Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Religio pacis

“Two die in Belgian anti-terror raid.” … The headline is from the BBC website, yesterday, but these keywords could be found in breaking-news headlines all across Europe. (I checked.)

Gentle reader must have been wondering, who is it this time? The Buddhists, perhaps? (Mahayana or Theravada?) Jains? Angry rampaging Hindu swamis? Prim Confucians? Taoist anarchists? What about the Zoroastrians, we haven’t heard from them in a while. But it might be the Lutherans, no? Or the Presbyterians? High Church Anglicans? (I’ve looked into some of their eyes.) Hmm, but now I’m thinking, what about those Pentecostals? Baptists? Some other Fundamentalist Christians from Allah-bama and the Deep South? Hey wait, Belgium used to be a Catholic country, perhaps they were Latin Mass traditionalists? SSPiXies? Dominican monks? Third Order Franciscans? On the other hand, Secular Humanists would be statistically more likely. Wiccans? Druids? Nudists? Maybe we should bet long-shot on Animists of some sort, from the former Belgian Congo. Or from New Guinea: could be, you never know these days.

Well, the answer caught everyone by surprise. Muslims: can you believe it?

As some wag in Washington recently responded, to another “religion of peace” muttering from on high: “How odd that so many are killing for it.”

A correspondent in Alexandria-by-Egypt reminds of Christians slaughtered and churches trashed in his town not so long ago, after rumours circulated that a Coptic priest had said, “Islam is a violent religion.” Turned out he hadn’t said that. But whatever it was, he won’t be saying it again.

The media have thoughtfully spared us from reports of demonstrations in the Muslim world in support of recent actions in Paris, which involved the “execution” of several French cartoonists who had drawn vile, blasphemous pictures of their Prophet Jesus, and his Mother Mary. Also, of the Prophet Muhammad. The media don’t want to abet prejudice against any particular religious community; and Islam is what they mean by “particular.”

There are many “moderate Muslims,” according to the same authorities. If I were a peaceful Muslim — and look out, I’m not — I’d be positively irritated by this patronizing expression. I’d want them to think me an extreme Muslim, like the wonderful Sufi fellow who did the linen on my floor in a Cairo hotel, a few years ago. I could tell he was a religious nutjob, from an aura of sanctity about him. In every free moment he was lost in prayer. When he smiled, one felt that Allah were smiling on one. (The word means “God” in Arabic, and is used by Christians and Muslims alike.)

Or when I went to interview the late Sheikh Tantawi, master of al-Azhar and highest Islamic authority in that country, I was told, “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of love.” He confirmed that the terrorists err on important points of Islamic doctrine, such as condemnation of suicide and murder. He told me he played golf with the Coptic Pope. Around him, I also detected a certain serenity. He was gracious, and patient, as if he had all the time in the world. He was worried that my tea-glass was empty. He understood I was writing for Canadian newspapers. About five times he told me, lest our translator missed a beat, “Please, give my greetings and my love to Canada.” He said it must be a very fine country; so many Muslims told him they had been welcomed there.

An imam in Lahore, Pakistan, told me back in the 1990s that his country and the whole world was going to Hell. There were many things wrong, but the worst things seemed to be happening in Islam. There were very devils running about, and they were inflaming ignorant people. He helped me to remember imams glimpsed in my youth, who were like old-fashioned Anglican vicars. From the minbar of the mosque on Fridays they would tell the people, “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Be kind to children and animals. Take care of your family. Say your prayers!”

I have, in fact, met and known so many decent and lovable Muslims, that I’m incapable of consigning the whole lot of them to the flames of Gehenna. But of course I am a religious nutjob myself, who has bought into all the orthodox, Catholic, Christian theological positions. Candidly — and please don’t tell anyone — I think most Muslims are better than their religion. And in the West, that we have a religion that is better than we are.

It is obvious, to those who can read, which passages from the Koran could be used to inflame ignorant people. It is further obvious, at least to me, that sophistical games are being played, when earlier passages begging for reason and tolerance (“there is no compulsion in religion”) may be negated by many dozen later “sword verses” used to justify a violent Jihad. We won’t go into that today. Gentle reader should get his hands on so fine a book as that of Jacques Jomier, OP: The Bible and the Koran (1959; translated to English, 1964). A learned man, and a reasonable soul, who had spent much of his life among Muslims, he explored the “problem” in a way not clouded by the wrath of many Western commentators, who inflame ignorant people in their own way.

To my mind, the best thing we can do for terrorists is track them down, and catch or kill them. But there remains the issue of Islam-at-large. There are more than a billion of those Muslims, and as Burke said, “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.” Neither do I.

The topic is broad enough to return to.

Hermits & artists

We commemorate today, in the Old Mass if not in the New, one of my favourites: Saint Paul, “the first hermit.” His biography was written by Saint Jerome: see his Vita Sancti Pauli Primi eremitae, which gentle reader may find english’d on the Internet (here). Off into the desert mountains above Thebes in Egypt went our Paul, to escape the persecution of Decius, and there he stayed, in prayer and penance, living to an extremely old age.

Among the Copts in Egypt, I was delighted by the “legendary accretions” to his story — how, after living for decades in his mountain cave near a spring, clothed and fed by the products of a date palm, a raven began to bring him half a loaf of bread every day. How the great desert father, Saint Anthony, learnt of him in a dream, and then found him. How the cloak of Saint Athanasius, the great Archbishop of Alexandria (himself frequently on the run from the secular authorities of his day) was fetched, to wrap around Paul when he was dying. How it was delivered, a little too late. How, in the end, his grave was dug by the same, very aged, Anthony Abbot, with the help of two lions.

The Copts are very close to my heart, and what most Western visitors take for their credulity much appeals to me. They think God can do anything. What we in the West have forgotten is that He can: do almost anything. (He cannot do evil, or contradict Himself, unlike some other middle-eastern deities.) Should God assign a raven to be a courier, I should think the raven could be persuaded to obey. Should God need extra hands to dig a grave, why wouldn’t He summon the local lions? They have the paws for it, after all. The reasoning of my Coptic friends, including one “Western educated” bishop of considerable intellectual sophistication, struck me as incontestable.

