Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

True patriot love, disentangled

Have you ever had your question patriotismed? I mean, your patriotism questioned? I gather (from Fox News) that happens a lot, south of the border; but it can even happen up here in the slowly melting North. Why, only yesterday I was patriotismed for a remark I’d made the day before, on this very Idleblogue.

Of course, “patriotism,” as we all learnt from Doctor Johnson, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” But it is a little-known fact that scoundrels seldom advertise themselves as such. Instead, they are likely to pose as patriots, “nation builders” or some such thing. Or as we say up here, “nationalists” — who are like American patriots, only worse. Most of them anyway began, in my generation, as American draft dodgers, who should have been delivered in Canadian paddy-wagons to the nearest U.S. Army recruitment centre, for shipment to Vietnam. (I’m totally opposed to conscription, incidentally; but this was a special case.) They did not so much love Canada, as hate the United States, and it makes no sense to take immigrants like that; even less sense to set them up as tenured perfessers in our universities, to interjaculate their toxins among our young.

My offending passage will be easily found. It was where I suggested that the once-inhabitants of Newfoundland, and before them those of our Maritime provinces, had been suckered by their late politicians into Confederation with the Province of Canada (as it was, 1841–67).

For good measure, let me add some more sheep to that lamb. I think the good citizens of Lower Canada (Quebec) were wrongly hounded into union with Upper Canada (Ontario), in 1841. … And vice, as they say, versa. … Too, I regret what was done to absorb Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), and the various fragments of the Northwest Territories (Saskatchewan, Alberta, and so forth), confederated after that.

I should also like to say that some of these provinces are far too big, and Ontario in particular needs breaking up into much smaller pieces. For instance, everything beyond the Greater Parkdale Area needs to belong to some other province, for its own good.

And lest you Americans are feeling smug, may I remind you that I was (or rather, my ancestors were) entirely opposed to the union of the Thirteen Colonies; and that I bear a particular resentment for the incorporation into those United States, of the Vermont Republic (in 1791). Some of my mama’s people, who first ran there to escape the armed lunatics in Massachusetts, were compelled to remove again after Vermont was pincered. The Vermontanists (Green Mountaineers?) had clearly stated that if push came to shove, they would rather join the Province of Quebec (whereas, the Continental Congress wanted them eaten by the Province of New York).

One darn thing led to another, as Stetson Holmes put his trunks on the cart, and made for the coast of Maine. He, and his wife, and no longer all of his sons, were now bound for Cape Breton, as they did not yet know. (Beggars can’t be choosers.) The next generation found themselves opposing the forced merger of Cape Breton into Nova Scotia (1820), then another after that the forced merger of Nova Scotia into Canada (1867).

This last mulchification was thoroughly opposed by her people, as evidence the first Canadian general election, in which eighteen of Nova Scotia’s nineteen seats were taken by the Anti-Confederation Party. Awake they now were, but the Colonial Office at Westminster ruled that there was “no going back.” (Three of my least favourite words, when spoken in that order; and have you noticed? … the three favourite words of our current pope.)

So do I not love Canada?

I have long recognized this as a trick question. It depends: Which Canada do you mean? I love some, and really hate others. Moreover, which layer of history are we discussing? I will not be tyrannized by those chronological bigots, who demand that we live only in the present. The Canadas I love are mostly now dead; but this has not diminished my affection for them. I’m a Jacobite, after all, who nevertheless sings, “God Save the Queen.” I declare my inalienable human right to adjust my loyalties, in delayed reaction to events, every century or so. As a reader of history, I have observed little that turned out as I’d have wished. One must live with that.

Do I not then love, “The Dominion of Canada”?

Ha, Correspondent! … Forced you to say it! … For there is no other way to describe the current Canadian federal regime. That communist Pierre Trudeau (not really a Communist; he was too arrogant for that), tried to change this with legislation in 1982. His Liberal Party predecessor, Louis St Laurent, had already had a go in 1951. Both, and many others, argued that the term “Dominion” is untranslatable into French. Nonsense: I like “La Puissance du Canada” even better. And the old long form still exists, and cannot be made to disappear, from various unabrogated constitutional documents. So stick it, as we say in our national sport (le hockey sur glace).

If what he means is, however, “Do I love the federal government?” the answer is, “Are you crazy?” Of course I don’t. I don’t know anyone who does.

Laetare Sunday

“There is a boy here who has five barley-loaves, and two fishes.”

Given the size of the crowd Jesus had attracted, this did not look good. The Apostle Philip, who seems to have been the accountant of His outfit — this true proto-Church — estimated their requirements. For five thousand people, give or take, two hundred pennyworth of bread — as an absolute minimum, “that everyone may take a bit.” (About $325 by silver weight in pre-inflated Roman denarii, or rather more if we compare daily wages.) And that’s if you can find a bakery, on the far side of Galilee, with Passover approaching.

There are passages in the Gospels which I believe to be droll. This would be one of them. As I read it, Jesus is winking at Philip, who is doing the math. For really, the math doesn’t matter, in the circumstances on that hill.

Andrew, brother to Simon Peter, then chimes in, with his helpful note about the little boy, whose picnic supplies are sufficient, perhaps, for the apostles themselves. Someone, at least, was thinking ahead.

Nobody invited these five thousand people, by the way. They just came. News of Jesus’ miracles was spreading, and in particular, rumours that he could cure people of various incurable diseases: even first-hand testimonies. Then as now, inquiring minds wanted to know.

Our Lord had “gone up the mountain” (actually, a grassy hill) with his disciples: for what I’d guess was a quick, proto-Ignatian retreat. That was where you went to get some privacy, in those days: out of the village and over the hill. From the account in Saint John we get the flavour: they were actually trying to get away from the crowds. But you know how it is with “the people.” The crowds found them. Sometimes you can’t shake people off.

Cum sublevasset ergo oculos Jesus: that’s how the dialogue began. “When Jesus therefore had lifted his eyes,” — from prayer I would assume — he saw them coming. The crowds. There is drollery even in this, according to me. And it is a profound drollery. For we have reached a certain point in Christ’s ministry on Earth: the point at which the end is near; as the end of our Lenten Fast is also nearing. We are half-way there.

Laetare, Jerusalem! … “Rejoice!”

It is because Jesus has attracted so many, that trouble is coming His way. He is beginning to disturb the order of old Roman Palestine. This, to those who made themselves responsible for its order, was not “good news.” If, as the politically correct of that day must have said (shrugging knowingly to each other; rolling their eyeballs as they do) — if He’d just kept His doctrine to Himself, none of this would have to happen.

Or even if He had disciples, that would have been okay: so long as they practised their religion in the privacy of their own homes.

