Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

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Up here in the High Doganate, we have decided to check out of Idleposting for a few days, and leave gentle readers to their Christ-masses, not in privatized and monetized “facebooks” but in the familiarity of living human faces, and the ghostly memory of all our dead — time past, time present, gathering together. I have my own little agenda of things to be done and caught up with, especially with regard to God, and this swirling world of souls. It need not go without saying, that I feel a special gratitude in this season to those who have been reading these humble essays, and writing such encouraging and instructive notes, and lately, sending money unbidden to support my idle cause. I am incidentally far behind in mail: please be patient if you are waiting for a reply, and ask again if it seems I have forgotten.

I have never sent out Christmas cards. This is shameful behaviour on my part, the more because I so enjoy receiving them. Especially this year — for what at first might seem a shallow reason. The majority of them, on a side table in my sight now, are hand made, “dripping with religion,” strikingly beautiful, indeed graphically superior to any “store-boughten” cards; patient labours of love. At a time when our Church and her people are experiencing perhaps more than the usual demonic turbulence, it is wonderful to behold such subtle indications that Christians are themselves taking charge; taking matters into their own hands. This is what Christ commanded.

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.” This is the line of text (recalled from the grand old regal KJV) that has been on my mind: that we must be builders not destroyers, in emulation of Our Lord. That we are called to be artists, and that the traditions, or shall I say, The Tradition, must be carried in the marrow of our bones.

I wrote the other day about the “axial moment” in history; that everything before looks forward, and everything after is a consequence of it. May that wee Child in Bethlehem restore to us this knowledge, and make it animate.

Into the envious tangle

One of my kindest and most attentive readers writes to contest the account of Envy in my Thing column today (here). She distinguishes a venial from the deadly mortal sin, in this way:

“I am not sure that Envy is simply the inclination to feel sorry for oneself because everyone else seems to be having a better time of it. That might be mere Jealousy. I have always understood Jealousy to be the venial sin that sees the desirable thing which the other possesses and wants it. I find if I work at it, then with a little imagination (and a lot of charity) I can usually turn Jealousy into Admiration for the success of the other.

“On the other hand, I think of Envy as the mortal sin that sees the desirable thing which the other possesses and then seeks to deprive the other of it. Dante understood Envy as deadly: witness the second storey of his mountain. It is almost as if there is a negative energy in Envy that prevents me from transforming it into something positive, an energy the source of which is Hell.”

In my view, they are a continuum, and there are many venial sins like that, which act as it were like liveried footmen at the doors to Satan’s hotel. Or, I could compare what our latter-day hippies call “recreational drug use” to the full, lethal, opiate addictions. Or, cite the difference between “sounding off” in web Comments, and shrieking obscenities in the street. One does not necessarily lead to the other. The little angelic voice still within says, “You are being lured to your death, don’t go there!” Pride, self-interest, and bourgeois hygiene are still on the side of hesitation. The little demonic voice makes his last pitch: “You can always come back!”

Jealousy turns to Envy in many ways, as we search through our excuses. Let me use the example of sexual infatuation, to be very odd. Many young, and many older, too, form the (characteristically powerful, but silly) notion that they are “in love,” with someone unattainable. The hunter wants to possess the prize — in this case a human being — even steal her if necessary. The interesting thing here is that Envy is contorted — an Envy of whomever might be the rightful possessor — yet the thing to be ruined is the object itself. For Satan’s hotel (my trope for “hell on earth”) does, after all, offer a full-service brothel, and in our contemporary media phantasia, crawling with pornography, there is constant advertising for the pleasures of a false and drug-like sexual and emotional bliss, waiting to be focused on any passing “babe.”

Of course the deadly sin in this case is nominally Lust, but the psychic mechanism is often indistinguishable from that of Envy. We begin by perceiving something worth having — perhaps some sparkle of innocence and beauty — then by increments resolve to snuff it out. Jealousy was the first indication: of that desire to possess what does not and must not belong to us. This does not always end in murder, to be sure; more often only in the “spiritual equivalent” of murder. Or in our current drug-laden environment, in which virtues such as chastity are held to no account, the commonplace of constructive rape. (Or its feminine equivalent in a bold seduction.)

My point in the Thing article is that the motive of Envy is there, from the beginning; and with that the desire to destroy. Indeed our entire welfare state is built on the emotional attractions of “equality,” the moral essence of Leftism. It is true that everyone can’t be rich (in the broadest possible interpretation of that word), but on the other hand, there may be ways to bring the rich down to our level. We begin by wanting what they have; we end (as in Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, &c) by making sure that no one can have it. We’d rather starve than let them flourish.

(“Islamists” have something so similar as to be identical with the motive force of Socialists and Communists. They would rather starve, and bring cruise missiles down on their own heads, than miss a chance to harm the subjects of their Envy.)

Or else we go Catholic and Christian, and learn to take pleasure in another’s achievements, and be content — even take a thanksgiving joy — in what we have. Too, we agree to submit to the frequent reminders of the Church, that whether mortal or venial, sin is sin. “Everyone does it,” but the task before us in temptation is to forget about “everyone” and “stop it here.”

Christmas is coming! Everyone to the Confessional!

On the meaning of Christmas

It was Karl Jaspers (I think) who borrowed the term “axial moment” from structural engineering to describe the Christian “philosophy of history.” He refers (of course) to the intersection of Eternity with historical Time, in the person of Christ.

A good geometric diagram of this is presented — intentionally, I think — in the famous fresco of The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (here). There is the equivalent of a horizon line, inscribed along the top edge of the sepulchre in this painting, and against a descending side, four soldiers are presented, sleeping in what we might call the “old world.” Christ rises into the “new world” above them; but is also the unifying centre of the whole composition.