This “Paul of Thebes” has been, since Saint Jerome’s charming life was published in 375, a Patron to many, many artists who have served the Church, both East and West. I can’t speak for the “liturgy committees,” which must not think him terribly important, but I will speak for artists. We have callings, as priests, nuns, and many others have callings; our vocations often involve solitude, isolation, the hermitage: going our own way, but with God. This is why we so often see Paul the Hermit represented in Western art, with the very attributes at which “the sophisticated” may sneer: the palm, the raven with the loaf, the lions. Even should the factoti in Rome happen to misplace his file, we will remember him, and what he has done for us, and what he still does.

Saint Paul, hermit of the Theban wilderness, pray for us.

Kosher phones

Every once in a while, I stumble on something uplifting in the world of science and applied technology. Usually it is pure science: some obscure discovery which persuades me that God is winking at us yet again. But a correspondent in Israel tells me about a wonderful human invention. It is a “smartphone” altered, or actually designed, to be not-so-smart. I wanted to buy one right away, but it seems I would need a letter from my rabbi to say that I am a responsible person, and have a work-related need to own one, and am not just some yeshiva student with a desire to chatter. Unfortunately, none of my priests will pass for a rabbi.

Notwithstanding this restriction, there is apparently intense competition for the production of kosher phones. Manufacturers come out with new models which they claim are even dumber than their rivals’ dumbest. They boast of having permanently disabled more and more illicit smartphone functions. The latest have developed ways to omit those functions entirely, thus making their kosher phones cheaper, and into the bargain tougher, more reliable.

The Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) objection to cellphones was from the beginning, but developed in detail as they “improved.” No one should own a device capable of “surfing” the vile world of secular websites for, in addition to pornography from “soft” to “hard,” much other morally degrading material is not only available but ostentatiously promoted in a 24/7, “streaming” sort of way. And, one’s computer is constantly invaded by the “cookies” of these monsters, along with any “viruses” that succeed in hitching a ride.

Every intelligent Catholic, or other Christian or decent human being, should have noticed the same, and worse, noticed the temptation in himself to be drawn into that vileness, incrementally. Parents sometimes try to block this filth from their children, but it can be of no benefit to adults, either.

It is easy to block the Internet entirely. But there is a plentiful supply of brilliant Haredis in the line of electronic engineering, and they have created a little universe of apps to eliminate everything except what the Haredi needs to get on with his life in business, to access religious reading, deal with medical emergencies, and so forth. They have set an example for us, and surely my fellow “ultra-orthodox” Catholics should be taking it up.

*

The idea that “science” should be put at the service of the lowest human volitions should itself be contested. The secular mind believes it has ownership of all physical and natural scientific research, and thus an exclusive right to appropriate its products for their own purposes. It has defined “freedom” in a way to vindicate moral degradation in any form.

A juicy example came from the recent secular demonstrations in France: the demand that a “right to blasphemy” be established in law, with plaques to be set before all churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious houses, affirming that this “right to blasphemy” takes priority over any previously-granted right to practise one’s religion in peace. This is an outgrowth of previous efforts to establish an “International Blasphemy Day,” and similar expressions of the overt satanism that now guides the Left.

While it is true that only a small minority currently subscribe to any such “right,” the Left has discovered that the people will come round — as they have done on divorce, contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and every other hot-button topic for the Culture of Death — after they have pushed their agenda through sympathetic courts. It is a procedure which shows what an empty thing “democracy” is. We vote and vote until we get what they want, then stop voting. Everything is settled, the “debate” is closed, and anyone who raises the topic again is an omniphobe.

*

I seem to be tied at the brain with Father Hunwicke. Again and again I check in on his Mutual Enrichment blog, to find we have been travelling down precisely parallel tracks. I was spooked when he mentioned the late E.L. Mascall yesterday (here) — for I had just been consulting one of Mascall’s books, albeit on another topic. Perhaps I should explain that decades ago, when Anglican, I had proudly thought of Dr Mascall as the greatest living Anglican, in genius and holiness; just as I then thought a certain Joseph Ratzinger the greatest living Christian, by the same integration of categories.

The book in question is Christian Theology and Natural Science (1956). It fell into my hands in the course of shifting some books about, to an unrelated purpose. Mascall (1905–93) was very learned in a broad range of subjects, including the history of science. His interests ran more to biology than physics, but this bias itself led him to some original insights in general cosmology. To wildly oversimplify: he held that science throws light on theological questions that are obscured by (modern) biblical literalism; and that there is often a fascinating congruence between what is “theologically possible” and “scientifically possible.” His thoroughness, in each question he takes up, is itself something to admire, and adds to the reference value of all his works.

I usually find religious writers on science better informed than their secular colleagues. To me, there is no surprise that in Mendel and Lemaître the key conceptual advances in modern science were achieved by Catholic monks. Indeed, I taught a course, a few years ago, in which I stressed the dominance of Catholics, and clerics especially, in every major scientific discipline over the last millennium to the present day, and also the reasons for it.

Einstein somewhere said the state should assign physicists to tend remote lighthouses, so they might contemplate advanced problems in physics without worldly distractions. It was a typically asinine, secular idea. We need lighthouse keepers whose attention is focused on keeping ships off the rocks.

What we have in monasteries is useful to science in a three-fold way. First, of course, there is that opportunity to contemplate. Second, the reinforcement of it, in a daily regime of prayer, simple manual labour, and retreat; but also paradoxically in the sounding-board offered by other men of quite various backgrounds, united in the friendship of the Cross. Third, and I should think most important, is the Catholic Christian theological outlook, which leads men to assume that the universe will make sense, and that it will reflect characteristics of its Maker. This assumption has proved by far the most fruitful ever applied to scientific inquiry.

The same observation might be applied to technology. Let us take cellphones for example. The groundwork for wireless mobile communications was laid by the Slovak priest, Jozef Murgaš (1864–1929), whose patents, filed after he followed Slovak immigrants to Pennsylvania, date back before the Great War. His first love, after God, was painting, however. He did science when he was unable to paint. Look into his life and achievements and one begins to appreciate that we could have had cellphones nearly a century before we did.

Among the innumerable false claims of this anti-religion I call “secularism,” is that technological progress is driven by invention or discovery. It is instead driven by the marketing guys, when they finally see the chance to make a killing, selling a new “must have” gizmo to a market already shaped by their previous ministrations.