“It’s a free country,” after all. Everyone has the right to his opinions, so long as he keeps them to himself; so long as, when they are in public, they bow before the public gods (Caesar, say; or, Same Sex Equality). If only Jesus had been discreet, if only He could have watched His language, it wouldn’t have had to end like this. Instead, He just had to preach. And perform miracles: that was utterly over the top.

But it was worse than that, from the point of view of Palestine’s progressive elites. People were listening to Jesus. Something would have to be done.

And being the Christ, He knows that. He knows it, when He looks up, and sees the approach of the crowd. He has taken the road of no return, — the Via Dolorosa, — the road that leads only to the Cross. They will hail Him today; they will nail Him tomorrow. This were a dark “irony”; and who could appreciate it better than Jesus himself?

But let us get back to the story.

“Five barley-loaves and two fishes.” This has got to be a joke. I daresay Andrew himself, as the future patron of Scotland, was smiling when he said it. (I imagine him in Palestinian qumbaz, which can look a little like a kilt.)

Then Jesus said: “Make everyone sit down.” Which is as much as to say: “So, let’s eat!” (I can almost hear the apostles giggling.) Jesus thus began the distribution of the bread and fish; but first He said grace to the Father. Or more correctly, the apostles, being clergy, distributed after Jesus blessed.

Gentle reader is, I sure hope, familiar with the rest of this story. The leftovers filled twelve baskets. And as Saint Andrew could tell you, God does not like waste. It was Jesus who told them to gather all the fragments:

Waste not, want not.

Repent, while you still can.

And, rejoice! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.

External combustion

Before adjourning my discussion of trains, let me append a note on Bullets. There are, or have been in this world, to my knowledge, two “bullet trains.” One is the famous Shinkansen, which opened between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. The current express, the Nozomi, makes the journey either way in two hours, twenty-five minutes. (Japanese never take the plane, I am told, because the train is so much faster; only foreigners fuss with the airport protocols.)

The other, known affectionately as the “Newfie Bullet,” opened in 1898 between St John’s and Port-aux-Basques — an approximately equal distance, as the crow flies — and was making that journey, until the autumn of 1988, in (give or take) twenty-three hours. The crow was not consulted in both cases, however, and while the (standard gauge) Japanese track was laid fairly straight, the contractor for the Newfie Bullet, a smart Scotchman from Montreal, not in any particular hurry himself, was, notoriously, paid by the mile.

When the guvmint took it over, an effort was made to change the name of this latter train to “The Caribou.” Newfoundlanders were not fooled, and retained the old, somewhat ironical expression. It was a congenial, narrow-gauge train (three feet, six inches: the same as throughout pre-Bullet, mountainous Japan), and thanks to its meandering route, offered a fine tour of the immense island, including parts of its interior never visited by man since the demise of the autochthonous Beothucks. (The original “redskins” of European report, thanks to the red ochre insect repellent with which they cleverly painted themselves.)

That would be, of course, the Canadian guvmint, which took over the Newfie Bullet, from the failing guvmint of the old Dominion of Newfoundland. (The sorry souls voted in 1948 to join Canada, in return for a mess of potage, repeating the mistake made in the previous century by Nova Scotians, New Brunswickers, and Prince Edward Islanders, as each electorate in turn agreed to be suckered by their respective megalomaniac politicians into surrendering their instruments of independence and enterprise, thereby turning their children’s children into welfare clients of an obtuse bureaucracy in Ottawa, far far away. See: Joseph Howe, who foresaw the whole thing.)

After extravagant “upgrades” of this and that, the new proprietors eventually bit the Bullet, first replacing the steam engines with “environmental” diesels, then the whole system with “environmental” buses. For you see, another arm of guvmint had meanwhile laid, at extravagant expense, mostly to the taxpayers of Ontario, wide asphalt highways. Newfoundlanders could now acquire cars that could whip across the island in twelve hours or less. They were now mainlining on speed.

A lawyer, who commutes locally by train, wrote me yesterday to suggest a mediaeval quality of the railways, incidentally comparing their contemporary state to that of the post-conciliar Church:

“After all, the railways at their finest seemed analogous to the Catholic Church. Aesthetically, a passing steam train — the bells, the steam, the “all aboard!” — was about the closest thing to attending Mass one could find outside a church. While there were various local operating companies (like the rites of Christendom), they were part of one great interconnected whole that reached into virtually every community, where the huge city stations served as cathedrals, and the little village stops with their lone station attendants were like the parish churches. …

“Consider the act of boarding a train, paying your fare and entrusting your self in humility to its crew, to take you to your destination, particularly when you contrast this with the arrogant individualism of travelling by car.”

Idiotization prevents contemporary man from appreciating how this situation came about. Prosperous railways were put out of business by tax-paid roads. “The people” in their burning, craven lust for material possessions and speed, soon themselves demanded this progress towards a hell-on-earth, where everything of tranquil beauty is destroyed to provide automotive access to it, and as I once explained, vast conurbations are shaped by the bureaucratic allocation of parking spaces. A human population no greater in bio-mass than that of the ants, is now outweighed five or six times by resource-gobbling private cars. And the idiots now think the solution is to reduce the mass of the humans. O Lord!

Trapped sometimes, as a pedestrian at an intersection, I have counted twenty or thirty consecutive cars going by, each containing only its driver; and every one of them, if I could catch a glimpse of the face, frazzled by the (now continuous) “rush hour” traffic. There are no words for the bottomless idiocy of contemporary, progressive man.

People, who should serve God, instead serve “the devil they know.”

Awake! Awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem!

*

Now, I was intending to effuse this morning upon the opportunities presented by “external combustion” engine designs more intelligent than the old steam boilers, and infinitely more intelligent than the “internal combustion” engines to which we became addicted (for other than rational reasons, but anon). In particular, I wanted to call attention to the possibilities for onboard generation of electrical power by Stirling engines — which can work on any fuel, and exploit principles of air compression through heat transfer — expounded in e.g. the Pneumatica of Heron of Alexandria, and largely overlooked through the last two millennia. Engines which, because they do not accumulate internal carbon, could be designed to operate continuously without significant repair for decades, even centuries — on corn husks, whale oil, popsicle sticks, whatever. But I’ve distracted myself, through wrath.

Make a note: God willing, I’ll get back to this. I do intend to solve all the world’s problems, before I push off.

*

Another correspondent, in Tripp, South Dakota, calls my attention to one of the Tarzan movies of the 1930s, which he recalls as follows:

The Players:

— Tarzan, the Ape Man (Johnny Weissmuller).
— Englishman, the first.
— Englishman, the second.
— Crowd of native Africans.

