Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Sister lived long enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me excerpt from this letter, below:

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pigeon digest

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

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

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

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

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

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

He only wobbles his head.

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

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

So what can I do?

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

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

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

A Trifluvian philosopher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know-nothingism today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I sure hope he wins.)

Instructions to the housewife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let them sing for their supper!

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

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

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

For which reasons it will have to be revised.

Rendering time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Mater Dei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am here.”

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

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

A tale of origins & renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In but not of

When I and others attack the Novus Ordo, we are hardly attacking the people who attend the Mass in that very “ordinary” form, the great majority of whom have no other choice for the fulfilment of their Sunday obligations. Nor am I (for perhaps I should speak for myself alone) “commenting” (by word or by posture) on the devotional practices of anyone. For the private spiritual world of each soul not my own, nor intimately related, is beyond my knowledge and judgement; beyond the possibility of my finite knowledge.

I mention this because I get mail from the offended, from time to time, and little indications beyond that. Half a century into the liturgical “reforms,” we have Catholics now fifty years of age and older who have never known any form of prayer not designed for them by Bugnini and his comrades — his colleagues, enablers, and successors. If they have stuck it out — if they have continued to witness Our Lord as Catholics — they are by now fully identified with that ’sixties Mass and its inflections.

Pride can come into this, as it has when criticism of the Novus Ordo is taken as a personal affront; and the Old Mass, with all the centuries of music and art, teaching and sanctity built upon it, is rejected as “a thing of the past, irrelevant to the people of today.” The New Mass has in that case become part of a personal “identity” more ethnic than religious. The Mass of the Ages, whose organic development filled all the centuries prior to Bugnini, must then necessarily seem strange, foreign, and arbitrary; the work of some dictatorship long since rejected and overthrown.

For here is the principal criticism of the Novus Ordo: that it turned the priest around, away from the ancient liturgical East; that it focused the congregation on responses to him, as a kind of cheerleader; depreciating the Sanctuary. That it made the priest less His servant, than ours. (“Democracy!”)

The Mass is where we go to meet the living Christ; to meet Christ our King, and be restored by Him — not by our own efforts. We go there not to act but be acted upon, by Christ through His priests, duly appointed. We are guests in His house, not He in ours. Entering, we are commanded to leave our sins at the door; to purify ourselves through Confession. We are not standing on our own ground; we are honoured even to be admitted into this Holy Chamber. We are there by the invitation of Our Lord.

But the innovations were consistently directed to making it “all about us” instead — to raising the second of the two “greatest” Commandments above the first. It was from the beginning an act of terrible vanity, and as I have insisted elsewhere, and many others have insisted, the practice of taking Communion in the hand bespeaks the horror of it. We think we can manipulate Christ; that we can handle Him, and make Him over. As moderns, we think we can assert our “rights.”

We have no rights. We have only Christ’s promise.

One may say that the doctrine is unchanged; that it is only expressed a little differently; that the doctrine stands even if the practice leans consistently away from it. But here an invisible division opens in the human heart. We cannot say one thing and do another. Lex orandi, lex credendi — today, tomorrow, and forever. Our worship and our belief must be all of one piece, not in two pieces.

Since the 1960s, we have lived in the constant reassurance of the Church that even the invraisemblable (Louis Bouyer’s term; the English “weird” does it no justice) Eucharistic Prayer II is somehow intrinsically Catholic. It was made valid by formal recognition; to fully appreciate the farce behind the composition of this flippant and unworthy prayer, patched together quite literally overnight in the most unedifying circumstances, one might refer to the book I flagged yesterday. Yet there it still is today, right at the centre of the Mass — this irreverent, throwaway text; and all the other banalities gathered in its train.

There I go again. …

God loves obedience, and God must surely understand the difficult position in which all faithful Catholics were placed by the liturgical desecrations of the 1960s (and the inadequate attempts to improve them in the more recent “reform of the reform”). The obedience must first be to Christ, however. In a time when the Church is in chaos, the humble Christian must be on his guard — not only against spiritual flippancy, but the casual preaching of heresies by poorly educated clergy, who may or may not mean well. We must be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves,” as much by fate as by any choosing.