The geometry is as striking as the anatomy of the lance-bearing soldier. There are two vanishing points. One is at the centre of the sepulchre line, the other directly above it at the centre of Christ’s face; so that we have the curious effect of looking down from up, and up from down, simultaneously. There is a further transformation from left to right, in the blossoming of the landscape, which completes the quartering divisions of a sublimated Crucifix.

The commission was for the Residenza of Sansepulcro, in Tuscany. In this location, the fresco served to bridge the sacred and profane. It was placed to be the focus of prayer before town hall meetings. It represented this intersection between supernatural and mundane. It presents the living history of the world, as a man of the fifteenth century would understand it; and as any Christian would have understood it through many centuries before, and several after. Yet few, even among Christians, or art historians, can make sense of it today. We can see what the picture contains, but not what it means.

Everything “below,” or previous to, that temporal line, looks forward to it, as the Hebrew Prophets to the Messianic Age. Everything above is a consequence of the descent of Christ, from Heaven.

Though I have had a chance only to peruse, there is a new book by Richard B. Hayes, which continues his remarkable work on what the writers of the New Testament meant by so pregnant a phrase as, “According to the Scripture.” From what I can see, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (here) is a sharp dispersal of the pettifog obscurantism that has always been, in effect, the credo of “Biblical Criticism” — which presumes the Evangelists were “spinning” the Old Testament passages they quoted. It is clearly a brilliant book, of theological inquiry, casting light just where the shadows of modern scholarship have fallen most thickly.

But what has it to do with Christmas?

It is this sense of the meaning, not only “of life” but of history, that we must recover; and Christmas will do merrily as a time to struggle for it in our minds. We are not part of some meandering and essentially pointless “evolution.” We are not accidentally smart apes. We are instead part of a cosmic drama which has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. And if this could be comprehended by the simplest people, many centuries ago, we are capable of comprehending it today.

Recovery

Reading of the latest “Allahu Akhbar!” attacks (so far this week) in Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Libya, and Switzerland, one is struck by the politicized incompetence of the authorities. This is true both East and West, but in plainer view to us in the West. News reports carry information that even I know they should not be carrying, about police suspicions. We learn that — at the usual frightful expense — additional security measures are in place at e.g. Christmas markets in several hundred cities, including a couple of miles away in this one.

The idea is to put the general public back to sleep, as quickly as possible; to restore what President Harding called “normalcy”; to make the people feel safe in their beds, or waking, busy with their toys and pacifiers.

Apart from the enemy, however, I do not know who can benefit from such information. Too, unnecessary “editorial advice” is provided to the news agencies, not only to keep their language ideologically hygienic, but more systematically to slant and select what is presented. In particular: doubt must be cast on the motives of the perpetrators, and Muslim celebrations of the attacks must be ignored. The general public see through this, partly, but are by now accustomed to the many little lies that shield the big ones on which our liberal-progressive “values” are based.

The people want numbers. In Switzerland, for instance, people were shot, but no one died. That makes it a non-story. The two bombings in Libya of which I am aware happened against the background of a larger terror war, and thus don’t count. The shooting in Ankara made the grade because the dead man was the Russian ambassador, and we know that Putin takes things like that very seriously. Jordan has no background war (yet), but Muslim countries don’t count unless the carnage is very large; a death toll like Berlin’s would be dismissed as mere “local news” from Morocco to Indonesia.

On 26 February, 1993, a slight miscalculation defeated the first attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Had that massive truck bomb succeeded, in tipping the North into the South tower, fifty thousand would have died that day. Instead it only blew a big hole at the foundations, killing only six. Therefore hardly anyone remembers. But everyone does remember 9/11, because three thousand corpses were created.

The people want numbers. And if they are sufficiently patient, they will get them.

Stuck with the consequences of their immigration and refugee policies (in response to the demography of contraception and abortion), governments across Europe have found themselves in a political pickle. People haven’t become used to terror hits quite yet; and while the numbers are only modestly rising, they are still at the stage where they wonder if something effective could be done. For that and a dozen allied reasons, they threaten to throw all the “natural governing parties” out of power.

There is a real threat to the “smuglies,” as I call them (short for something more rude). Things like Brexit and the Trump win in America have wiped the smiles off their faces. Across the Continent, once secure politicians are asking, “Could it happen here?” They’d be happy to write off a few hundred a year, like traffic accidents. But now something infinitely more important is at stake: their own careers.

From their view, the whole order of the world is threatened, as a direct consequence of their assumptions about it, and they have nothing in their intellectual arsenals to defend it except smears and slanders. This is what we have learnt since the Hillary defeat, on this side of the great salt river. She was no flaming leftist herself; but she found herself surrounded by a party machine long since appropriated by the hard Left, now succumbing to the comforts of lunacy. They have been working to undermine Western Civ for decades, finally forgetting that the parasite needs a living host. They manoeuvred her, or she vacuously manoeuvred herself, into a position where the Trumplings are more credible. It is the same for the “mainstream” politicians in Europe.

Calling people “fascist,” “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” or just “deplorable,” no longer works. It does not inspire them to vote for you, once it becomes clear that these terms must apply to more than half of the electorate. We now have hyperinflation in such terms, and of the phantasies that underlie them: the final extension of the old Communist agitprop. And as the cussing loses its effect, the cussers can only reveal their bewilderment. The tree these beavers were felling is falling on them.

I am not editorializing. What is coming will come, regardless of my opinions; I try only to draw the scene, from one angle after another. We have never known what the future will hold, and the only advantage of the present situation is that, for a moment, we understand this. Our entire political swamp seems not draining but overturning; and everywhere we notice the changes, not necessarily for the better.

