Essays in Idleness


Dating Christmas

If there are thirty people in a room, the chances are good that two will share a birthday. Indeed, there is less than one chance in three that this won’t happen. Double the number in the room, however, and the chances against don’t halve; rather they fall nearly to zero. By the time seventy people have arrived, the chance that no two share a birthday is one in a thousand.  The “birthday problem” is good mathematical fun. Every code-breaker knows how to use this key to probability theory. It is the beginning of wisdom with regard to coincidences. That is to say, in many cases, the absence of a coincidence would be the bigger weird.

But what are the chances that just two people will share the same birthday? Pretty slim. I’d say about one in three hundred and sixty-five. (Actually, three hundred sixty-six and one quarter, but we won’t go into it.)

Now, Christmas comes but once a year, and since the beginning of the third century — at the very latest — it has come in the West on the 25th of December. The Roman Saturnalia came on the 17th of December. Note that this is not the same date. Yet I must have been told a hundred times, by people who know zilch about Christianity, or the history of much anything else, that Christmas was designed to replace the Roman Saturnalia, and was an adaptation of that old pagan festival.

One should count to eight before giving opinions on subjects one knows nothing about. (I often wish they would do this in Rome.) True, Christmas and Saturnalia both happen near the winter solstice, but neither of them on it, and anyway, so what?

Tertullian, very early in that third century, is already making fun of people who think Christians might take Saturnalia seriously. (See his De Fuga in Persecutione, published 208 AD, and you might also want to check out his Apologeticus, from a few years earlier.) He says, for instance, that the festival involves the custom of ritual bathing, and admits that he bathed on the very morning of Saturnalia. He bathes on many other mornings, too, yet as he explains, his purpose is not to honour pagan gods. It is instead to make himself clean and decent.

But here the joke turns around on itself. Tertullian also contrasts the pagan festival with Christian observances. One of his examples is holiday gift-giving. The pagans are all rushing about, acquiring presents to give one another — images come to mind of the Saturnalian shopping season in ancient Rome. He mentions that they hang wreaths, and other festive decorations; they also party and drink a lot. But not the Christians: they don’t do that. By contrast, they are habitually sacramental; not loud and lewdly materialist like those pagans. On their holy days, one finds the Christians soberly at prayer.

So here we are, eighteen centuries later, never having dreamt of turning Saturnalia into Christmas; but having, after all this time, turned Christmas into Saturnalia instead.

The better-educated wiseacre will try for a connexion between Christmas and Mithraic festivals at Alexandria. (Fat chance.) Or perhaps, the celebration of Sol Invictus, ordered by the Emperor Aurelian, which did at least fall on December 25th. But there the evidence strongly suggests the co-optation went the other way: for the Christians had taken that date before Aurelian was even born.

How had the date been selected? … Curious minds might want to know.

Joseph Ratzinger looked into this question in his (indispensible) book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Slightly different dates were selected, East and West, for complicated reasons; but in the West, the choice was confident and consistent. This is because the date for the Annunciation had already been established (in the West) as the 25th of March — the ancient New Year, by the sighting of the vernal equinox, associated with the beginning of the world. Add exactly nine months to that, and Bob’s your uncle.


Addendum: Just annihilated the latter half of this Idlepost, which struck me in the morning light as “too much information”; sure hope nobody liked it.

Peter Geach

But of course, we are all Jacobites up here in the High Doganate. (See here.) We do not allow this to distract us, however, from our loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen. While it is true, quite frankly, that she is not a Stuart, Elizabeth II is a very fine Queen: the bestest you could imagine. And, a considerable improvement on the previous Elizabeth (daughter of the monster, Henry VIII, and of his tart, Anne Boleyn), who was death on Catholics.

I have this “theory” (in the post-modern sense), that while contradictory loyalties are impermissible in religion, they are perfectly normal in civil (“secular”) life, and might even be encouraged, for they make a practical alternative to violence. I know several United Statist Americans, for instance, who are monarchist to the bone, yet pledge unhesitating allegiance to the Flag of their Republic.