If I have teased any reader who is annoyed with my tone into exploring these matters, in order to defend his own position, I think it is for the best. That in itself will help him to escape the suffocating effects of the Novus Ordo, which has done so much to empty our churches, and turn once-obedient Catholics away. Which has done so much to persuade the majority of nominal Catholics that things like contraception, abortion, sodomy, euthanasia, could possibly be “okay.” For they sense that the Church is not serious; that the Sacrifice of the Mass must be, instead, some Sunday morning counselling session, to make us feel better about ourselves.

Rather than abandon them, we should challenge Catholics of good will but weak faith. We should put before them exactly what the Church has always taught, and still demands: fidelity unto death. The more they can learn about her, the better acquainted they become with historical time, the less glib her people will be — in this cause which transcends the grave. She is older than we are; vastly older. And she will live, vastly, after we are dead. To pray with the whole Church is to pray with her in all ages, and all places, and in a time passing beyond time, beyond worlds.

One may be devout, as many are, not only in harmony with ancient ritual and sacrament, but even in the face of their destruction. This is more difficult, however. My argument is only that the Church, today, should make it easier for Christians to seek union with Our Lord, not more difficult. Which means: easier, when necessary, to become martyrs.

Where the Old Mass is restored, the Church is recovering, and again growing, both in numbers and in depth. Where the New Mass is retained, she continues to perish. I invite any reader who doubts this to explore the matter, and test the truth of this proposition.

Yet for as long as it survives, the New Mass is of course valid, and where it is the only Mass available, the Sunday obligation continues to pertain, along with the call to holiness that extends far beyond that simple obligation. For we are commanded to do the best with what we have; thus even with the fragments of a broken tradition ever to build and rebuild, by our human action within a house not made with hands.

Contra mundum

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (the Apostolic, the Confessor, the Patriarch, the Great, c.296–373) is still making converts to the one Holy Church. He is venerated, still, across Former Christendom — by Catholics, by Protestants, by Greeks and Russians, by Armenians, by (many) Copts; by more, as we wobble East across the sunstroking deserts of Araby. He was what Gregory Nazianzem called him, soon after his death: “Pillar of the Church”; and others later, “Pillar of Orthodoxy.” Author, at least in spirit, of Quicunque vult — the Athanasian Creed — addressed as its incipit proposes to, “Whosoever wishes to be saved.” It varies from the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds in one important respect. It piles anathemas upon the heads of Arians and all other heretics, and so has been suppressed since Vatican II.

Verily, Saint Athanasius was known to his own time as, Athanasius Contra Mundum (“against the world”) for his willingness to defend genuine Church teaching, when necessary, alone.

This man spent his whole life fighting — emperors, bishops, archbishops, society ladies, opinion leaders, other fashionable and heretics of all kinds — starting from the top with Constantine the Great. For forty-five years, Athanasius was himself Archbishop of Alexandria; but nearly half that time he spent in multiple exiles, or otherwise on the run. For the defence of the actual Christian Faith isn’t easy, and could get you martyred in the best of times. Not, be it noted, impossible to understand, for the Faith is perfectly coherent; only hard to uphold against myriad temptations.

In “the spirit of Vatican II” of the ’sixties, continuing through the “new evangelism” of today, we have in our hierarchy, and the sleepwalking at large, a “modern” school of thought and feeling. Their desire is to teach a Faith that will be more accommodating, or at least, less offensive to the unChristian world around us. This means, in practice, not teaching it at all, for in truth our faith is highly offensive. The “Church of Nice,” as rude people call it, is the principal opponent of the Church of Rome; for Christ was many things, but “nice” He wasn’t. An Athanasius, alive today, would still be fighting to the last ditch.

He is alive today, come to that; and he is still making converts for the “traditional” side — which is to say, the faction within the contemporary Church that remains unapologetically Catholic.

One of those was Louis Bouyer (1913–2004), raised Lutheran in Paris, and in the murky years just prior to the last World War, a French Lutheran minister. He made a careful study of Athanasius, and in the course of anno 1939, he became a Catholic. Indeed, the Church has often benefited from well-educated Lutherans, coming as it were for tea, and staying. Some of them are crack Latinists, and at the moment they seem to be the Latin translators of first resort in a Vatican sadly deficient in its own native tongue. (Lord: send us more Lutheran converts, to teach us this language and remind us of our Faith.)