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For a precedent I would turn, most optimistically, to the eleventh century. Europe was transformed — by a collapse of security from multiple invasions (Vikings from west, north, and east; Muslims from east and south; roaming tribes within, &c) — into small feudal statelets. Even (and especially) within the descendant Charlemagnian realms, local and regional “warlords” took charge:

For why? — because the good old rule
Sufficeth them, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
     And they should keep who can.

The result was exactly the opposite of conventional expectation. It was the emergence of an unprecedented trans-European unity; of a coherent Catholic Christendom made without human foresight; of a vibrant and self-confident, a chivalric sense of belonging to something beyond the authority of any local ruler. Yet this is something that is not studied, because it strays beyond the comprehension of any modern academic discipline, requiring a synthesis of political, military, economic, social, intellectual, and religious history. I think Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) was the last to expound it worthily.

Surprisingly much of Europe remained unChristianized, on the eve of this “cultural revolution.” Christianity infilled the pagan pockets, and passed over the pagan frontiers, because it offered the very universals for which people longed. It could do so again, for it still offers the only possible groundwork for civilizational recovery in the West, whatever the outward events. (We can see where “secular humanism” has got us.) Or rather, the only alternative would be an Islam, that could only be imposed by force and fear.

China, too, became coherent in this way: through successive disintegrations into feudal statelets, under the hammer blows of barbarian invaders. The principle at work is not formulaic, but can be glimpsed by the mind that is not a prisoner to purely material causes. It is a natural process, but one so broad that we may look through it only to the stars. It reflects the mysterious fact that the universe itself is ordered, at each level on every scale.

The formation, and reformation of a civilization is not done by planning. It does not depend on the efficiency of the police. It happens under no political regulation, but by a trillion trillion tiny acts of human decency. By faith.

Which is the only way I know to proceed: by faith. Stop wrecking and scout beauty again; reject evil and embrace the good; withdraw your support for the false gods, and seek only the True. This is in fact the central message of Advent. It is a voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Some contemporary simplisme

The introitus of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, changes everything. In the midst of what I call “techie hell” — let me not favour you with the details, gentle reader — I let it fill the room. And then, after the introitus, the rest of that “extraordinary” liturgical composition (set for the Vetus Ordo, as all our greatest music, waiting to be restored). And in a version of the Choeur Arsys Bourgogne (Pierre Cao directing), if that makes any difference. (I think it does, for Cao is steeped in music older than Mozart’s. He will not be too loud, too brassy or “operatic”; he will not be hurried.)

A piece of technology, from another electronic machine, let me candidly admit. I have not the gift of my late theological hero, Hans Urs von Balthasar who, in his old age, parted with his entire classical record collection, with the happy thought that he had all of Mozart memorized, anyway.

Or of my living theological hero, Joseph Ratzinger, who needs only a piano and can do his own arrangements — in his head, should the piano disappear.

At best, I can replay a few Bach fugues in my head; and do, on long walks. But I’m a prisoner to my craving for the actual sound of the music (much more than so in poetry I have memorized).

To be able to switch tracks, in mid-stride, is something I’m still learning. To turn not gradually but “on a dime” from some pointless anger, or other lust, to a subject for delightful contemplation, is perhaps in the “skill set” of many saints. According to the priest whose penitent I am, it starts with mastering a few simple prayers; the Rosary is especially helpful. Or, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Or, if you fear seeing so red that you’ll forget, you may carry the text on a card in your pocket. Or use the shorter form, in one word, “Jesus” — softly addressed.

Contra mundum — and afflicted by the world in retaliation — the alternative is to respond by the kind of internal “shadow boxing” which is among my worst habits. I know I can’t get back, may never have my chance to even the wretched score; may never accomplish anything in this theatre of the absurd, beyond keeping myself aloof; and that only with divine assistance. Yet there are still techniques to dodge all the blows, and I think of them as the spiritual “martial arts.”

One may have real grievances. These make no difference and will provide no exception to the rigid instruction of Our Lord, which was, to love our enemies. (Note that He said love them; He did not say flatter them, or capitulate to them.) This was Him who taught us to communicate in the binary, “yea” or “nay,” rather than in the complexity of twaddle. Even loving one’s friends is not always easy; loving one’s enemies is seriously hard — until by grace humbly sought, one somehow gets the hang of it.

But at the least, switch channels. Light a cigarette, perhaps. (“If you have ’em, smoke ’em,” your army sergeant would say.) Or pour a stiff shot of Laphroaig. Toggle, in this case from “techie hell” to Mozart, and let the hairs stand on thy foolish little head.

As we know, Mozart died before quite completing this Requiem commission, at age thirty-five. He had a premonition he would do so; that he was writing his own strange obituary. This adds to its poignancy. For in addition to others, we ourselves will die. The tumult of this world will be over, and the technical issues will be left behind. Whether they be large or small, we can’t take them with us. Not through that holy fire.

On canaries in mines

There are many canaries in the coal mine of modern life. Not all of them are dead yet. Some have merely stopped singing and might conceivably recover if their cages were removed promptly from the shafts.

The same might be tried for a person trying to kill himself by piping carbon monoxide into his car. (I am told it is a painless way to commit suicide.) He might not be dead yet, merely passed out; one should try opening the car doors, or if they are locked, smashing the windows. This would be an act of corporal mercy, though like many it might not bring thanks. As we know from the enthusiasts for “euthanasia,” some people would rather be dead, and any of them might also prove litigious.