Propaganda for R&D (“research and development”) encourages us to think that “progress,” even survival, depends on the clever people who work in there. In the publicity, they are loosely associated with “scientists,” and the big corporate lobbies angle to get tax breaks from them. They are in fact galley wage-slaves who do just what they are told — not to create “new technology,” but rather to make products snazzier using technical methods already known, often for centuries. The idea of “the free market” is, like “democracy,” all blather. In my direct experience, entrepreneurs with genuinely useful inventions that might in any way challenge vested commercial interests soon find themselves enwrapped in calumny and as much red tape as the big corporate legal departments are able to unpeal.

I should like to see some Catholic, distributist effort applied to sabotaging this process. It strikes me that remote monasteries would be in the best position to develop goods of innocent utility, for people (whether Catholic or not) who want to keep their lives simple, and to own things that need not be replaced with every butterfly sneeze of secular fashion.

Daily & Sundays

I’ve pledged to file daily, though my equipment will have to cooperate. Yesterday, in theory, we switched over once again to “new,” which will make us “even more impregnable” than the last lot. It will also free us from the billings of a certain long-established Canadian telephone company: one characterized by my son and chief technical adviser as, “Worse than Hitler.” (He was trained in the art of hyperbole by an expert.)

The new equipment has not yet worked. I am back on the old equipment, but will try again soon, when I think I have enough coffee in me.

Good news: the technical adviser in question will, if God helps, return to the Greater Parkdale Area by the weekend. He has made it to Denver, after excitements with snow and malfunctioning aircraft, that put him on the ground at Detroit, then showed him Chicago. Denver was not where he was going but, “getting warmer” as they say. They’ve lost his luggage, of course, but as he writes, “Who needs material things?”

Once, for a single hop from Tokyo to Vancouver, my luggage found its way to Sydney, Australia. I reflected that it might be circling the same Pacific Rim, except, counter-clockwise.

(And by the time I was no longer in Vancouver, it arrived.)

Now, back to my little computer nightmare.

In this world that has been dedicated to Efficiency.

Saint Isidore of Seville, pray for us.

La mort des cathédrales

Today, instead of my usual effusion, I invite Idlehands to read the post by Marcel Proust, over at the Rorate Caeli website. (Here.) His article appeared in Le Figaro on the 26th of August, 1904; John Pepino is the latest translator. It is perhaps more immediately relevant to what is happening in France today, than anything bleating on the Internet. I also find it the perfect complement to what I posted here, yesterday.

The circumstance in which Proust was writing is a recurring one. The Catholic Church, which was the architect of French and European civilization, and the source of its light, has been under siege now by her own descendants for about five hundred years. The most malignant attack was the French Revolution; the “secularism” of the present day follows from the diabolical principles which were articulated in blood at that time. The modern French state is the inheritor of those principles, expressed mildly in its policy of laïcité. That state has fluctuated, from generation to generation, in the degree of its animus towards Jesus Christ, from relative indifference to fresh rampages of destruction and violence. Under the Third French Republic, efforts to suppress Catholic schools, churches, and monasteries scattered French Catholic refugees around the world. They culminated in satanic acts by the radical socialist government of Émile Combes — on one of which Proust is commenting. Combes was father of the 1905 law to de-legitimize the Church, which remains the foundation of all subsequent French anti-clerical activities.

It is a paradox that the Church in France was in a sense “saved” by the First World War. To unite the country for war, the government could no longer afford to persecute such a substantial body of its own citizens. It had also to recover from the purges of observant Catholics in the military which, by removing the most competent officers, had left the country prey to German aggression. Of course this is a long, involved story, and takes us ahead of today’s reading.

We cannot judge of historical events in our own time. We are too close to them, and not yet aware of much that is happening below the surface and behind the scenes. While it is also murky, we can have a clearer view of the past, and the best insights we can obtain into current events come from what we can see going into them. No one can see what will come out, and claims to read the future are invariably fatuous.  It is remarkable that the Church has survived at all in France, as in many other Western countries. The number of “nominal” or “census” Catholics remains large, but only a small minority of these attend church, or are in any other way serious about their religion. This small minority is overwhelmingly “traditionalist,” and if the Church recovers, she will regrow from that stalk. This is also the part of France that is still a living, specifically French, cultural force — now under attack as much from Rome as from Paris.

Proust was himself an “agnostic,” and a “closet homosexual.” It was not as a believer, but as a friend of civilization against barbarism that he wrote for Le Figaro. He is unquestionably in the pantheon of great modern writers: more than a novelist and often a poet. His article is a reminder of a certain home truth, which like any truth should be dear to the Catholic heart. It is that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Every sincere enemy of barbarism is an ally.

Indeed, we need all the friends we can get.

Sancta Familia

I boast, shamelessly and perhaps unreasonably, of being a man of the thirteenth century; but if gentle reader finds that a little too progressive, I reply that the twelfth was too exciting for me. It was a “renaissance.” We’ve had five, six, or more of them in Christendom, depending which we count; and as ever happens during one of these rebirths, experiments are tried to improve things. The thirteenth century had plenty of excitements, too; but on balance, in my view, it was a period of consolidation. It was the century in which the still-reigning master of modern thought, Saint Thomas Aquinas, committed his great act of intellectual re-assembly, pacing through Christian philosophy over the broadest possible base; and other Schoolmen worked in parallel ways. A century is a long time, by earthly measure, and an Idlepost is ten minutes, so we will leave it there, as a crude generalization.

*

Paris is much in the news. Recently I touched on the foundations of the modern university, including the celebrated one that was established on the Île de la Cité. I stressed the dangerous freedom that this university offered, once detached from the religious houses in which learning had previously been nurtured and supervised; but allowed that something important was gained for the loss. The autonomous university was a typical invention of the mediaeval mind: growing in its place organically, and like an organism finally coming of age, and thus to independence.