Athanasius brought Bouyer over, and many more — to a Church which, post-War, began falling into terrible confusion. He was in the middle of the Second Vatican Council itself, or rather, of the preparatory work for it, after which he increasingly withdrew from what he called “ecumenical craziness,” comparing the atmosphere among the more progressive delegates to that of Alice in Wonderland. Yet in the rear, he was among those instrumental in assuring that the documents of the Council were not infected with demonstrable heresies.

Pope Paul sent him into the liturgical squabbles that came after; in the end, Bouyer (a good friend and teacher to Ratzinger, incidentally) was, like Athanasius, in the middle of everything. His verbal gift for putting things truthfully, without pulling punches, made him (like Athanasius) a frequent outcast; yet to the middle he invariably returned. Blessed Paul VI, who could be cowardly (and understandably, like many other popes), wanted to give him a red hat, but backed off before the fury of the liberals — especially the “cradle case” liberal bishops in France. (I use this insulting expression for those born into Catholic homes who think they own the religion.)

That the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, François Marty, did not like him, might be guessed by the way Bouyer described Marty in print: as a person of “crass ignorance, … devoid of even the most basic capacity for discernment.”

That he did not get along with the liturgical reformers, might be seen in Bouyer’s characterization of Annibale Bugnini — the father and factotum of the Novus Ordo — as méprisable (“contemptible”), as, aussi dépourvu de culture que de simple honnêteté (“as devoid of learning as he was of basic honesty”). He describes the “reformed” Novus Ordo Calendar as, oeuvre d’un trio de maniaques (“the work of a trio of maniacs”). And other things I learnt from Father Hunwicke’s blog.

More importantly, he tells the story of how these very evil men manipulated Pope Paul — how they kept him in the dark, fed him lies, poisoned him against Archbishop Lefebvre and other competent and ingenuous advisers.

Bouyer wrote other acidic works (let us recommend, The Decomposition of Catholicism, 1969, to those suffering from low blood pressure). But they are dwarfed by his major studies, not only liturgiological, but theological, historical, and spiritual. Bouyer was an authority on his fellow Oratorian, Newman. His wartime tract, The Paschal Mystery, is an extraordinary thing, in which all strands of Christian understanding wind and bind together. Bouyer’s is among the greatest Catholic minds of the twentieth century; he should not be reduced to a figure of controversy. He was of very deep learning, and staggering breadth. His own life was also edifying.

Bouyer left, too, the manuscript of his refulgent Mémoires, finally published last year. They are fiery and Athanasian. Those who have struggled with the book, in French, will be gratified to learn that it is now in English (and available here).

I have yet to obtain my copy, but my impression through all the French, and reviews, is that this book offers perhaps the best available insight into what befell the Catholic Church, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” together with a reliably factual “secret history” of the whole catastrophe.

We will need it for the fight of coming generations, as we struggle to defeat the operation of that demonic “spirit of Vatican II” within the Church, and to expunge its traces — until that happy day when only specialist scholars will remember that the Novus Ordo ever existed — rather in the spirit of Athanasius, whose master was only Jesus Christ.

Of a figure on Mars

How delightful, for an angel to turn up in the frame of a photograph taken from the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars. The photograph may be found at the NASA website (here): gentle reader should not take long to spot the being in question, a little north-east of the centre. While I’ve never been a confident angel sexer (or “genderer” to those of you politically inclined), it is evident from enlargements that this one is female, with breasts and long hair, which I would guess to be red in colour. She is standing on a small rock and, calculating from the scale of the picture, she is just shy of four inches high.

True, other observers have identified her as Lady Liberty, or the goddess Venus, or a Martian Girl Guide on watch, and the British tabloids call attention to the low cut of her gown. Others think she is an ancient statue. One might imagine a parasol in her right hand, a shield in her left, but look closer. These are all fanciful suggestions. The figure is that of a small angel.

Well, yes, it is a low-cut gown, but more in the Jane Austen fashion than that of a TV babe at the present day. Perfectly chaste to a mind that is chastened.

Strong wings are visible behind this figure (the camera has captured the solar glint on the topfolds of these wings), and I would say the “parasol” is actually a flaming sword. She is, after all, a Martian angel, not an Earthling angel, charged to defend the honour of that planet, and not ours. Notwithstanding, an angel is an angel, and the family resemblance between theirs and ours is plain enough.

