Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Sunlight on the vines

I should add, however, that the gentle reader not inclined to read the thing (Laudato si’) is in error. Moreover, he should have read it first, before considering my own prattle on the topic, or that of anyone else. But I haven’t the power to enforce good habits. My own attempt to “read it with an open mind” led where you saw (here I am replying to several outraged readers). I am, as you say, not good at deference, and very quick to respond to what I take for an overlay of dated Argentine populism on the doctrines of Holy Church. But as I did actually mention, the latter is not missing, and to be fair there are several places where Church teaching is interpreted and applied with true grace against post-modernist idiocies such as “gender theory,” and the very scientism that produced the “global warming” nonsense that is elsewhere bought into. The document has surely been checked for accuracy on many fine theological points.

The Holy Father explicitly called for debate, on means to the end of a cleaner and more habitable planet; on a more humane social order living in harmony with it. … Ready, aye, ready; and far more to say.

Left Catholics whose approach is, “shut up and listen,” would have a better argument had they shown any disposition to shut up and listen to the encyclicals of Benedict XVI, or Saint John Paul II, or the Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, none of which are contradicted in Laudato si’. Deference to popes cannot be restricted to selective quotes from the one currently in office. (And by the way, where does gentle reader stand on the Borgias?)

The progressive media cherry-pick the more inflammatory progressive lines, and do not even condescend to report Pope Francis’s doctrinal defences, when they are equally eloquent, or more so. “Shut up and listen” should apply to those passages, too.

*

Woke early this morning from a most extraordinary dream. It was still morning dusk, no beam of sun had yet struck the western windows; yet it seemed I had been bathed in sunlight. The dream was memory, of a house in Edith Street, Georgetown, Ontario, where some part of my childhood was lived. Sour green labrusca grapes (“fox grapes”) grew at the rear of the backyard, the vines weaving through a lattice fence; there was a giant sprig of elm to one side (four thick trunks), and caterpillar-dropping maple to the other. There was nothing more except a glaze of happy memories associated with that scene, and an uncanny sense of their significance.

One rises with the will, “I must go there again,” only to realize — with the sadness of this fallen world — that one can’t go there again. By now it is a different place; fifty years have changed everything. The people associated with that moment — my parents, my aunt visiting from Cape Breton, my little dancing sister, other Edith Street children, all somehow came into it — have grown up or passed on. The scene I had “witnessed” embraced them, in this dream of sunlight on the vines.

Miracles, it is known, are not reproducible.

Here I want to emphasize again the transience of all the beauty of this world. We long for Paradise; glimpses we have had, but we cannot return to them. They were seen in this world, but only in the moment God showed them to us. Our longing for Paradise cannot rest here.

Five thousand max

As so often on the Internet, G.K. Chesterton has come up with the best comment on Papa Francis’s environmentalist encyclical:

“The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To Saint Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

But of course we should not slap her about. That is not how it’s done in a good family.

*

Among the three co-presenters of yesterday’s rather solemn encyclical on the environment, was Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Remember that name. I attribute to him and to his like the encouragement the pope received, to break with received Catholic teaching, by blaming human-created environmental problems on market economics and finance, and the private ownership of resources. Whereas, true son of the Church, the pope himself might be inclined to blame sin.

Kishore Jayabalan, once the leading Vatican policy analyst on “sustainable development,” now head of the Instituto Acton at Rome (and former denizen of the Greater Parkdale Area), makes this signal point after the usual respectful preamble in which the pope is praised for bringing the issues to our attention. He, along with innumerable other critics with groundings in economics and trade, recalls what free markets have achieved. Without them, the world’s poor would have starved to extinction, as they have tended to do wherever markets, except the black ones, have been suppressed by central planning authorities.

Which might perhaps have pleased Herr Schellnhuber, the German atheist, who is a major figure in the United Nations’ IPCC, and founder of the hairy-scary Potsdam Institute. He is notoriously of the view that the Earth’s carrying capacity is less than one billion human souls (we have now more than seven), and the author of various dark-humoured remarks about how climate change will at least reduce us to the more sustainable number. Among his proposals, echoed in Laudato Si’, is that carbon emissions be reduced to zero. Herr Schellnhuber gives the USA until the year 2020; he gives China until 2035. Best not to make him master of all he surveys.

As many faithful Catholics, I am now asking: What is my Church doing in bed with such creatures?

I am myself appalled by the current arrangement in which the biomass of humanity is exceeded in weight six times over by our gas-guzzling cars. I’d rather kill the cars off first, given the position of Planetary Captain; but that would reduce the carbon emissions by less than half. We’d still have to move things about, such as food, and while I’m a great fan of sail boats and bullock carts, I foresee a continuing role for powered freighters. I would flag the bullocks, too, as emitters of CO2; plus CH4 (methane), which is more efficient at trapping radiation.

Windmills and solar panels are nice, in principle (in practice they are vile and intrusive), but as several realists have pointed out, the amount of energy currently generated by each rounds out to zero percent of the world’s supply. They also require significant carbon emissions to manufacture. But then, I should like to preserve some carbon dioxide, on which the life of the Amazon rainforest depends.

As more generally with life, my attitude is “let’s chance it.” Often it ends badly. But then I remember a remark I once made on television, that got me rubbed off the air. It was in response to one of those leftwing sob-sisters — a voluble pro-choicer — hypocritically lamenting the loss of young lives in Iraq, and blaming everything on “Bush.”

“It is blood for oil!” she shrieked. This struck me as odd, coming from an advocate of blood for lifestyle.

My reply concluded, “If we didn’t have all these abortions, we could afford to lose more in wars.”

From the look on the producer’s face after, it appeared I had set a new benchmark for political incorrectitude. (He expressed relief that the programme was pre-recorded.) Yet I would defend the remark to this day.

For all we know our works will end in disaster: yet I would rather our little ones had the chance at life, if only to the age of nineteen, than that they be coolly exterminated in their own mothers’ wombs.

God comes into this, of course. He usually does, up here in the High Doganate. Yet we’ve been set loose on this planet, to arrange things as well as we can, and I am not indifferent to questions of public policy. Even on this, I am influenced by the received teaching of the Catholic Church, which I only wish had been better reflected in Laudato si’. It is there, but as I have noted previously, it gets mentioned only in passing. I’d have preferred it were made front and centre, and that the pope had devoted his formidable communication skills to explaining why Catholic social and economic thinking might be more relevant to the solution of “environmental problems,” than the murderous ramblings of the IPCC.

*

Against the policy wonks of this world, whose instinct is the bigger the better, we should make a particular point of subsidiarity. This is the organizing principle that matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest, most immediate competent authority, rising only by necessity to any higher level, and then only as high as it needs to go.

The family is that lowest level, and the Church is now almost alone in respecting it. The members are biologically related, as father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, and so forth. Orphans may sometimes be taken in, and step-fathers or step-mothers may occur — the world’s heritage of fairy tales attests to the nightmare, of step-mothers especially — but biological integrity is normative. Recent attempts by legislators to “redefine the family” are an unambiguously evil invasion of an order that nature has ordained. Pope Benedict was right to make this an issue of “human ecology,” and to see that it gave the lie to every grand leftist “ecological” scheme. How do you restore the natural order, on the “mega” scale, when you are systematically undermining it at the cellular level?

In the normal order of things — all cultures, all times, until recently — the family decides what is good for the family. It is amazing that this has become controversial, yet contraceptive practices that detach sex from reproduction have made it so, and all the predicted consequences have followed. It is a miracle that the Church is, even on paper, still holding the front line.

But what is the next level of authority above the family? As I am constantly reminded, both locally and universally, there is then a great leap. Through the last century and more, central authorities have been obsessively merging local authorities, for the sake of some plausible (but false) “efficiencies,” or economies of scale. For even on such shallow material terms, the tax load increases as the governments grow larger, the ambitions of politicians increase, and the ability of the citizen to observe relations between cause and effect progressively disappears.

*

This is a squib, and I must keep the long story short. The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.

Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.

This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.

In the Greater Parkdale Area, my “municipal” government also serves more than two million souls. The wards into which it is divided are mere constituencies. They have fluctuating boundaries, and the councillors each represent around one hundred thousand souls. A very small number of people who have learnt the ropes thus control it: permanent department heads perhaps more than politicians. They make a show of consulting us, in public meetings which a few dozen people may attend (if the issue is big enough). These busy-bodies or “activists” may have an influence wildly disproportionate to their numbers. But the “input” of the common taxpayer is nil, rising to derisory on the eve of an election. In my neighbourhood, for instance, I listen to jackhammers all summer, and horribly amplified ice cream truck jingles (identical to the music loops played in Hell). There is absolutely nothing I can do about either, that would not involve terrorism. Whereas, if my neighbours were consulted, some permanent carbon savings could be achieved.