The Scene:  Crowd of native Africans seated on the bare earth, watching a film. A steam locomotive comes straight at them. Shouts go up! They panic and scatter into the near bush.

First Englishman: “Well Tarzan, what do you think about that?”

Tarzan: “Why train go so fast?”

Second Englishman: “Why Tarzan, that train will travel from Boiling Kettle to Tea’s Biscuits in two hours!”

Tarzan: “Why?”

Second Englishman: “Why, to save time, Tarzan.”

Tarzan: “What do with time saved?”

First Englishman: “He’s got you there, Old Boy.”

Narrow-gauge railways

My title is perhaps misleading. The main railway discussed below was standard gauge (four feet, eight-and-a-half inches), and another to which I will refer is actually two-and-three-eighths inches wider. Under cross-examination I will have to admit a cynical ploy to lure narrow-gauge railway enthusiasts in the search engines. Shameless; but these are desperate times. And I have seen even more brazen attention-grabbing devices on the Internet.

George Stephenson, who did not design the first steam locomotive (that was the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick), did build the Liverpool and Manchester, which when it opened in 1830 was the world’s first inter-city railway. I believe he is credited with establishing the standard gauge, through his many pioneering works in this genre; and that he was also on record expressing a regret. If he’d had it all to do again, he would have added an extra couple of inches to the space between the insides of the rails. There was a “sweet point” that he had slightly underestimated.

Thousands of lives might have been saved on unnecessary derailments of the fast steam trains, from a slightly wider gauge and the moderation of the railbed curves that would have necessitated. Ah well. One engineer copies another, and most of the world’s railways are now “1435mm,” as most of the world puts it. (That is, Stephenson rounded by one-tenth of a millimetre.)

The ancient Romans, too, had a standard gauge for their cart ruts, within half an inch of this later railway gauge. Their carts were pulled by men and horses, like the early hoppers in the collieries of north England, which may help explain the coincidence. The early mining engineers were, for the most part, not classically educated, so we may doubt they consulted the archaeologists.

Now, I was courting controversy with my remark above, about the derailment slaughter — which is, after all, so modest compared with the slaughter on our unrailed, asphalt roads. Gentle reader will appreciate it is not only the breadth of the rails, but the solidity of their construction, and the speed at which the train is travelling, that determine the point at which “liberation” occurs. Cross-winds may also come into it, the carrying capacity of bridges, and too, whether or not a Saracen has planted some explosives. (As we were reminded recently by some Canadian arrests. It seemed a pointless terrorist exercise, however, as our VIA trains so often go off the tracks of their own accord.)

*

It is true, all my claims to be a Luddite must now be dissolving before gentle reader’s eyes. I love railways. Every normal boy loves railways, and my own propendment to normality began with a maternal grandfather I never met. I would have, had he lived a few years longer, but that was not to be. Oliver Holmes was an engineer (i.e. train driver) on the old “S&L” — the Sydney and Louisburg Railway (“Louisbourg” misspelt, to flout the French who founded it). The company carried a few passengers and a lot of coal around “formerly industrial” Cape Breton, until as recently as 1968. Counting branches, it had more than a hundred miles of track, a considerable yard at Glace Bay, port connexions at each end, and arteries into the heart of the grand steel mills at Sydney (also now defunct).

Best of all, with coal so plentiful locally, the S&L used steam engines exclusively almost to the end. “Environmental” diesels were only brought in when the government took it over, as part of a larger scheme to turn industrial Cape Breton into a permanent welfare colony of the Liberal Party. (Gentle reader should ignore this malevolent aside.)

My father, for whom anything to do with my mother was holy, left me a substantial file on the S&L, and more generally on my grandfather’s railway career. Thus, I could go on, for ten thousand words at least. I have information here on all the locomotives, from the 1890s forward. And more: the wooden hoppers, the steel hoppers, the air-braked steel hoppers, the wooden and steel box cars, the steel gondolas, the Koppel dump cars, the flat cars, the cranes and derrick cars, the passenger cars, the “hobo cars” (for the pit workers), the tank cars, the baggage cars, the snow plows, and ah! … the sublime cabooses. (All built locally.)

In earlier life grandpa had also driven passenger trains between Halifax and Sydney. This became a matter of significance on his deathbed, in 1945. Gentle reader will now gird himself for an item of family lore.

My mother was then a young nurse at Halifax. Old Oliver knew he was dying, in the hospital at New Waterford (since defunct), in the moments when he was in his wits; but there was some question how long he would take. His wife, Annie, and his elder daughter, Mildred, would sit with him, and by the account of the latter (died 1989), he was something to see when out of them (his wits). He would pronounce on various matters, “like an Old Testament Prophet.” In his delirium one day he suddenly demanded that his younger daughter, Florrie (my mother), be summoned from Halifax. A trunk call was placed, to her ward matron, and up came my mama on the day’s last train.

My Aunt Mildred, church organist and oecumenical saint, whose every word could be absolutely trusted, stayed by her father’s bedside that evening. Grandpa remained awake and extremely alert. In the course of the evening, he became the train that was carrying his little girl. He would take her home. He could remember the whole route, every signal and station, every cutting and bridge — the whole ten hours. He could count off the times by the minute and the half-minute, following the clock exactly.

She was in the swish of Antigonish.

She was on the ferry to Port Hawkesbury.

She was skirting the shore of the Bras d’Or.

She was by Sydney Mines! She was at North Sydney! And finally, she was pulling into Sydney Station.

“She’ll take a cab, she’ll be right over.” And to the minute, she walked in the door.

Mama: still dressed in her nurse’s uniform, and cap, and cape. She’d run from the ward to catch that train, packing nothing. They embraced, and old Oliver, looking strangely well and almost youthful, said, “You girls go home now, get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow. Florrie’s had a long journey. Tell your mother I’m well, I need some rest, too.”

It seems almost redundant to add that he died that night.

*

We have trolleys still, in Toronto. For decades the bureaucrats have been trying to get rid of them, and replace them with “environmental” buses, but praise the Lord, He has always put something in their way. I mentioned gauge earlier, and I wanted to explain what makes the city so special. It is the unique gauge of our trolley tracks: four feet, ten and seven-eighths. Our new, articulated, “environmental” streetcars — high-tech and incredibly expensive, compared even to the last round of million-dollar cars — had to be specially adapted to this gauge. It was selected in the nineteenth century by the city fathers, and for good reason: so that no other train in Canada, or on the planet for that matter, could ride on our rails. They were prissy, these fine old Orangemen: they didn’t want freight trains shunting downtown, the way they then did in Hamilton and elsewhere, with their steam and coal-dust billowing everywhere. They wanted electric, “environmental” streetcars. The Greater Parkdale Area has been under the tyranny of the do-goods for a long time.