I gather (I am no expert on this) the old practice in the coal mines involved more than one canary. Should one suddenly drop off its perch, the miners could find their way to safety, or potential safety, by following the sound towards the noisiest surviving canaries. This would generally correspond to the best route towards the surface. This is what made canaries better than white lab mice as “sentinel animals” in the circumstance, for while mice sometimes squeak, few are so robustly choral.

The famed Scottish physiologist, John Scott Haldane (1860–1936; father of J.B.S.), first advanced this proposal. Mice and canaries alike have very quick respiratory metabolisms. This makes them ideal for the detection of a wide range of the toxic gases, which killed far more miners than the coal dust explosions which often preceded their emission. Haldane was also the brilliant man who realized that a miner’s safety lantern could be used to determine not only the amount but the kind of toxic gas, by careful observation of the shape, height, colour, and trend of its flame.

Such lanterns are still used to this day, as I understand, but the advantage of canaries is that they lack subtlety, and get right to the point.

I assume there are gas detectors in all modern coal mines (methane is also an issue), so that quality of life for canaries has improved. But as with so much technical progress, one must bear in mind that the canaries were infallible. Whereas, the modern gas alarm might not be working; or, like the average apartment smoke detector, it may be giving so many false alarms that it is eventually ignored. These aggressively advertised devices are expensive, too; and one must remember to turn them on, whereas canaries were relatively cheap, and stayed “on” until they expired. There may be animal rights issues, however, so that the choice between the life of a canary and the life of a coal miner is no longer so obvious as it once was.

On the other hand, the canary in question has become a cliché so that, for instance, almost anything can now be a “climate canary,” with no need to invoke coal mines. I blame Kurt Vonnegut, the pop writer who created a vogue for this metaphor in the late 1960s. (I am now so old, that I can remember a time before Vonnegut’s style of unctuous moral posturing became the “canary” for lethal asininity throughout post-secondary education.)

All of this interests me as the son of a New Waterford girl. The Canadian Maritimes had their share of grievous coal-mining disasters, thanks to the cost-cutting of miserly owners and managers, though more often to bad luck. In either case, and regardless of the law, the punishment for these accidents was also sometimes fatal.

*

Speaking of the Maritimes, I have noticed that our nine Catholic bishops in those parts, and their archbishop in Halifax, have issued a Pastoral Reflection on the new Canadian law for “assisted dying.” (Here, for those with the stomach to read it.) In “merciful” Bergoglian bafflegab they justify “pastoral accompaniment” and the prospect of nice “Catholic” funerals for those intending to “off” themselves. (Many of whom may leave valuable estates.) The page of their signatures reminds me of the document signed by all the English bishops, except John Fisher, in 1534. (Him who observed: “The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it.”)

Comments on the Atlantic bishops’ effusion have been posted at all the usual “trad” websites, and may be easily searched. I see no need to add my own, beyond expressing agreement with a point raised at Vox Cantoris about “the very real probability that each of these cowardly, emasculated, heretical apostates will end in Hell.”

Yet, unlike their self-murdering “penitents,” they might live to repent.

On baloney

My title is the North American variant on just one of the many fine sausages of Bologna, made traditionally not with yak meat, but from pork ground finely together with wee blobs of delicious lard. American inspectors force the manufacturers to conceal these blobs, perhaps on the theory that what you can’t see won’t hurt you. But if the lard’s not there, the stuff is inedible. It is bland, like a Mortadella, but when made properly (almost never in the big meat factories) it is sublimely bland, both in taste and texture. A worthy rival to my mock chicken, adored since childhood. I love overstated spicy food. But I also love the understated, such as real Wien wieners and mild “ballpark” (Montreal kosher) mustard, sweet green relish, and French processed cheese, in a bun. (I believe this is called a “hot dog.”) I love foods that whisper, as well as foods that shout. But they should whisper affectionately.

The term baloney is also rightly applied to “foolish and deceptive talk,” perhaps originally as a variant of ballyhoo (“blarny, humbug”), bally having been a euphemism for “bloody,” later applied to cheaply cured woods in the manufacture of inferior fishing schooners, that tended to break up in North Atlantic storms. By some otherwise mute inglorious Milton, these concepts were all brilliantly “Yanked” together.

But as a connoisseur of suspicious etymologies, in the grand philosophical tradition, I am myself inclined to substitute another explanation. I argue that the association of Bologna — the city of the ancient university — with foolish and deceptive talk, might be the origin of the idea. And that this notion first spread in the Italian city states of the later Middle Ages, which were crawling with Bologna graduates.

You see there were, as I count, three major intellectual centres, back in the day: Paris, Bologna, and Toledo. There were a hundred other less celebrated, but these were the great magnets for the sharpest pins among the young. You went to Paris to study theology and philosophy, to Bologna to study law and administration. Toledo was the interesting place where Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and other venerable languages behind the three monotheist faiths were being translated into Latin — which every educated European could read — by impressive Christian scholars. Arts and sciences retrieved, especially from the Hellenic past (good Aristotle texts for starters) were being disseminated through Europe, along with the languages themselves. Also Salerno, Palermo, Montpellier, in those days; and far up north — e.g. Cologne, Oxford and its little offshoot at Cambridge — universities were vying to attract faculty who, for instance, could read and write in Arabic. (Oxford libraries hold much evidence of this.)

Somehow I have failed to mention Padua, Toulouse, &c — for which I can only hope to be forgiven. But from the centre of Christendom, at Rome, Pope Alexander IV could declare (in 1255) that, “It is at Paris that the human race, deformed by original sin and blinded by ignorance, recovers its power of vision and beauty, by the knowledge of the true light shed forth by divine science.”