Ah, to be in Paris, in the thirteenth century, with her church spires and palaces; her convents, hospices, and many other specialized monastic establishments; her magnificent buildings at the peak of the Romanesque; her schools, including the incomparable school of polyphony in Notre Dame; her ars antiqua and its echoes in the sung poetry of the trouvères; the prospects along her rooflines to her walls; “her river, her gardens, her vineyards”; her warm comfortable houses; her hives of industry, on the Left Bank, where monk artists copied and illuminated gorgeous codices in remarkable numbers; her markets of the Right Bank with their enchanting smells and the musical cries; the shops of her artisans; her goldsmiths and ivory carvers at work on reliquaries and crucifixes, to intricate Byzantine designs; her sculptors, painters, glaziers in stained glass. Look for depictions of mediaeval costumage, and consider the cloth-weavers and tailors who could deliver such work: to this city blossoming in every season. And then hear the bells.

Already by the dawn of the thirteenth century Paris had more than a hundred thousand souls and was, among cities, the indisputable Queen of the North. She was more cosmopolitan than today’s drudgery-ridden city (with more “multi” but less “culture”). By her reputation for learning the students came from afar, settling into their national colleges in the island Cité, and spreading through the Quartier Latin — as they had done long before the formal establishment of the university, or the college of Robert de Sorbon.

What fascinates me just now is the matrix of autonomies, by which the independence of so many institutions was sustained and guaranteed; the rights, corresponding to duties, which pertained to persons in each station; all the mutual relations that had grown through the evolution of custom, and not bureaucratic imposition. Minor conflicts could be resolved by precedent, if necessary through the courts and lawyers; the largest were settled in appeals to Rome. In their replies, the Popes intervened like a supreme court, to preserve one party from the tyranny of another. It is a heritage we have lost, or are still losing: this explicitly Christian vision of the City of Man aspiring to harmony with the City of God; of autonomy in subsidiarity; of self-governing guilds. I don’t think the modern “democratic” mind quite begins to comprehend civic freedom, mired as we are in a conception of freedom that reduces to the Hobbesian tyranny of all upon all. Our ideal instead is “free and equal” — a direct contradiction of terms, and therefore never imposed without hypocrisy.

The man who pays the piper calls the tune: students had real power. We had in the colleges of thirteenth-century Paris (as elsewhere in schools across Europe) the wonderful consequence of “full tuition.” A lecturer could be fined if he arrived late for class; or if he funked when asked to explain a difficult passage. Iustitia, justise: those students had the right to the teaching they had paid for. Or think about a law that prevented the very Chancellor of the University from blocking the appointment of any professor qualified to teach. The mediaeval mind considers many angles; the modern demands “one size fits all.”

Autonomies within autonomies: they are such little things as these which persuade me that mediaeval, “feudal” man was no pushover. It was why, in the end, he was able to withstand such huge challenges as the violent expansion of Islam. (It would be tasteless, today of all days, to draw a comparison to that ocean of slobbering Charlies, having their Princess Di moment in Paris as I write; who think evil can be stopped by posting a mass selfie, and are in fact providing the Muslim fanatics with exactly the attention they expected, and craved.)

*

Put this another way. To our modern, revolutionized, “secular” imagination, an institution is a team, with a captain. Followers need “leaders.” There are “policies” which the captain may change, or he may change the personnel to improve “performance.” If the team fails, the captain may be replaced, for there is a collective interest in “success.” But even with incompetence and failure, the point is to get paid. (It is not an absolute value, however: “how much” is always an issue.) The good, the beautiful, the true are acknowledged, as being like God: irrelevant, because of no cash value. On the other hand, it is widely understood that sentimentality sells (like mild pornography); and that wealth has correlatives in fame and power.

Life is a game, and a game needs rules: the purpose of “rights,” in this secular view, is to level the playing field. All loyalties are conditional; each player answers only to himself, for his “lifestyle choices.” There can be no ineffaceable criterion of judgement, no stakes not transient.

Given the assumption that there can be no enduring purposes, an institution can serve no enduring purpose. It must exist only for those of whom we may speak in the present tense. It may come, go, or be “repurposed,” according only to immediate need — as currently “perceived” by whoever is in power. They are answerable only to those who keep them in power. Those who once built or belonged to the institution are dead and gone: the dead can feel no injuries. Only the living can feel pain, when those elected decide they should do so, for opposing the latest iteration of “progress.”

To the old Christian mind, the analogy for an institution was instead the family, which has a ruler to be sure, in the husband and father, and is thus “paternalistic.” But each member is of absolute value, and obedience is commanded by an authority that can be justified only by Love (see Catholic marriage sacrament; compare sacrament for holy orders). Members cannot be arbitrarily assigned to new roles, nor casually dispensed with. Each exists for the sake of all the others in a divine plan, accommodated in goodness, beauty, truth; denied in their opposites. There are no institutional “performance” values, nor any others that could be charted or quantified; indeed, the pursuit of money as an end in itself counts as sin. What is served is ultimately no man, nor material function, but God, and success or failure is in the sight of Him.

There can thus be, in the Christian institution, no publishable criteria for winning or losing, no scoring card or cost-benefit analysis: not where martyrdom may be recognized as victory. There is no way for man to level any playing field. We cannot even know the extent of the field on which we are “playing.” Nor can rights exist severable from duties, nor duties severable from rights, any more than a coin can have only one side. Loyalties are not conditional; everything has that flavour of “till death do us part,” and then some. Not only do the institutions perdure, but the founders and members never cease to be alive; they must still be prayed for. Even they who are buried have rights, and the reciprocal duty to pray for us. The end is not a game, but a Day of Judgement, in the prospect of Life Everlasting; the stakes are never less than everything.

I think it may be seen that there is a contrast between these two analogies, as between these two views of life. I think it would be fair to say, that in terms of the former, the latter is inefficient; that in terms of the latter, the former is worthless.

At foot and crown of that now ancient, unambiguously Christian “social and economic” order, was indeed the autonomy of the family; its legal status compounded by its sanctity.

How beautifully this is taught through the liturgy of the Feast of the Holy Family, celebrated in the Old Mass today: in which the Kingship of Christ is beyond question, the Queenship of Mary on Earth as in Heaven — but too, the sanctity of that home wherein not Christ, nor Mary, but Joseph the carpenter was master, under the Law of Love. More is involved in the matter than this; but in this alone volumes are sung and spoken.