Doctor Johnson, an unimpeachably Tory guide, expressed this double standard nicely when, notwithstanding his own openly Jacobite sympathies, and permanent opposition to that soi-disant “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (to which arguably he owed his freedom as a journalist), he was offered a pension by the reigning Hanover king. He took it; and to his young friend Boswell, who mentioned howls against this apparent hypocrisy, he replied, laughing:

“Why, sir, it is a mighty foolish noise that they make. I have accepted of a pension as a reward which has been thought due to my literary merit; and now that I have this pension, I am the same man in every respect that I have ever been; I retain the same principles. It is true that I cannot now curse the house of Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James’s health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for. But, sir, I think the pleasure of cursing the house of Hanover, and drinking King James’s health, are amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year.”


It is the anniversary of Peter Geach, who died age ninety-seven last year. He is one of my great heroes and, oddly enough, he was married to another one: Elizabeth Anscombe. As ever, these days, gentle reader may look them up in the Wicked Paedia, should the names not of themselves ring out in glory for him. They were, in different but highly complementary ways, two of England’s finest minds, whose interests converged in philosophical logic. It is thanks to Anscombe that we can begin to plumb the depth of Wittgenstein’s analytical reasoning, and perhaps also to her that he died a Catholic; but her own works go well beyond this. It is thanks to Geach (though acting not alone) that we have “Analytical Thomism” on our plates for future digestion. Geach and Anscombe alike applied the best of XXth-century analytical reasoning to develop the insights of the high Scholastics, and bring them (as it were) up to date. And while I may have no right to an opinion, on matters passing often over my head, I am nevertheless persuaded that something extremely fruitful was achieved.

They were both knock-you-down-the-stairs Catholic (by conversion), and fecund, too, with respect to children. I collect anecdotes of their domestic life. Among my favourite is when a lost child was returned to them by the police. Peter glared at the errant infant, presented at the front door. He then called out to his wife: “Is this one of ours?” (Alas, the outraged teller of this tale did not smoak the remark’s drollness.)

Another is of one of their youngest, told that if her teddy bear wasn’t in the parlour it must be in her bedroom. “That doesn’t follow!” the little girl parried; for logic had spread through the household.

I think of them, too, in their parish church, on a Sunday when the priest was uttering sentimental bosh from the pulpit. Peter Geach stood up to declare, “That is heresy!” — and the whole tribe of them marched out.

It is bad manners to interrupt homilies, but there are worse things than bad manners, and heresy is certainly among them. It would be a real service if “progressive” priests today were frequently confronted with their crimes, and if necessary driven out of the priesthood. Indeed, I attribute our current priest shortage to the failure to drive bad priests out. They have a terribly demoralizing effect on the faithful, and contribute to the perception that being a Catholic priest is a low calling. Conversely, charity requires that parishioners be confronted, who claim to be Catholic when they have not embraced every sentence of the Creed. They thus become, until properly catechized, a serious impediment to the genuine growth of the Church. We are, after all (as Geach himself often observed) supposed to be directing the sheep towards Heaven and away from Hell, not the other way.

Vox clamantis in deserto, as it was proclaimed in the Mass this morning.  Parate viam Domini: rectas facite semitas ejus!

(Or, as we say in English: “Make straight the way of the Lord!”)


On another “theory” I have, that recommending one book may make more sense than recommending ten, I want to call attention to Peter Geach’s Virtues. (Look here.) I think this the most useful, and immediately accessible, of all his works, and perhaps the most exhilarating. The summary table of contents alone should alarm and excite every sloppy thinker, who has tired of his own wetness. Geach turns his formidable intellectual powers upon those Seven — the four Cardinal Virtues, inherited from the Greeks, and the three Theological Virtues, added by Saint Paul — to show what they are, and what they are not. As a young Anglican, freshly converted to Christianity, I recall the effect this book had on me: of waking up whenas I had been sleeping.