According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.

Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.

What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.

*

As I say, this is a vast topic, on which I’m merely touching. It will be seen that I have largely bought into “small is beautiful,” and the Distributist tradition in Catholic political thought. I do not deny that central authority has its place, of necessity, in the larger order; but I do think a pyramid should be wider at the bottom. In particular: taxes should pass up the levels, rather than down (as traditional tithing in Holy Church).

Now, Pope Francis has the beginnings of a point about large “private corporations” (note the oxymoron), which in their wealth may grow (though only temporarily) to a size rivalling the smaller national governments. And I would add, they become nearly as centralized and monopolistic (through “regulatory capture”), and faceless and bureaucratic as the agencies of State. Whenupon, unlike the self-perpetuating agencies of the State, they begin to disintegrate from their own lack of enterprise.

It is not enough, as the libertarians suppose, to leave them to their fate, in the knowledge that if they are inefficient they’ll be gone tomorrow. For new large corporations rise to take their place, and at every moment the great majority of people are reduced to wage-slaves of one large corporation or another. Indeed, part of the power of large corporations comes from their scale as employers. A democratic government which tries to stand up to them will quickly relent, and switch to subsidies instead, when they threaten to create mass unemployment.

The question must be asked: What makes vast, morally obtuse, centralized corporations possible? And the answer should be easy to see. It is vast, morally obtuse, centralized governments, which command regulatory regimes that are consistent over huge areas. That has actually become our model for global “free trade”: making regulations and taxation consistent not only across nations, but across continents. This creates an order which large corporations, and only large corporations, are well-equipped to exploit.

Imagine instead they were to face different regulatory regimes, parish by parish. They could still operate, but would have to adapt each franchise to local conditions, as defined by the sovereign local authority. This immediately flips the onus, and gives the local merchant or producer the advantage over his multinational competitor, in being on the spot. It reduces that competitor’s economy of scale, while also imposing upon him a new model of corporate governance, as network, that must of necessity become decentralized and responsive (just as creatures in nature) to every single environmental niche.

The re-focusing on what is local, and what is doable locally, would have tremendous ramifications on “the environment” at large — overwhelmingly positive, given some time. Yet it would also have the happy effect of disempowering the ecological whack cases.

*

My modest proposal is, to my mind, Catholic and Christian. The genius of our religion from its beginning was in opposition to “one size fits all.” Christ’s teaching is universal and unamendable, but the interpretation of it in human life is exquisitely nuanced. It is not imposed from the top, as a Shariah. The hierarchy it sustains is spiritual not pragmatic, and it concedes political action to the civil sphere.

The Church has nevertheless acquired practical experience, not only through many countries but over twenty centuries of time. She has “seen it all,” and makes her non-binding suggestions on that basis. Where she has failed, she has been taught and taught again the value of human freedom — of the need for actual persons and not impersonal agencies and corporations to take responsibility. She has all along been suspicious of “collective action,” in which moral responsibility is diffused.

It is in this light that I think the Catholic notion of “subsidiarity” should be credibly advanced — not as a tip of the mitre, or passing rhetorical gesture from above. It should be at the heart of every Catholic proposal to make improvements in the way we do things in this world. That is our radical idea — the very opposite direction from this encyclical’s neo-Marxist excursions.

Henotheism

Today’s heresy, formed from the Greek henas theos, for “one god,” was coined by the German idealist, Friedrich von Schelling (1775–1854), a formidable purveyor of heresies himself. He wasn’t condemning it, for he imagined it a thing of the past. Henotheism is his word to describe the development of monotheism, in the ancient world. An alternative term might be “monarchical polytheism” — that is, one great and commanding god, with lots of lesser gods in his train. Our classical forebears came to this gradually, with Jupiter emerging as the god-of-gods, and a theological development from Plato to Plotinus. Ancient Indian religion seems to have started from this point, in the Rigveda. It is alleged by some scholars that ancient Hebrew religion was also henotheist, until flattened by a monotheist sledgehammer.

But I am now thinking of Pharaoh Akhenaten of Amarna, the father of Tutankhamen in the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. His queen (if we omit the rest of his harem) was the beautiful Nefertiti. Together they attempted to found a new religion, by elevating the Sun-god, Aken, above all others in the Egyptian pantheon. Upon ascending the throne, “King Tut” then went about putting the pieces of the old religion back together, and by the nineteenth dynasty, the reputation of Akhenaten could be surmised from references to him in the chronicles as “that criminal,” “the monster,” and so forth.

While I cannot embrace the religion of the ancient Egyptians, I must say I admire their conservatism.

Akhenaten sprang to mind while reading through, this morning, the official English text of Laudato si’. Let me say in passing that I am in approximately complete harmony and agreement with the first 11 paragraphs, and the last 14, and was alarmed only by points scattered through the 221 between them. Or put this another way, I liked the Christian bits. Some of this “spiritual protein” may also be found between the slices, as it were, including fine points echoing Pope Benedict XVI on the human ecology of the family, the preservation of our unborn, basic rights to life. But it was the weight of the invocation of Saint Francis’ old-Umbrian “Canticle of the Sun” (aka “Canticle of the Creatures”) that brought Pharaoh to mind.

For Akhenaten also wrote a canticle of the sun (or, “Great Hymn to the Aten”), which he had all his courtiers singing, transcribing and posting up and down the Nile. More than the canticle of our beloved Saint of Assisi, it might serve as a boilerplate for post-modern environmentalism. As Flinders Petrie, the excavator of Amarna, opined, “If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw.” Pharaoh’s account of sustainable solar energy is especially au courant; though in hindsight he overlooked the threat of global warming.

Comparisons of the two canticles, twenty-six centuries apart, have sometimes been made, and see also the second Benedic, anima (Psalm 103 Catholic, 104 Protestant), somewhere in the middle. I rather prefer the later essays, which praise nature in her aspect as testimonial to God, than the first which praises her as God. Call it a theological quibble, but there I stand.

To my (cranky) mind, we are in some peril of losing the distinction. Nature is excellent but not perfect, as I am reminded by my back-ache, and a rude parody of Saint Francis I once wrote, when I was young and even badder than I am now. It mentioned things like watching “Brother Eagle tearing Sister Bunny-wabbit’s guts out.” The way we spiritualize and sentimentalize nature, is different in kind from the unambiguously Christ-centred Franciscan poetry, and contributes to misreading it. Rather it is symptomatic of our overly urban, automotive culture, for which nature has become a “nice idea.”

Oddly this was brought home to me, years ago, in a conversation between a slick city girl and a farmer. She said, “It must be wonderful to live the way you do, surrounded by all this life.” He said, “The farmer’s life has more to do with death, actually.”

A balanced view of nature — such as our more rural ancestors enjoyed — will encompass both the beauty of nature, and its redness in tooth and claw; will appreciate a beauty that is transient, that dies. It will also remain conscious of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, plagues, and their various downstream effects; and a history of “climate change” that long preceded human habitation. It will not exaggerate the influence of man, which does not amount to one Krakatoa. Or if it does amount to more, for all we know, the massive burn-off of the Earth’s fossil fuels is all that stands between us and the next Ice Age.

Which is not, most assuredly not, my denial of the beauty in nature, which has answered to the spirit of man, and raised our consciousness to the divine, throughout our multi-millennial sojourn. Nor do I exclude the beauty in a holy death. We arrive on this planet pre-programmed for the apprehension of this Beauty, to a degree incomparable with any other animal. It is a portal to another world; we were meant to cultivate beauty in our garden.

But the Garden of Eden we cannot restore. It is not in our power to do so, nor to achieve the perfection of our end in this world. I say this often, for it is not enough heard.

The disparagement of nature is, however, a sin to which we are not presently tempted. It is the opposite, atheist or agnostic reverence for a Nature that is purely abstract, against which we must guard. This is not helped by the ideological advance of an increasingly thuggish environmentalism.

Nature is designed to take care of herself. We needn’t worry about offending her. She does not “bite back” as the environmentalists aver: that is what we used to know as the “pathetic fallacy.” She rains alike on the righteous and unrighteous, nor picks favourites when she is being a shrew. She goes on doing what she has always done, whether or not we love her, and whether or not we take stock of her characteristic warnings. The “problem” cannot be in nature, nor even in our technology, per se — there’s a good use for most of it. Rather it is in our sinful selves: in this case what living like pigs does, to us.