*

Only fast trains require wide gauges. At the Stephenson breadth, we once had steam trains doing 125 miles per hour on the stretches. I notice from the Beeb that a new species of inter-city train is now arriving in Britain. The latest models are from Hitachi in Japan: they are “environmental” to a fault, and pulsatingly high-tech, and unbelievably expensive. They will “cut travel times substantially” to Paddington on the western lines, and King’s Cross on the eastern — by whole minutes! I laughed when I read their top speed on the stretches: 125 miles per hour. The ad men say they will be much more comfortable than the trains they are replacing; then let slip that the carriages (of the same length as the carriages they replace) will fit “18 percent more seats.” (Progressive people demand to be lied to.)

My point was going to be that the world hasn’t changed. We could, for a tiny fraction of the price, still build narrow-gauge trains, that are low-tech and travel rather slowly — ascending and descending and bending and turning with short carriages this way and that — following the lay of the land. All our early trains through the Rockies were narrow-gauge; my father also left me files on trains that still climb through the world’s mountain ranges, on tracks little more than a yard wide. Except the odd avalanche or mud slide, they are quite safe. This is because their engineers know better than to race them.

I have been aboard several narrow-gauge trains, on three continents. Every one of these rides was memorable, for the opportunity it gave to drink in the passing landscape, while making new friends; stopping here and there for an hour or two, at some remote inn for a meal.

For getting there will always be a portion of eternity — surely every faithful Christian pilgrim will know the joy in that. And how much more joyful life could be, if we could overcome our speed addiction.

To be a viator

It is hard to get past the first paragraph of a book by Josef Pieper (1904–97) without one’s head exploding. I was reminded of this last night after reaching for On Hope, a typically small book by this author, of five chapters with less than one hundred pages (Über die Hoffnung, 1977).

Consider the first paragraph:

“Pastoral melodramatics have robbed the reference to man as a ‘pilgrim on this earth’ and to this earthly life as a ‘pilgrimage’ of its original significance and virility as well as its effectiveness. It no longer clearly mirrors the reality it is intended to convey. Its original meaning has been overgrown with a welter of extraneous aesthetic connotations; it has been all but buried under a veil of discordant secondary meanings, the false sentimentality of which actually destroys the joy that contemporary man — above all the younger generation and, perhaps, precisely the best of them — would have experienced in striving toward the reality that is ultimately reflected in the metaphor.”

Notice, first, the plain modest clarity of this language, beautifully captured in the English translation by one of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (Ignatius Press, 1986). Like his countryman Bach, or his master Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pieper gets straight to the point — and yet often from an angle that is not obvious, until it is boldly stated. We cannot understand the Christian, and theological, virtue of Hope, without understanding this concept of the status viatoris: that we are in this world “as pilgrims,” and in this sense through our whole lives on our way to something: to one destination, or the other.

“Rise, let us be on our way” (Mark 14:42) are the words of Christ; the status viatoris means the condition of being on the way. We are going somewhere, and it is God’s revealed intention, in the design of ourselves and the design of the universe, that this destination be Heaven. It is, or can be made, an arduous pilgrimage. Hope is in the completion of our journey; and in subsequent chapters, Pieper expounds the two terrible vices, the Scylla and Charybdis that stand in our way. One is Despair: the fear that we can never reach our proper destination. The other is Presumption: the perversa securitas of Augustine’s teaching — the glib, bourgeois, Pelagian certainty of a happy homecoming, no matter what. Within these vices are many false roads, which Pieper marks so that we may avoid them.

There is no certainty in this world, beyond the certainty of death — not for us. The virtue of Hope is entirely supernatural. It requires, absolutely, supernatural grace, and therefore must be prayed for, with all the earnest of which we are capable. It is in this sense, of a gift for which we pray, perhaps the most mysterious of the three “theological virtues” — of Faith, Hope, and Charity, the most incomprehensible to the worldly and indifferent. “Love” may seem self-evident to them; “good faith” will sound much like a virtue;  but “hope” seems to belong to some other category. Therefore, beyond even faith and love, it requires prayerful puzzling. It is indeed a fit topic for continuous contemplation with one’s whole mind: a serious inquiry into what Hope is, and just what it is that we are hoping. It is the opposite of something that can be taken for granted; it takes us to the core of who we are: of how we are to live and what we are to do.

Pieper’s fifth and concluding chapter is on “The Gift of Fear.” We were made of nothing, we remain for our whole journey proximate to, or on the precipice of, that nothingness. Neither the woolly liberalism nor the rigid stoicism, that see in fear a weakness, can help us in the final trench — as I have seen with my own eyes again and again and again. We are right to fear, and that fear is to be used: Pieper expounds this in a remarkable way.

I have not summarized the book, but danced across the stream on several slippery stones. The book is itself a summary, and for all its clarity, will require several readings to take its riches in, for they are set so close together: a harvest not only of Aquinas, but through and beside him, the works of Augustine, Bonaventure, Chrysostom, Dante, and so forth through the alphabet. The greatest minds in Christendom have applied themselves to interpreting for our advantage the bottomless mystery of our Hope, and Pieper re-assembles this teaching not for some quaint scholarly purpose, but expressly for the benefit of the modern man, whose need for relevant instruction is urgent.

This was incidentally the man who with his wife translated writings by C.S. Lewis into German; who prefaced his extraordinarily learned reader’s guide to Thomas Aquinas with the remark that G.K. Chesterton had done the job better. (I don’t agree with him, but defer to his expertise.) He exhibits the very best of German precision in thought, with none of the pretense of the Teutonic academy: a genuine humility and a regard for the Truth that is both passionate and chaste. He was a giant in the minds of our two great popes of recent memory — Saint John-Paul II and Benedict XVI — and to read him is to escape from the bewildering fog now blowing around them, within which horrible acts of destruction to our beloved Church are once again taking place.

For again, the very meaning of our pilgrimage is being “all but buried under a veil of discordant secondary meanings, the false sentimentality of which actually destroys the joy of contemporary man.”

Think on it.

Idleposting 101

Continuing on the theme of vain self-indulgence, a few more notes today.

A certain Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had never previously impressed me, except in a negative way, finally has, with her admission that for years as the foreign secretary of a neighbouring country — visiting the world’s hot spots and dealing with the most sensitive matters, including it would seem the channelling of huge donations to the Clinton family charity from some of America’s most dubious allies — was not using a government email account. And this, notwithstanding she was required to do so by law. As ever with the Clintons, the malfeasance is heroic, and the explanation of it (personal convenience) gob-smacking. But that is part of their charm, and in this case the aristocratic, or even royal indifference to government policy should be recognized with some kind of prize.