I was rather expecting Curiosity Rover to find such figures, in its rambles about Gale Crater. In the absence of visual distraction to creatures biologically engendered and endowed, they would naturally stand out better in photographs. On Earth, they tend to be obscured by stronger colour and shading contrasts on the palpable objects; they pale within our denser atmosphere. Paradoxically, they are easier to pick out in our moonlight, especially when the Moon is full.

The bodies of the angels are simulacra — they are without extension, as Aquinas has explained — yet as we know from innumerable other sources, they can be manifest in space and time. Sometimes they appear as heralds, to one event or another; but the human mind is not well-attuned to angelic motion or message. We are capable of mistaking them for elves or pixies, for fairies or leprechauns of some sort; and vice versa, leprechauns for angels. I am content simply to observe.

Household hints

[I have made a few revisions in light of correspondence.]

*

Over the weekend, I touched upon a major public health crisis, perhaps the most consequential of our time: that of excessive cleanliness. The cause of it is obvious: spilt religion. Spiritual rituals of purification have been “materialized,” and the sleepwalker begins to wash hands, like Lady Macbeth. We, at least here in the FWFC (the Far West of Former Christendom) no longer feel comfortable in our skins, nor able to cope with the plainer facts of life. We compensate for irreligion not only by obsessive showering and bathing, but by attempts to sterilize everything in sight. The result is the progressive disintegration of our immune systems, setting us up for terrible plagues, that will eventually be triggered by minor allergens.

Moderation in all worldly things: Mediaeval Man kept himself clean, and bathed frequently enough. The sensible practices of the Ancient World were simply carried forward. In my experience the people of what Mao called the Third World are also cleanly by disposition. There is a human and animal instinct to wash, which is not unreasonable. Indeed, it is universal (“catholic”). But in our present circumstances it has come off the rails.

As ever, the actual history contradicts received progressive views. Should he inquire, gentle reader will find that neurotic health obsessions arose not in the Middle but in the Modern Ages — specifically, in the sixteenth century, coterminously with the Reformation. Strange notions, such as the belief that disease spread exclusively through water, led to a period when bathing was replaced with perfuming. That, along with witchcraft and other hysterias arose at many (chiefly north European) locations. From one extreme, we swing to the other. Our own dietary and environmental neuroses, the omnipresent fads and frauds, are prefigured in that age when Western civilization was losing its spiritual poise.

But this is a huge topic. One hardly knows where to start, for one must face down mental infirmities (“Omigod, I’m using the wrong soap!”) long reinforced by vested commercial interests. A walk down any supermarket cleaning aisle will make my argument, admirably. Dangerous industrial bleaches and detergents; germicides, herbicides, pesticides; all kinds of lethal chemicals and extractions, originally designed for extreme situations, are now shamelessly hawked to the mass market for everyday use. Environmentalist hysterias have in turn launched yet more formulaic products, often as dangerous, and based on even falser claims — taking people “to the cleaners” by exploiting their ignorance, their cravings (often artificially induced), and the lassitude that is the ground condition of superficially frenetic modern life.

*

We must start somewhere, however, and why not here?

Water is one of the two essential elements in almost every cleaning process. The other is scrubbing. Only the water could cost money, and invariably it is over-used. People rendered inhuman by their ugly jobs imagine themselves physically exhausted, and hence avoid effort on the scrubbing side. They hire illegal immigrants to do this for them — then paradoxically go jogging (with their heads plugged into demonic music); or indulge in other vain and showy physical activities. (Tennis, anyone?)

If you can’t really afford an Hispanic or Filipina (materially or spiritually), then DIY. Household cleaning provides a wonderfully complete exercise regime, which will also spare you the cost of a gym membership.

On the Internet, we read sweet young things giving plausible advice. They’ll say, “This is how it was done by my grandmother!” But these kids today have grandparents who were baby boomers. For better advice, we need to go farther back. No grandparent born later than 1899 can be trusted; for the economy of (impostured) “labour saving” burst forth just after the Great War.

And so, as a public service, I will transcribe a few notes which, I admit, go back only two-thirds of a century. I shall plagiarize from my late mama’s scribbles, clippings and marginalia, beginning the year she was married. But I specify that most of this was in turn copied from a sainted mother-in-law, and a mother back in Cape Breton — both born in the more reliable age. Or from a woman’s encyclopaedia that was, even in 1948, splendidly out-of-date.