Stop doing that, and the world will become more beautiful again, all on its own. Insofar as Pope Francis makes and reiterates this point, he escapes reasonable criticism. (And attracts unreasonable criticism, instead.)

I may have more to mumble tomorrow, specifically about subsidiarity, mentioned in passing in the encyclical, but as other good things, only in passing. For I believe the encyclical exhibits the political propensity to go the wrong way: to demand “mega” solutions which can only fail; which are in their own nature counter-productive; which tend to prevent or discourage more promising “micro” approaches to the elimination of the waste, pollution, noise, and overall ugliness we trail behind us, everywhere we go these days.

Laudato si’

I’m in many minds how to approach the pope’s imminent environmental encyclical, already spilling through the world in a pirated, draught version (which I have glanced over, and flinched at). Even once formally published, we may wonder which version to read, given composition in a multilingual Babel. For example, will the Italian and English say different things? This is what often happens. Crack Latinists might continue waiting for the Latin text, but its authority is diminished when it is itself a translation.

The media, and each political faction, will run with whatever comes most usefully to hand, in the mud-fight between Left and Right. It will provide an irreligious glee mostly to the former, but with a net effect on the Catholic faithful that is demoralizing, further diffusing their focus upon the Sacraments and the religious life.

Perhaps the Church should forego encyclicals and all other formal papal pronouncements, until we once again have a pope and advisers who are comfortable in the Church’s first language. We have, after all, enough to be getting on with, from twenty centuries of previous documentation; and even on relatively novel topics such as “the environment,” there is plenty of material already, that could be more carefully absorbed. And man should meanwhile husband the resources of the planet more wisely. On this, I should think, all parties are agreed.

On the “science” behind this — in fact, scientism — I have no reason to trust the advisers appointed, and many reasons to doubt them. They are for the most part not Christian themselves, let alone Catholic, and they represent very worldly vested interests. Huge amounts of money are at stake, in maintaining the “climate change” scare, and the ideological position behind them is unmistakable. These are men in pursuit of power, who wish to create vast new regulatory agencies to trump the existing worldly powers. They propose to compound large evils with an even greater evil. I only hope norms of Catholic teaching aren’t disturbed, while dancing with devils like these.

“Scientific consensus” is a bawd. There was a scientific consensus against Galileo Galilei — even greater across Protestant northern Europe than among his ex-friends in the University of Bologna. The Church is still paying today, for bowing to the scientific consensus of 1616. More broadly, the history of scientific consensus is more or less identical with the history of scientific error. Indeed, scientific truths are discerned, typically if not always, by one man outside the scientific consensus. (Sometimes they are two or three.) The dissenting voice is usually punished.

That the sun has been rising in the east, and setting in the west, is not, incidentally, scientific consensus. It is direct observation, quite another thing. Which globe revolves around which is a matter of little importance: the moon landing could have been achieved with Ptolemaic calculations. They would merely have been more cumbersome — but today we have computers.

We lack an appreciation for beauty, in God’s handiwork, and for our own. To my mind (which conducts the government of this website), this is the key “environmental problem.” We live like pigs. Catholic efforts should be directed to curing us of swinish behaviour. The Good and the True are likewise of crucial importance, but without this discernment of the Beautiful, they twist and float out of our reach.

Nor will any categorical imperative help us here, encased, for instance, in the instruction to “think globally, act locally.” We have not the ability to think things through on the planetary scale: only God can do that (or whatever angels are in His confidence). We must therefore “think locally,” too, and sound thinking comes from obedience to the conscience implanted in our hearts, by God directly. Conversely, to “act globally” is wickedly absurd.

The notion of an “integral ecology of people and planet” strikes me as a serious heresy. It is the Gaia hypothesis, which is Gnostic, not Christian. The “integral” relation is interpersonal: it is between man and Christ. The “integral” relation with one’s neighbour follows from that. The planet is not a person. It is instead our temporary abode. The word “ecology” is subject to further abuse, especially when as now it becomes one of those “ideologies” our current pope has told us to neglect. Moreover, “environment” itself has been puffed beyond reason, and to raise it to the scale of the planetary makes it an object of false worship.

Yet it remains within our power to stop living like pigs.

Here I should like to condemn one big and shameful lie, constantly repeated. It is that the little people of this Earth are somehow “victims” of grand capitalist conspiracies. Look around you, gentle reader. The people in question are very eager co-conspirators.

In practical terms, the products of our “capitalist” and “socialist” endeavours are generally ugly — or when beautiful, so by accident, or only in decay. But we can bring the capitalists to their knees if we refuse to buy what they are selling. Unfortunately, it is not so easy with the socialists who arrogate positive law, forcing us to buy and use their own viciously ugly products. More socialism is the opposite to the right answer — for it creates environmentally ruinous shortages and surpluses, in the bleak night of our lost human freedom. And it does this not sometimes, but invariably.

What a pope can do, if he feels compelled to speak on pop science and passing topics in the news, is remind us how to live and love, in beauty rather than in ugliness. Turn our attention to this, and away from the false promises of worldly fix-up schemes, and something might well be accomplished, in our environments, through our souls. The Catholic teaching on subsidiarity turns our attention from what is laughably beyond our sphere of influence, to what is frequently within it.

It’s like this (chronicles)

Yes, yes, gentle reader, there are subtexts everywhere. Sometimes I am answering voices offscreen. There are lines, lines between lines, and lines between those. Just now, an email has accused me of “talking to myself.” Add that to my private conversation. More than one has told me I am batfeathers insane. Always a possibility.

A couple of weeks ago Elizabeth Scalia, pretty much my favourite Benedictine Oblate, set a challenge for all her fellow Catlicks on the Internet. It was to explain why we are staying in the Church — in light of a recent, discouragingly thorough, Pew poll, that showed a general evacuation. There seems to be a symposium on the topic over at Patheos, and a hashtag over at Twitter, and other evidence of a bandwagon. I have cast my eyes over many of the short essays this request has elicited; let me take my turn, speaking to myself.

There are any number of “subjective” criteria, and they change with the hours and seasons. It is still possible to “feel good” about being Catholic, and I have no serious objection to most of the ways, at least “in principle.” But these are decorations, and at the present time, in the present place, I find many of the decorations the opposite of inspiring.

Let me give just one example: “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor.” Whoever said that put his finger on something that revolts me about the contemporary Catholic Church: the puffball posturing.

I am poor myself, and I live among the poor of Parkdale, by the undemanding standards of urban, bourgeois Canada; I have travelled among the actually poor, in poor countries. I have no sentimental feelings about them, as a class. The poor are as bad and irritating as the rich, and both are, if possible, as bad and irritating as the “middle class.”

Rather, I would like a Church that is for sinners. I would prefer it to be spiritually rich, and even materially rich for the sake of the poor — who, in the Mass, can enter into splendour. I am with Mary and against Martha on this point: our churches should pour out the nard to anoint Christ’s feet. And let the widow’s mite help to pay for this. Let Judas be embarrassed.

Yet I will not disparage Martha, and the life of action in addition to the life of contemplation. I would like a Church that embraces poverty — a holy poverty — not only for prayer in its most direct form, but to the end of serving those in need, of all denominations and of none, and whether or not they are charming. We surrendered all of our schools and hospitals and shelters (et cetera) to the Nanny State, which can’t afford to run them at full union wages. None can flourish without volunteer and underpaid labour, and the motivation of Christian Love. The State does not like competition. But to Hell with it: let us resume the competition, underground if necessary.

Such points pertain, however, only to some lower-case “church.” Protestants and Pentecostals and Muslims and Atheists may do all these charitable things, if they have the enterprise; more power to them when they try. But the upper-case Church is not defined by such material schemes. They simply follow from what the Church is, and was designed to be, by her Founder: everything, for everybody.

I understand perfectly why people like me (the sort of people I can speak for most authoritatively) might go, or remain, outside the Church — because even after becoming a Christian, I stayed out for more than twenty-seven years.

My original intention, upon conversion, was to become a Catholic. My first attempts to join were repelled. I encountered, in England in 1976, a Church that was in the hands of “progressive” showmen. That is to say, they worshipped “progress” and not Christ. They used Christ as their excuse, and used the Church, to give themselves a pulpit. Their liturgy was intentionally ugly, and their doctrine vacuous. The hypocrisy in their lives was garish. Longing instead for the Sacraments, for Absolution, and for some theological depth, I blundered my way into High Anglicanism.