L’État, c’est moi” is not quite a mediaeval principle, but half way there. The idea that the state’s agents should be responsible to the historical record goes, on the other hand, all the way back — so that really, Mrs Clinton is only being “early modern.” This is a topic I hope to revisit: the relative openness and honesty of government in mediaeval royal courts, and the freedom with which public questions were discussed — as compared with the thick, acrid smog that enhovers our modern, democratic regimes, wherein the Courtiers of the People must advance themselves by lying and misrepresenting the most elementary realities to their masters. Thus, anything that moves us backward should be celebrated, even if Mrs Clinton might take credit for it.

But why was she using email at all? Surely a woman of her wealth and connexions could afford private couriers, whose secrecy, under threat of death, would moult no feather.

A certain Senator in the same country, Mr Lindsey Graham, for whom I had also not previously entertained any particular affection, has gone a step farther. He admitted on television, Sunday, that he has never sent a single email, and wouldn’t anyway know how. I find this very impressive, in a man actually younger than I am — reminding of Harry Truman, whose only keyboard was attached to his piano, who hated telephones with an exhilarating passion, and was deeply suspicious of electricity. To be above not only government policy, but the demands of the technology on which it depends, passes subtly beyond heroism almost to sanctity.

Now, when Truman had something to communicate privately, he wrote on paper with a pen, folded it into an envelope, licked on a stamp with his own saliva — then walked it to the letterbox on Pennsylvania Avenue, just outside the White House gate. He paid for his own postage, too, and never submitted an expense account. Bravo!

As for me, what can I say? I am “on email,” as many of my correspondents have discovered, and thus a dreadful failure as a Luddite. The matter is on my mind because, on checking the account this morning, I see that I have messages unanswered since February 23rd. My most abject apology, if gentle reader is among those awaiting a reply.

Let me also take this occasion to express my heartfelt gratitude to Protestants and Evangelicals, who so far as I can see account for 50 percent of my current readers, and about 90 percent of the PayPal donations. I reflect that they have patiently endured my occasional lapses into jag-edged Catholic sectarianism.

I should also mention, as a latter-day United Empire Loyalist, the plurality of my readers who are Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. (Indeed there are days when I think I have more followers in metropolitan Buenos Aires, than in the Greater Parkdale Area.) … I truly don’t deserve to be treated so well.

A century

Yesterday’s little Idlepost grew more than three times in length overnight, while I was sleeping. Or rather, I was not sleeping, thanks to the wandering of a spinal disc that “slipt,” twenty years ago. This introduced me to “a world of pain” (line from the comic movie, The Big Lebowski, 1998), in which I live with many other people: too many, alas, to earn any of us a return on moaning. Still, one moans when one can, even prayerfully to God.

The world is full of advice, and I have hesitated to write this not from fear of being marked as a whiner, but rather fear of the emails I might be inviting, suggesting various cures. Trust me: over twenty years, one becomes well-briefed. And: thanks for your prayers, and your encouragement, and forgiveness when I fall behind the mail.

Pain management has been a way of life in every generation; and there were many more before the discovery of modern painkillers, than there have been since. It is part of the human condition, and as I was remarking recently, it is something that distinguishes us from the other animals. They all seem to be healthy and whole: for the simple reason that, in nature, the animal not in perfect condition is picked off. A slipt disc, for instance, would be curtains for a creature whose defence against predators is to outrun them.

I saw a rabbit once, in imperfect condition, being run down by a hunter’s dog on an open grassy field. After a pro forma dash of perhaps thirty yards, and only one deak to send the dog skidding, he just sat there. Perhaps it was the combination of the distance and my imagination: it seemed the rabbit was at peace, when the dog took him. That, or he was frozen in fear. We, or more precisely, I, cannot read minds. Not even hare brains.

Humans, too, might behave nobly from ignoble motives; I’ve done that myself a time or two, so that the praise I received sounded in my ears like a terrible condemnation, and I owned to the truth to make it stop. But to assume an ignoble motive, is ignoble.

Like the rabbit, I gather, did many Christians in the Forum behave, as the starved lions came for them; and likewise, countless other Christians, who have gone to their executioners through the centuries, grasping the futility of flight: “Here, this is my body.” And too, some noble pagans, as the virgin Polyxena, in a line from Euripides’ Hecuba that has haunted me since I was a schoolboy: “Here, young man, if you want to stab my heart; or here is my neck, if you’d rather cut my windpipe.”

Others, I am sure, are so overtaken by anxiety, that they scream and yell. I was told once by an old soldier that persons condemned to the firing squad have their hands tied behind for their own dignity. There is an animal impulse to guard against blows with flailing arms, which in the circumstance is quite pointless. The modern convention is to administer tranquillizers, as a way to avoid embarrassing scenes. This must undermine the work of grace, however, and confuse judgement in the prisoner’s last moments. Therefore it strikes me as unChristian.

It is in that context we must consider “mere pain,” not as an end but a beginning. Often, I think, worse than the pain, is the anxiety that goes with it. One’s attention is focused on the disease, uselessly, if the pain is to go on and on. It makes sense to focus on impending death, with all of our spiritual resources; but it is morbid to focus on disease in this way.

This, incidentally, is my one hundredth consecutive daily essay. After reflecting on my situation at the end of November — the combination of acute physical pain, and financial desperation; the incurable nature of the pain, and the unlikelihood of finding adequately paid writing or speaking engagements, given my orthodox Catholic views — I tried prayer. I do not expect simple answers, for God does not write an agony column, nor reply to voicemails in sequence. But when I phrased the question simply (“Give me a clew!”) my mind formed the answer. It was to make the pain my goad, to write these essays: not when in the mood, but daily. Since, I notice, God has provided, and my prediction that I would starve by Christmas did not come true.

So what shall I do now? Continue.

Unknown fields

Slightly to the east of Parkdale, and visible from the roof of the High Doganate, is a place known as “Downtown Toronto.” It consists of large hexahedra, with glassy surfaces and internal lighting that glows very bright at night. Some other, mostly convex, tri-dimensional polytopes have been added for variety; and there is one spike that rises above all these, with an annular tube tossed on it, as if by some playful, gargantuan child. On closer inspection through opera glasses one finds these polyhedra rest on a common horizontal ground array, divided into rectangles by wide ribbons of a greyish substance. Magnification may also reveal tiny, living beings crawling through this grid: in appearance some curious, bipedal species of ant. Small metal traps pass back and forth along the ribbons, randomly capturing and releasing these creatures. During daylight hours, they may also be seen going into and coming out of the fixed shiny structures, which might be their nests. Thousands and thousands of them may suddenly pour out, perhaps in response to a predatory threat; or it might be their meal time.