Not, be it noted, at Bologna, famed as it was for the study of law, and then dominant among Italian universities. The graduates from Bologna were very smart people, who moved quickly into almost all the high political posts; including inside the beltway at Rome, where they presided over the blossoming of our Canon Law. I could not wish to belittle their accomplishments in all secular fields, though my mediaeval heart is Parisian.

But of course, they were also detested for their arrogance and sophistry, their “old boy” clubbishness and networking. They, as it were, spoke “Bologna,” and my speculative etymology is founded on this fact.

Today, the populist Trump is doing something remarkable. He is making appointments not from the “Ivy League.” Candidates from Harvard, Yale, and Columbia — who overwhelmingly populate the senior bureaucacy of Obama, as other administrations going back to FDR, if not to Woodrow Wilson, or Adams — suddenly evacuate the gene pool. This, to my mind, is a significant development; one I was not entirely expecting. Trump has the nerve to look across the rest of America for talent and good sense. Somehow he noticed in his flyovers from Manhattan that there were people down there.

We will see if the result is a disaster. At first, the horror of the outgoing establishment is laid on pretty thick. Poor dears: they must yell while they can, until their microphones are snaffled away. These new bosses replacing them lack their instincts, their manners, their sycophancy towards the old holy cows. They will be like yaks in the china shop.

But when the mass of “Bologna” disappears, we must accustom ourselves to a more varied diet. We are presented with salsiccia fresca; some ’nduja at Energy, perhaps; some oily zambone at State; the Modeno cotechino in the Treasury; ciavàr at Interior; thin-sliced soppressata at the EPA; the rustic lucanica at Education; a hunk of biroldo at the DoD. Truth to tell, I had tired of all that baloney, every bally day.

Yak weather

I love a good cold spell; it shuts the climate warming crazies up for a while. We have a nice one now, up here in the Canadas, thanks to an ectoplasmic extension of the amoebic polar vortices, that spin air from Santa’s larder down to these lower latitudes which, in the more Arctic view, correspond to our country’s “banana belt.” In Parkdale, here, thanks to immigration from Tibet, we feel right at home. Plunging temperatures and gale-force winds: just like the high plateaux of Central Asia. “Yak weather,” I call it, in commemoration of one of nature’s cuddliest bovines.

Yet there are no yaks in Parkdale, or rather I should say, lest I be caught spreading fake news, none that I have noticed. Nor is this remark designed to distract the animal rights authorities from any yak I might be keeping on my balconata. I’m for free-run yaks, and ethical spider-silk harvesting in cutting-edge violin manufacture, to cite just the top two items in an eco-friendly website recently shown to me. The spiders on my balconata, which have all presumably frozen to death, were strictly free-run; and the yak is, I swear, an optical illusion.

For Parkdale has no buildings tall enough to make a free-range roof yak feel comfortable. Eleven floors up might seem a start, but for his heart and lungs, two thousand storeys would be more like it. Moreover, while his double-covering of fine yak wool fits him for our winter gusts, he might die of heat prostration in our summers. I am told yaks do not even have sweat glands, and thus should be entitled, if they are bred here, to an air-conditioned barn (whatever our pope may say to the contrary).

Perhaps I have boasted before that we have a Serbian butcher in our neighbourhood, who has wisely catered to a growing Tibetan clientele. Yak chops and ground yakmeat, yak fillets and yak sausages, are plentifully available in beautiful downtown Parkdale, though we have no high-end shops: the truth being that, given our average income, we hardly need them.

I have found that a yak sausage will challenge the assumptions of a lowland, Western cook. The first time I tried to fry one, I found it gave off smoke generously, but was in no way physically altered, except in becoming more like a rock. It was only after diligent inquiry I learnt it had to be soaked for a very long time, and then simmered for another very long time at about the boiling temperature for water at 18,000 feet. After what seemed several days of such exercises, the thing became very slightly elastic, as well as somewhat bigger, and promised to become mutable. Only at this point would it have been possible to insert a kitchen thermometer spike, perhaps with the help of a sledge hammer. To call it “lean” would be to understate the matter. I was warned by the butcher not to try microwaving the thing, for fear of an explosion. Not having a microwave, I was not tempted to try this experiment.

On my next visit, the butcher’s pretty daughter suggested that I try yak chops instead, which are not, after all, processed to twice the density of pemmican, and go well with fruit chutneys.

Did you know that there is no word for “yak” in Serbian? (“Well, we spell it with a ‘j’.”) That is how English spreads as our lingua franca. Our own language expands by theft, in this case from the Tibetans. Or, “loan words” as we like to call them. In the old days, before we stole “yak,” we called this beast a “grunting ox,” our explorers having noticed that it does not moo. It is a peaceable animal, when approached warily, not like the pushy and vexatious cows who were the progenitors of modern European culture. (See here.) Which is well, because a wild, fully-grown male yak weighs about one tonne (metric or Imperial, makes no difference) and has some genius for manoeuvring the high ground.

I like to think of it (picture here) as “the coconut of the Himalayas” — as the coconut is the yak of the South Seas. It can be used to make everything: food, clothing, shelter. Better than a coconut, it can also be used as a beast of burden, in yak trains through the mountains, or to pull a plough. It will carry the bonny Tibetan maiden. The wool has a thousand household uses, the leather will insulate and waterproof your yurt, the calves entertain your children. And the milk goes finally into your tea. (I am thinking here of Tibetan po cha, which comes in a brick, to be hot churned with yak butter and salt, and which the unsuspecting Western guest may mistake for an emetic. Suggest starting with the cheese, instead.)