Geach does not provide the last word on the subject, nor pretend to provide it. He is content instead to show that the Virtues make internal sense, how they cast light on each other, and the deadly seriousness with which they must be taken. That is more than enough for 170 pages, every sentence of which is not only perfectly hung, but to a good mind, thrilling.

In those days

Two articles by Tony Esolen, which appeared this week before my Internet-trawling eyes, strike me as having been entirely worth the attention of anyone who missed them, and good to consult for contemporary “background” on this last, first, and most holy of Ember Days. I cannot improve either by paraphrase, so shall direct gentle reader: here, and here.

Dr Esolen will be known to many as the “Modern Library” translator of the Divine Comedy. His is the edition from which it should be taught to English students, these days, for it takes Dante seriously both as Italian poet and Catholic thinker — presenting us with a whole-Dante instead of the usual half-Dante. The translation itself is en face with the Italian, and Esolen’s very-English iambics have the remarkable ability to echo rather than jam Dante’s terza rima — with neither the stilt of an alien rhyme scheme, nor the sponging absorbency of prose. His translations of Lucretius, and of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, are also worth a look. The gentleman is an English perfesser, and it is a matter of some urgency to make English readers once again acquainted with the broader European literary heritage, within which English is sometimes only a rather parochial part. This, in turn, will help rub the nose of that reader in the fact that Western Civ is essentially Catholic, and that, oddly enough, the higher reaches of English literature happen to be Catholic, too.

See also his very useful book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, or his earlier, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature. Esolen — who like most others, had to find his own way out of the confining, into the broad — is a brilliant mediator between today’s college students as we find them, and what they could be with a little education.


One thing leads to another, and with Christmas approaching, let us get back to Holy Church. In the two articles I flagged, Esolen touches upon the continuing rage to destroy our Church, from within. This became worse, recently, with a sudden increase of posturing drivel from Rome; though I hope it will prove the last senile flourish of that “Spirit of Vatican II” — the god to whom post-Catholics pray. It is discouraging to see the Church once again rolling over, on the chance that the Zeitgeist will stroke her belly. So let us not be discouraged. It is a penance and chastisement which faithful Catholics should cheerfully endure; one which by its nature cannot last much longer.

The Church is, and the Church teaches, as she has always taught; not as the world teaches, by precept alone. Our most effective statesmen — in raw, historical terms — have always been the Saints. (Popes have only counted when they have approached to this muscular standard; all other bishops likewise.) Saints and martyrs have been our heroes and our leaders, and this will never change: for our mission is to conquer and sustain hearts, not merely to occupy more demographic territory.

It is a mission that has been carried along, day by day, and hour by hour, through the Liturgy. And here I am using this word in its broadest sense, to include not only the precious words but the music to wing them; the Calendar to encircle the seasons; the works of art and architecture that bring the words home to our eyes. This Liturgy is the school of the Saints: a mystical teaching which gives spiritual depth to the surface moral and doctrinal instruction, opening the Word in every pore of our being, and focusing us upon the living Bread — with our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole mind — giving us the strength to love our neighbour.

Those who contradict Christ, as Judas did — by taking the part of Martha against Mary — “know not what they do.” Therefore, they cannot sustain their attack. The wilful destruction of our cultural heritage, the schemes to drain reverence from the Mass, the desecration of everything that is beautiful, will not convert a single soul. People do not go to church to have the squalor of this world pushed back in their faces; the poor do not go there to have what they had taken away. We must do what we can to preserve what the devils would destroy — and continue in Hope, within our hearts, even after the devils have smashed up our churches and our Mass.

We must not despair, even when we can do nothing. The Holy Spirit will be rebuilding from the bottom, even as the vandals strike from the top. This appears to be happening now, by the miraculous revival of the Old Mass; by restorations within the monastic movements; by the recovery of interest in polyphony and chant; by the mysterious calling of so many young to traditionalist vocations — things inconceivable, only a decade ago. God does not lie, nor cheat on His promises; Christ will not abandon His Church.

In diebus illis: clamabunt ad Dominum a facie tribulantis, et mittet eis salvatorem, et propugnatorem, qui liberet eos.