So, anyway, I have observed, from my elevated position. But upon walking through the array, I have discovered it is actually roads, cars, skyscrapers, and people. Things are not always as they first appear.

*

My little essay above was inspired by a visit to the ultra-cool website of Unknown Fields Division, a “nomadic design research studio,” in some kind of cosmic relation with the (ultra-cool) Architectural Association, of London. My attention was drawn thither by an article the scientifictionist Tim Maughan wrote in BBC Future. It is an account of a voyage with this group, by container ship between mega-ports in Korea and China. (I’ve sworn off links for Lent.)

The piece is terrifying. It is a dazzling, or more precisely, dazzled account of the giant cranes, container mounds, truck queues aground, ship queues afloat, and apartment skyscrapers surrounding, cargo ports the size of cities — within which everything is computerized for maximum efficiency. Visible from space, but invisible to us, these monstrous facilities move the consumer products between one national economy and another. The group were guests of the Maersk company, a global shipping line which is also one-fifth of the Danish economy. At sea, they were never out of sight of other container ships, travelling in lanes guided by GPS, and also marked with deep-sea buoys. Life on board is described, under direction from computers: mind-numbing routines, utterly unlike those of seafarers through history.

One may describe these things objectively and dispassionately; one might then bemoan the loss of jobs, as advances in robotics gradually eliminate the need for human skills, thus saving huge amounts of money — for humans are extremely costly to maintain. But once this is achieved, how will the former labour force earn money to buy all the “product”? It is a conundrum of which the intelligent are already aware.

A certain Liam Young, resident guru in Unknown Fields, instead dreams of “co-opting” the whole system to serve some master plan for income equality. This is the essential idea of the Left — not equality in itself, but instead the idea of co-opting — i.e. theft, rapine. Thieves, pirates, tend not to concern themselves with how the production is brought about, only with how it is to be appropriated, and re-distributed. I have tired of explaining that the wealth on which they focus their ministerial intentions was built on cost/benefit analysis; that it works on profit and loss; that Stalinesque schemes reduce efficiency. Too, I have tired of breathless technological visions of the future.

Paradoxically, the more efficient a system becomes, the more fragile. Conversely, the more robust, the more it provides for back-up and down-time and redundancy. It is ridiculously easy to imagine little irruptions of nature that would bring down our house of cards, whether the management were greedy capitalist pigs, or Gulag supervisors. (In China, they have both; but then, increasingly, so do we.)

Spiritual considerations entered into the economic arrangements of all societies, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, until quite recently in historical time. All were thus rendered inefficient by the standards of today; none could accommodate our modern “economies of scale.” The systematic elimination of “irrational” thinking, and its replacement by purely economic calculation (whether capitalist or socialist or “mixed”), is vindicated in retrospect. By ignoring the resistance of those who would rather starve than go to Hell, it has not only filled the world with shiny, vicious junk, but fed it.

Yet as the futurist sages have also shown, the spiritual considerations will be always with us. Their own moralizing confirms this. The old are replaced with new taboos — suggested, as Marx could never see, by the very means of production. Men will be equal; men and women will be equal; finally, men and women and animals will be equal. Any distinction between one and another will set off an alarm in the machine.

Casting out devils

The struggle at the heart of the Gospels, to put it scripturally, — or in Christ’s mission to Earth, to put it more traditionally, — is against the Devil. I can’t imagine how this point, driven home with a mallet in the Old Mass today, can have been overlooked in so much of the modern Church. Christ casts out devils; and through this Lenten season we recall the dramatic desert encounter between the Son of Truth and the Father of Lies. That Christ will win the victory, or rather, has already won, is the resolution of this conflict. But contrary to the code of apathy which governs proceedings in the Church of Nice, we are not innocent bystanders.

For us, thank God, the war isn’t over. (We’re not dead yet.) Look around, and this will be seen. The front line runs through every human heart, and so long as there is breath in us we can know that there is no such thing as neutrality at the front line. Christ is Our Lord and captain, but if we do not also recognize that Satan is the Enemy, we are not actually in the battle.

Oculi mei semper ad Dominum, … “My eyes are ever towards the Lord: for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare. Look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor.”

These words, plucked from Psalm XXIV, launch the Introit at this Third Sunday in Lent, and express our condition, exactly, even when we are turned the right way. And when we are not, we are devil’s prey. We look to Christ, because we look for orders.

And if we do, we find He leads, by example as every great field commander. We find Him in the Gospel today, doing what? Casting out a devil. It is a passage from Luke, in the course of which we are told, that “every kingdom divided against itself shall be brought to desolation.” … And, “he that is not with Me is against Me.” … That, “you gather with Me or, you scatter.”

For this is war.

Is the Church then a field hospital? Yes, it is a function of the Church to bind her wounded, and to heal them. Note this latter point: to heal, not to provide those displaying ghastly wounds with certificates of health. That is not mercy, in a field hospital.

“Let no man deceive you with vain words.” In today’s Epistle, Saint Paul lays down the law, telling the Ephesians without hesitation or doubt what these wounds are. He mentions fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, obscenity, foolish talk and scurrility, and finally, unbelief — all the causes dear to the Left. These are wounds that need treatment, in the field hospital on our side, and our doctors must know what they are, and judge them accurately.

But the war is not won with field hospitals. The aspect of Christian life we overlook, or flinch from, is the field artillery. This is what Our Lord brings forward. We intend to take territory from the Enemy; to make him abandon the territory he has. We are not negotiating a hudna with the devils. Our purpose is to drive them from the field, with extreme prejudice — to create some space where we can stop taking casualties. In other words: to cast out devils.

Nimrud

Their opponents complain that, “Daesh terrorist gangs continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity.” I am quoting Iraq’s minister of tourism, who uses the Arabic acronym for the group that has apparently bulldozed the archaeological remains of Nimrud, on top of its other accomplishments. I’m sure the presidents of the United States and France, the prime ministers of England, Italy, and Japan, the chancellor of Germany and many other world leaders would agree with this sentiment. And let me add that these gangs have hurt my feelings, too.

*

When I was rather younger, I awoke one morning to hear birdsong: city sparrows, singing in the ivy outside my window. This window faced east, and the dawn was coming in, “with little feet, like a gilded Pavlova.” If memory serves, I was also curled up with a beautiful Jewish ballerina, penniless but quick in the belief that we would live happily ever after — thus completing the translation of a poem by Ezra Pound, life imitating art:

Come, let us pity those who are better off than we are.
Come, my friend, and remember
That the rich have butlers and no friends,
And we have friends and no butlers.
Come, let us pity the married and the unmarried.