But the very best thing about a yak is that, should tragedy impend, and you are caught out in the high pastures, which are mostly of stone and free of other food — you can always eat it.

Improvements

Everything, except God, has a context. I write this morning to contextualize yesterday’s post, which might (I realize from several emails) be misunderstood. Readers, especially outside the Catholic Church, might think I am saying everything is going to Hell, or gone, when in my experience, on balance, the Church is recovering, and promises to continue recovering. And this for reasons that, superficially, make no sense.

In particular, the quality of our priests seems to be rising; the celebration of Mass is becoming more focused, more reverent; many young are being drawn in, and those who come take the Christian teaching more seriously; the monastic movement is once again advancing, with zeal; the standard of Catholic thinking among our intellectuals is rising — albeit, in each case, from what could be described as “historical lows.” This is a gut feeling, on matters that cannot be statisticized, and need to be anecdotalized cautiously. While my observation is biased towards North American sources, I am aware through correspondents and reports of parallels in, I think, all the countries of Europe, and the wide world beyond.

Much heroic work was done by our recent popes, Saint John Paul and Benedict XVI, to rescue and defend the fabric and integrity of the institutional structure, but more than this is going on. To my mind, the Church herself, as a vast and mysterious organism, is now recovering from a period of insult and abuse that began long before Vatican II; and of which what I unfondly call “the spirit of Vatican II” was not the cause, but the fever. She is throwing off what I would characterize as the disease, of modernism, aptly described in its several aspects by popes and theologians going back to the eighteenth century. For all the principalities and powers, still wrecking from within, the “rigidity” of this structure is being restored, and usefully tested. In time, the parts not rigid are being washed away.

What Ratzinger called the “Council of the Media” indeed continues to prevail — in the noise of the media. That is, the forces for “progress” away from the Church’s Christ-given mission, towards accommodation with the vagaries of the world, retain their pride. But shocks have already come, and bigger are coming. Those whose faith is in the inevitability of this progress find themselves increasingly in the position of those who believed in the inevitability of Hillary Clinton. Not that Trump will prove any kind of godsend (let us leave for two years any judgement on his secular effect). I use this only as an analogy to what is happening at many dimensional levels, throughout the West.

It is a cliché that, “our hope is in the young.” In worldly terms, there is no other place to look. But at a time when huge proportions of our young are in despair — as evidence the mounting drug deaths — we have lost and found. I have been in a privileged position, getting glimpses of “youth movements” within the Church, through everything from “world youth days” to the students I have encountered teaching in a small seminary. Even in so apparently shallow a thing as popular music, I am struck by the revival of a capella in the cause of e.g. Christmas carols. Those looking for an escape from the oppressive materialism, the moral disorder and cynicism of modern life are — often naïvely and with many setbacks — finding it is there, and was there all along, in Jesus Christ.

The need to build families, to build neighbourhood, against all odds, is a yearning deep in human nature. It is perpetually buoyant, and rising back to the surface. With it comes the starch to resist the demonic forces run loose in our society. Mistakes, terrible mistakes, are made (how I know this from the inside!) yet, where the help of God is honestly petitioned, there is recovery.

As I say, this is the overall gut feeling, of an old pundit trying to understand what is happening around him. That the media ignore this story can hardly surprise; they deal only with surface, and characteristically misrepresent whatever they see floating there. Whereas, what I characterize is happening underneath. On balance I would say, things are actually improving — in a direction opposite the one from which we’ve come.

*

A dear friend — the art directrice of my former Idler magazine — had been suffering from an extended flu (perhaps the same one I have been enjoying). Sitting with her dog and her tea, she heard singing outside her house.

It was carols. “Like, real Christmas hymns.”

She lives (like me) in the middle of this city, even closer to the heart of banking Moloch.

“I looked out the window and standing around my tiny brightly lit Christmas tree, in the mass of beautiful, unsullied powdered snow, were three carollers. It was like a scene out of Dickens — except for the electric lights.”

She grabbed her little doggie, and joined them. (I should mention that this Mitzi has a glorious singing voice.) They sang together, and had a chat. She asked if they were collecting for a charity. They weren’t, they were just out carolling. They wanted to wish people a “Merry Christmas.”

This is the sort of thing.

The road we know

Blasphemy, idolatry, heresy, and bad manners are not exactly new things in the history of Holy Church. Not even “difficult” popes are new, nor priests who aren’t believing Christians, and in prevision of the circumstances that might arise, Our Founder provided a Mass that is very hard to fuddle. It could be illicit — could be Not the Mass — but with bona fides in order it is impossible to render invalid through any human act that is not visibly and audibly intentional. And even then the devil may fail, surrounded as I hope he would be by sincere Christians, not intending to be scorned. Even full-dress clowns in the sanctuary can’t invalidate the Mass, if there is a licit priest presiding, and he has gone through the motions of the consecration — whatever rubbish he might privately believe. His mistakes remain on his head only, until we try to disencumber him.

I mention this as a public service, from the many queries I get, which ought to be addressed to a competent priest. It seems to me that a great deal of unnecessary anxiety is endured by “Trad Catholics,” left wondering whether they have just been conned, and must now attend Mass in another parish to fulfil their Sunday obligation. This is especially enervating for them, when no other Catholic church is in hiking distance, they have no car, and they are stuck with the ministrations of some vain, liberal-progressive head case. This is hard, but I think the wisdom of the ages would proclaim: “Be patient until you can see him off.”

(Often they see themselves off, voluntarily; the quicker when faced with a hardy congregation. Unfortunately, given the priest shortage that “the spirit of Vatican II” brought about, there is danger they will be re-posted elsewhere.)