I append only what I have tried myself, and stuck with, up here in the High Doganate; and have overwritten some of mama’s notes with my own comments. I recommend each of these household hints, on grounds that it will get things clean enough, short of space-station bacteria free.

Note that a few cheap simple ingredients are all you need. Some double as edible. Note also that they are easier to find in immigrant corner stores than in large supermarkets, whose managers don’t like the profit margins on them.

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Scouring powder. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), not Comet. If the issue is serious, add borax and salt. The joke of scrubbing with industrial caustics is, they micro-engrave enamel and other surfaces. Think for a moment. This gives germs a place to hang out.

Sink, tub, and tile. Vinegar and water. Leave it wet for twenty minutes before scrubbing with a sponge. (For sponges, you may grow your own loofies in the garden by the hundred; or buy them from Whole Earth for $19.99 apiece.)

Toilet cleaner. As everyone knows, Coca-Cola makes a superb toilet cleaner. But if you don’t have any in the house (and why would you?) go with undiluted vinegar. A nice trick: pour a bucket of water down the toilet first, which clears the bowl and lowers the water level.

Odours. A wee bowl of baking soda in the ice box or fridge. Borax around the toilet. Tobacco smoke is a marvellous incense for the public areas; pipe by preference, but cigar and cigarette — all good. Frankincense and myrrh also recommended; and surplus fresh herbs trampled on the floors. (This is not the place to discuss personal deodorants.)

Laundry detergent. You can make your own: soap flakes, washing soda (sodium carbonate), borax. Soak the hard stuff overnight in a tub of water; perhaps with a splash of vinegar. And vinegar in the rinse. And remember, throughout the centuries, and even today in that Third World, washer-women use water alone. Verily, water that fish swam in.

Mould and mildew. The best bleach is sunlight — from the Sun, ventilated by a gentle breeze. Borax is pretty effective, too. Hydrogen peroxide might also be mentioned, because it is less lethal than chlorines.

Lime and mineral deposits. Vinegar, vinegar, more vinegar. A good use for a plastic bag, and a rubber band, is to put vinegar in the former and use the latter to clamp round a shower head or other faucet. Leave it on overnight. Stuff comes off like a charm in the morning. Vinegar takes the calcium out of kettles, of course. (You didn’t know that? Oh, Lord.) … And by the way, get a proper full-strength vinegar, not the diluted fairy salad kind.

Spot remover. Borax dissolved in hot water. Let cool, then rub with a clean sponge. This goes for carpets as well as laundry. For wine stains, every chemistry student will tell you to use salt. This lifts the wine, and leaves a salt stain instead. Never take advice from young chemistry students.

Drain cleaner. Vinegar, baking soda, boiling water. You need kids for this. They will want to watch what happens when the vinegar hits the soda.

Window cleaner. Vinegar in water. Newspapers to rub. (The electronic editions can’t even wrap fish.)

Eyeglass cleaner. A slightly dampened microfibre cloth will leave nor streaks nor splotches. But that is post-modern, so until further notice, wash them with the glassware in the kitchen sink.

Plastics. Are essentially unwashable. Put all plastics in the municipal garbage.

Floor cleaner. Less vinegar, more water. Add washing soda or soap flakes if the floor is really filthy; olive oil rubbed in wood to shine. The correct position for floor washing is prayerfully on your knees; but mops are admissible if you are dressed for the grand ball.

Upholstered furniture. A decadent invention. Discard.

Shoe shine. Rub with inside of banana peel, buff with paper towel. Beeswax for waterproofing. But if you have to renew the blacking, no alternative to commercial shoe polish is in sight. Alas, it vents neurotoxins, like most other things from the big box stores. These tend to reduce your brain to porage, and in extreme cases could turn you into a liberal.

Paper towels. According to my mama, the one useful, disposable invention of the twentieth century. You wipe up the worst of the grease and gunk with them, making what’s left a snip. And they are biodegradable, flammable, or flushable — as convenient. A bit extravagant, perhaps, but children can save you lots on paper towels. (“Finish everything on that plate or I’ll kill you.”)

Disinfectant. You don’t need it unless performing open-heart surgery in your living room. Alcohol for topical antiseptic (e.g. inferior blended whisky). Borax will do around the toilet. It is true I use full-strength (made-in-India) Dettol sometimes, but only because the smell takes me back to childhood in Lahore.