Life is short, or long, depending on one’s choice of timer. We were all young once, and some of us more foolish than others. I think back on my Ophelia, from forty years ago, fallen into the waters of time; loved, and quite lost. …

My thought on that morning had been: time itself must be immortal. Though not, then, in any way a Christian, let alone the fierce crazy Roman I’ve become, I was nevertheless in the habit of entertaining theological speculations. I became convinced the very moment I experienced was perfectly immortal; that it would be preserved whole in the memory of God through all ages; or perhaps even in my memory, after my own death.

*

The history of Nimrud on the Tigris, as we knew it from dry bones — the biblical Kalakh; the Levekh of the cuneiform inscriptions; the city of the Great Ziggurat, once capital to the prodigious Assyrian empire; the site near the little Christian village of Noomanea, where Sir Austen Henry Layard once turned his spade — can make a very grand topic. What it looks like now, we can only check from satellite photographs.

Happily the late Polish archaeologist, Janusz Meuszynski, systematically recorded on slides every fragment from the site that remained at location, back in the 1970s. From that, what the Jihadis have destroyed can still be “virtually” recreated. The inscriptions that provide such extraordinary historical detail, from the reigns of kings dead through thirty centuries, were also, long before, carefully transcribed by the learned Christian Orientalists. All this, too, will be lost in due course, from one cause or another; but meanwhile let us take such cold comfort, as may still be in the taps.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III — thank God, removed to the British Museum more than a century ago — was found at Nimrud. It depicts, among foreign tributaries, Jehu, the ancient King of Israel, and is thus a direct transcription onto dated Assyrian limestone of what is also reported in our Bible. That was 841 BC: one of innumerable physical proofs of the historical veracity of what our children are taught to sneer at as “fairy tales,” in today’s jackboot-secular schools.

For more than a generation, now, the barbaric savages who teach in our post-Christian universities have been filling their heads with e.g. the malicious lies of the late Edward Said. They are drilled by these Pavlovs to drool, promptly, upon hearing the word “Orientalism,” and then woof, yap, and bay at “Western Imperialism,” like little attack poodles. This also hurts my feelings.

The bas-reliefs, the ivories, the sculptures — the colossal, winged, man-headed lions that once guarded palace entrances and were found in such a wonderful state of preservation — are, so far as they remained on site, or were retained in the Mosul Museum, now being smashed to bits on camera; or ground to gravel by heavy machinery beyond the local competence to manufacture or design. The “irony” here is that much of this sophisticated equipment, and probably even the mallets, were paid for by the profits from other archaeological objects which these Muslim fanatics, and their “moderate” enablers, have been selling in the international black market for art and antiquities.

Indeed: these videos of gratuitous destruction, which our media so generously promote, are probably designed to drive the prices up on the gems they have for sale; as, too, the beheading videos are intended to increase prices, and guarantee payment, on the heads of such other hostages as they may capture, from time to time. (I have noticed that many of the objects we see being smashed are actually plaster copies, of originals exported in the good old days. One must be familiar with practices in the bazaars of the Middle East to follow the many angles, in a culture that exalts low cunning.)

Mostly the Jihadis purchase weapons with this money, which they use to kill Christians and other “infidels.” This provides a nice moral illustration of a circumstance in which it would be wrong to pay for the goods offered, and right to take them by violent force.

*

But set all this “punditry” aside. What strikes me now is the thought of ancient Nimrud, in the days when living men and women filled its streets, rulers ruled, but also children played, and lovers retired to their bowers. And there were birds, then, and vines I should think, and even east-facing windows.

Less is more

Chatting with some seminarians this week, about art and artists, and one remarkable artist in particular, I raised a point about “quitting while you’re ahead.” We could equally, I suppose, have been discussing Las Vegas, where persons disposed to gambling sometimes congregate, and where some have been known to continue betting even after — notwithstanding the odds — they have made handsome profits. Winning streaks do not last forever; nor losing streaks, although these latter can end in death.

As an avid, if incompetent watercolourist, I am perhaps over-familiar with this issue. It is a very rare thing when suddenly I discover that I have painted something that is “not half bad.” Pausing to thank the Holy Spirit for His assistance, I then reload the brush to make further improvements. They fail, badly. Soon I am trying to undo what I have done — a “reform of the reform” as it were — further advancing the metamorphosis of my once beautiful painting into a dog’s breakfast. What had seemed for a moment to be an unusually poetic depiction of winter light piercing an ice-fog in the Humber ravine, now more resembles a deluge, with shipwrecks, or perhaps they are discarded transit buses.

A talented poet of my once-acquaintance, once asked for my advice as an objective editor on a sequence he had written. My advice was, “remove all the last lines.” As the discussion extended to the rest of his works, my advice was enlarged to, “Remove the last line from every poem you have ever written; or the last stanza if the poem is long.” I should have quit while I was ahead.

In all the extravagance of his wordplay, I have noticed that Shakespeare knows when to stop. Marlowe often took things just that little bit farther, but not our Will. The most extraordinary scene has been developed and realized but then, “The rest is silence.”

Mission creep

Aggiornamento was the pretty Italian word used by Pope St John XXIII, to describe the purpose of the Ecumenical Council he projected in 1959. Englishmen, of course, do not understand Italian, but the word flowers in their ears all the same. It sounds like some happy journey into spring. But while it was in vogue through the 1960s, people everywhere came to understand it meant, “bringing up to date.”

At first, the sainted pope used the word quite specifically, with reference to canon law, which had been assembled and harmonized in a uniform, official, single-volume Code of Canon Law for the first time, in 1917. A revised, second edition of that seemed to be called for.

Cardinal Burke would know more about this, but from my limited understanding, the canon law that went into effect at Pentecost, 1918, had been a major undertaking. It had involved many scholars and broad-ranging research, under the direction of the formidable Pietro Gasparri, a Vatican secretary of state with a reputation for getting things done, regardless of whether they were possible.

Yet, this was not so impressive as a previous assembly of a Corpus Juris Canonici, at Bologna in the mid-twelfth century. This had been done by a single man, the brilliant Camaldolese monk, Johannes Gratian, about whom I’ve always wanted to know more. His Decretum (as it came also to be called) is a stupendous thing — not merely explaining what Church law must be, in the canones, but expounding its principles in scinitillating maxims and dicta. Gratian had pulled together into this self-consistent corpus every significant ruling from Moses forward to the recently concluded Second Lateran Council, in light of Roman law through Justinian, and with sidelong glances at Celtic, Saxon, and Visigothic legal orders. I am told that lawyers have gone to their graves in a state of bliss, just contemplating it.