Addendum: The concluding Latin is in today’s Old Mass, the first Lesson from Isaiah: “In those days: they shall cry to the Lord because of the oppressor, and He shall send them a Saviour and defender to deliver them.”

Ten Editions

On the northwest corner of Spadina and Sussex avenues, in Toronto, Ont., there remains a shophouse, from another era. There were once many like it, in that section of Spadina near Bloor; but the contrast today with sterile office and apartment towers makes this survivor stand out as an architectural enchantment. A smaller late Victorian building attaches to its north side, to absorb the aggressive vileness of a post office in the 1970s “lavatory” style, just farther. It was a shophouse, too, once upon a time, before its show window was bricked up. There is rich foliage on the other, corner side: a miniature urban jungle that the tenant of an apartment upstairs took it upon himself to plant and nurture, full of butterflies in the summer. The scene lifts one’s heart: a tiny island of humanity in a post-modern, urban shatter zone.

Since 1973, it has been a second-hand bookshop. That is now more than forty years ago, and like other regular customers of my age, I have warm memories not only of books, but of the people associated with them — the beloved dead, as well as the beloved living — through all this time. The ceiling is high, the shelves climb to the top of the outer walls, and there are ladders on rails to reach them. As I climb, memories of books I once found flood back into mind. And down I look upon these young people, making their new memories today. For the store is at the edge of the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, and there is (even today!) a class of students who are addicted to books — not slippery electronic “text,” but real books.

At the back of the store, in an ancient extension, one book-lined corridor leads through a door to a narrow courtyard. It is just there – a little overgrown, with light filtering through tree branches, dappling mossy surfaces of wood and masonry; or shadows gathering in the late afternoon. I mention this only because, so many times, in summer with that door open for a breeze, I have caught a glimpse of paradise.

It was “Volume One,” in my youthful recollections of the place: they had moved up from farther down Spadina. (Old hands of Toronto’s antiquarian rag trade will pause in reverence for that name.) “Atticus Books” replaced them, in the later ‘seventies; and when Atticus transferred to Markham Street a few years later, “Ten Editions” took the space. For the last thirty years, that has been the shingle, and the character of the store has settled.

Susan Duff has long been proprietress of Ten Editions, but it was her mother who went into the business, naming it in honour of her ten children. Susan was her most bookish child; and when I close my eyes, I still see her as the pretty, young shop assistant who first turned my head all those years ago.

From mother to daughter, this business passed; and both have been distinguished by infallibly good taste in the selection of titles, over a very broad range of subjects and genres, without the slightest hint of pretension or pomposity. This has been, through the years, the shop to visit for books to read — not for show, nor for “collectors.” And it has stood up for that very reason, when other second-hand stores have closed, or disappeared into the Internet. For people who do actually read must also browse and dawdle. They are not like the guided missiles looking for a “course book,” who if they come in here, will be greeted by a charming smile of incomprehension.

The store will soon be gone, however. The University of Toronto unfortunately owns some adjoining land, and will be able to acquire the property on which Ten Editions rests through “processes” I have not the heart to go into. The academic bureaucracy has set its eyes on building a gleaming new residence for the vacuous “Starbucks culture” of contemporary student life. They are lawyered up, and sitting on millions of appropriated tax dollars: no little bookseller will get in their way.

No one who lives in the city — or anywhere else with commercial value — has influence over what will be done. His neighbourhood will be levelled and cratered more efficiently than by saturation bombing, once the planners have decided on a scheme. It does not matter whether the regime is nominally “socialist” or “capitalist”: we live in the interstices of enormous bureaucratic machines, that may not even notice what is crushed beneath them. And the people who drive the machines, are those who know how to be ruthless.

O Adonai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhat feline

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

Star dust

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

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

No fish skeletons, yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blind eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Help is on the way

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoice in the Lord alway! …

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

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

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


Nay, nay

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

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

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

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

Thirteenthing China

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

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

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

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

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

The gimcrack gourmand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cosmic duh

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

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

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

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

Yet we must affirm transcendence without denying immanence.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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