Christ, in my fairly secure understanding, would not do this to us. He might allow tribulations, that will always be deserved, but He would not make His own presence in our lives conditional upon the antics of befrocked delusionaries. He is not only present in the sacrifice of the Mass, but like us, came on purpose. An “invalid” celebration (actually there is no such category) would be so obviously Not the Mass, that no one present in mind could be fooled. And anyone who could be, is anyway under His protection. There would have to be a fake priest, or no consecration at all. The intention to profane the Host would have to be sufficiently obvious that only those intending to profane it would themselves receive. It would have to be unsubtle.

Of course this does happen, sometimes. But the notion that we must sit in the pews, constantly judging our priests in our distraction, is also unCatholic and unChristian. If the priest is determined to go to Hell, there is little we can do to stop him. We need not follow him there with our imprecations.

Meanwhile, I pass along the counsel from many who endured something much like desolation, through decades of the “deforms” after Vatican II; which seem to be returning under the current pontificate. It is best expressed in the colloquial: “Don’t let the bastards drive you out of the Church.” Nor yourself abandon, to their misery, your fellow faithful. Bad priests come and go, for all they may tarry, but the Church will endure. And things are worse in Aleppo.

Priests (or even bishops) preaching heresy and rot is much more common, these days. And this is worth the occasional public confrontation, in which, incidentally, one is likely to lose. In the short term, however, one can tune the homily out, by tuning in the Rosary. One may follow the Missal, whatever the priest is doing. While avoiding the kind of ostentatious deportment that will alienate the laity around you.

The rules are as Cardinal Burke explains: to transmit one’s dubia first in private, then in public only if that does no good. Only thereafter should one take it over the errant’s head. The rules for just engagement in war are similar. Even a declaration of war should be delivered with civility and politeness and the proper ceremony; and collateral damage ought to be avoided.

*

The same holds, I have come to think, by analogy in the rest of life. People do things that are bad. Or so I allege, backed by the weight of Scripture and Tradition. I have seen examples of very bad. I have seen more examples of bad masquerading as good: by people who have convinced themselves (if they really have) that their bad behaviour, their evil plans, somehow can be justified. It is by their fruits we know them.

So deeply ingrained is the human moral sense, that some attempt at self-vindication is likely to be made, even by the babbling insane. But seldom is there any puzzle, and if one follows the plot with modest attention one need not be vexed. For by the time an action needs to be condemned, and resisted, no subtlety is left. Nor need one be hot-headed in response to the crime. The malefactor will have gone out of his way to make the situation clear: the universe is so constructed that he has no choice. His pretence of goodness is ludicrous. His casuistry becomes self-satirizing. He is beyond kindly admonishment now.

We suffer sometimes from sensory deprivation. And yet this moral sense is so powerful, that the loss of sight and hearing — of smell, taste, or even touch — can hardly impair it. Too, it engages with all the other senses, when they are functioning; and I would not say only with these five because we have many more than five senses. (Indeed, scientistic materialism attempts to undercut this knowledge, by restricting the field; but this is a topic for many other days.)

My point for today is only that scrupulosity — one of the temptations in religious as in social life — can be safely forsaken. As the law once recognized, there is nothing ambiguous in an act of bad faith; and as Christians should know, Christ would not put us in that situation, where we must judge fine points beyond our ken. Moreover, as in the Mass, He is there when called upon. Faith is faith.

Problems with rejoicing (solved)

Yes, it is Gaudete Sunday. Christmas is coming for sure. It follows that we, who at least pretend to believe that Christ has come, and will come again, should be rejoicing. I have worded this in the “ironical,” post-modern way, in deference to the times. For today, we “have problems with that.”

Take Parkdale, if you will. The Lake is warm, after an unusually hot summer; the breeze is gentle; the air temperature only a little below freezing; and that breeze is blowing from the Lake. In consequence, we may be buried under a foot of pure, bright, beautiful snow. Our ancestors — at least, those not from Bangalore or Brazil — tell us to hitch the bells to the sleighs, and the sleighs to the horses, and go gladly riding. Dong-a-ling, dong-a-ling. Shall we not arrive at the church singing?

But no, Parkdale has changed in the last century. It is full of people trying to start their cars; and waiting for the snow ploughs; or grimacing as they spread their salt and scrape their shovels. It will be worse next morning, when they must go to work. Not one of them even owns a sleigh; or a horse; or bleeding bells for that matter. It would seem that we have ruined everything.

The achievement of those ancestors is worth remarking. They came here to the white-wool North, often as refugees from one place or another. Looking back, over the hump of time: not all survived their first winters. The birds began to fly south, and soon they understood why. Staying warm, and staying fed, wasn’t always possible. The preparations had to be learnt.

But they were learnt, and within a generation, a season of fear, death and starvation, was transformed into one of joy and leisure. And this with the help of no power tools, except such as could be turned by water. There is nothing so cozy as a cabin, with the hearth blazing, once the harvest is in. And the picking, the threshing, the canning and the stowing, was gaiety itself. The joy in common work — all hands gathered — is lost upon us now. For now we hire people. And we are all strangers.

My late mother, born as recently as 1920, remembered the gathering at Homeville, Cape Breton. In winter they sang, by the piano; jigged to the fiddle, whistled through the flute; read the Bible and some other books, often aloud; wove rugs and knitted; darned socks and patched shirts; played with the paintbox; told tales, and tales within tales; muffled in their woollens and furs; went out to feed the animals in their sheds. (They bred foxes, but also chickens. This required some tact.)  Or they walked under the shining stars; and the Northern Lights would come to them as angels. Mama in her turn told stories, to my little sister and to me, passed voice to voice down the generations. People long dead lived again in them.

