games to favour one party over another — he endangers the interests of his own. Conversely the best influence is to rule by example; and by focusing on Egypt alone, and quietly stepping out of regional controversies, Sisi is doing perhaps as much regional good as Erdogan of Turkey is doing evil.

Long have I thought the best way for a head of government to influence events is by the profound mischief of telling the truth. If that rattles his enemies, at home and abroad, fine and good. Rattle them again; having made clear you don’t plan to stop. (Of all the words spoken by Ronald Reagan, the two most consequential were, “evil empire.”) It is amazing what spectacularly good effects can follow from speaking the truth clearly; and in that knowledge you may let the cards fall where they may. Sisi, who seems inclined to tell the truth, must deal with Erdogan, who is a compulsive liar. Erdogan has done everything in his power to meddle in Egyptian affairs, Sisi nothing to meddle in Turkey’s. And it seems to me that in this duel, Sisi is winning: Erdogan turns his attention elsewhere.

Only the truth can build a real consensus; lies only divide.

Good government — as captured in the old Canadian constitutional phrase, “Peace, order, and good government” — works towards consensus and not against it. Democracy, as Thomas Aquinas and other Schoolmen observed, is essentially divisive: it accentuates the division into parties, and impassions all sides. It can only work for as long as all parties agree on what constitutes motherhood and apple pie. From the moment the people are asked to choose between contending “agendas” and “visions,” the Devil has the keys to the city. It is because I think Sisi understands this, that I think we can “do business with him” — so long as our business is to stay out of his affairs.

But I’ve never met the man; and even if I had, it is unlikely I would have come to an intimate understanding of the condition of his soul; and if I could somehow have done that, I wouldn’t be writing about it. For I may be a hack journalist, but I am not totally sleazy.


What, gentle reader may ask, is that fundamental problem with Islam, that even many Muslims begin to understand? Now, that is a question much easier to answer.

It is the coercion thing. This has been deeply implanted through fourteen centuries, and to be fair to the religion in Egypt, it is backed by forty more of pharaonic or quasi-pharaonic history — with only a few centuries of Christian relief. Basically, your Musulman, like your modern Liberal, thinks that the Good is something that must be compelled. That is why Muslim fanatics and Leftists are likely to see eye to eye, and find ways to cooperate, wherever the work of the Devil is afoot, even though the theological differences between them are substantial. They have a common enemy, in us. They agree on the basic principle of Shariah: that law should be more than negative and preventative; that instead it should be positive and pro-active; that it is an irreplaceable tool for social engineering.

This is starkly in contrast with the Christian, or might I say, Judaeo-Christian inheritance, in which men should be discouraged from committing specific crimes, but virtues should not, indeed cannot be compelled. They can only be inspired. Christians and Jews have not always been good. Some have been tyrants. But their faith does not command them to be tyrants, does not tell them to enforce the Good, even on themselves. It tells them instead to be good. At most, Deus vult is for special occasions.

Not even God compels the Good. Instead, He tells us what it is and suggests that we choose it. He lets us make mistakes; lets us learn from the consequences, even terrible consequences. He does not chop our hand off the moment it reaches for something it should not take, for we shall need the same hand to restore what we have taken.

Ratzinger, my beloved Ratzinger, compared the Holy Spirit in this way to a good teacher, in relation to e.g. papal conclaves. He is strangely collegial. He does not, He most decidedly does not, choose the Pope. (We have had some really bad ones.) He lets even Cardinals make mistakes. He isn’t the guarantee they will get everything right, only the guarantee that, in the end, “we won’t be able to ruin everything.”


In today’s feast, that of Saint Anthony Abbot mentioned two posts back, we see how this “dependence on the miraculous” proceeds. Anthony was founder of Christian monasticism, both East and West. His solution to the world’s problems was to go off into the desert and pray. Many followed: to the present day, the Egyptian desert is fairly well supplied with Christian monks. Many found themselves out there on the front line — themselves, actually fighting with the Devil. And of course, losing, unless they got help from the only source that can help against him. But first it was Anthony, called into the desert, founding the first monasteries out there. It was a new music.

Three centuries later Gregory I, perhaps the greatest of our Popes, was the first to come in from a monastery, stepping through the rubble of Rome. A certain monastic aloofness has always been an advantage in a ruler; an understanding that God solves problems, because we can’t. (He was also blessed with a certain aristocratic aloofness.) Gregory was impossible without Anthony; Anthony was impossible without Jesus Christ; everything is connected. Nothing is possible, without Grace. Gregory understood, for practical purposes, that what we most needed was liturgy, and chant, and so he sang his Office. The Christian world began to come together when he did.

It still does. In the Mass, in the Gregorian Chant, we are drawn in a thread directly back through centuries of monastic life, to Gregory and through him to Anthony and through him — but now we have passed through the eye of a needle. And there is no need for coercion: Sing.

Of course, the worst evils must be stopped: every decent person can know that. But the Good cannot be compelled, by men. It must come to them by Grace, from God. It comes as life itself came to this planet: by inspiration, and in a seeming infinite variety of forms; and like a psalm out of the desert. It was to the desert that we went to hear.

Saint Anthony, as you have prayed for Egypt, and prayed for Rome, pray for those Frenchmen, and pray for us.