Which is not to demean the great Burchard of Worms, who had attempted something similar a century before; nor the many other fine legal minds who had flourished in the first millennium of the Church; nor the many more who flourished after. Nor is it to suggest that the Decretum Gratiani was the only, or even the final word on anything. It is merely to insinuate that Gratian “wrote the book” on Catholic law, in a way similar to that in which Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa on Catholic theology.

Many other documents had since been added to the mix — thousands — but Gratian’s Decretum (with later notes) had continued to provide a sheet anchor. And the further beauty was, that it had no formal authority in the Church, whatever. It was, in effect, unwritten law in a written form. The mark of a great and noble institution — and what is Holy Church if not that? — may be seen in such arrangements. She does not rest her Positive Law upon neat programmatic formulae — like a revolutionary constitution, arbitrarily imposed — but on a distillation of human and divine wisdom, acquired over thousands of years. She is spacious: her distinctions are subtle but exact; her truths ordered to accommodate each other, assembling themselves hierarchically in the interstices of reason and revelation, as light dappled through the leaves. They are not “invented” but “discovered” (in the modern senses of both terms). When she needs something, she invariably finds it is already there. She requires only servants with the depth of mind to retrieve it, excavating where necessary down to the Natural Law at the centre of the Earth.

The intention behind that Codex Iuris Canonici (the Code of 1917) was good, unquestionably, the project having been launched by Pope St Pius X, and brought to fruition by Benedict XV. It cut a highway through the overgrown thicket, abrogating all trees in the way, thus making the law more accessible to persons of mediocre intelligence: in effect, the modern, buzzsaw approach to gardening, followed up in the liturgy half a century later. I myself would have been totally opposed to the whole project, but people consulted me even less before I was born. The revision foreseen by Pope St John XXIII was not completed until 1983, when Pope St John-Paul II signed off on it, bringing the “reform of the reform” of canon law into force for Advent in that year. In the meantime, Vatican II itself had created much additional turbulence for the smoothing, slowing the process down.

But I return to this little-known, or little-remembered fact: that the aggiornamento began with the fairly modest ambition of revising the text of the Code of Canon Law. Within a couple of years Pope St John himself, a man of energy and enthusiasm and what I might almost call overbearing goodwill, was speaking of a much grander enterprise, and using the same word to refer poetically to an aggiornamento of the entire Church — as if to clean out the cobwebs of two thousand years from every pipe of every organ. Nothing specific was foreseen, however; it was only a poetical flourish.

The one actual change upon which Pope St John insisted, he had already proclaimed: removing the word perfidius (“faithless”) from the Good Friday liturgy, where it had been used to qualify the word “Jews.” This genuine saint, who had done so much to rescue, hide, and save so many Jewish men, women, and children from the Holocaust during the War, rightly saw that any hint of anti-Semitism must be washed out of the Church’s thoughts — acting dramatically from the Sanctuary in 1959 to have the prayer for the conversion of the Jews repeated without the offending word. (Deo gratias!)

Compare: the omission of one word, with schemes to revise and rewrite everything in sight. And note: the popular idea that Vatican II was required to achieve that tiny but crucial alteration. Like most subsequent ideas about Vatican II, it is false, ignorant, and on closer inspection, mendacious.

Now, there’s a point to all this, and perhaps I will get to it tomorrow.

Parrhesia

Speaking truth to power becomes quite impossible if the speaker has failed first to speak truth unto himself. The attempt might help to teach him that speaking truth is painful, in this vale of tears, and the more excruciating after one’s cheering section has dropped away. You will know that you have successfully spoken truth to power only later in the evening, when the Gestapo arrives; good luck speaking truth to them.

It is supposed to be an old Quaker saying, which would give it some original dignity, for the Religious Society of Friends did knowingly court persecution, while eschewing defences, in the seventeenth century. They were certainly high on Parrhesia, the biblical term that is constantly on a certain pontiff’s lips. (See Father Hunwicke, the classical scholar.) I, who totally reject the Quakers’ Arian, pacifist, teetotal, and radically egalitarian tenets (for starters), nevertheless still take their founder George Fox (1624–91) for one of my heroes. I was deeply impressed by his Journal, once upon a time, sensing in it the burning sincerity of a good if somewhat humourless man. (Look: the Everyman edition is still on my shelves, after forty years!) His instinct to simplicity in private life and works is commendable, and though sometimes heretical, his readings of Scripture contain flashes of prophetic insight.

As ever, the sect which followed him dispersed in many schismatic channels, so that we now have multiple branches of Friends who aren’t much friends of each other, as all drift farther from their Christian roots. I have met a couple of impressively conscientious Quakers, though, from congregations that must have been doing something right.

Fox was not author to the phrase, “speaking truth to power,” nor any of his high-sounding contemporaries, so far as I know. Instead, it seems to have come out of the civil rights movement in the USA, exploding after the American Friends Service Committee used it for the title of one of their pinkish tracts against the Cold War, in 1955. Smugness is implicit in the phrase, and by no accident it has since been popularized chiefly by persons with more actual power — in terms of available, aggressive supporters — than the adversaries they taunt with it. Fox would never have done this: he was in my view too decent a man. Yet it is one of the oversights in Fox, that in volubly proposing a public holiness, he was increasing the scope for public hypocrisy; the humourless being slow to catch a paradox in motion.

Stand your ground on moral issues, bravely; and speak the truth to anyone who will listen; but not too boldly. Christ was not a moral exhibitionist, and neither have the true Saints called moralizing attention to themselves. They fear God but are also vividly aware of the Devil and his snares. They realize that in the very moment they appear to triumph, Hell may be gaping before them. God may temper the wind to the shorn lamb, but conversely, He may let it howl on the woolly. Grandstanding would not be advised.

The Prophets, Old Testament and New, did not speak truth to power. They spoke truth rather to all Israel, and upon a divine command. Their boldness was not their own. The truth spoken by the prophet was moreover transparently not his own. Often it was mysterious in worldly terms: it contained things that could not be understood within the conventions of the day, or for long after. It had the ring of transcendent truth, as opposed to the whine of situational plausibility. The prophet spoke for God to the people, not for the people to their king. This could not court popularity; and as Christ reminds, the prophets were despised.

It is from such reflections I have come to believe that those who say they speak truth to power, or even think it, are lying to themselves. The demagogic pose negates the message.

But how can we escape posture, and begin at least to speak truth to ourselves?

As Lent progresses, one is reminded, by the progress of one’s own little failures, one’s own nasty little private infamies, that the process begins and ends in speaking truth to God’s little priest in the Confessional.