The old carols remind, where it is still legal to sing them, of what has been lost — or will be lost, unless we recover the moral fibre to smack down the “progressive” devils. For the ancient ability to confront evil was also exchanged for our life of ease.

We do not tell stories to our children any more. We give them “children’s literature,” and video games. (They find their own drugs.) Hardly anyone has a piano. We have no notion of the thrill in the gift my mother recalled, of an orange. (That was the Christmas that little cousin Freemont got “the monkey what runs up the stick,” and wet himself when he saw it.) On the other hand, we have smartphones and widescreen TVs.

But these are all worldly delights, remembered or sustained; the Gaudete draws deeper than that. It is available to all men of goodwill, and of all races, by now around the planet — the knowledge that Christ is coming — and all we need is to discard our anxieties, with the bad living that is the cause of them. True, it has a worldly aspect: from our digging holes until the sky shrinks above us. Still, some shafts of light filter down. And Advent is “the rousing time,” to rise from our subterranean torpor.

Our friends, our families, and ourselves, enter and exit. The clouds settle, then move on. There is loss and gain; there is pain and pleasure; there is clarity and then bewilderment again. All of this must be accepted; even loneliness and galling injustice, because we are in the world. But through bad luck and good, the Truth is unfading. In all weather it speaks to us. “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” it is telling. Make your modesty your show. Repent every wrong — then fret for nothing. Direct your petitions in humble prayer. For the Lord is at hand.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.

Saturday night thought

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at quarter past nine.”

The quote, and its variants, have been attributed to Faulkner, Maugham, and whichever hack comes to mind as the esprit du jour. I expect it will be traced to a little-read passage in the table talk of Virgil.

My own (wormlike) witlessness can be attributed to the hard fact that, I am often busy at nine-fifteen. Or perhaps there was some other reason why, at whatever time, I found myself staring at a blank page, or glancing down my handlist of a thousand topics, or at titles inscribed on a thousand book spines, without anything genial coming to mind. So it has been today, gentle reader — who, were he desperate for David Warren Thought, could have consulted the Catholic Thing (here).

But at this late hour a promising question arrives, from a remote place in the Canadas:

“Mr Warren, I have been trying to articulate a definition of Toryism for myself. Newman called it loyalty to persons; Enoch Powell said it is the belief that power is immanent in institutions; Walter Bagehot said that it constitutes enjoyment (i.e. of institutions and traditions); and Samuel Johnson (the original Idler) said a Tory is one who adheres to the ancient constitution and to the Apostolic Church. You in turn have called it the political expression of a religious view of life; without faith it becomes conservatism; without memory it becomes progressive conservatism. Could you furnish me with another definition of Toryism, your own?”

What is there to add?

Having thought on this while reheating a portion of mushroom pizza, for my supper up here in the High Doganate, I have decided to reply:

“Put not your faith in Toryism, but in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

Before the beginning

The advice of a solid old Anglican priest — back when the Anglicans had a use for solids — was to retain one’s balance. “Don’t try to do everything at once,” he said, after my conversion on that bridge over Thames. In particular, “Don’t try to believe everything at once. It is bigger than you, you shan’t be able to do it.” And, “Never abandon your scepticism. If it doesn’t make sense to you, leave it and get back to it later.” And, “The trick to walking, whether you are a babe or very drunk, is: one step at a time. Those who get ahead of themselves tend to fall over.”

We do not offer catechism class in this anti-blog. At least, not officially. To understand the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, requires participation first of all. Be there in the Mass. It is hard to learn anything when one is perpetually absent, and the teaching in this case as in all other cases begins not in some textbook or theological primer, but by interaction with the Thing Itself. That is where the beauty of it is displayed: the incomprehensible beauty. Unless, alas, it is obscured or shadowed in the pro-forma of the postmodern ritual, when it dissevers mind from feeling.

But it is hard to obscure the inner truth, I think, when the Epistle for today — the passage from the eighth chapter of Proverbs which sings prevenient grace (“a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia,” as the Trent Council explained) — is followed, and inwardly digested. The attributes of Wisdom that the Church has applied to Our Lady may be found in the Old Testament, as much as in the New.

Dominus possedit me in initio viarum suarum, antequam quidquam faceret a principio: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything, before the beginning. …”

I teach “EngLit,” sometimes, and “poetics,” sort-of. In plays, such as Shakespeare’s, the speakers are well-marked. In open verse, including his Sonnets, there is often a big question. Who is speaking? It could, it might, be the author himself. Or it could be someone, or something other. The better one listens, the clearer it will be. If they were nothing more, the Prophets of the Hebrews offer a training in this vital dimension of poetry. In this remarkably prophetic passage, within the Proverbs, the question is brought to our attention in a spectacular way: Who is speaking here? Who is she?

To begin with the formal dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, is to begin to miss the point. For as we learn from today’s epistle: we can understand nothing unless we begin before the beginning. (Which perhaps helps us to explain why we seldom understand anything at all.)

Long, long, long before the formal definition of Pius IX, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was common, in the East as in the West. This, too, was a beginning before the beginning, and a correction to those who imagine that popes, or any other men, make doctrine. They only defend it, when it is challenged. (And to define is to defend.) This is what happened, in 1854. But that is not the origin of something which, though logically necessary to the Christian theology, sinks beneath the necessity of reason into the profundity of faith.

Our task is to understand God in Christ; that, God Is That He Is, and not another. It is to the Mother of God we fly. We will not understand the Son without the Mother; nor conversely the Fiat without the Fiat Lux, the Fiat Panis.

All of us in this class are beginners.