Honorifics

Though I am generally opposed to tabloid journalism, and fondly nostalgic for the days when broadsheets, at least seventeen inches wide, covered their front pages with “smalls” (classified ads in agate type) — I concede that the tabs have their moments. “Literate” people (and I mean that term broadly) often read them in addition to The Times, to gain insights into the minds of the common people, which would help them prepare defences against the next seething mob. Or, they might take low-class literature for light entertainment on long train rides. (Detective thrillers are more rewarding, however.) It should be said that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, much of what appears in tabloids is actually quite amusing, if rather coarse. Today, alas, we have nothing but tabloids, across a range of media “platforms”; and in our public life, nothing but mobs. But we have opinion polls, to provide the governing authorities with their “hedz-up.”

There are myths about old times. One of them is that we turned to tabloids to get the dirt that had been politely omitted from the broadsheets. This was never true. All the best dirt could be found buried in the latter, on an inside left-hand page below the fold, beginning about the third paragraph under a discreet headline. The learned knew how to search it out, without help from screaming banners. They knew the tabs would have only half the story.

Today, we have rightwing and leftwing tabloids, as we did before, but the choice is between them instead of between either and something else. A law of the universe, which provides that no two things will ever be precisely equal or symmetrical, still operates. In roughly the proportion that humans themselves are right- or left-handed, we find little truths blazoned in the tabloid media of the two sides. These truths are invariably partial, but sometimes one slice can be more enjoyable than the whole pie.

*

My prize this morning goes to Brian Lilley, of something called “Sun News.” I do find him a remarkably astute and well-informed journalist; and credit Sun News for being the Canadian media outlet which most frequently gets something right. This is because that something will, in almost every instance, be politically incorrect, and Sun News is about as politically incorrect as Canadians can hope for. Too, this television station makes a specialty of rude attacks on a competitor, the taxpayer-subsidized CBC. And with a target like that, you can’t miss.

Mr Lilley observes that most media handle with kid gloves and vocal gestures of awe, anything to do with Islam. We know that already, and even the reason for it: pant-wetting cowardice. But the example he gives is still rather priceless. It is their habit of referring — even after declaring that they are Charlie Poseur — to “The Prophet Muhammad.” Having given the sage of desert Araby that honorific, why do they not also refer, for instance, to “The Prophet Jeremiah”? Or to the founder of another long-established religion as, “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”?

The gentleman only calls attention to this routine example of shrieking hypocrisy, but perhaps we should treat it as an “action item,” accepting no glib or sophistical excuses. Space considerations cannot apply, for this last honorific may be abbreviated to “Our Lord.” Or, if the journalist does not, miserabile dictu, accept Jesus as his personal saviour, he could show the same respect as to Islam by referring consistently in a hushed, exalting tone to “The Lord,” or “The Messiah,” or “Jesus the Christ.”

It would be unChristian, I think, to threaten journalists with death if ever they failed to do so. But we could shower them with formal complaints.

La guerre, yes sir

Those drawn to the cirque médiatique in Paris — and let me confess I’ve been checking the news sites over-often the last couple of days — may both remember and forget how often we have been here. There is a certain ghoulish fascination from which journalists have long been making a living; a craft now well-adapted to the Internet. Backward-looking by disposition, I sometimes examine old newspapers, in which the horror of modern life acquires that “camp” patina, otherwise obtainable in the flea markets from old tins and cereal boxes. It is another way both to remember and forget, what has been achieved since the Enlightenment.

We have thirty casualties, including twenty deaths, with which to construct the “war” in Paris. Compare Baga, Nigeria, where over the same forty-eight hours the local Muslim fanatics (“Boko Harum”) have slaughtered perhaps one hundred times that number. Amnesty International now use satellite photographs to estimate death tolls from Boko Harum’s ministrations in rural Christian districts; the Guardian today cites an estimate of two thousand dead at Baga, once a quiet fishing village on the western shore of Lake Chad. (The lake has been shrinking.) Most of these were women, children, and the elderly, according to reports: unable to run fast enough.

Sharia Law is now imposed right across northern Nigeria, by the democratically elected authorities, in states where Muslims enjoy a plurality. Messrs Boko Harum go somewhat beyond their rescript. They are the latest expression of a violent “Islamist” movement that may be traced (in Nigeria) back to the 1950s.

Connoisseurs of British Imperialism will recall, from much earlier, the effort to distinguish the more from the less violent and barbaric emirates within the old, Arabized, Fulani caliphates, and assist the latter in establishing a system of civil law; in suppressing Sharia; and more generally in protecting the lives and property of religious minorities. But this is not a history that can be told without running directly afoul of the censors in current, politically-corrected Western academia.

Slaughter is not quite the same as war. Call me a stickler for English usage, but I think a “war” requires engagement from (at least) two sides. The Paris authorities who use this word guerre so casually at the moment should be asked, persistently, what they mean by it.

In my view, conditions in Nigeria also fall short of what I require in a war, though they get closer. The Nigerian army is engaged, occasionally, though like the police in France their role is almost purely defensive. Boko Harum strike, and they try to slow the accumulation of casualties. Sometimes their well-armed put poorly-trained soldiers go on killing rampages of their own, and defenceless Muslims instead of Christians and Animists become the targets. But an exchange of massacres is still “slaughter,” not “war.” Even in Abuja and Lagos, we have sad examples of linguistic imprecision.

Dionysien aside

I am sorry to say, that I have never visited the necropolis of the French kings. It is in the “commune” of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. The basilica was founded around the corpse of Saint Denis (or “Dionysius”) of France: the first bishop of Paris, martyred on Montmartre in 250 AD. In the VIIth century, Dagobert I (a contemporary of Mohammad of Arabia) was buried there, and after him, I think all but three of the kings, and most of the queens of the Franks and of France.

The basilica and its associated abbey — now “administered” by the French state — are also of tremendous significance in Western art. One could fill pages and pages with this cultural heritage, through all the intervening centuries, but one fact stands above all others. Under the great Abbot Suger, the abbey church was reconstructed and refurbished, 1137–48. It became the first of all the Gothic cathedrals. It could be fairly said that Gothic architecture — which is to say, the highest and noblest reach to which the art of building ever attained anywhere on the surface of this Earth — dates precisely from that singular edifice. (I have on my shelves the text of a symposium in which two dozen leading contemporary art historians affirm this plainly, from each of their respective angles of expertise. See here.)