It was a mistake, a grave mistake, on my part. (Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were not Anglicans.) I was looking at the Church at one point in space and time — at a Church of which faithful Catholics could reasonably say, “I did not leave the Church, the Church left me.” I was not looking at the Church in herself, through all her extent and history. Gradually I came to understand my mistake, but remained an Anglican from the fear that defection would wreck my rather Anglican marriage. This was also a mistake. When my marriage disintegrated anyway, I was free to think again.

On the cusp of age fifty, I gave up clinging to my own mistakes.

Christ founded a Church, and for all the human flaws of her inmates, here she still is. The heritage of twenty centuries is also still in play: of a civilization now passing beyond The West, which she created — to my mind unquestionably the greatest of all the world’s great civilizations. And yet she created it merely as a by-product of Catholic attempts at Christian life; and through an intellectual order (theological, philosophical, scientific, artistic) of extraordinary, or let me say miraculous self-consistency, that follows naturally from orthodox Christian teaching.

The question then comes back to Jesus Christ. Either He was, or was not, as He claimed. Either He is, or is not, now and forever. If so, the Church follows, by His own Word, and there can be no reasonable doubt which “church” was founded by Him, and not by another.

I am thus boxed in.

A Jewish friend once told me that he was among God’s chosen people. “But if in some apocalyptic moment He told us we were no longer chosen, we would all walk.”

There are days when I remember this, and laugh. It is a fairly good description of why I remain a Catholic — not only on the good days, but on the bad, when I would love to walk. But as the late John Muggeridge used to say (my sponsor when I finally signed up), “Don’t let the bastards drive you out of the Church.”

It just isn’t an option.

What must we do?

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. … “As we pray, so we believe, and so we live.” … As I understand, the saying goes back to Prosper of Aquitaine (c.390–c.455), the disciple of Saint Augustine of Hippo, and the man who communicated Augustine’s remarkable teachings to the papacy, as adviser to Pope Celestine I, and as secretary to Pope Leo I. In its original form:

Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. … “The law of prayer establishes the law of belief.” …

The rhetorical third part, lex vivendi, was added much later. For of course we should live as we believe. Often it is added, with vocal stress or printed capitals, by contemporary Church liberals, who in their ignorance suppose that it somehow modifies the preceding proposition, so that it might now be translated, “If it feels good, do it.”

This is a small point, but then there are many small points on which we have been going wrong over the last few decades, and they do add up. Here is nothing new: that our lex orandi was modified radically, and for the most part gratuitously, before, during, and after Vatican II, and that the results are plain to see. This is what I like to stress, though I am not so rude as to use capitals. Catholicism exalts Truth, which includes vivid “facts on the ground.” And here is some truth about Catholicism in our English-speaking realms:

We have today a fraction of the churches we had before the “liturgical reforms”; a fraction of the seminaries; a fraction of the priests, and a fraction of the religious; a fraction of the baptisms, marriages, funerals. We have huge multiples of the annulments, the contraceptions and abortions. Where three in four Catholics attended Sunday Mass, in the 1950s, it is now less than one in four. And even among those who attend, there has been a terrible lapse in obedience and discipline. Our remaining priests and religious are mostly quite old; their congregations, too, are aging; and within less than one generation at the present pace, the Catholic faith will be, truly, the Church Invisible. It will survive in remote locations, corresponding almost entirely to the “traditionalist” parishes, which are (thanks to God for Pope Benedict’s motu proprio of 2007) actually growing.

*

The apostasy lies deeper than Vatican II. The cancer was spreading long before it showed these horrific outward symptoms. Evidence for this is widely available. A friend, for instance, calls attention to the Manifesto of the Catholic Laity, published in England at Pentecost, 1943. Consider this excerpt:

“We, the undersigned Catholic Layfolk, desire … to make known our true feelings with regard to the present controversy concerning the language used by the Church in her public worship.

“We utterly repudiate the subversive efforts that are being made to discredit the use of the Latin Liturgy, a precious heritage brought to the English people by Saint Augustine of Canterbury from our glorious Apostle, Saint Gregory the Great, and which we are proud to have preserved intact these fourteen hundred years, even throughout the hardships and dangers of the penal times.

“We therefore protest that we are opposed to all attempts to tamper with this venerable Liturgy, or to substitute for it a copy of any non-Catholic rite, however beautiful or impressive.

“We strongly resent the implication that we and our children are not sufficiently intelligent to understand the simple Latin of the Mass. …”

*

In Ottawa, the week before last, I had the honour to be with Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, visiting the town at the invitation of the NET youth ministry. Together with several other good friends, we lunched and dined with him in the intervals between the Masses at which he presided, at both the magnificent Notre Dame Basilica and the little Saint Theresa’s parish church.

Our greatest living authority on Canon Law, Burke was until recently Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, at Rome — in effect the “chief justice” of our highest Canon Law court. Events subsequent have been in the news.

Cardinal Burke happens to be among my greatest living heroes, perhaps the greatest after our still living Pope Emeritus. A man of real sanctity, and extraordinary learning, he embodies for me the phrase with which this Idlepost began. And more, the starch of the ancient Christians. A man in his position today will inevitably be deprecated by the “progressive” mob; he has the courage to resist intimidation, and the grace to persist as a champion of what Holy Church teaches, and has always taught.

I lack both his charity and his genius. At close quarters I can report that he is all-of-a-piece with what I had seen at a distance. (I once met Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, and would say the same of him.) A gentleness, a creature kindliness is at and below the surface of his nature; a humour that is likewise gentle, often subtle, but consistently affectionate. And his learning is communicated in answers to questions entirely without pretence, in terms wonderfully adapted to the limitations of his interlocutor. He is thus a fine teacher, as I could also know from friends who once studied Canon Law under him, at the Gregorian in Rome, for each of whom he is a living inspiration.

He has all the marks of a great Christian teacher — for instance the constant excursion back and forth between principle founded in the life of Our Lord, and the particulars of a modern occasion; or the answering of questions always directly, beginning usually with a “yes” or a “no.” There is nothing of the politician in him, that I have discerned in most of our bishops; there are no cheap phrases, there is no “playing to the gallery” for applause. There is only straight shooting.

I am inspired by the knowledge that we still have such men with us, preaching truths that can still be known, that are still known, that will remain known. God will provide them.

But that is not enough. What must we do?

His Eminence very kindly sent me from Rome an edited text of the talk he delivered to the NET ministries dinner. He made remarks which I think help us to get beneath the surface arguments for the restoration of the Sacraments in their deeply reverent Tridentine form, to the cause they so adequately served, serve, and will serve. Rather than paraphrase, I shall take the liberty of quoting directly from Cardinal Burke’s speech:

*

“Addressing the challenge of Christian living in a totally secularized world, Pope John Paul II called us to a new evangelization. A new evangelization means teaching the faith, celebrating the faith in the Sacraments and by their extension through prayer and devotion, and living the faith through the practice of the virtues, as if for the first time, that is, with the engagement and energy of the first disciples and of the first apostles to our native place. Before the grave situation of the world today, we are, Pope John Paul II reminded us, like the first disciples who, after hearing Saint Peter’s Pentecost discourse, asked him: ‘What must we do?’ Even as the first disciples faced a pagan world which had not even heard of our Lord Jesus Christ, so we, too, face a culture which is forgetful of God and hostile to His Law written upon every human heart.”

*

“Once sexual union is no longer seen to be procreative by its very nature, human sexuality is abused in ways that are profoundly harmful and indeed destructive of individuals and of society itself. One has only to think of the devastation which is daily wrought in our world by the multi-million dollar industry of pornography, or the incredibly aggressive homosexual agenda which can only result in the profound unhappiness and even despair of those affected by it, and in the destruction of society, as it has always done historically. Fundamental to the transformation of Western culture is the proclamation of truth about the conjugal union in its fullness and the correction of the contraceptive thinking which fears life, which fears procreation.”

*

“It is the conscience, the voice of God speaking to souls, which is, in the words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’. …

“Conscience does not set each of us apart as an arbiter of what is right and good, but unites us in the pursuit of the one truth, ultimately Our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the only arbiter of the right and good, so that our thoughts, words, and actions put that truth into practice.”

*

“The hostility and the even more pervasive indifference to the beliefs we hold most dearly tempts us to discouragement and even to avoid the more public witness to our faith. But the martyrdom to which we are called and for which we are consecrated and fortified by the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, requires us to offer tirelessly our witness, confident that God will bring forth the good fruit.”