Dusting. Sheep-wool dusters, which capture the mites electrostatically rather than tossing them back in the air. (Shake the thing out, outside.) For wiping: a cloth dampened only by your own wetted hand — as every English butler once knew (and would still know, were there still English butlers).

Vacuum cleaner. Makes enough noise to induce fits of violence, and is otherwise vile and evil. Get rid of it. Buy a broom.

Dishwashing and laundry machines. Likewise to be banned. Hand-washing anything is a sensual pleasure, yet highly compatible with philosophical and theological contemplation. The trick is raising the tubs to a comfortable height, and supplying the requisite counter and sorting spaces (i.e. shelves) — especially if you have “back issues.” Plus low stools, so you may put short children to work, or sit yourself in an indoor pond environment.

Dishwashing. Washing soda is the thing, a tablespoon stirred into the water. Or soap flakes, which you can make yourself by grating; or a bar of traditional tallow soap (I swear by Clarim, the Portuguese brand), for which grandma used to own a metal box with holes. You won’t get bubbles, but you don’t need them. Instead the water will look grey. But the dishes will come out clean enough. A shot of vinegar in the rinse tub, and they will sparkle.

Soap. You don’t even need shampoo; “conditioners” are for rakes and dandies. If you are a girl, perhaps I might allow you to use glycerine soap, instead of tallow (or lye); but it is rather expensive.

Brass, copper, pewter. Salt and vinegar, thickened into a paste with flour. On old copper and brass, lemon juice is arguably better. It will not destroy the patina.

Chrome and stainless steel. Cloth dipped in vinegar.

Silverware. Toothpaste is perfect, and a soft toothbrush. (Making your own toothpaste is for a later class.)

Rust removal. Steel wool dipped in vegetable oil.

Filth in the soul. That’s a job for the priests. Go frequently to Confession.

In general. Memorize choice liturgical and biblical passages, the Psalms, and other great poetry (such as Dante, in Italian); plus dramatic passages when working in tandem (from Aeschylus, or Shakespeare) that can be recited in dialogue, with “voices off.” (Or for a sonnet, say alternate lines.) And of course, learn to sing, including madrigals and other part-music for all family and communal labour. There is also a heritage of agreeable work songs; and you may want to compose your own.

For work should be joyful, not only in practice, but in blesséd memory.

Ephphetha

“Be thou opened,” Christ commands, in the Gospel of today’s (Old) Mass, from the seventh chapter of Mark. And immediately the ears were opened, of the deaf mute, “and the string of his tongue was loosed.” The same would be a miracle if the rest of us could be cured of this condition, and Christ would put his fingers into our ears to clear them, and touch our tongues with His spittle; for then we might, as the Bible saying goes, “speak right” — a skill which first requires good hearing. Speak to be heard when there is an occasion.

The deaf mute was brought to Him, but in curing the man, Christ took him a little away from the crowd. The detail of the saliva is meant to arrest our attention — a salvation that is “mouth to mouth” — deeply invoking the Sacrament, as well as performing the mysterious Act of Baptism. We are taken aside, we are given this gift of audition. We are freed from the constricting mental box in which we have been hiding; and suddenly it is conceivable that a deaf mute will hear and proclaim.

A curiosity of today’s Mass, it seems to me, is that it offers one formula after another for possible use in a grace at table, beginning with the beautiful Collect:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui abundantia pietatis tuae, et merita supplicum excedis et vota: effunde super nos misericordiam tuam; ut dimittas quae conscientia metuit, et adjicias quod oratio non praesumit. Per Dominum nostrum.

“Almighty and everlasting God, whose abundant goodness exceeds all that Your supplicants can desire or deserve; pour Your mercy upon us, forgiving us the sins of which our consciences are afraid, and adding to us what we dare not ask. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

It would be good if we could let Christ into our homes. And here I am thinking not only for meals, but as part of the whole daily routine, or ritual. (More on this tomorrow; I shan’t go from sublime to ridiculous today.)

A pious old widow lady suggested this (husband dead, children grown and moved away): that she cleans house now for a Houseguest instead — for the Holy Spirit Who abides, and for Her Lord in the day that He will come for her. She does not want to be caught out, or the door to be locked against Him. She hopes He will find Himself expected.

“Nor dog nor cat” she is keeping, in her spry eighties; nor tenant; and these kids today, they move too far to drop in for a meal. And so perhaps a little lonely; but she knows it is a passing phase.