More, so much more, could be said. No place in all of France can have such resonance, for genuinely patriotic Frenchmen, or for all who, like me, love old France with an overweening passion. By which I do not mean some “republic,” for I refer to the sons and daughters of a France that was murdered in the French Revolution; and has risen and been murdered again, many times; and will be restored when Christendom is restored — that France which is the eldest daughter of the Church of Christ.

One might say it was murdered yet again yesterday: not only by some gunmen in the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, but also in the sight of great crowds, morally preening by candlelight in response to that event, who think their heritage is liberty alone. (I shall have more to say on this in Catholic Thing, tomorrow.)

A friend writes:

“Have you ever been to Saint-Denis? I was stuck at Charles de Gaulle airport for half a day a couple years ago, and calculated that I could go down by train to the cathedral and still make my flight home. The train lets you off near the Stade de France. There’s a highway, I think built deliberately, between the stop and the cathedral, one barrier against enabling the French to visit the tombs. No Metro stop is nearby. (Another barrier: the Communists are not stupid.) The whole neighbourhood is Muslim, not particularly threatening in daylight, but the tombs of the old kings of France now lie in Muslim territory. Most of my French friends — usually Catholic and conservative — have never visited for various reasons.”

Be not goaded

Common sense can have a calming effect, I have found, when engaged in various controversies. It does not necessarily come from me. Usually it is a remark contributed by some “innocent bystander” — a term I should use cautiously, for as a veteran policeman once explained, “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.” But there are those not guilty of specific crimes.

This morning’s issue will be anthropogenic global warning. It comes naturally to mind on a day when the temperature in the Greater Parkdale Area is zero (Fahrenheit), yet with a significant “windchill,” blowing from dead north. This produces what the weathermen call a “feels-like” of around minus twenty, which might be considered “balmy” by an inhabitant of, say, northern Manitoba. But I note there are very few inhabitants in northern Manitoba.

Denizens of the continental interior, more generally, could spend half the year praying for global warming, and the other half fearing that their prayers have been answered; add or subtract by isothermal latitude. So it goes. I live near the southern extreme of Canada, on land “normally” under a mile or two of ice, if one looks candidly over the known climatological history of the last few million years. So far as they are intelligent, I think most of my countrymen would express a “preferential option” for as much carbon as we are capable of spewing. It is in our national interest to sustain the present interglacial. And should this leave a few low-lying tropical islands under water, well, we have a generous immigration policy.

Now, while it is true that I became bored with this topic, years ago, I was nevertheless on record with my view that “globalwarmalarmism” is a public-funding fraud. It is based on claims to knowledge that humans cannot have, and more pointedly, on methods of computer modelling that cannot reliably predict if it will snow on Saturday, let alone what will happen in another hundred years. It is not my business if people spend their lives playing computer games, but I do not think they should demand trillions for a contrived result.

The reason for their influence should be clear to any political observer not born yesterday. Grand schemes to “reduce global warming” are a godsend to the bureaucracies of states already drowning in debt. They provide an excuse for massive extension of those bureaucracies, and ever more detailed control and supervision of our daily lives — regardless of cost. They could also provide a check on the kind of frontier capitalism that has raised too many Third World countries out of abject poverty and starvation. We need to cut off their fossil fuels, to keep those economic rivals in their place.

Paradoxically, I am myself in favour of brisk technological retreat, but for different reasons. I think people should live simpler lives, and restore attention to the moral and spiritual verities. However, as a Catholic, I also think this should be voluntary; that it can be achieved only by conversion of souls. I do not think much “regress” will be made, in the long run, by scaring people with big lies. But that is not to say my position is pragmatic.

The Church has every right to address questions of the common good; but as she has consistently reasoned through the last couple of centuries in the face of Marxism and other revolutionary and “progressive” movements, she is bound to oppose “collectivism.” Climate-change environmentalism is simply the latest try-on from that diabolical end of the political spectrum. Pope Francis is quite orthodox when eschewing, in principle, “ideologies” of every kind. Would that he had, himself, a better comprehension of what this must entail.

The news that he will take a big stand on “climate change,” along with rumours of whom he is consulting, has added to the heap of desolation felt by many “traditional” (i.e. serious) Catholics who, regardless of their views on the weather, and of human sway upon it, do not think a pope should concern himself with subjects he knows little or nothing about, or go about strutting like a politician. We have, in this opinion (which I am incidentally inclined to share), got beyond the point where “the media” can be blamed for misrepresenting what he says. Of course they do that, but if one persistently plays to their gallery, one must reasonably expect them to play back.

Yet here is where common sense comes in, and we should feel less goaded. It is supplied in this case by Rachel Lu, the imperturbably calm and sensible columnist in Crisis magazine. I would have made this point more forcefully, but instead, tip my hat to her composure (displayed here), and leave this morning’s final word to her:

“We should probably be grateful if the talking heads chatter a lot about Catholicism and climate change. After the recent, literally scandalous debates over divorce and family issues, it might be a relief to see the Holy Father devoting his energies to environmental concerns, rather than stirring up doubt and division over central doctrinal or moral questions.”

Epiphany

There is a gentleman I know, from around here, who reads this Idleblog “sometimes,” and is nominally Catholic; although he’d be first to admit that he is what I call a “cradle case.” That is to say: baptized in a Catholic church, and spiritually abandoned thereafter. I love this guy, because he has honesty, candour, native humility, and a few other virtues that church-going Catholics often lack. So it was in character that he asked, the other day:

“What is Epiphany? Something must have happened that day. What the hell happened on Epiphany?”

“The arrival of the Magi. You know: ‘We Three Kings’ …”

This seemed a good starting point, and I was puzzling where to take it from there, when stopped short by the next question.

“What three kings?”

Let me put this succinctly. For a couple of generations, the Church of Kumbayah, which does not feel much need to catechize, unless people really insist — and then passes the job to volunteers, often themselves in serious confusion — has been depending upon the anti-Christian mass media to provide “the narrative,” the “backstory.”… And guess what.

My friend did, however, recognize the tune of the carol — a miracle, given the quality of my singing voice. That much was left, in anno MMXV: the tune of an Episcopal deacon, from the 1850s in downstate New York. He’d probably heard it in a shopping mall.