*

“The life of the martyr for the faith finds its centre and source in the Eucharistic sacrifice, in Eucharistic adoration, and in all forms of Eucharistic devotion, especially visits to the Blessed Sacrament and Spiritual Communion throughout the day. Through Eucharistic devotion and all true devotion, we extend our communion with the Lord. …

“Frequent confession, including confession of devotion, is essential to our growth in the truth and love which we know in Christ. Essentially connected to it is our nightly examination of conscience and Act of Contrition, by which, day by day, we turn once again to Christ in our heart and prepare ourselves for the sacramental encounter with Him in Confession. The integrity and courage needed to be a martyr of witness in the world today demand the intimacy with Christ, which can only come through the daily examination of conscience and Act of Contrition, and the regular meeting with Him in the Sacrament of Penance.”

God’s final word

“God’s final word is called Jesus and nothing more.”

The quote is of Pope Francis, from a homily during Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, at Rome last Tuesday. I became aware of it through reading Father Hunwicke’s blog, yesterday. The purpose of this Idlepost is only to cry it from the little rooftop I occupy. Those on other rooftops please copy.

The context from which it sprang was typical of the manner of His Holiness. He was in the course of disparaging people — by insinuation, the Marian visionaries of Medjugorje. He did not name them, but his allusion to “the seers who will tell us today about the letter that Our Lady will send at four o’clock in the afternoon” was quite obvious.

Perhaps I should make clear that I am not, as the pope could not be, disparaging the genuine Apparitions of Mary. We should however be clear that the apparitions of Medjugorje have been consistently (though not yet definitively) categorized by the Church authorities as non constat — as “not confirmed” to be of supernatural origin.

More generally, in these hard spiritual times, when home truths of basic human psychology are slipping from our grasp, we are plagued by visionaries. Perfectly sincere (perhaps), but not perfectly sound proselytizers for the Christian faith, imagine themselves in direct communication with the heavenly powers. The phenomena of “enthusiasm” were well catalogued by Ronald Knox. We see the whole range of them in such as the contemporary Pentecostal movement. But we also find them within the Catholic realm.

I know this at first hand from minor examples: more than one young woman who has spoken to me of Our Lady as if she has her email address, and is cc’d on various saint-lists in Heaven. Typically these girls (and a few boys) are “traditionalists” in the extreme, and nothing but trouble for parishes in which traditional forms are being restored and rekindled. They may also consider themselves to be profound scholars, after reading a few fanatical tracts, and on this basis like to challenge their priests on minute points of liturgy and doctrine, throwing fits when ignored.

A closely allied phenomenon has the effect of subverting pro-life campaigns. This is the enthusiasm of a class of volunteers whom I would characterize as childless, single, female abortion survivors. They do tireless work, much of which is rendered counter-productive by hysteria.

There is a broader problem in volunteer social services, from men and women who are childless, and usually single, but eager to take on parental or even priestly mentoring roles, for which they are untrained, inexperienced, and unsuited. The fatherless and sometimes motherless young may respond to them; then find they aren’t there when they are desperately needed.

They — all the above — are seeking emotional rewards that may simply not be available; and are certainly not available except on at least three absolute conditions: personal humility, emotional stability, and unvarying commitment. Our mantra, “faith is not feeling” applies to them all. When the emotional rewards do not come, they may suddenly abandon the cause entirely, leaving people who have come to depend on them in the lourche. (Fine Hudibrastic simile, don’t you think?) Again, I am speaking only from first hand.

Unstable people leading the unstable; the blind leading the blind. This is inevitable in an unstable society, especially in ours where the cult of “sincerity” confers authority upon the batty but frightfully sincere. More drama is not what we need. Instead: the fidelity of slow but reliable consolidation; the methodical restoration of the partial to the whole.

One might interpret the pope’s aspersion as a shout-out to all of them. I have criticized Bergoglio, the man, not for any heterodox intention, but for recklessness; in particular for filling the buzzing electronic air with dangerously flip tweets and sound-bites. Spontaneous remarks such as, “Who am I to judge?” disseminate, shorn of context; or sometimes there was no reasonable context. This is not a time when we can afford “erratic” from our highest office.

Yet often, too, Pope Francis hits the nail on the head squarely, and it is breathtaking. It is unfortunate that such wonderfully authoritative papal remarks get no media coverage at all.

This was surely one of those occasions, when the remark was so astute, and so concise, that we should shout it from the rooftops. It had a context, but resounds beyond it, communicating to all who can hear the root principle of Catholic Christian teaching:

“God’s final word is called Jesus and nothing more.”

Or expressed in a corollary: the Holy Spirit has nothing new to say. Not little, but nothing. To think otherwise is rank heresy: it is to assume that Our Lord was incapable of anticipating the range of human experience; that He was a fallible man “conditioned” by his time and place in history; that He was thus “just a man” — one charismatic prophet among others (Muhammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, et cetera). Christ is Very God or He is nothing.

We may understand the Deposit of Faith better or worse; there may be “doctrinal development” in our own understanding; but the teaching does not change. The saints extend the message by example, the Doctors of the Church expound its implications by contemplative reason. But they don’t change the message. They extend by application, and in extending they confirm: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

Anything we “discover” will be entirely consistent with what we have already received from the inerrant Source. Indeed, it will be discovered within what we received. Or else it is false. This is something one either does, or does not plainly understand, and those who come to us with a new message or a new twist — whether bug-eyed visionaries, or sophistical modernizers — are simply leading us astray.

The dinosaurs were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years. This was impressive, but Christ is forever. He certainly does not “evolve” in a mere two thousand. Nor will the central Truth of the Christian revelation evolve in the next two thousand, nor the next 135 million years. Forever means forever, and like it or not:

“God’s final word is called Jesus.”

Rounded with a sleepe

Saint George’s Hall in Elm Street (1891–present) was among the first ethnic institutions in the Greater Parkdale Area (aka Toronto). It was built to celebrate and promote our English connexion. Not, be it noted, the Scottish connexion, or the Welsh, or the Irish, or the French, or any other ethnicity. The title remains, cut floridly into the stone mantle above the entrance. So too, inside the Great Hall, we find the accoutrements of English baronial domesticity: the huge hearth, the raised dais, the minstrel’s gallery, the timbered ceiling higher than the room is wide, and when required, the long oak refectory tables. For a man of the thirteenth century, such as myself, it is like coming home.

It has been in the charge of the Arts and Letters Club since early in the last century. The “Group of Seven” met and dined here — after they were evicted from the Brown Betty, and some other long defunct commercial establishments — as, too, odd abstract-expressionists from the mid-century, and a host of formidable English-Canadian names: Robertson Davies, Vincent Massey, Marshall McLuhan, Eden Smith, Wyly Grier, Ernest MacMillan, and Mavor Moore are listed in the propaganda. All the arts have been represented, and Healey Willan, among other composers, once played the house Steinway. He set the club’s constitution to plainsong, so it could be remembered after the text itself was lost by Augustus Bridle. Every estimable English institution requires an unwritten constitution.

Kitchen, buttery, and pantry lie off somewhere, and most usefully, a bar. But what is most English about the place was added after it was built, by J.E.H. MacDonald, quintessentially Canadian landscape painter and graphomane; and by the painter and portraitist, Arthur Lismer. This consisted of self-mocking heraldry and banners for the place, and caricatures of the members.

For in my view, the greatest contribution of the English to the politics and order of this world, has been a streak of aristocratic self-deprecation. They do not take themselves entirely seriously, and their magnificent fustian pomp is relieved by little jokes at their own expense, hinting at their unworthiness, the fraudulence of their claims, and the general ridiculousness of their situation. This is how a ruling class should behave. It is the opposite of the Teutonic tradition, and thus to some degree, shared with the Italians.

*

Now, that was a long preamble to an event last evening. We held a highly secular memorial for the late Richard Lubbock (see here), with the usual drinking, canapés, and speeches, and it was all very fine. His little brother, the English art historian Jules Lubbock, flew over the pond, together with his brilliant son Benji, and various of Richard’s surviving octogenarian contemporaries straggled in, along with many of his younger admirers, now pushing into or beyond their sixties.

For me it was a delightful opportunity to catch sight of old Idler magazine regulars, now of the upland generations, even if many are (understandably) no longer conversing with me. We could still exchange pro-forma greetings consisting of lies about “looking well.”

The Lubbocks, in their several branches, have been a remarkable Semitic tribe, settled within the Anglosphere — like our beloved Richard, brilliant even at their most dysfunctional. The penny dropped when I was speaking with Jules, that his big brother had done something perhaps unprecedented in history. On purely scientific grounds, he had convinced himself of the literal veracity of Christ’s Resurrection. But then, failed to become a Christian. I cannot help but think this an accomplishment so unique, that God must smile upon it.

Old friends, and later enemies alike, in that manorial chamber, gathered in celebration of a death. I reflected on one of Richard’s favourite phrases, his constant reference to “the crooked timber of mankind.” All these strange, irreproducible people, on the analogy of trees, some of them pollarded in the most exquisite ways. Each his own universe, within the “multiverse” Richard also adumbrated;

Our Revels now are ended: These our actors,
(As I foretold you) were all Spirits, and
Are melted into Ayre, into thin Ayre,
And like the baselesse fabricke of this vision
The Clowd-capt Towres, the gorgeous Palaces,
The solemne Temples, the great Globe it selfe,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantiall Pageant faded
Leave not a racke behinde: we are such stuffe
As dreames are made on …

The nice & the good

Judging from email alone, some of the remarks made in this space are impenetrably droll. The more because these are mere essays, squibs: each glancing at a topic from a confined angle. But that is the way things are in this world. It is the blind man with the “ephelant.” (That is how one of my children first pronounced it, so that I still long to misspell and mispronounce, that along with “ekmergency,” “ensaurant,” and while driving along the highway, “Gurger King!” et cetera.)

Too, there may be an element of the transgressive. My Chief Texas Correspondent forwarded this morning an item from Breitbart, in which a long-practising homosexual reports how bored he is with “gay.” It just doesn’t offend people the way it used to. Looking around, he has decided to “transition,” to straight white male.

Perhaps that explains me. Transgressive, anti-bourgeois, Traditional Catholic. I tried “High Church Anglican” but it wasn’t offensive enough.

God comes into this, however, and I believe my orientation is sincere. I am rather in possession of a quasi-theological belief, that God isn’t “nice.” Of course, one needs to explain what one means by that.

Words, English ones and other ones, may have several opposites. “Nice” may oppose “nasty,” but it may also oppose “good.” It can further oppose, or more often adjust or twist, many other notions, depending upon context. I use it in many other contexts; but in the main, I use it as a term of abuse.

Indeed, I don’t even see “nice” and “nasty” as opposites, in many contexts, but as different soundings in the same animal. One is the overlay for the other: “nice” is the fake form of good, “nasty” what this artificial skin is intended to conceal. Test it, just a little scratch, and you will find out what lies underneath the surface.

But sometimes one finds instead an almost innocent puzzlement. For “nice” is then just yesterday’s clothes: the decayed remnant of some better teaching. It is worn out of politeness, because convention demands we still not walk about in the nude. Christians were taught to be good, in some past age. This turned out to be difficult. Today we are neither Christian, nor good, but “niceness” preserves a tattered, informal covering of decency.

We want to be liked, and well-treated. If we are nice, we will pass. If we are nasty, there may be immediate complications. Therefore be nice. Then if you don’t get what you want by being nice, try nasty. I’ve noticed this dynamic operating in myself.

The saints are not nice, and the burning charity we find in them is the opposite of niceness. Like their master, Jesus Christ, they are not inclined to compromise and show. Neither are they inclined to be boorish, for the sake of being boorish. They are not “transgressive” in our fashionable sense. They are not, come down to it, fashionable at all, except among the faithful.

To put this another way, my statement “most people are nice” was to be read in its context, as a mischievous suggestion that most people are not very nice: not under the skin. This I understand to be the Christian teaching, as before it was the Hebrew teaching, proceeding from the phenomenon of Original Sin. The motives we present are not the motives we have, a little beneath the façade of niceness. A little below that surface we are raging apes. If we could see ourselves in a true mirror, we would not like what we saw.

Pursuing the analogy, Christ came to us as a true mirror, against which to judge not others, but ourselves. Too, as an alternative to our own way of being: the human embodiment not of niceness, but of a perfect Love.

“Nice” is the opposite of “love” in this context. Love, even married love, is not chocolates and roses. Though let me say it does not exclude chocolates, or roses. True love is gritty stuff. It requires a loyalty that is in its nature quite unworldly; even a sensuousness that is radically different from the soft pornography that is sold in its place.

*

On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the old liturgy teaches many subtle things. As a private devotion it was very ancient, but as a public devotion of the Church it surfaced suddenly in the sixteenth century, as a response to Calvinism, and deepened in the seventeenth century as a response to Jansenism within the Church herself. Raised to the rank of “double of the first class, with octave” by Pius XI in 1928 (but cut back among the first Bugnini reforms, in the 1950s) — it was a further response to the twentieth century.

It can be taken, strangely enough, as a response to “niceness” — to a niceness which maintains outward forms of charity as a mask of etiquette, yet inwardly consigns huge sections of mankind to inexorable damnation.

In the First Vespers we find this extraordinary line of Christ’s, via Saint Luke, cast as antiphon at the Magnificat: Ignem veni mittere in terram, et quid volo, nisi ut accendatur? …

Which is to say, “I am come to cast fire on the Earth, and what will I, but that it be kindled?”

True love is not nice. It gets up each morning with the world on fire. It must save people.

*

A note from another correspondent, learned Perfesser Smith from the old Commentariat, is so good and so apt that I will simply quote it as the means to further contemplation:

“If most people are nice, does being Christian then mean to be extra nice? Do we conceive the supernatural as the natural souped up? More of the same?

“Wasn’t this de Lubac’s point: that we think of nature as self-contained and the supernatural as over-and-above; whereas man, as created and fallen, in fact straddles both? That we think we can be naturally complete, and then, as a sort of reward for achieving this, God will add the supernatural dimension? Whereas, in truth, any ‘natural completion’ is only ever relative to the terms of this world and without reference to the next; and seen in the light of man’s true end, such ‘natural completion’ is not to be viewed as a mere stage on the way, but as actually inimical to the achievement of our true end. The ‘nice’ person is a gnostic at heart who would, if not explicitly, then technically and by default, regard the part as the whole, and so distort his relation to both the part and the whole.”

Elevated discourse

Food is important. Mark and inwardly digest. Chew your food. Taste it. Swallow what you have put into your mouth before reloading. Your mouth is busy, give it a chance. Indeed, pause from time to time, to think it through. Converse with your neighbours.

My mother taught me as much. Would that she had taught some others. Americans eat very fast. Our franchise establishments actually advertise their serving speed. (This is barbaric.) They also put signs, when their “outlets” are in downmarket locations, specifying the time you have to eat before your presence is interpreted as “loitering.” Woe to the diner not wearing a watch, for they have not the courtesy to place a clock by the sign, to let him adjust his swallowing to the time available.

My own advice would be, don’t dine where you’re not welcome.

Yet, even in Parkdale we have good restaurants. There are now seven Tibetan chop shops (yak stops?) along Queen Street. I think this qualifies us to be called “Little Tibet,” and get special street signs from the the municipal multicultural patronizing bureaucracy. Though when I accompanied an excessively white friend into one such establishment, he was filled with anxiety. “I sure hope the food isn’t authentic,” he commented.

It was, earlier today, starting with the salted butter tea. Or rather, it wasn’t. Everything tastes different, this close to sea level.

The same remark can be made for chillies, as can be made for wine. Except, chillies often grow well in the mountains. But this depends on the mountain face, in relation to the sun’s course; on the soils, and temperatures; on the rains in their seasons; on luck, and the art of the chilli farmer. Gentle reader will guess I am about to pump Tibetan Tiger Chillies.

Now, Tibet is no country to grow chillies, overall. Some katabasis is usually required. Go south, down the mountains, perhaps to Bengal; then east, to the hills behind Chittagong; or into the lower hills of Assam; and there, I solemnly believe, you will find the finest chillies in the world. The Naga Morich, grown there, have been attempted elsewhere, always with dispiriting results. The conditions can be reproduced artificially, and hybridizations can be tried to square the circle, as it were. Some gentleman in England topped the Scoville table, a few years ago, by triangulating from the Naga Morich, the Bhut Jolokia (or, “ghost pepper,” closely related), and the Trinidad Moruga (or, “butch scorpion,” with linguistic variants). But the hybrid was unstable and he lost the competition the next year.

I love very hot chillies, and those above 1,000,000 Scoville units are much appreciated. (The hottest Habaneros get only half way there.) But I also love chillies, in themselves, and this includes quite mild ones. You see, as chilli-haters refuse to be taught, there is more to them than capsaicin. Even the heat is produced by compounds: the scientists, always counting, don’t know where to start. The customer who wants only pain can hit 16,000,000 with the synthetic chemical in its wax form. … Go ahead. … I’ll watch.