There is much more to the Epiphany than “the narrative,” which is itself rather more involved than the carol attempts to express. But it is nevertheless a beginning. It is a path towards understanding the manifestation of Christ — to the world, not only of His fellow Jews, but of the Gentiles. Indeed, this Feast was once, and may well become again, the crown of the Christmas season. For those who still allow Christ into Christmas, it takes the “birth narrative” of Jesus and magnifies it.

Much of what the Devil was doing, when he was overseeing Catholic liturgical reform in the 1950s through 1970s, consisted merely of jumbling the calendar and texts, as much as he could get away with. Lax, crass, and inadequate translations, often purposeful mistranslations, were sent out in multiple languages: a kind of Pentecost in reverse. The profound gestures, profound music, profound artistic and architectural expressions of Holy Church, were replaced by cheap and nasty parodies, to make them appear inane and pointless. Note the timeline: for this process did not start with Vatican II, as many “traditionalists” wrongly believe.

The destruction of the Epiphany Octave, for instance, was done under Pope Pius XII in 1955. This made possible the later reduction of the Epiphany itself to an apparent afterthought, that might be celebrated on its original date (as it had been through nearly twenty centuries), or more likely, might be flipped to one Sunday or another. With the anchor of this Great Feast thus pulled, the big ship could then collide with every other ship in the harbour, damaging all, and sending a few to the bottom.

To say the Devil (and I don’t mean Bugnini; I mean the Devil) did not know what he was doing is a waste of words. He knew exactly what he was doing.

It is a source of excruciating pain to faithful Catholics today — especially those who survived the previous desecrations — to discover that the heroic efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to restore the magnitude and magnificence and serene order of Catholic liturgy and its teaching, is now being methodically undermined, and that the spirit of desecration is returning. Our focus presently is upon false moral doctrine being encouraged from Rome, but this depends on a deeper falsehood of which our incumbents are hardly the cause. Rather they are symptoms: priests formed through weak seminaries in the glib spirit of the Novus Ordo; priests now bishops who often don’t know any better; who have become vague about whom they are serving, and are urgently in need of Christ’s help and our own very earnest prayers.

For the Catholic moral order extends from the Catholic mystical order, and it is that mystical order that is embodied in the Mass — unambiguously at the centre of Catholic life, day by day and century after century. The Mass is the means by which we take Our Lord into ourselves. “How to live, what to do” follows from that mystical installation. The homilies take their cue from the words and movements of the Mass; and surely not vice versa.

The Epiphany, and the ancient Epiphanytide (the latter half of the Christmas season), is essential to this proper ordering of things, in the procession from Christmas to Easter — a harmonic procession now rudely interrupted by an egress into so-called “ordinary time.”

In the Eastern as well as the Western Church, the 6th of January is an assembling together of all the strands by which Christ is recognized — made manifest, seen manifest, known — even before He has begun His public ministry. It is, as the Greeks have it, the Theophany — a word which connoted in ancient times the manifestation of the god to the worshipper. Indeed, in the Christian view, all such manifestations, and the very idea of them, must prefigure the central manifestation of Christ in universal history; unless they are plainly demonic.

The homage of the Magi comes into this, but also the Wedding at Cana, signally in the Eastern rite. All the events of Christ’s birth, childhood, and youth, are reflected in this Feast. That is why it could take precedence in the early Church over the Feast of the Nativity itself, which celebrates the birth only, nine months after the Annunciation. That Annunciation was also more important to the earliest Christians; and the significance of the birth was to be found more in the lowness or modesty of it; as, too, in the shocking nature of its announcement: by an Angel made visible in the shepherds’ field. Not to the wise who were visited in dreams, but to the lowly shepherds, who trusted in what they could see before them. (See the Church Fathers on this, usefully arranged in the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas.)

One might even say that the Twelve Days of Christmas lead up to, are the preparation for, this Feast of the Epiphany. The light has extended day by day: from the manger, to the shepherds, to the kings from afar; to the first miracle in the wine, and through everything that leads, mysteriously and inexorably, to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection and the Coming Again.

All of this needs to be recovered, in its wholeness, its harmony and completeness, within the passage of our seasons. It is a huge task, building and rebuilding Christendom; but, “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” And so we must start again today, from out of the darkness by the starry light, in the company of Three Kings — bearing, with them, back into the Church, the finest gifts we are capable of presenting.

Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem.

Boar’s head & wassail

It would be now the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and this evening coming up our Twelfth Night, and Eve of the Epiphany: which is to say, twelve drummers drumming. I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but in my carefully considered view, I think we should bring on the wassail.

The traditions associated with this conclusion of the first round of Christmas celebrations are of bewildering variety, across old Europe and, too, old colonial America (North and South). But I had a grandmother who contrived to be born in Devonshire (Mabel Henrietta Warren, née Jevon, of beloved memory, 1898–1969), who made clear to me the foundation of wassail upon good cider — mulled, if you will. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, pomegranate and some part of a vanilla pod: these are all judgement calls. Clementines come bobbing up to mind. Honey; or better, add it in the form of mead.

Over this side of the Atlantic Sea, it is very hard to find good cider. We need to begin making it ourselves. Fresh apple juice is all very nice — but it is not cider, whatever the pretence of the label. What comes from the licker store is invariably carbonated: a kind of alcoholic soft drink, not meant for Christians. The old ciders of Normandy and the West Country of England were flat beverages: more an apple wine. Ditto for perry (made from pears); and much followed from the many varieties of apples and other fruit, including their respective brandies. As ever, modernity has imposed a cruel compression, all production geared to the ignorant masses and reptilian economies of scale. Orchard by orchard, Christendom must be restored.

Indeed, the Twelfth Day of Christmas was associated, at least in my grandmother’s mind, with visitation of those orchards. The trees must be blest, and God’s bounty renewed through prayer. Bread dredged in cider was spread on the branches for the spirits of the woodland, i.e. the birds to carry away. Dancing and carolling were indicated.

The tradition of the boar’s head, too, is mysteriously involved. The wild boar was once a terror of the northern woods — though not the apex predator, being itself hunted by packs of grey wolves. But one on one it was Death incarnate. The swine could outrun a horse, swivel on a dewclaw, and slice you up with tusks like knives. Razor-sharp teeth, and razor-sharp mind (far smarter than a bear); six-hundredweight of unpredictable menace. Delicious, if you managed to stick it before it stuck you: so much that in England they ate them down to the last one. For Englishmen are even smarter than pigs, most days.

If memory serves, the feast of the boar’s head begins, as so much in our Western intellectual tradition, with Aristotle. A scholar was walking through the woods, on his way to Mass, reading his Prior and Posterior Analytics. He was confronted by this wild snorting boar, in a pique from some unknown cause, and soon charging. The clever schoolman thrust his book into the creature’s maw. Unequal to such a volume of logic, the boar choked on it. Later its head was presented in the refectory, “decked with bays and rosemary” — though whether with an apple in its mouth, I cannot say. One also wants to know if the book was repairable.

There is a fine macaronic carol in honour of the beast, from this culinary angle. (A version of which is here. And here is a spiffy home-video wassail song.)

Do not grieve, gentle reader. The first twelve days may be nearing their end, but truly, there are Forty Days of Christmas, which, before the Bugniniman got at it,  extended to Candlemas on February 2nd (unless, I suppose, preceded by Septuagesima). … But thanks to the Summorum Pontificum of Good Pope Benedict, old “Buggers” will eventually be forgiven and forgotten.

In the meantime, Saint Telesphorus (pope and martyr, AD 136) … pray for us.

And the warld kent Him na

It is amusing, or perhaps not, to discover while reading Newman that he directly contradicts something one wrote oneself, recently. This was in (the eleventh of) his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, during a lively discussion of what faith is — as distinguished from what it is not. The Blesséd gentleman says plainly that “two plus two is four” is not an act of faith. I said it was, t’other day in my Catholic Thing column. So I take it back, over here.

It is a belief, and to my mind, a reasonable one, based on considerable evidence; enjoying, too, a consensus among mathematicians and scientists, greater than that for anthropogenic global warming. I myself have, quite frankly, always believed that two plus two will make four, and never come across an exception. Would I go to the stake for it, however? … Nah.

Whereas, Faith (let’s give it a capital sometimes) is different in kind. It involves a “belief” in God, so to say, and in the truth of God, and in the truth of God’s revelation, and of God’s chosen messengers of that truth, and thus the truth of His Church, all following from the absolute assurance: that God would not lie to us. He would not tell us one thing one day, and another on another. He is not, for instance, the God of the Koran who changes his mind and contradicts himself from one surah to another. God, for our weakness, even goes so far as to explain what might appear a contradiction to us, as Jesus does in the Gospels. (“Moses for the hardness of your hearts,” &c.)

Humans may fail, and that most certainly includes the humans embedded in the hierarchy of the Church at any given historical moment. But we can know they have failed: when they begin to preach what is contrary to God’s Revelation. Men can be faithless, as (Newman points out) most men who claim to be Christians are faithless, and therefore stray from the same Holy Church, or remain within her but neglect her demands. For there is nothing in Faith that is or could be conditional.

Given our finitude, and God’s infinitude, when we are puzzled we must assume that we are puzzled, and not presume that God is puzzled, or is puzzling us. Our doubt is for our own understanding, and fear is for our own Faith: that it cannot withstand even the slightest challenge. Faith thus cannot even entertain the “scepticism” that validly applies to any act of reasoning.

“In the ordinary course of this world we account things true either because we see them, or because we can perceive that they follow and are deducible from what we do see; that is, we gain truth by sight or by reason, not by faith.”

Faith is of another order: the order of Hope and Charity. For neither of those is conditional, either.

“Faith is not feeling,” as I like to say, but it is also not reason. It goes beyond reason, to what reason cannot prove (much though it may be consistent with reason). It may also be said to precede reason, logically. It is not founded in Nature, but in what transcends Nature. “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but my Word will never pass away.” Faith is in the eternal, not in the transient; from which I would say it follows, that the Eternal is reflected in Faith, rather as we are ourselves to be understood as existing “in God’s image.”

Newman is quite right, and I was quite wrong, except, words are words, lower case. Even the word “faith” requires some context, and it was in a particular, analogical context that I said “two plus two” requires faith. Rather, I should have said, for clarity: it is like faith, insofar as we do not doubt it. Yet it is also unlike Faith, for it is the product of reason.

By another analogy, getting up in the morning requires faith, and even more, going to bed at night. I was saying, or intending to say, that reason itself rests upon Faith, and very much not the contrary.

Faith transcends reason, though reason may sometimes seem to be catching up. In the same Catholic Thing column (which is here, incidentally) I touched upon the finitude of the universe. We know it must be so from Faith; and through centuries Christians believed it to be so, even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that the universe in which we live must be infinite. We could not know the how and why of it, only that our universe must have a beginning and an end — for God had actually told us so, and God does not lie. However, we could not know this by reason, until Georges Lemaître’s “cosmic egg” hypothesis (a.k.a. “big bang”) made the fact of its beginning accessible to reason. And as I added, there, the more recent discovery that the same universe is expanding at a constantly accelerating rate, points us towards some ultimately calculable end. But that remains “just reason,” and is not Faith (as Monsignor Lemaître himself made quite plain).

“Good faith,” as opposed to “bad faith,” is similarly analogical: for the man of good faith does not even consider — or if he considers, immediately rejects as sinful — the possibility of acting in bad faith. He does not, like some utilitarian, reason that good faith will work out better for him and for everyone, than bad. Rather the Christian, from his Faith in God, does what God requires of him; and does it without question.

Needless to say, this subject is not exhausted. Yet I would rather gentle reader were in Newman’s hands, than in my own, for a fuller explanation. His tenth discourse sets stage for the eleventh, and the whole of the book to which I alluded (some eighteen discourses on fundamental propositions of Catholic teaching, and a marvellous catechizing experience for any intelligent reader) is especially worth attentive study for anyone today who is losing his way through the Cafeteria of Catholic decadence, and not much helped when he turns to Rome. He needs to take the Theological Virtues seriously. He needs to put himself in a position where he will not be prey to heresy and rubbish.

God sends His messengers, and in a way more miraculous than we can begin to conceive, He sent as His messenger, in addition to angels and prophets and signs, Himself. “I Am that I Am” came down from Heaven and on His eighth day among us, He took a Name. He became, incredibly, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Which mystery of Faith is embodied in today’s Old Mass: a truth beyond reason, and any worldly understanding.

In Nomine Jesu. …