A Canadian (white) may say, “How can you taste your food with all those chillies?” There is no polite answer to this. It’s a typically Canadian passive-aggressive stance: to ask the unanswerable question. You just have to shoot them. The truth is that chillies have flavours (note plural); that I am partial myself to the most fruity and aromatic varieties, which bring out other flavours, too, in a cooked dish. As a general rule, the hotter the better, but there are exceptions to general rules.

And one of these is the Tibetan Tiger Chilli. I mention it because for lunch today, I had an aloo khatsa. Well, okay, the restaurant is “Tibetan/Nepali,” and aloo is Hindi for potatoes. Shogo khatsa would be more correct: full Tibetan for “spicy potatoes.” The cook, bless her heart, must have incorporated dozens of these expensive chillies in the sauce. It was a mothering thing to do. To the Tibetan mind (and here I intend to stereotype), chillies mean “eat up.” They tend to subvert the body’s filling signals, enabling one to eat more. And if you live high on the Tibetan plateau, where nothing very much grows, and you don’t know where you’ll find your next meal — imagine yourself a bonze on pilgrimage — you eat what you can.

Potatoes are “nice” (see yesterday), but it is the distinctive flavour of these chillies that makes the dish. Other ingredients should, after a slight bow, get out of the way. I have not the vocabulary to describe it, but it rolls across the tongue like the flowers of an orchard in paradise. And then delivers a gentle caressing back-kick, like an affectionate mule. A professional wine taster might be able to imagine what fruits were in that orchard. I’ll mention guava, walnuts, and loganberries; but just to be pretentious.

Of course, Nature invented chillies to protect birdfeeders. Mammals such as squirrels hate them, as humans hate pepper-spray, but birds either can’t taste them (according to these “scientists,” who have simplistic ideas based on counting taste-buds), or actually like them (according to me). Note that “bird-peppers” were so named because avians gobble them by choice off the bushes.

I have taken to feeding my finches millet, enlivened with a modest sprinkle of crushed Ancho chilli. We both like it, and we both like it hot. In their case, also dry, and raw: they keep coming back for more. Whereas, a Tibetan would probably like his millet made into chang, and thus very wet. This is among their many delightful alcoholic beverages, which keep them warm in the mountains. And their food is salty, which improves the thirst.

Very catholic and monastic they are. (Scientists call them “Buddhists,” but this is misleading.) It is a great pity they weren’t numerous enough to fight off the Maoists, for they make very good soldiers, too. But I’m rambling, it has been a long day, and I almost missed my final Idlepost deadline.

Nice & nasty

“If, as you say, the world is going to Hell, how come there are so many nice people?”

My paraphrase does no justice to the acquaintance who asked. The original was rather more involved.

She is, by her own account, “not a bad person.” At least, ditto, she has never done anything very bad, though she admits that by the catechistic standard, she is quite the rogue. But that is a standard she rejects; she has her own standard.

Old, now (in her seventies), she is probably better informed on the teachings of the Catholic Church than most current Sunday churchgoers. This is because before she left, nearly half a century ago, she had been properly instructed, by nuns. For they had nuns in those days, who knew what they were about. (We still have a few, but not many.)

And this lady is sharp: her mind is not fading. She can even recite the titles of all the Books in the Bible, in the correct order. This was one of the things the nuns drummed in. And the ten commandments, and the seven deadly sins, and the four cardinal virtues, and the three theological ones, and the eight beatitudes, and the five sorrowful mysteries, and the five joyful mysteries, and the rest of it. Memory work, and her memory is still working.

She is one of those people who hated the “Old Church” before Vatican II, and welcomed the changes that came in the ’sixties. But when they arrived, she left. And she is candid about that, saying that leaving might not have occurred to her, otherwise. The “reforms” exposed the Old Church as a sham, in her opinion — for suddenly what had seemed immortal, and immovable, and unchangeable, was shown up for what it was: “a deeply flawed human institution.” And the priests who had the mysterious powers were shown to be just old men — celibate males, like old maids or spinsters.

There was a moment in the 1990s when John Paul II held her attention. She even attended church a few times, alone, for her husband was never a Catholic, and her two children were raised “free range.” That Pope seemed to be speaking of things that she had overlooked, or forgotten. But the Masses she attended were trivial: they reminded her it was “all a sham,” and so she drifted off again. When the Pope died, she could not explain to herself why she was heartbroken. It was almost as if her father had died.

“But it is all a sham,” she insists. “A nice place for funerals and weddings.” Or, funerals, since she hasn’t attended a wedding in a very long time. The services are unnecessary, “They should rent it out like the old Crystal Ballroom.” … For weddings, funerals, concerts, fashion shows, bingo, floor hockey.

The Church was priests, and the priests failed — according to this lady. Her relationship was with these old men. She recites some filth from the sex scandals, by way of dismissing them as utterly corrupt. While nothing so bad as what she’d heard on TV, she had a few bad memories herself of priests (and nuns) who were “slimy.”

And no, she hasn’t met or spoken to a priest in many decades; or to any other religious, male or female. “What would we have to talk about?”

I mentioned that the Christian’s relation is with Jesus Christ; that the clergy, from the Pope down, are intermediaries. That they are human, and sometimes fail. And sometimes they fail catastrophically. “I can understand you have nothing to say to some old priest. But let me be hypothetical here: what will you say to Jesus?”

That she has been a good person. That she has never done anything very bad. It began to sound like a mantra.

It is true, most people are nice. This includes Catholics, but also Protestants and Muslims, Hindus and Jews and Agnostics. (Most would rather be liked than hated.) Why just last week, I dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the floor while struggling at a cash-point, and the man behind me picked it up, and gave it right back. He didn’t run off down the street with it. What a nice man; I thanked him. In Parkdale, here, we have lots of nice people.  I think of them as “the church of nice,” and of all the “mercy” my Church of Nasty is currently dispensing on them.

I wonder if Christ will ever be understood. For it’s not just the priests and nuns: Christ Himself comes across as nasty, if you read the Script — judgemental, strict, confrontational. And when people dishonour his Father’s house — perfectly nice people for all we know, just trying to make a living — he becomes downright violent. Fashions a whip, turns over their stalls. No table manners at all. Garish talk about body and blood.

“If thy brother sin against thee, reprove him: and if he do penance, forgive him.”

Note the qualification; and that it continues through seven times, and would continue through seventy times seven.

We don’t give people what they don’t want. (That wouldn’t be nice.) And if they don’t want forgiveness, we don’t give it to them. We offer it up instead to God. The martyr on the stake does not say, “I forgive you,” he asks God to forgive them. This is a subtlety I don’t think nice people get.

Jesus Christ to priests who fail, catastrophically: “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged around his neck, and that he should be drowned in the uttermost depth of the sea.”

Now, that is nasty.

The ultimate bore

“Fate dominates the lives of men,” — I have this from Hilaire Belloc this morning — “though Will is a corrective of Fate.” In the item I was reading, Will is employed to escape the Fate of conversing with an excruciating bore, whom Belloc (gratuitously) suspects is Hungarian. Some clever manoeuvring in a railway eating car, and they are soon separated by “two commercial travellers, a professional singer, and a politician,” terminating the recitation of an improbable tiger-hunting story.

Belloc had some Will, to be sure, and so had various others in history, including a fair proportion of the Christian martyrs, or rather I should think, all of them. In the end, death is certainly a way of concluding an interminable conversation — the death of either one or the other — though of course, it is an extreme move. Accede, instead, to the wishes of one’s interlocutor, agree to obey his Will at the start, and the conversation can go on forever. I mean this literally, for in Hell it may continue in perpetuity.

Several of my correspondents have begged me to comment on the latest developments in the “gay agenda.” I must confess that I find that conversation boring. In this Province of Ontario, for instance, we now have a new scheme for “sex education” to be imposed on our little ones in the public schools, beginning in September. They will be instructed from an early age, in addition to what they learn already, not only that every imaginable sort of lubricity and coupling is “natural” and “good”; but too, that anyone who denies this is a “hater,” and therefore potentially eligible for punishment under our constantly evolving laws. Various parents’ groups are resisting, with little effect against the forward march of the homosexual and now “transgender” alliance — activists who have come to command a nearly closed camp of government, bureaucracy, academia, the media, and the courts.

Defeat, we are facing, on innumerable fronts, as the Gnostic powers advance against us, to consolidate their previous victories, and then conduct their mopping-up operations.

Example: I see from my inbox this morning, that Toronto is soon to host a massive public orgy for the disabled, to coincide with the Parapan Am Games this summer. (It is not yet an official Olympic sport.) In a news report, from a nominally “conservative” newspaper, this is presented as another “barrier” about to fall. An organizer, who is a “disability awareness consultant,” herself bound to a wheelchair as well as to the rubbish “science” of sociology, moans in the usual way about past oppression. Non-disabled people have been guilty of denying accessibility to sex among the disabled, she speculates, owing to the reactionary assumption that they have less libido. All this must change.

Nothing easier than to change public assumptions on sexuality, as we have observed over the last decade or two. There is little left to shock the bourgeois, and we cannot expect the avant-gardes to encounter much resistance, as they proceed on the remaining fronts of paedophilia and bestiality.

I used the term “Gnostic” advisedly, for that is precisely what we have faced, as many alert Catholic and some other Christian writers have begun to realize fully. Go read Making Gay Okay, by Robert Reilly, for a summation of the recent history; then go read Eric Voegelin for the deeper history. Verily, there is nothing new under the sun; and through history, those who have denied the natural and supernatural order, have not rested until their own attempts to change reality itself, have blown up in their faces. In the end, the revolution always eats its own, and already we observe the conflicts between e.g. advanced feminists and the latest “transgenderism” — which denies that “women” have any standing at all.

To the Gnostic, in his quest for self-justification, material reality itself is the oppressor, and therefore material reality must be altered. We say that God made us male and female, and in an objective sense, He did. In effect, the Gnostic does not deny that a quick glance at the newborn’s genitalia will sort them nicely. His (or her, or its) critique is directed ultimately against God. The response is, How dare He? How dare He imprison us in our bodies?

We are gods ourselves, imprisoned in human flesh, according to the basic Gnostic thinking. We must act as gods, and correct Him. We shall impose Our reality over His, and this must necessarily involve the destruction of all those taking rearguard action on God’s side. In the end this is not materialism, at all — an innocent creed compared to what we are facing. It is finally an extreme form of spiritualism, demanding the triumph of the “spiritual” over the “material.” More exactly: the triumph of something purely (and viciously) spiritual, over the combined material and spiritual of God’s creation.

And as Saint Paul taught — and as Christ taught, before him:

“Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers; against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in high places.”

It is not a new fight, and we are wrong to imagine there is anything novel in the present contest of Wills. Look back to earlier centuries to find glaring examples of Gnostic antinomianism. This has instead been a Christian fight all along — the essential Christian fight, all through the centuries, against the powers of darkness, surrounding and often penetrating into Holy Church. Consult the Scriptures, and we are given fair warning of what happens the moment we let down our guard.

We know that the assault will not end voluntarily. The activists will always want more, and more. One cannot reason with them, because the very premisses are disputed, on which we might argue. As we have discovered in practice, there is no “debate.” Every word, from “tolerance” forward, has a different meaning for us and for them. The battle is not even a dispute about ends, but over reality itself.

Prayer makes perfect sense in this battle, personal prayer and the aggregation of prayer, for against a spiritual enemy we must summon spiritual allies. In material terms, we must stiffen our spines.

It is a little-known fact that the Devil is a colossal bore. He began the present round by querying contraception, asking us in our charity to “tolerate” this and that, and even begging for what he presented as minor concessions. Now we have a taste of the Devil’s toleration, on the minor concession of leaving our children alone. We made the mistake of allowing the conversation, and letting him incrementally advance, from one tedious little demand to another.

At the beginning, we could wisely have done as Belloc suggested. It was a simple matter of putting between us “two commercial travellers, a professional singer, and a politician.” We are beyond that now, fully fixed in his trap. Greater acts of the Will, will be required to avoid him.

Among dragons & damsels

On some farm in the Gatineau Hills, last week, in retreat with an old buddy of mine, I was given a wonderful opportunity to rest, and gaze over a puddle. It had collected by a fine old maple at a low point of a rolling lawn, and at midday dragonflies hovered above it. And these not any dragonflies, but Vernal Bluets, which is to say damselflies, actually, whose blues — porcelain between black lacquer stripes — are of a sky lightness evocative of Heaven.

Now, this was exactly what I had come to see, though I did not know what I had come for, beyond the general aim of stepping out of the city.

I possessed but one field guide to regional Odonata, and that was foolishly left behind in the High Doganate: The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area, by Colin D. Jones and a few others. Notwithstanding it is a paperback, full of glossy pix, I can recommend it to any reader within a million miles of Ottawa who may wish to fill his heart with hope, beauty, and joy.

Yet even so, of limited technical value, for my location was above the limestone plain, washed flat with fertile farming soil by the ancestors of the Ottawa River. Rather I was looking over it from the Precambrian, metavolcanic upland to the north, just beyond this field guide’s range.

We do not yet appreciate, I believe, the extraordinary variety of creatures on this Earth, not only from one order to another, but like religious, within each of the orders. The closer they are examined, through magnifying glass and even down farther into the genetic structure, the more distinctions we can make that are joyful and beautiful in themselves.

I am thinking here specifically of our northern Bluets, my favourite damselflies in the Coenagrionidae genera. Consider for instance their sexual parts, which interclasp by an irreproducible feat of minute mechanical engineering.

Two may seem in costumage the same species at a first glance, or a second, or a third: the similar colour pattern set out vividly in the median and humeral stripes. They overlap in range; show like habits, in like micro-environments. Individuals may be distinguished in subtle ways: for instance the shadings of the contrasting browns in the eyes of the females make each unique. Or, more dramatically, females may show brown instead of blue on their bodies, in a delicious “polymorph,” for the brown hue is the perfect poetical match, or simile to the blue hue (now a little more yellow; now a little more green), as if from the brush of a great artist, who understands colour from the inside out.

Now look to the cercus on one male, then on another. Not polymorphism here, but a decisive boundary between two species. The knob at the distal end — look closer — is a different shape. The Vernal Bluet has a black tooth, set into a basal depression, entirely missing in the Boreal Bluet. Unless I am wrong (and gentle reader should be warned that I lack an advanced degree in Anisopteran Entomology, to say nothing of the Zygopteran), the two kinds may hybridize, and often do. But thanks to this little trick of Design, they don’t do so easily, or for long. The Designer has made it awkward for them, and by this stroke, assured us that the two species will not meld or homogenize. He is in no doubt: He wants them to be different, and to remain so, and for a purpose that will be immediately apparent to no one.

Having fixed our attention on the cerci — for we are Catholics here, and no prudes — we may then reflect upon a world of sensual experience, extending beyond our reach and ken.

As we know from observation across the phylum Arthropoda, the cercum may have multiple “functions.” It may be the organ for copulation, but it may also be a complexly unified sensory organ for quite other uses; or a pinching weapon, or a means to carry or drag. It may be some combination of all these, and we cannot guess what else besides. Our reductionist science, or scientism, glibly assigns a function, adds this to a chart; then moves along to the next creature, and the next chart, to fill more blank spaces in a tedious database, which may then be manipulated by our dehumanized cyphers.

But as William Blake has observed, the senses are the inlets to our souls — to our immortal human souls, as also, to the mortal dragonfly souls. And, “how do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”

Or, as Ezra Pound asserted: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world. Pull down thy vanity, Paquin, pull down.”

The allusion here is to the intensely lyrical, “Libretto” passage, late in the Pisan cantos — among the most memorable flights in English literature — which itself has many converging functions within the movement of the larger poem, including the presentation of a vision of Nature that resonates with that of Alexander Pope, in a mischievously droll way. From beneath it upwells a grand moral contrast that Pope would easily recognize. The smug, complacent, idolatrous orbitations of the transient fashion world (Paquin was a Paris dress designer, who flourished before the Great War) has been set against the humility, contrition, atonement — and upwelling Love — in a live religious tradition. It is Pound rising towards Dante:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace.
          Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry …

Indeed, a dragonfly is a wonder of exquisite Design — material and mechanical but simultaneously artistic — this little roving Eye of nature, that first appears, fully-formed with incredible precision, in the fossil records from more than three hundred million years ago.

It was, however, only half a century ago, that as a boy given to hiking wherever he could get, I had my own first “quasi-religious” experience of watching a dragonfly nymph emerge from a pond, and undergo its metamorphosis into glory. I saw it emerge from its dead larval skin, and crawl tenuously onto a log. Under the dazzling sun, it was pale, crinkled, utterly feeble. And then, in the space of minutes, its abdomen extended, its veinous wings unfolded and filled out, its colouring began to appear murkily, then solidify in sharp, unmistakable pattern. This new angelic creature pulsed, stretched to its fullness, took its first flight — knowingly, towards the safety of the woods. It was a miracle I had witnessed from beginning to end, and to this day I find it useful to recall, when contemplating the mysteries of Creation and Resurrection.